Understanding Hindu Metaphysics
I will attempt to describe the fundamental philosophical and metaphysical conceptions almost all thought structures of Hinduism share. The consideration of which will give greater appreciation for other cultures and religions, help the seeker clarify his/her thoughts on the nature of reality, and should make more understandable certain aspects of yoga and spiritual practice.
The most central concept of Hindu metaphysics is Brahman, or Absolute Reality. Brahman lays at the foundation of all existence. All other levels of reality have come from it and will eventually collapse back within it. Now the primary purpose of human existence, it to realize the identity of the self, or truest, spiritual essence (called Atman) with Brahman. This "soul," we might call it, although that is not the best term because of its Western and Christian connotations is stuck, we might say in a level of reality called "maya" (or illusion). Our perception of existence is illusory, because we fail to understand and experience the oneness of Self Atman) with Brahman (Ultimate Reality). Instead of oneness, we experience separateness, age, sickness, death, and the ephemerality of things. Thus, the spiritual quest, for all Hindu-related religious and spiritual movements, is to re-unite or re-realize the identify of Atman and Brahman. The best ways to do this, and how one can or should approach and unify with Brahman, are the questions which have created different the diversity we see today in Hindu thought and practice.
All schools will recognize that Brahman is unmanifest, unbounded, and infinite. They term these characteristics nirguna, or without aspects or form. Brahman exists beyond time, space, and the other aspects of maya that cause all manner of our human suffering. Brahman, however, gives rise to reality in its pluralism and multiplicity. These "grosser" and less spiritualized states of existence have particularity, individualized existences, in the case of the human being, we call these the "ego-selves." Anything that exists in these states of manifest existence are part of the Brahman's saguna (with form) existence. The manifest and physical aspects of reality are often characterized as feminine, where the nirguna Brahman is identified as masculine. The dynamic between the masculine and feminine aspects of reality is central to Hindu thought and metaphysics. In some sense, Brahman exists and brings about existence through this gendered dyad. Without the feminine, purusa, (the principle of subjective consciousness and cosmic identity) the essence of Brahman, cannot come into being. Likewise, without the masculine characteristics of consciousness and the seeds of reality, prakrti (ever-changing nature and fundamental matter) cannot truly be alive nor can it come into being.
To sum up -- Brahman, the most fundamental aspect of reality exists beyond all form and phenomenal reality (described as nirguna), is likened with masculinity, and is the activating force of consciousness and cosmic identity. Brahman manifests, thanks to his shakti (activating force), personified as feminine and often identified as a specific Goddess (Lakshmi, Parvati, Devi, Kali, Durga, etc.). In this state all things are composed of prakrti (matter) and are individuated, separate, and multiple. At a certain point in the manifestation process, reality forgets its identity with Brahman (Ultimate Reality), which is described as the state of maya (or living in illusion). The spiritual quest, then, is to realize the unity of trust, ontological self (Atman) with Brahman.
Different traditions and practices recommend different avenues of uniting Atman with Brahman. Firstly, however, one must discern the true, manifest, identity of Brahman and his shakti in order to approach and unite with it. Some worship Shiva as Brahman and Parvati as his shakti. Others will argue that Vishnu is truly Brahman and Lakshmi is his shakti. You can imagine how this goes. All theological arguments, of course, are rooted in various texts -- the Bhagavad Gita forms the basis for much Vaisnava worship (focusing on Vishnu, and particularly Krishna as the Godhead), and various Puranas (holy texts in the Hindu corpus) advocate certain Gods (from Shiva to Vishnu and others). Most commonly you will find Shiva or Vishnu (specifically, one of his avatars [forms], particularly Rama or Krishna) as the argued deity who is identical to Brahman, but this is not always the case.
The god and goddess identified with Brahman is of utmost importance, because their characteristics inform spiritual practice. For example, Vishnu is the god of protection and preservation. His consort tends to be Lakshmi, who is a purveyor of affluence, material acquisition, and good luck. It would be logical, then, that living a householder's life, serving the state and preserving social norms, and focusing on material well-being would be part of living a spiritual life. However, Shiva, the god of destruction and an ascetic himself, inspires a different call to the spiritual. It is not through the fulfillment of one's dharma (social or karmic role) nor through devotion and love-offerings that one progresses spiritually. It is through meditation, renunciation, and asceticism or even the inversion of societal standards, actions in which Shiva himself engages in his mythology.
Thus, while most Hindu religions and spiritual groups maintain a similar metaphysical understanding of reality, the character of Brahman, as identified with one of the traditional gods of the Hindu pantheon, informs different understandings of life, reality, and how one is to live a spiritual life and realize the identity of Atman and Brahman.
If you find this interesting, I recommend reading some of the books below to further explore the details and particularities of various thought groups within the umbrella of Hinduism. The videos might also help you.
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda — A must for any yogi
- Tantra: Path of Ecstasy by Georg Feuerstein — The author is world-renowned
- Ramayana: India's Immortal Tale of Adventure, Love and Wisdom by Krishna Dharma and Valmiki Ramayana — One of the main epics of Hinduism
- The Mahabharata — India's greatest epic
- Srimad Bhagavata by S.S.Cohen — Main text that justifies Vishnu and Krishna as Brahman
- Bhagavad Gita — The most central devotional text for the worship of Krishna