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.