Monday, April 20, 2009

Hinduism and I, part 1

In the previous post, I offered four examples, all drawn from people I know, of how different people can have different ways of interpreting 'Hindu', unable to understand which ones Kupamanduka would be willing to include in the fold. My own thoughts on Hinduism are perhaps in order. Disclaimer : this is going to be long, personal and nostalgic. If you lose interest in between due to the egocentricity, my apologies. 

I don't know what deeply religious exactly is, but you could say my family is deeply religious, or at least, they have become deeply religious as time has progressed. My parents both pray everyday, my mother for almost an hour. (The Sundarkaand of the Ramcharitmanas takes time, you know). Now parents always have this urge to ensure that the virtues they picked up anytime in their adult life be imbibed in their children at the earliest. That, coupled with the fact that I have a terribly sticky memory, meant that I was also doing pooja and reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, a few selected verses from the Ramrakhsa Stotra and the most popular hymns to Shivji, Durga and Saraswati by the time I was about 4. Though the reigning deities in my home are Ram, Krishna & Hanuman, I somehow always found the knotted-haired, earthly Shivji very interesting. 

After some initial dabbling with Amar Chitra Katha versions, I had read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, in Hindi, by the time I was 6. Of course, I did not read all of it, and of course I did not understand and grasp the import of the entire stories. In Mahabharata, for example, I would skip straight to the war after the initial background to the enmity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas had been established. I remember finding Mahabharata a lot more interesting than Ramayana, and when I went back to the epics a few years later (mid 90s) I remember wondering about the plausibility (or lack thereof) of things like the Brahmastra, an army of monkeys, a man with 10 heads, virgin births through the power of prayer and also about the ethics of Rama banishing Sita into exile on the hearsay of a deviant dhobi. The exalted status of Rama and Krishna in normal Hindu religious life and the non-committal idea of an 'avatar' also confounded me. Do bear in mind that I had yet to interact with or be brainwashed by the 'pseudo-secular' media ad intelligentsia - I guess a sense of the history of science and the prevailing common sense morality ofthe society around me were corrupting enough to breed a strong sense of skepticism. 

In the 9th standard, I was intoduced to the Aryan Invasion Theory, which shook my confused understanding of Hindu historicity and mythology even further.  I couldn't swallow it whole though, for I refused to accept that a story as elaborate as the Mahabharata didn't mention a merit in the discusison on the ancient history of India. Around the same time, I discovered that I was more interested in cricket, statistics and girls than in sitting and praying for 10 minutes everyday. I also started wondering about Karma and re-birth at about the same time. I had the good fortune of studying in a school run by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan trust. The trust was founded by K M Munshi, renowned freedom fighter, educationists and translator of religious texts. The school attempted to combine the British boarding school concept with the modern academic, scientific orientation and a commitment to the Indian and Hindu philosophies at the same time. One of the ays in which this balance manifested itself was Sanskrit classes from std. 6th to 8th, which consisted of basic gramar lessons followed by recitation of verses from the Bhagwad Gita in a metre, rhythm and style seen commonly in temples of the south. We didn't reach the last chapters, or cover the entire book, but we did cover suitable large portions of it. I remember being dissatisfied with the 'Karmanyevadhikarastu...' philosophy even then. This was definitely the begining of a new intellectual take I had developed on all things big and small, including religion and Hinduism. 

Through 11th and 12th, I independently arrived at a 'first cause' defence of a belief in god. By this time, I had also become convinced that historical stories that were exaggerated by poets, priests and simple-minded devotees became mythologies, and that gods were either nature symbols or kings, or most likely, kings who had adopted nature symbols as their mascots or sources of strength. I also realised that many of the apparent contradictions in Hinduism and the Hindu beliefs are simply because there is no one definite book, prophet or origin of the religion. With a long, ancient and distributed lineage and an active approach to metaphysical and ethical inquiry, differing and competing views on what the world and the universe is and how to live your life are bound to come up. And I was extremely glad for that. But, my approach to religion had already become increasingly philosophical and intellectual and I did not really feel like taking much time out for praying.

In college, I furiously debated God, on the side of believers, against atheist friends. But that is tangential. I also read A L Basham's 'The Wonder That Was India'. Now Basham has his flaws, including a staunch belief in the Aryan Invasion Theory. But the largest section in this book consisted of his explorations of the religious philosophies of the Dharmic religions, especially Hinduism. I was absolutely hooked, and used to spend days poring and deliberating over the mass of information contained in that one section. (This was also the beginning of a somewhat strange habit of underlining, highlighting or bracketing sections in non-academic books with my thoughts and chess-inspired notes of ! and ? written in the margins) That, and Wikipedia, have also opened the door to quantum mechanics and Advaita Vedanta. 

At the same time, I have developed an aversion to some of the more common ways of practising Hinduism, in my own hoouse and elsewhere. For one, I have a strong distaste for Brahmanical rituals like havans. I think it began with an innocuous dislike of fire and smoke, but I still used to take some kind of strange pride in things like knowing the correct way to do swaha (You have to hold the homa on the palm between the middle and ring fingers, and flick it straight with the thumb. The index and the pinky are extended lower and outwards, in an upturned and modified Metallica kind of way). 

No longer. I am almost convinced now that the main techniques of the priest class in any relogion whatsoever, apart from soothsaying (which is good), are shame, guilt and fear. For example, the grihapravesh of my new house was a few months back. Among the many rituals that were done, one was to rid ourselves of the sin of destroying life in the process of building the house (say by destroying weeds on the plot of land or crushing ants through walking on them while constructing/overlooking the construction). So how could we rid ourselves of the sin? How else but by dropping some water here and there and by giving the main priest  some gold, today substitued by cash - the priests have also moved to fiat currency from the gold standard. Mind you, this was for one rite, not for the entire ceremony. Such brokerage charges and commission reminded me of investment banking, with all the inbuilt perverse incentives and more.  

Apart from priestly rituals, I also find myself irritated by the exaltation of every single virtuous character in the epics to a para-human status by devout Hindus. Yes, our minds are simple, but do they really have to be so simplistic? Kunti served sage Durvasa for a year, and he blessed her with a' mantra' that mistakenly gave her a child from the sun-god. Hello, take the hint. At least, don't get offended when others take the hint and say so. What's the point in taking this Christian virgin-birth morality and applying it to either our time or the Mahabharata time?  

Having said that, I admire the prayer-based indiviudal relationships with the supreme that many devout Hindus build. For various reasons, I often feel that Shankaracharya was mistaken when he propounded the Gyaan marga as the one to moksha. The ability to go beyond intellectualising the religious and the metaphysical gladdens me, for I seem to have lost it.  

This post is quite long already amd I have not yet spoken about Hindu political unity. That, and other more topical things in part 2. 

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.