The Aim of Hindu Practices
Dharma, seva, puja and raja yoga lead to purification of the mind, which is the essence of all spiritual endeavors
BY SATGURU BODHINATHA VEYLANSWAMI
OFTEN IN PRESENTING HINDUISM’S PRACTICES, the actions themselves are described with little or no explanation of their purpose. This may have worked well in days of yore, but today practitioners demand clear reasons and insights into their sadhanas. Four traditional practices can inform our exploration. 1) Hindus are taught to follow dharma and refrain from adharmic actions, such as harming others, stealing and lying. 2) Seva, selfless service, is to be done regularly. 3) Puja is performed or attended in the home shrine daily, and weekly at a nearby temple. 4) The disciplines of raja yoga, which include profound forms of meditation, are a daily practice for the most devout.
What makes these practices important? A rationale for religious practices in Western faiths is that they define the good path which leads the observant to heaven. However, that is not why they are important in Hinduism and other Eastern religions.
To begin answering the above question, let’s examine a core Hindu belief: man’s innate divinity. Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, articulated it beautifully: “Deep inside we are perfect this very moment, and we have only to discover and live up to this perfection to be whole. We have taken birth in a physical body to grow and evolve into our divine potential. We are inwardly already one with God. Our religion contains the knowledge of how to realize this oneness and not create unwanted experiences along the way.”
An analogy will illustrate this idea. Imagine a pond of water with large gold nuggets at the bottom. If the surface of the pond has ripples due to wind, or if the water is clouded by mud or pollution, we cannot see the gold nuggets from above. The nuggets represent our soul nature; the ripples on the surface of the pond represent an active intellectual mind; and the water’s cloudiness represents subconscious impurities. In order to experience our soul nature and its oneness with God, our intellect must be quiet and our mind must be pure. We also need to be a sensitive and humble observer.
This analogy reveals the answer to our question “What is the reason Hindu spiritual practices are important?” They are important because of their impact on our mind. That impact is threefold: 1) they purify the mind; 2) they quiet the intellect and 3) they spiritualize the ego, thereby allowing us to eventually experience our divine essence. Here I will focus on the first of these, but keep in mind that the other two are equally essential to spiritual progress and effort.
An entry in the Encyclopedia of Hinduism (India Heritage Research Foundation) tells us: “Shuddhi means purification. Chitta is mind. Purification of the mind (chitta-shuddhi) may be called the essence of all spiritual endeavors.” Purification is the process of removing or resolving subconscious impressions, called samskaras, of past misdeeds and troublesome experiences from this and past lives. Note that more commonly samskara refers to a sacrament or rite done to mark a significant transition in life, such as the marriage rite, vivaha samskara. These sacraments make deep and positive impressions on the mind of the recipient, inform the family and community of changes in the lives of its members and secure inner-world blessings. Here the term samskara refers to the imprints left on the subconscious mind by all experience, which then mold one’s nature and affect the course of life.
The Encyclopedia explains, “Mental impurities are the root cause of pleasure and pain, and therefore they perpetuate the cycle of birth and death. Breaking this cycle and thus putting an end to sorrow (duhkha) is the goal of Hindu religion and philosophy. The surest means of achieving this goal is chitta-shuddhi.” The four practices mentioned above—dharma, seva, puja and yoga—purify the mind in the following ways.
Dharma: Adhering to dharma and refraining from adharmic actions, such as harming others, stealing and lying, assures that we are not increasing the mind’s impurity.
Seva: Also known as karma yoga, seva is a powerful tool for reducing mental impurities. Adi Shankara expressed this in Vivekachudamani: “Work is for the purification of the mind, not for the perception of Reality. The realization of Truth is brought about by discrimination, not in the least by ten millions of acts.” My guru encouraged devotees to perform four hours of seva each week, especially service focused on helping others: “Lift their burdens just a little bit and, unknowingly perhaps, you may lift something that is burdening your mind. You erase and wipe clean the mirror of your own mind through helping another. We call this karma yoga, the deep practice of unwinding, through service, the selfish, self-centered, egotistical vasanas of the lower nature that have been generated for many, many lives and which bind the soul in darkness.”
Our own Hindu Lexicon explains, “Vasanas are subliminal inclinations and habit patterns which, as driving forces, color and motivate one’s attitudes and future actions and thereafter contribute to mental fluctuations, called vritti.” A vasana is created when two samskaras blend together, forming an amalgam that is stronger than either individual experiential impression. Swami Harshananda writes in A Concise Encylopaedia of Hinduism: “Vasana is a strong impression in the mind. It is so strong that, when it arises in the mind, a person is forced to act without thinking of the consequences.” Vasanas can be negative or positive. It is, of course, the negative ones we want to soften through seva.
Practice, practice, practice: A bhaktar offers fresh cow’s milk to the Sivalingam, part of his daily spiritual disciplines which also include meditation, service and following a virtuous path.
Puja: Attending pujas at a temple and in the home shrine, our third primary practice, purifies the mind through the exchange of prana, an aspect of puja and homa that is not often discussed. Puja is a process of giving prana to the Deity through offerings of fruit, cooked foods, water, incense, fragrant flowers and milk. Then, during the culminating arati, the Deity and his helpers, or devas, reflect back this prana into the aura of each devotee, purifying it of subconscious congestions. The devotee so blessed leaves feeling uplifted and relieved of mental burdens.
After an elaborate homa performed in our Hawaii temple by his three priests, Jayendrapuri Mahaswamiji of Kailash Ashram in Bengaluru, India, explained that Agni, the messenger God of fire, conveys the offerings in a purified form to the Deity, who then uses the prana to bless those present. The effect of such blessings can be life-altering, as Gurudeva observed: “Darshan coming from the great temples of our Gods can change the patterns of karma dating back many past lives, clearing and clarifying conditions that were created hundreds of years ago and are but seeds now, waiting to manifest in the future. Through the grace of the Gods, those seeds can be removed if the manifestation in the future would not enhance the evolution of the soul.”
Raja Yoga: Rishi Patanjali extols the purifying power of our fourth practice, raja yoga, in his Yoga Sutra: “When the [eight] limbs of yoga are practiced, impurities dwindle and radiant knowledge manifests, leading to discrimination as to their difference.” He particularly highlights the purifying effect of austerity, tapas (which is part of the second limb, niyama). Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukural provides this insight: “As the intense fire of the furnace refines gold to brilliance, so does the burning suffering of austerity purify the soul to resplendence.” This verse may bring to mind images of yogis subsisting on nettle soup in a remote Himalayan cave or bathing in freezing waters. Though tapas does embrace such intense practices, it also includes easier ones that can be done by anyone.
A simple form of tapas is sacrifice, giving up a cherished possession—be it money, time or a physical object—to manifest a greater good. Sacrifice, while similar to charity, is distinguished by some form of self-denial. Examples I like are fasting for a day and giving the money saved to a Hindu institution, and saving money for charity by going on a budget vacation instead of a fancy one.
Performing penance to atone for misdeeds is another form of tapas. This is done through such acts as 108 prostrations before the Deity in the temple, walking prostrations around a temple, and kavadi—a penance offered to Lord Murugan/Karttikeya. Gurudeva elaborates, “Austerity is the powerful bath of fire and bright rays of showering light that washes the soul clean of the dross of its many past lives, and of the current life, which has held it in the bondage of ignorance, misgiving, unforgivingness and the self-perpetuating ignorance of the truths of the Sanatana Dharma.”
We can take joy in the fact that Hindu practices well performed impact our mind and transform our consciousness. It is through purifying the mind, quieting the intellect and spiritualizing the ego that we are able to grow and evolve and ultimately experience our soul nature and its oneness with God. Our paramaguru, Yogaswami of Sri Lanka, described this process: “When worldly attachment and impurity of the mind disappear, then there is atma-darshan.”