Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hinduism and The Indian Culture

My previous post, on whether Hinduism is the only thing to unite India, to which my answer was negative, was based on the idea that Indian culture is quite distinct from 'Hinduism'. It is this point that needs further elaboration, as the apologists of the Hindu India, both the traditionalists and the new liberal kinds, claim that they are one and the same.

I was brought up in a Brahmin family, and read Sanskrit - primarily as my grandmother was a 'Pandit' and a Sanskrit teacher - and read the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. For a year of my life, after I went through the 'Upanayana', I performed a puja three times a day. Later in life, I read Upanishad and Gita out of intellectual curiousity. And, yet, this still does not cover the core texts of Hinduism - most critically, the various commentaries by later Holy men, which, for many Hindus, represent the revealed religion. 

But this is perhaps the key point: That someone may grow up in a Hindu milieu but never see Hinduism as a religion at all. In fact, one can have quite the opposite: The Upanishads and the Gita may be read with an entirely secular point of view, or at least allowing for a non-intervening God. In fact, those texts, despite their age, are not too far from a rule-based universe, which the modern science would demand. But it is not the timelessness of the texts that I am arguing about here: My argument is that the philosophical basis of Hinduism stands in contrast with the idea of revealed religion. 

I acknowledge that for many practising Hindus, it is a revealed religion, a set of somewhat ideosyncratic guidelines prescribed by one holy man or the other about how to live one's life. Many of these holy men are alive - or their followers or successors run institutions in their name. While they all like to claim the heritage of the Upanishads and its apparent agnosticism, each one of them represent a parallel universe, with cosmic reasons provided for every ritual, tying down their followers into a tight system of dynastic loyalty through trivialities of everyday. This system of revealed religion is just as intolerant of anything that falls outside its purview. So, it is not just one caste that consider another sub-human, one sect may consider another heretical, and one text may contradict another. Hinduism never had its equivalent of the Council of Nicaea, nor it had the schism of Karbala. Rather, the whole religious ecosystem of Hinduism continued as a quarrelsome large family, with different branches being envious, resentful or indifferent of one another.

Now, Indian culture reflect more of Upanishad's agnostic worldview than the particular way of life of one or the other sect. It is the House, rather than the family branch. Now, this does not automatically equate it to Hinduism, because this worldview automatically allows acceptance of many other cultures and worldviews. In fact, the current confusion about what India is, and is not, arises out of the very conscious attempts to erase important cultural heritages from Indian history - not just of a thousand year of Islamic culture, but also Budhdhist, Jainist and other traditions (including a strong atheistic tradition) - somewhat influenced by British attempts to construct modern Indian history 'ex nihilio', in simple terms of barbarism and civilisation. Indian culture, therefore, is defined by its all encompassing nature rather than purity. With some exceptions, rulers in India, Hindu, Budhdhist or Muslim, have always ruled over different faiths, always keeping the secular and the spiritual realms separate (there were no 'divine monarchs' in India). India was constituted to be a secular society, and did not need a first amendment to guarantee such diversity. 

This is my essential point. I am not claiming that Hindu traditions have not influenced Indian culture - that will be ridiculous - but that the philosophical tradition that may have shaped this culture has nothing in common with 'Hinduism' as a revealed religion, which it stands for to its advocates. The Indian culture, based on a stoical yet responsible engagement with the world, is built of many layers of ideas and beliefs, absorbed from all the peoples who came to India and who carried ideas from it, from the ancient Arabic and Chinese visitors to the later-day Western scholars and administrators. To try to recast it in the mould of a 'religion', and to try to find heretical ideas to exclude, is as against its grain as anything can be. 

The constitution of India, reflecting the optimism of an Independent country, claimed the creation of a democratic republic based on religious freedom ('secular' was added to it later). But this reflected, paradoxically, the British idea of civilising and creating a modern India, allowing for, as the optimism fades, a new search for deep India. But this deep India was always there - the Constitution might have been written by English-trained modern leaders but they were reflecting the ideas wholly consistent with Indian culture - and while 'secular' may be an alien word, the idea was not. In fact, I despair why the Hindu nationalists of India feel inclined to claim the credit for ancient airplanes based on flimsiest of evidences (poetic descriptions of flying chariots in ancient texts), but always disregard the all-encompassing worldviews of their own scriptures and never protest the ancient Indian origins of 'secularism'. 

So, in summary, 'Hinduism' of the modern imagination, a revealed religion, can not unite India. Rather, there is a lot in Indian cultural tradition that is unifying. The two are not the same, and the claims that Hinduism can unite India is based on ideas constructed essentially on the basis of British imagination, just as English language as the unifying force was.




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