By Pravrajika Vrajaprana
As part of Louisville’s November, 2006 Festival of Faith in which Vrajaprana participated as representative of the Hindu tradition, the Louisville Courier-Journal published each participant’s essay on their respective faith traditions. Below is Vrajaprana’s essay on the Hindu tradition. The focus of this year’s Festival of Faiths was “Death and Transformation.”
Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun of Sarada Convent, Santa Barbara at the Vedanta Society of Southern California; she is the author of Vedanta: A Simple Introduction and the editor of Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West.
Every religious tradition offers the world a unique and particular gift, without which humankind would be infinitely poorer. The Hindu tradition’s unique gift to the human family is the concept of the Atman, the ultimate Reality which lies at the core of our being. While the religious traditions of the West categorize human beings in terms of a body/mind dichotomy, the Hindu traditions see all living beings as trichotomous—that is, possessing three aspects—body, mind and Atman. The Atman, the ultimate divine Reality which lies within us, is one with Brahman, the infinite divine Reality which pervades the universe.
In asserting the divinity of the soul, the Hindu tradition asserts the profound nobility and dignity of the human spirit. The greatest truth of our being is that we are pure, perfect, eternal and free. Our real nature is infinite, fearless, stainless. As we are one with the infinite Reality which pervades this universe, so we are one with all beings. There is one divine Reality which pervades the universe and which resides in all hearts. All beings are united in and through the Atman; their joys are my joys, their sorrows are my sorrows.
Our real nature, the Atman, is declared by the Hindu tradition to be Sat-Chit-Ananda—infinite pure consciousness, existence and infinite joy. The body changes and the mind changes, but the Atman never changes—its light is the light of consciousness which illumines our minds and animates our existence. Our experience of joy in our daily life is only the tiniest particle of the infinite joy that is at the core of our personality.
All human beings seek happiness, but most of us seek happiness by running after objects which can only give us temporary satisfaction. Our longing for happiness is limitless, yet we stubbornly seek it in the finite, which can never give us the enduring happiness we seek. The Hindu traditions compare our situation to that of the fabled musk deer—a deer who madly runs in every direction in search of the source of the intoxicating musk scent, not realizing that all the time the scent was coming out from its own navel. Exhausted and depleted, the deer dies.
Our situation, the Hindu tradition reminds us, is not far removed from that of the deer: an infinite mine of joy and peace resides within our hearts. But instead of seeking there, we run after various stopgap pleasures which inevitably result in pain and disillusionment. No sooner do we accomplish one goal which we think will bring us happiness than we discover that the goal wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Whether our goal was a candy bar, a new toy or new computer, a promotion, a girlfriend/boyfriend or husband/wife or an honor bestowed upon us—every finite thing we reach for leaves us aching for more. And more. Like Tantalus, that apple always lies just beyond our grasp. Instead of seeking the divine Kingdom—lying resplendent in glory within our hearts—we fritter away our time, energy and attention on trinkets and amusements, forgetting the purpose of life for which we were born.
What is the goal of life for a Hindu? To manifest the divinity already within us, to remove the ignorance that covers our understanding, making us believe that we are smaller and less noble than what we really are. The process of uncovering our innate divinity is accomplished with the help of various forms of spiritual disciplines, or yoga. While “yoga” has recently become associated with stretching exercises, yoga mats and evenly tanned celebrities, this has little to do with Hinduism’s sacred Yoga tradition. Yoga means “to yoke oneself to the divine,” and is done through various forms of meditation practices as well as rational analysis, loving devotion, prayer and unselfish dedicated service. Yoga, as a spiritual discipline, has nothing to do with buff bodies and everything to do with reducing the ego, training the mind and concentrating it upon an aspect of the divine which is suitable for each individual.
The Hindu tradition places great emphasis on identifying ourselves with the Atman, not with the body or the mind. According to the Hindu tradition, everything—including the mind—is a product of matter and is subject to change, decay and dissolution. The Atman, however, was never born and can never die. Knowing this gives us peace, contentment and unassailable strength. Our innate divinity is our birthright and can never be taken away from us. The body can become sick or debilitated, the mind also can become ill or feeble—but the Atman remains unaffected. Its light remains untouched by the vagaries of the body or the mind.
If that be the case, then what does death mean to a Hindu? As the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s most holy scriptures, says:
Worn-out garments are shed by the body;
Worn-out bodies are shed by the Atman,
the Dweller within the body.
New bodies are donned
By the Atman, like garments.
As Hindus believe in reincarnation, we understand that bodies are temporary garments which are to be respectfully used until they can no longer serve their purpose. Death simply means leaving one garment behind and eventually taking on a new garment. Hindus, however, know that reincarnation is not the goal of life. For Hindus, the only goal worthy to be sought is freedom—freedom from bondage, freedom from ignorance, freedom from fear, freedom from sorrow and delusion and freedom from the repeated rounds of births and deaths. Once we are freed from ignorance, then the Atman will shine forth in its own splendor, and then, at long last, we will know in the full light of knowledge that we are one with God.