The Hindu View of Life by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Radhakrishnan starts off by confronting the classic question of what Hinduism actually is. This, he does not answer directly, for a very good reason: Hinduism isn’t an internally recognized word, but a name given to the sub-continent of India by outsiders. Later, it was recognized by Hindus as being a practicable working name. This was because India, despite being diverse, had a common history, literature and civilization.

The backbone of Hindu culture and beliefs is the Vedas. Faith is the vision of the soul where the spiritual part of the world is apprehended, just as the material world is apprehended via the physical senses. The mind has two powers, reason and intuition. Reason correlates with the physical senses, intuition with faith. The Vedas are a collection of the intuitions of the soul, which became the spiritual intuitions which founded the cohesive Hinduism we now know. These intuitions have a perennial value because “the truths revealed in the Vedas are capable of being re-experienced on compliance with ascertained conditions”.

Hindus believe that there are different paths to God, and each individual has their own path. This is one of the reasons why there are many different books to learn from, not just the Vedas, but the Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, to name a few. The reason why it is thought that each person has their own path to God is that religious experience cannot be made objective. Instead, our path to God is crafted from how we are disposed to experience God, therefore we all have a different experience of what God is, and a different path to God.

We understand God by asking what God is not. Through negation, we get closer to the answer. Essentially, a Hindu Guru would take our idea of what we believe God to be and chip away until we have an experience of nothingness. This is because the exact nature of God alludes thought, language and symbolism. God is understood in palpable terms by being divided into personalities: Cognition (Brahman), Emotion (Visnu) and Will (Siva).

A picture of a Hindu Sadhu
A Hindu Sadhu

The questions of our individual experience of God and our experience of reality go hand in hand. “The seers of the Upanisads were impressed by the unreality of the world, its fleeting and transitory character, and sought for the infinite real [sat]” (p. 13). The character of the world which is illusory is known as Maya, Buddha taught that we can escape from it through the dharma. The absolute nature of reality is known as Brahman, the relation of that to us (our experience of it) is Bhagavan. Our Bhagavan causes us to experience not only the world differently, but also God, hence why some people experience God through Visnu, Rama, Buddha, and so forth. The Hindu attitude is that there is no right or wrong God, merely our experience of God.

The mystics, he says, are all one family. When one chooses to experience God removed from dogma, there is no difference between Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and so forth. “When the love of God is reached, divergences become impossible, for the soul has passed beyond the sphere of the manifold and is immersed in the one reality”. As such, Hinduism welcomes Gods and figures from all religions.

He paints Hinduism’s progression as being culturally democratic. They are well known to have kept religious figures and ideologies from even the earliest known cultural traditions, and kept them on equal levels to their most modern gods. “To despise other people’s Gods is to despise other people, for they and their Gods are adapted to each other” (p. 26). To the outsider, we can understand the people through their Gods, and the Gods by the people.

A great example of this is Krishna. He is so well known and loved that since Bhagavad Gita has become so culturally prominent, Krishna has too. Before the popularization of Bhagavad Gita, Krishna was a minor figure. differences such as name become immaterial for the Hindu, since every name, at its best, connotes the same metaphysical and moral perfections.

Krishna and his wife, Radha
Krishna and his wife, Radha

Religion should be found in righteous living rather than correct belief. “What counts is not creed but conduct”. By putting creed and doctrine before our personal faith, we lose ourselves to the religious group. “We start by claiming that Christianity is the only true religion and then affirm that Protestantism is the only true sect of Christianity, Episcopalianism the only true Protestant Christian religion…”. Hinduism instead ‘saps the roots instead of cutting the growths’.

Next we will discuss the concept of Maya. A majority of Hindus do not advocate fully the idea of Maya (the belief that the world is an illusion). However, it is held by Samkara who is often seen as holding the ‘standard’ type of Hindu thought. He had several reasons for advocating the doctrine of Maya including:

  1. The manifold of experience is incomplete, and we are unable to unify it.
  2. Time and space cannot be rounded into one whole.
  3. That which is real must be exempt from change, and nothing empirical seems to be exempt from change.

The curtain of illusion may drop, but another drama will commence, continuing the illusion. This is why we must seek the eternal. “The state of perfection is a condition of absolute stillness”. He warns us against merging waking state and dreams, and of merging illusions of reality with reality. “Moksa [release from belief in illusion] of an individual does not bring about the destruction of the world but the displacement of a false outlook by a true one”.

He emphasized that the world was independent of Brahman, but not completely. Logically, we cannot rationalize the relationship of God and the world, so he says we should hold on to both. Agnosticism is the only logical conclusion.

Karma has been terribly misunderstood by westerners and by Hindus. Karma is an immutable natural law of the universe, and the universe is lawful to the core. Karma is recognized to affect not only in the universe, but in minds and society too. It is “the embodiment of the mind and will of God… and justice is the karmic attribute of God”. Karma is in fact a God-manifested law of justice which is immutable and intrinsic to nature.

Karma is the cause of the life and context in which we are born, and is conditioned by our right and wrong deeds in the world. We have a level of understanding of the karma an individual generates by their habits. What we mean by this is the kind and array of behavior to which they have propensity. Good karma is generated when people act highly in or above this range of habit. However, it is worth noting that bad and good do not level out, both will manifest in the next life.

Now on to what Dharma is. Dharma can roughly be translated as ‘truth’. To have good dharma is to behave in the truest way.  We all have an array of desires. “The Hindu code of practice links up the realm of desires with the perspective of the eternal. It binds together the kingdoms of earth and heaven”.

Artha is that which deals with economic and political pursuits of man. Prosperity is the medium through which we express and move. Artha, Radhakrishnan notes, is good when, and only when, it is disciplined and ethical.

Moksa is ‘spiritual realization’. It means ‘release’, and is our self-made spiritual emancipation from samsara (perpetual rebirth). There are three ways of attaining moksa-

  1. Wisdom
  2. Devotion
  3. Servitude

Devotion is the most popular way as it is the most accessible way. It is also known as bhakti, and is explained in depth in Bhagavad Gita.

A wheel of Samsara
A wheel of Samsara, the process of continual reincarnation.

In a Hindu’s life, there are four stages to move through. These stages are called Brachmacarya.

The first stage is about training the body and mind. “The student is required to live for a fixed period in the house of his teacher”.

The second stage is the prominent part of most Hindu’s lives, and constitutes the level which most Hindus are at. It is known as the householder stage. In this stage, Hindus get married. Marriage is considered highly sacred. The first reason is because sexual repression is believed to be unhealthy, and therefore a husband and wife should be sexually active.

Marriage is also important because it is a platform through which people can develop their personalities, and develop further spiritually. Marriage is successful when a partner becomes a lifetime companion. True love demands sacrifices, “by restraint and endurance, we raise love to the likeness of the divine”. Perfect relationships are created, not found.

The third stage comes about only when the second is perfected. “When one’s bodily powers wane, it is time to depart to the forest and prepare oneself for the true life of the spirit. This is the stage when meditation is most important. Once the Hindu has been a benefactor to the world, they turn to their soul.

The final stage is that of the Samnyasin. At this stage, one seeks to attain complete spiritual freedom. This is done by intense practice, meditation and renunciation. The samnyasin does not attach to the world bodily or emotionally, their quest is a far more spiritual one.

Caste issues cause a lot of suffering and oppression in India. This is not the way it should have been. The caste system emerged as a way of creating a cohesive cultural synthesis, due largely to the fact that India had become highly multi cultured in a short space of time.

Multi culturalism in India, from an early point, encompassed “dark aboriginal tribes, the sturdy Dravidians, the yellow-skinned Mongols and the blithe, forceful Aryans… The Persians, Greeks and the Scythians…”. Hindus wished for harmony between races. “those who tried to bring together different races in India are worshipped as the makers of Hindu society”. When each race was welcomed into Hindu society, they were not seen as one nation, they believed that each race and community had a uniqueness, which was to be preserved.

He says that each caste has its own purpose and function, but that these can be categorized into four classes, called Varnas. These are-

  1. These are granted freedom from labor, to develop spiritual insight, and to govern the state.
  2. These are warriors. Whilst violence is never an ideal, it is sometimes thought of as a necessary evil in the world.
  3. These people are responsible for wealth, they work with the movement of money. (Radhakrishnan says that “Hinduism has no sympathy with the view that ‘to mix religion and business is to spoil two good things’. We ought not to banish spiritual values from life”.
  4. These are the unskilled workers.

These, respectively, are “men of thought, men of action, men of feeling, and others in whom none of these is highly developed”. He wishes to reinforce, that there is no competition. No one caste is superior to another, they have equal value in the world.

He admits that there is in fact a lot of conflict between the castes. He puts this down to uneven wages and functioning of money in the world. He believes that artists and statesmen should receive less money than manual workers because their reward is in the love of their job, and therefore has a higher spiritual reward. He concludes that “A just organization of society will be based of spiritual liberty, political equality and economic fraternity”.

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6 thoughts on “The Hindu View of Life by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

  1. Read with interest your in-depth review Of Hindu View of Life by Radhakrishnan. I have different viewpoint on topics like Karma, reincarnation, caste system, moksha etc. I dealt on these subjects including the history of Hinduism in my book Hinduism Beyond Rituals, Customs & Traditions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much. It’s a subject that’s become important to me over the last couple of years. I did a third of my degree in religion, and Hinduism seemed to answer all the questions in ways I hadn’t seen before. I have ordered a copy of your book from Amazon and look forward to reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is quite a good book by Radhakrishnan. We read it some years back. Quite good coverage of many topics including the Indian caste system. Many good insights.


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