Hinduism. . . gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavor of the human spirit. An immense many-sided and many staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, Santana Dharma . . .
Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth
Hinduism and the Future
Can a religion evolve over time, revise its fundamentals, and respond creatively to new conditions and demands? Or is religion to be forever bound to its initial conditions, forever repeating revelations and beliefs of its founder or founders? If humanity evolves in consciousness over time, should religions not evolve as well? Do religions have an evolutionary relevance for humanity?
The answers to all these very important questions will depend largely on how a religion has originated and evolved over time so far; and how its followers have been able, or allowed, to use the religion in their own personal spiritual quests and journeys.
For the purposes of our analysis, we will be classifying religions as either static or dynamic. A static religion is one that is organized around a central and more or less fixed belief system originating directly from its founder or founders; a dynamic religion is one that is mystical / spiritual and does not adhere to a particular belief system or values.
A dynamic religion is therefore evolutionary while static religions are conservative. But this is not always entirely true. In reality, things are more nuanced. No religion is either wholly dynamic or wholly static: all religions have some evolutionary elements and possibilities and some conservative elements and practices. What makes a religion dynamic is how the evolutionary and the conservative are balanced in application and practice, what is emphasized and what is de-emphasized over time. Responsiveness and adaptability would be significant markers of a dynamic, evolutionary religion, whereas rigidity and strict adherence would be markers of a static and conservative religion.
In the initial sections of this article, we shall explore the Hindu dharma to see what its evolutionary possibilities are and whether it can remain spiritually relevant for a 21st Century humanity.
Hinduism and Evolution: Can a religion evolve over time?
If a religion is bound to a particular sacrosanct tradition or infallible theology, a particular prophet, messiah or scripture, then obviously it cannot. For a religion to evolve, it must also necessarily be able to outgrow several of its traditional beliefs and practices. There can be no real growth without a certain outgrowing of forms and formulations no longer relevant or meaningful to those who follow the religion.
For a religion to evolve, it must keep the spirit of enquiry as its principal value and experiential spiritual knowledge as its core.
Hinduism is arguably the one religion that has the potential of evolving into newer forms and bodies of experience and knowledge more suited to a humanity of the 21st Century. And it can do so precisely because Hinduism has grown as a religion only by a constant revision and evolution over ~5000 years of its existence.
Hinduism, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, has always been a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavor of the human spirit. This is how Hinduism, as a vast and varied body of spiritual knowledge, has grown over the years: by continuously enlarging itself, emphasizing an uncompromising spirit of enquiry instead of strict adherence to belief, and insisting on Truth instead of dogma.
Direct spiritual experience has always been valued more in Hinduism than dogmatic beliefs and scriptural references. Shruti (what is revealed and heard) and sakshatkara (direct seeing and knowing) have always been profoundly important in the Hindu tradition and preferred over any other source or authority.
It must however be noted here that shruti, direct intuitive and spiritual revelation, is a dynamic ongoing process. What is revealed to one Rishi (seer, sage or prophet) can be superseded by what is revealed to another, at a later time or even contemporaneously. The Hindu dharma has always unambiguously stated that no one seer or prophet can have the final or last word. Consciousness is a dynamic and ever-evolving process and there can be no single end-product of such a process. No seer or prophet can be the final word, but every seer and prophet of Hindu dharma is a necessary link, a stepping stone, to the Supreme Truth. Each seer and prophet is a facilitator, a teacher and guide, and each has his or her place in the Hindu scheme of things.
It is true that the Hindu dharma has its scriptures, but it is not bound to any of its scriptures, it considers no scripture infallible as it considers no teacher or seer infallible. Fallibility, in fact, is a basic assumption of the Hindu dharma. As long as one lives in relative ignorance, and as long as one has not become completely identified and one with the Supreme Truth Consciousness, one will always be fallible.
The only “infallible authority” the Hindu dharma acknowledges and reveres is the Divine Truth within, the Inner Teacher and Guru, the Indwelling Divine or Ishvara.
This is important to understand: the final spiritual authority is the Truth within, Sat, accessible by anyone willing to devote his or her energies sincerely to this endeavor. It makes no difference to the Truth whether the seeker is low caste or high caste, atheist or believer, born into Hinduism or born into some other faith — Truth is Truth, and all human beings have equal access to it regardless of time or place.
If this be the central tenet of the Hindu dharma, then it implies that the source of the dharma is living and dynamic and cannot be fossilized within a historic structure or tradition.
This has enormous implications. For one, no true disciple of the Hindu dharma can quote scripture or teacher to block debate, dissent and revision; however exalted and advanced a teacher or Guru may be, the final arbiter is always the Inmost. This is the reason why, at a Vedanta conference in Madras, during a debate on a certain scriptural point, when a pundit objected to Vivekananda making an assertion because it was not sanctioned by authority, Vivekananda could retort, “But I, Vivekananda, say so!”
This is also the reason why Sri Aurobindo, one of the foremost exponents and exemplars of Hinduism, one who is widely regarded as a Maharishi in the Hindu tradition, could take Hinduism beyond its scriptural and traditional boundaries and extend its scope far beyond even what was attained and declared by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, inarguably one of the most revered texts for Hindus anywhere in the world.
As expected, the traditional orthodox interpreters and followers of the Hindu dharma could not stomach Sri Aurobindo’s bold innovations and criticized him openly for claiming that his Yoga was “beyond” all that was hitherto attained by all of the past Hindu Gurus and avatars.
Not only that, Sri Aurobindo also indicated, more than once, that the Hindu tradition of avatars (Divine Incarnations) was not a finished thing, there was no concept of the last avatar in Hinduism. As long as there shall be an evolutionary need for avatars, so long shall avatars be born upon earth.
Hinduism then contains the possibilities of further evolution — it has evolved so far through its foremost practitioners through the ages, and shall continue to do so, regardless of what the traditionalists feel. Whether the orthodox Hindu (Hinduism permits and absorbs within itself both the orthodox and the heretic, the traditionalist and the modernist) likes it or not, Hinduism is a dynamic and creative religion, not a static one. This is a fundamental difference between Hinduism and most other world religions.
Hinduism is dynamic and creative primarily because it is a spiritual and mystical religion at the core.
A spiritual religion, by definition, must follow the soul, the spirit in man; it cannot be the other way round where the spirit follows or is constrained to follow the religion. A religion that claims precedence over the spirit becomes external and non-spiritual; and a non-spiritual religion will inevitably become subservient to external authority (of the scripture, priest and the church) and will not allow the freedom of spiritual quest and expression to its followers. Any individual spirituality outside the theological or ecclesiastical confines of the religion will be regarded as heretical or blasphemous.
A spiritual or mystical religion, on the other hand, cannot have any theological or ecclesiastical confines as that would be a contradiction in terms. The soul in its quest for Truth will soar beyond all outer forms and formulations, as the Truth it seeks is infinitely beyond anything that even the vastest and wisest mind can conceive. Thus, as the consciousness evolves, so must the religion.
As the Vedas and the Vedanta reveal: Truth is vast, brihat, encompassing and transcending all space and time, and cannot thus be contained in any one timeframe, however cosmic that timeframe may be. Not only is it vast or brihat, it is universal and supra-cosmic, encompassing and transcending the entire cosmos, and thus cannot be contained by any one human sect, society, nation or religion. To claim that a particular community, faith or nation possesses this Truth would be like a sea wave claiming that it possesses the entire sea.
Hinduism is a spiritual and mystical religion because the source of Hindu thought and dharma is the eternal, living Truth of the soul or the spirit; and it is mystical because its entire body of knowledge and practice derives from direct and intuitive spiritual and yogic experience.
Thus, being spiritual and mystical at the core, Hinduism can, and indeed must, evolve into a religion in alignment with the needs and demands of a future humanity. It must not only be progressive but radical in accelerating the pace of human evolution. If this does not happen, Hinduism too, like most other world religions, will soon become obsolete and irrelevant, and die out in a few generations.
To stay dynamic and relevant, Hinduism must remain true to its core and spirit, and be open to change and revision, be willing to outgrow many of its past formulations and abandon many of its old dogmas, practices and beliefs.
Hinduism will need to preserve and revivify its Sanatan core, its deep and vast Vedic and Vedantic knowledge; and it will need to reach out into an equally vast evolutionary future, the seeds of which it hides in its heart as its supreme and final mystery — rahasyam uttamam.