BLS 300 – Visions of the Creation
July 19, 2010
Visions of India
In our search for a unified vision of reality in the regional religions of India, we find there are several common threads in the beliefs which define mankind’s place and purpose in the world. Although their stories of how the world is created differ – in some ways greatly – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism all share some very basic ideas, ideas which shape and define mankind’s place and role in the world. Some of these basic ideas are similar (though not identical) to ideas we have seen in other regions of the world, such as the Christian and Gnostic mythologies of the Near East and the Platonic and Stoic beliefs found in European philosophies.
One of the most basic ideas in the Indian sacred reality is the concept of karma. Karma can be described as the positive and negative actions that form the destiny of the soul. In general, doing good things leads to a better life, while doing bad things leads to a less pleasant one. Each of the major religions of India views this idea differently. The Hindu see karma as the accumulation of one’s actions, both good and bad; the Buddhists have a similar idea, though they eliminate the individual soul from the equation; Jainist teachings also see it as accumulation, but hold that all karma weighs the soul down and needs to be shed; The Sikh see karma as the Five Evils which keep mankind from rejoining God, and which must be escaped. While each faith views the concept differently the basic idea is the same: what we do affects our existence not only in this life but in any future lives. In each of these visions karma describes mankind’s path and perhaps even his role in the world. By providing a framework by which man can measure the quality of his actions, karma guides him to see what actions will lead him closer to the expected goal of existence.
Reincarnation is another key concept in the sacred reality in the region of India. In the Hindu belief structure this is called Samsara, the cycle of birth, life and death, and is intertwined with karma. The Sikhs see a similar cyclical nature to existence as well, though karma is viewed differently. Both the Buddhists and the Jainists have a similar belief in repeating cycles, though they differ somewhat from the Hindu vision of rebirth of the soul. The mechanics of reincarnation may differ from vision to vision, but at its core the idea is the same: the soul continues in a cycle of existence and destruction until achieving the ultimate goal, whether that goal is the soul’s rejoining with Brahman as in Hinduism, Buddhism’s ascendance into Nirvana, the Jainists reaching Isatprogbhara, or the Sikh belief of being reabsorbed by the True Name. Reincarnation provides a purpose for mankind’s existence, proof that man’s presence in the universe isn’t some sort of cosmic hiccup. Man exists to seek and eventually to reach a goal.
Karma and reincarnation are two concepts that show common threads within the sacred realities of the religions of India. These common threads are strong evidence of a single vision in India, than mankind has a role – to tread the path set before him – and a purpose – to reach an ultimate goal. However, there are also instances of commonality between India’s sacred reality and the sacred realities of Europe and the Near East.
One example of this is the presence of free will. In India, one’s karma contributes to their destiny, but the Divine (if it is present at all) does not determine one’s karma; our actions alone determine that. Karma is indeed evidence of mankind’s free will, just as Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden is evidence of mankind’s free will in the Christian sacred reality. Even in Europe we see evidence of free will; we see this especially in Plato’s vision which tells us that man can be tempted by ‘sensual desires’. This echoes the parts of the Indian vision that tells us we are weighed down by our actions, and must choose wisely to attain our true nature. The idea that mankind is able to make bad decisions, decisions that would go against what the Divine would consider good behavior, speaks to man’s freedom.
Another common thread found between the sacred realities of these different regions is the idea of salvation. Though many might argue that salvation doesn’t exist in the Indian mythologies, I would say that it does. Salvation is not achieved in the same manner as we find in Christian mythology certainly, where man is saved by God’s design; however through karma and the transmigration of the soul to whatever the ultimate goal is in the various faiths, mankind attains salvation eventually, even though it may take several lifetimes. The Gnostic reality is similar to this, in which mankind is ‘saved’ by coming to understand the true nature of reality. In Europe, salvation is achieved in Plato’s vision by attaining harmony through seeing knowledge and wisdom, and even in the Stoic’s vision by simply following the only reasonable path. Salvation provides mankind a purpose in all regions, though the path to it and explanation of it might differ.
One can even find commonalities in the concept of the soul, though these tend to be less cohesive even within a region. Jainist teachings, for instance speak of the soul consisting of “consciousness and knowing”. This idea is not dissimilar from Plato’s assertion that the core of the soul is knowledge. A human’s soul is complex in Jainist belief, comprised of many parts, which is also similar to Platonic teachings. Hindu and Buddhist belief also conceptualizes the soul, though each does so differently. The Buddhist assertion is that the soul is impermanent from cycle to cycle, while Hindu teachings maintain the soul as an individual through every lifetime. The presence of a soul in whatever form however, a soul that is complex and multifaceted in ways not unlike the Divine Beings found in most of the mythologies, lifts man above the rest of creation.
These teachings serve to illuminate the ‘differentness’ of man, separating mankind from the rest of creation. Mankind is special because he has a complex soul, an ultimate goal, and free will. These concepts exist not only in the spiritual reality of India, but also in the regions of the Near East and Europe. The approaches are often different, as we have seen in Europe through Plato and the Stoics, but the idea is very much the same. Mankind’s presence in creation is not a mistake. Mankind’s purpose is not simply to exist. Mankind has a goal, and in general has the freedom to approach that goal along any path he chooses. This is true not just within the region of India, but across the world in the European and Near Eastern regions as well.