Hinduism - Lesson 11

Key Metaphors in Hindu Thought

Hindu writers often use metaphors to illustrate and teach the essentials of the Hindu philosophy. In their writings, they refer to these metaphors in a way that assumes that you know and understand them.

Lesson 11
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Key Metaphors in Hindu Thought

1. Arundhati – pointing to a star; indirect of apophatic theology

2. Rope-snake – perceptual vs. objective reality

3. Clay pot - pot creates a false sense of “separateness”

4. Monkey/Kitten - grace vs. Works - salvation as gift, salvation earned

5. Grieved man concerning son – perception vs. reality

6. Painted canvas - creation is manifested and unmanifested by Brahman

7. Dirty mirror - true nature of reality obscured unless one follows a yoga/marga

8. Hidden treasure – true nature of self-obscured by phenomenal world

9. Seed/egg – entire world is latent (unmanifested) in Brahman

10. Salt in water - atman no separate existence from Brahman

  • Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and one of the oldest. It is about 12% of the world population and about 95% are in India. Hinduism is difficult to define. There is evidence of civilization in the Indus valley as early as 2800 BC. The sacred literature that is the basis for Hinduism was created and developed over hundreds of years. It was originally transmitted orally and was eventually written down.

  • Introduction to fundamental ideas and literature that are basic to the Hindu religion. The first lecture given for this class is not available at this time. This lecture begins on the class outline at II, C.

  • Discussion of the influence that the Vedic tradition has on Hinduism. 

  • Mahavakyas is made up of two words meaning, “great utterances.” The creation stories are a collection of different stories with various themes. The world is created by a divine figure dismembering themself and their body becomes the world. The caste system has a racial element to it based on some of the creation narratives in the RgVeda.

  • The Upanishads are one strand of the Vedas. Brahman refers to the all-pervading reality in the Upanishads, not the Brahmin caste. The question throughout the Upanishads is, “Who or what is Brahman?”

  • Brahman is the ultimate reality of the universe. Our atman is encrusted with karma and stuck on the wheel of Samsara. A Hindu's goal, in the process of being reincarnated through thousands of lifetimes, is to rid themselves of karma so they can achieve moksa, oneness with Brahman.

  • Maya is the ability of the gods to create the world and give it the appearance they choose, thereby concealing the true nature of Brahman. Karma is the principle that what you sow, you alone reap.

  • A Hindu must work off their karma to be released from the wheel of Samsara and achieve moksa when their atman becomes one with Brahman. Yoga was developed as a way to achieve the goals of the Samkhya philosophy. Hindus see God as a material cause of the universe, not an efficient cause.

  • The Mahavakyas are “great sayings” that give you insights into core teachings of Hinduism. The Brehed Aranyaka Upanishad shows that Hindus believe that diversity can come through oneness and not be an “other.”

  • Sankara says that Brahman is unknowable and we can't perceive any of his qualities. The rope-snake metaphor is often used by Hindus to discuss the difference between perception and reality.

  • Hindu writers often use metaphors to illustrate and teach the essentials of the Hindu philosophy. In their writings, they refer to these metaphors in a way that assumes that you know and understand them.

  • The purpose of this lecture is to see the structure of Hinduism at a glance. Hinduism operates and a philosophical level and a popular level. Hinduism attempts to resolve the relationship between knowledge, works and devotion. The four stages of life and the caste system determine much of cultural structure of Hinduism. Hindus worship many Gods.

  • The three major dissent movements that area a challenge Hinduism are Buddhism, Janism and materialism. Hinduism is adept at absorbing other movements. Buddhism claims that there is a teaching that makes it possible for you to reach the state of Nirvana which is liberation from all suffering. The founder of Buddhism is Siddhartha Gautama. The content of his teaching is the four noble truths and the eight-fold path.

  • The key insight of the Upanishads is the identification of atman with Brahman. Buddhists deny both atman and Brahman.

  • The Bhakti marga is branch of Hinduism that emphasizes a spiritual journey undertaken by a devotee that will culminate in a state of union with God or mutual indwelling of the deity and the bhakta.

  • The Hindu gods have identifying characteristics that make them easy to recognize when you see them in temples or other settings. The Trimrti are the three major gods of India which are Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Brahma is not often visually represented, so Vishnu and Shiva are seen the most. Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer. Vishnu has 10 incarnations or avatars. These are partial incarnations and don’t represent the fullness of Vishnu.

  • The Siva icon always has the presence of the Trishal, which is a sacred weapon of destruction. There is also the nag (cobra), damaru (drum), third eye, Ganges river flowing out of his head. The dancing Siva has a damaru in one hand and a flame of fire in the other that represents creation and destruction of the world. He also has dreadlocks and the trunk of an elephant.  The third eye of siva is what Hindu women have on their forehead. The Siva Lingum is the most dominant icon in north India.

  • The Brahminical branch teaches that works and devotion lead to true knowledge (Upanishadic vision, tat twam asi). Bhaktis say that knowledge and works should lead to devotion.

  • The Ramayana is an epic account of India. It is the story or epic of Rama and Sita, and is the origin of the tradition of Suti. Mahabharata is the epic of India. It’s the longest collection of poems in the world. The Bhagavad-Gita  is the most important part of the Mahabharata. It talks about both the dharma of caste and the dharma of denial and renunciation.

  • Gurus integrate different parts of the marga system. Paramahamsa Ramakrishna declared the unity of all religions. He claimed to have visions of Hindu gods and Jesus Christ and Mohammed and that all religions lead to the same ultimate reality, sat chit ananda. Swami Vivekananda was the most well-known follower of Ramadrishna and brought his message to the western world. He accepts tat twam asi, the great insight of the Upanishads, but thinks that everyone, not just Brahmans can perceive that unity. (The last point of the lecture was cut short due to a technical limitation.)

    You may download the text of Vivekananda's speech by clicking on the Handouts link in the upper left corner.

  • These are nine of the major holidays celebrated in India. Sankara has been called India’s greatest philosopher. Sankara emphasized universals and Ramanuja emphasized the particulars, similar to Plato and Aristotle in Western thought. Sankara has greater status as a philosopher, but Ramanuja has had a great influence on how the masses practice Hinduism.

    The chart Dr. Tennent refers to near the end of the lecture is the “Three Vehicle Structure of Hinduism,” which is labeled Lecture 6 in the complete class outline pdf document on the class page.

  • Brahmabandhav Upadhyay was an upper jati Brahman teacher who converted to Catholicism. He attempts to explain Christianity by using Advadic motifs. Brahmabandhav is an example of how a Brahman can address the Brahminical community using a Brahminical line of reasoning.

  • There are opportunities for preaching the gospel and planting churches, but there are significant challenges. There is a difference between being unreached and being unevangelized. Homogenus unit principle is one factor that makes it difficult for the gospel to spread in India. It’s important to send people to unreached groups and use a strategy that is effective for those groups.

In-depth survey of philosophical and popular Hinduism’s historical and theological themes. Exposure to current strategies being used to bring the gospel to Hindus and how Christian theology is being formulated in the Indian context.

Dr. Tennent occasionally uses pictures of Hindu gods or other visual resources in his lectures. You can download a document with these pictures by clicking on the Hindu Deity Pictures link. 



Dr. Timothy Tennent



Key Metaphors in Hindu Thought

Lesson Transcript


You notice in the handouts there's this wonderful handout entitled A three Vehicle Structure, Modern Hinduism, which is actually not really a lecture in itself, but it's really an exercise to help kind of understand and summarize where we are at this point. Hinduism is a very complex religion, can be very confusing to first time studies of religion, and therefore I thought was very important to try to put on one side of one page can the whole of the Hindu structure. And that way you can see Hinduism, as it were, at a glance. And so this handout is for that purpose. I would just kind of walk you through the handout. This is known as the three vehicle structure. There are different ways of structure in Hinduism, but this is probably the most traditional way, and it means it's based on a term in Hinduism called the Margus or the three Margus or three vehicles. We'll actually parallel this later with Buddhism, because Buddhism also has a three vehicle structure, three ways of organizing modern day Buddhism. So in the same way this is how works with Hinduism. And what I want to do is just kind of walk you through this chart if you have the handout and to look at it, be very helpful as we walk through it. First of all, you'll notice at the top level, Hinduism is divided, the two major branches philosophical and popular. Now we'll look more at how some of this gets brought together. But generally speaking, Hinduism operates really at two levels. The high philosophical Hinduism generated mostly from the eponymous shards and the philosophical tradition, particularly as Shankara and the six schools of orthodox philosophical thought. And so that is kind of one branch of of Hinduism, the other is popular, which is here organized according to way of actions and the way of devotion.


Now, popular Hinduism is kind of the Hindu as well as its practice on the street, a common people in villages, etc., all throughout India and around the world. Now, underneath those two broad headings, you actually have three phrases with the word way of this is this word for Marga, or the way the path, even the vehicle of Hinduism, the way of knowledge, the way of actions works in the way of devotion. Now, all through Indian history, all through Hindu history, though, Buddhism picks up on the same problem. They are trying really to resolve the relationship between knowledge works and devotion. This is a classic tension within the Hindu kind of conversation. So essentially, this is a struggle to say which of these two leads to the other, which is the priority, or what is the supreme goal of Hinduism? Is it knowledge? Is it works or is it devotion? So this has been to come out in modern day Hinduism as the three markers, the three paths, the the Yana Marga, the kama marga and the buck the marga and the marga means the way of knowledge, buckaroo Marga, the way of works and bhakti marga the way of devotion. So all of our conversation in this brief survey on different philosophical schools of of India, we mentioned already there are six what they call a stick a darshana as a means a. Orthodox schools of philosophy in Indian thought. And they're listed right here on the list of Sabka Yoga of Moms by Sachiko and in Haifa and Vedanta. And all of these are worthy of study and reflection. And we don't have time to look at those in this brief course, but they're very, very interesting. The one at the very bottom called Vedanta, which means obviously the word Veda is there, and that India and the means, the end of the end of the Vedas, which is the Punjab, and they were how the that it would turtle had the different layers of material and the in the punish.


However at the end or the end of the Vedas is the upon a shot. So that Vedanta is that system which focuses on the upon shards and that's what really has come out today kind of is the way Hindus is mostly expressed in the Western world and even in India is the dominant school of Hindu thought. But the others are also very, very important and they play into a number of things. The other big emphasis in the West would actually be probably you've heard of yoga. Yoga is very popular in the Western world. What you should know is that yoga actually accepted the philosophy of the sum girl, which is the number one first of on there. But yoga believed that certain techniques could be used to achieve the goals of some ka. So all the battle exercises, the posture, the breathing exercises, all the things are now part of Hatha yoga, and it actually comes out of that school of philosophy. So there that's something you may be familiar with in the kind of modern American life or whatever. But other than that, that's just made in the know is that each of these schools has a certain set of beliefs and practices which they believe could lead to ultimate knowledge, which is why it's called the way of knowledge. Now, this particular branch is governed and ruled over by the Brahmins, the high caste Brahmins, at the top of the kind of the branch structure. And so you'll see the Brahmins are emphasized there. And you'll see on the on the left hand side, it emphasizes to the Vedas, straight to the Upanishads. So you prominent in this phrase taught. I see. Which refers to the great insight of the punished shards. It means thou outward that or that there are.


And is the identification of the ultimate Brahman with the essence of yourself, which is the Ottman. The identification ottoman with Brahman is the great insight upon resides sides. And that's the part of the key insight of the philosophical system. Now, on the right hand side, you'll see it's in two different sections. One is the way of actions or works in this focuses on doing your duty of caste and keeping karma. People often ask about karma. The different kinds of karma in Hinduism. And so karma is basically karma. The references to your deeds when your past lives that are, you know, I think have accumulated in this baggage from the past as one kind of karma. You might say past baggage, karma. There is certain karma that you're currently incurring in this lives or things that you're doing in this life that create karmic in crustaceans on you are currently, you know, accumulating karma might say. And then there's the karma that you're currently paying off in your current lifetime. So kind of view it as a big ledger of like, you know, a ledger of debits and credits and so and Hinduism, everything you do, every action is either a credit or a debit to your karmic balance essentially works that way. And so over lifetimes, if you are working that off, you'll have better in reincarnations or transmigration and you eventually go to liberation. If you are not doing it, is outweighing it. You have worse and worse. Eventually coming back as meat eating animal, for example, where you can't improve your karmic status for some time. Being in a human state is a is a good thing because you can actually improve your karma in that state. Okay, Well, how do we know? How do you know what's good? What's not? Well, this karmic ledger sheet, as it were, it's governed by what's known as the laws of Manu.


This is a very famous book. Once again, you can go on Amazon.com and you can purchase the book today. But traditionally, this was a set, a collection of oral understandings of what, in fact, produced karma. What relieve karma. And so that's a major part of this whole way of action in way of works is maintaining your karma and being attentive to that and the duties of your caste. You notice on the bottom. It has the kind of four large groupings actually we often call these cast, but these are the varnishes, the the colors, the Brahman, the shut three, the Vishnu in the shoe drop. And you can see the percentages of how many Indians self-select and see themselves or their group as part of this. And the reason why it's unclear is because Indians don't actually so much go by. I'm a Brahmin or I'm a shut here, but you go by your subgroup in, which is actually your particular Jati or your particular caste. So that caste grouping is a much more. So even though there are actually for ivana's there are hundreds, thousands of caste groupings or just groupings as they're often called. And in that case people are not always sure exactly where the lines are drawn. The Brahmans vertical line is pretty clear on that. 8% of people fall in that category, but the others are a little more fluid. And as you get down into the lower grouping, it's gets very fluid. And you notice at the bottom there is this half of Indians are in the Dalit category, half of Hindus, I should say. Now, this half is a very large number, probably larger than what it actually is. But the point is, there were people part of what the loss of a new work is, certain kinds of behavior is reinforced by maintaining the ability of a, you know, Brahmin to maintain their purity of their of their lineage and their heritage.


So, for example, a Brahmin would never have social intercourse, certain that sexual intercourse with a low caste should drop. This is strictly prohibited. So things like eating together or walking together, I mean, they were actually called, you know, unseeable or untouchables because they weren't allowed to be seen by high caste Brahmins. So let's just say a Brahmin did that. They had intercourse with a Shuja, for example. What happens? Well, that person is thrown out of the caste system, which we're we get our phrase in English, an outcast. It literally means I was taken out of the caste system and that person is relegated to the lowest beyond the pale part of Hindu society. So that group is actually quite a large group over the years people and put into that category. The problem is, in modern day India, there are all kinds of programs and incentives and financial plans and a number of things to help uplift this group. So it's now kind of advantageous for people that are in the studio group to say, Hey, I'm actually a Dalit because it actually helps you. If you can be that far down, you might as well go all the way down because you might go have access to certain benefits. So there's a lot of incentive at some times to be a Dalit. It may sound bizarre, but in today's world, that is as true. So generally speaking, the first three cast or volunteers are referred to as the forward looking cast or those that belong to those warriors and the others are called the backwards looking. And it was Gandhi who referred to this lower group, the shooter, and Dalits, as he called them Honey John's or the children of God. And he tried to dignify them, but he believe they should be dignified within the context of their duties.


You'll notice that in the above above this part of the chart, there's this thing called the four stages of Life. This is known as the Ashram Dharma. This means that there is a certain pathway through life that is considered idealized in this particular for the pinnacle life, but it's put out there for others to follow as best they can. Essentially, what it argues is that everyone should go through four stages in their life, and your first stage is the student stage. This is where you are a learner. You go to school, you know, you learn things, you go through your education program. At that point, it's important for you to get married and move into a household or stage. This is where you become a father, a mother and have children, etc. and you raise a family. Very life is highly idealized and very, very important in Indian society. So if someone stops after the schooling stage and presumably does not get married, that's considered to be a shame, lack of honor in the Indian system because this next stage is the household stage. And so it's very, very important. And parents will arrange marriages for their children because this is a highly important way it's structured. The third is called Forest to Hour, which is what we would probably call more like retirement phase. This is where you go into a more reflective part of your life, where you spend time thinking about ultimate reality and you spend your retirement and you're freed up from your normal work in order to think about ultimate things. And then the very end of your life is called the Sanderson stage, which is where you renounce the world. You take off your clothes and you wear just the cause of a beggar, and you go to the Ganges River and you die there and you're cremated on the banks of the Ganges River.


Now, there are, of course, people who do exactly that, but this is still mostly an idealized progression in the rabbinical community, but it is part of what it means to have to. That's the maximum way to have good karma is to follow that structure. And so there you have it. Now, over on the final part of the chart is called The Way of Devotion or the Buck to America. And this developed really more around the time of crisis, a much lighter development in the Hindu world that you have the development of a number of gods and goddesses that are very popularized in in India. And I don't actually have listed here the the gods that are most important. I do a few in and highlighted like Rama Krishna that are in bold print here. But actually, there are many, many gods. And in the course we actually highlight which gods are the most popular to know about in India. Like Vishnu, for example, Shiva obviously are very crucial in this. But the idea behind this is that people will look at all the 330 million gods of India and they will devote themselves to one particular God in an act of exclusive worship. And this is called baptism as devotional Hinduism. So you give yourself to a God or goddess. You would perform what they call Puja, which is upon sacrifices to that deity. Go to their temple. You see the term here? Manna. Manna has a touching. You go into the eye of the temple, you touch the idol, you pour milk on the idol. You would put flower petals on the idol. It's an act of devotion. This is done by millions of people in their homes and in the temples all over the country.


You'll see these temples and fields. You'll see them in marketplaces. You'll see them beneath every banyan tree in the country. You'll see them in people's homes. They're everywhere. And so these kind of this kind of kind of practical worship is very much part of the Indian worldview. And generally speaking, this is a broad state, but Shiite worship predominates in the north. This divide verse worship predominates in the south, though all of these are everywhere. And you also have a lot of worship of the goddess Kali. And already particularly up in the north as well. But the point is, these are highly followed and they're very, very important in the Hindu world. And then this is reinforced by all of the epics of these deities. The India has produced two great epics. One is called the Mahabharata means the great epic of India. It is the word for India. And then the Ramayana, which is the epic or the story of Rama. These are very, very important. You may have heard of the famous poem called the Bhagavad Gita. That means the Song of Our Lord, or Geeta means song. So the song of our Lord or the Bhagavad Gita is considered to be the longest poetical a poem in the world. And it is found in the middle of the Mahabharata, just like a sequence in the larger epic. And it's a remarkable thing to study and to learn. And then the many other stories called the Paran is that really means the old stories. Honey of arms. This is Harry is the word for Lord. This is the stories about Lord Krishna and the Geeta. Govinda is also the song about Govinda, another deity connected to to the popular side. Anyway, the point of this is there are a number of ways in which Hindu is as popular, devoted to this way of devotion.


You notice on the chart I have a little three leaf clover on the way of action works. What that means is that is the default path, which every Indian is on to say you you're automatic on that path. What? Once you're on that path, that's like the birth path. You must be born into a particular caste, you live out your dharma, etc.. But at that point, if you're a Brahmin, you will be trained over on the left side in the way of the Jana marga, jana marga. The way of knowledge. If you're not a Brahmin, you will most likely gravitate over to the way of devotion. So all of these are not completely separate paths, but you should really view the main path in the middle as a path all Indians chair share and then people will participate in one or the other based on their caste. Because if you're not a Brahmin, you're not going to be ultimately able to be successful in the way in anything but the way of devotion. Only Brahmins in the way of knowledge. The other little kind of coffee I want to say is that what happened was the way of knowledge. The Brahmins saw the the popularity and the strength and the vigor of popular Hinduism. It really took India by a storm. And if you would like to see that in India, that's what you would see as like Hinduism before you in the village or in the city. So the Brahmins were really intent on controlling that. So Ramanujan, the great one of the great philosophers of India, he was determined to connect the philosophical on the left to the popular some on the right. So without going into detail of his philosophy, but his philosophy is about how to bring that whole side of Hinduism into his philosophy and to create a philosophical undergirding for popular practice.


Whereas the traditional way of say, Well, that's all illusory, it's important. Ramanujan didn't do that. And like his almost famous moments or money, just life is he is going up the pinnacle, you know, chain. And as you go up, it's a mentor system between a teacher and a disciple. And he was very brilliant, of course. And so he was acknowledged as being such. He kept going higher and higher. So the way it works in that way of knowledge is that as you go up the system, you are given more explicit mantras. These are these are sacred syllables that they believe utter spiritual power. So these are little sayings, a little mantra or little esoteric kind of phrases that are highly valued in that particular part of the world and that in the political world. So it gets the point where when you finally get that last mantra, it is so sacred, it may be only known by three people in the world. I mean, it's just it's that pinnacle at the tip of the pinnacle of minimalism. So Ramanujan got to that point, and the master brought him into the inner chamber and whispered into his ear this most sacred mantra. What leaves the presence of his master goes out on the balcony and he shouts this mantra down to the crowds below, which would created a huge shock. And what it was was soon assembled out that the high cast from Monaco, Hinduism, should be for all the people. So his life is really about creating this connections very fast and how he tries to do that and to provide a philosophical basis for popular Hindu practice. So to this day, you know, if you go to a Hindu temple to worship a Hindu deity, it is a Brahmin who runs that temple.


If you go to the river to cremate your loved one in the Ganges River, and you have to learn a mantra to say as you cast the ashes of your loved one in the river, it's a Brahmin who controls that spot on the Ganges River. So the Brahmins have, in fact, extend their control over this part of Hindu practice. It's one of the great triumphs. And I say that in terms of just, you know, one of the amazing thing that's happened in terms of how Indian history developed. But the point is this chart is not meant to be the exhaustive look at Hinduism. It does give you an overview of Hinduism to know how to where to hang things as you learn about philosophy or learn about, you know, how karma works or you learn about popular Hinduism. This gives you a way of understanding it within what's called the three vehicle structure, one of the three modernist structure of Hinduism. And so this chart is really for your overall reference, and we referred to it at several points in well referred to it more in the future. This is good to have that explained to you a little more with more clarity.