A Brief Guide to Hinduism for the Perplexed

Subhash Kak
7 min readOct 26, 2022
Image of Krishna

Hinduism describes the nature of the outer and inner realities and instructs on ways to obtain self-knowledge. The formal name of Hinduism is Sanātana Dharma (Eternal or Universal Law) and its oldest text is the Ṛgveda. It also has a huge amount of ancillary literature that covers a wide variety of subjects.

Lived Hinduism is Yoga, in which one of the first steps is the practice of āsanas, which have become well-known all over the world.

There are many misconceptions about Hinduism both in academic writing and in the popular press. Some of these misconceptions are so ridiculous that to paraphrase Cicero only academics and journalists would believe them.

Briefly, Hinduism is a universal way open to everyone, which considers all humans to be equally capable of obtaining knowledge about themselves, and through that of Reality.

According to it, Consciousness (Ātman) is a unity, and it is present everywhere; all sentient beings have the same Ātman.

Here’s a brief introductory guide to Hinduism in terms of eighteen main principles.

From One to Many

  1. Reality is One Universe of Being.

This one reality is seen in the mind as multiplicity of forms and conceptions. Reality cannot be based on duality or multiplicity for then there is no single order. When we look at the universe as observers there are three aspects to our experience: the reality of the cosmos, one’s awareness, and the fact that one is able to make sense of it.

2. The experience of reality is triplicate as in the invocation of bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ of the Gāyatrī Mantra:

At the most basic level, when we look out at the skies, we see our place in the following triplicity:

earth, atmosphere, the sun

This is how reality is described in an objective sense in the invocation of bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ of the Gāyatrī Mantra. When we close our eyes, the universe is:

body, breath, consciousness

A slightly different perspective is the conception of saccidānanda that integrates the above two outer and inner views. Reality is existence of the outer universe with us in it; it is consciousness since we perceive the outer in our consciousness; and finally it is the structure of our mind and the physical body that gives us a sense of beauty and bliss. Therefore, one can say that reality is:

sat, cit, ānanda

Alternatively, we can use the following equivalent terms:

foundation, awareness, transformation

These three have been represented in the Indian tradition as:

Vishnu, Shiva, Devī

Vishnu represents the physical and the moral law, Shiva the universal consciousness, and Devī (Shakti, or Goddess) the transformative power and diverse embodiments that include the physical, the natural, and the power by which the mind is illumined.

Vishnu and Shiva complement each other, paralleling the completion of Shiva by Shakti, for to speak of the universe without consciousness or of consciousness without embodiments who experience it is meaningless. The complementarity is projected as Vishnu and Shiva the same as Harihara, and Shiva and Devī as one Ardhanārīśvara.

The elements of the triplicate order inhere in each other and, therefore, they stand on the same metaphysical ground.

3. The manifested Universe is governed by laws.

Hinduism is fully accepting of reason and questioning in the understanding of reality.

4. Transformation is a characteristic of Being.

The universe goes through cycles of creation and destruction, and according to Purānic accounts, the last cycle began several billion years ago.

Both Shiva and Shakti (Goddess) are also conceived of as Time (Mahākāla and Mahākālī). The experience of consciousness can only occur in a framing that must include a beginning and an end.

5. Physical and biological forms evolve.

Individuals experience change and this change is an aspect of both physical structures and life. The mystery of change opens doorways to understanding.

6. The mind goes through transformative stages.

This is why the outer reality is conceived differently by people with different awareness.

It is not professed belief but rather action that reveals the nature of the mind.

Inner Reality

7. The outer and the inner are mirrored.

The mirroring of the inner and outer follows from the fact that one conceives of the outer within the mind which means that the mind has the capacity to do so. The mirroring of the outer must take place recursively at different scales (including within ourselves), and this makes attainment of knowledge possible.

This is illustrated dramatically in the 108 names of the God or the Goddess, and the 108 prayer beads of the japa-mālā. The Rishis were aware that the sun and the moon are about 108 times their respective diameter from the earth (also the diameter of the sun is about 108 times the diameter of the earth), therefore the circuit of 108 names (or beads) is to make a symbolic journey from the body to the inner lamp of consciousness (like the journey from earth to the sun).

8. The mind and the Ātman (Consciousness) are not identical.

The mind is the instrument on top of the processes going inside the brain, whereas Consciousness is the light that illuminates these processes. Another name for Consciousness is Shiva (Īśvara or Maheśvara in the Bhagavad Gītā) or Prakāśa or Light.

9. The mind is finite, whereas the Ātman is infinite and transcendent.

The mind is governed by natural law, whereas Consciousness is free. This means that cognitions and reasoning about them are associated with paradox.

The individual is bound by the chain of action and reaction, which is the karmic chain, until one connects to Consciousness directly, which sets one free. This freedom not only becomes the source of the creative impulse in the individual, but this freedom, paradoxically, channels a higher will.

10. It is through observation that physical reality is actualized.

This is in consonance with interpretations of scientific theory. Note also that all our knowledge exists in consciousness.

11. Knowledge is of two kinds.

The first is linguistic or lower, where one speaks of the relationships between abstractions or physical embodiments, and the second is intuitive or higher, which guides our navigation through logical categories and guides us to generalizations and insights.

Bookish knowledge is limiting in its scope; it cannot address the deepest questions. Hindu art attempts to bridge these two languages in a symbolic form.

12. Ignorance arises from choosing to remain bound to biological nature.

In our basic nature, we are no different from other animals.

Our biological nature is a powerful impulse for us to remain rooted in ignorance. The path to knowledge and mastery requires effort and churning.

Ways to Obtain Knowledge

13. Knowledge is obtained by finding the meeting point of the inner Light and its interface with the mind.

This is the union of Shiva and Shakti, and it is received as grace.

The cultivation of compassion and truth facilitates it.

14. The Goddess — seen through the lens of transformative processes — is the guide in the inner journey.

The journey of mastery of transformation is the path of action that cultivates intuition.

It starts with desire, followed by knowledge and action. Desire is embodied in icchā-śakti, Sarasvatī; knowledge in jñāna-śakti, Lakṣmī; and action in kriyā–śakti or Durgā.

15. The exploration of the architecture of the mind through different methods, or sādhanās, constitutes different kinds of yoga.

Ethical preparation and practices of concentration help take off the layers of covering that separate the mind from the light of consciousness.

16. One’s innate temperament together with training and learning determine the nature of one’s striving.

The Ātman has the potential that leads to a variety of temperaments whose seed is present in each person. In other words, all people can obtain freedom from bondage.

17. Worship is sacred theatre to facilitate the concentration of the mind (dhyāna).

Worship may be done through devotion (bhakti), and it may be done anywhere, in group, or in privacy. Dance, art, science, inquiry, or service are worship. It can be the search for the heart of beauty. The light is present everywhere.

The temple is a symbolic representation of the cosmos, and ritual as a celebration of the movement of time. Silence is also a form of ritual.

18. The spiritual life in Hinduism is to find harmony in existence including in one’s own self.

As an ecological view of the health and well-being of the individual and of society, Hinduism stresses compassion and kindness to not only each other but also to animals, and on being ethically and morally upright. It is the celebration of life.

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Hinduism is fully consistent with scientific inquiry. But it is different from the current mainstream science paradigm in that it includes consciousness. Current “scientific” views of mind are naive, leading to lack of self-awareness on the part of the individual, and this is the area where Hinduism provides clarity.

Unlike Western religious traditions that focus on belief, Hinduism recognizes that the individual’s self-understanding depends on the place where one is in the journey and, therefore, the focus is on character and virtue.

Mainstream science is materialistic in which consciousness is an emergent phenomenon arising in the brain. On the other hand, while conceding that the experience of consciousness manifests in the brain (brain networks function as lens), Hinduism sees consciousness as the transcendent light that makes cognition possible.

Reasonable people acknowledge that consciousness is the frontier of science, irrespective of whether one approaches it from the perspectives of physics, neuroscience, psychology, or computer science. Given its materialistic trappings, modern science has failed to address this challenge successfully (excepting in quantum theory, where materiality and consciousness are like two sides of a coin).

The idea of Ātman is revolutionary as it does not lend itself to the mainstream reductionist view but it appears to be crucial for further advance in fundamental science.

The embracing of Consciousness Science will usher in a new Age of Wisdom and provide humanity the tools it needs to deal with societal disruptions caused by AI and pervasive automation.

Bibliography

To explore further the topics in this essay, and locate appropriate citations, see the following:

The Vedic Tradition: Cosmos, Connections, and Consciousness.

The Idea of India.

And for a longer version of this essay, see

A Brief Primer on Hinduism

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