3. The relevance of Hindu thought for modern society
An important issue is whether the Hindu thought, with all its lofty ideals, is relevant for the present society? What can the modern man learn from Hinduism to make her/his own life richer and the society around her/him peaceful and harmonious? Interestingly, Hindu thinkers also considered how the desirable ideals could be operationalised or brought in to everyday practice. Philosophy can be a dry subject to the disinterested, however, through festivities and other daily practices such as the Yoga, Hindu thinkers made it relevant to address everyday problems that a person faces and the wider society in which s/he lives. Hinduism provided space for everyone: Jnana Yoga, for the atheist/rational thinkers/researchers/scholars who are interested in the rationality that underpins the Hindu Thought. Karma Yoga for workaholics, Bhakti Yoga for ordinary folks who are engrossed in daily chore and Raja Yoga for those who are interested in mind control and trying to be one with the divine using that route.
3.1 Focus on rational inquiry and open architecture
The hallmark of Hinduism is its stress on rational inquiry. Hindu scriptures are not commandments but dialogues, discussions and philosophical debates. They typically follow a logical sequence (Bernard 1947, Chatterjee and Datta, 1984) such as the poorva paksha (prior claim), khandan (refutation of prior claim), uttar paksha (new claim), pramana (supporting evidence for new claim) and anuman (conclusion or inference drawn). ‘The systematic and argumentative character of Indian philosophy comes as a surprise to readers’ (Cooper, 2003:14). The Hindu tradition is open to new ideas and scientific thought and Hinduism is akin to humanism (AHA, 2017)’. The Rig Veda begins with an invocation in Sanskrit ‘’Ano bhadrah kratavo yantu viswatah” (let noble thoughts come to us from everywhere in the universe).
Hindu rebels such as the materialist Charavak or Buddha or Mahavira could profess their views without getting killed. Hinduism has no concept of an imaginary male God, giving message to a certain person, at a certain place and at a certain time yet applicable to all persons, at all places and at all time. Hinduism encourages rational inquiry instead of holding people captive to a faith or ideology. Hinduism is not a fossilised religion. ‘In its long history, it has undergone many changes rapidly adopting to modern times’ (Klostermaier, 2010:5). Hinduism presents an open architecture, which helps build a harmonious society.
Galileo and Copernicus, on the other hand, were subjected to imprisonment and possible death sentence for their claim about heliocentrism (Sun is the centre of the universe) which differed from the views of the Church. In 1992 – 339 years later – the Vatican accepted that the Church was wrong (Nicolas and Fleury, 1992). Ancient India is characterised by debates, and discussions, agreements and disagreement in the true spirit of knowledge seeking.
Secular tradition is ingrained, inherent and inseparable from Hinduism – a way of life rather than a religion. A religion has a founder, a holy order or book, ceremonies, dogma about a creator and regimentation of adherents. None of these exists in Hinduism. Some of the Hindu philosophical systems are flatly atheistic… and in others God is only an ‘impersonal cosmic principle’ (Cooper, 2003:14). ‘Because of the importance it gives to the values ingrained in all religions, it – along with Buddhism – is often referred to as the most secular religion in the world’ (AHA, 2017). It is called Manav Dharma (Religion for entire humanity) or Sanatan Dharma (Eternal Religion) notes Bhaskaranand (1994). The Upanishads present a ‘phenomenology of consciousness’ (Deutsch, 1997:30). Hinduism shifts focus from picking difference to identifying similarities and thereby promotes harmony. It proclaims that the universal consciousness resides in all beings (Ishavasyam eedam sarvam). “The Ultimate Truth or Knowledge” means the realisation that outer appearances are deceptive, and all living beings are interconnected.
Because of the secular tradition and rational thinking, besides theology secular sciences flourished under Hinduism. Mohanti (1999) notes the following. Dharma sastra (Laws of Manu/ Nyayasutra’s of Gautama, 200 CE), Kautilya’s Arthasastra (economics, political science and art of war 300 BCE), Sanskrit language and grammar of Panini (600 BCE) – incidentally, Sanskrit is considered to be the most appropriate language for artificial intelligence by NASA (Briggs, 1985), psychology (Patanjali’s yoga sutra 200 BCE), treatise on sex (Kamasutra of Vatsyayana 450 CE), health sciences (references on various diseases are found in Atharvaveda but a full-fledged health sciences system or Ayurveda developed around 500 CE (Narayanswamy, 2001). Similarly, much advances were made in the field of art, painting, sculpture as can be empirically evidenced by the erotic sculpture at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh or the temples such as Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu or Verul (Ellora) Kailas sculpture in Maharashtra, Sun Temple, Odisha and others spread across India. History of mathematics in India dates back over 3,000 years. ‘Indian mathematicians made seminal contributions to the study of trigonometry, algebra, arithmetic and negative numbers among other areas’ (Yates 2017:1). There are many references in the Vedic texts that point to early efforts in astronomical studies. For details of the astronomical contributions coming from Shruti and thereafter the Smriti literature please refer to the research paper of Vahia et al. (n.d.) – scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India.
3.3 Freedom of choice
Hinduism appeals to focus on the divinity within as well as outside emphasizing that the Ultimate Reality, is one but can be worshipped according to one’s choice – either ‘with form (saguna)’ or ‘without form (nirguna)’. The freedom of choice promotes harmony. Hinduism is heterogeneous – an accumulation of diverse traditions (AHA, 2017), so everyone has a place in it. Hinduism doesn’t impose its will or world view on others and asserts that as many philosophies so many ways to reach the divine. Consequently, Hinduism respects all religions and ways of worship and doesn’t dictate that everyone must conform to a specific way of thinking and doesn’t imprison human intellect or create any kind of regimentation where rational thinking gets a backseat. Under the umbrella of Hinduism everyone can live peacefully and follow the traditions that are of interest to them without creating conflict. People of other faiths, atheists, agnostics all have a place in Hinduism and in fact they may find a strand of philosophy or two in Hinduism itself that purports to support their way.
3.4 Not ‘divide and rule’ but ‘unite and progress’
Since antiquity, Hinduism asserted Vasudha eva kutumbakam or the whole world is one big family. DNA evidence recently found that all of us have a common mother and she was African. Hinduism is a ‘Federation of Faiths – a Universal Religion’ (Mukhyanand, 2000). Centuries ago, Hindu kings welcomed Christians, Muslims, Parsi, Jews and others to establish their places of worship in India. Minorities have held/continue to hold prominent public offices including President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Military Chiefs in a Hindu majority India. Does any other country in the world matches such inclusiveness? What makes this possible? It will be reasonable to say that Hinduism’s inclusive ethos that underpin India’s constitution make this possible. The principle of unity is enshrined in the Hindu philosophy the central aim of which is realisation of the divinity within and the outcome it produces is eternal peace and harmony. In Chandogya Upanishad, Svetaketu asks his father ‘What is that by knowing which all can be known?’ The father replies ‘By knowing yourself’. ‘You are that’ divinity Svetketu (Max Muller, 2014:183). We are all children of the divine how can we be sinners, asks a Hindu.
3.5 Respect for environment
The Hindu ethics of ahimsa (non-violence and respect for life) prevents a Hindu from causing harm to any creature (BBC, n.d.). Ecological consciousness (Nelson, 2000) or environmental ethics (Framarin, 2012) underpin Hinduism which get operationalised in the societal practices such as the worship of the sun (Surya namaskar or Sun salutation yoga postures, for example), the moon, the mother earth, the rivers, the sea, the trees, the mountains and the animals (including a snake!). The Bhagvad Gita, for example, notes that ‘all parts of Nature have an intrinsic value; as such, all the Nature should be treated with dignity, kindness and righteousness’ (Gupta, 1999:113) and that ‘all life is ‘holy’ in the sense that it has value by itself, inherently (Tahtinen, 1991:215). Findly (2000:343) points out that ‘Hinduism’s attribution of ‘inherent worth’ to animals and plants entails that animals and plants have rights and that all ‘moral agents’ have corresponding duties to respect those rights’.
Closely related to this is the issue of cow slaughter. ‘The cow was elevated to divinity in the Rig Veda. The sage Bhardwaja extols the virtue of the cow in Book VI, Hymn XXVIII of Rig Veda. In Atharva Veda (Book X, Hymn X), the cow is formally designated as Vishnu, and `all that the Sun surveys’ (Swami, 2009). Cow not only provides milk, but cow dung cakes are used to meet energy needs in rural India. Cow dung is rich in nutrients, as well as disinfectant, consequently, farmers use it in abundance as fertiliser along with the cow urine. The male calves are often used as work animals by farmers. Accordingly, the importance of Indian cow (bos indica) for the agrarian society was well-recognised. In recent years, much research has been done on cow urine. Two patents have been granted in the US for cow urine distillate and as DNA protector in China (Swami, 2009). Given the importance of cow for sustainable agriculture, article 48 of the Constitution of India prohibits slaughter of cows, calf, milch and draught cattle.
3.6 Harmony not proselytization
Proselytization typically involves propaganda. In so doing, such faiths avoid scrutiny of their own faith and instead find fault with other faiths or engage in spreading of misinformation outright. But in so doing, they create disharmony, suspicion and emotional violence. It is obvious that the sole purpose of proselytizing faiths is to increase market share under the garb of spreading the word of their God which they consider to be the Ultimate Reality. Some engage in outright violence. History is replete with examples of mass murders committed in the name of religion.
Hinduism is not obsessed with increasing its share in the market for world religions. ‘Hinduism’s appeal is universal and individualistic – to the ’inner spiritual man’ and not to the ‘outside social man’ (Mukhyanand, 2000:21). The non-proselytizing nature of Hinduism avoids conflict and promotes harmony. Never ever in its 5,000-year-old history, Hinduism waged religious crusades to impose its world view on others. When all are children of the Divine to whom are you converting asks a Hindu?
3.7 Live and let live
Hinduism asserts that there are multiple paths to the divinity and one can choose her/his own. It cuts at the root, the competitive spirit among various faiths which breeds one-upmanship and the desire to increase membership of its own commune. Hinduism follows the ‘live and let live’ or the ‘I am OK, you are OK’ approach and helps build harmony which proselytization inherently tends to sap. Hinduism aims to seek unity among diversity. Towards that end, the Yoga philosophy of the great sage Patanjali emphasizes ‘union’ or ‘togetherness’ and suggests the technique to achieve it. The world observes International Yoga Day to affirm these values. Yoga provides ‘the opportunity to relinquish hostility and irritability’ to bring harmony.
3.8 Democratic tradition
Hinduism is not an organised religion. There is no structure or no regimentation whatsoever. Hindus have no organised hierarchical clergy institution (such as the Vatican for example) vested to be the mouth piece for all Hindus (Anandan, 2000). The philosophical work is available for anyone to read, follow, criticise or discard as one pleases signifying a full democracy in the matter of faith. Hindus have no issues with what world view others hold. Hindus merely expect that others should not impose their world view on them. Consequently, when proselytizers repeatedly attack or denigrate the faith of Hindus, the otherwise peace-loving Hindu naturally resists the affront which could potentially create societal tension. The remedy lies in proselytizing forces reining in their horses.
Religious violence is rising the world over. Pew Research found that ‘social hostility such as attacks on minority faiths or pressure to conform to certain norms was strong in one-third of the 198 countries and territories surveyed in 2012, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (Heneghan, 2014). Cole (2013) finds that religious violence killed over 100 million people in twentieth century but interestingly cites only one example where Hindus were the aggressors. The incidence resulted in three deaths and 17 injured. The culprits have been sentenced to life imprisonment.
An authoritarian dogma such as ‘my way is the only way’ and everyone else must conform to it or be ready to be violated creates disharmony. How far is such violence triggered by proselytization? We don’t have empirical data. Brandt (2014) calls proselytization as cultural genocide. It is ‘a kind of structural or systemic violence (Galtung, 1969). Proselytization leading to violence or legal disputes has been reported across the world, for example, in our region in Japan and Indonesia. Religious conversion leading to violence and relevant law in the Indian context have been reviewed by Indian parliamentarian Panda (2014). Kolluru (2012) details how religious conversion is a form of emotional or spiritual violence.
Hinduism nips in the bud inter-religious conflict likely to stem from conversion- whether forced or by allurement. Hindu sages could foresee since antiquity the ill-effects thereof and abstained from it while encouraging rational thinking and gave the choice to individual to choose her/his own path. Hinduism is not about ‘tolerance’ of others (which carries with it a sense of superiority), it is about universal brotherhood.
The caste system
Hinduism sees divinity everywhere. Consequently, going by scriptures Hinduism is an inclusive religion. However, to find fault with Hinduism, proselytizers often refer to the caste (jati) system (a societal classification by birth). While this is an altogether separate topic, and many have written about it, suffice it to note that philosophically, it was a merit-based societal structure (called the Varna system as opposed to Jati which is birth-based). The Bhagvad Gita, specifically mentions that the four categories (varnas) are strictly related to inherent qualities (guna or values) and deeds (karma) of a human being. There are many other scriptural references that specifically mention the merit or aptitude-based and not birth-based caste system, for example, the Skanda Purana mentions that everyone is born a low caste (meaning raw or coarse) and after sanskaras (training) attains higher caste. This scaffolding is like the present education system. People with qualities such as integrity, scholarship, truthfulness were put in the highest category (Brahmin). Those who showed leadership qualities, excellence in warfare were to be Kings (Kshatriyas) and so on. The Varna system according to Swami (2018) was created to avoid concentration of power which is acquired from knowledge, valour, wealth and labour. It seems somewhere down its 5,500 years history, the system got corrupted and became a birth-based social system in defiance of the true spirit of the scriptures. The birth-based caste system is a perversion of the four-fold ‘varna system’ (Knapp) . There are innumerable instances since antiquity of people born in low-caste having risen to prominence that is kings or revered sages. In modern times, prominent intellectuals and political leaders with low-caste background include the present President (Mr Kovind) and Prime Minister of India (Mr Modi). The Indian constitution was drafted by Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a Columbia university trained lawyer who was born in the lower strata of the caste ladder.
Does conversion to other faiths help obliterate caste? Surprisingly not. A survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in India found that caste practices continue even after conversion to Islam or Christianity (Tharoor, n.d.). The caste system is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that conversion helps little to erase it altogether. Hindu organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are making concerted efforts to eradicate caste inequalities through its Samajik Samarasata Manch (Social Cohesion Group). Many prominent leaders from upper caste too have made significant efforts, for example, M. K. Gandhi and V. D. Savarkar. For centuries, Hindu monks have persuaded people to look beyond birth-based caste and focus on Hinduism’s core value which is humanism and seeing divinity all around. Though the caste system has been outlawed in India, it has become a political tool which is exploited by some political parties leading to the perpetuation of the system though the barriers are falling apart albeit slowly. Sihag (2013:317) found that ‘caste has played an important role in the consolidation of business and entrepreneurship in India’. The CSO of the Indian Government notes that 50% of all enterprises (55% for rural) in India in 2005 were owned by the lower-castes.
3.10 Idolatry? Far from it !
The most obvious and empirically observable manifestation of Hinduism is what the westerners designate as idolatry (another name for devil worship). To back up such claims, the image of Bhairava or Kali which are the fierce form of Shiva and Parvati respectively are often cited. In a TV program Pat Robinson labelled Hinduism as ‘demonic’ and Nazarenne Missions International, of Kansas City prays to save the South Asians from idolatry and devil worship (Grieve, 2003). Furthermore, Grieve, (2003:3) adds ‘our descriptions of the world are culturally located, our ‘naïve’ descriptions are neither innocent nor objective’. Hindus engage in Murti worship. The appropriate word for it is ‘embodiment’ or ‘manifestation’ and not ‘idol’. Various deities are created to represent various qualities of the divine ‘to make God seem more real and approachable’ (Arnett, 2014:19) . ‘South Asian god-images should be understood as ‘mūrtis‟, humanly constructed deities dominated by their material element. God images, furthermore, are brought to life by being enmeshed in a net of social practices’ (Grieve, 2003:1). Many women worship Lord Krishna in the form of a baby, for example, with the objective to achieve oneness ultimately with the divine. Arnett (2014) notes Hinduism is not polytheistic but a monotheistic religion where God is beyond time, space and without physical form. In Yogic practices, the practitioner starts with the focus on the gross idol and gradually shifts it to the Ultimate Reality (Dasgupta, 1922). Accordingly, it is grossly incorrect to say that Hinduism has idol or devil worship.
3.11 Status of women
In the Hindu scriptures, males and females occupy equal status. ‘The woman embodies shakti, the original Energy of the Universe’ (Wadley, 1977:114). ‘Furthermore, the concept of the innate divinity of man and woman does not raise the question of equality but affirms it’ (Sharada, n.d.). Hindu mythology does have women as Goddesses of Wealth (Lakshmi), of knowledge (Saraswati) and of valour (Durga). Sita embodies the virtuous wife in the Ramayana yet there is also Draupadi in Mahabharata who is disrobed in Assembly by the Kauravas. The mention of Sati or Uma or Parvati as wife of Shiva appears in the Upanishads itself.
The Manu Smriti, often discredited for disempowering women, affirms ‘yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata, (Manusmriti, III 3.55-s3.60) – divinity is to be found where women are honoured. Yet the critics of Hinduism refer to a verse in the Manu Smriti (III 9.3) which states that a woman is protected by father in childhood, by husband when adult and by son when she is old, accordingly she has no independence. However, they conveniently forget the context in which the aphorism is included. A large part of Chapter IX of Manu Smriti is devoted to the duties of a man towards a woman. If we put verse III 9.3, within this context then it appears that Manu included it as a matter of fact statement. and not implying that her position should be that way or giving a direction to deprive her of independence. For if that was the intention then that would have reverberated across other aphorisms too, yet the aphorism (III 3.55-3.60) runs counter to III 9.3.
Since we are considering, women’s status in a Smriti text of Hinduism (1,250 BCE), we need to consider similar texts of other religions too. One thousand years later note Friedman and Dolansky (2011), the Bible stated “Your desire will be for your man, and he’ll dominate you (Genesis 3:16)”. Similarly, the Corinthians 11:3-10 in the New Testament include the following: ‘For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head’ and ‘for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels’. ‘According to the New Testament women cannot be leaders in the church, but they can help their husbands lead. Women should concentrate their efforts in the sphere of the home’ (Deffinbaugh, 2004: n.d.). Titus 2:3-5 ‘encourage the young women to ……..being subject to their own husbands’. Furthermore, ‘1 Tim. 2:11-15 which adds that they must not teach or ‘have authority’ over men’ (Bailey, 2000:6). Similarly, nearly 500 years later, around 600 CE, according to Sura 4.34 of Koran: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more than the other […]. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and beat them!”.
The present status of Hindu women presents some glaring contradictions. While women occupy /have occupied positions of power in India (President, Prime Minister, Defence Minister etc), the lot of the ordinary Hindu women especially in rural India (low literacy, economic dependency, female foeticide, child marriages and dowry deaths) deserves serious attention. However, the roots thereof could be easily traced to economic issues that confront women- especially rural women. Branding a woman as a witch and burning her took place in Europe in late 18th century too. Offenhaur (2005: 1-2) report published by the US Library of Congress found that ‘Women in Muslim societies and communities face gender-based inequalities associated with the so-called “patriarchal gender system’. She adds: ‘The sacred writings of Islam, like those of the other Abrahamic faiths⎯Christianity and Judaism⎯have been interpreted in ways that support patriarchal social relations. Until the last two decades, Western observers of the plight of Muslim women have portrayed Islam as uniquely patriarchal and incompatible with women’s equality. Most scholars now see Islam as no more inherently misogynist than the other major monotheistic traditions’.
3.12 Hinduism and euthanasia
Ganga (1994:292) in her thesis on Hinduism and euthanasia found that ‘the Smritis, the Puranas and the Mahabharata strongly oppose suicide, but they also advise the people suffering from irremediable diseases to end their lives by yoga practices, by fasting to death, entering the sacred fire or immersing themselves in the Ganges until they drown’. Mahatma Gandhi’s disciple Vinoba Bhave embraced death by prayopavesa (fasting). ‘Prayopavesa is not regarded as suicide because it is natural and non-violent and is acceptable only for spiritually advanced people under specified circumstances. Abortion is similarly prohibited by Hindu scriptures but indicates situations where it can be practiced’ (Nimbalkar, 2007:57). Some sects of Hinduism consider it a moral obligation to reduce suffering of a human-being and support euthanasia (Shekhawat et.al. 2018). Hinduism has no specific injunction against the use of contraceptives (BBC, n.d.).
3.13 Hindu view on LGBTI
Hindus living in Western countries are sometimes asked about the Hindu view on LGBTI. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism is not hostile to the LGBTI community. Hinduism’s central message is addressed to the spiritual-self not the social-self and consequently doesn’t discuss sexuality. Hinduism considers everything to be divine, humans (men, women, third gender), animals, nature and accordingly doesn’t discriminate at the spiritual level. The purnas and sculptures such as that at Khajuraho (10th century) are replete with instances of LGBTI, for example, Arjuna (as Brihannada), or Shikhandi (in Mahabharata). Wilhelm (2008) has published nearly 600 pages of scholarly work on the Tritiya Prakriti (Third Gender). A summary thereof is provided by GALVA-108 (2014) .
3.14 Becoming a Hindu
Given the openness of Hinduism people the world over are getting attracted to it. So long as others don’t impose their world view on the Hindus, everyone is welcome in the Hindu fold as Hindu Kings have demonstrated since ancient times. Noted celebrities who are practicing Hindus include Hollywood actress Julia Roberts, and George Harrison of the Beatles . Mark Zuckerberg -CEO of Facebook – recently said ‘that a trip to India at the urging of Steve Jobs played a crucial role in Facebook’s development’… ‘go visit this temple in India that he had gone to early in the evolution of Apple’ Steve told him. As stated already, Hinduism’s emphasis is on the spiritual-self not the social-self. Accordingly, if you are following the spiritual path of any religion, you are automatically on the Hindu way of life. However, some religions that are exclusivist put you in a cage and ban you from exploring other spiritual paths. Freeing yourself from the cage and opening to the possibilities of spiritual progress offered by other thoughts means you are ipso facto a Hindu. However, for those who want some formal process, organisations such as the ISKCON or the Arya Samaj can help. You can thereafter progress your journey further.
Hinduism presents an inclusive way of life which is not adversarial to any other thought or ways of worship. As a matter of fact, instead of demeaning other belief systems, Hinduism respects all and considers it to be just yet another human effort at seeking the Ultimate Reality. It is environmental friendly and has emphasized for generations to respect/worship nature. For a Hindu, rivers, mountains, trees, animals and for that matter the entire ecology is sacred. Consequently, a Hindu strives to live in harmony with it and not damage it. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the whole world as a big family- sums up the core psyche of the Hindus. Hinduism presents a rational system that allows full scope for discussion and debates. The process it follows for advancing the claims is very similar to qualitative research approaches commonly used in social sciences research. The innate strength of Hinduism has seen it through the violence perpetrated myopic religions with an expansionist agenda. Consequently, this 5,500-year-old tradition not only continues but is also thriving to date. Hinduism holds the key to create societal harmony. Ahimsa (non-violence in thought and action) is the cornerstone of Hindu philosophy. One of the internationally known Hindu scholars Swami Vivekanand said ‘Garvase Kaho Hum Hindu Hai’ or ‘Say it with pride that we are Hindus’. The large heartedness of Hindu thought has been aptly summed up in the following Sanskrit prayer:
ॐ सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनःसर्वे सन्तु निरामयाः।सर्वे भद्राणि पश्यन्तु मा कश्चिद्दुःखभाग्भवेत् ।ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥ May everyone be happy, may everyone be free from all diseases, may everyone see goodness and auspiciousness in everything, may none be unhappy or distressed. Om peace, peace, peace!
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Milind Sathye is an Australian academic.