The Misrepresentation of Hinduism – Part 3

In the previous parts, it was conclusively argued that modern representations of Hinduism are founded on intellectual laziness and that the metaphysics of Adi Sankaracharya is abused to such an extent that it militates against the core tenets propounded by the preceptor in his commentaries.

In this episode, we will look at other misadventures of modern Hinduism, and the potential consequences of these approaches.

Trying to appear right

One of the consequences of colonialism in India was the encounter of Hindus with western philosophers and Christianity. Those who were not well-versed in their tradition and had taken a complete European education found it very hard to justify their ‘backward’ Hindu beliefs. The chief reason for this is that Hindu values were set in the wrong context and they no longer carried appeal. To add to their woes, these Indians became misinformed about Hinduism through early European sources which were explicitly written with the motive of passing India off as an uncivilized race that needed to be civilized by European brutality.

There were three consequences:

  1. Hindus tried to make their religion look better in the eyes of their colonial masters by stretching its core thesis. This might have been a good thing to do for their times, but had the effect of distorting Hinduism for posterity.
  2. Hindus abandoned their religion and took to atheism, communism or Christianity.
  3. Hindus saw Europeans as sworn enemies, and completely avoided intellectual contact. The term ‘Hindu’ came to embrace not only the core systems founded on the Vedas, but also numerous other random practices, tribal traditions, and modern cults. To make the term ‘Hindu’ fit this suddenly formed mosaic, it had to be re-defined to such an extent that its core values were completely diluted. Misunderstanding their values led to Hindu fundamentalism. It is an irony that the fundamentalism is a fallout of the most ‘liberal’ definition of Hinduism.

The second consequence is due to ignorance regarding Hindu systems. This was accentuated by the ‘divide and rule’ policy blatantly followed by the colonials. To add fuel to the fire was a new formed caste hegemony cultivated by vested interests.  Fake stories were spread about ‘thousands of years of subjugation’, while there is thin evidence that any such subjugation took place at all. Many kings of India were not Kshatriyas and there is no evidence that they implemented law following the dharma sastras. Power passed from one caste to another through the course of history. The so-called ‘lower castes’ were only prevented from religious duties like priestly function or chanting the Vedas, and even these differences were dissolved in Vedic systems like Vaishnavism.  But, colonials bred feelings of caste superiority which led to inhuman law-making, and exchanges of hate between groups. This dark part of history is still used in company with the notorious myth of Aryan Invasion to divide India, and many Indians exhibiting blind pride in their caste are actively sustaining these demons.  Every tradition within Hinduism would agree that anyone caught in the pride of caste is still deluded and is bound to suffer. Today, several Hindu traditions including Vaishnavism are practised by people of all races and nationalities without any problems. Even in the older times (113 BCE), we have documented accounts of how the Greek officer Heliodorus embraced Vaishnavism, and even erected a Garuda Pillar as a manner of worship.  Not only the Azhvars of the south, but several spiritual masters from different slices of history and different backgrounds including Thyagaraja, Annamacharya, Meerabai, Tukaram, Jayadeva, Tulsidas, Surdas, etc. have provided spiritual guidance to people from every walk of society by serving as living examples of the system of Vaishnavism.

[ The Garuda Pillar of Heliodorus]

Let us return to the first and third consequences that are more interesting to our current discourse.  The first consequence has made Hindus, and is still making Hindus, always feel the need to validate themselves. Many Hindus try to show how their religion ‘accepts all paths equally’ – a very foolish claim both intellectually and strategically. No preceptor of Hinduism, in Hindu India (before invasions), tried to show that Hinduism accepts all paths equally. In fact, they did not even show that the sub-sects of Hinduism are equal. They retained the validity of only their school allowing some value to a few other schools.

Another effect of this need for validation is to show that science and Hinduism are completely in sync. This approach has led to a lot of pseudo-science inviting open ridicule. Many Hindus, who try to do this, have no academic grounding either in science or in Hinduism. The web of Hinduism has been cast by them so widely that both truths and untruths can validate Hinduism equally.

Recent advances in quantum physics and neurosciences have sparked an ill-informed Hindu enthusiasm. Hindus, long indoctrinated in science from the perspective of European philosophy and religion, suddenly found the entire edifice collapse. A new science needed a new philosophy. Hindu mysticism rushed to fill that space.

However, I think it is fair to note that Buddhists beat Hindus in this job. The result is clear for all to see. Buddhism has been torn apart, its elements critically analyzed under a western lens, its traditions dismissed as superstition and only the meditation techniques digested and re-adjusted to suit Western culture. A number of Western Buddhists have lost track of Buddhist traditions and some of their books and interviews are a matter of pure comedy to anyone traditionally versed in Buddhism. But, the danger is larger. The ‘opening up’ of Buddhism has resulted in Buddhist faith being influenced in reverse – from the West to the East. Today you can have Buddhism without beliefs. The entire ideology of the Buddha has been dismissed, Buddhist legends have been laughed at and made caricature of, and the Buddha, for all you know, has been reduced to the self-proclaimed meditation teacher next door. Buddhism also got mixed up with the counter-culture movements and earned ill-name.

The same fate awaits Hinduism if Hindus do not stop trying to appear scientific. We must realize that science is not ultimate truth. It is not the final word. It does not claim so itself.

Science is the manifestation of human curiosity and fascination. It is a most interesting discipline that has contributed to numerous advances in our civilization. Today, we have better medicine, better transport, more access to information, and much more – all due to science. Science is not interested in writing ‘the final book’. That would be boring. The most interesting thing about science is how much there is still left for us to know. It is a field where good minds challenge each other’s views, and no idea passes without scrutiny. Science holds empirical validation as a final test of hypothesis.

We have transitioned from a ‘flat-earth’ view to a ‘spherical earth’ view, from geocentricism to heliocentricism to current cosmology.  We have discovered the evolution of species and genetics which have discarded many fanciful theories of the past. A static universe has become an expanding universe; for all we know it could be pulsating. There could be multiple universes. Science is brimming with seemingly incredible possibilities.

Science is least interested in subscribing to hard opinions. It keeps changing its ideas as new findings emerge. It is full of new curiosities and adventures. It is clear that claiming scientific comfort for one’s beliefs is suicidal for that belief. Within a few years, things would change completely, and the very ideas that one found comfort in would be invalidated. Science would simply dismiss these ideas and move on.

In fact, it already has. Many articles from learned people have emerged debunking the claims of similarity between contemporary science and Eastern faiths. These voices are only bound to get louder as the initial excitement dies and people become better informed about the details.

Also, many preceptors of Hinduism have been clear in their literature that the purpose of Vedas is NOT to teach something that can be known through other sources, such as science. The Veda retains its unique claim to value in being a text that can teach what no other source can. If the Veda merely teaches what science teaches, then the Veda would cease to be the authority that it claims to be.

The urge to appear good in the short-term by twisting both science and Hinduism has disastrous consequences. There is enough in the tradition to be valued without having to appeal to science. For example, science teaches us that species evolved by competing with each other, loving or co-operating only when it helps their selfish end or the unconscious end of the genes. It teaches that the purpose of life is to obtain nutrition and reproduce. Only the fittest survive; the rest perish, often in brutal ways. Even an atheist, informed of these ideas, would not think that this must be the philosophy of human life. However fake one might think these are, we all like to be loved and to love. We all like to live in a compassionate world. We have a sense of justice. If a rowdy group harms peaceful people, we agree that it is wrong. We have human rights, the right to education, the right to food and the right to information. We feel the need to have free speech. We like to celebrate events we deem significant even for non-religious reasons. A world of peace and quiet is every sane person’s dream. And yet, there is nothing in the philosophy of nature that inspires this in us. Humans, a part of nature, seem to have trumped it. If universal love is an error of evolution, then it is an error we can cherish. In our every step in life, we work against the seemingly brutal designs of the physical world.  Our hearts bleed for the suffering, half-way across the planet, and we work to save them from further grief. We do not think that their suffering is justified as they are less ‘fit’. Trying to draw lessons from science has resulted in unspeakable brutality. It is true that many religions have inspired no less violence. But, these religions can be challenged on their dogmatism; science cannot be, for it is not dogmatic.

Religion can survive in the same space as love, peace, humanity and non-violence. It does not need constant validation from dynamic scientific views. Hinduism does not have to be distorted beyond recognition and diluted to appear right to popular views of the day. Even if there is no purpose to our existence, we still have a choice to not be a dull moron; we have a choice to be a colorful Hindu; we have a choice to be sensitive to the pain of others (Acharya Nanjeeyar defines sensitivity to pain in others as the defining trait of a Vaishnava; the pre-modern poet Narsing Mehta concurs); we have a choice to transcend the ‘eat-and-reproduce’ design of nature.

Science seems to indicate that there is no clear purpose to our existence. Seeking to validate a meaningful religion in this framework is an act of profound misjudgment. Science and Hinduism do not need to be in conflict; they do not need to be in literal sync either. As humans, we are mature in our minds to enjoy the benefits of both, and lead a full life.

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