Hinduism: Concerning the origin of man, the Bhagavatam shares the following explanation: “Brahma’s first human creations were saints, who, immediately upon being created fell into deep meditation, finding no interest in the things of the world. Thus, through them, Brahma saw no possibility of propagation of their species. While he was meditating upon what course he should pursue, his own form divided itself, one half became man and the other half became woman. The man was called Manu, and the woman Shatarupa, and from them have sprung all mankind.”1 So man is considered, not a creaton of God, but an emanation of God. At the beginning of every secondary cycle another Manu appears to become the father of the human race.
Concerning the nature of man, numerous theories are found in Hinduism. The following seems to be the most dominant and accepted. Man is made up of three primary bodies or ‘sheaths’ (sharira) that surround the atman (the real Self): (1) The gross body-sthula-sharira, also called annamaya kosha; (2) The subtle body-sukshma-sharira, also called linga-sharira, and; (3) The causal body-karana-sharira, identical with anandamaya-kosha.2 The subtle body is subdivided further into three parts: the vital sheath (pranamaya-kosha), the mental sheath (manomaya-kosha), and the intellectual sheath (vijnanamaya-kosha). So altogether there are five ‘sheaths’ or bodies in which the atman is contained (a viewpoint expressed in the Taittiriya Upanishad). The subtle body is the means by which the atman passes from one life to the next on its journey toward perfection. The causal body contains the ‘idea template’-the spiritual blueprint for the subtle and gross bodies. Some sources say that the causal body is also divided into three parts, bringing the total number of ‘bodies’ to seven.
The atman (Sanskrit meaning “God within”) is the true Self, the higher Self. It is eternal, uncreated, without gender, pure, unchanging, indestructible, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. It cannot feel pain and it does not evolve. This divine essence is within every living thing: plant, animal and human. These variations are not differences in the atman itself, but in the degree it manifests in a physical form. When dwelling in a human body, it erroneously identifies itself with the flesh body, the mind and the intellect, until a person’s consciousness is awakened. Then the atman rules a person’s existence.
A primary doctrine that pervades much of Hinduism is the perception that atman, the individual soul, is actually Brahman, the universal Soul. Often quoted is the passage out of the Chandogya Upanishad in which Uddalaka admonishes his son, Svetaketu: “The subtle essence is universally diffused in all things wherever found. It is the true Self; and, Svetaketu, that thou art (tat twam asi)!”
Conflicting interpretations of this passage exist within the camp of Hinduism itself. Sankara, an eighth century Hindu philosopher, believed this statement indicates atman and Brahman are identical. Ramanuja, an eleventh century Hindu teacher, insisted it infers atman and Brahman are inseparable, but not identical.
When the atman becomes personalized and individualized, it is referred to as the jiva (pronounced jee’va, meaning “that which lives”). This is the embodied atman, the individual personality that wrongly identifies with the physical form and the mind. As the human ego, it imparts a fallacious sense of duality (distinction between God and man) that keeps the jiva bound to the cycle of birth and death. The atman transcends time, space, causality, name and form, but these five things bind the jiva. This condition is only a temporary illusion on the way to the final destiny of atman (the true Self) merging into oneness with Brahman. Jivas are infinite in number.
Everything in the manifest world is comprised of the three gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. When it relates to the evolutionary development of human beings, sattva concerns that part of our inherent nature that is veiled and must be realized; tamas is what hinders that realization; rajas is the energy or force that overcomes tamas. Tamas is laziness, unconcern and the dullness of the sense-bound human mind; rajas is passion, zeal and holy action that overcomes tamas to attain the sattva of serenity and understanding. Sattva is goodness and harmony. It is not cosmic consciousness, but it leads a person to the boundary of this ultimate state of being.
Final liberation happens after many incarnations, with the circumstances of each incarnation determined by karma from previous lives. Karma attaches itself to the subtle body. Karma is comprised of merits (punya) or demerits (papa) that result from every action. There are sixteen basic elements of the physical body; nineteen elements of the subtle body, which correspond to the thirty-five basic idea-elements of the causal body.
• Note on the caste system of Hinduism: In discussing various beliefs concerning the nature of man, this subject should not be overlooked. In the Laws of Manu (an ancient Hindu text) society is divided into four main castes (varnas)-Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (nobles), Vaisyas (merchants and farmers) and Sudras (manual laborers, peasants and servants). These originated from four parts of the body of Brahma. (See Rig Veda 10:90,12.) The Brahmin priestly caste proceeded from Brahma’s head, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaisyas from his thighs and the Sudras from his feet. Far beneath the Sudras are the ‘untouchables’ (Harijans) who were rejects from the social order altogether. (Mahatma Ghandi preferred to call them the “Children of God.”) These four main castes are divided into various sub-castes (around 3,000). Each of these divisions determines a certain status and duty in life.
When this social order is strictly observed, the castes do not intermarry or even eat with each other. In 1949 Ghandi and others persuaded the Indian Parliament to make this practice illegal. Nevertheless, some still live according to this standard, believing it to be divinely inspired. (In Hindu Scripture Krishna declares, “The four castes were created by me.” Bhagavad-Gita 4:13)
The caste system has been a subject of great controversy, even within the camp of Far Eastern religions. Buddha was appalled at this doctrine. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, were both born in the second caste, yet they arose to become noted spiritual leaders. Both of them repudiated this concept, teaching that society should be casteless and that all people have equal value. Some Hindus compromise the unyielding imposition of this doctrine, teaching that a person’s caste is determined, not by the social status inherited at birth, but by personal choice or personal accomplishment. Thus, any person can be positioned in any caste according to his own intellectual, emotional, spiritual and/or social development.
• Note on the Yoga School within Hinduism: Yoga is one of the main schools of thought within Hinduism. In many groups that promote the practice of yoga, human beings are described as possessing spiritual energy centers called chakras. Though there are some different views promoted by various yogis and swamis, it is generally believed that there are seven main chakras, five of which are positioned along the spinal column. The sixth is the ‘third eye’ and the seventh, the ‘crown chakra’ located at the crown of the skull. The third eye (in the middle of the forehead) is described as one of the main gateways out of the body into the astral realm. Each chakra is associated with a different deity. When the kundalini (the latent deposit of divine energy at the base of the spine) is ‘awakened,’ this energy travels upward through the chakras. Upon reaching the crown chakra, God consciousness is attained. According to the Sankhya Yoga School, there are two main aspects to man: the self (purusha) bound inside of a body of matter (prakriti).
1 Swami Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage of India (Hollywood, California: Vedanta Press, n.d.) p. 140.
2 “Sharira,” The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 1994) p. 316.