"The World’s Religions", by Huston Smith, is often considered a classic on religious beliefs around the world. It is also very secular in perspective. With the starting assumption that all religions are essentially the same or that they lead inevitably to the same result, he proceeds to connect the first religion in the book, Hinduism, to all other religions (especially, it seems, Christianity). The book itself is very informative, offering great and extensive information on the various beliefs, worship methods and metaphysics of Hinduism. However, the way he compares the Hindu God to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Hindu belief that a form of yoga is essentially the same as the Christian path are simply unfounded convictions.
According to Smith, a primary tenet of Hinduism is simply this: “people are different.” Religious needs can be satisfied differently based on such factors as caste, personality type, and what stage of life one is in. The religion itself is meant to guide the satisfaction of four human desires, these being named as pleasure (including work and success and such), knowledge, joy and being. There are things that can restrict our experience of these things, however. Pain – literal or emotional – can keep a person from joy, as can ennui. But these can be solved when that person considers what is meant by the desire called ‘being.’ The Hindu believes that your finite self is but a costume worn by your infinite self, which is reincarnated again and again throughout the ages. Its goal is to detach from the finite self and connect to the infinite. This, they say, is being. But not only does this realization add to knowledge as well as being, but it adds joy to the soul by connecting it to all of humankind.
And what of pleasure? This, though a legitimate desire, is but the first thing a soul seeks in its life. The wise will experience it, satiate their needs, and then, when they lose priority, move on. It is no matter if a man spends his entire life seeking pleasure in fruitless companionship, worldly success and with a greed for the fine things in life, for he will again be reincarnated and has another chance to discover “the beyond that is within.”
Likewise, there are four stages to a human’s life. In Indian culture, when a child was between the ages of eight and twelve he would move under the tutelage of a teacher of wisdom and character. What he learned depended on his caste.
By serving his teacher for what he was taught, this first stage of Student prepared him for life until marriage, when the stage of Householder began. Pleasure was found in family life. He fulfilled his want of duty in helping those in his community, and had the opportunity of finding success in his career. But after a while, Hindus admit that these pleasures lose their glamour. Once his first grandchild is born, the community will view him and his wife as elders to be respected.
The Retirement stage freed an Indian from work and allowed him to begin his search for truth. Originally, this meant for him to head off into the woods for reflection. When he came back to town, he would return a soul connected to the infinite. In seeking this whole they assumed anonymity, were free from all familial or civic duty, reflected on the the knowledge gained by their enlightenment, and were revered as belonging to the sannyasin stage of life.
Notice that pleasure is pursued in the Householder stage, knowledge in Retirement, and ‘being’ (at least, the Hindu idea of it) in the last. The ultimate purpose of life, then, is to discover this infinite, to have “total awareness” and being. But what does this mean?
Part of it is how one views their self-identity. Smith writes, “A man who identifies with his family, finding his joys in theirs, would have that much reality; a woman who could identify with humankind would be that much greater.” (24)
To embrace the world around us, however, would mean embracing, sad, painful, even evil things. But as will be shown, all of this is from God and must be accepted as such. We do not live in Utopia, but on earth. It is also important to remember the concept of reincarnation. The death of an individual does not mean the death of a soul. It will return again.
Smith compares our despair at a loved one’s death with a child’s despair at a trivial loss.
“Compared to children we are mature, but compared with saints we are children. No more capable of seeing our total selves in perspective than a three-year-old who has dropped its ice cream cone, our attention is fixated on our present lifespan. If we could mature completely we would see that lifespan in a larger setting, one that is, actually, unending.” (25)
Now, this realization is a highly personal one that can only be experienced. Description of the experience is impossible, but of the results, is not: a Hindu who has reached such a state is liberated and serene. Having possession of the infinite knowledge, strength and joy that exists in all of us, waiting to be tapped, their peaceful attributes are said to spill over to everyone they meet.
How does such an experience happen? The ‘life stages’ idea is not complete, only general; people in different castes will reach it in different ways and sooner than others. But what is even more important than stage or caste in determining how one will discover this infinite self (or being) is one’s personality. Hindus divide people into four characters (though not exclusive) that are reflective, emotional, active and experimental. The four corresponding yogas are jnana, bhakti, karma and raja yoga. Jnana focuses on knowledge, bhakti on love, karma, works, and raja, experiment. Yet each is a different path towards the same objective: uniting the infinite self to the whole with self discipline and discovery of the Atman – “the God within.”