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dharma The Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh Traditions of India Edited by VEENA R. HOWARD Pao awe. a Bs) [rompon new roan) Hindu Dharma: Unity in Diversity— A Pluralistic Tradition Jeffery D. Long! ‘One who protects Dharma is protected by Dharma. — Manusmriti” What is Hindu Dharma? An Overview Hindu Dharma—more widely known in the Western world as Hinduism—is an ancient set of beliefs and practices that encompasses a vast range of human values and experiences. Emerging from the diverse cultures of the Indian subcontinent, Hindu Dharma responds to some of the most profound questions raised by human beings: Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? What is happiness, and how can it be achieved? Unlike religious traditions familiar to most Western readers, Hindu Dharma has no founder, no essential dogma, and no single, centralized institutional authority dictating the beliefs of Hindus. An enormous range of belief systems and conceptions of reality thrive under the capacious umbrella of Hindu Dharma. There are Hindu monotheists, polytheists, atheists, and other variations. There are Hindus whose main occupation is performing rituals aimed at upholding the welfare of the world, and ones whose spiritual lives are interwoven with the day-to-day work of providing for their families and fulfilling their social responsibilities. Some Hindus channel all their energy towards meditative practices aimed at the realization of a HINDU DHARMA 39 divine reality dwelling in the hearts of all beings. All of these ways of life, and more, are seen as being equally Hindu and are accepted as such. There is no single, correct way to be a Hindu. If one is trying to define Hindu Dharma, a good starting place might be to say that this tradition is defined by its pluralism, the rich variety of paths and viewpoints it accommodates and embraces. This pluralism is affirmed in the most ancient of Hindu sacred texts—the Rig Veda—which states: “Truth is one; the wise speak of it in many ways.”* Hindu Dharma is such an internally diverse tradition that it is likely that every statement made in this essay will be met with disagreement by groups of Hindus, who will find that a particular statement does not represent practice or worldview accurately. In the words of John Cort, describing Indian culture in general, “Anyone who has ever taught about India knows that for every true statement about India there is an opposite, contradictory, yet equally true statement.”* Even the claim that Hindu Dharma is highly diverse can be met with the objection that it is deceptive if taken to mean that there is no underlying unity or cohesion at all to Hindu thought or practice. Indeed, some scholars might say, ‘Hinduism’ does not exist.” Many Hindus, of course, find this claim offensive, and with good reason. While Hindu Dharma is, indeed, internally highly diverse, there are also areas of agreement in this tradition. What might be called a “Hindu mainstream” has emerged over time, and elements of this mainstream Hinduism can be traced far into the past. Intriguingly, other ancient and widespread traditions—such as Buddhism, Chris- tianity, and Islam—are also internally diverse, yet one does not find the existence or integrity of these traditions widely questioned.° There is a unity underlying Hindu diversity, and Hindu pluralism should not be taken to mean that “anything goes” in Hinduism. One should pay attention to both sides of the Rig Veda’s ancient equation: “Truth is one” and “The wise speak of it in many ways.” This unity-in-diversity is reflected in the vast range of practices and beliefs observed by close to one billion people who follow Hindu Dharma in one form or another. Though it is a global community, it is concentrated heavily in one country: India. Hindus outside India are mostly persons of Indian origin or descent; but there is a growing number of Hindu adherents from many ethnic and national backgrounds: African Hindus, East Asian Hindus, European Hindus, Latino Hindus, and so on. Hindu Dharma has the third-largest 40 DHARMA following compared to other major world religions, with Christianity and Islam as first and second, respectively. It is the largest of the four Dharma traditions (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh), and its various elements—from the concepts of sacred duty (dharma) and action (karma) to the spiritual paths (yoga)—have been guiding principles for its diverse adherents. Unifying Elements: Dharma, Karma, Samsara, Moksha, Purushartha, and Yoga In this section, we will provide an overview of the essential elements of Hindu Dharma. Indeed, these elements are interpreted differently by scholars and followers, and they continue to evolve in their meaning with the changing times. Karma, Dharma, Fate, and Free Will One teaching that commands nearly universal acceptance among Hindus is that one’s personal actions and intentions matter in a radical way. Specifically, many Hindus believe that for every thought, word, and deed there is a corresponding reaction. Good actions— actions performed out of compassion, a sense of responsibility, or duty (“duty” being the most commonly used translation of the term dharma)—produce good effects for the one who performs them. These effects could be seen as a reward, although in most cases it would be a mistake to think of them as gifts granted by God for good behavior. It is more like a law of nature, akin to gravity. Good attracts good. Similarly, bad actions—actions performed out of selfishness or cruelty, without concern for the happiness or well-being of others— produce bad effects. This, again, could be seen as punishment. But this is not punishment meted out arbitrarily by an angry or a whimsical deity. It is simply the way the cosmos works.’ This is the idea of karma: a universal law of action and reaction. As we shall see, it is a concept with many profound implications. One of these implications is that the cosmos is not a random, chaotic place. It is an orderly system. A universal law, like karma, implies a lawful cosmos where events do not occur by sheer accident. The deepest meaning of dharma—one of the many meanings of this term—is “cosmic order,” or the lawful nature of existence. Karma can be seen as an effect or manifestation of dharma. It is the primary means HINDU DHARMA 4} by which the order of the cosmos becomes evident in our lives. Our duties (the choices that ensure the best karmic outcomes) make up our personal dharma: a way of living that ensures a maximum degree of harmony between human beings and the deepest order of existence. Another implication of karma is that, though co cpsmips is orderly, living beings do have free will. The cosmic reality is ordered, put it is not absolutely fixed. The idea of karma, at least in most formulations, presupposes an agent of action, who is able to choose one option over others. Our fate (niyati) is not entirely predeter- mined. This view is contrary to a popular understanding that deems karma as fatalistic. At the same time, karma does imply some thease of predetermination. At any given moment, bind options from which we are free to choose make up a limited, finite set. Our freedom is not infinite—it is limited by our own past choices. Actions have inevitable effects, and logically our current set of limited options is an effect of choices we have made in the past. We have created our own. limitations and conditions that circumscribe our freedom. ; Conversely, the limited, but nevertheless real, freedom we exercise in the present will shape the set of choices available in the future. The future is created with the choices made in the present, as the present situation was created by past choices. If, for example, I ea walked into my house, the next choice I make must be made from inside it. I cannot climb Mount Everest from inside my house, at least ia literally. I must choose to leave my house to make that option available. Freely choosing means navigating the effects of past choices, Infinite freedom would thus mean freedom from the past— freedom from karma. The idea of karma is thus a kind of middle way between the ideals of absolute freedom and absolute predetermina- tion often debated by philosophers. , This idea of karma also plays a major role in Hindu understandings of personhood and moral responsibility. If we have played some part, through our past choices, in the creation of our present circumstances, we cannot blame any divine higher power for our sufferings in this world (though there is also a concept of fate (niyati) which plays a prominent role in some Hindu texts and sail be seen as referring to the fixed nature of actions already performed in the past). Karma is an empowering concept, for if our choices have led to our current situation, this means we have the power to shape our future with the choices that we make here and now. In the words of a