Hinduism, which has a billion followers around the world, is the oldest, continuing religion dating back to several millennia B.C. During this long period it has produced a rich and vast corpus of scriptures that cover almost all aspects of human life. Among these the most significant are the Upanishads, those glorious dialogues which represent the foundation of all later schools of Indian philosophy. Collectively they are the basis of the Vedanta, as they come at the chronological end of the Vedas and also represent the high watermark, not only of Hindu but of world philosophy. The basic features of the Vedanta give us a holistic philosophy of life and death, cutting across all barriers between human beings. This is particularly important today when all sorts of regressive concepts are propagated in the name of Hinduism.
The basic concept is that of all-pervasive Brahman — ‘Ishava-syamidam Sarvam Yatkincha Jagatyam Jagat’: Whatever had, does or will exist and wherever it exists, whether it is moving or not, is permeated by the same divine power and force. The Upanishadic view is that in the ultimate analysis all is a manifestation of the divine. Indeed there can be no manifestation without the divinity behind it, and this in a way parallels the realisation of modern science. In the post-Einsteinian situation there is now the realisation that whatever exists is really the same energy appearing as a particle or as a wave. The unified field theory, which the scientists have been desperately seeking, has its spiritual counterpart in the concept of the all-pervasive Brahman of the Upanishads.
The second basic concept is that this Brahman resides within each individual’s consciousness, in the Atman. The Atman, as it were, is the reflection of this all-pervasive Brahman in individual consciousness; but the Atman is not ultimately separate from the Brahman. The concept of ‘Ishwarah’ — the Lord residing within the heart of each individual — is the second great insight of the Upanishads, and all the four yogas — Jnana, Bhakti, Karma and Raja — are directed towards bringing about the union between the Atman and the Brahman.
Flowing from this is another important Vedantic concept, which is that all human beings are in the final analysis members of a single, extended family. The Upanishads have a beautiful word for the human race — ‘Amritasya Putrah’, children of immortality — because we all carry within our consciousness the light and the power of the Brahman. For those of the greater consciousness, the entire world is a family, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
A fourth major philosophical concept of the Upanishads is the essential unity of all religions — ‘Ekam Sadviprah Bahudha Vadanti’ as the Rig Veda has it; the Truth is one, the Wise call it by many names. All creeds and religious formulations arise in different times and areas, but if they have a true aspiration, they reach the same goal.
A fifth Vedantic concept is the welfare of all beings — ‘Bahujana Sukhaya Bahujana Hitaya Cha’. The Vedanta seeks the welfare of all creation, not only of human beings but also of what we call the lower creatures. In our arrogance and ignorance we have destroyed the environments of this planet. We have polluted the oceans, made the air unbreathable, desecrated nature and decimated wildlife. Thousands of species have become extinct because of our hubris as human beings; and thousands more are on the verge of extinction. But the Vedantic seers knew that man was not something apart from nature, that human consciousness grew out of the entirety of the world situation, and therefore they had compassion for all living beings. That is why the Vedanta constantly exhorts us that while we are working for our own salvation we must also shun the path of violence and of hatred. We must seek to develop both elements of our psyche, the inner and the outer, the quietist and the activist. While working out our own destiny we also have social responsibility, and as long as we are embodied we have to continue to work for the welfare of all beings and of the planet itself.
These five concepts of the Vedantas — the all-pervasive Brahman the Atman, which resides in all beings; the four-fold Yoga, which seeks to unite them; the concept of the human race as members of an extended family regardless of all differences; the idea that all religions are essentially different paths to the same goal; and the concept that we must work for the welfare of society and of all beings — taken together provide a comprehensive world view which can greatly help humanity in the process of globalisation upon which it has embarked, and enable us to overcome the many psychological, economic and political problems that we face.
The last century, despite its extraordinary scientific and technological achievements, has been one of the most lethal in human history. Two World Wars and dozens of inter-regional and intra-regional conflicts have left millions dead and tens of millions uprooted from their homes. A disturbing feature is the revival of religious fanaticism that poses a major threat to humanity in the 21st century. It is, therefore important to re-discover and re-articulate the foundational principles of the many religions that flourish on planet earth. In my view the Vedanta represents the fundamental principles of Hinduism, and, I make bold to say, can provide a template for the inter-religious movements around the world.
Karan Singh is a former Union minister and an MP, Rajya Sabha