Complexity of Hinduism

(This paper was presented at International Conference on Communal Harmony & Nation Building at Benaras Hindu University, on 15-16 June 2015. The Conference was jointly organized by Department of Political Sciences, BHU and Islamic Students Organization.)

Understanding the Complexity and Dynamism of Hinduism

Hinduism is diverse in philosophy, mythology and practices. This diversity has come from a few millennia of development and integration of various sub-cultures. This dynamic nature of Hinduism makes it very flexible and it keeps adapting to times and climes.It is also amenable to be adapted to the temperament of the people who practice it. All these make Hinduism difficult to understand even by many Hindus. People of other religions and cultures find it almost impossible to comprehend Hinduism. This leads to a lot of misunderstanding, resulting in apprehensions. In this discussion, first various aspects of Hinduism as being practiced today are presented. Then the dynamism of Hinduism is explained using language and cuisine as analogies. Finally, the problems faced by Hinduism today because of non-appreciation of the diverse and dynamic nature of Hinduism are discussed.

Part 1: Aspects of Hinduism

Every religion has three aspects – philosophy, mythology and practices. These three cater to the intellect, emotions and activities of the followers. They go together and support each other. To understand Hinduism, one has to look at all these three aspects.

The Goal

Man is an integral being with various aspects like physical, intellectual and emotional. Accordingly, the needs of man are also along these various aspects. The pursuits of man relate to the fulfilment of these needs. At the physical level, being totally free from the needs is not possible. Physical limitations, disease, old age and death are inevitable. At the intellectual level also, complete perfection is not possible. There will always be limitations in knowledge, understanding and memory. However, at the emotional level, perfection has been achieved by innumerable people throughout the history of mankind in various geographies and cultures.

Hinduism considers this emotional perfection as the goal of human life. Various Hindu scriptures give descriptions of the person who has attained this emotional perfection.

Emotional perfection is characterized by total freedom from selfish desires and the freedom from subjugation to psychological defects like lust, greed, anger, arrogance and jealousy. The people who have achieved this have been revered as saints. They have been guiding lights and role models for the rest of society. Such people have infinite compassion to fellow human beings and often their love extends to all living beings. They are naturally moral, self-controlled and content with themselves.[1]

Emotional perfection is achieved by knowing deeply and assimilating the Truth about the individual, the Universal and the world. Thus, the pursuit becomes that of preparing oneself and to assimilate the Truth.

Mahatma Gandhi says, “Hinduism is a relentless pursuit of Truth.”[2] The French Nobel Laureate, Romain Rolland says, “The true Vedantic spirit does not start out with a system of preconceived ideas…. each man has been entirely free to search wherever he pleased for the spiritual explanation of the spectacle of the universe.”[3] Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj makes this pursuit of Truth so pure that he says, “If you expect any benefits from your search, material, mental or spiritual, you have missed the point. Truth gives no advantage. It gives you no higher status, no power over others; all you get is truth and the freedom from the false.”[4]

During our interaction with the world and people in it, we take upon different identities. When attending the wedding of a relative, when a person asks, “Who are you?” we would identify ourselves by our relationship to the bride or groom. When attending an inter-college meet, we would identify ourselves with our college. When interacting with our parents, we identify as their children. When running away from a tiger, we identify ourselves as its potential food. All these identities are based on the body and mind. They are applicable in certain contexts. Now, where there is no context, when we are alone, what is our identity? All problems in life are because we are overwhelmed by one context-based-identity or the other. If we are able to discover our context-free identity and establish ourselves firmly in it, then based on that, we can easily handle all the ups and downs of life without being carried away by the situations. Our happiness and peace will not depend on the people, objects and situations around us. This knowledge of our real identity is the one what will give us the emotional freedom and perfection. With this freedom, we will be able to work with the world and other human beings in the most ideal way. This is the goal.

From this emotional freedom and perfection comes the highest form of humanism. Swami Vivekananda says, “I do not care for liberation, or for devotion, I would rather go to a hundred thousand hells doing good to others (silently) like the spring — this is my religion.”[5] A popular Hindu prayer says,
“na tu aham kaamaye raajyam na swargam na apunarbhavam |
kaamaye dukha taptaanaam praaninaam aartinaasanam”
– “I do not desire kingship nor heaven nor freedom from rebirth. I only desire that I help to free living beings from their sorrow and suffering.”[6] Thus, the Hindu goal is to be able to offer oneself completely in the service of living beings, based on complete inner emotional freedom, based on true understanding of one’s own real nature.

Gradual Approach

Many people are mature and sensitive enough to be altruistic, even if not emotionally perfect. They are naturally selfless and have a tendency to help others. They are not comfortable when they see someone else suffer. They consider the joys and sorrows of others as their own. This humanism is a sufficient reason for them to be compassionate, moral and self-controlled. They are already spiritually advanced, even if they do not know it. They are already closer to the goal.

However, many people are selfish. They need a self-serving reason to be compassionate, moral and self-controlled. Various systems of reason and faith have tried to inspire these people towards a socially acceptable and beneficial life. For most of the people, religion has been an effective system to inspire them towards compassion, morality and contentment.

Every religion is based on the principle “good begets good; bad begets bad”. Every religion says that good people will be rewarded and bad people will be punished.This gives a reason for selfish people to be good. However, in the world around us, we do not see this always true. Most of the cases that we see are contrary to this. To address this, all religions have a concept of after-life. They say that the consequences of their actions cannot be escaped even by death.

Different people consider different things as desirable, based on their maturity. To cater to different people at different levels of maturity, religions have been offering various models that people can understand.

  1. Some people can understand only pleasure and pain. So some religions propose that after death, the good would enjoy pleasure (in heaven) and bad would suffer pain (in hell). The description of heaven and hell by various religions depends on the environment where the religion originated and developed. For example, the description of “Paradise” of Islam is similar to an oasis.[7] The “heaven” in Norse mythology called “Asgard” is place of joyous feasting and fighting.
  2. Some people are mature enough to not give much importance to pleasure and pain. They are more interested in proximity to their beloved and revered deity. So some religions propose that after death the devout will enjoy eternal proximity to the deity of their heart. For example, Christianity has the “Kingdom of Heaven” concept where the devotees enjoy the company of God and Christ.

Hinduism offers all these and more. For people who can understand only pleasure and pain, Hinduism offers various concepts of heavens and hells. The pleasures in heavens are like ‘absence of disease, old age and death’, ‘pleasant music’, ‘classical dance’, ‘tasty food and wine’, etc. Also, it offers favourable or unfavourable birth on earth itself based on the actions. For people who value proximity to their favourite form of God more than anything else, there are regions like Vaikuntha for devotees of Vishnu, Kailasha for devotees of Shiva, Goloka for devotees of Krishna, etc. Thus Hinduism is an inclusive, pluralistic and universal religion, which is harmonious with other religions.[8]A verse in the Mahabharata says, “A religion which opposes another religion is not a true religion. True religion is that which does not come in the way of another religion.”[9]

However, Hinduism says that any place cannot be a permanent one. The result of a finite action cannot be infinite – “naastia kritah kritena”.[10] When the fruits of action are exhausted, the person has to return back – “ksheene punye martyalokam vishanti”.[11]

If a person has managed to give up all worldly desires, then there is no reason for him to come back to this world. In that case, he will be given the opportunity to know the Truth about his own real nature from wherever he is. That will expand his individuality into the Universal.

As long as a person holds onto an individual limited identity, he is subject to desire and that would result in various forms of sorrow. The only permanent solution to sorrow is the knowledge that individuality is only apparent. The person is never apart from the Universal. It is only this knowledge that would deliver a person from all limitation and the inevitable sorrow that goes along with the sense of limitation. This knowledge can be gained in this world or any other world from a wise teacher.

This absolute freedom from sorrow, based on the knowledge that individuality is only apparent, is called Moksha. This is the goal.[12]

Hinduism offers various intermediate goals to people based on what would inspire them. As a person matures, it gradually raises the goal and leads the person to the ultimate goal of absolute freedom. This results in apparent contradiction in the various statements of the scriptures. If one understands that they are meant for people at various levels of maturity, one can easily reconcile the apparent differences.

Role of Stories

To help people to assimilate the principles of Hinduism easily and also to provide support for the intermediate goals, Hinduism uses stories. Hinduism has one of the richest collections of stories, legends, anecdotes and parables in the world. These reflect the principles of Hinduism in a colourful manner, which is easy to understand and assimilate.

The Vedas have a number of stories of devatas, rishis, teachers and students. Sage Vyasa collected most of the stories prevailing at that time in to a set of books called puranas. They contain stories of teachers, students, kings, devatas, asuras, saints and devotees. A number of stories are also present in the two great epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These cannot be called mythology. Most of the stories would have originated based on some real event involving real persons. Because of the long passage of time and because of the Hindu literary tradition of extrapolation and exaggeration, they have attained the current form.

To these are added the books with the stories of various saints like the Alwars and Nayanmars of South India, the Bhakta Vijayam depicting the stories of various devotees of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, etc. There are a lot of stories of devotion and valour, with innumerable local variations, which form the rich tapestry of the Hindu heritage.

Every saint and teacher uses a number of stories and parables to convey the religious and spiritual ideas. All these drive the principles of Hinduism into the heart of the Hindus.

Way of Life

To be able to imbibe the principles of religion, it has to be a way of life. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan says, “Philosophy in India is not an abstract study remote from the life of man. It is intimately woven into the texture of human existence. The civilization of India is an effort to embody philosophical wisdom in social life.”[13]

Religion lives in the day-to-day life of its practitioners. Hinduism has inseparably integrated into the daily life, festivals, art forms and places in India.

Almost all the traditional forms of music, dance, drama and painting are based on the stories of Hinduism. Many of the commonly used proverbs, idioms, illustrations and verbal expressions are based on these stories. All these are reminders of the principles that they depict.

There are a number of places of pilgrimage in India, which are associated with the stories, legends and anecdotes of Hinduism. The walls of Hindu temples are adorned by paintings and sculptures depicting various incidents in these stories. Thus, pilgrimage and visiting temples is a popular way to remind oneself of these stories and get their message into one’s life.

Hinduism has a rich array of interesting and colourful festivals like Diwali, Holi, Kumbhamela, etc. Most of the festivals are days commemorating the important events in these stories. Thus celebrating the festivals is also a way to remember these stories and the messages that they convey.

Hinduism has a rich set of rituals for everyday life associated with key moments in the day like waking up, taking bath, eating, travelling and going to sleep. It also has traditional ceremonies to mark various important events in life like conception, birth, naming, start of solid food, start of schooling, marriage, house-warming, 60th birthday and death. All these rituals and ceremonies reflect and remind the principles of Hinduism in different ways.

Both in the stories and in the customs, Hinduism allows a huge scope for local and personal variations. There are innumerable thriving sub-cultures with their own variations. All this diversity is celebrated as the sign of life by Hinduism.

Part 2: Hinduism as an Organic Religion

As mentioned above, Hinduism is diverse in philosophy, mythology and practices. One way to understand Hinduism is to look at it not as a “monolithic revealed religion” like many of the institutionalized religions, but as a “systematization of prevailing revelations and practices”. Comparing with the way languages and cuisine develop organically, here is presented a paradigm to understand Hinduism. This understanding will help Hindus to define themselves better. It will also help other religions and social structures to interact with Hinduism better.

One immediate question that can arise in the minds of people who are new to Hinduism is, “How can there be multiple revelations?” Hinduism has a simple logic to answer that. There is one God, who is omniscient, omnipotent and compassionate. Being so, He would naturally know even if He be called by any name and adored in any manner. As He knows the innermost thoughts of everyone, there can be no restriction in name or form or ritual to interact with Him. The same God has revealed various scriptures of the various religions in the world to suit people of different regions and cultures. Denying this would be to challenge the omniscience and compassion of God.

Hinduism is a “natural” religion. It is the collection and systematization of the thoughts, revelations, legends and practices of the people of India and other places of its influence. It is a live, developing, dynamic culture. It is an organically developed and developing cultural entity, like a language or a cuisine. Grammar or recipe is derived from the existing practices. The grammar or recipe tries to systematize and standardize to enable people to learn it and pass it on to the next generation.

There are a few observations that need to be noted here about the analogy.

(1) The language or cuisine is not limited by the grammar or recipe. The original is what is in the life of the people. What is in books is only an approximation for a beginner or visitor. When in doubt, you should always go back to the field. The south Indian sambar that is made by a grandmother in a village hut is more authentic than what is made by a chef in a five-star hotel. The sambar that you find in the five-star hotel is only an imitation and approximation of the original that is made in the village hut.

(2) The language and cuisine existing in the life of people will have infinite variations. The diversity is natural and has to be appreciated and preserved. In the name of standardization, the diversity should not be lost. Each of the south Indian sambars that you can taste in various villages and even among different communities in the same village will be unique and different. Still, they are all authentic. There is no right or wrong about these diverse variations. All of them are original.

(3) If a variant of the language or cuisine is discovered after the systematization process, it is the systematized form that has to be tuned to cover the new discovery. The newly discovered variant cannot be discarded because it does not conform to the system.

(4) If the language or cuisine has changed naturally over a period of time, the new variant also has to be included into the systematized form. The original also can be retained. The new one also has to be added to the already existing diversity.

Keeping these in mind, we can understand Hinduism better.

The thoughts, revelations, legends and practices in the life of the people are diverse and often contradictory. The beauty of the Hindu culture lies in this diversity. The acceptance of diversity has made Hinduism the most dynamic and tolerant of all faiths.

The Vedas are the records of the revelations, beliefs, thoughts, legends and practices that existed in the various parts of India during the time of their compilation by Veda Vyasa. They are field observations and so are sacrosanct. They cannot be tampered with. There may be apparent contradictions. There may be different parts of it meant for people in different stages of development or people with different cultures and inclinations. It is left to the philosophers to extract a coherent system of philosophy out of the records. It is left to the religious teachers to extract various meditations mentioned in the Vedas and prescribe to the students based on their need.

It has to be pointed out here about a misconception that there is a gradual development of ideas in the Vedas. This is not correct. Prof.Chandradhar Sharma notes, “the Vedic sages were greatly intellectual and intensely spiritual personages who in their mystic moments came face to face with Reality and this mystic experience, this direct intuitive spiritual insight overflew in literature as the Vedic hymns. The key-note of the Vedic hymns is the same spiritual monism, the same immanent conception of the identity-in-difference which ultimately transcends even itself, the same indescribable absolutism which holds both monism and pluralism within its bosom and which ultimately transcends both. … Hence there is no development from polytheism through monotheism to monism, but only of monism from the first Mantra portion to the last Upanishadic portion.”[14]

Similarly, the Puranas are the legends and mythology of the people in various parts of India, also collected and recorded initially by Veda Vyasa. There seems to have been a lot of additions to them in later times. There may be apparent contradictions. But that is what it is. It is left to the teachers to resolve the contradictions. It is left to the teachers to pick and choose what to teach to which student. For example, Shiva Purana would extol Shiva as the greatest. Vishnu Purana would extol Vishnu as the greatest. These are not contradictions. They are meant for people with different inclinations.

There have been attempts to standardize Hinduism throughout the ages. The beauty of this process is that it has always been trying to form a framework where every thought and practice finds a place. As minimal tuning as possible is done to the apparently contradictory systems to be able to fit into a generic framework. This can be seen in the works of Sage Vyasa, Sage Patanjali, Sri Sankara, Swami Vivekananda, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, etc. This is an ongoing process. For example, Patanjali is not the originator of the system of Yoga. He is one of the people who systematized the various Yoga practices that were already widely existent. Sankara is not the originator of Advaita. He is one of the people who systematized this way of explaining the statements of the Vedas in a coherent manner. The same is true about every name and book that we find in Hinduism. Hinduism has the biggest corpus of religious literature of all the religions in the world. This is still growing actively.

The Vedas use words like “sages say so”, “learned people say so”, etc. in a number of places. The Vedas do not claim to originate an idea or a practice. It always shows that the ideas and practices mentioned are prevailing ones. This is true with the other Hindu scriptures also. A sutra (aphorism) in one of the social practices guidebook says: “the remaining duties [which have not been mentioned here] must be learnt from women and those of all castes.”[15] This is a clear proof that Hindu practices are bottom-up and not top-down.

In Bhagavad Gita, at the end of the 16th chapter, Krishna says that do’s and dont’s should be decided by referring to the scriptures. Immediately, Arjuna raises the question of what governs the actions of a person who does not depend on the scriptures. The entire 17th chapter and some of the 18th chapter brilliantly deals with this. Various aspects of human life – actions, knowledge, joy, worship, charity, austerity, etc. – are classified into three categories – satva (encouraged), rajas (discouraged) and tamas (prohibited). Krishna shows how the scriptural injunctions can be explained based on some basic principles. The directives of the scriptures are actually ready-reckoners, so that every time we need not derive the do’s and dont’s from the basic principles. For example, Krishna says, “That which is pain in the short-term and pleasure in the long-term can be encouraged as a source of joy. That which is pleasure in the short-term and pain in the long-term is discouraged. That pursuit of joy which causes suffering and is due to lethargy, delusion and indolence is prohibited.”[16] This is a very logical answer for how to decide what is good and what is bad. Similarly, Krishna says, “That knowledge by which you see unity in diversity is encouraged. That by which you see only diversity is discouraged. That which is not based on reason, promotes selfishness and comes from a narrow-minded viewpoint is prohibited.”[17] Thus, Bhagavad Gita lays down the general humanitarian values as the foundation of Hinduism and not dogmas that are not supported by reason and experience.

The Vedas are also clear that reason should be given utmost importance. They classify things into two: indriya and ati-indriya – those that can be verified by senses and those that cannot be verified by senses. The Vedas are the ultimate authority only for the non-verifiable concepts like freewill, law of karma, fruit of rituals, procedure of rituals, nature of the fundamental substance, nature of God, nature of Consciousness, etc. And these also cannot contradict logic. Adi Sankara tells clearly, “Even if a hundred Vedic dicta say fire is cold and does not burn, that dicta have to be rejected.”[18]Thus the Vedas are very clear about their domain and are not in conflict with science. Vedas encourage scientific inquiry.

If any Indian society is found, whose practices are not found in the Vedas or whose stories are not found in the Puranas, they are not rejected. New stories are added to integrate the stories of these people into the “mainstream” stories. Many local stories in various parts of India can be traced to a recent (a few hundred years) origin – like the story of Vishnu crossing the Vaigai river in Madurai, Tamilnadu, the story of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala, etc. These newly found practices are documented for posterity. There are practices of recent origin like the use of props to practice yogic postures, introduced by Sri.B.K.S.Iyengar. They are also included into the huge literature of the practices of Hinduism. Someone somewhere might find some use of these. So, there is no question of some Indian communities or tribes being “non-Hindu”. There is no such concept as a non-Hindu Indian community or tribe. There is no question of whether these modern practices are a part of Hinduism or not. They are a part of the ever-growing and dynamic Hinduism.

This makes Hinduism the most dynamic and tolerant of all religions. The idioms of teaching Hinduism keep evolving. Every new idea found anywhere in the world is suitably integrated into Hinduism. Every new story found anywhere is Indianized and integrated. There are some over-zealous teachers who try to draw parallels between Hindu concepts and the recent developments in Science. Some use the parallels as analogies, some go overboard to declare them as being really connected. Hinduism leaves it to time for the ideas that are genuine to stand the test of time and the fake ones to fade away naturally.

When an idea or a custom is found unsuitable to the modern times, Hindus do not condemn it. They just give it a pleasant “thanks and good-bye”. Irrelevant practices are dropped and new ideas are taken up. For example, when there were a lot of wars and adult males from the general public were enlisted often, there were more females in the society than males. So polygamy was the norm. With the change of times, less wars, regular armies, etc. the demography changed and today monogamy is the norm. Similarly, as the sensitivity of the people towards violence increased, corporeal punishments were no longer needed to maintain order in the society. So there is no more chopping of hands, giving whip lashes, etc., which were prevalent in ancient times. Similarly, food habits like vegetarianism have evolved. There was a time when non-vegetarian diet was the norm. As the society became less violent, moved from pastoral to agrarian and there was more agricultural produce with longer shelf-life available, the whole society became more vegetarian. Similarly, discrimination based on birth is seeing a natural death. Every Hindu saint in the past couple of hundred years has talked and worked against the caste discrimination. But the society is holding on to it due to selfish worldly interests of a few people. And, Hinduism is being blamed for it. It is still a menace because the Hindu society is not listening to its saints on this issue.

Thus, all aspects of Hinduism – philosophy, stories and practices – have evolved organically and are continuing to evolve. This aliveness and dynamism are hallmarks of Hinduism. This is what keeps it “eternal”, true to its name – “sanatana dharma”.

Who is a Hindu?

Now, with such a wide, flexible and dynamic system, is there any unity underlying the diversity? What defines Hinduism? Do all the various sects share any principles in common? Yes, there are. Here are some of the principles agreed upon by almost all the variants of Hinduism. Though a common Hindu might not be able to articulate the basic principles, almost all the Hindu saints and leaders in the past two thousand years accept these common basic principles. When these are explained to a common Hindu, he would quickly realize that these words reflect his understanding.

  1. I, as an individual, am fully responsible for everything that I face in my life. My current situation is because of my past action and my future situation will be influenced by my current action. I cannot escape the consequence of my actions. As my birth itself is a situation that is different for each person, pre-birth existence becomes the only logical possibility. Similarly, as I keep doing things till my last breath, a post-birth existence becomes the only logical possibility. Thus, I am alone responsible for the situations in my life and my past and current actions will determine my future situations. Prayer, charity, austerity, repentance, etc are also actions and they also affect the future situations in my life.
  2. The whole of existence is an interconnected system. I am not isolated from the rest of the existence. The whole of existence is personified as God for the convenience of transaction. God is omnipresent and knows my innermost thoughts. I can worship God through any form or without form, through any ritual or without any ritual. I can even deny the existence of God, and accept only an unconscious universal system that exists. As long as my relationship with the whole system is one of contribution and symbiosis, and not that of consumption and exploitation, I am in line with the Hindu ethos. This principle is expressed in the various popular Hindu statements like “nara seva hi naaraayana seva” – Service to man is service to God. Swami Vivekananda says, “After so much austerity, I have understood this as the real truth — God is present in every Jiva; there is no other God besides that. ‘Who serves Jiva, serves God indeed’.”[19]
  3. Leading a truthful, useful, compassionate, helpful and self-controlled life will ensure my spiritual development irrespective of my beliefs or absence of any. Thus, even if a person does not believe in any of the popular Hindu beliefs or may belong to another religion or may be an atheist, if he leads the life of a good human being, Hinduism has a positive message for him: the person is moving towards positive spiritual development. This makes Hinduism tolerant of other religions and atheism.
  4. Religion is an inner pursuit of every human being. Every person has direct access to the divinity within, which can be reached by deep inner search. Rajiv Malhotra has coined the word “embodied knowing” to indicate this. He says, “The dharma family (including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism) has developed an extensive range of inner sciences and experiential technologies called ‘adhyatma vidya’ to access divinity and higher states of consciousness. Adhyatma vidya is a body of wisdom and techniques culled from centuries of first-person empirical inquiry into the nature of consciousness and undertaken by advanced practitioners. … Their truth must be rediscovered and directly experienced by each person.”[20]The Vedas, Gita and several Hindu scriptures have detailed instructions for various kinds of meditations. Meditation and Hindu spiritual life are inseparable.
  5. Religion is not a sealed book. There have been saints and prophets in the past, present and there will be in the future too. There will be more religions and sects with their own revealed books in the future. Hinduism welcomes all. Swami Vivekananda says, “I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future. Is God’s book finished? Or is it still a continuous revelation going on? It is a marvellous book — these spiritual revelations of the world. The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, and all other sacred books are but so many pages, and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded. I would leave it open for all of them. We stand in the present, but open ourselves to the infinite future. We take in all that has been in the past, enjoy the light of the present, and open every window of the heart for all that will come in the future. Salutation to all the prophets of the past, to all the great ones of the present, and to all that are to come in the future!”[21]

With these as the basic principles, infinite variations are allowed to thrive under the huge umbrella of Hinduism. Keeping these intact, Hinduism is allowed to change and adapt to the changing times without losing its identity. Even if everything else is different and these are present, it is still Hinduism. Even if a person does not even know any Hindu forms of God, has not even heard about any Hindu scriptures, has never even seen a Hindu temple, he is a Hindu if he inherently believes in these principles, even if he is not able to articulate them in this manner.

To support these principles and help people to imbibe these in their everyday life, there are various stories, legends, scriptures, songs, festivals, pilgrimages and rituals. They all form an integral part of Hinduism.

Part 3: Modern Challenges

Hinduism is a dynamic religion. It celebrates diversity in philosophy, mythology and practices. It allows integration of new elements. It allows dropping of outdated concepts and practices. It allows individuals to adapt Hinduism to their inclinations. It allows all these keep a very basic set of non-negotiables.

Problem comes when people want to freeze Hinduism and the Hindu society in the past. For various vested interests some people try to prevent the natural change from happening. This creates conflicts and delays the natural changes.

The irony is this. An academician, who claims to study Hinduism and Hindu society, first defines Hinduism based on centuries-old outdated models. Then he condemns Hinduism based on those models. When Hindus say that his model is outdated, he says that what is followed now is not Hinduism. This becomes a vicious cycle.

Another problem is trying to stereotype or standardize the whole of Hinduism into a particular variant. There are religious leaders, political leaders and academicians who try to restrict what and what is not Hinduism. These attempts create a lot of discord among the followers of Hinduism.

Similarly, an academician defines Hinduism as what is there in the books and claim that the tribal people of India are not Hindus. If Hindus show that their beliefs and practices can be accommodated into Hinduism, the academician says that Hinduism is being diluted.

It is the recent academicians who want to define and freeze Hinduism who are the problem. For example, the Advaita Vedantins have been having the eternal debate between the Bhamati school and Vivarana school. They have been debating it for more than a thousand years and have no problem continuing to have both these schools of thought side by side for thousands of years in future too. But an academician who is not comfortable with this coexistence of two schools makes it a battle ground between Sankara and Vivekananda, divides the Hindu saints and leaders into two camps, pitches them against each other and creates all kinds of problems.

Hindus themselves do not have any problem in the coexistence of various points of views like Bhamati-Vivarana, Advaita-Vishishtadvaita, Shaiva-Vaishnava, Vedanta-Mysticism, Yoga-Vedanta, Bhakti-Jnana, Grihasta-Sannyasa, etc. To understand Hinduism, one should first understand that there is no one right way. There are no frozen concepts or practices. Hinduism is a dynamic evolving religious and spiritual culture. Without this perspective, whoever tries to study Hinduism will only land up doing more harm than good.

Another challenge is the rise of violent intolerance among Hindus. This is the reaction of the Hindus against the inaction of political establishment towards the intolerant and predatory attitude and action of some religions in India. Some religions in India have an exclusive outlook – “My way is the only way” or “My way is the best way”. They have an intolerant attitude towards other religions. Their rising numbers is creating a general intolerant atmosphere in the country. This is making the Hindus feel threatened. This fear is being exploited by some fringe elements that incite Hindus into a violent backlash. Educating Hindus about Hinduism and strengthening Hinduism is the way to help the Hindus handle the apprehensions in a non-violent manner.

Part 4: Conclusion

Hinduism is an organically developed human heritage. Its richness in thought, mythology and practices are mind boggling. It may be carrying some outdated objectionable practices. Left to itself, it has the capacity to adjust to the times and serve humanity in the best possible manner. During these modern times, when humanity is so much bothered about saving obscure endangered species of animals and insects, it is important that humanity does everything possible to nurture this huge human heritage. It has given life and succour to millions of human beings in the past and has the capacity to do so in the future also. Any modern social institution is expected to be decentralized, democratic, rational, pluralistic, humanist, dynamic and non-dogmatic. Hinduism is almost the only religion that matches these criteria. It can serve as a template for other religions and other human institutions to also implement these criteria. Its life and dynamism has to be nurtured as a living asset of humanity.

[1]Bhagavad Gita – 2.55, 2.56, 2.57, 2.71, 12.13, 12.14

[2]What is Hinduism, page 1

[3]Life of Swami Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel, page 147

[4]I am That, page 299

[5]Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 7, page 486

[6]This popular prayer is based on the prayer of King Rantideva in Srimad Bhagavatam- 9.21.12 -na kaamaye aham gatim ishvaraat paraam ashtarddhi yuktaam apunarbhavam vaa | aartim prapadye akhila deha bhaajaam antah sthito yena bhavanti adukhaah

[7]The word “Jannah” means “garden” in Arabic. Descriptions are in verses like 9.72, 36.56-57, 47.15, 88.12-16

[8]Detailed discussion on various models of Interreligious Attitudes are given in the paper presented by Swami Bhajanananda in the conference on “Exploring Harmony among Religious Traditions in India” at Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata, 2007

[9]Mahabharata, 3.131.10

[10]Mundaka Upanishad – 1.2.12

[11]Bhagavad Gita – 9.21

[12]Bhagavad Gita – 5.17, 13.31, 13.32

[13]The Pursuit of Truth, page 92

[14]A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy, page 16

[15]Apastamba Sutras – 2.11.29.15

[16]Bhagavad Gita – 18.37-39

[17]Bhagavad Gita – 18.20-22

[18]Sankara’s Bhagavad Gita Bhashyam – 18.66.11

[19]Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 7, page 247

[20] Being Different, page 5-6

[21] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 2, page 374

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One Response to Complexity of Hinduism

  1. Ramesh C M says:

    Excellent write up.Thank you

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