As a 20-something with a colloquial vernacular made up of questionable grammar choices and off-beat sayings, the term ‘YOLO’ is one I’ve had plenty of experience with.
YOLO is an acronym for ‘You Only Live Once’. It’s meant to incite confidence, commitment, and the impulsive courage needed to help you face your immediate fears and live in the now. But when you’ve been raised within a faith that accounts for multiple lives, YOLO doesn’t have quite the same effect.
I’m an Indian-Australian who identifies as Hindu. In the Hindu faith – just as in Buddhism and Jainism – the concept of avatars (incarnations) and janmas (lives) are ubiquitous. In fact, reincarnation is the belief upon which the religion’s main teaching hinges upon.
In a nutshell, Hinduism treats life and death as an illusion or maya. Instead existence is believed to be infinite; life and death is just one big long continuum.
The goal of the religion is to break out of this never-ending illusionary cycle of life and death, called samsara.
So, the Urban Dictionary might have monopolised the catchphrase, but for us Hindus, those four little letters bear a gravity like no other.
A crash course in Hinduism
(*Different to 'Brahman' - That's a caste of people. It's not the same. I know. Hinduism is confusing.)
Everything and everyone is made of this Bramhan – from you to your friend, your pet dog to the flowers and trees outside, and even the phone/tablet/computer you are reading this article upon right now. All of it is made of the one same unifying thing: Bramhan.
It’s also why Bramhan is referred to as the paramaathma – (parama meaning supreme and aathma meaning self or soul).
The end game of Hinduism is to truly realise and see that everything is the same. That everyone’s aathma (soul) is just a part of the paramaathma (the supreme soul). And until you make that epiphany you’re stuck in this ongoing cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Like a broken record of existence.
That epiphany is called nirvana.
Songs have been written about it, hipsters meditate to reach it, and a band was named after it. So how do us mere Hindu humans on earth achieve this ever-enviable nirvana?
As per the scriptures, the best* way to detaching yourself from your wants and desires, because in Hinduism they aren’t real anyway.
(*Hinduism is based on a series of guidelines; there's no one path to nirvana. More on this to come.)
Thought Hindus worshipped many gods? You're right. But also wrong.
Kamesh Sankar, a scholar on Hinduism based in Delhi, India, explains the matter.
“These [many] idols and pictures are merely there for you to break beyond them,” Sankar tells SBS.
“We, as humans have six sense, five of which are external. The one internal sense, our mind’s eye, is only capable of seeing the paramaathma,” says Sankar, who has been teaching classes and writing papers on Hindu philosophy for the past decade.
“But our outward senses are so distracting, it makes it difficult to inner sense to gain control.”
Everything in the religion, he explains, from deities, rituals, reincarnations of deities, dogmatic practices are all tools to help condition your five external senses into focus to give your one inner sense a fighting chance at nirvana.
That might seem confusing on the surface of it, but the scriptures outline several ways to attain nirvana – detachment, good deeds, self-contemplation, and even music can help condition your inner sense to see the paramaathma in everything.
So what happens when you ‘die’?
A question about Hinduism I get asked a lot is ‘how does what you do in this life dictate what happens to you in the next one, assuming you’ll have one at all’?
The fact is, Hinduism is full of contradictory theories as to what exactly happens when you die. Different books within the Hindu scriptures describe a different series of events – from ascending peacefully onto you next phase to roaming the earth as ghost for three years if you were a murderer.
But ultimately one of two things happen. Either you’re aathma ascends to become one with the paramaathma (aka you attain nirvana).
Or you do this life thing again.
Is there a go-between? Like, in the words of my non-Hindu mate Amie, “are you just chilling in the clouds until you take on your next life?”
Well sort of. Last rites and funeral rituals ensure the deceased’s soul no longer feels trapped by the world of their most recent life. Once freed, the reincarnation process can begin.
Though there is also a school of thought that believes these last rites and funeral procession serve the living more than the deceased.
(As I learnt in Sunday school, if you’re liberated, the last rites mean little to your soul. You’ve already ascended and are beyond the need of such rituals)
So maybe YOLO isn’t as impactful for us Hindus? But it doesn’t mean we can’t get behind the hashtag and urban vocabulary sentiment. The idea of living each day like it’s your ‘conscious’ last is still a powerful impetus for action.
Though if you’re a Topshop loyalty card-toting, Macca’s all-day breakfast obsessed Hindu like me, you’ve probably got a few more lives left in you.
Join Shaun Micallef as he travels around the world, in search of spirituality in the documentary series, Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven. The final episode airs on SBS on Wednesday 1 February at 8.30pm. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.