An Introduction To Asian Religions

7 Apr

The tenth avatar is yet to come; he is Kalki, a sort of Messiah.

The Upanishads gave a philosophical teaching for thinkers and ascetics. Their impersonal teaching of the Diety prepared the way for the virtual atheism of Jain and Buddhist doctrine.

Indian religious history has sometimes been divided into an older period of Brahmanism, and a later period of Hinduism proper with its many sects. In another way, the division has been made between Aryan and non-Aryan (Dasa or Dravidian). But these divisions assume that Hinduism itself is not very old,and also that Vedism did not influence the later religion. This is not so. Hinduism is the expression of an ancient and living great civilization, and the famous Bhagavadgita develops Brahmin thought.

What is evident in later Hinduism is an opposite movement from the impersonal teaching of the Upanishads, and a stress on a belief in a personal God. There are already traces of this in later Upanishads with a personal Lord (Isivara replacing the impersonal Brahman.

Theistic Hinduism is expresses first in two great epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They were probably completed by the second century A.D., but it is considered that their origin goes back to the pre-Buddhist period.

The Ramayana, Career of Rama, is a very long work of over 24,000 couplets. It was written in Sanskrit by Valmiki, but there are other popular versions at later dates, notably by the mystic Tulsidas. It has been translated into most Indian languages and it is still widely used. By its story of marital devotion it exerts a healthy influence on family life.

The Ramaya is a tale of northern India where lived an ideal king Rama and his wife Sita. It tells of their adventure; whose Sita was carried off by a demon Ravana, helped by Hanuman the monkey god, and finally rescued by Rama. This simple story gradually comes in later editions to be an account of the descent (avatar) of the god Vishnu in the form of Rama to slay the demon Ravana. The incarnation of Vishnu in Rama is said to have been the seventh descent of the god, Krishna is the eighth avatar and Buddha the ninth. The tenth avatar is yet to come; he is Kalki, a sort of Messiah.

Thus we have the belief expressed in recurrent incarnations or descents of Vishnu, but as unreal or visionary appearances, rather than like the Christians teaching of the Word once made “flesh” in history. There is also the deification of Rama and Krishna, in so far a they were historical or traditional human figures. Rama and Krishna, indeed as personal gods overshadow Vishnu, especially in northern India.

The Mahabharata is much longer than the Ramayana and has 90,000 couplets. The title means the “great Bharata” story, and it tells of the war of the house of Bharata and a neighboring north Indian tribe. It resembles the Iliad in its stories of divine chiefs, especially of two of them, Arjuna and Karna.

The most important part of the Mahabharata is an inserted section in the sixth book. This is the Bhagavad-Gita, the Song of the Lord, or the Song of the Blessed One. The Gita (as this title is abridged) has often been called the most important single work ever produced in India, the “New Testament of India. ” the “Gospel of Krishna”. It is read and loved as no other book in India to-day. It is also misunderstood and idealized. There are many translations. It is a short poem, about as long as St John’s Gospel. Its date is debated, but it was probably written somewhere about the beginning of the Christian era.

The Gita is in the form of a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna who is his charioteer, and who is gradually revealed in his true godlike nature to Arjuna. Arjuna is paralysed by indecision before battle, and asks himself whether it it is right to kill his kinsfolk. To this important question Krishna replies, first that Arjuna must do his duty as a member of the warrior caste, and further that killing is unreal since the soul never dies. Slayer and slain are Brahman who himself is never slain.

“The unborn, the permanent, the eternal, the ancient, it is not slain when the body is slain…. Therefore for no creature shouldst thou sorrow.”

This teaching is of course Brahmanic. Action is dictated by caste obligations. If a man kills it has been determined by God. In any case the soul is deathless. The world itself is only a play (maya) which God acts within himself. Yet with this harsh teaching there are also mingled other elements that have endeared the Gita to millions.

Krishna teaches Arjuna that not only fighting but all actions should be undertaken without thought of reward. To free oneself from desire, and from the fruit of actions(karma), the method of Yoga is taught. Yoga mental training (from the same root as the English word yoke), appears as a technique of meditation, This was not new, but is made available in the Gita for everyone.

“A Yogi should constantly train his self, staying in a secret place, alone, controlling his mind, free from hope and possessions.

In a pure place, setting up for himself a firm seat, not too high, not too low, with cloth, antelope skin, and kusa grass upon it,

There bringing his mind to one point, restraining the action of the mind and senses, and sitting on the seat, he should practice Yoga for the purifying of the self.”

The Gita combines both the Brahmanic non-ethical teaching, and a moral teaching of kindness and compassion.

“He who is without hatred to any being, who is friendly and compassionate, not thinking of mine or myself,balanced in pleasure and pain, patient,

Who is ever content, practicing Yoga, with his self restrained, his convictions firm. his mind and intellect dedicated to me, devoted to me, that man is dear to me.”*

E.J. Thomas, The Song of the Lord, pp. 58-9

The moral teaching is one of indifference, of restrained self-seeking to avoid defilement.

The last phrase of this quotation brings out a further great teaching of the Gita “devotion to me; Devotion to Krishna the god is made the motive of action. Love to God is an end in itself.

So the Gita ends;

“Have thy mind on me, be devoted to me, sacrifice to me do reverence to me. To me shalt thous come; what is true I promise; dear art thou to me.

Abandoning all duties come to me, the one refuge; I will free thee from all sins; sorrow not.

E.G. Parrinder, D.D. An Introduction To Asian Religions (London S.P.C.K.) Fist published in 1957 Reprinted 1958 S,P.C.K. Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone Road, London, N.W.1


Made and printed in Great Britain

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