Q: Is Vedanta the same as Hinduism?
A: Vedanta is the predominant philosophy of Hinduism. Hinduism includes all the social and religious customs of anyone living in the subcontinent of India who is not a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian, or Buddhist. There are many sects in Hinduism. It is a complex collection of many religious traditions. Vedanta is the underlying philosophy.
Q: Is Hinduism polytheistic?
A: Hinduism believes in one all-pervading Supreme Reality which in Sanskrit is called “Brahman”. Brahman is that infinite, undivided, unchanging reality behind all that we experience, behind the entire universe. The infinite nature of Brahman prevents It from being comprehended by the mind, or described with words. The various gods and goddesses for which Hindiusm is famous, are therefore regarded as the highest representations of That which cannot be entirely represented. This allows the spiritual aspirant to choose the representation that most resonates with his or her heart. And knowing that Brahman can never be adequately represented promotes respect for the variety of ways in which It is represented and worshipped.
Q: Is God feminine or masculine?
A: God ultimately is neither masculine nor feminine, but It can manifest as either. Durga, Kali, Saraswati, and Lakshmi are the most familiar female deities. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Ganesha are the most familiar male deities.
Q: Is Hinduism life-denying?
A: Some sects of Hinduism emphasize the illusory nature of the world and the futility of taking part in it. Mainstream Hinduism, however, recognizes four main goals in life: Dharma (pursuit of righteousness), Artha (wealth), Kama (sense and artistic pleasures), and Moksha (liberation). Although the world is illusory compared with Brahman, it is still a manifestation of divinity and a temporary reality. Hence one should do one’s duties and participate in the world in a way that will lead to liberation rather than greater bondage.
Q: Christ said, “No one shall enter the kingdom of heaven except through me.” Aren’t you worried that you’re taking the wrong path?
A: No. Krishna and Buddha said similar things. Also, Ramakrishna had a spiritual experience of merging with Christ. He felt his oneness with Christ, Rama, and Krishna. How can we explain this?
There are three possible explanations:
- These great teachers at times felt totally identified with the one Reality. It is in this sense that they used the word “me”.
- They were talking to a local group of people who were not going to hear about other incarnations of God.
- Their teachings were altered by others coming later who wanted power and control over people.
Q: If there is no devil, what about evil?
A: Brahman is beyond good and evil. When Oneness appears as many, it must, out of necessity, manifest as pairs of opposites. Good and evil are inevitable consequences of the One appearing as many. Good is that which helps us eventually see through the illusion that we are many. Evil is that which perpetuates our ignorance of our true divine nature.
Q: If everything is an illusion, then what does it matter what we do?
A: If you REALLY realize your own true divine nature, (not just intellectually accept the idea), then your very nature would not allow you to do any evil deed. You would see everything as the workings of God. You would see everything as full of God. Until that time, we are bound by the laws of karma.
Q: What about sin?
A: The important thing is to realize that our true nature is divine. What some people call “sins” we see as actions which are not conducive to our spiritual goal. They are errors. Conduct can be judged as right and wrong. But we feel that it is not healthy to consider oneself or others as sinners. This puts the focus on our impermanent, imperfect nature. Think of your permanent, ever-pure nature instead. We should learn from our mistakes and go forward.
Q: What is the law of karma?
A: The law of karma is similar to the Biblical idea that “as you sow, so shall you reap.” In physics, the analogous law is “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The law of karma simply puts the responsibility for our lives on us. If either seemingly bad luck or good fortune comes our way, we must deserve it somehow because of our past actions. These past actions may have been in a past life. Otherwise, when we observe life’s various situations, God would seem to be an arbitrary and partial God.
Q: Does past life mean reincarnation?
A: Yes. Hinduism believes that this is not our first birth. When someone dies, it is only the body that dies. The spiritual essence of the person lives on and carries with it subtle impressions (samskaras) of past actions (karmas). When the time is right, the spiritual essence incarnates in a new body. Our past actions give us tendencies, talents, and handicaps.
Q: Is it possible to be reborn as an animal or plant?
A: Schools differ on this point. It would be like flunking high school and being sent back to kindergarten. Hopefully we do not need the fear of being reborn as a slug or a pig to keep from doing bad deeds.
One should not get too bogged down in trying to figure out the details of how karma and reincarnation work. It is important to remember that our real nature is divine, one with Brahman. It is only an illusion that we are born in a body, die and get reborn. But while under the influence of maya (cosmic illusion), it appears as if the law of karma operates and that the soul gets reincarnated. There will always be details that remain vague and that we cannot know for certain. How certain can you be about an illusion anyway?
Q: Why do some Indian gods and goddesses have so many arms?
A: Remember that Hindu gods and goddesses are manifestations of the one Reality, Brahman. Each one manifests certain archetypal energies, powers, or attributes of the infinite existence that is Brahman. To symbolize the various attributes being manifest, the deities appear with many arms holding different symbols in each hand.
Q: Are Rama and Krishna deities?
A: Rama and Krishna are divine incarnations of God, or avatars—God born in human form. Buddha, Christ, and Ramakrishna are also considered avatars by many.
Q: I don’t like to think of God as a person, and Hindu deities seem strange to me. Can I still practice Vedanta?
A: Yes. God manifests in different forms for the sake of devotees with different temperaments. Almost all religions have some symbol for God. God can be personal or impersonal, with form or without form. God may be approached in many ways.
Vedanta philosophy can be used with any aspect of God. A personal aspect of God is not essential to spiritual practice. However using a personal form of God can help us focus the emotional-devotional component of our nature to help us along our spiritual path. Christ, Mother Mary, Buddha, or other great spiritual beings can all be used as symbolizing the personal form of God.
Q: Do Hindus worship cows?
A: Cows have been revered in India for thousands of years because of their gentle nature and their life-sustaining abilities. They are allowed to roam free and it is considered a heinous act to kill a cow. As such, Hindus do not eat beef.
It is not correct to say Hindus worship cows or consider them holy. Generally, Hindus do not eat beef because In times when food is scarce it would be shortsighted to kill a cow for food in the short run when it can provide milk for many years. Cows are thought of much like family pets in this country, or a horse to a horse lover. We don’t eat dogs and horses in this country. Hindus don’t eat beef.
Q: Are Hindus vegetarian?
A: Some are and some are not. If being a vegetarian helps you keep your mind on God and keeps your body healthy, then it is good. If it makes you fanatical about those who are not vegetarians or it weakens your health, then it is not good. The point is to do whatever helps you think of God and whatever keeps you healthy to be of service to others and to pursue spiritual practices.
Q: Is it necessary to adopt Indian dress and Hindu food restrictions to be a Vedantist?
A: No. Habits of dressing and eating are cultural things, not spiritual things. The Vedanta philosophy is universal, it can be adapted to any culture and time.
Q: Do you do yoga exercises?
A: Hatha yoga exercises can be very good in promoting health, relaxation, and concentration. In this way hatha yoga can be beneficial to spiritual life. However, the Ramakrishna Order in general has not taken on the teaching of this type of yoga as part of its work. It is not essential to spiritual life. Many people in the West mistakenly think that being able to do hatha yoga will automatically make them spiritual. There is also the danger that a person’s focus will be too much on the body and longevity rather than on spiritual development.
Q: What about Pranayama or breathing exercises?
A: In general, we do not recommend doing breathing exercise without the advice of a qualified teacher (guru). There have been cases where people have developed symptoms of severe mental illness from doing extreme forms of breathing exercises without supervision. Generally this occurs when someone thinks that if a little is good, more is better. This is not the case with pranayama. It can be extremely dangerous. All the benefits of pranayama can cultivated safely by doing japam (repeating a name of God or a sacred phrase called a mantra) and meditation. However, Swami Vivekananda outlines some very simple breathing exercises in his Raja Yoga. Check with your spiritual teacher before starting these exercises.
Q: Why is there an age limit of 35 years for joining the monastic community?
A: The rigors of community life necessitate a younger person who is more likely to be able to adjust physically and psychologically.