Sunday, September 06, 2009 The dilemma of a liberal Hindu
With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs, says Gurcharan Das
I was born a Hindu, in a normal middle-class home. I went to an English-medium school where I got a modern education. Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hinduism. My father, however, took a different path. While studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly guru who inspired him with the possibility of direct union with God through meditation. The guru was a Radhasoami saint, who quoted vigorously from Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, Bulleh Shah and others from the bhakti and sufi traditions.Growing up Hindu was a chaotically tolerant experience. My grandmother visited the Sikh gurudwara on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays; she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses by holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between, she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies when someone died or was born. Her dressing room was laden with the images of her gods, especially Ram and Krishna and she used to say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. My grandfather would laugh at her ways, but my pragmatic uncle thought that she had smartly taken out plenty of insurance so that someone up there would eventually listen.
I grew up in this atmosphere with a liberal attitude - that is a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for my tradition. Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends — from the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. Hindu nationalists have appropriated my past and made it into a political statement of Hindutva. Secularists have contempt for all forms of belief and they find it odd that I should cling to my Hindu past. Young, successful Indians, at the helm of our private and public enterprises, have no time or use for the classics of our ancient tradition.A few years ago, I told my wife that I wanted to read the Mahabharata in its entirety. I explained that I had read the Western epics but not the Indian ones. She gave me a sceptical look, and said, “It’s a little late in the day to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?” To my chagrin, I became the subject of animated discussion at a dinner party soon after.“So, what is this I hear about wanting to go away to read old books”, asked my hostess, “aren’t there any new ones?” She gave my wife a sympathetic look.“Tell us, what you plan to read?” asked a retired civil servant who had once been a favourite of Indira Gandhi. He spoke casually as though he was referring to the features of a new Nokia phone. I admitted that I had been thinking of the Mahabharata.“Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?”
I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to think that reading an epic was a political act. I was reminded of a casual remark by a Westernized woman in Chennai who said that she had always visited a Shiva temple near her home, but lately she had begun to hide this from her fiercely secular friends, who she feared might paint her in saffron.With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit to being Hindu for fear they will be linked to the RSS. Liberal Christians and liberal Muslims abroad have had the same experience. Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists. Not only do they not believe in God, they actually hate God. As rationalists they can only see the dark side of religion -- intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism and cannot empathize with the everyday life of the common Indian for whom religion gives meaning to every moment. Secularists speak a language alien to the vast majority, so they are only able to condemn communal violence but not to stop it, as Mahatma Gandhi could, in East Bengal in 1947.
Part of the problem stems from ignorance. Our children do not grow up reading our ancient classics, certainly not with a critical mind as youth in the West read their works of literature and philosophy in school and college. In India, some get to know about epics from their grandmothers; others read the stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics or watch them in television serials.If Italian children can read Dante’s Divine Comedy in school, English children can read Milton and Greek children can read the Illiad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? It is true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods and in particular that elusive divinity, Krishna, who is up to all kinds of devious activities. But so are Dante, Milton and Homer filled with God or gods?I suspect Mahatma Gandhi would have understood my dilemma about teaching the Mahabharata in our schools. He instinctively grasped the place of the epic in an Indian life and he would have approved of what V S Sukthankar wrote: “The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it." The epic has given me great enjoyment in the past six years and I have become a Mahabharata addict. I feel sad that so many boys and girls in India are growing up rootless, and they will never have access to these forbidden fruits of pleasure.As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each other’s beliefs as well as the atheism of non-believers. Hindu nationalists must resist hijacking our religious past and turning it into votes. Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India. posted by gurcharan at 1:05 PM 13 comments
Prof Sachidananda Mohanty says in his well-written and painstakingly-researched work, Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader (Routledge), “I have often wondered why university intellectuals are reluctant to engage with Sri Aurobindo.” To this writer, the answer lies in the fact that most contemporary university intellectuals are unfamiliar with — and/or have no interest in — the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras which constitute the spiritual architecture of the monotheistic philosophy and monist spirituality of the Vedantic view of life. Nor are they acquainted with the Purans, the great epics, Ramayan and Mahabharat, which illustrate the application of the cardinal principals underlying this view to a spiritual and moral universe that includes gods, human beings, and non-human living beings.
There is no point in blaming Thomas Babington Macaulay and the system of Western education through English medium instruction that he introduced. Sri Aurobindo was himself a product of that system, though his exposure to it was in England from his early boyhood. Contact with the ideas generated by the post-Renaissance and post-Enlightenment Western intellectual tradition through the medium of the English language contributed to the emergence of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Maharshi Devendranath and his son Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekanand, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and a host of other stalwarts. Familiar with the discourse at the heart of Western culture, they used the critical methods and analytical tools that evolved in its matrix, to interrogate and revive their own civilisational heritage in which they were firmly rooted. Two major consequences followed the 19th Century Bengal Renaissance and similar intellectual ferments, albeit on much smaller scales, elsewhere in India, and the reform movements of which the two main — but totally contrary in character — ones were spearheaded by the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj respectively.
There were, doubtless, others who were dazzled by the military and economic power of imperial Britain, which they attributed to the superiority of Western culture. In a parallel process, they denigrated India’s traditional civilisation which they held responsible for the country’s social, intellectual and moral degradation that led to colonial rule. They, however, constituted a marginal presence thanks to continuing surge of the national sentiment during the struggle. Unfortunately, independence blunted the edge of Indian nationalism which had been sharpened by the humiliating and exploitative character of British rule. From an active presence, nationalism was relegated to the backwaters of one’s consciousness and surged to the fore only in times of national crises like wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1947-49, 1965, 1971 and 1999. The result was a decline of interest in the cultural wellsprings that to a large extent defined the national identity of a vast majority of Indians. The second reason was the influence of Marxism over a growing body of Indian intellectuals. Marx was not the virulent denigrator of religion that he is made out to be. Apart from the intellectual attraction of his philosophy, his attitude toward religion, however, influenced his Indian adherents. He wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
However carefully nuanced Marx’s critique, his rejection of religion was total; so was that by Marxist intellectuals, whose influence grew in a great measure because of the support of the entire global and Indian Communist movements behind them. On the other hand, the Vedantic tradition no longer had a charismatic leader like Swami Vivekanand and Sri Aurobindo or a stalwart literary and mystical figure like Rabindranath Tagore. Finally, given the growing complexity of modern societies and the increasing importance social, political, administrative and economic activity, subjects related to these commanded precedence in the universities. Growing specialisation in the academic world left one with little time for anything-including one’s own spiritual heritage and its exponents — outside one’s own discipline. This is an absolute shame. Sri Aurobindo’s universal and cosmic vision has much to offer to a troubled world.