Who is a Hindu? In spite of attending Balavihar and Yuvakendra programs, there are many who have a vague concept of what comprises this mysterious birthright: visiting temples, lighting lamps, pasting marks on the forehead, falling flat on the floor in the hope that God will grant all our wishes. Some deride these practices as antiquated, while others conveniently tag them as quaintly “cultural,” that insidiously dismissive word. And still others are stubbornly agnostic or atheists, refusing to actively question their preconceived notions of self and world, which the sages exhort us to do. But the majority of us hover in a precipitous limbo, neither fully comprehending the exalted significance of the ancient tradition, nor willing to let go of it entirely. This indolent, wavering middle ground is fraught with self-doubt and restlessness.

This restlessness is further compounded by the complex heritage we inherit as Indians growing up as Hindus. The dimension of spirituality is so ingrained into our cultural heritage that it is not easy to separate the most important goal of Hindu spiritual attainment. Because of this closeness between cultural and religious traditions, we find it difficult to recognize the true presence of spirituality, much like the fabled search for the necklace one has draped about the throat. In reality, true spirituality promotes the contemplative spirit, an intensely personal experimentation with divine harmony performed wholly in the aloneness of the heart.

Also, it is important to remember that there is neither “Hindu” nor “-ism.” Both are artificial, external constructs. Then who, indeed, is a Hindu? He may be a she, of any race or color, only consumed with the ardent desire for Truth. Indeed the starting point for this exploration is the Vedic tradition which opens a spiritual quest filled with endless possibilities.

The name given to the collection of philosophical conclusions in the Vedas was Sanatana Dharma: the Eternal Religion. Being all-inclusive by nature, it presents no dogmas, but only certain facts, the results of pure subjective experience of Truth, which we are welcome to accept or reject. The underlying essence drawn from the Vedas are a set of four principles. These four are clear spiritual principles in the Sanatana Dharma, separate from moral or ethical commandments, and we can use these to view all other aspects of our multifarious religious tradition. An understanding of these four principles will help us follow a religious practice with conviction, without a vague feeling of following religious traditions primarily out of a sense of obligation.

The first principle is the intellectual understanding of the unity between the individual Self (one’s own true nature and the very substratum of the universe), and the acceptance of the Vedas as the valid means of knowledge to realize this inherent Oneness. The full implication of this fundamental principle will become clear as we discuss the other three principles.

Second is the understanding of the inevitable force of karma—as empirically limited beings, ignorant of our own true limitless nature, we currently face the result of our previous actions, and through our current actions continue to create our flawed futures. This understanding is then extrapolated into the third principle—the theory of reincarnation. We will go through this continuous process of facing our karmic destiny until our actions and reactions are exhausted, a process which cannot end with death. According to the tenets of Sanatana Dharma, death is but a part of the continuous change in our lives, and refers only to the physical form. Trapped in this vicious cyclical process of birth and death, we are unable to realize our inner true nature as enumerated in the first principle. The fourth principle affirms that to be released from the effects of karma, we need to have a firm belief in the Avatara, or manifestation of God in a human form, for the purpose of re-awakening Self-Knowledge within the human populace.

A cursory acceptance of these four principles, underlining them and framing them above our beds, will not affirm their place in our lives. They must be heard, breathed, spoken, touched—and above all, loved. “The one who has faith obtains knowledge,” says Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, and what is faith but a higher form of love? All the scriptures are treatises on love: love for the teaching, love for the teacher, love for the goal, love for its immediacy, love for Life. The true Hindu says “Yes,” to life, courageously and patiently bearing its vicissitudes, by holding firmly to the eternal and discarding the ephemeral. He or she is not in the least satisfied with the toil of this worldly life, instead pouring forth his or her efforts into the highest, the most natural spiritual pursuit, continually refreshed with an inexhaustible supply of divine love. This spiritual aspirant, who knows intuitively that there is something more in this life, rejoices in the unitary message of all religions.

The Sanatana Dharma acts as nothing more than a mirror for our lives. We can use these principles to develop faith, helping us infuse religious rituals and practices with an inner conviction that keeps us focused on our ultimate goal as spiritual seekers. We establish truth in our hearts, as the word shraddha suggests in all its philological glory—and step forward to embrace life, with knowledge, acceptance, and love. Then the universe begins to work itself around us, and we stand in awe of its cosmic Grace.

Anand Venkatkrishnan is a sophomore at Stanford University, pursuing a B.A. in Classics in the Greek and Latin track. He plans to study Sanskrit exclusively in the coming academic years, and is working on promoting Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Stanford.

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