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Monday, December 20, 2010

Study v.s. Practice

I started thinking about the difference between studying a religion and practicing it when I got an email from someone writing a school paper on Hinduism.

First, he asked what the meaning of life is according to Hinduism. I put together an answer the best I could. Then I got an email asking if I had textural support for my statement.

That gave me pause. I realized that I couldn't name a textbook or a religious study or quote a professor or expert to support my understanding of Hinduism. And that is because I don't study it, I live it.

Of course, there is writing to support my view. I could say to read the Gita, and the ten principle Upanishads, but those scriptures are not easy to understand if you have no background or understanding of Hindu history, culture, and story.

I do read commentaries on scriptures and yet many times I don't pay much attention to whose commentary I am reading. I read each thing and look at how it interprets the text and then I ponder whether I agree with the message or not.

But mostly I don't do a lot of studying. Mostly I feel my way in religion.

On the other hand, Christianity is something I've studied. I took classes on it in college and I did Biblical analysis stuff. That was fun and educational, but extremely different from practicing and believing it.

Though I am an intellectual and I do pursue mostly a path of knowledge, it was interesting to me to realize that I do not approach my religion as though it is the subject of a PhD thesis.


  1. Just a thought Amba.If you have time do a PHD on some topic about Hinduism :)

  2. I think it is so with most of us Hindus.And actually that is what makes it such a personal experience. BTW. Did you know that this time winter solstice [Uttarayana Punya kalam] as per Hindus which is usually observed on 14/15 jan. coincides with the Pournami which is celebrated in South India as the Arudra Darshanam at the Chidambaram temple.Interesting, isn't it? You can take any Hindu text and find the basic Truths that Hindus live by in them.-whether the Vedas,or Upanishads or the Geetha or the bashyas[reviews]on the texts-they will all followthe same pattern. If any one Truth was rejected/not adhered to, then the whole argument would unravel,and that would get discarded.That is also the secret of our[Hinduism's] longevity

  3. I find it interesting that you thought this because I always thought that the Chinmaya Mission's advaita path was very intellectual.

    Clearly it calls more people than those who just want to find a belief system they can understand.

  4. I agree with Tandava, I had the same assumption that they are a jnana yoga path.

  5. have touched upon one of the most profound differences between Hinduism and other faiths. Many of our practices may/may not necessarily be ordained by scriptures nor do they need to be. Hinduism is absolutely decentralized. There isnt one holy place where a founder took birth or where Hinduism originated. There isnt one book that says you are a Hindu if you do this, this and that. A Kali-worshipping Bengali is just as Hindu as an Ayyapan-worshipping Malayali. (I cannot comment on whether these folks look at Kali/Ayyapan as a means to reach a concept called Brahman.) Hinduism is basically the highest embodiment of "To you your path, to me mine." I dont remember where I read this but I find a lot of truth in this - Hinduism is more descriptive while other (major) religions are more prescriptive.

  6. "To you your path ,to me mine" is a phrase attributed to the Quran or the Prophet Mohammad.
    In the Vedas ,it is said "the truth is One but the adherents call it by different names."
    @ Kothanda and Tandava,:
    The Chinmaya mission starts with the Bakthi margam leading up to the Gnana Margam .Bakthi is always the first step as said by Adi Shankara through his "Bhaja Govindam " sloka. The Bhagavad Gita is the most concise expression of Hindu thought.In that you have the different yogas or margas.Even if one has read all the scriptures available if one doesn't have the "Bakthi" or Love in ones heart,it is of not much use .This is what is taught to us through all the Parables /stories of the ThiruVilayadal Puranam and Peria Puranam of the Saivaits and the Bhagavada Puranam and the Bhaktha Vijayams of the saints of the "Bhakthi Movement" [as the Hindu saints of the period after 12th/13th centuries are called by the Historians,at least when we were in school;now it may be different.]. It was through bhakthi that Hinduism survived . This continued all over India,even till the 19th century. With the advent of aggressive[propaganda-wise,not Physical Force as with the Portuguese] Christian Missionaries and the rising Rationalist and Socialist movements came first the Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Movements ,who first started having a neo-monastic orders in Hinduism as opposed to the traditional monastic orders of Shankara,Ramanuja ,Rmanandi,Chaitanya MahaPrabhu and Madhvacharya[their might be some names that I have omitted. These New Orders also included Women in them and they presented Hinduism in a way that emphasised the Monism in Hinduism as a defence against being accused of Polytheism,and idolatory. That is why Chinmaya Mission,the followers of Ramana Maharishi ,and others stress on the Intellectual approach as a Marga to help make Hinduism meaning-full in these days of scepticism and Cynicism of Religion in general and against Hinduism in India in particular. This would also explain the difference in approach by Native practicing Hindus and Non Native Hindus[ i.e. Hindus who don't live in India,including westerners who convert to Hinduism,and Hindus who are second or third generation emigrants of Indian Origin].

  7. I am sorry .I did not realise it will be so long.

  8. Sita,
    Don't apologise for the length, that was very interesting. One bit that I am not clear about is this:
    This would also explain the difference in approach by Native practicing Hindus and Non Native Hindus[ i.e. Hindus who don't live in India,including westerners who convert to Hinduism,and Hindus who are second or third generation emigrants of Indian Origin].

    Are you saying that you think that Non Native Hindus are more likely to intellectualise? If so I think that there is some truth in that as a generalisation, but there are many for whom bhakti, devotion, practice and spiritual meaning is most important.

    The funny thing is that people who don't follow Hinduism in the West usually know the concepts of advaita and think it is Hinduism - that God is ultimately the impersonal brahman that can manifest in many forms, that maya is illusionary, etc.

  9. Thank you for that wonderful explanation, Sita. You said it better than I could. Chinmaya does have intellectualizing, it does have jgnana yoga, but it is more than that. There is certainly still bhakti and a highly personal experience.

  10. Also, I will clarify that I am an intellectual and I do read and ponder and think a lot about this stuff! But at some point that all falls away, understanding and belief comes at a much deeper level, it is not of the mind. Still, I would consider my path to be that of knowledge. I consider the intellectualizing a first step toward an experience of Truth.

  11. i am posting some websites i hope this may help you

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I think at first we over intellectualize. This is because our mind want to catch up to our heart, especially if you are in my situation and have no Guru, just a collection of Practitioners I learn from as they give me hints along the way once I hit a wall.

    I do know that when I had my first in depth view of Hinduism and was taught my first mantra etc. I had a gentleman that was showing/teaching me, I had no need to over intellectualize. It felt natural and came more easily. I just went with the flow and chanted my mantras and meditated etc. Once I "WOKE UP" and was ALONE I started grasping for anything and everything that I could read and or disseminate from the web (which is the worst place on the planet to learn Dharma).

    Now, that my mind and heart have compromised and settled a bit. I don't tend to think so much. I was looking for deeper meanings, but they cloud the beginner from the simpler message. The message that you need at that point. Now, I have surrendered to the Lord and accept what is given, when it is given. But, through the kindness of those who have helped me with written materials, it helps and I don't feel like I am splashing about in deep water any more. I now have a raft (books), a sea to contemplate on (Dharma and God) and a star to navigate by (my friends and fellow practitioners here).

    So as Aamba just said "intellectualizing a first step toward an experience of Truth" for a westerner with little to no experience or access to Sanatana Dharma this is a necessary first step. While to native hindus it just make us look like radical spazzes, it is a necessary part to our rebirth as Hindus.

  14. @ Tandava,
    I had got an error message saying my comment was to long and,indeed,I feared it was almost a waste of time.Almost because,at least I was able to learn from what I wrote;and I am so glad that it got accepted and we are able to have a discussion on it.
    Coming back to the Thread: I had also meant to include among Non-native those who are still living in India,but consider much of Hinduism as superstition,and feel the need to rationalise it and make it devoid of Idol/Murthi worship and its rituals,or those who observe the religious part as a fashion statement[mostly women] so as to feel comfortable with being called a Hindu.

  15. i am taking precaution and splitting my post,in batches.
    I was generalising about the Intellectual approach to Hinduism ,as initially [I am talking about 30-40 years ago,when the Chinmaya mission/movement started-They were the ones who popularised Geetha Chanting amongst children[then;now we are middle aged]and conducted Geetha-yagnas amongst the adults.It was a time when most English medium schools were run by missionaries[R.C./Protestant].So if we needed quality English education,we had to go to these schools[the Hindu Charities ran most of the vernacular medium schools,which though strong in mathematics and sciences,were not so good with English learning,they were also concentrated amongst the poorer sections and in rural areas.[to be continued]

  16. At that time,In schools the textbooks[History,notably],was biased against Hindus ,in the sense the good that came out of it was generalised but the bad was particularised against the religion in general and Brahmins in particular.Also in many schools,the authorities [personal experience]used to dangle admission if we converted to Christianity. In this scenario he Balvihar classes of the Chinmaya Mission[My sister and I walked 45 minutes in the hot blazing Sun on Sundays to reach the Class,held between 9:30a.m and 10:30/11:00am,when we walked back another 45minutes home. [We were in the North Madras/Chennai then] We were taught slokas like Bhaja Govindam[only recitation],The Geetha, and a lot of Bhajans.Stories were told occassionally.[We relied on the Amar Chitra Katha comics to learn the stories of our classics,Puranas,upanishads , saints and Heroes]
    This way Hinduism was fostered in the age when the families were becoming nuclear,and far from the native places.[Most of us could trace our ancestral roots to some village or the other]. The Chinmaya Mission filled in this gap ,and helped to popularise the Geetha. The Ramakrishna mission used to publish books and run schools,but it was more intellectual.So was the Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan which also published books. The Chinmaya Mission used Bhakthi with us kids and Intellect with adults[the Geetha -yagnas were discourses on the Geetha by Chinmayananda,the founder of the mission.

  17. The intellectual approach was needed at that time ,for the Dharma to hold its own amongst the many dissenters.
    It was also the time of the Dravidian Movement in S.India,which targeted brahmins and hindu practices and also the Communist/socialist movements,which was against religion[therefore Hinduism.These caused many to emigrate for education and work to the west[your countries].Once there,they had to intellectualise their religion to explain it to their colleagues/neighbours,who had only the Judeo-Christian frame of reference.
    Now we see, a return to the bhakthi and the rituals as Hindus are feeling more accepted,and consequently comfortable with themselves.

  18. That is an inspiring story, Sita. I am so impressed that you worked so hard as a child to learn and know your religion!

    I've found that the people in my study group are very intellectual in their approach also. They are all native Hindus, but came to Chinmaya and want to know the why and the how and to understand on the level of the mind. I think that's a great thing. To go from ritual that you don't understand to learning the whys behind it.

    So, I think intellectualizing is a good first step for converts and native Hindus alike. Eventually it will give way to having the feel for it, I suspect.

  19. Amba it was thanks to my/our Mother's efforts.Without her initiative[to find people who are conducting classes,it would not have been possible.And she had taught us what she knew-slokas,or stories or practices.Intellectualising is good for older people .With young ,bakthi,through stories was effective in our gen..Nowadays with cartoons etc,these stories also seem like make believe. For us,first we practised,then knew/learned about the whys and wherefores. To new comers and older children the whys come first.If it is considered ok then it is practised. That is one difference I am noticing.
    For example as a child,it did not even occur to me to question"why Bindi".;after facing the question,I tried to analyse the answers based on a)my knowledge about its practice[like who,when,where,how,what etc.];my reading or other learning like about the Chakras etc. As Iread my understanding grew and so did my adherence.
    Same thing about lighting the lamp in the evening or Doing Kolam in the morning or having Oil bath on Tuesdays or Fridays[for women;for men on- Wednesdays and Saturdays]

  20. Tāṇḍava said
    "Are you saying that you think that Non Native Hindus are more likely to intellectualise?"

    The transition from bhakti to jnana order is the sequence followed typically by born hindus. As kids they were taught to fold hands and pray: make us good students. Then later, when they grow tired of asking god for favors they graduate into praying for self realization.

    To me personally, it is logical to subsume the reverse order to the converted (westerners). They are smitten with advaita which is unique to hinduism first. There is no point of return from there. May not be the case with all, some may start with bakti first and then launch themselves to gnana later.

    Also a wild comparison I bring up here is that dvaita is more in the realm of bhakti yoga and advaita that of jnana yoga. No, absolutely I have no scriptural support on this, its my own (or is it?) over simplification as a lay person.
    Finally, the westerners have stealth advaita to bank on when they face a questioner: 'why hinduism mate'? A typical mature hindu (born/ converted) swings like a pendulum between bhakti and jnana modes depending on both his/her mood and the hour of the day. Iam afraid I didnt explain myself well as I was shrinking this syntax to a bare minimum. I made some atypical assertions here, contradictions are very welcome.

  21. sorry the above post was mine--surya

  22. That description of swinging between bhakti and jnana depending on the mood and the day is very familiar, Surya!

    It has also seemed to me that dvaita lends itself to bhakti, since there is an other for one to show that devotion and piety to. It is more challenging to follow bhakti towards one's Self!

  23. You hit the nail on its head.Loving oneself will help us to love others. This thought occurred to me earlier today,when I felt that I was not taking that good a care of myself or my family Just now[its a phase] and I thought if I took proper care of myself then I could do justice to my role as a care-giver,also.

  24. The thing is, none of the various Hindus texts, The Upanishads, The Vedas, the Gita etc are as important to Hindus as the Bible and the Quaran is to a Christian and Muslim respectively.

    The Hindu religion is not structured or organized. Its really liberty of faith and thought. You are totally free to experiment and seek. There are no single absolute answer. So how can one answer in a deterministic way to these kinds of question?

  25. It's true, and that's something I like a lot about Hinduism. There is no one answer that has been recorded and we all must follow because God wrote it thousands of years ago!

    Delenn in Babylon 5 once said, "We are the universe made manifest, trying to understand itself." That's a very Hindu idea!

  26. Sridhar, thanks for the websites. Your comment took a while to show up because blogger thought it was spam!

    Perhaps those websites will be useful to the people doing school projects on Hinduism!

  27. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Dharmic religions from the Western faiths is that science and rational approaches are very much congruent with Dharmic principles. You won't find such bloody purges such as the Inquisition. If Copernicus had been born in India he would have been a hero and he would have lived a long life along with Galileo and countless other scientists. Many Westerners make the mistaken assumption that their religious traditions engendered the Renaissance and rapid advancement, when in fact, there was and still is a deep conflict between members of Western faithful and science. Hinduism and Buddhism, for lack of a better word, "groove" quite well scientific principles. The Renaissance and Enlightenment occurred DESPITE Christianity. India underwent many Golden Periods due to the fact that they always encouraged free thinking and were not afraid to hold the mirror to their own philosophy. for those rolling their eyes, if you need proof, refer to the work of Angus Maddison. His detailed research shows that from 1 BC to the 18th century, India and China pretty much traded off between the #1 and #2 top economic power. Between the two of them, they controlled almost 70% of global trade.