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Slavation in Hinduism

In the earliest strata of Hinduism, the Vedas, there is very little discussion of the afterlife, and
really only a vague notion of salvation. Some texts, such as the Rig Veda, suggest that different
people go to different places after they die, but there is little detail regarding the matter. This
was simply not the focus of the religion. Rather, the concern was the proper performance of
rituals that would keep the gods satisfied, and thus keep the cosmos in order.
Some in the Vedic world eventually rejected this sacrificial emphasis and set out to find a new
path, a path that would lead to eternal salvation. This path is among the focus of the Upanishads.
In these texts, there is much discussion of what happens after death. In a famous passage from
the Katha Upanishad, a sage named Nachiketas wins a boon from the god of death, Yama, and
asks the god what happens to humans after they die. Yama at first refuses to answer, and then,
after Nachiketas persists, tells the sage that if he wishes to know the answer to this question,
he must study the nature of the self, and in the process he will be able to leave both joy and
sorrow behind.
This is a typically cryptic message from the Upanishads, but it points to a basic understanding
of salvation articulated there: human beings continue to be reborn because they continue to
generate karma, and they continue to generate karma because they are ignorant. They are
ignorant of the true nature of the self. According to the Upanishads, the individual self, or
atman, is no different than the ultimate reality of Brahman. However, human beings are
deluded, and think they are different. They think "I am," and thus they grasp on to the things
of the material world. "I want . . . that is mine," and so on. But there is nothing that is not
encompassed by the ultimate, by Brahman. According to the Upanishads, if one knows the true
nature of the self—that it does not, in any ultimate sense, exist—then one will stop grasping.
If one stops grasping, then one stops generating karma. And when there is no karma, there is
no rebirth. One is released.
This release, called moksha, is ultimate salvation. The individual is absorbed in the ultimate,
Brahman, in the same manner that a stream or a river (a metaphor for the individual atman) is
absorbed into the ocean (Brahman). When one attains this state, rebirth stops. One is released,
forever. The individual is one with Brahman.
This path, the jnana marga or path of knowledge, is not the only means to attain ultimate
salvation. Indeed, Hinduism very much holds that there are many paths to reach the same
The Bhagavad Gita introduces the path of devotion, or bhakti marga. One can attain salvation,
in the context of this path, through selfless loving devotion to a chosen god. In the Bhagavad
Gita this god is Krishna, although because all of the gods in Hinduism are ultimately
encompassed by the overarching divine powerhouse Brahman, bhakti directed at any god can
lead to salvation.
Bhakti is often discussed in distinctly human terms, using human love as the model. A parent's
love for a child, for instance, is the model for the devotee's love of the god; a parent's love is
utterly selfless, absolute. Likewise, the love of a devotee for a god is also described in amorous
Some of the best-known and most beloved stories in Hinduism involve the love "affair"
between Krishna and Radha (a particularly beautiful example is the Gita Govinda, by the poet
Jayadeva). Krishna in these stories is a lovely young man who plays a bewitching flute. Radha
is a beautiful young woman. She is, however, a human being. She abandons her worldly duty
to be with Krishna. The point of these stories is that although worldly duties are importance for
the maintenance of society, love of the divine (here specifically Krishna) transcends the
worldly dharma. Through such absolute love, one attains salvation through the grace of the