Hinduism: Liberation from Pleasures

Before I read up on Indian medicine, I wanted to have a solid understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism. My dad’s has “The World’s Religions” by Huston Smith, and I read that it’s a great intro to comparative religion.

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Hindu god statue in a small village I visited in India

Hinduism is the first religion Smith covers. He says

If we were  to take Hinduism as a whole —its vast literature, its complicated rituals, its sprawling folkways, its opulent art—and compress it into a single affirmation, we would find it saying: You can have what you want.

The question after this is, what do we want? Hinduism lists four desires. The first two are on the Path of Desire. They are not bad to have, it is only human to have them. We should just be careful of their influence on ourselves.

1. Pleasures

Hinduism is known for its asceticism, fleeing the world mentality, but it is not against having pleasures. One can go after pleasures, as long as morals are not compromised. We should seek pleasures with our intellects. But eventually, these pleasures are just not enough. It only satisfies the self, not the infinite-ness of who we are. So we move on to the next step.

2. Worldly Success: Wealth, fame, power

These desires are also good. They give us dignity and self-respect. But like pleasures, worldly success takes us only so far. Wealth leads to inequality. Success is also insatiable. We continue to want more, even if we have it all. There is no end to wanting. Like pleasures, success is still not fulfilling, and it is ephemeral, something we cannot take with us wherever we go after death.

People who have gone down the Path of Desire may find themselves realizing their actions were in vain. All the pleasures and success in the world cannot take away their emptiness.

So there is another route: The Path of Renunciation (note: I think these terms are Huston’s own). This path has two faces. One is of disillusionment and despair. The other shows that there is more to life than what we are experiencing. We are looking for something greater. It’s a hopeful outlook. The last two desires fall under this category.

3. Duty (Dharma)

By serving others, we go beyond the needs of ourselves. This requires much maturity. We earn respect from others, and grow more confident with ourselves. But even this does not go far enough.

He says,

But in the end even these rewards prove insufficient. For even when time turns community into history, history, standing alone, is finite and hence ultimately tragic. It is tragic not only because it must end — eventually history too, will die — but in its refusal to be perfected. Hope and History are always light-years apart.

It’s a beautiful quote, and I’ve been trying to interpret it. I think he’s saying that even the products of our duty and community, or history, do not share the infinite-ness of humanity. History is the past. We need something that we can carry with us forever.

Huston ends this mini section by stating “The final human good must lie elsewhere.”

4. Liberation (Moksha)

Smith quotes Alduous Huxley, who said once “There comes a time when one ask even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?” All the best parts of this world cannot satisfy our inner longings. There has got to be more. So what do we really want? Smith says we really want three things:

  • Being: We want to be, to exist, to be part of the future
  • Knowledge: We are curious creatures. Whether it’s science or gossip, we want to know
  • Joy

The catch is, that we want all of those things, infinitely. Smith says, “What people really want is liberation (moksha)— release from the finitude that restricts us from the limitless being, consciousness, and bliss our hearts desire.

Underlying the human self and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is unrestricted in consciousness and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self or Atman, is no less than Brahman, the Godhead. Body, personality, and Atman-Brahman, a human self is not completely accounted for until all three are noted.

So Smith asks why do we not feel as infinite as we really are? Hinduism tells us to dig very deep, into the Eternal. But it takes a lot of hard work. We are constantly distracted by other things, making it all the harder to see know ourselves.

We are like kings who, faling victim to amnesia, wander our kingdoms in tatters not knowing who we really are

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3 thoughts on “Hinduism: Liberation from Pleasures

  1. the atman means the self but not in the way we identify it as an individual. It means the whole entirety of the limitless universe. The whole of it is the “self” and we are a part of that self.

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