restricted access Part II: Trimārga: The Three Hindu Paths to Liberation
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Part II Trimārga: The Three Hindu Paths to Liberation One of the oldest, most popular, and most important ways of viewing Hindu religiosity is the distinction of three “paths”: karmamārga, the path of works, jñānamārga, the path of knowledge and bhaktimārga, the path of loving devotion . Some conceive of these as representing a kind of evolution of Hinduism —depending on which of the paths one considers the highest, the sequence would be altered accordingly. While it is a historical fact that the prevalence and full recognition of bhaktimārga took place after that of jñānamārga and that Ancient Vedic religion placed a major emphasis on karma or sacrificial ritual, the three paths coexisted for a long time side by side, and they also merge at many points. The actual Hindu practice contains elements of all with emphasis given to one of them according to personal preference. The idea of “religion” as a “path” is found in other cultures too—the idea of a plurality of equivalent paths is fairly unique to Hinduism. True, there is also rivalry between adherents of different Hindu paths, and some are suggesting that only one of them is the true path, the others being lower or incomplete —but the general understanding is that of equally valid options. Within each mārga the latitude varies. Karmamārga is a discipline that has to be followed fairly uniformly allowing only for minor local variants. Jñānamārga comes in various shapes: already the Upaniṣads specify thirty-two different vidyās. However, the need to have a teacher and the requirement of absolute loyalty toward the guru restrict individual choices once the guru has been selected. Bhaktimārga leaves personal choices wide open. Not only can one choose one’s Iṣṭa-devatā and call oneself a devotee of Viṣṇu, Śiva, Devī or another deva, one can also choose, within each sect, a variety of interpretations 120 PART II: T R I M Ā RGA and practices. It is especially the bhaktimārga that constantly brings forth new developments and movements. In spite of the many options between and within the different paths, Hindu religion is highly structured and tends to embrace a person’s entire life with its regulations. Hinduism is basically very conservative and many of the regulations going back to Vedic times are still effective in shaping the daily routine of millions of Hindus. Some of this routine is described in the chapter on karmamārga: the path of works. Hinduism, like all traditional religions, was always aware of the ethical dimension of life and of the fact that the moral universe is fragile and in need not only of being preserved but also of being constantly restored. Notions of guilt and sin play a great role in Hinduism and devices for righting wrongs and for the atonement of sins occupy a large place in the life of many Hindus. Rites of passage are fairly universal—Hinduism has designed elaborate rituals in its saṃskāras not only to accompany its members into the next stage of life but also to augment their spiritual powers and to ensure personal fulfillment. More than anything else it was the jñānamārga, the path of knowledge, that was found attractive by non-Hindus, who admired the deep wisdom and spiritual insights of the Hindu sages. The Upaniṣads and the literature based on them deal with human universals, the discovery of one’s true self and the soul of the world, liberating knowledge, and the final emancipation. Whilethekarmamārgapresupposeshigh-castestandingandthejñānamārga is largely for an intellectual elite, the bhaktimārga, the path of loving devotion , has universal appeal: it promises salvation and heaven also to low-caste people, to women and children and even to animals. Great waves of God love have swept over India periodically and have left behind large congregations of devotees, an enormous treasure of inspired poetry, thousands of beautiful temples, and millions of images in which the deities are physically present to their worshippers. Only some moments of this history of God intoxication can be recalled in the chapters on Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Devī—only a small amount of literature can be referred to, and only very inadequately can the fervor be described that animates Hindus who celebrate the great feasts in honor of their deities in the major centers of devotion. Although all of India has in the course of the last...