I was fortunate to learn of the lectures being conducted by Professor Satya Pal Sharma at the East-West Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Professor Sharma kindly consented to an interview.
Professor Sharma is in his late fifties, but he moves actively and vigorously like a youth. A man of medium height, he has straight, black hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a broad smile.
He complimented us for being on time. We removed our shoes and entered his apartment. Hindus are famous for their hospitality. Professor Sharma insisted we first have a cup of tea. He explained that he had lectured around the world on Hinduism, so I felt very comforted that I had finally succeeded in gaining a chapter on Hinduism. He also mentioned that he had served as a Hindi officer in the Ministry of Education in India, in addition to being the Professor of Hinduism at St. Paul’s Theological College in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the author of Know Your Religion, among other books.
With tea pleasantly completed and an atmosphere of good will filling the room, we began.
RA: What shall we call you?
“Punditji,” 1 he answered.
“Punditji, it’s a pleasure to interview you today.” I asked him to begin with a thumbnail sketch of his background.
“Now I am fifty-seven years old,” he began. “When I was only eight years old I was sent to Kurukshetra which is in Haryana, then I went to Gurukul University in Brindaban (also, Vrindavan), which is the birthplace of Krishna.”
“I’ve been there,” I said.
“You’ve been there?” He seemed pleased. “The difference between the modern education and the ancient education is that in ancient education the disciples or students went to live with the teacher. But nowadays the teachers come to the students.”
Professor Sharma, in explaining the ancient tradition of education used the terms Gurukula (Guru, or teacher, school) and shishyakula (student school). His explanation, in turn, caused him to comment that the English language, and most European languages, came from ancient India.
Somehow we also began discussing religious persecution during the second World War and he said quickly, “What I think is people should not blame any religion for all these (persecutions).”
RA: What should we blame?
“A person,” he answered.
RA: Which particular person?
“According to Hinduism, don’t blame even the person — blame the bad habits in that person. A person is not bad or good, it’s only the habits. When the habits change, the person changes.”
I brought him back to the original subject.
RA: So, we left you at this Gurukul Institute.
He nodded. “The Gurukul Institute that is in Brindaban. I studied there for fourteen years and the studies were done in Sanskrit — no other language, only Sanskrit. I studied grammar, the Upanishads, philosophy, the Vedas, everything in Sanskrit. Now I am again digging down in these studies and see them in a new light. I don’t say that Hinduism is the only way to get this new light.”
He waved his hand, “So, after fourteen years of study, then I became an officer in the government of India in the Ministry of Education. Then I took retirement.”
RA: I see. So you spent your career as an administrator?
I noticed a gap of information between his becoming a government officer and then retiring.
“Hindi officer,” he responded.
RA: So you were a Hindi officer in the Ministry of Education. That was your career?
“Yes, after the government I went to Nairobi. I worked in the religious seminary there and for four years I was Professor of Hinduism at St. Paul’s Theological College where people are trained to become Catholic priests. I taught them Hinduism.”
“That’s wonderful. Wonderful. And then after four years at Nairobi . . . ?”
“Four years there and then a lecture tour. I went to Canada, to England. I spoke on Hinduism and gave lectures in English and Hindi and Sanskrit. And then we had a very good interfaith conference in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. That is the capital of Natal. Then later we had interfaith conferences in Canada, and now in Los Angeles.”
Satisfied that I had succeeded in getting a thumbnail sketch of this well-traveled and much-studied scholar, I asked:
RA: Would you please tell us what is Hinduism?
“Hinduism. There is one root word in the term ‘Hindu.’ It is called hidi. Hidi means a man who moves on the path of spirituality, and who neglects all the worldly pleasures and other passions for that spiritual upliftment. He is a Hindu.
“Now, when people ask me, ‘What do you mean by Hindu?, I say there are five letters in the word Hindu. H stands for honesty, I stands for integrity, N stands for nobility, D stands for devotion, and U stands for unity. And, I say any person who strives for these ideals is called patasheela, which means five good things.
“You may believe in any cult you want, any path you want, but do you believe in honesty, do you believe in integrity, and nobility, devotion, and unity? If you do, you are a Hindu.
“So this is why we say to people of other religions, ‘Go and convert others, as you like. Christians, go and convert. Islamic people, go and convert others.’ But Hindus never convert anyone because anyone who holds to these five values is a Hindu by birth. Why should I try to convert you?”
Seeking clarification, I asked,
RA: Would other Hindu people agree with your definition? I just want to be sure that this is a common Hindu view.
I recalled being admitted to some Hindu temples and literally being bounced out of others.
Professor Sharma then opened a book by S. Radhakrishnan, a great philosopher and former president of India. Either reading or paraphrasing from the book, Punditji said, “Hinduism has no creed by which it may be said to stand or fall. But it is convinced that the spirit will outgrow the creed. For the Hindu, every religion is true if only sincerely and honestly followed.” 2
“That’s very beautiful, beautiful,” I said.
Professor Sharma nodded. “And one thing more. Even in Hinduism there are those who are outlaws, who have not seen the new light. And there are those just like Dr. Radhakrishnan who have lived in the tradition but have also seen the new light. A person who wants to evaluate his own religion without coming to the new light, he cannot do that. This new light sheds real light upon his own original thinking.”
RA: What do you mean by ‘the new light?’
“There are very few people who can understand the religious books and their real interpretation. When there are so many branches in Christianity, the Bible has not been interpreted in the correct way. Similarly, those who are not studied in Indian philosophy or Indian culture misinterpret the Indian philosophers. But, as we think in the spirit, then that spirit brings us to a higher level. It speaks to us. So, I read whatever philosophers have spoken from the high level of spirit. Spirit sheds new light on what I studied in Sanskrit.”
“Are you saying,” I tried to understand, “can I put it in these words — please use your own words if you prefer — are you saying that God is bringing about a collective revelation to humanity? Are you saying there’s a change that’s necessary because it’s an act of God, or spiritual fact, that one must have this new light regularly, throughout the ages?” I struggled for words.
“I am saying there are souls who think that the time has come when this struggle, this strife, all these quarrels, should be done away with.”
We sipped tea thoughtfully. I went on with my next question,
RA: In the new light of Spirit, what is the relationship between God and man, if any?
“In Christianity there is only one son of God. According to Hinduism, every soul is the son of God. We are all children of God, and that is why we call ourselves arya. Arya means ‘the son of God.’ We are all sons of God.”
“Are we all sons of God whether we know it or not?” I asked.
“Whether we know it or not. A son is a son.”
RA: What’s the difference between a son who does not know he’s a son of God and one who does know?
He smiled. “Suppose there are two sons of one father, and one son obeys his father. He follows the path of his father. Suppose this father was a very saintly person. Then, that son becomes a saintly person. But the other son — who does not know and does not obey — does not follow the path of his father. He will go to hell. The son who followed his father goes to heaven.
“Similarly, whether we know it or not, we are sons and daughters of God. But I do not say daughters particularly because the soul has no gender. It is neither a male nor female. So, we call the soul a child of God. I hear some say, ‘Jesus is the son of God, the only son of God.’ Am I not the son of God, too? And, can a woman not be the son of God, too? So, we Hindus say we are children of God.”
Then Professor Sharma and I discussed the subject of sin.
“Some religions say,” Punditji thought a moment, “that if I commit a sin and go to church, or go to the heavenly Father, and I confess, ‘Oh, Father, I have committed sin,’ that I shall then be free from that sin. We Hindus think this is wrong. Because once I have committed that sin, natural law is against me and I will get punishment from that natural law — which is being operated by God. Even if I pray to God, He won’t help me. So, what does Hinduism say? Don’t think that by praying to God, by going to the temple, you will be free from the punishment for your sins. You will be punished. This is natural law.”
I was surprised, having studied the views of many eastern saints — many of them Hindus — who say that God is forgiving, like a mother to her misbehaving child.
RA: But, do you not have forgiveness and grace in Hinduism?
“Grace is there, but grace doesn’t mean forgiveness,” Professor Sharma explained. “Grace doesn’t forgive. But, how does the grace work? Suppose a son, a small child, goes against the orders of the father. The father beats the child. That is the natural way the father should prevent the child from doing that bad thing again. But, at the same time, the father loves the child. He tells the child, ‘I told you not to do that act, but you have done it.’ He makes it clear why he has punished the child. The father then says, ‘Don’t worry,’ and the father gives love to his child. That love makes the child forget all the punishment.
“Similarly, when God punishes me for my sins, he gives me love with which I can endure that suffering. And so, I do not succumb to that suffering or forget the love because of the suffering. This is by his grace.”
RA: What is the goal of Hinduism?
“Perfection,” he answered.
RA: What do you mean by perfection?
“To become the perennial child of God, to become arya,” Professor Sharma answered.
RA: When you are a child of God, what are you like? What are your characteristics, what is your nature? What are your thoughts?
“For one thing, as it says in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Don’t think what is right, don’t think what is wrong. You will be confused.’ So just say, ‘Whatever God has said in his scriptures, I shall follow that.’ And what is this scripture, what is this knowledge given by God? It is the Veda. It is called the Veda. By Veda I don’t mean the book. Bible literally means book, but Veda does not mean book. Veda refers to the knowledge.”
RA: But which knowledge?
“The knowledge which is ever with God. It never perishes. And that is why the people ask me, ‘Christianity has been founded by Jesus Christ and Islam has been founded by Prophet Mohammed, and so all these religions have founders, who has founded the Hindu religion?’ And my answer is, there is no one man who has founded Hinduism. The founder of Hinduism is God. And all these people — Rama, Krishna, saints, and acharyas (great masters) — all these people, they never founded Hinduism.
“They were just tributaries of this main stream. They came and they explained all the principles and initiated people in the Veda — the knowledge of God which was necessary for that time, for those people. These great ones explained the Veda to the people in detail. That’s all. The great ones gave different explanations of the knowledge — the Veda. They were not giving any new religion.
RA: So, the goal of Hinduism is perfection — becoming the perennial child of God?
I sought to understand perfection more deeply.
“What is perfection?” he countered. “Perfection means to make the soul the real master. It means to be perfect spiritually — to be above the senses, to be above the passions, to be above other concerns. It means to be oneself — one’s true self. The pure and true self that is perfection. Once you attain that perfections you go and be part of the will of God. Without being perfect, your ego says, ‘Oh, God, help me. I’m coming to you.’ God says, ‘Be purna; purna means perfect.’ If you want to achieve that purna, become purna. After becoming purna, you say, ‘Yes, my father, now I am above that mask of ignorance and ego. Will you accept me?’ And God says, ‘Come in, my child. I’ll accept you.’ That is Hinduism,” he concluded.
RA: Is there a view in Hinduism that you cannot become perfect without God’s grace or God’s help?
“Two things must be there to become perfect,” Professor Sharma explained. “The first thing is not only do you need God’s grace, but you need God’s help. God must be with me. And then, the second thing is my efforts.”
RA: You’re saying, then, that perfection is achieved by God’s help and also your personal effort. Is there anything else?
“Study,” he answered.
RA: Anything else?
“That’s all. These three things.”
“Studies, personal effort, and God’s help,” I summed up.
“Right,” he answered.
“And perfection is achieved?”
“And perfection is where the soul is the master of the mind: the soul is the master of body, emotions, and the senses?”
I wondered what the Professor’s definition of the vitally important soul was.
RA: Since you say the soul, being the master, is the whole essence of fulfillment, could you tell me a bit more? What is the soul? What is its nature? And why doesn’t the mind pay attention to the soul? Why does the soul have to become the master? Why isn’t the soul automatically the master?
“If I want to go to the other bank of the river, I must go through the water. I should swim … or find a bridge. This world is like an ocean. It is called samsara, by the Hindus, meaning that which keeps moving on. The way for the soul to go to God is through the world only. By going through the world the soul gets to God. The soul has come into this world to achieve closeness to God.
“But, as the soul goes to God, what happens? Now comes the second test: temptation. The temptations come and occupy the senses. And, if the mind is caught in the passions — the temptations — it becomes a slave itself and it enslaves our emotions and senses. People call this enslavement maya. Often maya is defined as illusion. But, really, maya is not illusion. Maya is not an illusion. Don’t think God is a cheat to create this maya. It is only you, you are cheating yourself. The mind is so mighty that once it discards the passions, it can easily make the soul its master.”
RA: So, what is a better word than illusion?
“There is no illusion at all!” Professor Sharma said very strongly.
“There is no illusion here?” I felt the surprise, having heard the term for so many years.
“No, no illusion. Everything is real,” he explained.
RA: Are you saying that man misperceives the reality?
“Only when man becomes perfect does he see the reality. But before that he sees only partially. As the sun dawns in the sky, we get a little light. Then as the sun rises more, we get more light. It’s like that. When a man starts to go on the path of perfection, step by step, step by step, he sees the light. And then the light, those rays, guide him and he moves forward to the perfect light. So, we do not say that in our beginning efforts we don’t have any light. We do have it! But in small measure, in small quantity.”
“People who read this chapter may have a difficulty which I’d like to speak about now.
RA: It sounds like rising above the passions so that the soul may be the master is too hard for people — especially for husband and wife. What do you think about this difficulty and what does it mean in terms of most people ever experiencing the mastery of the soul? Is it possible to experience spiritual fulfillment while married, for example?
Punditji smiled at his wife. “Suppose these married people say, ‘Oh, God, please make me so that I can see you.’ Then suppose God actually comes to them and says, ‘Yes, I have come to you. I want to take you with me. Will you come with me?’ Then these people will say, ‘Oh, not now! Not now! Let me see you at the end of my life — let me tend to my children and my grandchildren, then I shall come to you! “‘ Punditji laughed.
“So, there are very few people who are really interested in getting this spiritual perfection,” he said. “They want some light but not spiritual perfection. Why? They like temptation and desire. They think of perfection in worldly terms — as money. They want all these things — good money, a good wife, good children.
“Most people are not bothered about spiritual perfection. Why? Because in order to have spiritual perfection they have to leave all of their attachments. And, once they leave their attachments, still they will say, ‘We have been deprived of something, we have lost some great pleasure.’ The way out for these people,” Professor Sharma continued, “is they should try to feel the soul. They should try to feel that bliss, in their prayer and in their meditation. They should enjoy things which are not worldly things.”
He gestured, “But really, you can look at it this way. A man should grow from whatever state he’s in. He leaves one state and moves to another when he’s perfect in the former state. It’s like this: a child who studies in class one learns and masters class one; then he passes to class two. That is, when he’s perfect in class one, he goes to class two. When he’s perfect in class two, he goes to class three. And so he goes through school. Similarly, here also, the husband and wife grow and develop in household affairs. They learn how to be a good husband and a good wife. They receive spiritual benefit and light as they grow, becoming better and better husband and wife, father and mother.
“So life is God’s class one, God’s class two, God’s class three, God’s class four . . . like that. If I go on learning the lessons and attaining perfection in one state, then I will be moved to the next position, and that perfection itself will lead me to the whole perfection,” he waved his hand.
Professor Sharma’s explanation of perfection led very naturally into the problem of salvation and I commented,
RA: I’ve asked other religious leaders this question which I’m about to ask you. Often the problem is one of vocabulary, so I’d like you to feel free to choose words that you prefer. How does the Hindu become fulfilled, or saved, or realized? Some religions say you must be saved, some say you must be realized, others say you must be fulfilled. Using whatever words you like, how does a Hindu become fulfilled, saved, or realized?
“Saved by whom?” Professor Sharma asked me back.
RA: Well, how does a Hindu find complete and perfect satisfaction? Is that a fair question?
“Complete satisfaction . . . .” Professor Sharma reflected.
“Perhaps I could ask you this way: How does a Hindu abide in God? What I’m trying to do is ask similar questions of different religious leaders. And if you can’t find words here that we can use, we’ll have to . . .
“I see.” He smiled. “About the word saved, we don’t believe in that.”
RA: You don’t believe that you have to be saved?
“God does not save me. I will have to save myself,” he said with conviction.
RA: About the word realized, how does a Hindu become realized?
“Realized by whom?” he countered.
RA: “Realized usually means, especially among yogis and devotees of other eastern paths, that one realizes or recognizes one’s spiritual reality and thus realizes that God is the Lord. This realization is not just mental but it’s a totally transforming experience.
“Right, but then it is not God who is to be realized. It means that I should realize my own true self,” he said.
RA: What you’re saying then is that the Hindu viewpoint is, ‘I should realize my own true self.”
“Right. Realize my own self, and after realizing my own self, I shall try to realize God. That is realization.
RA: And you don’t particularly like the word fulfilled? It doesn’t have much pertinence to a Hindu?
“I do not see how it fits in Hinduism,” he replied.
RA: Fine. Do you use the word enlightened? How does a Hindu become enlightened — if we haven’t already covered that?
“Enlightenment happens anytime,” he explained. “Perhaps you might have also experienced sometimes when you sit down and you want to do something. There is an insight, something inside you which says, ‘Do like this.’ That is enlightenment. And that light comes not from the soul or from the intellect or from within — it comes from God.
“So, if we sit in meditation and join ourselves — our own self with God, which is called yoga — automatically that light which is with God comes to me. It flows through me. That is enlightenment.”
He continued, “When I join myself to, or make contact with, the divine power, then the divine power itself flows through my self, and that self within me is called shakti, which means that the soul is getting the power from God. And that power is what Hindus call enlightenment.”
RA: Is that a major goal of Hinduism, enlightenment?
“No, it is the means. That’s all,” he explained.
RA: Enlightenment is the means by which the soul becomes the master and by which perfection is realized or attained? In other words, enlightenment enables . . .
“Enlightenment enables the soul to be perfect, and then after becoming perfect, to achieve God.”
RA: Could you explain the process by which a Hindu finds, realizes, or knows, perfection? I know we’ve talked about God’s help and man’s effort, along with the study of the scriptures, but is there a day-by-day or year-by-year process by which this perfection happens?
“Yes. We seek to become free of desire, then free of ego. How do you feel that you’ve become perfect? When you’re perfect you do not feel suffering, you do not feel pleasures. If you do not feel any attachment and if you feel yourself stabilized in all these circumstances which are normally against you, it means that you are going on the correct path. You can get the process in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter two.
RA: Which verses?
“Chapter two, verses fifty-five through seventy-two.” (Which read as follows:)
“The Blessed Lord said: When a man abandons.., all the desires of the heart and is satisfied in the Self by the Self, then is he said to be one stable in wisdom.
“He whose mind is not perturbed by adversity, who does not crave for happiness, who is free from fondness, fear and anger, is the Muni (sage) of constant wisdom.
“He who is unattached everywhere, who is not delighted at receiving good nor dejected at coming by evil, is poised in wisdom.
“When also, like a tortoise its limbs, he can withdraw the senses from sense-objects his wisdom is then set firm.
“Sense objects drop out for the abstinent man, though not the longing for them. His longing also ceases when he intuits the Supreme.
“The excited senses . . . impetuously carry away the mind of even a wise man, striving for perfection.
“The yogi, having controlled them all, sits focused on Me as the supreme goal. His wisdom is constant whose senses are under subjugation.
“Brooding on the objects of senses, man develops attachment to them; from attachment comes desire; from desire anger sprouts forth.
“From anger proceeds delusion; from delusion, confused memory; from confused memory the ruin of reason; due to the ruin of reason he perishes.
“But the disciplined yogi, moving among objects with the senses under control, and free from attraction and aversion, gains in tranquility.
“In tranquility, all his sorrow is destroyed. For the intellect of the tranquil-minded is soon anchored in equilibrium.
“There is no wisdom in the fickle-minded; nor is there meditation in him. To the unmeditative there is no peace. And how can the peaceless enjoy happiness?
“Just as a gale pushes away a ship on the waters, the mind that yields to the roving senses carries away his discrimination.
“Therefore . . . his cognition is well poised, whose senses are completely restrained from their objects.
“That which is night to all beings, in that the disciplined man wakes; that in which all beings wake, is night to the Atman-cognizing Muni (the Self-realized wise one).
“Not the desirer of desires, but that man attains Peace, in whom all desires merge even as rivers flow into the ocean which is full and unmoving.
“That man attains Peace who lives devoid of longing, freed from all desires and without the feeling of ‘I’ and mine.
“This.., is the Brahman (the Absolute, Pure Spirit) state. Attaining this, none is bewildered. Being established in it even at the death-hour, a man gets into oneness with Brahman.” 3
RA: So, among the things that happen are, you give up desires, and you give up ego. What are some of the main techniques for getting rid of desires and ego? Techniques, attitudes, or practices?
Professor Sharma laughed. “Do the work without having any desire or any selfishness. Live in that state. To do that work is your duty, and it is the work of God you are doing. If you think this way, automatically you will reduce your desire.”
RA: By work you mean not only a job but —
“Any work. Any activity.”
Too soon, it was time to ask my penultimate question:
RA: What is the Hindu view of other faiths?
“We believe in all faiths,” he said. “As I said earlier, we believe all these faiths are various ways and paths going toward God. We believe in all the ways that stand for honesty, integrity, nobility, devotion, and unity. But sometimes, what happens? Some people say, ‘Only those who come to this church will go to God — nobody else.’ The thing is, I should follow the correct way, the straight way, which leads me toward God. I ask you a question: How many straight lines can you draw between two points?” he asked.
“One and only one,” I laughed.
“Only one and one only,” he said. “So, we cannot say that all these different paths are straight and go toward God. There may be many ways and paths going toward God but not all of them are straight. And because of that, we have to find out the one straight way.
I looked at him surprised. “How do you find out one straight way? Are you saying, for example, that Hinduism is the only way?”
“No, no, no, no. I’m not talking that way. What I say is, to acquire the knowledge of God, the knowledge which has been given by God, know that. Follow it. That is the straight way. That’s all I’m saying. Be a child of God, have that knowledge, follow that knowledge. Don’t follow the path given by people. Follow the path given by God,” he spoke with enthusiasm.
“You’re really saying then that people’s interpretations, or ‘personality cults,’ should be avoided?”
“Right, right, because all these paths and ways that are created by men, not by God, they deviate us. They confuse us and mislead us so that we may go the wrong way,” he said. “One more thing I want to add ….”
“Please go ahead,” I encouraged.
“What our Hindu scriptures say was written down by rishis (enlightened men and women). Rishis were those people who were selfless. They were not like ordinary beings. Whatever they spoke, they were explaining the knowledge of God. If you want to see that knowledge, go through the books of the rishis — the Vedas, Upanishads, Darshanas — and you will find the direct way.”
RA: Punditji, how may we have a more peaceful world?
“I told you: have one God, one religion of humanity, and let all the people have one straight line which takes us to God,” he said.
“How can we possibly do that, with so many different views and different power structures?”
“This is why my aim in life is to bring all these religious leaders together at one forum and find out the one religious stream going through all these religions and ask each of them to join this religion and nothing else. Nowadays religion itself is in danger. If the religious leaders are not awakened now, if they are as selfish as they are now, if they are fighting with each other as they are doing now, the new generation is not going to accept religion. The new generation says that it is the different religions which have brought war into this world and created great international unrest. The new generation says different religions claim to teach love and affection, but what are they doing? Fighting with each other, fighting among themselves. Religion is a divided house everywhere. If religious leaders do not develop the power of tolerance now and if they do not try to love their neighbors, they will be doomed.”
RA: What exactly do you mean by doomed?
“Religion in this world will not be loved or practiced by the new generations. People have to start loving God and stop loving churches. We so-called religious people say to mankind, ‘Have tolerance, love one another,’ but to do that you have to sacrifice something — your prejudice and your prestige — for the sake of humanity. Then, you can go in harmony.”
I left Professor Sharma’s company with the hope that his passion, and the love of many other religious leaders, be shared globally. I hope the yearning hearts of all people can find understanding and finally agree. Enough to get along with one another. Enough to seek world peace together.
1 Pundit means a learned man, schooled in the spiritual scriptures of India. The suffix -ji is a term of respect.
2 From the book, Religion of Society, by S. Radhakrishnan, published by George Allen and Unwin.
3 The Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 2, verses 55-72, commentary by Swami Chidbhavananda, published by the Secretary, Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam, Tirupparaitturai, India. Used with the permission of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
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