Religion 101

In sharp contrast to Christianity, which has long maintained that there is but one single, unique path to salvation (via Christ alone), the Hindu view has long been that there are actually a multiplicity of equally valid spiritual paths which can ultimately lead one to “salvation” (or, in the Hindu context, to “liberation,” or final release from rebirth and eternal blissful union or communion with God).

Hinduism in fact explicitly recognizes a number of margas (“paths”) or yogas (“disciplines”), each of which leads one Godward.

The intellectually inclined may find themselves most drawn to jnana yoga or jnana marga,(“the way of knowledge”), pursing the spiritual illumination that ultimately results in salvation or liberation through pious scriptural study and deep theological or profound metaphysical reflection.

The active and busy may instead find karma marga or karma yoga (“the way of action”) a better fit, allowing one to move ever Godward while staying active in everyday life by mentally devoting all of one’s daily activities to God, rather than doing them with practical benefit foremost in mind — a shift in mind-set which transforms one’s ordinary daily routine into a single, continuous act of worship.

Born or budding mystics may instead feel most at home, and make more rapid spiritual progress, by instead pursuing raja yoga (“the royal yoga”), a demanding path of intensive meditation and related spiritual disciplines designed to propel one toward mystical states of direct insight, illumination, and direct conscious awareness of one’s own inner unity — and ultimate identity with — God or the Divine (often conceived of, along this path, in nonpersonal or transpersonal terms, e.g., as Brahman, the impersonal Absolute, the Ground of Being, the Supreme Reality, or All That Is).

But probably the majority of Hindus today most resonate with bhakti yoga or bhakti marga (“the way of devotion”), a path essentially consisting of simple but sincere and heartfelt — at times, even passionate — love and worship of God. This path is advocated for by none other than God himself (Krishna) in the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita, as an alternative to more demanding spiritual paths (such as those described above); bhakti or loving devotion can be practiced by just about anyone, with no special talents being necessary, which means that anyone and everyone can be carried Godward simply by allowing oneself to “get carried away” by the intensity of one’s loving worship of God (here generally conceived of in much more personal terms, e.g. as Vishnu, or as Shiva, or as one of the forms of Goddess, or as one of the various avatars or “incarnations” of God, such as Rama or Krishna).

In the Hindu tradition, then, God does not limit the number of avenues by which human beings may approach him, but is open to all comers, approaching from all directions. The welcoming path to the Divine is not narrow but wide, and not exclusive (only one way of salvation permitted) but inclusive (many ways of salvation available).

Other religions are seen in much the same light. From a Hindu perspective, non-Hindu faiths such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam merely constitute other such alternative (and equally valid) margas or yogas or paths, all of which ultimately lead Godward.

According to Hinduism, then, there is not just one single valid path to “salvation” (or spiritual liberation from rebirth by becoming one with the Divine), but many such paths, all of which ultimately lead to the same single God.

But wait a moment. “Same single God”? Is Hinduism monotheistic? If so, then what’s all this talk of multiple Hindu gods? How does monotheism square with a popular Hindu pantheon comprised of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Ganesha (the famous elephant-headed son of Shiva), Hanuman (the monkey god), Kali, Durga, and many other deities?

(To be continued, in Part Five.)