Hinduism is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of a religion. Every mind is different. People do not go to the same school, study the same subject or obtain the same degree. There is diversity in the nature and the mind being a part of the nature, rejoices in diversity. Thus Hinduism does not thrust everyone in the pigeonhole of one unalterable creed. It caters to the needs of the human mind in accordance with the Hindu doctrine of spiritual competence (adhikara), which states that religious discipline must be given in accordance with the spiritual competence of the individual. Another Hindu doctrine, the doctrine of ishta devata, requires that the worshipper should choose a conceived form of God (the Supreme Being) that suits his or her temperament and offer his or her devotion to the chosen deity (ishta devata) in prayer and meditation. The beliefs and practices of Hinduism are thus graded in the form of a 3-step spiritual ladder: popular Hinduism, advanced Hinduism, and highest religion (spirituality).
Popular Hinduism, the religion of the masses, reflects traditional ideas and attitudes based upon teachings of the Smritis, the secondary scriptures of Hinduism, such as Epics and Puranas. The beliefs and practices enumerated in the Puranas (Hindu mythology) form the heart of the popular religion of Hindus. Almost everything one encounters in the religious life of the majority of Hindus represents popular Hinduism. The concept of the ultimate reality (God) in popular Hinduism is predominantly theistic. God is worshipped in the form of incarnations (which are traditionally limited to ten) and other gods and goddesses which represent various conceived aspects of the ultimate reality. Religious rites and rituals are considered as purification acts, which move one towards God. Scriptural reading is generally limited to Bhagavad Gita, Epics, Puranas and other Smiritis.
In Hindu culture, yoga and meditation is the way to God-discovery through self-discovery. Yoga purifies the body and the mind for meditation and meditation elevates human consciousness to God-consciousness. Yoga and meditation liberate the individual self from physical limitations. However, at the popular level, yoga and meditation are not practiced seriously, since the masses are mostly interested in immediate enjoyment of the world and much less in their liberation (Moksha).
When the devotee’s mind is purified through prayer and meditation, selfless work with devotion (nishkama karma) and made one-pointed by sincere worship (upasana), he or she begins to ask questions such as, ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where has this universe come from?’, and ‘Why I am here?’ Such questions develop deep desire for knowledge. The devotee approaches a spiritual teacher (guru), sits at his or her feet, tunes his or her mind to the knowledge imparted by the guru, and begins to absorb and practice the teachings. Why must the student sit at the teacher’s feet? Just as water flows naturally from higher to lower level, sitting at the feet of the guru (which is symbolic of faith in the teacher and seeker’s remarkable desire for learning) allows natural flow of spiritual knowledge from the guru to the disciple. When the student receives this knowledge directly from the guru, the students’ ignorance of the true nature of the world and of their own self is destroyed and they begin to acquire true knowledge.
Advanced Hinduism is a religion of learning through yoga and meditation and beginning of the spiritual practice (sadhana) to help the devotees to realize their eternal or divine nature, which is pure awareness transcending the desire and duality. Here traditional worship, religious rites and rituals take the backseat. The primary goal is the spiritual sadhana, which opens the eye of intuition and helps the devotee to go beyond the intellect and ultimately experience the Self within.
The essence of the advanced religion is love of God, selfless service to others, pursuit of honesty, justice, goodness, decency, firm belief in reason and common sense. The advanced religion is not about preoccupation with rites and rituals, philosophical debates and discussions, theological ideas and ideologies, or deep involvement in organized religious activities. The advanced religion reflects kindness and compassion, desire for knowledge, and mental and emotional balance. The advanced religion is not for the masses, but for the dedicated and sincere seekers, who choose a spiritual lifestyle and are willing and able to pursue the inquiry ‘Who am I?’
Highest Religion (Spirituality)
The highest religion transforms human consciousness into divine consciousness through discipline, tapas (self-restraint), positive detachment, yoga and meditation. This is the religion of the saints and seers. A saint or a seer is one who has realized the atman, lives in the atman, knows the atman, and is one with the atman. He or she speaks of the atman and shows the way to the atman. Such a person is the living symbol of the highest religion and spirituality and true beneficiary of humanity. Such persons are free from ‘I-ness’ and ‘mine-ness’, free from anger, lust and greed. They love all beings as their own Self. They are ever fearless and generous. Their nature is to give and give and not to take. They see the entire cosmos as the projection of their own Self. They possess divine wisdom and intuitive knowledge. Their spiritual vibrations purify the world. They are the only real lovers of humanity, because they feel the presence of God everywhere and in everyone.
The knowledge is the same for all sages and saints, but their lifestyles and conduct may vary. For example, the ancient sage Vasishtha was a karma yogi. Not only did he perform normal worldly activities, he was also an advisor to King Dasharatha. Raja Janaka was a great sage of his time and also a very popular king. On the other hand, sage Dattatreya was a wanderer and had no possessions. Abhinavagupta was a philosopher, prolific writer, mystic, musician, poet, and a dramatist, who expounded Kashmir Shaivism and exercised strong influence on Indian culture. Paramahansa Ramakrishna, one of the greatest saints of the modern era, lived a normal life, championed the cause of religious tolerance and gave spiritual instruction to a large community of his disciples. Ramana Maharshi, another spiritual genius of the modern times, influenced the lives of numerous disciples from many countries with his spiritual power. Sages and saints have tremendous transforming influence on the lives of the common people. The Bhagavad Gita 4,7 says that God incarnates as a sage or saint to restore righteousness (dharma), whenever righteousness is on the decline and unrighteousness (adharma) is on the rise.