What solutions to the human predicament does Hindu tradition propose?
Hindus seek the ultimate spiritual goal of liberation through any of four traditional ways or paths called margas, “methods of seeking” or yogas, “joining by means of discipline.” The most ancient and slowest method is that of ritual action, karma. Originally associated with scrupulous fulfillment of the prescriptions of Vedic ritual practice, karma is kept within reach of contemporary Hindus by interpreting it as “unselfish service.” In that sense the way of action recommends itself to all, even in the absence of a vital tradition of ritual sacrifice.
The second path begins with the conviction that ignorance causes suffering. Intuitive experiential knowledge (jñana) is available through various intellectual and meditative disciplines associated with a variety of philosophical approaches called darshanas (“views”). Most of all, the way of knowledge seeks the full realization of the perfect oneness of all reality and the illusory nature of our instinctive conviction that individuality of persons and multiplicity of all things is the substance of life. It is a difficult and abstract method attractive to relatively few people. Its best-known form is that of Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta school.
Closely associated with the way of knowledge is a path that uses the formal disciplines popularly known as “yoga.” Proceeding from the conviction that suffering is the result of physical and mental distraction, meditational yoga combines various physical practices (hatha yoga) designed to control one’s physiological states, with belief in divine assistance toward higher contemplative states (raja yoga). Far more popular and accessible is the way of devotion or bhakti (“participation”). Whereas the way of knowledge seeks realization of a union that already exists in an impersonal Ultimate Reality, the way of devotion seeks to cultivate the union of the two distinct parties to the divine-human relationship. Bhakti (from a root meaning “to participate”) connotes dedication to a personal God whose love, mercy, and grace elicit a response of complete faith and surrender. It proceeds from the conviction that suffering arises out of separation from one’s divine source and goal. The devotee approaches God in full confidence of divine protection and the hope of salvation.