Whenever I tell non-Indian people that I’m Hindu – I get one of two responses. Either they think I have some kind of imbed enlightenment gene that makes me highly spiritually advanced – or they think I worship animals and believe that I’ll reincarnate into one. I’ve heard enough of these ludicrous comments to just roll my eyes and move on. People who are proud of their ignorance don’t impress me.
Although I was born and raised Hindu, I spent ten years in an Anglican Christian school. At home, I meditated, read the scriptures – the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Vedas – and reluctantly visited the family astrologer now and then. At school, I was force-fed bible stories. I learnt about Christ and original sin and how God so loved the world that he sent his only son… Well, I take it most of you know the rest of that story. There was a huge gulf between what I was being taught at home and what I was learning at school. Add to that – growing up in secular Singapore meant that I was exposed to LOTS of other cultures and belief systems. And I haven’t even touched on Darwinism and the Big Bang theory.
Long story short, I was a closet atheist till the age of 22. Telling people that you’re an atheist in most Asian countries is not a good idea. So there you go – no imbed enlightenment gene and no belief in life after death let alone reincarnation. I was just a girl trying to figure it out. I still haven’t figured it out, but these days I’ve taken the time to learn a couple of things.
Fellow blogger Helsinki Budapest and I have a chat about one of my favourite texts of all time – the Bhagavad Gita. I read it for the first time when I was very young, and I’ve read it countless times since. I think it would be safe to say that the Bhagavad Gita is the most popular Hindu text in the Western world.
Helsinki Budapest: What is the Bhagavad Gita?
Dipa: The Bhagavad Gita is a 700 verse song or a poem that’s part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata: the longest epic poem ever written. To put it into context, the Mahabharata is approximately seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined; and three times as long as the Bible.
The Mahabharata is an intergenerational epic story that goes on and on and on and doesn’t quite come together till the very end. The Mahabharata’s main story revolves around two branches of a family – the Pandavas and Kauravas – who battle for the throne of Hastinapura in the Kurukshetra War. Interwoven into this main narrative are several smaller stories that all play their part before the final culmination when everything falls neatly into place.
The Mahabharata consists of 18 books; and the Bhagavad Gita corresponds to chapters 23–40 of the sixth book. So to say that the Bhagavad Gita alone can explain the entirety of Hindu beliefs would be like saying that a few chapters of the book of Genesis can explain everything about Christianity.
Helsinki Budapest: I’m sure you’ve encountered them as well, the ones who claim a monopoly on religion. So, in my post the pastor’s point was that reincarnation doesn’t exist because “if you look at the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna and those guys could not liberate themselves from it. And the soul does not reincarnate into an animal, that’s idiocy.” What are your thoughts?
Dipa: I think that death is the ultimate unknown. Having been exposed to a wide range of religions and spiritual movements across the world, I will say that each belief system tries to answer the question ‘what happens after death’ as best it can. But ultimately, I don’t believe that we can know with certainty what will become of us when we die.
Reincarnation – the rebirth of a soul in another body – is not a belief that is unique to Hinduism. The concept exists in the Kabbalah tradition of the Jewish faith as well as Pagan movements around the world.
Helsinki Budapest: Other than there are other works out there about reincarnation – and I’m not trying to take away from the beauty and wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita – wasn’t the whole point that you’re meant to reincarnate a few times to learn? And I’m deeply ashamed to admit I know nothing about it. So, talk to me like I’m a three-year-old kid.
Dipa: Samsara, karma and moksha are three concepts that make up some of the main tenets of Hinduism. Samsara is the belief that all living beings are bound to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The temporary body – which is born and must die – is the vehicle for the eternal soul.
Humans – and other living beings – will continue to participate in this cycle of death and rebirth till moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death. Moksha is seen by many as the ultimate spiritual goal in Hinduism. As to how one can reach moksha liberation – there are disagreements, even amongst Hindus (and Buddhists) as to how to reach this goal.
The concept of karma – the idea that you reap what you sow – is central to Hindu ideas of why samsara exists and how to attain moksha. If you do good deeds, you will be rewarded with good karma and vice versa. As to what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ karma – well, that’s a moot point.