Co-authored by Hari Ravikumar
Our previous article titled ‘Hindu View on Food and Drink’ understandably received a fair bit of outraged reactions from a section of readers and was the subject of much debate.
While none of them could produce any sort of scriptural or other evidence to counter our points, it became clear to us that we had offended a lot of people, unfortunately so, because our intention continues to be to provide an overview of what Hinduism has to say about some of important topics that are raised in our modern world (and not to offend anyone).
Having meticulously gone through most (if not all) of the comments, we found that the objections could be classified into three major themes which we shall examine here.
The Arya Samaj View
A few comments were raised in the light of Dayananda Saraswati’s interpretation of the Vedas.They brought forth Swami Dayananda’s interpretation of those verses that we had quoted from the Vedas as well as other verses that ran counter to some of the points we raised.Note that these were not translations of those verses but Swami Dayananda’s interpretation of them.
When we study the historical context of the birth and growth of the Arya Samaj, we learn about the yeoman service done by Swami Dayananda to the Hindu cause as well as the blunders he made while reinterpreting the Vedas.
In 19th century India, with the onslaught of Christian missionaries as well as Islamic radicalism, there was a great need to protect and preserve Hinduism and Hindu ideals.
The method employed by Dayananda was to reinterpret the Vedas in light of the accusations hurled at Hinduism by the pastors and the mullahs which can be summed up thus: “Hinduism’s blind belief in idol worship, its barbaric animal sacrifices, its misguided social structure, and its lack of a foundational text.”
By means of semantic jugglery and interpolation, Swami Dayananda successfully reinterpreted the Vedas to suit his need of countering the Semitic faiths.
In this process, he not only went against hundreds of generations of commentators on the Vedas (like Veṅkaṭamādhava, Mahīdhara, Uvaṭa, Bhaṭṭabhāskara, Śaunaka, and Sāyaṇa) but also ignored the living practices of Hinduism.
He also considered only the Saṃhitā texts as revealed wisdom and discarded the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and Upaniṣads, which have, since time immemorial been considered as part of the Vedas.
He brushed aside the Purāṇas, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Mahābhārata. He dismissed many works of the Vedāṅgas like those on Sikṣa (phonetics) and Kalpa (ritual), especially the Smṛtis, the Dharmasūtras, the Gṛhyasūtras, and the Śrautasūtras. In addition, he denounced the Āgamas, the temple tradition, and Murti Puja.
Thus, much of the Hinduism that we practice even today is not Hinduism in the eyes of Dayananda.
In his quest for defending Hinduism against Abrahamic onslaught, Swami Dayananda ended up making the Vedas a Hindu equivalent of the Bible or the Qur’an. He was even willing to sacrifice the universal values of Sanātana Dharma in his interpretations.
His slogan “Back to the Vedas” was a sort of affirmation to the 19th century Indian society that the Hinduism practiced then was not the real Hinduism but rather what was said in the Vedas – as he interpreted it – was the true Hinduism.
Given this reality, we cannot take Dayananda’s interpretation of the Vedas seriously for any scholarly work on the subject.
That said, it is important to mention here that Dayananda’s approach does not amount to blasphemy as far as Sanātana Dharma is concerned. Everyone has the freedom to explore the Hindu tradition through their own lens.
Just like the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission too, has its own interpretation of Hinduism. As seekers of truth, we should not be blind to such interpretations. At the same time, one cannot claim that their school of interpretation is the last word on Hinduism.
If the supporters of the Arya Samaj make Swami Dayananda as some sort of a Hindu equivalent of a ‘last prophet,’ then much of the beauty, colour, and magnanimity of Hinduism will be lost.
Consequently, we will have to forget Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, Ayodhya and Mathura. However, the internal fortitude and openness of Hinduism helped us take the best of Dayananda’s teachings and filter out the rest.
The Rationalist View
Others have commented that in the modern society, which is built on secular values, we don’t need any religion by its brand name. They have opined that we have sufficient collective wisdom that will guide us towards greater good. Their argument seems to be, Why do we need the Vedas to tell us whether or not to eat beef?
But isn’t it true that millions of people around the world take refuge in their religion and look for divine dictates in matters of lifestyle, particularly to help them make the ‘right’ choices in their lives?
When we seek a ‘Hindu View,’ we have to rely on the various foundational texts of our tradition – the Vedas and Upaniṣads, the Purāṇas, the Darśanas, the Dharmaśāstras, and our epic literature, among others.
With regard to our approach to religious texts, there are four possibilities:
Discard all religious texts; we don’t need them
This is the view of the atheists, rationalists, and communists. Such an approach is akin to throwing the baby with the bathwater. It is impossible to discard completely the texts that have laid the foundation for a certain religious tradition. Further, many universal values found in these ancient texts can be a great guide to us even today.
Adhere to the text completely, without questioning or debate
This is the view of the Semitic faiths. Such an approach is akin to holding on to both the wheat and the chaff with no regard for changing times. It becomes terribly inconvenient for such people to adapt to social and cultural changes, especially in the wake of the modern inter-cultural societies. This naturally leads to an intolerance towards those outside the faith.
Selectively choose from the texts, and leave out the rest
This is the view of many of the Oriental religions like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, as well as the liberal-minded people from other faiths. Such an approach is akin to separating milk from water, drinking the milk and throwing out the water. This is a utilitarian approach and is bound by spatio-temporal constraints. Since everyone is free to pick and choose, this naturally leads to the questioning of choices. Further, if the cherry-picking has been done by a renowned spiritual leader in the tradition, it gradually evolves into a new religion or sect.
Adhere to the text when it makes sense and transcend the text over time
This is the view of Hinduism. Such an approach draws its strength from a spiritual tradition that is magnanimous enough to embrace differences in physical manifestations but never loses sight of the greater truths. It makes provisions for the lay person who seeks a guide for his/her life as well as the realized ones who no longer need a special text to guide them. There is a subtle difference between this approach and the previous one in that there is dynamism inherent in this– it holds on to the fundamental principles while constantly allowing for change in contextual, worldly matters. In some sense, this is what we may call apauruṣeya (coming from a source beyond humans).
Once we understand these four modes, it becomes clear that while Hinduism has many texts, the wise men and women are constantly trying to transcend the text and lead their lives governed by the fundamental principles of dharma instead of being driven by a book or a prophet. It would be pertinent in this context to refer to our introductory articles, specially the one titled Foundational Texts of Hinduism, where we have discussed the topic of transcending the text with illustrative examples.
The Blind Conservative View
A few scholars agreed that our sources and arguments were rock-solid but said that it was inappropriate to dredge out uncomfortable truths from the past – especially in the wake of the beef-ban and its aftermath. They also accused us of adding to the confusion on this issue.
There is little doubt that the issue has been highly politicized and ever since the serial Islamic invasions of India, the slaughter of cows has been used simply as a perverse tool to wantonly offend Hindus.
Further, in the modern Hindu society, the cow is regarded as a sacred animal that should not be killed or harmed in any way. That said, there is no running away from the past and it is our responsibility to present an unbiased picture of our tradition.
Sure, there are uncomfortable truths in the history of Hinduism but it is impossible to cover them up – they can be accessed by anyone with a basic internet connection. And only when there is confusion do we need to write about it, instead of pushing it under the carpet.
It’s doubtless that there are several anti-Hindu forces using the same data and painting incomplete pictures of Hinduism. When this is the case, we can neither remain silent nor force-fit Vedic texts to suit personal or institutional biases and conservatism. A rational, scientific, and compassionate approach to the traditional texts is the need of the hour.
We take solace in the inspirational words of Swami Vivekananda who said,
“Tell the truth boldly, whether it hurts or not. Never pander to weakness. If truth is too much for intelligent people and sweeps them away, let them go; the sooner the better. Childish ideas are for babies and savages; and these are not all in the nursery and the forests, some of them have fallen into the pulpits. It is bad to stay in the church after you are grown up spiritually. Come out and die in the open air of freedom.”
We go a step further and urge these scholars to take a bolder stance while writing or conducting public discourse about Hinduism. They too have a responsibility in clearing the confusions that have been created. And clearly, this cannot be done by selectively quoting any text or any author.
In our previous article, we neither advocated meat-eating and alcoholism nor encouraged their prohibition. We just gave a holistic view of what Sanātana Dharma says about food and drink. And for those who might be interested, the authors are neither meat-eaters nor alcoholics and deeply revere the cow.
In this series of articles, we are trying to bring forth the varied views of our ancient seers, poets, philosophers, and lawgivers on specific topics. While they are unequivocal about universal wisdom – the sāmānya dharma part of it – they have diverse and even contradictory views on the contextual principles – the viśeṣa dharma part of it.
We will present an overall picture of what they have to say and let the readers come to their own conclusions.
The famed Kannada litterateur Dr. S L Bhyrappa says in the introduction of his 2007 novel Āvaraṇa that the present generation cannot be held responsible for the mistakes of their ancestors but if they engage in wholehearted and approving adulation of their ancestors without acknowledging their blunders, then they too partake in a share of the blame.
Keeping this is mind, let us explore the ideas and views of our ancestors – praise them for their brilliance, point out their blunders, and also understand those aspects which might have worked for them but are no longer relevant to us.
In the words of Prof. M Hiriyanna,
“When a new stage of progress is reached, the old is not discarded but is consciously incorporated in the new. It is the critical conservatism which marks Indian civilization.”
Unless we develop the capacity to stare at our society and tradition with confidence, integrity, criticality, and genuine affection, we cannot overcome the challenges we face.
- Bhyrappa, S L. Āvaraṇa. Bangalore: SahityaBhandara, 2007
- Hiryanna, M. Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy. “The Value of Sanskrit Learning and Culture.” Mysore: Kavyalaya Publications, 1952. p. 81
- Shourie, Arun. Eminent Historians: Their Technology, their Line, their Fraud. New Delhi: ASA, 1998. p. 172
- Shourie, Arun. World of Fatwas or the Shariah in Action. New Delhi: ASA, 1995. pp. 143-64
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Vol. 7. Inspired Talks. <http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda/volume_7/inspired_talks/37_tuesday_july_30.htm>
- The History and Culture of the Indian People. Ed. Majumdar, R C. Vol. 10: British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, Part 2 [1818-1905]. Bombay: Bharatiya VidyaBhavan, 1951
Dr. Ganesh is a Shatavadhani, a multi-faceted scholar, linguist, and poet and polyglot and author of numerous books on philosophy, Hinduism, art, music, dance, and culture.