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Friday, June 11, 2010

Follow up on Reader Questions

More discussion from Basu's questions:

1. so in advita-vedanta there doesn't seem to be a need for the concept of heaven and hell.

No, Advaita doesn't need a concept of heaven and hell to function. Some people say that there is a heaven, but it's a temporary place to wait for one's next embodiment. Although, again, I find that far too individual and I personally don't believe that we exist with distinct boundaries when we are not in a body.

I don't know of anyone who believes there is a hell. Generally people say that hell is what we create within our lives by our negative thoughts.

2. what you say about the allegory behind radha-krishna story is absolutely true. but i was thinking about all the puranic stories. it will be hard to find the symbolism behind all of them. for example the story of the birth of ganesha and how he gets the elephant head.
none of the stories trouble me. because i think most of the puranic stories are imaginations. some might have some historical origin but turned into myths and mythology after so much of time. but this is a historical explanation.
the reason why i asked you is to know how one see it from a religious point of view. and because you follow advaita vedanta.

Yeah, you're right, the story of Ganesha's head is pretty hard to find meaning in! I really don't know about that one. Again, it doesn't bother me. I figure it has a meaning that I am not understanding yet, but I trust that it will eventually be clear to me.

Also, I think ancient stories give a great insight into the way the human mind functions.

As an Advaitist, I don't know if the stories are historically true. I rather doubt it. I tend to have a fairly scientific mind and the stories are too fantastical. But, for me, it doesn't have to have actually happened to make it true. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone but me!

3. i don't agree with your explanation of the number 33. i think normal human being always prefer round numbers like 10, 100, 1000 etc.
for example in india elders often say "sho shal jio" - may you live 100 years. they don't say may you live 111 years of 77 years.
so i personally think it is likely that the number 33 has some other explanation.
yes, wiki in this case is not reliable because they didn't provide any reference.

I did some more looking into this and here is what I found:

HubPages: This author claims that the 330 million refers to the people waiting in "heaven" to get reborn who have been particularly good (Devas, not Gods). He does not go into why that particular number is used. This website does have an explanation for the exact number,
Hindu religion is often labeled as a religion of 330 million gods. This misunderstanding arises when people fail to grasp the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. According to the Hindu scriptures, living beings are not apart from God, since He lives in each and every one of them in the form of atman (BG 10.39). Thus each living being is a unique manifestation of God. In ancient times it was believed that there were 330 million living beings. This gave rise to the idea of 330 million deities or gods. Actually, this vast number of gods could not have been possibly worshipped, since 330 million names could not have been designed for them. The number 330 million was simply used to give a symbolic expression to the fundamental Hindu doctrine that God lives in the hearts of all living beings.

Hindu-blog: This website also goes into some explanations about symbolism in the number "3."

In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad while discussing Brahman, Yajnavalkya is asked how many gods are there. He says that there are three hundred and three and three thousand and three gods. When the question is repeated? He says, thirty three. When the question is again repeated he says, six. Finally, after several repetitions he says ONE. (Chapter I, hymn 9, verse 1)

It reminds me of the trinity of Gods, which exists in both Christianity and Hinduism. The three who are also one, Brahman, Shiva, and Vishnu.

by the way, what do you think of lokayata tradition?

do you take it as a part of hinduism or a part of indian philosophy like buddhism and jainism and distinct from hindusim?

I am ashamed to admit that I didn't know what this was, so I went and looked that up too (on Wikipedia!).


I'm not sure that I know enough about it yet to really discuss it. On the one hand, it's hard to accept that atheism and lack of belief in an eternal soul could be Hinduism. On the other hand, Hinduism does tend to encompass so much.

I have seen people that I would think of as Hindu who are very spiritual, but don't believe in a God. Seeing the whole universe as a "divine" power or seeing humanity as a "divine" power, those things are very Hindu to my mind.

But one of the fundamental things that makes Hinduism Hinduism is the belief in an eternal soul. We do not die. Krishna makes that very clear in the Gita.

The Buddhist belief in nothingness after death is the thing that most strongly separates Buddhism from Hinduism, I think. That and the idea that you can't enjoy the world while also being aware that it is an illusion in Buddhism.

So, it is certainly a very different flavor of Hinduism from mine, but I would never exclude it. I always lean toward unity, never division.


  1. thank you, for taking the effort to discuss this.
    some of the things i didn't know and which are interesting.

    though to be honest i am yet to be convinced about the origin of the number 33. or may be it actually is random and i am trying to reason it unnecessarily.

    you said : "The Buddhist belief in nothingness after death is the thing that most strongly separates Buddhism from Hinduism,."

    i guess, you mean after attaining nirvana. because certainly buddhists believe in the laws of karma and rebirth. as a kid i have read the jataka which are actually tales of lives of buddha's different births until he attained moksha.

    i always thought that what distinguishes buddhism from hindusim is in the former the idea of supreme being is not that important in a sense.

    idea is , there may be god or there may not be, let's not worry about it.

    i may be wrong though.


  2. Yeah, I meant after Nirvana. This idea that Nirvana is nothingness is basically the opposite of the Hindu idea that Moksha is everything-ness.

    Let me know if you find out more about the 330 million thing.

    I guess you're right that Buddhism is more geared toward agnostics than Hinduism is. I can't say that I know a whole lot about Buddhism, just the basics.

  3. i am now going through the links you have given.

    in "Hindu-blog" they do say that there are 33 vedic gods. now i am no sanskrit pandit , but sometimes the word koti which means crores is used as kind/type in bengali. so, koti may mean the same in sanskrit along with it's other meaning.
    i will try to check.

    in that case wiki's assertion that "33 kinds" is mistranslated to "33 crores" have substance.

    - basu

  4. i should have also mentioned that not all bengali words have sanskrit origin and often the meanings change even when they have a sanskrit origin.

    online dictionary gives one of the meaning as class.

    in bengali the word koti is also used as class/type .

    wiki also says : in the Yajurveda there are eleven gods in heaven (light space), eleven gods in atmosphere (intermediate space), and eleven gods in earth (observer space).


  5. You probably understand this already, but your readers may not.

    Regarding the Hindu "belief in an eternal soul," Advaita reveals even this to be an illusion, at least in the way one usually thinks of the soul or Self (Atman).

    Imagine Brahman is a sort of cosmic ball of clay. Each jiva that incarnates as a being would be an extrusion from that ball of clay, a bit pinched out to form a shape but still connected with the ball. (Really, a jiva is more of a Brahman core wrapped in layers of maya, but that's essentially immaterial here) At death, the extrusion is pressed back into the original ball. Each new being that is born is simply an extension of the one being, Brahman, and each jiva born is actually formed of material previously used for other jivas. There is no difference from one being to the other, especially since even maya itself is actually Brahman.

    So yes, there is an eternal soul, but that eternal soul is Brahman is does not belong to an individual, as the very idea of individuality is an illusion.

    The question that then remains is "what is Brahman?" One may answer that Brahman is God, Reality, Truth, etc., but none of these answers can really describe Brahman because they are ideas that exist only in the realm of maya, as does everything we know. Therefore, Brahman can only be what we do not know, hence the practice of discrimination, "neti neti." One can only speak of Brahman in negative terms such as nothingness. Therefore, it seems to me that moksha -- after death, not the becoming of a jivanmukti -- through the practice of jnana yoga by means of Advaita philosophy, would lead to the same outcome as Paranirvana. In fact, it would seem that, as some modern Advaita teachers insist, there is no liberation to be had because we are already Brahman, we are already free, and samsara is but an illusion of maya.

    That being said, it's much easier, for myself anyway, to talk about such ideas than it is to understand them... =o)

    See "Back to the Truth: 5000 years of Advaita" for these ideas and more.

  6. Thank you for clarifying for people, Art!

    My last reader question post I spoke a little bit about the idea of the soul being too individual, that what we think of as ourselves isn't really it at all.

    There is a lovely sort-of contradiction of striving for enlightenment, but also already having it, just not knowing it. It's like a zen koan :)

    However, just because we can only describe Brahman by what it is not, I don't think that means that it is nothingness. To me there is a big difference between being nothiness and being everything-ness, but others might view those concepts as more similar than I do.

  7. I think Brahman is nothingness in the sense of how the phenomenal world, and those of us who live in it, relate to Brahman. Yes, Brahman is everything, even maya. But that's the end of Realization through Advaita. Since one can't skip to the end but must proceed in levels, Advaita gives us the concept of maya, the sort of magical force that creates what we think of as reality, but which is actually an illusion. From the standpoint of the jiva trapped in maya, Brahman is not anything that exists. It is not so much nothing as it is no-thing. One might say that Brahman is unreal because it is the absence of what we think of as reality. It does not exist because it transcends the concept of existence. It is not because it cannot be anything that is.

    By the by, this is why I prefer to think of myself as a bhakta. Jnana yoga is just a bit too much for me at this point in my sadhana... =o)

  8. :) I think I'm still some strange mix between bhakta and jnana. My parents are totally jnana and I don't think I can keep up intellectually, but I'm not totally bhakta either!

  9. Sorry if these personal questions have been answered a million times! I'm new to your blog.

    1. Do you eat meat? Why or why not? I already did not eat red meat before my enthusiasm for conversion to Hinduism, but early on I gave up all meat and have been all the better for it. Do you give feed with cow in it to your pet(s)?

    2. Do you use henna? I personally love it! Makes my hair feel so much more natural, too.

    3. Does it bother you that your partner does not share the same faith, or do you embrace it? Is his mind open to the philosophy? Would you allow your children to have dual-faith rearing?

    4. Is there a region of India you feel is the most beautiful? I've only been there two times, but I did appreciate the south a little more than the north.

    Sorry if the questions got too personal. It's interesting to find someone else on a similar journey to mine, although I think I am much older than you are (48). Good luck!

  10. anonymous@June 13, 2010 10:40 PM

    millions of hindus are non-vegetarian. in some parts of india even prists are. animal sacrifice plays a role in some pujas and the meat thereof is actually considered as prasad.

    actually around 100 years ago in bengal , chicken was thought to be a forbidden food for brahmins but not goat meat.

    it is also a historical fact that in early vedic period beef used to be consumed, though occasionally.

    hinduism certainly encourages satvik lifestyle and in some part of india a lot of hindus are vegetarian for religious reasons.

    interestingly, there is a hypothesis that the vegetarianism in hinduism (and beef as a forbidden meat) is an influence of buddhism.

    - basu

  11. Probably this article may help you to understand the story of Ganesha.

  12. that is an interesting read.
    thank you.


  13. basu, this is the same poster with the vegetarian question. I appreciate your answer, but I am not a historical textbook Hindu (obviously!), I am a practical one who is trying to be as non-conspicuous as possible with others in my religion whom I've met in community meet-up group and in India. No hamburgers for me! I do feel more in tune spiritually when I am not leading to animal suffering. Also, when you're old (like me!), hard to keep off the pounds, and being a veg helps. ;)

  14. I had another friend say the same thing about vegetarianism being an influence of Buddhism too!

    It does seem unlikely that vegetarianism would come from the same society that performed animal sacrifices (you know, in ancient times).