Hindus: The First Universalists?

On Sunday morning, June 24th, UUS:E was honored to welcome Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan.

Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan has functioned as a Hindu priest for four decades performing a wide variety of Hindu religious ceremonies of worship, weddings, housewarmings, and bhajans or kirtans. He has written extensively on Hinduism. Dr. Srinivasan’s most recent publication (2011) is Hinduism for Dummies. His publication, The Vedic Wedding: Origins, Tradition and Practice, is widely acclaimed and won the USA Book News 2007 Best Book Award in the category of Eastern Religions. With a contemporary format for Vedic (Hindu) weddings which retains all essential Vedic rites in an hour long ceremony, he has blended this approach with those of other creeds in many interfaith weddings. In addition, he has published a series of booklets on “How to Conduct Puja to …” providing simple set of instructions to perform a worship ceremony to Soorya (Sun god), Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Ganapati, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and the Navagrahas (nine planets).

A popular writer and speaker, Dr. Srinivasan has published/presented numerous papers on a variety of cultural, social and religious issues in the U.S. and India. He has given courses on the classical literature of India at the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan University. Principal founder member of the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society in 1979, he also founded the Raga Club of Connecticut in 2006.

The text to his sermon is below. We were also blessed to welcome  Joseph Getter, who offered traditional music from Southern India on the bamboo flute.

Hindus: The First Universalists: Audio Version (click here to listen to the MP3 or right-click or command-click to save)


Hindus: The Earliest Universalists?

by Dr. Sheenu Srinivasan*

Moksha and Hindus

For Hindus the goal of life is moksha or liberation from the wheel of rebirth. Ancient Hindu
sages sought to define the path towards moksha through the centuries. The most relevant
question in this context was posed in a compelling episode in the second Hindu epic, the
Mahabharata. The hero of the epic, prince Yudhishtira was challenged with this question:

“What is the path?”

His answer:

What great men have followed –THAT is the path
Because arguments are futile, the Vedas are complex
and different, no single saint has the whole truth and
the truth is mysteriously hidden

This prescription is simple, practical and straightforward and results from several centuries of
attempts by Hindu sages to seek answers to one of the most vexing questions pertaining to
individual liberation. Hindu ancestors, we are told, busied themselves in addressing the
fundamental problems of life: Who are we? Why are we here? Why do we die? Is there a
purpose to life? Who controls our life? Questions for which humanity is still seeking

The Revelations: They “heard it”

While Hindu ancestors contemplated fundamental questions about life on this earth, we learn
that their penance resulted in certain truths revealed to them and these are
referred to as Shruti. They comprise the most sacred scriptures of the Hindus: the Vedas. The
word Veda means knowledge.

The most fundamental truth emerging out of the penance on the banks of the river Indus is
described by the Indologist Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819-1899) as “a creed based on
an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, …” (See HINDUISM, Society for Promoting
Christian Knowledge, 1906, page 11). This meant that the earliest thought about a belief
system identified a Supreme Spirit. It excluded nothing. By definition it included all living
and non-living, ugly and beautiful, noble and evil, gentle and harsh, sophisticated and crude,
darkness and light … EVERYTHING.

This supreme spirit is identified as Brahman, a universal spirit that is always referred to as
“It” and not as a He or a She; this is the basis for the famous saying: Tat-Tvamasi i.e. Thou
art That, meaning “You are verily Brahman.” Brahman was understood to be the only thing
real in the universe. All else is therefore unreal, false or illusory and untrue. Brahman sounds like an abstract entity, but is entirely real and in every sense the Supreme Soul, Supreme
Being, Creator, the One and Only Reality. And if some wanted to call it God, so be it.
This pantheistic doctrine led to the firm declaration: ekameva advitiyam i.e. ‘There is but one
without a second’ referring to Brahman. The root word for Brahman is (brh) ‘to grow’ to
indicate infinite growth and expansion of the concept, from visible living or non-living
objects at the lowest level to the highest forms including humans. Brahman has no form.
Brahman is everywhere, the pure and formless One, limitless and all-pervading; the
Almighty and All-merciful. Think of this concept as each of us representing a ray of light
from that great source of light. Hindus believe that we are Brahman; (aham brahmasmi) i.e.
“I am Spirit” makes that assertion.

However, that belief comes with a very important caveat which ends up being the most basic
identifier of our life as humans. And that caveat is that when we are born as humans, we
inherit what I refer to as Brahman plus. The plus is known as maya (illusion) that comes with
the package. The illusion lets us forget our true nature that we are truly Brahman and
therefore our identification is not with the Supreme Spirit but something incredibly less
significant and reduced to a mere “ I ” identifying with the physical body and mind. This
illusion is like impurities that may creep in while developing a pure metal. These impurities
need to be removed to enjoy the beauty of the pure metal. Or think of this illusion as a
coating on this brilliant diamond that is the Brahman within us. Think of this as the cocoon a
caterpillar builds using its own saliva and imprisons itself. This saliva and the resulting
cocoon are the results of our actions and therefore need to be controlled. Hindu philosophy proclaims that we can remove this coating, this illusion and recognize our true self. Swami Vivekananda stated this eloquently in his speech to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893.

“Here I stand and if I shut my eyes, and try to conceive my existence, “I”, “I”, “I”, what is the
idea before me? The idea of a body? Am I, then, nothing but a combination of material
substances? The Vedas declare, “No”. “I am a spirit living in a body. I am not the body. The
body will die, but I shall not die. Here am I in this body; it will fall, but I shall go on living.”

From the One to the very many

But this was too abstract to some and therefore the attempts to visualize something more
tangible came about. Personifying and deifying components of this universe became a Hindu
specialty. When we step on the earth after waking up, we beg forgiveness from goddess
Mother Earth for stepping on her. We chant our salutations to the divinities in the seven
sacred rivers as we bathe. We salute Prana, the sacred breath of life when we partake food.
Thus we also tend to associate rituals with everything we do including as routine a step as
eating. The Upanishads warn us to be aware of the fundamentals and not be distracted by
mere rituals. Rituals and worships and ceremonies are and should be just a first step towards

Sir Monier Monier Williams (ibid) explains this development as follows:

“It is a creed based on an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, but branching out into an
endless variety of polytheistic superstitions. Like the sacred fig-tree of India, which from a
single stem sends out numerous branches destined to send roots to the ground and become
trees themselves, till the parent stock is lost in a dense forest of its own offshoots, so has this
pantheistic creed rooted itself firmly in the Hindu mind, and spread its ramifications so
luxuriantly that the simplicity of its root-dogma is lost in an exuberant outgrowth of
monstrous mythology.”

True. But that is the price to pay when individual preferences towards a goal are respected!
And the “root-dogma” is not quite lost.

Seeking alternatives to the intellectual pursuit

From that most fundamental doctrine of The One, the ancients observed, with a sense of awe
and reverence, life sustaining natural forces such as the sun, the wind, rain, fire, and so on.
They could have stayed with that sophisticated, abstract concept of the universe, the supreme
spirit. But they did not. They needed more than philosophy.

So the ancients worshipped these natural forces. They bathed in the rivers. Lifting a handful
of water and looking at the sun, they offered it to him. They built a fire and made offerings to
the fire. They worshipped trees, animals, planets and even hand made tools used in
enterprises. When a Hindu stands before a deity and offers worship, the core belief that that
worship is to The One is in the background of the mind. An often quoted part of a verse in
the Rg. Veda (ekam sat vipra: bahudha vadanti) proclaims that “Truth is One but the wise
express it many ways.”

The basics are intact

In its August 31, 2009 issue, Newsweek proclaimed that “We are all Hindus now”. The
billion plus Hindus around the world may not have thought that but probably nod in
agreement. Hinduism, the mother of all religions, has a unique perspective on life and has as
its adherents a broad spectrum of people who span from the extremely orthodox immersed in
elaborate ritual worship to those who openly declare that they do not believe in God. The late
Swami Satchidananda of Woodstock fame used to say about the latter group: “That is what
they believe in!” They were not excluded.

Chapter 6, verse 72 of the Mahopanishad declares with no ambiguity

ayam bandhurayam neti laghuchetasam
udara caritanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam

This is my relative and that is a stranger is what small minded persons think, but for the
magnanimous the whole world is a family.

That the whole world is a family with each member of that family a Brahman is a Hindu
belief that connects the individual with the vast universe.

Therefore when I see you as audience, I notice you do not all look alike of course, but you
are indeed alike when I identify you with that “free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect”

A parable

That ability to see the real you comes with study and constant reminder of the true nature of
man. That ability is there in each of us and we need to remind ourselves of that reality
frequently. The Upanishadic mandate is unquestionably to begin that spiritual journey and
rise above mere rituals. To illustrate that spiritual journey I made up the following scenario in
my book:

You’re climbing some rock-cut steps to an ancient temple on a hill. But this temple is not to a
deity. It has no priests. It has no bells to ring, and you do not bring any offerings beyond your
self in body and spirit. As you climb, at each step, one after another, you discard a dogma.
You reject ritualistic approaches. You sweat through the futility of pride and vanity and settle
for humility. You seek satisfaction beyond pleasure of the senses — something deeper.
As you climb higher and higher, you recognize that ignorance of your real nature is the
source of all problems, so your goal is to destroy ignorance. Another step up and you realize
that you do not need to abandon anything but simply remain detached! As the ancient Hindus
said, real knowledge and infinite joy are yours, and they didn’t mince words. And with the
next step, you realize that simply believing is not enough; you must experience it yourself.
Yourself. One more step, and you rise above mere intellect and stand on the threshold of a
mystic experience with your heart and intuition tuned to that experience. Experience and only
experience counts here on this hill.

The sanctum sanctorum—the holiest of holy places—at this temple contains Bliss. Yes, bliss.
That is what the ancient Hindus considered worth living (dying?) for. Bliss is your birth
right, proclaims the Upanishads. Your interest is nothing but spiritual illumination. You have
entered the temple of the Upanishads. You have reached the source of joy. Now you can
begin your earnest inquiry into the ultimate Truth.

With this background I may perhaps summarize our core beliefs:

1. In general Hinduism has no hierarchy: No person who is the equivalent of a pope.
2. We have no single book. The Four Vedas, the Upanishads, the two major epics and
the Bhagavad Gita provide lessons and examples.
3. No concept of original sin – only of karma: a bank of good deeds and bad deeds with
consequences which follow an individual from one life cycle to the next until a pure
life allows one to escape rebirth.
4. Modern Hinduism or Vedanta puts stress on being and not simply believing
5. Through 5,000 years and more, absorbing every ritual and idea that has arisen or
arrived on Indian soil,
6. This tolerant view leads not just to recognition of the validity of different faiths but
other choices.
7. Nature plays an important role in Hindu worship.
8. Hinduism does not believe in proselytization. It lets you be. The philosopher
statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said in his book The Hindu View of Life,
“Hinduism requires every man to think steadily on life’s mystery until he reaches the
highest revelation. While the lesser forms (including idols and images) are tolerated
in the interests of those who cannot suddenly transcend them, there is all through an
insistence on the larger idea of purer worship … Every man has a right to choose that
form of belief and worship which most appeals to him … Hinduism is not a sect but a
fellowship of all who accept the law of right and earnestly seek for the truth.”

These fundamental beliefs have paved the way for the Hindu towards development of a
philosophical outlook on life. These fundamentals comprise a code of behavior that form the
contemporary Hindu view of life that Dr. Radhakrishnan says is “an attempt to discover the
ideal possibilities of human life”.

So our approaches and beliefs may be somewhat different or in some aspects, quite different,
but we are indeed one because in each of us there is a soul that is perfect and eternal. That is
the uniting factor that brings us together as a community. That community spirit is especially
needed now as we face very trying times with close to 50% of our population facing poverty,
with student loans exceeding a trillion and the approval rate for the congress is less that 10%.
The Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people too, breathing just like you and me.
Day in day out we are bombarded with a lot of noise on television, radio and newspapers,
whose intent it may not be, but its effect surely is, to divide us and discourage us. The
institutions on which society must depend on seem to be falling apart. While I don’t want to
dwell on these aspects at length here this morning, suffice it to say that the most reliable
umbrella under which we can and must now gather and seek shelter to come together as a
community of concerned citizens. Under that umbrella we can gain strength once again,
achieve a certain level of quiet and tranquility and try to restore ourselves to a level

I find your philosophy so close to Hindu thought; I could not do better than quote a single
paragraph from a speech by Swami Vivekananda which sums up the outlook of Hindus, like
nothing else written by anyone, anywhere and at any time. On September 11, 1893, Swami
Vivekananda addressing the Parliament of Religions in Chicago said “… if there is ever to be
a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in time or place; which will
be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of
Krishna and Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminical or Buddhist,
Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all of these, and still have infinite space for
development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for
every human being, …. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or
intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose
whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true
and divine nature.”

With that I salute you for giving me this opportunity to be among you.