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Religion Library: Hinduism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

A drop of water is often used as an analogy to explain the Atman (the soul) and the Brahman (Absolute Reality)In this way, they can train themselves to disregard the things of the material world, which only lead to grasping and attachments, and thus the creation of karma. If one meditates on the true nature of the self (the atman), one can realize that everything that one thinks of as the self, as "I," is in fact no different than Brahman. One can thus learn to be in the world in such a way that one is not attached, and thereby not creating karma (although still acting). When one dies, one is free of karma, and thus not reborn; instead, this person is release from samsara. This is moksha, which literally means "release," but which really refers to ultimate salvation, union with Brahman.

To attain this state of karma-less being, one must, through meditation and intense philosophical analysis, develop the proper knowledge of the true nature of the self. This path, as most clearly laid out in the Upanishads, is known as the jnana marga, the path of knowledge.

Arjuna and Krishna on a chariotThe third path is the bhakti marga, the path of devotion. This is perhaps first described in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important sacred texts in all of Hinduism. In the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna explains to the warrior Arjuna that the highest and most effective form of religious activity is absolute devotion (in the Bhagavad Gita, it is specifically absolute devotion to Krishna). The logic of the Bhagavad Gita's advocacy of the bhakti marga is complex, but essentially Krishna says that since he, Krishna, is the highest manifestation of Brahman, all beings, including all of the other gods, are contained within him. Thus there can be no action that is not, in the end, part of Krishna: ultimately all sacrifice is to Krishna, all worship, all good and bad actions on earth. So the highest form of action is selfless, loving devotion to Krishna, which is bhakti.

The message of the Bhagavad Gita is considerably more complex than this. Krishna actually builds a very convincing case against the Upanishadic notion of renouncing the world to attain the highest religious goal, moksha. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must, in fact, continue to follow the path of action, to do his duty, dharma, as defined by his caste. Arjuna is a kshatriyan, and so he must fight. However, and this is one of the reasons the Bhagavad Gita became so important in Hinduism, Krishna says that Arjuna can both fulfill his duty (the point of the karma marga) and at the same time be free of karma (the point of the jnana marga). He must do his duty but renounce the fruits–the karmic effects–of his actions. How can he do this? By devoting all of his attention, all of his thoughts, on Krishna (and this is the bhakti marga).

Ashrama (station in life)      
Forest dweller
Learn duties of his caste      
Raise a family
Study sacred texts

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