Saturday, April 18, 2009

On Hinduism

Kupamanduka recently wrote a post that led to an acerbic reply form Ravikiran that led to further dicussion here. In a nutshell, Kupamanduka lamented the irreligiosity ( or at the very least, 'embarassed religiosity' ) of Hindus and asserted that there was nothing wrong with being more religious and more united with your fellow-reliogionists. In particular, he used the example of Islam and Pakistan (or more precisely, used somebody else's example of Islam and Pakistan) in an approving manner, though he made it clear that he doesn't admire Pakistan on the whole. He used parental love as an analogy, and also quoted this from Swami Vivekanada

"Then and then alone you are a Hindu when the very name sends through you
a galvanic shock of strength. Then and then alone you are a Hindu when
every man who bears the name, from any country, speaking our language or
any other language, becomes at once the nearest and dearest to you. Then
and then alone you are a Hindu when the distress of anyone bearing that
name comes to your heart and makes you feel as if your own son were in
distress. Then and then alone you are a Hindu when you will be ready to
bear everything for them."

Ravi took issue with the example of Pakistan, and I agreed whole-heartedly. He went on to theorise that excessive striving for unity is counterproductive, leads to narrow world-views and may even actively lead to disunity. I don't have an opinion on that yet, though I may just end up agreeing with him. Kupamanduka replied with a post that gave a ponderous justification of his stand using Hindu theological/ethical philosophy. Along the way, he wondered why people uninterested in Hinduism even bother about debates like these, dismissed the intersection of atheism and Hinduism as "non-sense" and most probably assumed that I am either unaware or uninterested in Hindu theology/philosophy. 

So let's take this bit by bit. So who is a Hindu, and what is Hinduism? More precisely, on what basis can those who claim to be Hindus do so? Being born in a Hindu household is enough for the Indian legal system, but it does not seem to be enough for Swami Vivekananda and Kupamanduka. They are more concerned with an adult self-concept, a resonance and identification with either certain ideas or a common way of life, beliefs and culture. In the strong form, one also has to resonate not just with the ideas and the way of life, but also with everyone else who holds the same beliefs and practices the same way of life. 

Consider Vievkanada's quote for example. The great man exhorts us to adopt a view of Hindu brotherhood that supercedes territorial boundaries and even a common way of life (language, etc.) Is this not at odds with the modern vitrue of patriotism? No, a cultural nationalist can easily retort. Why? Because according to one view, the identity of India cannot be derived from the modern European nation state alone, but has also to be derived from Hinduism, or at the very least, Dharmic religions. Thus, if you identify as Hindu, you cannot possibly be far removed from 'Indian'. ( I am not attributing to them the reverse implication, mind you). 

Very well then, what is the problem? Well, at this moment, this definition of Hinduism is very political. Indeed, almost any definition that bases itself on a sense of non-intellectual peer-identification is bound to be political. The idea of 'Hindu unity' is thus by definition political. The political nature of unity is even more pronounced in our times, when the chief causes for Hindu anguish are not religious (like the plundering of the Somnath temple by Mahmud of Ghazni, or the Jaziya tax of Aurangzeb) but political (terrorist attacks, preferential treatment of Muslims by certain political parties, 'pseudo-secular, liberal' bias in the media, demographic change in Tripura, Bengal and Assam through illegal immigration from Bangladesh, distortion of History textbooks by leftist intellectuals).

Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a sense of political unity - the trouble comes when one tries to locate the basis of a political identity in philosophical inquiry. The trouble arises when an analogy is made with parental love, ignoring basic evolutionary biology. The trouble arises when Swami  Vivekananda asks us to ignore geographic boundaries, which are the main source of political unity as they are the least suboptimal proxies for shared interests of utility. Most generally, the trouble arises when one constantly shifts from a reliogious/theological perspective of Hinduism to an intellectual/philosophical one to an identity/political one as per one's convenience in the argument.  

Kupamanduka wonders about the disinterest in Hinduism, but he never makes it clear what view of a 'Hindu' is he referring to anyway? Take my mother for example. She is deeply religious, in the 'prayer and destiny' sense. She is also a staunch political Hindu, though she will never bother herself with Hindu philosophical thoughts on the absence/ flaws of free will as a justification for a sense of Hindu unity co-existing with an attempt towards universal love (as kupamanduka does). She is also probably unaware of and uninterested in the particular concepts he quotes in that post. Does she qualify? Or take the example of a deeply religious businessman who builds a temple worth a 100 crores, but couldn't care less about the suffering of fellow Hindus. Does he qualify? Take Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an atheist who has even publicly lectured against the existence of God (by most accounts, though this is disputed) but who was the father of the modern Hindutva movement. Does he qualify? Or take any of a large number of young engineer kids (born in Hindu families) who are thrilled at the similarities between Advaita Vedanta and quantum mechanics and approach Hinduism through an extremely modern and scientific version of Shankaracharya's Gyan marga. Do they qualify? 

Do notice, that until now, I have only latched on to the main problems in the broader reasoning that he tries to follow. My question about his particular argument of Islam and Pakistan being good exmaples of the unity borne out of religiosity remains over and above these arguments. Kupamanduka says that he will answer this in the next post, so let's wait. 

In the next post, I will clarify my own world-view, my thoughts on the various differing conceptions of 'Hindu' and further outline my problems with the world-view espoused in the Vivekananda quote. 


Alan Smithee said...

I think you captured the essence of all the modern arguments surrounding Hinduism in the political sphere quite comprehensively when you said

"Most generally, the trouble arises when one constantly shifts from a reliogious/theological perspective of Hinduism to an intellectual/philosophical one to an identity/political one as per one's convenience in the argument."

Though I believe there is a hierarchy in all this, identity/political aspect being the broadest and least concrete.

froginthewell said...

BTW I wasn't shifting perspectives. My view and perspective of Hinduism are religious - this should be pretty obvious from my posts. You may say I haven't precisely defined a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for someone to be considered Hindu. But I don't think that matters, it is pretty clear which people I would consider as Hindus and which people I wouldn't ( given that my perspective is religious ).

And my intention was to justify the political perspective from the religious perspective.

Alan Smithee said...

I did not accuse of shifting perspective, but the whole sequence of you posting-ravikiran refuting-ritwik joining the fray has fallacy of equivocation at work. Like you mentioned in your posts, your unified group excludes Ravikiran and Ritwik, so to speak, and to gain admittance, they need to confirm to your definition of Hindu.

Whom you consider Hindu is pretty obvious - from a religious perspective. But the unity that you mentioned was of a political kind based on identity. Which is what interests Ravikiran and Ritwik. As I mentioned in my earlier comment, you need to broaden the net as you go from one perspective to the other.

That said, I think Ritwik wants to be counted in the broader political/identity group based on Hinduism, though he does not share your religious ideas. Ravikiran thinks groups of any kind have a net negative effect. He may agree that formation of groups is natural and inevitable, but might want to denounce any active/conscious effort to do so.

Btw, just so we are clear, I am one of the "hindu fascists" your post was originally meant to.

avataram said...

This is much better. Maybe I should have read this first.

Vivekananda was just a bombastic bengali who got a US visa long before I did. Why give him so much bandwidth?

A better bengali has already answered him: Amartya Sen. Maybe all we can do is to request Kupamanduka to read The Argumentative Indian and spare us his next post.

froginthewell said...

Sriram : I don't know if Ritwik wanted to be counted in the broader political group - he seems to be rather unsure about that ( but unlike many other IIM-ites, he doesn't consciously try to be unclear about that ).

But as for me "broadening the net" as I "shift perspectives" - I would perhaps have done that if I knew how to write engagingly. If at all anyone seriously contemplates something I write outside my profession, it will be someone deeply committed to Hinduism in a religious sense. So the best I can hope for is to bring those guys to more actively supporting political Hindutva, and perhaps also to boost the confidence of some of them that vEdAnta is not trivial. Okay, I don't want to continue hijacking this thread further ( apologies to Ritwik ).

BTW nice to be assured of where you stand :-)