Nature of Man





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       =======  Understanding Hinduism  =======

The Nature of Man according to Hinduism
By Swami Brahmeshananda
Sri Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math

According to Swami Vivekananda, the greatest exponent of the philosophy of the Vedas, which is also called Vedanta, man is Divine. To be able to grasp the profound significance of the Hindu concept of the Divinity of man, we must first review the various prevalent concepts of man.

Various concepts of man

Biologically, man is an animal with the species name homosapiens, whose fore-brain or neo-cerebrum is more developed than that of other animals. Consequently man is less governed by his instincts than other animals, who, due to preponderance of the lower brain or paleo-cerebrum are primarily driven by instincts. According to the medical materialists, man is a physiologically driven machine made of complex biochemical molecules. These basic concepts of man have been accepted by almost all the non-theological philosophers of the West, each of whom has added his own adjective to the animal-man. Greek philosophers considered man a rational animal. Aristotle has defined man as a political animal, and the American philosopher Benjamin Franklin calls him homo-faber, or tool-making animal. Man has produced tools as extension of his own body, as it were, and has increased his productivity manifold. He has harnessed energy, like steam energy, electricity, atomic energy, etc. He has produced devices that replace thought itself (automation, cybernetics). E.Cassier has emphasized that man is a symbol making animal and the most important symbol invented by him is the word through which he can communicate with others.

Of the Western thinkers, special mention must be made of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Freud's outstanding contribution is his discovery of the unconscious. But by laying too great a stress on sex as the most important driving force, he has reduced man into a sexual animal, the homo-sexuals, with far reaching psycho-social consequences which are too evident in the contemporary society to be mentioned. The whole aim of his system of psychotherapy is to help man attain sexual maturity. Marx believes that man is driven primarily by a desire for economic gains: he is a homo-economicus. However, in Das Capital, he has defined man as a social animal. According to him, if man fails to relate himself actively with others and with nature, he loses himself, becomes alienated; his drives lose human qualities and assume animal qualities. He becomes sick, fragmented, crippled human being.

According to Marx man is driven by two sets of drives: fixed or constant and relative. Sex and hunger fall under the first category, while relative drives like hate, avarice etc. owe their origin to certain types of social organizations.

The Hindu concept of man

This concept, to some extent, resembles the Hindu concept of man: 'Eating, sleeping, fear and sex are common to man as well as animals. In human beings dharma (i.e. restraint by moral rules) is extra and special. Without dharma men are no better than beasts.' According to Shankaracharya, this dharma is of two types: pravritti-lakshana and nivritti-lakshana. When one, observing the moral codes of conduct applicable to one's station in life and society performs actions for enjoyment (kama) and acquisition of wealth (artha), one is said to be following pravritti dharma. A time comes, however, when one gets disgusted with sense-enjoyments and acquisition of wealth and aspires for final emancipation (moksha). The one embraces what is called nivritti dharma, characterized by renunciation of all worldly desires and selfish actions, and resorting to spiritual practice to attain liberation. Man rises from animal to human level by accepting pravritti dharma i.e. by observing social injunctions. He ascends to godhood and becomes divine by embracing the nivritti dharma.

This Hindu concept of liberation, in turn, is based upon another concept of an ever pure, ever free, ever perfect, ever conscious spiritual entity in man called Atman (soul). According to Swami Vivekananda this Atman is the Real Man as against the body-mind complex which is only the apparent man. The relation between the real and apparent men has been beautifully described through an allegory in the Katha Upanishad:

Know the soul to be the master of the chariot and the body the chariot. Consider the intellect the charioteer, and the mind the reins. The senses, they say, are the horses, and their roads are the sense objects. The wise call Him the enjoyer when He is united with the body, senses and mind.

Real and apparent man

The Hindus have further elaborated this concept by stating that the real man or Atman is conscious, ever free, blissful and immortal. The apparent man consists of five sheaths which cover the soul or atman. These are (1) the physical body or the physical sheath, (2) the vital sheath or the sheath life-force, (3) the mental sheath, (4) the ego sheath, and (5) the Blissful sheath. According to another concept, the real man or the conscious soul or Atman has three bodies: (1) the gross physical body, (2) the subtle mental body and (3) the causal body which is made up of pure ignorance. At the time of death, the physical body dies, but the subtle mental body and the causal body remain and together with the conscious soul or real man, transmigrate to another physical body to be born again.

When we are awake, the gross physical body is active. In sleep, when we are dreaming, the physical body is inactive, but the mental body is active. But when we go into deep sleep and do not even see dreams, at that time even the mental body is not active and only the causal body in the form of ignorance remains covering the pure soul or Atman.

Western and Hindu concepts compared

From the above resume it would be evident that the Hindu concepts of the nature of man, his destiny and his drives are far more comprehensive and vastly superior to the western ones. For western thinkers man is either an animal or a machine. Hindus on the other hand believe that he is essentially divine. Secondly, whereas western savants have postulated only three ultimate goals for man, viz. sensual enjoyment (kama), acquisition of earthly riches (artha), and fulfilment of social obligations (dharma), the Indian philosophers have postulated a fourth and final goal: liberation (moksha), the state of fullest manifestation of innate divinity and perfection. Thirdly, whereas Freud thinks that man must satisfy his passions to remain whole and healthy, Marx states that man cannot truly be a man unless he actively relates with others. Swami Vivekananda, however, says that 'man is man so long as he is struggling to rise above nature', both internal and external. Finally, western philosophers say that man's evolution is governed by drives and instincts. But the Hindu sages say that man's innate perfection is constantly trying to manifest itself and every effort on our part simply acts as a remover of barriers to its manifestation.

Implications of the concept of divinity of man

Swami Vivekananda laid the greatest stress, in his message, on the divinity of man because he knew men are divine, and since truth liberates, the only way to be free was to perceive the truth of one's divinity. Secondly, we tend to think and act according to our concept of ourselves. This has profound practical, psychological and social implications. The concepts of man as a sexual, economic, tool-making or social animal may be useful to individual or society to a certain extent, but they are restrictive. If we consider ourselves sexual animals as Freud wants us to believe, sexual shall we become. If we believe we are economically driven machines, we shall run after money. If we think we are social animals, we shall become slaves of society. But if we consider ourselves ever free, blissful divinities, we shall enjoy freedom and bliss.

Swami Vivekananda used to illustrate this truth with the help of the story of a lion cub which was reared along with a herd of sheep from the very day of its birth. As it grew, it learnt to bleat and eat grass. Then this flock of sheep was attacked by another lion. He was surprised to find a full grown lion running away in fear. He caught hold of this younger lion, dragged it to the forest and told it that it was a lion and acting like a sheep did not befit it. To convince it, the older lion showed its reflection in the lake. The young lion was convinced that it was a lion and not a sheep and in a moment gave up its fear.

Once two young sons of a devotee were playing. One was Vivek and another, Shirish. They, for the sake of fun, added 'ananda' to their names, and became Vivekananda and Shirishananda, and, as their play demanded, started acting according to their new names. Vivek folded his arms and stood erect like Swami Vivekananda with a grave face. Shirish did the same. But then, for some reason, Shirish started weeping. Vivek was surprised, and asked his mother, 'Can Shirishananda weep?' That's it! Weeping does not befit Shirish as long as he is 'ananda', a dignified monk. If children can temporarily change their behaviour in play according to their assumed identity, can we not change our identity and behaviour permanently?

Normally, we consider ourselves as physical body or a body-mind complex. It is extremely difficult to consider oneself as a conscious soul free from body and mind, and free from the five coverings or three bodies. All the Hindu scriptures are meant to teach this concept of immortal, pure, blissful, eternal soul as man's real nature. This is the central theme of the whole Hindu philosophy and religion, which is taught in various ways through reason, mythology and stories.

What do we mean by divinity?

When it is said that according to Hinduism, man, in his essential nature, is divine, it causes confusion in many minds. Because by divine we generally mean God, and there are various views about God. Not only that, there are a large number of people-- secularists, materialists, communists, even Buddhists and Jains-- who do not believe in God. So unless it is clarified what we mean by divine, and what is the concept of divine in the scriptures of the Hindus, the Vedas, the confusion would persist.

Let us begin with certain primitive concepts of God. Our ancient aboriginal ancestors worshipped a God. Their God was generally a tribal God, a God which protected their tribe and helped the tribesmen to defeat the other tribes, who too had their God. This tribal God was very similar to the tribesmen, but was much more powerful. It is said by Swami Vivekananda that if a buffalo were to think of God, it will think of it as a big buffalo.

One concept of God found in the Vedas is that He is the ruler of certain elements of Nature. God Indra was the controller of
clouds and rain. Varuna controlled the ocean. Vayu was the wind-  god and Agni was the fire-god.

Now, if we analyse the above mentioned two concepts, we shall find an interesting common factor. In both the tribal god as well as the god as controller of natural element, there is less limitation than an ordinary human being. The tribal man cannot defeat hostile tribes, but the tribal God can. Man has no control over nature, but Indra, Varuna and Vayu have. Thus God is he, who  can control the external nature, be it man, animals or elements. Hence Swami Vivekananda has said, "Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest the divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal."

In the course of human evolution, human beings have gradually learnt to control nature with the help of science. Man has conquered the ocean by making a ship and a submarine. He has conquered space by making an aeroplane. He can produce fire and  extinguish it at will. He can protect himself against rain. The whole history of mankind is an attempt to conquer nature and become God himself. Sociologically it will be noticed that those peoples or races or nations who have greater security and prosperity are less prone to worship a God outside. They are less religious as compared to the poor nations, poor peoples, because poor people have not been able to manifest the divinity defeating the enemies in the form of nature and hostile men and animals.

Conquest of internal nature

But as civilization progressed, the humankind searched within and found that there is also an internal nature--the mind. Mind has its desires, ambitions and weaknesses. Man can become greedy, angry, and in the fit of anger and greed, he can do evil deeds which might cause suffering to himself and others. It was realized that to conquer our mind is far more difficult than the conquest of external foes. So, man started finding a way to conquer the internal nature. The religious way is essentially the method of the conquest of the internal nature or the mind. A person who fully conquers his passions, desires, likes and dislikes, aversions and attachment, even his love for life and fear of death, such a man in India is called Mahavir, the great conqueror. Such a person is worshipped as God because he or she has manifest the divinity within fully.

The Hindus have evolved a number of methods to conquer the mind and thus manifest the divine nature. One such method is yoga. A perfected yogi develops tremendous powers. According to the books on Yoga, a Yogi can fly in air, can become small as an ant or become big as a mountain. He can disappear from sight. He can even create new planets and govern them. He can read the thoughts of others, see things far away and can listen to very distant sounds. If a Yogi gets perfectly established in truth, whatever he would speak will come to pass. If he practices non-injury to perfection, a stage comes when people lose their hostility in his presence. A lamb and a lion will sit fearlessly in the presence of such a Yogi. There are a number of such results possible by the practice of Yoga. Thus we find that Divine or Divinity of man also means the conquest of Internal nature or mind. Hindus believe that all minds are interconnected. In fact the yogis believe that there is one ocean of mind throughout and our individual minds are like whirlpools at localized places. So they say that if one can control one's own mind, one will be able to control all minds.

A third higher concept of divinity is also found in Hinduism.
Although, as described above, by the practice of yoga one can get these superhuman powers, the highest yogic attainment is freedom from the bondage of nature. In spite of attaining the powers described above, a yogi may still be egoistic and selfish. He may use them to harm others. If he misuses them, he loses them and  again becomes an ordinary human being. So the highest manifestation of divinity is the total freedom from the internal nature (mind) and external nature.

Relation between God and soul

According to the Vedas, the scriptures of the Hindus, the highest Divinity or God is called Brahman. This is actually another name for God. Brahman is said to be present everywhere, pure, conscious, immortal bliss and knowledge absolute. It is said that the human soul is also of the same nature. According to one school of Hindu philosophy, man and Brahman in their real nature are one. According to another school of Vedanta, individual soul is a part of Brahman, like a limb in a body or a branch of a tree. According to the third school, individual soul is separate from Brahman but related to it, and of same nature. We do not need to go into these philosophical details. The main point is that the soul of man is pure, immortal, conscious, full of bliss and knowledge. These characteristics are covered due to mental impurities like attachment and aversion, fear, hatred, anger, lust, etc. As one removes these, one gets more and more joy, more and more knowledge.

Divinity in all

When the Hindus say that man is divine, this means that all men and women are divine. When by following the discipline of yoga, one starts realizing that one is divine and not mortal, he also, to that extent, starts seeing that others are also divine and he starts behaving with others similarly.

There was a saint named Pavahari Baba in India a hundred years ago. One day a thief entered into his cottage. As he was tying the bundle of the stolen goods, the saint woke up. Leaving the stolen articles behind, the thief ran. The saint also followed him with the bundle of articles. After a long chase, the saint caught the thief, and with folded hands addressed the thief as God and gave the bundle to him. The result was that the thief was transformed, gave up stealing and became himself a saint. Since  the saint saw the divine within himself, he actually saw the same in the thief. His experience of this divinity was so strong that he behaved also in the same manner. This conviction forced the thief also to think that he too was God. Pavahari Baba used to see God in snake, cat, rat, dog, in every creature. Only such saints of spiritual realization can prove by their actions the truth of the Divine nature of man. But they also prove that every one can realize one's true divine nature.


About the author:

Swami Brahmeshananda is a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Mission, a world-wide religio-spiritual Hindu organization, founded by Sri Ramakrishna, a great man of God, and his chief disciple Swami Vivekananda who preached the philosophy of Vedas (Vedanta) all over the world. For details, visit

Swami Brahmeshananda has been trained as a medical doctor and has served the sick people considering them as God for more than two decades in the hospital of the Ramakrishna Mission in Varanasi, India. He served for several years as the editor of the Ramakrishna Mission's English monthly journal, Vedanta Kesari. He has written four books on religious and philosophical subjects.

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