Saturday, May 26, 2007

IT MAKES A FELLOW HAPPY TO BE...

I don't believe in God or religion. But, looking at the current religion-connected dystopian scenarios that are enveloping the West, I am really tempted to say this: I am happy to be a Hindu, and in fact I am proud of it. If possible, I would want a world without religion, but if I were forced to choose, Hinduism could be a good candidate for world religion in my opinion, because it's not even one religion as such (actually I may choose Buddhism, but Hinduism has such delightful and colourful mythology!)

While I have enjoyed recent readings of atheist philosophy written by Harris, Dawkins etc., I have to say that now I am a tad weary of them. Not because I diasgree with them or don't enjoy them anymore. In fact I agree with almost everything they say and constantly are informed and entertained by their and others barbed articulateness on matters of faith and religion. But I also think that while their main thrust is really and rightly against faith in general, the substance of their arguments is really against the three monotheistic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Their barbs are mostly directed against believers in these three faiths, because belief in these faiths seems to restrict one in following certain dogmas, or at least to be serious about them. Also, on an international level, fundamentalists especially from these three religions are causing great harm to human life and dignity. So many conflicts in the world are marked by religious tones. Sam Harris says that the Kashmir conflict is essentially a religious conflict. But I don't think I quite agree with him there; while religious beliefs definitely play a role in the conflict, I don't believe religion is as much a substantial reason for that conflict as it is for say the Israel-Palestine conflict. But I digress.

I constantly realise how much these arguments by these fine writers and thinkers are really made rather unnecessary if you are a Hindu. Although that does not mean that I would try to foist the benefits of Hinduism upon anybody (a meaningless point since I am an atheist) or that I make a big deal about it, and nor does it mean I actually believe in any of the faith-based tenets of Hinduism, I am constantly struck by how coolly most Hindus might take dissenters' objections about their gods, rituals, or practices, whereas Chrtistians, Muslims, and Jews might (and do) consider those objections blasphemous, offensive, or at least unpleasant. While fundamentalist Christians still enjoy a large following in the US (the most religious country in the developed world in my opinion), the corresponding Shiv Sena is largely unpopular among most Hindus and does not have a very large following. Unfortunately, like pestilent vermins, they seem to cause more problems than we would like them to and occasionally keep cropping up. But the point is that the Shiv Sena holds fast to some misguided fundamentalist version of Hinduism which is not only a non-essential part of the philosophy of the religion, but basically does not even really have to do anything with Hinduism. In fact I always like to call Hinduism more of a philosophy than a religion in the first place. And when it comes to philsophy, everybody has the right to pontificate.

As Hindus, we generally don't care about any version of creation, about virgin births, virgins in heaven (the monotheistic religions seem to be obsessed with virgins in many contexts) and in fact about any kind of rule-based belief system. The three monotheistic religions could make a checklist of pretty much absolute requirements that any one of their followers need to follow or believe in. I am not saying that everyone needs to follow or believe in all these norms, but they seem much more of absolutes than anything in Hinduism, and those who don't follow them are not really considered people of the faith. If you are a Hindu, even an ardent one, you could care less whether Brahma created the world, or whether Kalyug is going to be imminent or not, and still consider yourself a faithful follower. I am amused at how sanguine most Hindus will be if someone seriously challenges their myths and beliefs, because there's always an alternative path to salvation (whether you believe in it or not) that does not require belief in those myths. They would simply shrug their shoulders, and would even agree with their adversary. In fact, even something approximating atheism, or at least secular humanism, seems to be very easily permitted in Hinduism. So many words in holy books such as the Vedas from the past can safely and very easily be discarded by Hindus, and yet they can call themselves Hindus. Biblical instances of impiety and downright despicale immorality perpetuated by god make Christians squirm and get defensive. But most Hindus would not mind if someone points out moral transgressions in the Mahabharata. For example, how about the fact that Draupadi had five husbands? In fact, one sordid explanation of this fact says that when Arjuna won Draupadi in the swayamwara, Kunti saw her beauty and realised that with such a beautiful woman in the household, the brothers may not be able to contain their lust and may end up fighting and even killing each other over Draupadi. To avoid this scenario, Kunti ordained that she should marry all of them (although I am not sure how that would really have been a solution as such). In any case, most Hindus would not get worked up if someone points out such disreputable events and interpretations in Hindu mythology. But I cannot imagine most Christians being very comfortable with such analyses involving Moses or Jesus. And it has been amply demonstrated that Muslims are not. Among Hindus, there is a sort of common wisdom that denigrating particulars makes no dent in the grand structure. Is this cherry-picking? Not any more than cherry-picking from the Bible. But while many Christians may have serious and even violent debates about such exegesis, Hindus seem to be content on such allowances for multiple and alternative interpretations.

Of course, people of other faiths sometimes denigrate Hinduism precisely because of these multiple allowances that Hinduism gives its followers. They say that this means that anything goes. First of all, that's not true, because multiple ways of life don't necessarily deviate from some reasonable guidelines and definitions. But even if it means that anything goes, it's still much better than "only our thing goes", isn't it? Not surprisingly, the real problem is in the word "mono", which automatically forces people into believing a constrained set of norms laid down by some supreme bearded man. For a Hindu, not only is there no one god, but god is also supposed to be everywhere, including inside himself. In the Gita, one might get the illusion that even after enunciating the various ways in which one might attain salvation, Krishna still says that in the end, it is about following him. But, as my father pointed out a few days ago, even "him" does not mean only Krishna, but can mean many things, including the person himself. One need not attach any realistic or corporeal connotations to this abstract entity.

Not to sound like Fritjof Capra, but just like the behaviour of the electron, a Hindu has an option of following multiple paths from the beginning to end. In fact, even the beginning and end can be defined in many ways. Christianity or Islam seem much more like classical mechanics, with well-defined and absolute trajectories. Hinduism is electrons, everything and nothing at the same time, particle and wave both exemplified. But now I am sounding like Deepak Chopra. So I should stop.

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13 Comments:

Blogger Kapilmuni said...

Hey, have already commented on bloop - would you prefer that or here?

9:31 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Bloop

9:32 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

both actually!

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Chetan said...

If the comment is on this post, please comment here Kapilmuni. I had read your blog post about this subject and would like to hear your views on what Ashutosh has written. Btw, what is bloop?

11:03 PM  
Blogger Ed Vis said...

Excellent commentary Ashutosh. Please go on writing.

I don't believe in God or religion. But, looking at the current religion-connected dystopian scenarios that are enveloping the West, I am really tempted to say this: I am happy to be a Hindu, and in fact I am proud of it. If possible, I would want a world without religion, but if I were forced to choose, Hinduism could be a good candidate for world religion in my opinion, because it's not even one religion as such (actually I may choose Buddhism, but Hinduism has such delightful and colourful mythology!)

Reasons why I like Hinduism are exactly like yours.

1. Concepts of UTMOST FREEDOM OF THOUGHTS and ACTIONS are the cardinal principles of Hinduism.

2. Even an atheist can proudly proclaim he or she is a Hindu. In fact the CHARVAKA philosophy or NASTIKA philosophy, [existed during the Vedic period] founded by CHARVAKA rejected the existence of God and considered religion as an aberration.

3. Hinduism does NOT profess monopoly on God or truth, unlike other religions. God and truth are universal.

4. According to scriptures Salvation or self realization is for whether one is a Hindu or not.

5. Man's problem is his false belief that he is the perishable body and the moment he realizes that he is the immortal soul within
he attains SELF-REALIZATION. You don't have to be a Hindu to achieve that.

Voltaire in Essay on Tolerance wrote: I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it.

Hinduism is the symbolic representation of what Voltaire wrote.

www.amiahindu.com

5:34 AM  
Blogger Ed Vis said...

Excellent commentary Ashutosh. Please go on writing.

I don't believe in God or religion. But, looking at the current religion-connected dystopian scenarios that are enveloping the West, I am really tempted to say this: I am happy to be a Hindu, and in fact I am proud of it. If possible, I would want a world without religion, but if I were forced to choose, Hinduism could be a good candidate for world religion in my opinion, because it's not even one religion as such (actually I may choose Buddhism, but Hinduism has such delightful and colourful mythology!)

Reasons why I like Hinduism are exactly like yours.

1. Concepts of UTMOST FREEDOM OF THOUGHTS and ACTIONS are the cardinal principles of Hinduism.

2. Even an atheist can proudly proclaim he or she is a Hindu. In fact the CHARVAKA philosophy or NASTIKA philosophy, [existed during the Vedic period] founded by CHARVAKA rejected the existence of God and considered religion as an aberration.

3. Hinduism does NOT profess monopoly on God or truth, unlike other religions. God and truth are universal.

4. According to scriptures Salvation or self realization is for all whether one is a Hindu or not.

5. Man's problem is his false belief that he is the perishable body and the moment he realizes that he is the immortal soul within
he attains SELF-REALIZATION. You don't have to be a Hindu to achieve that.

Voltaire in Essay on Tolerance wrote: I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it.

Hinduism is the symbolic representation of what Voltaire wrote.

www.amiahindu.com

5:39 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I am tending towards agreement with most of what you have said here, but I think that you could articulate the 'qualities' of hinduism so well only because you have been brought up in a Hindu way. I do not know much about any religion but I have the nagging suspicion that a knowledgable and articulate person of any faith probably would be able to argue that his/her faith is far better than any other religion.

Amartya Sen in the Arguementative Indian has also argued very convincingly about the tolerance in Hinduism for a multitudes of belief systems. Hinduism may be very rich in philiosophy but in practice it suffers from most of the problems (and then some) that plague the other 'great' religions of the world. I think the reason is that Hinduism over the years denigrated into just another religion and probably even worse than most of the others. West, inspite of the suffocating hold of the catholic church still found enlightenment whereas Hindus with a culture rich in thought remained far behind.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Kapilmuni said...

But a strange conundrum. If Hindus are not bothered about Draupadi's 5 husbands, why so much ado about Richard Gere's kiss?

Why do some fell the need to disrupt Valentine Day celebrations?

Fact is Hinduism is not belief centric or creed centric to the extent the monotheistic religions are. The Hindu world-view is not founded on a bunch of sacred cow statements.

And yet, in practice today, some Hindus are capable of high degrees of intolerance. They don't seem to find it inconsistent to praise as our architectural heritage the erotic sculptures of Khajurao and Konarak while demonstrating in the streets against Hussein's Saraswati, or throttling artists in Baroda.

So what do we have here then? Hindus who have fallen from the 'tolerance' of Hinduism?

"In any case, most Hindus would not get worked up if someone points out such disreputable events and interpretations in Hindu mythology."

I am not sure I would agree there - you and I, the 'educated' English speaking, urban middle class Hindus are not 'most Hindus'. Why do you think someone with as massive and almost cult-like following as Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar have to withdraw his interpretation of the Ramayana?

Ultimately, I think Hinduism is too varied a panorama of religious traditions for monolithic generalised characterisations to fit.

That then is my expanded two penies worth on this entry.

9:07 AM  
Blogger tejas said...

eloquently put ashutosh!

the way i would usually assuage kapilmuni's argument is: religion mostly has a god component and an ethical component. most worldly religions deal with both these aspects, while secular humanism and atheism for example have only one.

ashutosh's post talks more about the theology of hinduism (the tolerance he is talking about also seems to be theistic tolerance) - while the shiv-sena-bajrang-dal miscreants seem to contradict hindu ethics (of which I am less well-versed).

11:20 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

Well-written, Ashutosh.
I do not believe in organized religion. If Hinduism can be defined individually for every Hindu by his or her personal spiritual experiences and beliefs, then I am a Hindu.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Ed Vis: Thanks, and great book and website.

Vivek: You bring up a very interesting and important point about the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which happened inspite of religion. I think it was partly because of democracy and a feeling of rebellion against authority in general. I personally believe that we are in desperate need of another Enlightenment.

Tejas: Right, I am talking about the ethical and thelogical part of Hinduism, and I believe that in Hinduism, god does not have a necessary connection with ways of life and theology, as it seems to in other religions.

Sumedha: Exactly, that's the beauty I believe.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Kapilmuni said...

"I believe that in Hinduism, god does not have a necessary connection with ways of life and theology."

Ashutosh, if it is not connected to 'god' can it be a THEOlogy?

My contention primarily is that Hinduism is not a monolith and generalised characterisations most often just don't apply to all the belief sets that get clubbed together as 'Hinduism'.

Let me make an entry request Ashutosh - what according to you IS Hinduism?

11:42 PM  
Blogger anya said...

Allow me to butt in.

The word 'Hindu' actually comes from the word 'Sindhu'. Hindus were people living along the banks of the river Sindhu.
Cut to today - Hinduism is a way of life. Being a Hindu means follwoing that way of life. It does not have a direct connection with any god.

1:17 PM  

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