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Religion Library: Hinduism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

   Karma marga   
Jnana marga
Bhakti marga
Path of action
(especially ritual action)
Path of knowledge
(meditation and analysis)
Path of devotion
   (especially towards Krishna)   

Hinduism articulates several different, overlapping paths, or margas for humans to follow. Although these paths may seem to be inconsistent, and even contradictory, fully developed Hinduism holds that they are in fact three different, and sometimes overlapping, means to fulfill the same religious goal.

In the earliest layer of Hinduism, the purpose of life is quite straightforward: humans are to perform the proper sacrifices to the gods. The Vedas emphasize that the life of the householder is the most exemplary model for humans. One should do one's societal duty (which later becomes worked out as the caste system), bear children (especially sons), and, essentially, live a proper life. This is known as the karma marga, the path of action, particularly ritual action.

     Emphasize one's duty     
     as householder
     Emphasize asceticism
     (disregard material world)    

The Upanishads significantly challenge this worldview. The sages responsible for these texts reject the Veda emphasis on the life of the householder and the primacy of sacrifice to the gods. They argue, instead, that there is a higher reality beyond the human realm, Brahman. Human beings can ultimately become one with this higher reality, but only if they change how they see and behave in the world. Specifically, the Upanishads hold that people must renounce the trappings of the world and embark on a life of asceticism.


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