Best Approaches to Practice Hindu Dharma

Goddess Dharma

by Jayaram V

Question: Question: Hinduism is not an organized religion. It has no central authority or institution. Its survival and continuity depends upon its followers. In these circumstances, what can role Hindus can play individually and collectively to ensure its continuity and survival as a major world religion?

Among the several occupations the most commendable are, teaching the Veda for a Brahmana, protecting (the people) for a Kshatriya, and trade for a Vaisya. Manusmriti

The best way to preserve and uphold Hinduism is to practice it according to its best ideals, which means you must have the right knowledge and right approach. Jayaram V

In Hinduism, protecting your Dharma is considered your duty and responsibility. Manu says, “Dharmo rakshita rakshatah,” which means if you protect Dharma, Dharma shall protect you. In the past the duty to defend and uphold God’s Dharma rested upon everyone. Both gods and humans were entrusted with the responsibility. Even animals and demons play their dutiful roles in God's creation.

The four approaches to uphold Dharma

The law books (Dharmashastras) of Hinduism prescribe a detailed code of conduct for all classes of people and certain duties to serve and protect the Hindu Dharma in their own specific ways according to their essential nature. They are especially meant for people who are engaged in householder duties to serve and defend their Dharma or faith as part of their daily lives and caste based occupations. They fall into four distinct approaches, which are stated below. Each approach is induced by one or more predominant Gunas namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. They are described below. These approaches are still valid and can still be undertaken by Hindus according to their nature and inclination rather than caste.

The intellectual approach

This is the Sattvic approach, in which you defend and uphold the faith through intellectual, philosophical and spiritual means. It was practiced in ancient times by the Brahmanas and philosopher kings. They did it by studying the scriptures, acquiring knowledge, performing obligatory duties and sacrifices for themselves and others, living virtuous lives, setting a personal example through their character and conduct, spreading the knowledge, interpreting the scriptures, debating the finer aspects of the faith with others and intellectually defending it from critics, atheists and rival traditions. As the guardians of Hindu Dharma, Manu put a heavy responsibility upon the Brahmanas to lead by example. If you are an intellectual or a spiritual person, you can follow this approach to defend Hinduism, with the help of Jnana, Karma, Sanyasa Yoga. You can selflessly spread the knowledge of the Hindu Dharma, promoting its values and defending it from external attacks with reason, knowledge and intelligence.

The warriors’ approach

This is a rajasic approach, in which one can defend Hinduism from the injustice and aggression of others with leadership and organizational skills, courage and moral conviction. In the past, it was the duty and responsibility of the kings and the nobility to enforce the Hindu Dharma and protect it from its enemies. They did it by studying the scriptures, enforcing laws, dispensing justice, protecting people, rewarding priests and philosophers, hosting sacrifices, making charitable gifts, punishing the wicked and the evil, lending money to the needy, building temples, water tanks, roads, and so on. Manu says that a king is made of the aspects of gods. Therefore, he commands the utmost respect and should be obeyed. However, he should be virtuous, noble, fair and just in punishing as well as rewarding his subjects. As the upholder of the Hindu Dharma, he should live virtuously, conquering his senses, shunning the vices, and practising self-restraint. Presently, we do not have the institution of kings. However, if you have a warrior tendency or if you are a natural leader, you can take inspiration from this approach and defend Hinduism from its opponents, atheists and critics, without resorting to aggression and violence.

The materialistic approach

This approach is meant for Hindus who are wealthy, who have power, status and influence in society to promote or defend Hinduism. In the past, the law books entrusted such responsibilities to Vaishyas, the merchant class, who practiced trade and commerce, business and agriculture, and had the material means to participate in religious activities and support others with their philanthropy. They were supposed to uphold the Hindu Dharma by studying the Vedas, rearing and protecting cattle and other domestic animals, lending money, bestowing gifts, hosting sacrifices and cultivating land to produce food for the sacrifices as well as for consumption. Like the other castes, they are also expected to practice virtue and lead exemplary lives. If you are engaged in commercial or business activities or if you have surplus wealth, you can use this approach to uphold Hinduism by helping others with charitable activities and by lending moral and material support to righteous causes.

The commoners’ approach

A vast number of Hindus do not have time to think about their religion or their salvation, as they have to focus upon their survival and basic needs to take care of themselves and their families. Therefore, we cannot expect much from them for the Dharma, except from a few committed Hindus who are drawn to God due to past life karma. However, lack of knowledge, power, wealth or status does not preclude people from their religious obligations. They can still practice virtue, learn from others by observation, listen to discourses and engage in good works. They too can participate in the sacred duty of serving the Hindu Dharma through selfless service. They can serve in temples and religious places by performing menial tasks, work as volunteers to help spiritual teachers and religious institutions, and lend moral or physical support to religious causes by their presence. If you are able to read this, probably this approach is not suitable for you. However, if you have limited means, you can combine this with other approaches to serve Hinduism.

Renunciant approaches

The approaches that we have discussed so far are meant for Hindu householders. In Hinduism, we have yet another approach which encompasses all sections of Hindu society and goes beyond caste distinctions. It is the spiritual or devotional approach, meant for renunciants (Sanyasis) and spiritual people (sadhus). Although they withdraw from the world and practice spirituality, renunciant Hindus still have an obligation to honor Hindu Dharma on the path of renunciation by following a strict code of conduct and exemplifying virtuous behavior.

To attain liberation, they have to engage in devotional service to God as a sacrificial offering, restraining their minds and bodies and cleansing them as part of their self-transformation. In other words, upholding Hindu Dharma is the means rather than an end in itself. Since the paths to God are many, in Hinduism the paths to liberation are also many, and thereby the ways to uphold Dharma by the renunciants. For example, the Saiva Siddhanta School of Shaivism prescribes the following four approaches for people on the path of liberation to serve God and earn his grace.

  1. The path of service (charya), which is inferior and consists of serving God as a servant (dasa), doing physical tasks such as cleansing the floors of a temple, cooking sacrificial food, collecting flowers, etc.
  2. The path of worship (kriya), which consists of serving God as a son to his father, with devotional services such as worship, singing songs, reciting mantras and attending upon the deity with love and devotion.
  3. The path of austerities (yoga), which consists of serving God as a companion, with spiritual practices such as rules and restraints, meditation, contemplation, self-purification and austerities.
  4. The path of knowledge (jnana), which is considered the highest and which consists of serving God as a soul, by contemplating upon him as pure consciousness and merging into that.

The importance of intention

Protecting the Hindu Dharma by itself is neither sinful nor meritorious. As the Bhagavadgita declares, actions by themselves are neither pure nor impure. That distinction is created by intentions. Actions which are performed with impure intentions are sinful and vice versa. From the perspective of karma and dharma the intention in any action is more important than the action itself. Therefore, in upholding Hindu Dharma, you should be careful about your motives or intentions and why you want to do it.

Equally important is which aspects of Hindu Dharma you intend to serve. The word Dharma has wide connotations and does not necessarily mean religion only. It may mean your personal duties or duties arising from your affiliation to caste, nationality or ideology. It may also mean moral code or belief system. Hence, from the perspective of atheists and materialists, even atheism and materialism are dharmas only. For the evil people, adharma is dharma and vice versa. Your idea of Dharma is also limited by your knowledge and understanding. Since Hinduism is a complex religion without centralized control or uniform doctrine, Dharma may mean different things to different people.

Therefore, it is important to pay attention not only to your intentions but also to which Hindu Dharma or which aspects of Hindu Dharma you intend to serve or preserve. You should have clarity about your idea of Dharma, your motives and your methods. Your decision and intention to engage in religious duties or uphold Hindu Dharma are influenced by the modes and aspects of your personality. The important factors which color your intentions are listed below. Some of them cloud your judgment and lead to spiritual downfall, while some lead to knowledge, wisdom and liberation.

1. Egoism

The ego creates feelings of separation and distinction. It is also responsible for your numerous identities, including your caste, national and religious identities. Under its influence, people feel proud of their religions, whether they sincerely practice their faiths or not, and engage in actions and attitudes to perpetuate their identities and distinction, which often lead to disunity, conflicts and disorder.

2. Attachment

Many people practice their faiths because they are born into them and overtime become emotionally attached to them. If they had born into another religion, they would have done the same. The attachment not only prevents them from thinking clearly and objectively about their faiths but also makes them prejudiced towards others. Attachment in any form leads to bondage and suffering. Hence, this approach should be avoided.

3. Selfishness

Selfishness makes people misuse their religions for selfish ends to enhance their status or further their interests and hidden agendas. For them religion becomes an opportunity to increase their importance and influence or their wealth. Outwardly they may appear to be working for religious or spiritual causes and upholding Dharma, but inwardly they may be doing it entirely to profit from them. In Hinduism, selfishness is evil. Hence, it is unacceptable in the service of Dharma.

4. Love

Love and devotion to God can translate itself into love for religion and his eternal law. Such people may feel genuinely compelled to serve God by leading exemplary lives and upholding Dharma as a token of their devotion to him and as part of their spiritual practice to realize him. As they see God everywhere and in everyone, they spread God’s words wherever they go and help and heal others with their love and compassion. This is truly a sattvic approach and good karma.

5. Duty

Dharma primarily means duty only. We are supposed to perform God’s duties upon earth to ensure the orderly progression of the world. Therefore, the best way to uphold Hindu Dharma is to do your part and meet your divine obligations. To avoid sinful karma, however, it has to be done with detachment and renunciation, as part of the Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga, without desires, egoism and expectations, and as an offering or service to God. The intention to perform obligatory duties is also a sattvic approach and a pious work.

6. Service

You can uphold Hindu Dharma as part of your devotional service. As a true servant of God, you can protect and uphold it by studying its scriptures, spreading its teachings, practising charity, lending material or moral support to others who are engaged in similar activities, doing voluntary service in temples and religious institutions, showing respect to religious leaders and spiritual masters, exemplifying its morals and values through your own conduct, and defending it from unjust and unfair attacks. Like the previous two, this is also a sattvic approach

7. Divine Will

All the reasons which we have discussed so far are either personal, spiritual or egoistic. In them, God does not play a direct role. He remains in the background as the passive witness. However, when the situation warrants, he may directly inspire some chosen ones (karana janmas) to engage in the task of restoring Dharma and the order and regularity of society. The inspiration may come in various forms as dreams, revelations, inner voice, spiritual advice or intuition. The scriptures affirm that it happened several times in the past and may happen in future also.

Of the seven reasons, which we have discussed, the first three are unjustified and sinful because they arise from delusion and ignorance, and the last four are meritorious. It is important to remember that in doing any work, your intention must be pure and free from impurities, which are in turn induced by the gunas. Hence, whatever method you may chose, you must always aim to cultivate Sattva and suppress Rajas and Tamas.

The importance of virtue and character

Virtue and Dharma are inseparable. Your effort to uphold Hindu Dharma must be part of your spiritual practice to cleanse yourself through sacrificial actions. On the path of righteousness, if you want to uphold Hinduism, you must be righteous. For example, you cannot truly serve Hinduism, if you are subject to the five chief evils of lust, anger, greed, pride, envy, or if you engage in the five cardinal sins namely violence, falsehood, taking what does not belong to you, immoral sexual behavior, taking false credit or making false claims about yourself, others or your faith. To be free from error, you must clearly discern truth from falsehood and avoid the company of the wicked and the irreverent who despise and disrespect Hinduism and its tenets.

Character and purity are important to uphold Hindu Dharma or to engage in religious or spiritual activity. As the true servant of God and defender of the Dharma, a devotee must lead a disciplined life and cultivate virtues such as purity (sattva), cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), austerity (tapah), study of the scriptures (svadhyaya) and devotion to God (Isvara paridhana). Equally important is to perform actions with detachment and renunciation, without any expectations, as a service to God, setting aside any hidden agendas and personal motives. One should also cultivate discerning wisdom to be free from delusion, self-importance, selfishness, egoism, attachments and ignorance.

Hinduism is best served if people avoid being aggressive, violent or unkind in their attempt to defend it or protect it from its unjust critics and rival faiths. The best way to defend it and preserve it for future generations is by adhering to its highest values, using sattvic means, which lead to peace, harmony, order and regularity rather than discord and violence.

You may engage in that noble task, as part of your spiritual transformation and self-purification, teaching the faith, spreading its knowledge, practising its ritual and spiritual methods, healing and helping others, and defending it from external threats through peaceful means. Whatever methods you may use, it is important to ensure that they do not lead to sinful karma, delusion and bondage. Most importantly, your intentions must be pure.

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