I prefer calling Hinduism a philosophy rather than a religion. I’d do that for other religions too, because all religions accept their tenets on faith and faith is what forms the basis of a philosophy which is just a way of life. As a philosophy, Hinduism lays a lot of emphasis on cycles, on elements that are continually in motion rather than being still. You don’t live but once, nor is death the end. The soul is the eternal traveler and its journey continues. The Satya yuga gives way to the Treta yuga to be followed by the Dvapara yuga which culminates into the Kali yuga and a reset button is hit which restarts this cycle of 8 billion years all over again. The Devas, heady from their power and affluence, lose their wealth (Lakshmi) to the Asuras who take Lakshmi to Patal loka (under the ground) only to have it taken away from Vishnu who gives it back to the Devas in an ever continuing battle.
People often tend to get confused by this cyclical nature of things. Why is there a need for destruction and if everything is meant to be destroyed then why create them again? The battle between the Devas and Asuras, for example, depicts the cycle of seasons and harvest. We must do an act of destruction create civilization and we must pull out the wealth that lies beneath the ground to feed ourselves. In turn we must let this wealth regenerate from time to time. Something that I love saying when I’m talking about this philosophy is that “It’s all symbolic” and now that I deal with statistical models on a regular basis, I’d address it by likening it to a model.
According to our scriptures, the transition of the yugas marks deterioration in ethics and moral values. In each transition the dynamics of the society change to suit the needs of the time. Manu established a society that was built on selflessness- where every person was out to perform a function for the society, where one’s own needs were subservient to the needs of the society. The king had to ensure the protection of his subjects, the priests ensured the enhancement of knowledge, the vaishyas ensured trade and prosperity and the shudras formed the labor class. The code of honor had to be strictly adhered to and had to be valued above one’s own life. This ensured the development of civilization and its prosperity. Liken this to a communist country like China where everyone is out to perform his defined role for the society’s greater good and see how much they have prospered. But then there comes a time when a man needs to break away from these rules that bind him and do things for self fulfillment and not because others benefit from it. For rules create monotony and a man can only be subject to them for so long. This longing for self actualization gradually creates an unrest signaling that a change is needed.
In Hinduism, Vishnu is a synonym for change and dynamism. He came as Ram to expose the flaws in that come from strict adherence to the rules of society. Where a Sita had to go through an agni-pariksha for a crime she did not commit, now a Draupadi could ask for revenge for the humiliation she was met with. Vishnu came as Krishna to show us that the essence of the law was greater than the law itself. The framework of rules is very much like the models we build to describe the outcomes of events. And as time keeps passing, we need to do a reality check to see if the models describe the situation as accurately as they used to. Each time we notice discrepancies we interfere, very much like Vishnu, to make adjustments and to set the equation right. But with considerable passage of time, these models outlive their usefulness and must be discarded to be replaced with something entirely fresh. But what does this imply? As the need for one’s own enrichment keeps growing, people start deviating from the outward, society-serving model. The body of society transitions from a rule enforcing tyrant to self serving hedonist. But if everyone starts to look out for themselves then who looks after the society? There was never a perfect society like there is never a perfect model. The dynamics can be adjusted from time to time but eventually the system has to be destroyed and Vishnu has to give way to Shiva – the destroyer of man’s ego.
But then how do we validate existence if perfection can never be achieved? What is the purpose of self enrichment and freedom if it leads to inevitable doom? I quote from the Matrix Reloaded, where Agent Smith puts it elegantly -“We’re not here because we’re free; we’re here because we’re not free. There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose, because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.” [Note: The creators of Matrix got most of it very right]
There is something that the Hindu philosophy lays greater emphasis on than the cycles and that is the soul. The soul is not human, the soul is not animal, but the soul has a purpose. The soul can be reborn as Indra, the king of Devas or Hiranyakashyap the Asura, for they too are not free from these cycles and must be reborn in every cycle and in all the parallel universes which exist. The purpose of the soul is to realize that what we live in is Maya, that we are a part of the game in which we must play our part, that we must follow the path of dharma- the essence of law and the not the law itself. We must not care about the fruits of our action- for in saving a deer from a lion we might have got the blessings (good karma) of the deer which we saved but we will also get the curses (bad karma) of the lion to who we denied its natural food, the sum of which we will carry to our next lives. We must play our part with detachment and with the understanding of the impermanence of everything around us. For the purpose of the soul is to break free from these cycles. And it can take as many births as it needs to learn its lesson and ascend to Vaikuntham.
[Note: What Hinduism takes on faith is the permanence of the soul. And it’s around this concept that it explains the notion of karma and why people suffer. Could be a clever ruse to keep human dissatisfaction in check, but who knows? That’s faith right? ]