Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Karma margaPath of action
(especially ritual action)
Jnana margaPath of knowledge
(meditation and analysis)
Bhakti margaPath 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 householderEmphasize 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.

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.

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