In the search for God, we discover that the entire universe is sacred, and ultimately realize that Divinity is within us
By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
On occasion i am asked, “how would you define Hinduism? I am a Hindu, but I don’t know much about my religion.” An effective way of answering this question, I’ve found, is a short explanation of the purusharthas, the goals, or wealths, of the soul.
Four in number—dharma, artha, kama and moksha—they form a cornerstone of Hindu ethics. These aspirations are found in the sankalpa, statement of intention, that priests chant when doing an archana for someone in a temple: “Dharmartha, kamamoksha, chaturvidha phala purushartha, siddhyartham.” The meaning is, “May you attain the fulfillment of life’s four goals: dharma, wealth, enjoyment and liberation.”
In his classic work The Hindu View of Life, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan gives an insightful overview of the purusharthas. “If life is one, then there is one master science of life which recognizes the four supreme ends: dharma, or righteousness; artha, or wealth; kama, or artistic and cultural life; and moksha, or spiritual freedom. The Hindu code of practice links up the realm of desires with the perspective of the eternal. It binds together the kingdoms of earth and heaven.”
Looking in more depth at each of the purusharthas—dharma refers to living a life that is virtuous, fulfilling one’s duties to family members, community and country. Kama is love, such as that experienced in a family between husband, wife and children. Artha is wealth, money and the many riches of life that are acquired by the individual or family. Moksha is spiritual attainment, liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. The meaning of the first three goals—dharma, artha and kama—and how to achieve them is self-evident. They are the natural pursuits of a mature, stable family. Not so obvious, however, is the nature of moksha and how to achieve it.
To provide clarity, I like to refer to moksha as the destination and then describe the journey toward it. A Sanskrit name for this journey is adhyatma vikasa, which in English can be rendered as unfoldment of the soul or higher self. I asked ChatGPT to explain the Hindu concept of adhyatma vikasa and the AI gave this apt answer: “Adhyatma vikasa refers to the development and growth of the spiritual self or the inner self. In Hinduism, it is believed that the ultimate goal of human life is to achieve spiritual liberation, or moksha, which can be attained through adhyatma vikasa, the process of spiritual evolution.”
The example I use to illustrate the relationship of adhyatma vikasa to moksha is to visualize a mountain with a winding path leading to the top. At the summit is moksha. The path represents adhyatma vikasa. In each life, we are born at the same spot on this path that we reached in our previous birth. The goal in each life is to move forward, not to stand still and definitely not to slide backwards. We progress on the path through performing spiritual practices, called sadhana. We stand still by living a selfish life and neglecting spiritual practices. We regress by serious adharmic activities, such as living a life of theft, depravity or cruelty.
Hindus in their sixties often ask how they can achieve moksha in this lifetime. ThoWse asking have generally not done much up to this point to advance spiritually and suddenly feel an urgency to make a mad dash for moksha in their remaining years. My counsel focuses on two principles: 1) It takes far more than one lifetime to achieve moksha; 2) The best approach is to move forward as much as you are able without fanatically struggling for the final goal in this life, which is, in most cases, unrealistic. Progress, yes. Liberation, not so easy.
Let’s look at the meaning of adhyatma vikasa. Adhyatma is derived from two Sanskrit roots: adhi, meaning higher and atma, self or soul. Vikasa carries the meaning of development or becoming, in the spiritual sense. Other English terms for spiritual are divine or sacred. Thus, we could say that adhyatma vikasa is a process of becoming more and more aware of the divine or sacred within us and beyond.
A few years ago I was impressed by a movie about Te Ata Fisher (1895-1995), a renowned storyteller. In the 1930s she represented Native Americans at state dinners in the presence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the movie, she said that standing by a beautiful mountain lake was her cathedral. This inspiring statement about sacredness made me ponder the capacity of human consciousness to reflect, in its most profound moments, on the mystery and divine nature of existence. Adhyatma vikasa can be described as getting more and more in touch with that sacredness, which is the natural state of our soul or atma.
In The Hindu View of Life, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan stresses that Hinduism is a religion based on experience of the Divine, which he refers to as reality. “Religion [referring to Hinduism] is not the acceptance of academic abstractions or the celebration of ceremonies, but a kind of life or experience. It is insight into the nature of reality (darshana), or experience of reality (anubhava). This experience is not an emotional thrill, or a subjective fantasy, but is the response of the whole personality, the integrated self, to the central reality.”
My guru, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, taught four approaches to experiencing sacredness. Perhaps the easiest is to see sacredness in great religious teachers, who seem to exude spirituality. We sense a special light in their eyes not seen in others. The spirituality emanating from the great ones is sometimes called shakti. Gurudeva wrote, “‘What is this shakti?’ you may be wondering. It is being in the presence of Divinity. All holy men and women emanate all of these shaktis—and you can, too—some stronger than others. Shakti is divine radiation from the Third World, causal plane, through the Second World, astral plane, into the First, physical plane. The astral body is in the Second World and lives inside the physical body. It is through the astral body that shakti is felt.”
A second way to sense spirituality is to look deeply into the eyes of someone you know. Look deeper than the personality and the intellect and see the life energy in their eyes as the Divine within them. Verse 3.7 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad affirms, “He who knows God as the Life of life, the Eye of the eye, the Ear of the ear, the Mind of the mind, he indeed comprehends fully the Cause of all causes.”
A third place to find sacredness is in the Hindu temple. It is a holy space, built and maintained in such a way that we can go there and experience the energy of God and Gods. During the puja, the priest calls forth the Deity to reside in the image and bless the devotees present. Devotees experience the Deity as an uplifting, peaceful, divine energy radiating out from the image. Gurudeva gives this description: “The reality of the Mahadevas and their darshan [blessings] can be experienced by the devotee through his awakened ajna vision, or more often as the physical sight of the image in the sanctum coupled with the inner knowing that He is there within the microcosm. This darshan can be felt by all devotees, becoming stronger and more defined as devotion is perfected.”
There is a fourth, more advanced, approach, which is to look directly into our inner consciousness through meditation. By consistent practice a meditator learns to locate the sacredness within him or her and over time go ever deeper into it. The initial experience may register on the external mind as peace and bliss. Later one comes into a clear white light, and later still an all-pervading consciousness. Ultimately, one encounters the transcendent source of that consciousness. As stated in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.3.3-4), “The Self resides within the lotus of the heart. Knowing this, consecrated to the Self, the sage enters daily that holy sanctuary. Absorbed in the Self, the sage is freed from identity with the body and lives in blissful consciousness.”
In summary, Hinduism gives us a number of approaches to experiencing the Divine. An important part of making progress on the path to moksha is encountering the transcendent on a regular basis. That practice will, over time, naturally deepen the awareness ofour own inner sacredness, which is what spiritual unfoldment is all about.