Note: People often ask about the relationship between Vedas, Hinduism and related disciplines of Yoga, Ayurveda and Vedic astrology, particularly to what extent one may need to embrace the spiritual and religious background of these teachings in order to really benefit from them.
By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
Sanatan (eternal or universal) Dharma is the great tradition behind such multifarious teachings as Yoga, Ayurveda, Jyotish (Vedic Astrology), Samkhya, and Vedanta and much of Tantra as well. These disciplines are rooted in Vedic lineages and transmissions going back to their very origins. They constitute a comprehensive spiritual, sacred or yogic science dealing with all aspects of life, culture, and religion.
In the modern world Sanatan or Vedic Dharma is known as the religion/culture called Hinduism or Hindu Dharma. Hinduism rests upon the Vedas or mantras of the ancient Rishis, which are a diverse set of teachings about universal consciousness and cosmic creation. Vedic mantras reflect the very processes through which all the universes are created, by which they are sustained, and through which they are dissolved, by which individual souls come into the cycle of rebirth and through which they evolve into Self-realization. The Vedas have no one God, saviour or scripture but reveal a unitary reality of Being-Consciousness-Bliss (Sacchidananda Brahman) that pervades everything and rests in all creatures as their true Self (Atman or Purusha), which can be approached by numerous paths and practices.
Yoga in general refers to the spiritual practices of asana, pranayama, puja, mantra and meditation which are the main vehicles for realizing Vedic wisdom. Yoga (and its many Sanskrit synonyms) is a common term in all Hindu teachings of the Vedas, Puranas and Tantras. The diverse yogic paths of Jnana (Knowledge), Bhakti (Devotion), Karma (Service) and Kriya (Technique) reflect the multidimensional approach to the Divine found in the Vedic teachings.
Yoga as a specific term refers to the Yoga Darshana, one of the six systems of Vedic (Astika) philosophy, those that reflect and develop out of the insights of the Vedas. The Yoga Darshana was compiled by the Rishi Patanjali, who based his work on older Vedic and yogic teachings in the Mahabharata, Puranas, Upanishads and Vedas. Other ancient yogic traditions go back to such Vedic sages as Vasishta, Shyavashwa, Yajnavalkya, Shwetasvatara, Jagishavya, Asita and Devala Kashyapa, and the great avatar Krishna whose Bhagavad Gita is itself considered to be a Yoga Shastra or authoritative yogic teaching like theYoga Sutras.
A question often arises: Does one need to be a Hindu to practice such Hindu-based teachings as Yoga and Ayurveda? A complementary question also arises: Is not one already something of a Hindu if one is attracted to them? As the formulation of a universal tradition, everyone must become part of it eventually.
The question behind this is what is a Hindu? As Hindu or Sanatana Dharma is an open, inclusive and pluralistic tradition, following its Dharma is not a simple matter of holding to a particular belief or thinking that one is saved by embracing a particular savior. Hinduism is not a religion in the Western sense of the word as a dogma, but is a vast culture that includes religion, science and art as well. Yet Hinduism does deal with all aspects of religion, with its own monastic orders, temples, and specific disciplines and teachings. Above all, it has its own lineages and transmissions, its teachers, associations and families. These are part of a pursuit of Self-realization for which ordinary religious practices are just the initial step.
Much of this discussion depends upon what is meant by Dharma. Dharma arose as a Vedic term meaning the laws of truth, cosmic law or natural law. Dharma is the nature of things and their appropriate action. It is the Dharma of fire to burn, for example. It is the spiritual Dharma of human beings to seek a higher consciousness. This higher human Dharma requires practices that free us from outer or unconscious limitations, biases and attachments, which is the basis of true Yoga.
Hindu or Sanatan Dharma has several key principles. Perhaps most important on a formal level is acceptance of the Vedas and Upanishads as projecting valid methods of knowing the ultimate truth. Yet Hinduism does not insist upon any one interpretation of the Vedic teachings, which themselves are multifaceted. Individual freedom is allowed in adapting the Vedas as long as the motivation is dharmic.
Perhaps the most important theory of Hinduism is a recognition of the process of karma and rebirth as governing the cosmic movement.
Perhaps the most important practical principle is that the One Reality, what one could call God, can be approached by many paths, which is Hindu pluralism. This takes the form of many different sages, scriptures and names and forms of the Divine (different Gods and Goddesses). Many Hindu paths are also theistic in nature, but not all of them are.
Yet most significant to Hindu or Sanatan Dharma is becoming part of a Hindu-based lineage, transmission or family, entering into its greater community. This is perhaps more significant than the above mentioned principles, which are more guidelines than rigid rules.
Hinduism and Other Religions
Can members of other religions be Hindus? To do so they would have to accept the validity of Vedic knowledge and traditions, the pluralistic nature of spiritual paths, and the process of karma and rebirth. Anyone who does this is very connected to Hindu Dharma already.
Generally Hindus believe that all true religious and spiritual teachings are part of a universal tradition or Sanatan Dharma, which the Vedas are designed to reflect.
Hindu Dharma has a particular affinity with native, organic or nature-based religions like those of the Native Americans, Pre-Christian Europeans, and Native Africans. It seeks to grow organically through life and culture rather than artificially through adaptation of a belief. It is also closely connected to other Dharmic traditions like Buddhism and Jainism, that arose from it, and to related Asian traditions like the Taoist and Shinto. Buddhist and Jain traditions in India have shared many mantras and deities with the Hindus and have contributed much to such Vedic sciences as Ayurveda and Jyotish.
Can a Non-Hindu practice Yoga?
Yoga is a broad system, emphasizing meditation for the purpose of Self-realization, but the tendency in the West is to reduce Yoga to its physical dimension. Certainly anyone can practice the outer or physical aspect of Yoga regardless of one’s religious orientation. Even an atheist can do so. However, an atheist is unlikely to be able to practice Bhakti Yoga or the path of Devotion, which depends upon love of God, and is one of the most important yogic paths. One who does not accept karma, rebirth and liberation cannot practice deeper aspects of Yoga that are based upon a recognition of this process. It also depends upon the Yoga that one is following. Yoga paths strongly rooted in Vedic ideas require an appreciation of their background to really apply. Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Knowledge rests upon a background of Vedanta, for example.
The problem is that certain religions, like Christianity and Islam, are still promoting aggressive missionary efforts against Hindus that commonly include denigrating such Hindu-based traditions as Yoga and Vedanta as well as their great teachers. Those following such religions who are attracted to Hindu-based teachings should recognize this sad fact and make some effort to change it if they can.
Those following other Dharmic religions like Buddhism and Jainism, will find benefit in connecting with Hindu or Sanatana Dharma, through their views and practices may have their variations. A unity of Dharmic traditions, which does not imply attempting to make them all the same, can be of great help to all of them as they are under similar challenges in the modern world.
Above all, if one finds value in Hindu-based teachings one should look into the tradition behind them and find out what it really is. If one finds benefit from this tradition one should also support it against attempts to undermine or misrepresent it.
How Does One Become a Hindu?
A formal ceremony is not always necessary, but it is helpful. There are various groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Arya Samaj or Hinduism Today that do this generally through a simple ceremony called shuddhi or purification. Many Hindu gurus do this informally by giving a person a Hindu or Sanskrit name and taking them into their lineage, teaching or tradition. Unfortunately they don’t always make it clear to their disciples that their particular line is part of the greater tradition of Hindu or Sanatan Dharma. Such Westerners may consider that they are followers of a particular guru or lineage but not that they are Hindus, even though they may be following very typical Hindu-based traditions and practices.
Why are Westerners Afraid of Becoming Hindus?
Western religions are generally intolerant and lacking deeper spiritual disciplines like yogic practices, as well as not understanding the law of karma and the process of rebirth. For this reason many people in the West who are seeking a higher truth have revolted against them. In doing so they often think that all religions are biased and so are suspicious of any religion including Hinduism.
In addition they may be influenced by religious and political propaganda that denigrates Hinduism as polytheism, superstition and caste oppression. If this really were Hinduism no sane person would want to join it. On the other hand, if they learn of its basis in Sanatan Dharma or a universal/eternal tradition of conscious wisdom they will be easily attracted to it.
Another problem is that people in the West may be using such Hindu-based teachings as Yoga while pursuing a life of enjoyment, materialism and self-advancement. To see Yoga in religious terms, and as requiring renunciation and asceticism, brings these ways of life into question, which may not be pleasant to consider.
Also some Westerners may want to create their own Yoga paths, mix Yoga with other teachings that may not be in harmony with it, or proclaim themselves as gurus without any traditional sanction. Others may want to physicalize or commercialize Yoga in order to make it more popular or profitable. A more traditional view of Yoga, and one that brings out its living religious basis, brings these efforts into question.
What Advantage is There in Becoming a Hindu?
The main advantage is a conscious connection to its traditions and lineages. It is like being part of a great family as opposed to having to struggle on one’s own. It affords a more intimate connection to the teachings. If one wants to practice Hindu-based teachings these will be more effective if one has the support of the greater tradition behind them – a tradition of over five thousand years and numerous Self-realized sages and yogis. It is like entering into a great stream that can carry one along. The tradition has a reality on the subtle planes that has great power and grace.
What About Other Vedic Disciplines Like Ayurveda or Vedic Astrology?
As in the case of Yoga one does not have to formally become a Hindu to benefit from these teachings on an outer level, like using Ayurvedic practices to improve one’s health. However, if one wants to connect to the deeper spiritual levels of these teachings one cannot do so without respecting the spiritual traditions behind them and following their principles and practices in one’s behaviour.
Above all, one must have a dharmic foundation for one’s life. In this regard all the dharmic traditions of India, including Buddhism and Jainism, have used Vedic disciplines like Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology and contributed much to them.
But the origins of these teachings occur in the Vedas and their Rishi lineages, connecting to which gives a special power to them. For example, Ayurveda employs the Vedic language of Agni, Soma and Vayu, while Vedic astrology follows Vedic deities for its presentation of the zodiac, planets and Nakshatras. Through studying the Vedas one can gain a greater understanding of the original insights that brought these systems forth and which continues to nourish them.