by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

When the Aryans came into northern India, probably about 2000 B.C., they came over the northwestern passes through which most of the conquerors of India have traveled. They moved slowly, for they were herdsmen and farmers and, as they traveled, they must feed their families and their cattle and therefore stayed for years in one place before moving on to another. They settled first in the Punjab, the Land of the Five Rivers: those which flow into the great river Indus. Still more slowly they moved across the northern plains and into the valley of the other great river, the Ganges, that flows into the Bay of Bengal. They settled in villages and plains. Villages grew into flourishing towns and some became handsome cities.

The Aryans brought their gods with them:Surya, the God of the Sun, whose hair was flame, who drove forth in his chariot yoked to seven horses; Vayu, God of the Wind and Air, the very breath of man; Yama, who ruled the realm of the dead; Indra, Lord of heaven, the giver of rain, a warrior god who rode a celestial elephant and brought victory to those whom he favored; Agni, God of Fire, the much-loved guest and friend of men, who dwelt on the hearth and who carried to all the gods, with his flames, the sacrifices offered to them.

These are only a few of many deities, for the Indians have a splendid imagination. As the Aryans came into India, they encountered other races, most of them less-advanced than they were; as they penetrated southward, they met stronger tribes who fought against them. The invaders won, but they also adopted many of the beliefs and the deities of those whom they conquered.

Soon earth and sky, forests, rivers, and mountains, were filled with these airy creations. Many of them were kind and helpful to men; these were the gods and goddesses,"the shining ones" ; but there were also demons, mischievous and murderous, who fought even against the gods and sometimes defeated them. Higher deities, too, appeared to prove that men were thinking beyond sun, and wind, and rain. These were great figures: Brahma, who created the universe; Vishnu, who preserves and guards it; and Shiva, who destroys. The last two were, and still are, the most important. Vishnu has saved the world from disasters that threatened it, and when mankind is in need, he is born as a man and by his teaching and example shows people the way out of trouble.

One of the earliest stories about him tells of a time when a powerful demon had defeated all the gods and had taken possession of the three worlds: the underworld, the earth, and the heavens above. Since the gods were powerless, Vishnu decided to outwit the tyrant. He was born as a dwarf to two saintly hermits who lived in the forest. He grew up there, waiting for his chance to save the universe. At last he heard that the demon was about to perform a great sacrifice, and that, as part of the ceremony, he must give generous alms to anyone who asked of him. The dwarf made himself look still meaner by dressing as a beggar, and appeared before the throne.

"O lord of the three worlds," he said, "will you give a poor beggar as much land as he can cover with three steps?" The demon laughed as he looked at the little creature. "As much as you can cover with three steps," he said, "you may have as your own." Then Vishnu took his own mighty form. He placed one foot upon the lower world, the other on the earth, and with the third stride he reached the heavens. So the world was saved.

Shiva is the destroyer, but he destroys only that everything may come to life again. For the Hindus believe, as modern scientists are also speculating, that the universe is evolved and then again dissolved, in vast cycles of time, like outbreathing and inbreathing.

All beings, creator and worlds alike, return again and again. Those who know that the         day of Brahma lasts for thousands of ages and that his night also lasts a thousand ages--they know the true meaning of day and night. When the day comes, all the visible creation arises from the invisible; and all creation disappears into the invisible when night comes. (1)

Indian mythology is rich and varied; there are countless delightful stories like that of Vishnu, and they are still important in the life of the people. But the Indians have always seen beyond their myths, for they have thought deeply, persistently, and thoroughly about the nature and the purpose of the universe and the mysteries of human life and death. In the very early days they perceived that behind the forces of nature, which had been deified as so many gods, there must be one power; that behind the multifarious appearances of the universe, there must be unity.

Before there was any recorded history, men left their homes and their occupations and went into the forests. The climate allowed them to live there in all seasons; they found enough fruits, berries and edible roots to keep them alive. There, living in small huts thatched with leaves, they could give all their energies to concentrated thought. These are the sages, called rishis, who founded the basic religion of India. The thoughts of these great men form the scriptures, the holy books of Hinduism, which are called the Vedas. There are four of them, and each one is made up of three different parts: hymns to the gods; the rituals of worship; and philosophical discourses, called the Upanishads. The Vedas were composed before there was written language and are believed to be inspired "by the very breath of God." Although there are many different sects in the Hindu religion, the Vedas are the foundation of them all. In addition there are many books containing laws and commentaries on the Vedas, which are also sacred, but not thought of as revealed by God.

One of the Vedic hymns declares: "In the beginning there was neither being nor not-being; there was no sky and no heaven above the sky. What power was there? What contained this teeming universe? Was it a fathomless abyss of waters? There was neither death nor immortality; there was neither day nor night. Only the One was breathing, self-contained, peaceful. Only the One existed; there was nothing else, above or beyond." (2)

"One only, without a second...From this One comes the whole of creation, breathed out, as it were, or as smoke comes from fire."

This One is Brahman, the Sanskrit name for God. It is not a person; It cannot be defined or perceived by any sense, yet. It is everywhere present in Its creation. It is larger than large and smaller than small, "smaller than a mustard-seed, smaller than the kernel of a canary-seed," and it dwells in the heart of every creature. It is the soul of man, the Atman; therefore God is often called the Self, and the human personality, the self. "At whose behest does the mind think? Who bids the body live?" says one of the Upanishads. "Who makes the tongue speak? Who is that radiant being that directs the eye to form and color and the ear to sound? The Self is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the eye of the eye. That which cannot be expressed in words but by which the tongue speaks--know that to be Brahman...That which cannot be understood by the mind but by which the mind understands--know that to be Brahman...That which is not seen by the eye, but by which the eye sees, know that to be Brahman...That which is not drawn by the breath, but by which the breath is drawn--know that to be Brahaman...Blessed is the man who while he yet lives realizes Brahman. The man who does not realize Him suffers his greatest loss. When they leave this life, the wise, who have realized Brahman as the Self in all beings, become immortal.

"It is to be found by undivided love; in It all beings dwell and by It was the universe stretched forth."(3)

Another Upanishad says: "In the heart of all things, of whatever there is in the universe, dwells the Lord. It alone is the reality. Wherefore, renouncing all vain appearances, rejoice in it! The Self is One. It is within all and It is without all. He who sees all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, hates none. To the enlightened soul, the Self is all. For him who sees everywhere Oneness, how can there be delusion or grief?"(4)

This same truth is told over and over, in vivid and beautiful story, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in splendid poetry.

In one of the Upanishads there is this story. When he was twelve years old, a boy was sent by his father to study the Vedas under a teacher. After twelve years he came home; he had learned the holy books by heart and was very proud of himself. His father said, "My son, you think yourself very learned and are very proud. Tell me, have you been taught to hear what cannot be heard, to see what cannot be seen, and to know what cannot be known?"

"What sort of teaching is that, sir?" asked his son.

"My dear, by knowing one clod of clay, you can know everything that is made of clay, for the difference is only in name and form, but the truth is that all are clay," answered his father. "By knowing one pair of scissors, you can know all that is made of iron, for the difference is only in name and form, but the truth is that all are iron. This is the teaching that I mean."

"Surely my venerable teachers did not know these things, or they would have taught them to me," said his son. "Please teach me yourself, sir."

"In the beginning there was One only, without a second," said the father. "It thought, 'May I be many; may I grow forth.' Thus out of Itself came the universe, and It entered into every creature. It is the subtle essence of all things. That is the truth; That is the Self. And you, my son--you are That."

"Please, sir, teach me more about this Self."

"Be it so. Bring me a fruit of that fig tree."

"Here it is, sir."

"Break it."

"It is broken, sir."

"What do you see there?"

"These tiny seeds, sir."

"Break one of them."

"It is broken, sir."

"What do you see there?"

"Nothing at all, sir."

"That subtle essence which you cannot see," said the father, "is the very life of the whole tree. In that subtle essence all things have their being. That is the truth. That is the Self. And you, my son--you are That."(5)

The highest purpose in life is to realize, not just to believe, that the spirit of man is one with God, to know the presence of God within one's own heart. This is bliss immeasurably greater than any other joy. But one must not only be pure in heart to know God; one must be able to quiet not only one's feelings but also one's thoughts in order to concentrate on that one purpose. This is far too difficult for most people even to try, and no one knew this better than those wise men who retired into the forest for that very purpose. Most people do not even want to think about such things; their prayers, then and now, are usually for wealth and happiness. It would take more than one lifetime to know God.

What, then, happens after this life is over? The Aryans, like most early peoples, could not believe that the parents, the grandparents, sometimes the children, whom they loved, were lost forever when they died. They believed that their ancestors lingered with them and watched over them; they, in return, made offerings of food and water to them and assured them that they were not forgotten. Indeed, it was believed that the spirits of their ancestors could not survive without the care of their descendants, and this is one reason why sons were desired, for daughters married and became a part of their husbands' households while the sons, from generation to generation, preserved the memory of their forebears.

As men thought more deeply, this belief gave way to the conviction that many lifetimes are needed before the heart can become pure enough to return to and be merged with God. They came to believe that we are born over and over again, with different bodies and personalities, until we finally are able to reach immortality. Each life is a lesson learned or an opportunity missed. For the Hindu believes, very literally , as one sows, so shall he reap. If a person lives well, he is reborn in more favorable circumstances and, in his spiritual life, goes on from where he left off. If he lives badly, he is born in a difficult or degraded form and must work his way up again. This explains, they say, why some people are healthy, gifted, and rich while others are crippled, unhappy, and unfortunate. Each one is working out his karma, that is, the consequence of all his acts, good and bad, in every lifetime. No one can do this for him; no sacrifice offered by himself or anyone else can free him from the effects of his own deeds; he must work out his own salvation. This belief is known as reincarnation; that is, the soul is clothed, again and again, in a fleshly body.

Now all of this is very high doctrine, and those holy men, the rishis, knew that very few could understand the whole of it. They knew that most people need visible and tangible objects, or at least personal deities, to pray to and to adore. They did not deny the gods when they conceived a supreme, ineffable Spirit; the gods, they said, were manifestations of that Spirit, just as the rivers and mountains, sun and moon and living creatures, were. Those who understood this worshiped God in the images of the gods; those who could not understand continued to pray to Agni, to Surya, to Vishnu and Shiva, and to a multiplicity of other deities.

One of the great rishis was asked once by another wise man (for they loved to discuss these things), "Yagnavalkya, how many gods are there?"

"Three and three thousand, three and three hundred," answered the rishi.

"Yes," said the other, and asked again, "How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?"

"Thirty-three," said the holy one.

"Yes," said his friend, and asked again, "How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?"

"Three," he answered.

"Yes," said the other. "How many gods are there really, O Yagnavalkya?"

"One," said he.(6)

Now in addition to thinking out these profound questions, a society must also be built in which men can live safely and happily, for this, too, is an important part of any religion. As the population grew, small states were formed, each with its king. The ideal of kingship was a high one: the king was judged by the happiness of all his people. He must see to it that reservoirs were provided for the use of farmers and herdsmen, for there is a rainy season in India and then a dry one when stored water is needed. He must tax his people as bees take honey from flowers, without hurting them; he must encourage trade and industry, so that there would be no excuse for thievery and no one need lock a door. He must choose wise and honest ministers and have a holy man as his teacher and adviser.

Society was divided into four classes, or castes: first of all, the Brahmins, who alone had the right to be priests; the Kshatrias, who were rulers and warriors; the Vaisyas, who were farmers, tradesmen, and artisans; and the Shudras, who served the higher castes. [Keep these words clear: Brahman=God, the supreme, ineffable Spirit; Brahma=a god, the creator of the universe; Brahmin=a member of the priestly caste.] The Shudras were probably the native races whom the Aryans had conquered. The Sanskrit word for caste is varna, which means color, and the conquered people were darker-skinned than the Aryans. Besides, there was a sharp separation between them and the three upper classes: The Shudras were not allowed to study the Vedas or to take part in the religious ceremonies of the Aryans.

This social system was in the beginning a division of duties; each caste had its responsibilities and its privileges. But as time went on, people were restricted and often oppressed, for they could not escape from their caste and the occupation they were born to. In time, too, because of intermarriage and the increasing complication of society, many more castes were formed, even hundreds of them. And, since religion was so important, the Brahmins became very powerful. Only they could perform the public sacrifices which were often very elaborate and long; only they could teach the Vedas. They were the advisers of kings and were honored and supported by the other castes. At religious ceremonies riches were poured into their hands, and some of them became more tyrannical than any king.

There was one way of life in which there was no distinction of caste, except for the Shudra, to whom this way was not open. If a man left the world and all his possessions and went into the forest or wandered the streets as a beggar in search of God, nothing restrained him; and if he succeeded in his quest, he was honored above the Brahmins and above kings. It was said that if a man, or a woman, realized the Self within himself, his face shone with an inner light, and everyone knew what had happened to him and sought his teaching.

Ideally there were four stages, or steps, in a man's life. These applied particularly to Brahmins but also to anyone of the three upper castes, if he chose to take them. The first step was a time of study: a boy went to a teacher, a guru; sometimes he could stay at home, but usually he went to his teacher's house or to the forest if his guru were there. He served and obeyed this man, who was even more important in his life than his parents. When he had finished his studies, he came home, married, and became a householder. This was an important and honorable time, for society depended on the work of the householder, no matter what caste he belonged to. He pursued the three aims of worldly life: duty, wealth, and pleasure. However, when his sons were grown and his grandsons born, he was free to lay down all his duties as well as his possessions, and retire to the forest, to purify his heart and to find God. Many a powerful king, many a warrior or rich merchant, left everything and everyone he possessed and, clad in the simplest garments, became a forest-dweller. Often they lived in groups, gathered about some holy man; sometimes they lived alone, as hermits. Women, as well as men, could do this, either with their husbands or alone. In the Upanishads women sometimes took part in the endless discussions of doctrine and often asked keen questions and gave wise answers. If men or women chose to take this third step, their families understood what they were doing and did not stand in their way, for so it was ordained and the decision was honored.

There was still a fourth and final stage, if the spiritual journey were to be complete. In this, one renounced everything except a ragged garment and a begging bowl. The sánnyásin [pronounced sán-yáh-sin], as he was called , had not even a hut, but slept under a tree; he did not find and cook his own food, but accepted whatever was put in his begging bowl; he gave up his caste. He "saw himself in all creatures and all creatures in himself;" therefore he harmed no one, not even an insect, and feared no one; he possessed nothing and was at peace. His purpose was to be at one with God, and therefore not to be born again in the world but to be lost in the bliss of the godhead.

He who even here, before the liberation from the body, is able to withstand the storms of desire and of wrath, he is a happy man. He who finds his joy within, his paradise within, his light within, that master of union is one with God. Those whose sins are worn away, who have cut the knot of separateness, who are self-mastered, who delight in the welfare of all beings--they become one with God. (7)

This has been the ideal structure of Indian society, right up to modern times.

Most people, of course, remained in the caste and condition they were born to; they did their work and sought wealth and pleasure. Only a few people follow the ultimate teaching of any religion. Many Hindus, however, went into the forests and a system of physical and mental discipline was worked out to help them in their purpose. It is called yoga, which means uniting; the English word yoke come from the same root; one who practices it is a yogi or yogin. It cannot be attained by any outer activity; it is an inner effort of the mind and spirit.

Since the purpose of yoga is to be at one with God, the yogi must first of all free his heart of anger and fear and desire, and of malice toward any living creature. Nonviolence, ahimsa, is of the first importance. At the same time he must control his thoughts, which must be turned inward and concentrated upon one sole purpose. The whole person, including the body, must be subservient to this end.

The mind is controlled through meditation. This is a word and a practice that is known both in the East and in the West, but while it is known to few Western people, it is familiar to every Hindu. The yogi sits, preferably crosslegged, with the back and neck erect but relaxed; his breathing is controlled and rhythmic. The beginner finds his mind filled with distracting thoughts and images which are hard to drive away. He is advised to fix his attention upon some aspect of God, or to repeat again and again a holy name, in order to shut out anything that can divert him. It may take years to achieve complete concentration; only the very gifted can speed the process. "When all the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not, then, say the wise, is reached the highest state. This calm of the senses and the mind has been defined as yoga." (8)

There are several degrees of meditation. Many people who are not yogis practice it for an hour or two each day, in order to bring peace, or order, or love, into their daily activities. The yogis who practice it intensively tell us--and prove what they say--that there are faculties of the mind, and of the body, that most people do not know about simply because they do not find and use them. The highest form of meditation leads to the state of consciousness that the Hindus call samadhi, and that is known in the West as mystical experience or cosmic consciousness. It is that "immeasurable bliss" that is spoken of in the Upanishads, a recognized experience that cannot be disregarded in this age of science and skepticism.

Yoga was known to the earliest forest-dwellers, who taught it to their disciples. Those wise men knew that people have different natures and abilities, and they taught different yogas, so that each person could choose the one for which he was most fitted.

One yoga is the way of love, or devotion; it is usually directed to a personal manifestation of Brahman: a god, an incarnation such as Krishna or Rama, of whom you will hear later. This is bhakti yoga. The same discipline of mind and heart must be followed, but the intensity of love and longing, directed only toward the beloved being, can carry one to samadhi.

There is the yoga of work, or action, which can be practiced by any householder while living his daily life. It is known as karma yoga. Anyone who understands it offers all his acts and all his work to God, and cares nothing for the results or the rewards of his deeds. Some of the greatest karma yogins have been kings and warriors.

Jnana [pronounced jinyana] yoga and raja yoga are both disciplines of the intellect and are very difficult, since realization must be reached by the intensity of thought alone.

The student of yoga must have a guru; besides the traditional wisdom and instruction that a teacher can impart, it is believed that invaluable help can be given through direct communication between him and his student. Also, the faculties that can be discovered and released through this discipline are powerful and, without the guidance of the guru, can be misused and cause damage both to the student and to other people.

At this late date, yoga is attracting much attention in the West. Though few people go through with it to the end, they find that the easier stages keep the body and mind fit and alert.

Right behavior is the very foundation of any society. If men's desires and passions are not controlled, either from without or from within, there is no peace, no opportunity for the joys and labors that life offers. Religions try to control from within. Besides, there is in every people an intuitive belief that what men do has a direct relation with the way the universe around them moves and functions. Rules or ideals of behavior, usually called morals, have been taught by every religion, and the world would be a far happier place today if we had obeyed their teaching.

The moral standards of Hinduism are very high. They can be learned most pleasantly in the two great epic stories, the Ramáyana and the Máhabhárata. The Indian imagination operates here in all its magnificence; each of these epics is filled with dramatic and delightful incidents. The Máhabhárata, by far the longer of the two, also contains many complete tales, each one significant and many of them very beautiful. Though the epics were composed thousands of years ago, they are still a vital part of Indian life. They are told by parents to their children, by teachers to their students, by innumerable storytellers in villages and towns. They are danced and dramatized not only in India but in those places influenced by Indian culture: Indonesia and the countries of Southeast Asia. Their heroes and heroines are held up as examples to young and old alike. 

The Ramáyana is the story of Rama, the eldest son of a wise and strong king who lived in northeastern India about 1500 B.C. Rama is believed to be an incarnation, an avatar, of Vishnu, who, in a lesser degree, was also incarnate in Rama's three younger brothers, Bhárata, and the twins, Lakshman and Shátrughna. They were Kshatrias, and were brought up as warriors and rulers. They learned to ride horses and elephants, to drive war chariots, and to use the bow, the mace, and the sword, especially the bow, which was the principal weapon in those days. Rama was the leader, the strongest and cleverest and best in everything; in archery he was the equal of the gods.

When their father was old, he decided to give the throne and the burden of government to Rama, who was his heir. Everyone was delighted, for they loved Rama above all men. But now evil enters the tale: the king had three wives, and each of his sons, excepting the twins, had a different mother, though they treated all three queens with equal respect and love. Bhárata's mother, influenced by a wicked serving-maid, demanded of the old king that he give the throne to her son and banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years. She had power over the king because he had once granted her two boons, which she had never claimed. Now she claimed them and would not change her mind. In spite of his grief and his pleading she persisted in her demand, and he had to keep his word, for it was unthinkable for a king to do otherwise.

The next morning, when Rama was to be crowned and all the city was rejoicing, he was summoned to the king's presence, where the queen told him what had happened, for his father could not speak for sorrow. Rama's face did not change; he obeyed at once, saying that of course his father's promise must be kept and that he would go to the forest that very day. His beautiful and beloved wife, Sita, went with him, as well as his brother Lákshman. The joy of the palace and of all the people was changed to despair as these three were driven from the city in the royal chariot. The old king died a few days later of his grief.

Now Bhárata was away, a week's journey, visiting his grandfather, when all this came about. He was sent for immediately, for he must perform his father's funeral rites and rule the kingdom. But Bhárata was made of the same stuff as his brother. He was furious when he heard what had happened; he reproached his mother bitterly and set out for the forest immediately to find Rama and to bring him back. He begged his brother to return and become king, but Rama refused. Their father's word must be kept, all the more since he was dead. When Bhárata saw that all his tears and his pleading were in vain, he took Rama's sandals and raised them to his head in a sign of respect. "These," he said, "shall rule the kingdom until you return, and I shall be their humble minister."

Rama and Sita and his brother Lákshman loved their life in the forest. They built a hut on a lovely mountainside, bathed in the river, found and cooked their food, and delighted in the forest creatures and in the beauty of each season. But Rama and Lákshman were warriors, protectors of men. The holy people of the woods came to them and told them that a band of demons was persecuting and killing them, and Rama promised his help. The demons attacked him, and he killed them all with his deadly arrows; but in so doing, he aroused the wrath of their powerful king, who lived in Ceylon. In revenge, this evil creature stole Sita away by trickery and carried her off to his splendid city. What could Rama and Lákshman do, who had not even a horse or chariot to ride, against the armed hordes of their enemy?

They made an alliance with the king of the monkeys, who summoned all the monkeys in the world to make an army and to rescue Sita. At the head of this eager, rollicking host they marched to the southern tip of India, built a causeway across the ocean--parts of which you can now see--and, after a terrific battle, defeated the demons, slew the king, and freed Sita, who had nearly died of grief and terror. Then they came triumphantly home, for the fourteen years of exile were over, and Rama reigned long and gloriously, with his brothers as his ministers.

The virtues celebrated in this story, told so briefly here, are honor, truthfulness, faithfulness, disregard of power and possessions for their own sake, self-control, bravery, justice, compassion, and devoted love. Faithful and happy marriage is honored in Hindu legends and rarely found in those of other countries. Rama is worshipped to this day in India as the perfect son, brother, husband, warrior, and king; and Sita as the perfect woman, faithful, tender, and compassionate to all creatures, even to her tormentors when she was in captivity.

It is an old story, told and retold over many centuries. Probably its lovable characters were just human beings to start with; the demons may have been an alien people who had settled on Ceylon and were invading the southern part of India, and the monkeys a friendly, uncivilized tribe living in the woods. But it makes a far better story as it is told.

The other epic, the Máhabhárata, is a complicated and splendid tale, far too long to be told here, except for one incident. It is the story of a quarrel between cousins over the inheritance of a kingdom. On one side are five brothers, just and honorable, great warriors; on the other, their implacably jealous and spiteful cousin, backed by his family and his friends. In spite of all that the brothers can do to end the quarrel peaceably and justly, in spite of their forbearance under the plots and persecution of their cousin, it comes at last to a mighty battle between the two sides, each with its allies and their armies. After eighteen days of fighting, no warriors are left alive save the five brothers.

When the two armies, in all their splendor, are drawn up for battle, one of the brothers, Arjuna [the accent is on the first syllable], the greatest warrior of them all, is overcome with pity and horror for the bloodshed that he knows will follow. He will have to fight and kill men whom he loves and honors, members of his family, and his teacher. In this story, too, an avatar of Vishnu takes part. He is Krishna, a friend of the five brothers; he will not fight for them, but he consents to be Arjuna's charioteer. Arjuna tells him that he cannot fight; that he would rather die than kill those who are drawn up in battle against him. Krishna answers him, and the dialogue between them is one of the greatest spiritual poems in the world. It is called the Bhágavad Gita--for short, the Gita [the g is hard, as in get]--the Song of God, and it is as important as the Vedas in its religious teaching.

Krishna first speaks of death and immortality. "You grieve for those who need no grief," he tells Arjuna. "The wise do not mourn either for the dead or for the living. For there was never a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings of men; nor shall we ever cease to be...These perishable bodies belong to the eternal lord of the body, the imperishable and immortal spirit...It is never born and never dies and will never cease to be; it is not slain when the body is slain. As a man puts off an old garment and takes a new one, so the spirit leaves its mortal body and enters a new one. Weapons cannot wound it, nor can fire burn it; waters do not wet it, nor can the dry winds parch...This lord of the body dwells immortal in the body of each one; therefore do not grieve!" (9)

He tells Arjuna that he must fight this battle, which is a just one. He is a Kshatria; if he does not fight, he will fail both in duty and in honor. He would not have been born in that caste if he were not destined to do the work of a warrior and a ruler of men. But he must fight without hatred and without any desire for victory or reward; he must dedicate all that he does to God and remain firm and at peace within himself. Good and bad fortune, gain and loss, victory and defeat, must be the same to him. Only so can he engage in this terrible combat without sin.

"He who abandons an action, saying, 'It is painful,' does not know the truth," says Krishna, "but he who does the required work, saying, 'It ought to be done,' giving up passion and hatred and all desire for reward, his work is pure. With his doubts cut away, he accepts his work, whether it is painful or pleasant...The four castes have their different duties, ordained by their natures...Heroism, energy, firmness, prowess, refusal to flee in battle, generosity, and noble leadership are the duties of the Kshatria. A man reaches perfection by devotion to his own duty, when through his work he worships God, from whom all things come and who is all in all...He should not abandon it because it is imperfect, for all action is clouded by imperfection, as fire is clouded by smoke...He whose mind is unattached, who has conquered self, who is free of desire, will reach that perfect state which is beyond all action.

"The Lord, O Arjuna, dwells in the heart of every creature. Take refuge in Him with your whole heart and you shall find peace, the eternal resting place." (10)

The virtues set forth in this great poem, and in the whole epic are, again, honor, justice, forbearance, self-control, gentleness, patience, purity of heart, generosity, and compassion. In one part of the story the eldest of the brothers is tested by one of the gods in a series of riddles. The last question is: "What, O King, is true knowledge? What is ignorance? What is mercy and what is the highest duty?"

"True knowledge is to know God," answers the king. "Ignorance is not to know one's duty. Mercy is to wish happiness to everyone. The highest duty is not to harm any living creature." Though they are Kshatrias and bound to fight for justice, this was the ideal. In the end, when the brothers are old, they leave the kingdom to Arjuna's grandson, the only surviving heir, and become pilgrims.

When those great poets who wrote the epics said, "any living creature," they did not mean only men. Animals, too, insects, any form of life was sacred, since it lived only because God was its life. The sages who dwelt in the forests ate only the fruits, the berries, and the plants that they found there, or sometimes raised little patches of grain. It is always said of them that the animals browsed unafraid around their dwellings and that tigers and poisonous snakes never harmed them. Rama and his brother sometimes hunted, though they and Sita lived most of the time as the hermits did. At the time of the epics many beasts and birds were sacrificed to the gods, but gradually these primitive customs decreased. The Hindus found that it was against their conscience to kill animals, and they became vegetarians. This concern for all living creatures is sometimes carried to extremes in India, which is a land of extremes. The cow has always been worshiped for her generosity in providing milk, butter, and curds, while her dung is used as fuel and is also mixed with the clay of peasants' huts. Shiva rode on his great white bull, Nandi, whose stone image often reclines on the porch of his master's temples. Cows and bulls are therefore never killed and are free to go where they will; they wander through the streets and the markets, and few people will drive them away. Monkeys are honored for their part in Rama's victory. Sita would never have been saved if the strongest and cleverest of them, Hánuman, had not leaped from the Indian shore over to Ceylon to find her. He has his own temples, and monkeys swarm over them and other shrines, where they are often charming and lovable, and often a nuisance as monkeys will be.



These are the foundations of Hinduism--the Vedas, the laws and commentaries that underlie the high moral standards, and the two great epics, including the Bhágavad Gita. All of them were written long ago, as were all the scriptures of the world. How do they apply to modern times?

Hinduism is not organized as Western religions are. There is no church, no authority, except that of the scriptures and of any Brahmin who teaches them. For there is a priesthood but no hierarchy; no Brahmin is above any other, except in wisdom and spiritual experience. There is no congregation, no regular time of meeting; there are beautiful temples, large and small, but people go to them when they choose, make offerings to the gods, and say their prayers. There are wonderful festivals, almost one for every month, when crowds of people assemble at holy places, and traditional rituals are performed by the priests, but worship is mostly a private matter. Each house has its shrine, to whatever god the family chooses; each village has its deity, sometimes represented only by a stone, and it may be a very local deity, known only to the village. For this reason India is said to have millions of gods. The most important have always been Vishnu and Shiva, who are adored all over the country. These are towering figures, each with his own profound significance and symbolism, Vishnu reveals himself in such great avatars as Rama and Krishna; Shiva, who was once the destroyer, is also the creator, for Brahma has receded and become a rather shadowy figure.

The belief in evolution and involution is symbolized in the many sculptured figures of Shiva as the "lord of the dance." His dance provides the primal energy that brings the universe into being and then pervades it. His dancing also brings it to an end. His four arms represent his powers. The drum that is held in one of his right hands calls the world into being; the lifted right hand protects it; the fire in the left hand is the symbol of destruction. The foot on which he stands tramples upon evil; the lifted foot releases the soul from false belief; and the remaining left hand points downward to this release. Many interpretations have been given to this rhythmic figure, and Shiva as lord of the dance has been worshipped widely to the present day. A modern philosopher writes that the meaning of his dance is threefold: first, it is the source of all movement in the cosmos; secondly, it releases countless souls from the snare of illusion; lastly, it takes place within the human heart.

The female aspect of deity has always been recognized in India. It is expressed in the lesser deities, the gods, for in the idea of rahman, of Absolute Existence, there is no thought of sex. The wife of Shiva is represented sometimes as Uma, the charming goddess of the Himalayas, where Shiva spends much of his time, and sometimes as Kali, who has two aspects. She is represented as a terrible figure who wears a necklace of skulls and brandishes a sword and a severed head, to whom animals are still offered in sacrifice in spite of the reverence for all life that is such an important tenet of Hinduism; she is also adored as the Divine Mother, the female face of deity.

It must always be remembered that in such a vast country as India, where many races have mingled, there is every degree of belief. To many people the gods and their images are very real and meet their spiritual needs. Others look upon them as symbols or rejoice in their beauty as people in the West enjoy the religious arts of Europe. And many modern Hindus, like many people in other countries, do not believe in any God at all.

There have always been many different sects and many schools of philosophy, for everyone has always been free to think and to believe as he chooses. The most important of these schools is the Vedanta. The word means "the end of the Vedas;" that is, the Upanishads, which come at the end of the four sacred books. The faith of the Vedanta is based on the statements found there: that God is One and is to be found in the heart of all living creatures.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the very looseness of its organization, its freedom of thought and worship , its tolerance of all other faiths, Hinduism has survived many dangers and calamities and is strong and vital today.


The history of India is a stormy one. The country was too large to be ruled by one central authority before the days of modern transportation. It was, therefore, most of the time divided into smaller kingdoms, and there was often war between them. Nevertheless, for two thousand years or more, India was in the hands of its own rulers, and it prospered. In the first four centuries A.D. all of its holy books were put into writing; philosophy and the arts flourished; the myths and stories, too, were written and put into durable form in splendid architecture and sculpture. During these centuries Indians traveled to the east: to the countries of Southeast Asia, to Ceylon and Indonesia, and established their culture there. Some of the most splendid Hindu architecture and sculpture is found in Cambodia and Indonesia; the epic stories are dramatized in puppet and shadow plays and are exquisitely danced there to this day.

The greatest danger to India was invasion. Its rich river plains were very tempting to the nomadic peoples of central and western Asia, and it was conquered by the Turks in about A.D. 1000 and a few centuries later by the Mongols. Both Turks and Mongols were Muslims and brought the religion of Muhammad with them. In 1498 four Portuguese ships, led by Vasco da Gama, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the west coast of India. Other Europeans followed, lured by the riches of the Orient, and seized upon ports and territory for trading purposes. The British prevailed over the French and the Portuguese and gradually took over more and more territory until by the middle of the eighteenth century they held the whole of India. They ruled over it for about two hundred years, until it regained its independence in 1947.

These conquests, the Turkish, the Mongol, and the British, brought two foreign and powerful religions into India: Islam and Christianity. During the centuries of Muslim rule, millions of Hindus were converted to Islam, some forced into it, some because it was profitable to adopt the religion of one's rulers, and some because in Islam there is no caste: "All Muslims are brothers." When India became independent in 1947, nearly a quarter of her population was Muslim, and the great country was divided into two states, India and Pakistan.

Many Christian missionaries came to India after the British conquest, and their religion was a challenge to Hinduism, although relatively few Indians were converted. Christianity lays great stress on loving and serving one's "neighbor," that is, anyone who is in need, and the educated and intelligent Indians became aware of things in their society that needed change and reform. Many of the missionaries, as well as British officials, were scholars; they learned Sanskrit and became deeply interested in the Hindu scriptures. They translated the Vedas and the Bhágavad Gita, which were widely read in Europe and America. In their enthusiasm they found beautiful Sanskrit literature that had been forgotten or neglected by the Indians themselves. That great Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, first read the Gita in English in London. Western knowledge and scientific achievement were brought to India; educated Indians spoke English and often other European languages, and the intellectual interchange was profoundly valuable.

Whether this interchange caused it or not, there was a great revival of Hinduism during the nineteenth century, and it is still going on in the twentieth. The admiration of foreigners aroused the pride of Indians in their great literature and tradition. The introduction of printing brought the sacred books to many more people. Religious societies were formed, strongly influenced by Christianity, led by high caste, intellectual Hindus. They were opposed to the worship of gods and images, interested in the basic truths of all religions, and devoted to the reform of social conditions. They returned to the profound doctrines of the Vedanta, based on the Upanishads.

We are not concerned in this brief account with history, economics, or politics, except as they are affected by religion; but in India everything is affected by religion. The revival of Hinduism and its effects on the life and history of the country can best be understood through the lives of three or four men who embodied this renewal of spiritual strength.



In 1836 there was born in a village of Bengal a boy who became known as Ramakrishna, to which was added later the title Paramahamsa, given only to people who have become great saints. His parents were Brahmins; they were poor but always generous to anyone who needed help, and they were very devout.

From the first he was an unusual boy, merry and active and affectionate. When he was six or seven years old, walking home from school one day, he saw a dark thundercloud spreading over the sky. Suddenly a flight of snow-white cranes passed across it, and the boy was so entranced by this beauty that he fell senseless on the path and was carried home by some neighbors who found him there. He did not care much for school and enjoyed far more the company of storytellers and wandering monks who repeated the incidents of the epic stories and other poems and songs about gods and heroes. These were often dramatized in his village, and he took part in the plays.

When he was eighteen, his older brother became a priest in the temple of Kali, the Mother Goddess, at Dákshinéswar, near Calcutta. It was a magnificent temple, surrounded by gardens, on the banks of the sacred Ganges River. It was built by a woman of the Shudra caste who also endowed it with enough money for its maintenance. She had to present it, however, to a Brahmin, for no priest would officiate in a temple belonging to a woman of her caste. Ramakrishna went with his brother and helped him in his duties; when his brother died only a year later, the young man of nineteen took his place. There were other shrines in the great temple, and other priests lived there.

Though he performed his duties, he had only one desire and one purpose, and that was to realize the presence of God, as the scriptures had taught him to do. His first experience of that blissful state was through the sculptured image of Kali, the wife of Shiva, in whom he saw the Divine Mother, the tender and compassionate aspect of God. His way at this time was the yoga of love--bhakti yoga. "Men weep rivers of tears because a son is not born to them," he said, "or because they cannot get rich. How many are there who weep in sorrow because they have not seen God? He who seeks Him finds Him; he who with intense longing weeps for God has found God." He always defended the worship of images, knowing that it was a step to higher realization. "If a man thinks of the images of gods as symbols of the divine, he reaches divinity. It is God who has provided so many forms of worship. The mother prepares different kinds of food for her children, to suit different stomachs." (11)

He, too, was to go further than his devotion to kali. Up to this time he had been without a guru, for he had been able to undertake hard spiritual discipline by himself. Now teachers came to him. The first was a woman, a sánnyásini, as women are called who have taken the last step in the pilgrimage of life. She taught him that all the pleasures of the senses, however small and innocent, must be given up if one is to attain the highest goal, and she gave him rigorous training in yoga.

His most important teacher was a wandering monk who passed by one day and saw Ramakrishna sitting in front of the temple. He recognized the young priest at once as a fellow seeker and stayed at the temple to teach him. Under his tutelage Ramakrishna became a sánnyásin; he gave up his caste and its distinguishing marks, and all possessions, and put on the loincloth and the brownish-yellow robe that set him apart as a man whose only purpose was to find God. His guru taught him the Vedanta faith: that there is but One, one without a second; that he must go beyond his devotion to Kali, who is "God with form" to "God without form." This was very hard for Ramakrishna, but his teacher forced him to do it, and he very quickly attained the highest degree of samadhi, where he felt himself at one with the unmanifest, impersonal Brahman. "In so short a time," his guru said of him, "he has done what it took me forty years to do." "How does one feel in samadhi?" someone asked him in later years. "As a fish feels," he answered, "when it is put back in the water, after being kept on land for some time."

He was twenty-eight years old at this turning point in his life. During all the years of his searching, some people had thought him slightly mad. He would go for days without food or sleep and fall into deep meditation no matter where or with whom he happened to be. A devoted nephew took care of him. But now people understood what had happened to him and came to learn from him. The brilliant men who had started the religious societies came and learned anew the values of their own faith for he was a living example of its teaching. All sorts of people came to ask questions and to listen to him. Like all spiritual teachers he spoke simply, often in parables. He was as simple and direct as a child but saw through any insincerity or ostentation. He wrote nothing, but his disciples took down much of what he said and made a book of his sayings.

He believed, as all Hindus do, that all religions, if faithfully followed, lead to the same end. But a spoken truth was never enough for him; he always wanted to realize it, to prove it through his own experience. A devout Muslim came to live in the temple compound of Dákshinéswar; Ramakrishna learned from him the doctrine and practices of the teaching of Muhammad. He said the Muslim prayers, wore Muslim clothes, and ate Muslim food; he studied the doctrine and concentrated his thought upon it, and in a few days he found the same spiritual experience that he had gained through his own faith. Later on, he studied Christianity with the same intensity and came to the same conclusion. He loved to talk with anyone, of any sect or belief, who truly believed and lived what he professed, and always advised them to follow the way that they had been taught. "There are many ways that lead to the temple of Kali, " he said, "and many that lead to the house of the Lord. Each religion is one of those ways."

Toward the end of his life a group of young men gathered about him and became his disciples. After his death in 1886 they formed an order of monks named after him. There were about a dozen of them at first; one by one they left their homes and their studies and became sánnyásins, devoting themselves to the intense spiritual discipline that their master had taught them. They were not wanderers, begging their food; they lived together in a house that was given to them by an admirer of Ramakrishna, and this house became the first monastery of the order. They gave a new direction to the holy life, for these young men came from educated families and were convinced, as were many Hindus of their time, that their country was in need of social change and reform.

They went out into the world to help the poor and the needy. Many people joined them, and new centers were formed. They opened schools and colleges, agricultural and industrial schools, hospitals, homes, libraries, open to everyone regardless of caste. They have done splendid relief work in times of famine or other calamities. There are now more than sixty monasteries and as many missions of the Ramakrishna Order.

One of the brothers, the Swami [Swami means a holy man or religious teacher] Vivekananda, is widely known in the West as well as in India. He was especially loved by Ramakrishna and was the leader of the first group of young disciples, when they founded the order. Later, in 1893, he went to America when a Parliament of Religions was held at the Chicago World's Fair. The enormous audience was amazed by his fine presence, his powerful speech, and his presentation of Hinduism, which few people knew anything about. He lectured far and wide, talked with scholars and churchmen, and established the Vedanta Societies which still flourish here. He also went to Europe where he made the same impression and established Vedanta Societies in several countries.



The most famous of the men who exemplified in their lives the teachings of Hinduism is Gandhi, who was also given a title of sainthood. He is known as Mahatma, which means literally "great soul." He is the only man who has brought his religion to bear directly and uncompromisingly upon the political, economic, and international affairs of the modern world. [Ed. This text was written in 1973, before the events of 9/11/01.]

He was born in 1869 into a subdivision of the Vaisya caste, that of tradesmen and farmers, but his father and grandfather were prime ministers in some of the small princely states in the west of India. He was well educated; he learned both Sanskrit and English in school, and later he spent three years in England studying law. There he found the Bhágavad Gita, which was to become his lifelong guide and comfort, "his mother" as he called that great poem. He also read the New Testament and was impressed particularly by the Sermon on the Mount, which, of course, he found very similar to the Gita in its teaching.

When he was twenty-three, a business firm of Indian Muslims sent him to South Africa to settle a lawsuit there. A great many Indian workmen had gone to South Africa as indentured laborers; that is, they were bound to work for a certain number of years for whoever hired them, no matter how they were treated. There were also Indians of other occupations, some of them prosperous merchants, living in South Africa, which at that time was a British colony.

Gandhi found out, during his first day in that country, that Indians had a hard time there. They were "colored;" they could not travel first class on the railways or stay in hotels; there was a curfew--they must be in their houses after 9:00 P.M. Worse things followed. Indians were not allowed to vote even though they were citizens of the country. All marriages except Christian ones were invalid; this meant that no Indian wife was a legal wife and that the children were illegitimate and had no legal rights. Worst of all, it was decreed that when an indentured laborer's term of service was over, he must pay each year a tax of three pounds (fifteen dollars at that time and far more than fifteen dollars of our present money) for himself, his wife, and any grown child. With the pay that he received, this was impossible; the law was meant to drive the laborers back into indenture, which was little better than slavery.

Gandhi went to South Africa, intending to stay for a year to settle a lawsuit. He stayed for twenty years, and before he left every one of those unjust laws had been repealed because of him.

It is the way in which he did it that concerns us. In the world's eyes he was powerless--a young insignificant-looking man, with no money, no influence, no army or police behind him. He was a Hindu; he believed that God dwelt in every heart, and since God is truth, all men will respond to truth if they perceive it. He was unable to hate or to strike another person, but he believed that the power of the spirit was stronger than any other power, and he proved what he believed. The scriptures taught him that, in order to use, or to be used by, the power of truth, everything else must be given up: he had been married at thirteen to a girl of the same age; he had two sons when he came to South Africa , and two more were born there; he made a very good income with his law practice; and he was a person of intense and warm feeling. He did not renounce all the ties at once; year after year, through meditation and reading and prayer, he gave up one thing after another, trying, as he said, "to reduce myself to zero." In doing this, he became one of the most dynamic personalities of his time.

He set himself to right the wrongs that Indians suffered, pledging himself to two principles: truth and nonviolence. He used every means except violence; he wrote innumerable pamphlets, articles, and letters for African and Indian papers; he started a newspaper called "Indian Opinion;" he formed an association of Indians of all faiths in South Africa. He was always courteous and friendly to his opponents; he told them what he intended to do before he did it and asked them to repeal the laws that he was fighting. English men and women joined him and worked with him all his life. When the Boer War came, although he sympathized with the Boers, he organized an ambulance unit that did fine work; when the plague broke out in Johannesburg, he worked among the sick and dying. He was a tireless worker; besides all his writing, correspondence, and organizing, he worked physically, nursing the sick, cleaning latrines, washing clothes, for he had a passion for cleanliness. He did first whatever he asked other people to do.

With these methods, Gandhi fought the three-pound tax. When all appeals failed, he led the indentured miners of Newcastle on strike. He told them that they might be beaten, perhaps killed, surely jailed, and that they must accept everything and never commit any act of violence. He himself had already been beaten, kicked, knocked down, and imprisoned; he accepted it without resentment. All the miners, five or six thousand people, obeyed him, and they were all thrown into prison, together with Gandhi, his wife, and other women who worked with him.

This aroused a storm of indignation in India and England and South Africa. Thousands of indentured laborers, other than miners, joined the strike. The government found itself in danger of having to imprison fifty or sixty thousand people, which would be difficult and embarrassing. It gave in; the tax was rescinded. Later, by the same means, the marriage laws were changed. The vote had already been granted, and other restrictions eased. The power of truth--sátyagráha, as it is called in India--had won.

When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he was ready to give his life for the welfare of his country. With the consent of his wife, he had pledged himself to chastity, poverty, and service; he became the perfect karma yogin, the Gita in his hand. He believed, as Ramakrishna did, that all religions were true but none truer than his own; he did not have to look beyond it for his inspiration. The Indian people, steeped in their faith, recognized his sainthood, or spiritual power, immediately. He was amazed to find enormous crowds waiting to greet him, raising a shout that soon became familiar, "Mahatma Gandhi chi jai!" (Victory to Mahatma Gandhi!) And Mahatma he remained, although he vastly preferred the title of brother, which he had won in South Africa, or, in his later years, that of Bapu, or father. To it was usually added the suffix ji which denotes respect and affection: Bapuji, Gandhiji, Mahatmaji.

Already in South Africa he had formed a community of his family and others who worked with him; they had lived on the land and raised their food, just as the sages in the early days had lived in the forest surrounded by their disciples and students. Such a community is called an ashram; his friends came to India with him, and they founded an ashram near the city of Ahmedabad in western India.

The caste system, over the centuries, had become very complicated; there were hundreds of castes and subdivisions of castes, all separate, in small ways, from one another. There were also several million people who were below all caste. They were outcasts and were known as untouchables because their touch, or even their shadow, was considered defiling. They could not enter a temple or use a village well; no caste Hindu would accept anything from their hand; even one of the lowest caste would not eat with them. They lived apart and performed the meanest and most unpleasant tasks. Gandhi considered their condition one of the first things that must be changed in India; it was a shame and a disgrace.

Soon after his ashram had been established, a family of untouchables came there and asked to join him; they were educated people, the man a teacher. Gandhi and his community accepted them at once, for one of his purposes was to do away with the unbearable condition of these people. He gave them a new name: harijans, or children of God. A storm of protest arose in the neighborhood; the merchants threatened to cut off their supplies and rich men in the city who supported the ashram withdrew their funds. Gandhi decided that the only thing for him and his companions to do was to go and live in the untouchables' quarter of the city and earn their living there, which would make them untouchables, too. While they were planning this, a rich Muslim came to the ashram and gave them enough money to support it for a year.

Ever since Gandhi had begun his dedicated life, he had set aside a time, in the early morning and in the late afternoon, for prayer and meditation. No matter how busy he was--and he was sometimes so busy that he had only two or three hours' sleep--no matter where he was, he always observed these times. He was rarely alone; in the ashram; all his companions met together. They chanted verses of the Gita and prayers; they sang hymns; often he spoke to them, and often they sat in silent meditation. There were two Christian hymns that he loved: "Lead, Kindly Light" and "Abide with Me." When he traveled, hundreds of people gathered around him, morning and evening, for these prayer meetings.

Before he returned to India, he had worn European clothes; now he adopted the peasant's dress: a white cotton cloth wound round the waist and thighs, drawn up between the legs and tucked in at the waist. In hot weather he wore only this; when he traveled or in cooler weather, he wrapped himself in a voluminous shawl of white wool or cotton. He went barefoot or wore sandals of wood or leather. The cloth that he wore was spun and woven by hand; for one of his principal concerns was the revival of the village handicrafts, which had suffered badly from competition with the machine-made goods brought in by the British and forced upon the people.

Anyone who had a grievance came to him: sharecropping farmers, factory workers, peasants unjustly taxed. He always told them the same thing: to strike peacefully, without hatred, and to suffer patiently whatever was done to them. He led them himself if he could, and the difficulties were justly settled. He soon became known all over India, and both the Indian and the British leaders knew that nothing could be done without this small, indomitable man.

Gandhi had at first been willing for India to be a part of the British Empire, but self-governing. He admired the British and had many friends among them. Soon, however, he was convinced that complete independence was necessary. The story of the winning of India's freedom is a long and exciting one, too long to be told here. Many brilliant and devoted men and women worked untiringly for their country's welfare, as Gandhi did. He was their spiritual leader, their guru, their father; the one on whom everyone depended and could trust. One or two episodes may throw light on his leadership.

When he first declared for independence, he urged everyone to practice noncooperation: that is, to boycott foreign cloth and other products that could be made in India; to refuse to work for the British government or to attend British schools and colleges. When this seemed too slow a method, he advocated civil disobedience, which meant the breaking of laws that were considered unjust. He opened this campaign in a spectacular way.

The manufacture and sale of salt were government monopolies, and there was a tax on the sale. This bore most heavily on the poorest people, who must buy salt and had so little money. Gandhi tried, as he always did, to have the laws changed, but with no result. Then, with about eighty companions, he walked from the ashram to the seacoast, more than two hundred miles away. By the time he arrived, several thousand people had joined him, and the whole country was watching to see what he would do. On the beach he picked up a handful of salt left by the tide. It was a symbolic act, and it set off a wave of civil disobedience throughout the country. Salt was made in every way known to man, sold freely, and given away. Gandhi was put in prison, and so were tens of thousands of other Indians, among them many prominent men and women. But the salt monopoly and the tax were given up.

This was done with no violence at all; people submitted peacefully to arrest. But during the long struggle for independence, violence sometimes broke out, and men were killed on both sides. When this happened, Gandhi immediately called off any activity that was going on against the government. He blamed those who had lost control of themselves, but he blamed himself most, for it was he who had taught them both resistance and nonviolence. On such occasions he fasted: he ate no food for a given time, sometimes for three days or a week, once for three weeks. He did not consider this a punishment but a purification, to make himself a better instrument for God. All his life he had believed in fasting as a purifier of body and spirit. He also knew that it was a weapon, for it usually brought people to his feet in a few days.

His most crucial fast was in 1932, when the British, under all this pressure, were giving the Indians a greater share in the government. The Muslims and the untouchables were both minority groups. The British offered to set aside for them certain seats in the legislative assemblies, to give them better representation. But in order to fill these seats, Muslims could vote only for Muslim candidates and untouchables only for untouchables. Some of the leaders of both groups were pleased with this arrangement; but Gandhi saw that it emphasized the separation of these groups from the great Hindu majority. He wanted only complete equality and unity among all Indians of whatever faith or caste. He tried his strongest persuasion; when that failed he wrote to the British prime minister: "I have to resist your decision with my life. The only way I can do it is by declaring a perpetual fast unto death."

He was in jail at the time, as many others were. He did not take the fast as well as he had taken former ones; after only a day or two, he became very weak; after three or four, his doctors feared for his life. The whole country was in a turmoil; men worked desperately to come to an agreement that they, as well as he, could accept. They opened the prison gates to anyone who wished to consult him; they brought his wife and his devoted secretary from other jails to be with him. On the fifth day of the fast the Indian parties came to an agreement; they took it to Gandhi and he murmured his assent. It was cabled to London on a Sunday, when the ministers were away. They hurried back, studied the document until midnight, and cabled their agreement. Meanwhile Gandhi, barely able to speak, lay on a cot in a prison courtyard; no one could have appeared more powerless. On Monday morning the new pact was announced, and that afternoon he broke his fast with a glass of orange juice.

In 1947 India became free, with the friendliest feelings on both sides. The last viceroy was cheered enthusiastically as he drove through the crowded, bedecked streets. But Gandhi took no part in the festivities. On August 15, Independence Day, he sat alone, spinning and fasting. For in one respect he had failed, and the failure broke his heart and brought about his death. India was divided; Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) form a separate Muslim state. He had worked all his life for unity between the two faiths, and after the partition he worked to stop the terrible violence that followed it.

On January 30, 1948, as he walked to the afternoon prayer meeting that he never missed--this time in a friend's garden in Delhi--he was assassinated by a young man who belonged to a fanatical anti-Muslim party.


VINOBA BHAVE-(1895-1982) (12)

One of Gandhi's disciples carries on his work for the poor peasants in the same extraordinary way that he had done by sátyagráha, the power of truth, and ahimsa, nonviolence.

His name is Vinoba Bhave [pronounced Bah-vay], and he is working now in India to get land for landless farmers. Farming is difficult there: the rich river plains are exhausted by thousands of years of ignorant cultivation; they are also overpopulated. Worst of all, the peasant rarely owns any land; after several conquests it is in the hands of landlords and a peasant who cannot pay his rent can be evicted, or else he falls into the hands of the moneylender, who charges such high interest that the debt can rarely be repaid. Although much land has been redistributed, this is still true in many parts of India.

Vinoba, as he is usually called, comes of a well-to-do Brahmin family and is well educated. He went through school and college and read widely but his one desire was to be a sánnyásin and to give his life to serve his people. He took the vow of chastity and poverty when he was twelve years old, and he never broke it. He left college in a western town and went halfway across India to the holy city of Benares, on the Ganges, where he hoped to study Sanskrit and to find out what was going on in his country. Soon after he arrived he heard Gandhi speak at the University of Benares, and Vinoba knew at once that he had found his guru. He was twenty years old, and Gandhi was more than twice his age. He joined the ashram, and when he came to it, Gandhi said to his companions, "here is one who has come to give as well as to receive, to teach as well as to learn." The Mahatma adopted the young man as his spiritual son.

Vinoba was sent to form an ashram of his own, where he and other devoted men and women worked with the peasants, starting small industries--weaving, sandal- and shoe-making, potteries, dairies, and so forth. It was after Gandhi's death that he started his crusade to get land for the peasants.

His method is simple. He walks through the country, stopping in every village on his way, asking landlords to give him one sixth of their land to distribute among those who have none. And it is usually given to him--as simply as that. He himself possesses nothing; he dresses as Gandhi did in a dhoti, or loincloth, a shawl, and sandals. When he arrives in a village, people assemble from the surrounding country, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands. He holds a prayer meeting in the open air, then asks for land. "If you had five sons," he says, "you would divide the land among them. Think of me as your sixth son and give me my share." He chose the number five in memory of the five brothers, the heroes of the Máhabhárata.

In the very first village that he went to, forty Harijan (untouchable) families came to him and said that they favored communism because the communists were offering to give them land. "Let us see," said Vinoba, "what your own village can do for you." That evening he held his meeting, surrounded by a great crowd of people. He told them about the forty families. Then a landlord stood up. "Sir," he said, "I will give them a hundred acres." Generosity responded to generosity; the Harijans said that eighty acres, two apiece for each family, would be enough because they would farm it together. Perhaps someone else could use the other twenty.

The news spread like wildfire. Everywhere crowds met him and land was given. In one village he met no response; the chief landlord made many excuses; not a hand was raised when Vinoba made his appeal. "It does not matter," he said. "I shall go to the next village, and God will move the hearts of others." Then a Harijan came forward, dressed in a worn, much-washed loincloth. "I have a quarter of an acre," he said, "but I do not need it, for I work in a tanning factory and earn enough to support my family. I will give it." "God has answered my prayers," said Vinoba. "Now I know that there are many more who are ready to give." A hundred hands went up, and there was a burst of applause; the landlord who made so many excuses gave a fifth of his 850 acres. The quarter acre was accepted from the Harijan, and then given back to him.

In a year Vinoba walked nearly four thousand miles, at a rate of about twelve miles every day, and at the end owned 170,000 acres of land. Every acre was deeded to him; in every village committees were formed to distribute the land, and followers of his (they, too, came by the hundreds) stayed behind to help and to keep the accounts. Gifts came in from people who never saw him; those who had no land gave other things--oxen and wagons, plows, bricks, tools, and seeds. A maharaja gave 100,000 acres. Another, not to be outdone, gave 100,001. In three years over 3,000,000 had been given and distributed to the peasants. Religion is full of paradoxes: only a man who possessed nothing and desired nothing could call forth such giving. Only one who had "reduced himself to zero" could have had the power to bring about a peaceful revolution of this magnitude.

Vinoba's life and work appealed, as Gandhi's did, to the whole country, and innumerable people offered their land and themselves to him. Hundreds of men and women, many of them distinguished leaders in government and education, either followed him or went out themselves to gather in more land. One new gift particularly pleased him: a whole village gave up its land and owned and worked it communally. This was a return to the old self-sufficient community that had originally existed in India. Within a year of this first gift of a village, more than four thousand others had pooled their land. Vinoba's followers did not leave these villages when the land was given, for they knew that the peasants would need help in cultivating it properly and in establishing the industries that would make it prosperous. Some always stayed to help them.

One incident that occurred during Vinoba's long pilgrimage cannot be omitted. In northern India, not far from the important cities of Agra and Cawnpore, is the dangerous valley of the Chambal river, which falls into the Jumna. There are wild, steep ravines along this river which for centuries have been the strongholds of bandits and guerrillas known as dacoits, whom no government had yet been able to drive out. They lived by robbery and murder, and the people of the surrounding country were in constant danger.

Vinoba, always on foot, had been to Kashmir and to the Punjab. On his way back, he went into the Chambal valley because a dacoit chief, in prison and awaiting the death sentence, had written to him, asking to see him. People crowded to him there, as they did everywhere, telling him their troubles, the deaths of sons and brothers killed by the bandits. He talked to them about love and self-restraint and fearlessness, saying that good as well as evil were in all men's hearts; that the possessions of wealth created robbers and that generosity would change them. To everyone's amazement, the dacoits, first one or two, then ten or twelve, came to him and surrendered. "Baba (grandfather)," they said, "we have done wrong. We won't do it any longer." At his evening prayer meeting one day, twenty of them laid their rifles and their cartridge belts at his feet.

They knew that they would go to prison for their past misdeeds. Vinoba promised them justice and that their families would be taken care of during their absence. The police left them with him for four days and then took them to jail. In India there is a festival when sisters tie a sacred thread around the wrists of their brothers and give them sweetmeats in token of affection. When the dacoits went off to jail, the girls in Vinoba's company and in the town bound the threads around the prisoners' wrists, and Vinoba blessed them. He left a group of his workers there to look after the prisoners and their families. Gandhi's and Vinoba's work is still going on.


These men--Ramakrishna, Gandhi, Vinoba--and other men and women, too, are the saints of Hinduism, for saints are only people who obey to the utmost the teachings of their faith, whatever it may be. Only a profound and vital religion can produce such people and they, in turn, keep it alive.

O servant, where do you seek Me?

Lo, I am beside you.

I am neither in temple not in mosque;

Neither am I in rites and ceremonies,

Nor in yoga and renunciation.

If you are a true seeker, you shall at once see Me;

You will meet Me in a moment of time.

Kabir says: "O sadhu! God is the breath of all breath."


1. Bhagavad Gita, book VIII, 16-18.
2. Rig Veda, X, 129
3. Kena Upanishad, I.
4. Isha Upanishad, 1-7 passim.
5. Chandogya Upanishad, VI, 1, 2, 8, 12.
6. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, III, 9, 1.
7. Bhágavad Gita,book V, 23-25.
8. Katha Upanishad, II, 6, 10-11.
9. Bhágavad Gita, book II, 11-30 passim.
10. Ibid., book XVIII, 8, 10, 41-49 passim, 61, 62.
11. Information about the life of Ramakrishna was obtained from the LIfe of Sri Ramakrishna (Calcutta, Advaita Ashrama, 1928).
12. Incidents and quotations from the life of Vinoba Bhave are from Hallam Tennyson, India's Walking Saint (Garden City, Doubleday and Company, 1955)

The poems are from Songs of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore (New York: Macmillan Company, 1915).


Seeger, Eastern Religions, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 7-55; Photo: Dance of Shiva appears on p. 32.


The Dance of Shiva. The god in this aspect is known as Nataraja, the lord of the dance. Bronze, ca. 1000 A.D. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1964)


by Elizabeth Seeger © 1973

Part Two

Lead us from the unreal to the Real;

From darkness into Light;

From death into immortality!

            ––from the Vedas

The Dance of Shiva as Nataraja