What is Faith? Faith in Hinduism


by Jayaram V

Summary: In Hinduism faith has a wider meaning. Faith in the creator God is not central to many schools of Hinduism. However, faith in the Self and its eternal existence is important. In this essay we present the meaning and importance of faith in Hinduism, and how faith manifests in a person according to the gunas and predominant nature.

Faith is what you believe in with conviction. Trust, confidence, belief, assumptions, expectations and inferences are aspects of faith only. The word faith is derived from the Latin “fides,” which means faith. In medieval Europe, faith became synonymous with religion or religious faith. Reason may sustain faith, but going by the definition, true faith depends upon neither proof nor reason but belief in something to be true. True faith is self-existing. It is sustained by itself either by intuition or belief, but rarely by an external proof.

In the Western world, faith has long been traditionally identified with religion. However, faith does not necessarily mean religion only. Religious faith is just one aspect of it. You can have faith in any number of things, which may be religious or secular, or internal or external. Having faith in yourself is more important than having faith in any religion. For your peace of mind and healthy self-esteem, you should have faith in your abilities, actions, methods, relationships and way of life.

Faith according to Hinduism

Faith has a great significance in Hindu devotional theism. In Sanskrit faith is known as sraddha or viswas. The theistic schools of Hinduism are faith based, in which devotion and faith (bhakti and shraddah) are central to spiritual practice. Faith in God, faith in the scriptures, faith in the teacher, faith in the path, faith in dharma, faith in the possibilities of liberation, faith in the inviolable laws of God, these are a few explicit forms of faith, which are emphasized in the scriptures of Hinduism as the highest virtues. Since God is invisible and unknowable to the senses, and since he cannot be verified by rational means, tradition suggests that the Vedas should be used to sustain faith, holding them as the reliable sources of verbal testimony to establish metaphysical truths about him and his eternal laws. Since they cannot rationally or empirically be established we have to rely upon faith and the knowledge of the scriptures to practice dharma and strive for liberation. While reason belongs to the mind, faith belongs to the heart. Hence, intuition is regarded as a corollary of faith. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.29.1) declares that the resting ground of faith is the heart.

In Hinduism, faith (shraddah) is used in a very broad sense. It not only means belief but also interest, dedication and application. They are interrelated. For example, you cannot be interested in any goal unless you believe in its possibility. You cannot dedicate yourself to a cause or to a path, unless you know in your heart, or believe, that it is good for you or lead you in the right direction. None of it would be possible, unless you have faith in yourself.

You should have faith (shraddah) not only to practice your religion or achieve liberation but also to gain mastery in any endeavor. A student should study with faith, a teacher should teach with faith, and a devotee should worship God with faith. If you are faithful to the gods and nourish them with faith, they will serve you with faith and strengthen your faith in them. In all these, faith is propelled by both conviction and dedication.

Faith according to Hinduism is the sum of your worldview, your values and convictions. It encompasses the whole spectrum of your thought since much of what you know is what you believe to be worth remembering and paying attention to. From faith arises trust, devotion, loyalty, commitment, dedication and assurance. Faith may arise from simple observation, facts, inference, intuition, assurance, experience, commonsense or a simple belief. Faith is difficult to sustain because the world is an appearance, and we are subject to delusion and ignorance.

The Bhagavadgita affirms that those who worship God with faith, who contemplate upon him and establish their minds in him are dearer to him, and they will be speedily rescued from the cycle of births and deaths. People who have faith in God and believe in his greatness are not deluded by his forms or appearances. They readily recognize him even when he manifests in mortal form, but the ignorant ones who lack faith cannot perceive him. They mistake him for an ordinary being and ignore his teachings. It is faith which sustains your devotion, and by devotion only you achieve union or oneness with God. Faith, thus, is at the heart of Hindu devotional practices.

Three types of faith

According to Hinduism, Nature (Prakriti) is made up of 23 realities (tattvas) or so, and three gunas or modes. The gunas are responsible for modalities or patterns of behavior and attitude in beings. They influence our thinking and actions. A person’s essential nature is determined by them. The gunas are three, sattva, rajas and tamas. In humans as well as in all other living beings, they are found in various permutations and combinations. The gunas compete with each other to dominate. A person’s natural propensity depends upon which gunas are predominant. For example, sattva makes a person gentle and pleasant, rajas makes him ambitious and competitive, while tamas makes him harsh or cruel.

Just as they influence your behavior, they also influence your faith. This is explained in the 17th Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, which states that in three ways the faith of embodied souls manifest, according to their own nature namely sattva, rajas and tamas. A person is made up of faith only. As is the person so is his faith and his living and eating habits. Sattvic people worship gods, rajasic people worship yakshas and rakshasa and tamasic people worship ghosts and elemental spirits. Those who are filled with vanity and egoism and driven by lust and passions perform severe penances, which are not sanctioned by scriptures. They indiscriminately torture their bodies with demonic resolve, ignoring that the Self resides in them. Their approach to worship also vary as stated below.

  • A sattvic person believes in God and in Dharma, his eternal law. He strives to achieve liberation and experience the supreme bliss of self-realization, having realized the true nature of his mortal existence and the need to become free from it. He offers all his actions to God without expectations. Thus, his faith is selfless and free from expectations.
  • A rajasic person looks to God to fulfill his desires or achieve worldly ends. He remembers God when he needs something and makes offerings to him to fulfill his desires. He uses the name of God to show off his wealth, power or status. His faith is selfish and conditional.
  • A tamasic person looks to God with envy and contempt. When he worships, he tries to control him or manipulate him. During worship or while performing a sacrifice he makes no offerings at all to God, or makes them with disrespect or in disregard to established norms and rules. He may also not pay the dues to the priests who perform sacrifices for him. Therefore, his faith is foolish, vain and delusional.

Sattvic people are rare to find in the world which is dominated by people who are predominantly rajasic or tamasic. Hence, we have so many problems with our faiths (religions), which divide us and draw us into conflicts. They are either used by people for selfish ends to gain power or wealth or for perverted ends to hurt and harm others or to control or manipulate them. The influence of rajas and tamas is why we have religious extremism and fanaticism in today’s world.

The faith of Is and Is not

In Hinduism, religious faith is not stratified into two rigid categories of whether you believe in the existence of God or not. You have a whole range of belief systems, each supported by a particular school of Hinduism, which make it fundamentally different from the religions of the West. They are listed below.

  • God is (Astika)
  • God is not (Nastika).
  • God is not, but souls are
  • God and souls are the same.
  • God and souls are different.
  • God and Nature are the same.
  • God and Nature are different.
  • Nature is, Souls are, but God is not

The advantage of faith

Your faith defines you and distinguishes you. It speaks a lot about you, your personality, thinking and attitude. As part of your belief system, it shapes your life. It helps you overcome your fears and transcend your limitations. In moments of crisis, faith is your support. When you have faith, you persevere and continue with your effort, even if the circumstances are against you.

It is not an exaggeration that faith moves mountains. In fact, one person in India, a villager, named Dashrath Manjh, dug a whole mountain with a hammer for 22 years to create a path for his village through the hills to a nearby town. Faith helped people to survive the worst of calamities and adversities. Faith helped nations to sustain through the worst phases of two World Wars. Faith also connects you to God and helps you establish a deeper communication with him. Without faith it is difficult to navigate through the problems and uncertainties of life. Faith heals the mind and the body.

Although we are rational people, in many matters concerning our lives we rely upon faith or our beliefs rather than reason. Since we cannot discern everything and cannot always ascertain truth, we have no option but to rely upon faith to make sense of the world. Whether we know it or not, many of our conclusions and opinions about people, relationships, events, situations, and the world in general are derived from our faith or beliefs rather than facts. Since they are shaped by faith, many times it becomes difficult to resolve our problems or settle our differences with the help of reason. Faith also played a significant role in shaping our civilization. On the positive side, it led to many inventions and discoveries, but on the negative side it led to many wars and large scale destruction.

The crisis of faith

At some point or other, we all experience crises of faith. We may experience doubts about ourselves or others. We may doubt our methods, relationships, the integrity of people, the paths we have chosen or the world in which live. When something which we expected to happen did not happen, we may lose faith in God also or in the scriptures. Many disciples lose faith in their spiritual masters, and some end up as their bitter critics. When spiritual teachers of great repute are caught in public scandals, it breaks the hearts of many. Faith sustains hope and keeps people going against odds. When it is shaken, people feel devastated and betrayed. Their reaction may range from mild to extreme, depending upon how important it is to them. Some people may even commit suicide or fall into severe depression from which they may not easily recover.

The world also often suffers from crises of faith. When people lose faith in their leaders or their governments or their political system it leads to social upheavals, mass protests, civil commotion, internal wars, and violent revolutions. When they lose faith in their religions or spiritual beliefs, it impacts their lifestyle choices, values and morals, marital relationships, social and religious issues and political affiliations. When people lose faith, they lose hope. When they lose hope, they become irrational and emotional, which in turn lead to other consequences. Whatever faith builds and sustains in you becomes destroyed when your faith is lost. It is like a part of you is destroyed forever.

Perversion of faith

Faith itself is illogical or irrational because we cannot substantiate our beliefs with either proof or logic. Some aspects of faith can never be proved right or wrong, but some can be established with the help of reason or fact.

1. Irrational beliefs

People hold many irrational beliefs, which can be proven false or which can be disputed beyond doubt with the help of reason or facts. For example, if you believe that you are unappreciated, someone dislikes you or you do not deserve a good life because of your past actions, you can subject them to reality check to know whether they are true or irrational. By disputing the irrational beliefs which you hold against yourself, you can often find great psychological relief.

2. Learned beliefs

Secondly, our religious beliefs are drawn mostly from the scriptures, which we follow. We may also learn them from our parents, elders, authority figures or social influences and blindly accept them without questioning their justification. When they become part of your belief system, they may directly or indirectly affect your thinking and behavior.

3. Deluded beliefs

Thirdly, since there are no well-defined boundaries or principles to know what one can or cannot believe, people may often fall into the trap of self-destructive and perverted beliefs due to the influence of others or circumstances. When such beliefs have no basis in reality or have no correlation with acceptable behavior or established norms, it may lead to delusion, prejudice, superstition, obscurantism and many such negative consequences. Such problems of faith should be resolved by grounding yourself in reality and subjecting your beliefs to careful scrutiny.

4. Assumptions

Lastly, a part of your behavior stems from false assumptions and expectations, which are but aspect of your faith. If you understand them and identify them, you can improve yourself or change whatever that is necessary to be a better person. Many times your decisions are based upon assumptions. Even when you examine all the facts and do the necessary fact checking, still they can be underlying beliefs and assumptions hidden in your decisions and plans. Therefore, it is always good to check and recheck your decisions to minimize risks and unforeseen problems.

Putting your faith in order

Your faith is the sum of your beliefs. They carry so much importance in your life because they are the decisions, or the conclusions, which you draw from your life's experience. If you think you or someone else is good or bad, friendly or unfriendly, it is a kind of belief only. Your opinions about yourself and others are mostly beliefs based upon your thinking, learning and values. Therefore, it is necessary to examine your beliefs and make sure that they help you rather than hurt you. As you understand your beliefs, you learn to think with greater clarity and purpose. In this regard the following suggestions are worth remembering.

  1. Examine how faith influences your thinking, behavior and worldviews.
  2. Identify your major beliefs which form part of your worldview and religious faith.
  3. Find out why you prefer certain things and situations in your life and avoid others.
  4. Wherever possible, dispute your irrational beliefs which prevent you from being yourself or manifesting your full potential.
  5. Examine whether you have any beliefs which are responsible for self-sabotaging behavior.
  6. Know what beliefs motivate you and keep you focused and what beliefs hold you back.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

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