Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Case for Secular Hinduism – Raman Reddy

The desperate attempts to declare Hinduism as a religion and not “a way of life”, as the Supreme Court had observed twenty years back in 1995, has obvious political motives. It is basically to prevent Hindus to unite under one banner and weaken the BJP’s hold on the electoral politics of India. But the impression given by those who raise the bogey of Hinduism is that it is the biggest threat to the nation since the Partition of India. I have often asked myself what exactly are the dangers of Hinduism to the nation, and in this regard a clear presentation of this perceived threat is long overdue. Secular scholars do make a lot of noise about unimportant issues such as beef-eating and the compulsory singing of Vande Mataram, but when it comes to going beyond these trifles and getting into the nitty-gritty of their accusation, they simply vanish from the public domain. But before I speculate further on the underlying reason for feeling threatened by such a harmless religion as Hinduism, let me repeat an old argument in its favour.

Hinduism has no single unifying code of conduct which it can impose on the Hindus themselves, so how on earth can it force it on those who belong to other religions? It has a hundred disciplines and a thousand rituals, so how can it impose a common system or practice on anybody? The spiritual philosophy of Hinduism is so wide and universal that it can accommodate all the religions of the world without any sense of condescension, which should make every Indian feel proud instead of being ashamed of it. The three fundamentals of Hinduism, according to Sri Aurobindo are: (1) “the idea of the One Existence to whom sages give different names”; (2) “the manifold way of man’s approach to the Eternal and Infinite”; (3) the Divine “can be met by each individual soul because there is something in it that is intimately one with the one divine Existence”. More concisely, (1) there is the One Divine with different names, (2) there are multiple approaches to the Divine, and (3) the Divine is in each man for him to discover. Mark the impersonality and the general application of the statement (no names are mentioned), the sheer catholicity of approach, and finally the dignity accorded to every human being. If these are the dogmas that Hinduism will impose on others, what is there to be so terrified about?  

But then one cannot expect rationality in politics, and the spectre of Trishul wielding sadhus running after followers of other religious denominations has to be created out of thin air for the sake of political gain. In doing so the essence of Hinduism is deliberately overlooked and so much negative stress laid on its outer forms that modern Hindus immediately start hating their own religion and culture, or give the benefit of doubt to its critics rather than its votaries. Thus instead of going back to the essence of Hinduism and recreating fresh forms of life which break from the rigid rituals of the past, present day Hindus are forced to stand on a secular platform with no individuality of their own. Or, not knowing what to do in the face of the aggressive propaganda of Western culture, which has weakened the very foundations of their inner life, they go back to age-old forms with a sense of vengeance. Both can be done successfully, the creation of fresh forms as well as the revivifying of the old, provided the spiritual motive is there behind, for spirituality is after all the essence of Hinduism.

But the question is where does rationality fit in the current dilemma of India which is now facing a crucial choice of culture: either to recognise the value of Hinduism or admit with regret that it can only be used for seasoning secularism, like a housewife adds condiments to the daily curry. It is the apprehension of this loss of rationality that is at the root of all objections to Hinduism, and at first sight it would seem a legitimate fear. But on a deeper look the contradiction disappears. The essence of Hinduism is spiritual, and spirituality does not at all contradict rationality, as great spiritual personalities like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda have shown the world by becoming living embodiments of such a synthesis. As a matter of fact, what we see happening on a larger scale nowadays though at a lesser height is “a rationalisation of spirituality”, which is the reverse of the cooking example that I have given above. In this case, spirituality is the suprarational foundation (or the curry) and rationality plays the secondary role of keeping man in check and saving him from irrational vital excesses. In other words, rationality peppers the spiritual curry with its condiments and makes it more acceptable to man. I have perhaps overstretched the simile, but in the case of Sri Aurobindo, he used the marvellous clarity of his intellect to express his spiritual world-view, as in his magnum opus The Life Divine. He had the best of Western education at Cambridge and wrote impeccable English (this itself should make most seculars scholars jealous of him). But then he came back to India, had major spiritual experiences, studied the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and other classics of India, before he launched the Arya in which he wrote his major works within a short period of six and a half years. If this is not an intellectual achievement, then I wonder what is!

The spirituality catholicity of Hinduism is thus compatible with rationalism and democratic rights, so secularism should have no essential problem with it. The objection could be raised that secularism by its very definition is “not religious”, so how could it accommodate Hinduism? But if you do not insist on “religious rituals” and insist on the spiritual essence, which leaves everybody free to follow their own beliefs, then we are just differing over words and definitions while the actual content remains the same. Hinduism could be thus redefined not as a religion, but as “spiritual secularism” in order to be the foundation of all the religions of the world, including the numerous sects of its own. In any case India certainly needs a good measure of spiritual thought presented in the modern context at this historic juncture when secularism has literally capsized after having miserably failed to run the country for the last 60 years of independence. If there is one single reason for the rampant corruption in public life and the general slackening of moral rectitude in India, it is the lack of a national ethos, a national character and personality, which every Indian can be proud of. After all, it is the sense of a unique individuality that makes a man or a nation dynamic and successful in life. From this point of view, Hinduism can certainly fill the gap and provide “the soul of the nation” as Sri Aurobindo calls it. At the same time it could build the common platform for all religions to practise unhindered within its larger spiritual framework than secularism, which only encourages religious fundamentalism in the name of protection of minorities, and deprives the Hindus of their own culture because they have taken the responsibility of governance. I end with a beautiful quotation of Sri Aurobindo which defines Hinduism:

“Hinduism... gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavour of the human spirit. An immense many-sided and many-staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, sanātana dharma.”

(Foundations of Indian Culture, SABCL, Vol. 14, p. 122)

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