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. 


Anonymous said...

Oops, I saw these two posts only now, since there was no link to your blog when you commented at mine. It will take some time to read through all this.

I will reply to these some time - not a comprehensive know-all reply but the partial explanations which I imbibed from various sources after rebellion against my own religion - those were enough to sustain me.

I think these are important issues to be discussed without ignoring, at least as far as religious Hindus are concerned.

Sorry for the "senti" comment.

Dhaval Shah said...

This post needs lot of thinking and I would like to mention that if we think logically then all these religious things don't make any sense and don't fit in time frame well. Now waiting for part 2. :-)

Venu said...

If you ever get to post on why you disbelieve the Aryan Invasion/Migration theory, I'd be interested in reading that.

Alan Smithee said...

You made sense in your previous post. Now you are floundering. Chalk one up for the "ban sequels" movement.

avataram said...

I was expecting much more than this.

Pick up anything recent. Say, Michael Wood´s "Story of India". Recent discoveries in Central Asia etc confirm the Aryan Migration/Invasion theory. Simply following where the mushroom, Amanita Muscaria, which was used to produce Soma Rasa was found, is a good indication of the path taken by the Aryans.

The cow is sacred simply because Amanita Muscaria was so powerful, a straight dose could kill people. So, the aryans let the cows eat the mushroom and drank its urine. QED.

Instead of such insights, we get AL Basham, some family history etc, all with some cocksure know-it-all attitude. Have they already made you partner at Goldman?

Ritwik said...

Avataram, sometimes I wonder if you know anything at all. First, you quote a solution to the current crisis from a Behaviourist/ New Keynesian and challenge the new Keynesians to come up with a better solution. Now, you pick up a claim first made in 1968 by an amateur, now widely discredited by most genuine researchers and suffix it to something about Wood's documentary using the convenient 'recent discoveries'.

Did you even watch the documentary? If you did, were you drunk when the genetic evidence was being discussed?

Ritwik said...

Of course, I am not even going into your ignorance of AICTE/UGC norms.

avataram said...

Please! The genetic evidence was from some south indian village. How does it disprove the aryan invasion theory?

Well spotted on Schiller though!

avataram said...

Waiting for part II of your experiments with hinduism with bated breath. Far better than the summaries of your textbooks, one must say.

Satish said...

I really liked your post. Religion being one of my favorite topic, I can easily relate myself to your experiences. Since last 3 years I have been extensively debating about the flaws of religion in this modern world with my friends from Pakistan and Iran.
One thing that I have learned is that other religions might try to teach you how to live life, Hinduism does not teach you how to live life but it is a way of living life.
I know in your blog you are not comparing religions, and even I don't intend to do that. But there are some issues that are just intolerable for me which I hope you cover in your next post.

1)If a SET (Religion) has 10 rules (no drinking, pray everyday, eating halal food, etc) to it, you can only belong to that SET if you satisfy all 10 rules of that SET. But I see in my everyday life that there is nobody who follows all 10 rules of that SET. X number of people follow 5 rules that are suitable according to their life style. And these X number people will claim to be superior people of that SET just because Y and Z might not follow those 5 rules and perhaps are short by 1 or 2 rules. To begin with X itself does not belong to that SET. This is where the religions that have Set of rules to follow are being exploited in this modern world.

2) In Mahabharata, there is an instance where KARNA was not allowed to participate in archery and was humiliated by Pandavas saying that he was not Kshatriya. Pandavas are treated as GODS or demi-Gods, so does that mean Hinduism endorses casteism??
I know the idea of casteism(like Plato's ideal society) worked for that period of time (dividing body into head-->Brahmins, hands-->Kshatriya, Stomach-->Vaishyas and Legs-->Shudras) and definitely it will not work in this modern world (sadly it still exists in India). But don't you think even at the time of Mahabharata, casteism had no place just like today.
e.g A pot makers son can definitely learn the art of making pots easily and might be more successful in making better pots than others, but does that mean that society has to force him to make only pots even though he realises that he can excel in archery.
Karna's example was very similar to this. Casteism existed since time and has been an integral part of Hinduism for good or bad.

Satish said...

I liked this article

Anonymous said...

when do we see the part 2?

Mrs.Prasad said...

I can see you are evolving.
Let us hear from you more on this.
It would be interesting to know how you view things now.
I say 'things' because for me the thought that a supreme power is there to whom we can turn in time of distress is enough.
Take care...