Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 8

Hinduism and Buddhism

 
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A short history of eastern religion and the development of Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

Three major river systems pass through the northern plains of India. The warm climate, rich soil, and annual flooding all combined to make this region an attractive place for early agricultural communities to begin settling around 5000 BC. The first cities in the region appeared around the Indus River Valley in the north west of India around 3000 BC, and by 2500 BC they were using bronze tools and weapons.

Some time around 1500 BC, Indian civilization was overtaken by an invasion of pastoral nomads from around the Caspian Sea, north of Persia. These people continued to flood into the region over several hundred years, conquering and settling among the native people. Hinduism developed as the religious beliefs of the native people merged with those brought to India by the new arrivals.

The new arrivals claimed racial superiority to the darker skinned natives, but their warlike ways resulted in a less stable society. In order to deal with the racial tensions, priests divided the population into a number of castes which were decided along the lines of race and color. Intermarriage between the different castes was forbidden. You were restricted to live your life and do the work expected for the caste you were born into.

The highest caste were the Hindu priests, who maintained their position by controlling all of the religious beliefs and customs. These were followed by the warriors, the farmers and merchants, and the servants and laborers. The lowest caste were the war captives and slaves, whose status was so low that their mere shadow would supposedly defile a priest.

To maintain the caste system, the Hindu priests invented the idea of reincarnation. A person’s behavior would be rewarded or punished with good or bad karma. After death, the person’s soul would be reborn into a higher or lower caste depending on their accumulation of karma. By accepting one’s place in society, and through devotion to duty, a person could supposedly increase their chance of reaching a higher caste in their next incarnation.

Hindu scriptures

By around 800 BC, the essentials of Hinduism had been preserved in writing as a collection of prayers, hymns, and rituals known as the Vedas (meaning ‘knowledge’). These writings reveal the gradual development of Hindu religious ideas.

Early writings were full of praise for many different gods. These gods represented the forces of nature and the various aspects of humanity. Later writings introduced the concept of a single universal god. This contradiction was solved by saying that the old gods simply reflected different characteristics of the one universal god. But many people still preferred to worship the old gods. The Vedas say ...

Who knows the truth? Who can tell how and from where this universe came into existence? If the gods themselves came after its creation, then who can know from where it all began? Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The highest god who looks down from the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he does not know.

A second collection of writings, called the Upanishads (which means “sitting at the feet of the master”), was written over the centuries that followed. These writings were built upon the spiritual essence of the Vedas. The Upanishads say ...

Beyond the spirit in man is the spirit of the universe, and beyond that is the spirit supreme. Nothing is beyond the spirit supreme. He is the end of the path, he is in everything, and he is beyond definition. When a mortal knows him, then he will find peace and be free from all sorrows.

According to the Upanishads, human consciousness has two parts. The first part is our individuality, which is a reflection of our selfish desires and is devoted to our daily survival. The second part is that part of us which is always honest, caring, and sharing. These selfless qualities, when they appear, are the same in every person, and they represent the supreme spirit working through us for its own purpose. Our individuality dies with our bodies, but the supreme spirit within us lives forever.

The idea of reincarnation was not compatible with the idea of the supreme spirit acting through us, but the two ideas were merged anyway for the sake of tradition. Reincarnation became the threat used against those who did not strive to become one with the supreme spirit. Each soul would continue to be reborn until all of its karma was resolved and oneness with the supreme spirit was attained through spiritual knowledge.

Hinduism today has no central organization, and the interpretation of scripture varies widely, with some groups preferring different gods and myths to others. People in India’s north worship Vishnu (the preserver), while those in the south worship Shiva (the destroyer). Village farmers sacrifice animals seeking protection from vengeful lesser gods, while educated city Hindus meditate in contemplation of being one with the supreme spirit. Each person is free to find their own path to salvation, whether by devotion, austerity, meditation, or selfless service. Tolerance for what other people believe is the cornerstone of Hinduism.

Buddhism

Around 500 BC, an Indian named Siddartha Gautama began preaching against the less enlightened beliefs and rituals of the Hindu religion. He rejected the caste system and rejected belief in the gods. He taught that the path to spiritual enlightenment was to abandon all worldly desires. Siddartha’s teachings were well received, particularly among the oppressed lower castes, and he soon became known as the Buddha (the enlightened one).

According to the popular myth, Buddha was an Indian prince. After being born, his father, the king, was warned by wise men that he might one day leave the kingdom to become a great spiritual leader. The king tried to keep him inside the palace by providing him with the greatest of comforts and luxuries. But eventually Buddha discovered that life outside the palace was full of misery, and he was overcome by compassion for all the suffering in the world.

He renounced his royal wealth and left the kingdom to search for an answer to the problem of suffering. For a time, he followed the fanatical religious practice of denying himself all worldly pleasures and material possessions but even after years of living such an austere religious life, he found no answers.

Then one day, while resting beneath a tree, his mind supposedly woke into a higher state of consciousness. He saw that the path to enlightenment was not to completely reject possessions and pleasures, but rather to have no desire or emotional attachment to them.

The cause of all unhappiness is desire. Even the desire to live comfortably can lead to misery. When the soul is no longer tormented by desires that might never be satisfied, a person can lead a truly virtuous life, achieve a perfectly peaceful state of mind, and reach a level of consciousness known as Nirvana (‘release’). It is not necessary to become a hermit or to stop doing the necessities of life, but it is essential to have no passion for doing them.

Buddha was thought to have said ...

Do not believe in anything, no matter where you heard it, or who said it, even if it has been handed down over the generations, or has come from your own imagination, unless after careful consideration it agrees with your own sense of reason, and is good for the welfare of all beings, only then should you believe it and follow it.

One of the earliest books of Buddhist scripture is called the Dhammapada (or “the path of truth”). It contains hundreds of verses that were attributed to Buddha over his lifetime of teaching. In this book, Buddha says ...

A single wise word that brings peace to the listener is worth more than a thousand speeches full of empty words.

A shower of gold pieces cannot satisfy the endless craving. And sensual pleasure brings little comfort and causes much suffering. The follower of Buddha finds joy in letting go of all desires.

The wise man leaves the path of darkness and follows the path of light. He leaves behind his worldly comforts to follow a life of freedom. In solitude that few enjoy, without sensual pleasures or possessions, his mind is cleansed of impurities. Those with understanding, who delight in letting go of all attachments, with pure minds, radiant with wisdom, in this life they reach Nirvana.

With peaceful thoughts, peaceful words, and peaceful actions, by understanding the truth, the holy man has found freedom. Without blind faith in false beliefs after having seen the eternal truth, and free from all ties, cleansed of impurities and without desires, he becomes the greatest of men.

Even royal chariots wear out, and the body too grows old and weak. But the virtue of the good never grows old, and so they continue to share their goodness. Those who in their youth did not live in harmony and self control, and those who did not gain spiritual wealth, they later look back on their lives with regret. They become like old water birds lingering around a lake without fish.

Do not do what is evil. Do what is good. Keep your mind pure. This is the teaching of Buddha.

Buddha traveled around India, preaching his ideas for more than forty years. He established communities of monks and nuns whose purpose was to follow the path to enlightenment by developing their compassion for all living creatures and by working towards the peace, happiness, and well-being of others.

Reincarnation was borrowed from Hinduism as a form of reward and punishment after death. Without any god to judge the wicked, the ‘karmic winds’ were said to carry people’s souls to their next incarnation. Once a person’s consciousness rises to the same level as Buddha, they no longer need to be reborn.

Buddha left behind no successor, so every monk had equal authority to interpret his teachings. In the centuries following his death, Buddhist monks turned his philosophy into a mystical science of enlightenment with many ordered principles, like the three trainings, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the thirty-seven qualities.

The Buddhist scriptures have continued to grow over the centuries to include hundreds of different books containing countless related myths, rituals, and superstitions. Buddha himself was elevated in the minds of many of his followers to become a godlike being.

Buddhism rose to prominence around 250 BC when a Buddhist emperor encouraged its spread throughout India and Asia. Buddhism embraced new influences as it adapted to Chinese, Japanese, and other foreign cultures. But it soon came under pressure in India from a revitalized Hinduism. It was eventually swept from India around the year 900 by Muslim invaders who despised the godless religion.

There are now dozens of different sects of Buddhism, each one following its own choice of scriptures. But you do not need to follow any particular scripture to be a Buddhist. You do not even need to believe in reincarnation. All that you need to believe in order to be a Buddhist is that desire is the enemy of the soul and the cause of all suffering.

The Bhagavad Gita

A book called the Bhagavad Gita (or “song of the lord”) was written around 200 BC by an unknown author. It restored Hinduism by addressing many of its weaknesses. It helped Hinduism to overcome the challenge posed by Buddhism by combining the best of Buddhist and Hindu ideas. It continues today to give Hinduism its best defense against other religions.

In order to preserve and popularize the book, it was inserted into an epic story about a civil war for control of an ancient kingdom. In the story, a soldier returns from battle to explain to the king that his army has been defeated and that all of his princes are dead.

The soldier offers the king comfort by telling him that Krishna, the living incarnation of God, rode with the opposing army. And he tells the king the meaning of life as it was revealed by Krishna before the battle began. Krishna says ...

I will tell you a supreme mystery, because your heart is pure. It is divine wisdom and when known you shall be free from misery and sin. It is the ultimate mystery of divine wisdom; it will purify you and make you righteous and bring you everlasting joy. But those who have no faith in this truth cannot be saved; they remain in the cycles of life and death.

I am the supreme spirit, the infinite source of all, and the eternal purpose. I alone am the creator, the maintainer, and the destroyer of all things. I planted the seed from which all living things grew, and my spirit is present within every living being. I am your destination, your sustainer, your master, your witness, your refuge, your guardian, and your friend.

Set your heart upon your work but never upon its reward. The wise work selflessly for the good of all the world. But the unwise need not be disturbed as they work for their own selfish ends; they are simply carrying out the work of nature. They might think that they are consciously acting for themselves, but in truth they are blindly moved into action by natural forces. Those who can see that most human activity is the result of natural forces, they strive not to become enslaved by these forces. With faith in me and with pure intentions, through doing good work, they find freedom.

When something is done as an offering, with no desire for reward, without lust, anger, or greed, and with no selfish intentions, then this action is pure. But when something is done with selfish desire, or feeling it is an effort, or thinking it is a sacrifice, then this action is impure. And anything that is done which arises from delusion, without considering the consequences, or the distress caused to others, or the loss to oneself, then this is a work of darkness.

There are men who have no spiritual vision and yet they speak about my spirit as they follow every word of their chosen scriptures, and they say, “there is no other truth than this”. Their thoughts are darkened by selfish desires; their heaven is a selfish desire; they pray for pleasures, possessions, and power; things for which they deserve no reward. Only when their minds are free from such delusions, free from the contradictions of aging scriptures, in true divine contemplation, their understanding will grow beyond the limits of ancient scriptures and even scriptures yet to come.

Evil men do not understand what should or should not be done in their best spiritual interests. They have no faith in goodness and are driven only by greed and ambition. They say, “this world has no truth, no moral foundation, no God. It is the product of chaos, and we are the product of lust and nothing else”. Believing this, these fools without souls undertake their works of evil to bring about the destruction of the world. Driven by their insatiable desires and deluded by arrogance and vanity, they commit themselves to pursue fleeting ambitions and engage in harmful activities. Their lives are overwhelmed by innumerable fears and anxieties. They live only for the pursuit of sensual pleasure, thinking this is all. Bound by countless desires and gripped by lust and anger, they do anything to gain wealth to spend on indulging their senses.

All those who believe in me and who trust in me, free from fear and anger, purified by divine wisdom, filled with my spirit, they shall become one with me. Give me your thoughts and devotion, completely dedicate your mind and body to me, and have me as your supreme goal, and you shall ultimately become one with me. Even if the greatest sinner is devoted to me, then he must be considered righteous, because he is on the right path; and he shall eventually become pure and reach everlasting peace. Whatever you do, or eat, or give, or offer, let it be an offering to me. And whatever you suffer, suffer it for me. In whatever way men surrender to me, they are rewarded accordingly. All mankind is in my service in everything they do.

Those who can see that the eternal spirit exists within the consciousness of all living beings, and those who can see that our temporary bodies exist to carry the eternal spirit, those people can see the truth. By seeing that the eternal spirit is present in every living being, a man does not consider himself to be unworthy of salvation, and he strives to live in oneness with the eternal spirit. Those who can see that all activities performed by the body are simply the work of nature, they understand that the eternal spirit within only watches this work. Those who can see that the diverse range of living beings all share the same spiritual nature, those people can see the ultimate truth.

When a man surrenders all desires that come to the heart and through faith in goodness finds the joy of God then his soul will have found true peace.

Continue to chapter 9 ... The History of Islam