Pantheism is the religious world view of the East. It includes Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. In its Westernized form, pantheism is the basic assumption of Transcendental Meditation and some aspects of New Age mysticism. Pantheists view reality like naturalists in the sense that both are monistic theories. Monism means that reality has one dimension. In contrast to the Western perspective, Hinduism rejects the existence of matter. Hindus believe only the spiritual dimension exists and according to R.C. Zaehner” nothing, however in the Veda or Hinduism is nicely cut-and-dry.”(Zaehner 19) Since this is such a difficult concept for us in the West, we will need to explore Eastern religious worship in comparison to Western religious worship a bit further.
While subtle differences exist between Eastern and Western religions, they are unified in the view that the ultimate reality is spirit. But it would be a mistake to interpret the Eastern concept of the spiritual in Western monotheistic terms. Eastern pantheists believe spiritual reality is ultimately impersonal and unknowable. Spirit is more like energy than a personal God as we conceive him in the West. Strange from our perspective, is fact that most of the Hindu religion involves devotion to a host of gods. The practice of Hinduism, for example, consists of devotion to three hundred million nature deities. Hindu scholars recognize that devotion to these deities is simply an attempt to explain the unexplainable and to make Hinduism accessible to the popular, uneducated masses. Ritual and devotion to nature gods are to be understood wholly in light of the philosophical categories of the Upanishads (Hindu scriptures), not in Western monotheistic terms. As D.S. Sharma, a noted Hindu scholar states, “The particular name and form of any deities are limitations which we in our weakness impose on the all-pervading spirit which is nameless and formless. The supreme being is a person only in relation to ourselves and our needs….the highest theism is only a sort of glorified anthropomorphism, but we cannot do without it.” Sharma means that all attempts to personalize the ultimately impersonal are the product of our human propensity to ascribe to reality attributes that we observe in ourselves. Because we are persons, we personify the cosmos. ( Internet)
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Nothing is more foreign to us in the West than the denial of the material realm. But it is equally strange from the Eastern viewpoint that Westerners deny the spiritual realm. Materialism and pantheism seem to be complete opposites. On one level this is true. Yet, there is actually much similarity in outlook between them. Pantheists refer to the perception of material reality as Maya, which means illusion. But according to Louis Renou author of Hinduism Truth is found beyond the phenomenal; but Maya is also conceived of as a positive force, at least by those who admit a pluralism of qualities if not of substances. (Renou 40) The illusion is the same term often used by materialistic intellectuals in the West to describe our awareness of the spiritual realm. For example, Western thinking is that in the realm of ultimate reality, both hold reality to be impersonal and indefinable. What, after all, is matter? Matter can no more be defined than an absolute impersonal spirit. Both pantheism and naturalism teach that illusion is grounded in ignorance. For the Westerner, the illusion of a supernatural nature to man is based is somewhat based on ignorance. One day, when we gain sufficient knowledge of neurophysiology and environmental determiners, the belief in the supernatural realms of our own personal will evaporate. In the pantheistic tradition, the reverse is the case. When we overcome the illusion of duality (distinct spiritual and physical realms) and experience oneness with the universal spirit, we will recognize the material as illusory.
The pantheistic view of reality applies to human nature in much the same way as it does in naturalism. What is true of the whole of reality is true of the individual. If ultimate reality is impersonal, indefinable spirit, then so is man. The Hindu term for the human essence is atman. Since only Brahman exists (impersonal spiritual reality), atman is also an impersonal, indefinable, spiritual reality. That is, “atman is Brahman.” No ultimate distinction exists between individuals and ultimate reality. All things are one. Reality is unity without individuality. But this raises a further question. Human experience tells us that we are individuals, that there is a difference between one another’s existence and personality. This perception, in classical pantheistic though, is the consequence of ignorance–it is a manifestation of Maya or illusion. Because this view of man and reality is beyond rational description, Eastern thinkers typically express their thought in parables.
Seemingly similar the ritual puja is a devotional service that involves prayers, religious rituals, and adorning and/or offering fruits and flowers to God’s image. A puja can be a very simple, 5-minute prayer in one’s home shrine room, or it could be several hours or days long at a temple festival. Every home has a shrine room, a place devoted to an image of God, pictures of gurus, and pictures of deceased family members. According to a Hindu priest at the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California “a puja is done each day in the home, at the temple once per week, and on religious holidays.”(Interview) In addition, pujas are performed at each stage of a person’s life from birth to death, on a person’s birthday, and anytime a person starts something new (like buying a home, starting college, conceiving a child, etc.).
The purpose of puja is to ask God’s blessing, to clear karmas, and to make things go smoothly. As seen at the Hindu temple society the Lord Ganesha is always worshipped first to remove obstacles, and then the main puja begins. The elements present at most pujas are fire, water, milk, ghee, vibhuti, sandalwood paste, kum kum, and incense. Each of these has a symbolic meaning, much like bread and wine have a symbolic meaning in the Western ritual of communion
The guiding idea for life in Hinduism and Buddhism is to achieve experiential unity with the one, universal spirit. While this may be acquired through a variety of means, the one most familiar to us in the West is meditation. Meditation is the practice of ridding consciousness of any thought of the self as distinct from the One. It is an attempt to rid consciousness of the world of Maya, or illusion. Through a rigorous discipline, we are able to achieve experiential consciousness of unity with ultimate reality. This is termed enlightenment. Once enlightened, atman is forever united with Brahman upon the death of the illusory, physical body. The imagery of water is often used to express the unity of atman with Brahman. When a cup of water is thrown into the river, it is no longer identifiable as an individual cup of water. It is part of the flow of the river. So too is the soul or atman as it merges with ultimate spiritual reality.
In conclusion, Hinduism thrives despite numerous reforms and shortcuts through gradual modernization and urbanization of Indian life. The myths endure in the Hindi cinema, and the rituals survive not only in the temples but also in the rites of passage. Thus, Hinduism, which sustained India through centuries of foreign occupation and internal disruption, continues to serve a vital function by giving passionate meaning and supportive form to the lives of Hindus today.
Glazier Steven D. “Anthropology of Religion”, A Handbook/ Greenwood Press, Westport CT. 1997.
Hindu Temple. “Hindu Temple Society of Southern California”, (Personal Interview), Jan 15, 2002.
Renou Louis. “The Great Religions of Modern Man Hinduism”, George Braziller, Inc. New York, NY 1961.
Sharma D.S. “Introduction to Hinduism”, www.hindubooks.org/introduction/, 1999.
White John. “Everything You Want to Know About TM”, (Pocket Books), NY, 1976. www.mcbryan.co.uk/tm-info/tm-ch5.htm
Wilson H. H. “The Vishnu Purana a System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition”, Third Edition Puthi Pustak, Calcutta: 1972
Zaehner R.C. “Hinduism”, Oxford University Press, London, New York, 1968.
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