One of the chapters that I remember reading in History class is the "Bhakti Movement" between 8th and 12th centuries in India. During this time, India was at it is peak of productivity in terms of religious exposition, philosophy, and spirituality. The movement was made by three great saints, who in turn, founded three interpretations of Hindu Philosophy - Advaita
(monism) propounded by AdiSankara
(qualified monism) propounded by Ramanuja
, and Dvaita
(dualism) propounded by Madhwacharya
Though there are numerous Gods depicted and worshipped within the umbrella of Hinduism, fundamentally the Vedas (scriptures) emphasize that there is only one God and he is the Creator (interestingly "theory of evolution" seems to be weaved within the concept of a "Creator", as I mentioned in an earlier post). With that as a given, various scholars since have tried to understand the relationship between that one God and us humans by way of interpreting the vedas and supplementary documents such as the upanishads (appendix to vedas), ithihasas (epics), and puranas (mythologies).
Personally I feel that this is the most distinct feature of Hinduism compared to most other religions, where the focus is not just on how God wants humans to behave, but more on what the relation between the two is. Rather than taking the "God is the Creator" concept for granted, it tries to probe further - Who is He? Is He the same as me? If not, how are He and I related? What makes Him a Him and me a me?
In programmatic terms, I would say that Hinduism focuses on the class hierarchy (sub-class, super-class, abstract class) as well as interfaces (behavior of a class) while others tend to elaborate only on the interfaces! You need to have a strong foundation of your class hierarchy first before you can start extending the behavior by means of interfaces.
While eminent scholars over time have provided a number of interpretations what the vedas describe as the relation between God and human, three are the most popular enough to be in history text books. I have always held a simplistic summarization of these three philosophies:
- Advaita says God is the same as human (in other words, God lives in humans or when humans die they merge back with God)
- Vishishtadvaita says humans are not the same as God, but by devotion throughout life, they can eventually become one with God after death (moksha)
- Dvaita says God and humans are always distinct and never the 'twain shall meet.
This suited me well for the last 20 years. However, there is really no pizzazz in this explanation. It sounds, well, as dull as a history textbook! Recently, I received an email forwarded to me by my dad that provided a much better, more fun, and a more profound definition. This was by Sri. Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (fondly called Periayaval - not to be confused with Periyar - or the Elder One), who I personally consider to be the last "true" saint that India has seen, and who himself was the head of an Advaita institution.
He had an inimitable quality of explaining complex philosophies in a way that commoners can understand. He was down-to-earth, unassuming, and most importantly focused purely on spirituality without getting into politics - a quality that no one else seems to have nowadays.
Here goes his definition (interpretation from Tamil to English by me) of the three philosophies in the form of 3rd grade Math!!
According to Advaita, the relationship between God and Human is like the relationship between the side and perimeter of a square. Like how the perimeter of a square is always four times the side, Advaita preaches that if you follow a proper path, then you WILL reach God (or become one with God). There is no ambiguity there.
In case of Dvaita, the relationship between God and Human is like the relationship between diameter and circumference of a circle. Unlike a square. the circumference is PI times the diameter. The issue here is that PI is an irrational number and cannot be accurately defined. Likewise, Dvaita says that no matter how much humans try to be close to God or be one with God, it will not happen and that there will always be a difference, however minute. The diameter is a whole number in itself and the circumference is another whole number by itself, but the relationship between the two cannot be defined absolutely. With this established, Dvaita philosophy then goes into the details of the inequality of the relationship and defines the various intermediary stages between God and Human (called 'tAratamya'). This can be roughly translated into the precision of PI.
Lastly, Vishishtadvaita takes a midway (similar to Aristotle's Golden Mean
). It says that the relationship is like a square being perceived as a circle. By default, Humans perceive their relationship to God as that of a circle's diameter and circumference - that the two can never be the same. As they gain enlightenment by devotion, the confusion is resolved and the "square" nature of the relationship is revealed at which point, the enlightened person becomes one with God. The thought here is that humans can become egoistic if they believe that they are God (Advaita) and can get disillusioned or depressed if they believe that they can never reach God (Dwaita) and hence a middle path is proposed.
The analogy here is that each individual has a distinct identity by default, but when they get into a train, they all become "passengers" for the conductor, thereby losing their individual identity and becoming a part of a bigger entity.
A simple, but powerful explanation! What I love even more about this is that he leaves enough room for the three schools of thought to claim superiority over others - an apolitical person but with a perfect political speech!