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A Hindu Perspective on Freedom

Seeta Lakhani's picture

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Religions have traditionally claimed an authority over their adherents in terms of the standards of conduct they demand, lifestyle to be led and religious doctrines that are to be accepted. It is claimed that this authority comes from God or a higher spiritual source and is passed down to humanity through some form of revelation. In previous ages, religion was often associated with secular authorities and so was able to enforce its rules and beliefs on the population, but today the acceptance of religious authority is usually of a voluntary nature. This means that individuals are free to follow, or ignore, the doctrines of their religion, though they may be excluded from the religious society if they deviate too far from its norm in terms of belief or practice. Different religions allow different levels of individual freedom and the basis for the authority they claim can also vary. For example, the authority can lie in the religious institution and its leaders, in teachers or gurus who are believed to be spiritually advanced, in the words of revealed scripture, in family and community or occasionally in the personal realisation of individual believers. In this last case personal freedom will be emphasised but it is rather unusual for religions to go too far down this path.


The place of personal choice and inspiration


If we look at each of these potential sources of authority in relation to Hinduism then we can make the following observations. Hinduism as a whole has no institutional structure and there is no hierarchy or group of leaders that all Hindus are expected to follow. Rather there are a large number of smaller sects and hierarchies within the wider Hindu tradition and individuals who are adherents of these sects will regard the leaders as authority figures. However, the majority of Hindus do not belong to any of these institutions and so are not bound by institutional authority. Furthermore, there are many teachers of Hinduism who are recognised as being spiritually awakened and advanced and these gurus attract groups of followers around them. Again, however, it is only a minority of Hindus who attach themselves to a specific teacher in this way and come to accept him or her as their guiding authority. And in any case to do so is very much a matter of personal choice and inspiration.


The role of the community


For Hindus the main point of authority has traditionally been the extended family and the caste group or community one belongs to. Families and communities have their traditional values, lifestyles and rituals which they adhere to and it is expected that individuals within a community will conform to these. The issues emphasised by communities are more about lifestyle than personal beliefs and if a person chooses to deviate from the values of his or her community then there is a danger of being ostracised. In previous centuries this was a very serious threat as individuals were economically dependent upon their family and community, but in the modern era that constraint is less pressing and acceptance of community authority has become more of a voluntary matter. For most Hindus, however, respect for parents and family elders remains a very important principle and these still represent the main source of authority in matters of religion, ethics, diet and conduct.


The role of scriptures


Hinduism has an enormous range of religious texts that can be described as scriptures and, as there is no official body to make decisions on their status, it is often down to individuals to decide which scripture they choose to accept. Because of this diversity in terms of the texts themselves and the different teachings they present, Hinduism does not usually ascribe an absolute authority to the words of scripture. The great theologians and teachers of Hindu doctrine (acharyas such as Shankara, Madhva, Ramanuja and Vallabha) all insist that the highest religious truths are to be derived from the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutra but each acharya offers a different interpretation of the texts and anyway Hindus who mainly worship Shiva or the Goddess will not share that view.


More servant than master


As a result of this complex situation, scripture tends to play a rather different role in Hinduism from that in other religions. Most Hindus do not devote themselves to the study of scripture and do not feel obliged to accept statements from scripture as absolute truth. The texts can be reinterpreted or even ignored. In Hinduism, scripture is less of an authority that must be obeyed and more of a servant that can provide inspiration and assistance in one's personal spiritual quest. We can read a scripture such as the Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharata or Ramayana and if we find that it is spiritually uplifting and enlightening then we may turn to it again for assistance. But if we find that its message does not resonate with the type of spirituality we are drawn to then we can put that scripture aside and look elsewhere. There is certainly no obligation for a Hindu to accept every chapter and verse of every scripture and for this reason it has been relatively easy for Hindus to adapt to the modern world. We have ancient teachings on marriage, gender, inheritance, etc but because of the flexible attitude towards scripture it is relatively easy for our communities to adapt their practices in line with modern requirements and where necessary to reform our traditional practices.


The truth is within


The Kena Upanishad makes a very important point when it insists that the absolute spiritual truth is to be found within the heart of every one of us. The absolute reality is beyond words and even thoughts and hence it cannot be wholly revealed through scripture; it can, however, be directly realised by one who is advanced on the spiritual path. For this reason Hindus place a lot of importance on personal realisation and in terms of doctrine and belief each individual is free to follow his or her own path, although this is much less the case in terms of conduct and lifestyle where family and community still act as a significant authority.


Each one of us is on our own spiritual path and we will reach our own goals as individuals. We will be assisted in our progress by the resources provided by the Hindu tradition – scriptures, teachers, sacred dances, temples, priests, etc – but ultimately we must take responsibility for our own spiritual advancement. This understanding means that Hindus are allowed a great deal of personal freedom in terms of their own spirituality and a wide range of different beliefs and spiritual practices is accepted and endorsed within our tradition. It has also meant that Hindus tend to be tolerant of other belief systems (provided this tolerance is reciprocated) and will rarely hold the


view that ours is only the path and the only truth. According to the Veda, ekam sad-vipra bahudha vadanti, 'learned teachers speak of the one truth in many different ways', and it is up to individuals to find the interpretation of the truth that most inspires them. Ultimately, the goal is the same but the roads to it are many and each of us must choose our own path.


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