In any discussion on the Hindu identity, it is important to note that the word ‘Hindu’ has been used by pre-modern foreigners as a blanket term to denote all of the various castes and creeds dwelling in the extraordinarily fertile lands that stretched onwards from the eastern bank of Sindhu or the River Indus. Consequently, ‘Hindu’ as a designation has not been used historically by the same people who now identify themselves with the term. Even now, many of those who are understood to be Hindus, going by the customs and lifestyle they follow, would not readily accept the term as a self-identifier. Instead, they would be found preferring such terms as ‘Sanatani’ (roughly translated as “follower of the Ancient and Eternal Path”) or ‘Vaidika’ (follower of the Vedic traditions). Several Muslim historians in the medieval age – Al Biruni being the most prominent among them – have referred to the Indians he encountered as ‘Hindus’, while in reality the group of people he was describing in his annals must have included Buddhists and Jains as well. Similar generalised application of the term ‘Hindu’ can be found even as late as at the beginning of the British colonial period, i.e. mid-nineteenth century (Vide Lord Macaulay’s Minute on Education).
Veer Savarkar had once remarked that he has to identify himself as a Hindu only because some identity themselves as Muslims, otherwise he was nothing short of a “Vishwa-Manava”, i.e. a global person. This observation points at an important feature of identity and the process of identity-making. As long as there is something identifiable as the other, the idea of the self will become self-evident. And it is only desirable that we be able to identify the self from the other or the other from the self because there may be some, if not several, things of value in the self. It is this undeniable fact from the practical world that the Liberal-left, which is the more moderate and deceptively benign face of the Left, tries to obfuscate. It presents a utopian vision before people, an impractical and delusional picture of the world, where apparently all barriers between the self and the other should melt away because those barriers are nothing but tools of retaining monopolistic power over material resources by either party. What they fail (or deliberately hide) to present through that picture of the world is that those very barriers, which may seem oppressive to someone who has missed the context, happen to protect things of value from getting lost or diluted to the point where they can hardly be of any use to humanity. But then value is a thing which the Left despises.
Identity is a reflection; but an inverted one at that. Its roots lie in the notions of inheritance, possession and duty. I have come to possess something – perhaps by the efforts of my physical or intellectual labour – and so I might feel the imperative to protect it. Protection of accumulated valuables depends on the ability to safeguard it and that, in turn, depends on trust because often we would need other people’s help to safeguard what is our own. And when it comes to trusting people, who can be better than your own children? At least it is expected that they are least likely to cheat their own parents – or to put it differently, they are least likely to place their priorities elsewhere other than the interest of the family. But that needs specific training which must be imparted by the parent to his/her offsprings, training which will help the latter learn about the value of the thing they are being entrusted to look after. If this value-imparting training goes well, the children are very likely to guard what they inherit, and that is the basis of the institution we call family. Same holds true for identity of a nation. A nation is nothing but a large-scale family, whose members would voluntarily try and safeguard a common inheritance for the preservation of the individual and of the many, because subsistence for such survival can only be derived from that inheritance, not from elsewhere. The moment the members of the Hindu nation cut off themselves from the source which contains their common inheritance – the spiritual treasure that has enabled man to know his real nature and the real nature of the universe – their identity would be lost and the nation would cease to exist.
Sri Ananth Seshadri, a keen and highly perceptive reader of these columns, has been very kind to provide a succinct summary of the materials discussed so far in this series. Let me offer that summary here, in toto, so as to refresh the memory of all concerned and then move ahead with the discussion. In Sri Seshadri’s words,
- Hinduism is:
- Not faith-based. A practitioner must experience the Ultimate Truth about herself and the world; and that Truth can be approached via multiple paths, each of which is in accordance with Dharma – the Eternal Law that sustains the order of things – to fulfil the ultimate goal of human life, i.e. Mokṣa.
- Not speculative but empirical. Puts direct, unmediated experience of the Ultimate Truth way above reason.
- Not a tradition where one particular deity or God or God-like figure holds a central position. It is more anthropocentric – i.e. centred on man.
- Never satisfied with the superficial. Aims at the very core of knowledge by questioning its various bases.
- Has an express goal: which is to enable the individual to discover the essence of his/her being.
- Allows to frequently disagree regarding the fundamentals of metaphysics. Provides an ideal platform for inter- as well as intra-faith dialogue/debate. In fact such debates and dialogues are considered to be one of the valid paths of discovering the Ultimate Truth.
- Does not denounce the fundamental divinity illuminating all things, instead foregrounds the same.
- Stresses on inculcation of Śraddhā (Conviction + Will + Self-confidence) in the minds of the young, possession of which is considered as a necessary condition to attain the Ultimate Truth.
Let us first briefly discuss points 1 through 4 under the header ‘Hinduism is’. It is being done with the hope that the discussion will in turn throw some light on what it means to be a Hindu, for Hinduism is what a Hindu is supposed to practice through the various stations of her life. To put it in another way, a Hindu lives and breathes the truths of Hinduism and the vast collective experience of its countless seers and sages – which is what makes Hinduism a living, uninterrupted and evolved tradition. The same also makes Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu tradition, a living language, for the truths of Hinduism are best articulated in that language. Therefore, knowledge of those truths and their practical application necessitates the continued use of Sanskrit, making it the oldest living language.
Jñāna, roughly translated as ‘knowledge’, but actually connoting ‘knowledge of the Ultimate Truth’, is the goal of all spiritual seeking; and as such it is also the final goal of all those Hindu traditions which derive their authority from the Vedas. This is indicated in the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā in the following manner: “sarvam karmākhilam pārtha jñāne parisamāpyate” (ch. 4, verse 33) which translates as “O Partha, all actions and work (including Vedic sacrifices) culminate in the knowledge of the Ultimate Truth.”
To emphasise the importance of this term jñāna, some like to prefix it with the qualifier ‘tattva’ – making it tattva–jñāna – which means ‘essential knowledge’. Essential; for without that knowledge, liberation of the jīva – the individual who is deluded by māyā – is not possible. The jīva may not necessarily take up the path of jñāna – something which has been called jñāna–yoga by the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā – but the road taken by every individual will ultimately lead to the realisation of the same essential knowledge or tattva–jñāna, resulting in his/her mukti. This last bit has been depicted with poetic brilliance par excellence in the Śivamahimna Stotra in the following manner:
trayī sāṅkhyaṃ yogaḥ paśupatimataṃ vaiṣṇavamiti
prabhinne prasthāne paramidamadaḥ pathyamiti ca |
rucīnāṃ vaicitryādṛjukuṭila nānāpathajuṣāṃ
nṛṇāmeko gamyastvamasi payasāmarṇava iva ||
[translation: The different practices based on the three Vedas, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Pāśupata-mata, Vaiṣṇava-mata etc. are but different paths (to reach to the Greatest Truth) and people on account of their different aptitude choose from them whatever they think best and deserved to be accepted. But as the sea is the final resting place for all types of streams, You are the only destination for all people – no matter whichever path, straight or crooked, they may adopt.]
Now the important thing to remember is that this essential knowledge or tattva-jñāna is not exactly the same as ‘objective knowledge’ as science understands and defines it. In terms of scientific methodology, objective knowledge is separate from the subject who is observing it, who gets to know it, but the same scientific methodology does not ever necessitate the knower to identify herself with the objective knowledge. Thus, in science, objective knowledge is worth the same as a piece of artefact: valuable, but indifferent all the same.
Much like in science, in the Hindu methods of pursuing the essential knowledge too, the pursuant is supposed to transform into a being who is dispassionate about everything once he attains that essential knowledge. But the crucial difference between scientific discovery of new information and the ultimate spiritual understanding is this: in the case of the latter, the individual seeking her ‘object’ becomes one and the same with it. It is indeed the process of crossing the final boundary that exists between the knower and the knowledge, because the knowledge in this case is not just any other bit of information nor even a novel paradigm of understanding, but it is the fundamental basis of all knowledge. Hence it is not unjustified to call it tattva-jnana or essential knowledge, the very essence of all knowing.
So far we have made a few attempts at translating the term ‘śraddhā’ into English. We have also tried to demonstrate why śraddhā could be seen as a key idea in understanding the Hindu mind, and hence the Hindu identity. To understand śraddhā at a deeper level, again we have to look into our traditional sources. We will consider various traditional Hindu sources where the idea of śraddhā has been expounded. These sources are Adi Shankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads and the Srimad Bhagavad Gita.
Adi Shankaracharya has defined śraddhā as “ācārya-bhakti and āstikya-buddhi” in his commentary on the Kaṭha Upanishad. Now, what is āstikya-buddhi? Buddhi here is a mental orientation, an attitude. And the term āstikya-buddhi, derived from the idea of asti (That which Is, the Real, sat) is the attitude which is suitable for realising the truth. It is an open-minded and positive attitude towards the truth contained in the sastra-s. It is also a similar receptive attitude towards the ācārya’s teachings. Without such an attitude no one can aspire to evolve spiritually, they would either fail to initiate their journey on the spiritual path or be stuck at a very preliminary stage of the journey. This receptive attitude, however, does not require one to become dogmatic and leave all enquiry. The questioning mind is in fact regarded as a great asset in the enquiry for truth. The ability to meticulously question received knowledge and check its validity by the application of logic as well as first-hand experience are valued as much in Hindu spiritual enquiry as in modern scientific methodology, if not more. Therefore, śraddhā is that right mix of a positive, receptive attitude towards the preceptor and his/her teachings, sharp and meticulous intellectual abilities, and a sincere courage to confront the truth head-on. A careful study of several ancient saṁhitā-s and brāhmaṇa-s reveal that the Vedic literature variously refers to śraddhā as ‘initiation into Vedic duties’, ‘the facilitator of truth-realisation’, ‘the container of truth’, and ‘that which enables one to meditate upon and realize the truth’. We may conclude by saying that śraddhā is that attitude, that mental orientation which helps one realise sat, the truth.
After this brief theoretical discussion, let us now turn our attention to praxis.
As Hindus we share a lot of elements in our praxis of life with Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, especially with the first two of these sects. The conduct of day-to-day life for all these Indic sects is a complex and giant mechanism, at least in the ideal case. To break it down into smaller units which can be considered at a time, albeit with a degree of approximation, we can discern three main aspects of the praxis:
- Behavioural and Interpersonal relationship
- Personal duty
- Approaches to the Divine
In the next and last part of this series, we will discuss each of these three aspects of praxis in the life of a Hindu individual.
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Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit is an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres in India and abroad. He can be reached at [email protected]