In the previous article we have stated that the express goal of the entire corpus of Hindu darśana and that of every Hindu sampradāya is to discover the core of one’s being. This same objective can be expressed in several other ways: arriving at the innermost, true nature of one’s being; removing the dross (or saṁskāra-s, or impressions) of vāsanā-s from over the self-effulgent Ātman; becoming nothing (śūnya) and yet becoming everything (purṇa). We have posited the enquiry for that ultimate goal as the most important marker of Hindu identity; it is something which characterises the entire Indic civilisation in general (including Buddhist and Jain thought), but it does more so specifically for the Hindu culture, as the latter has managed to come up with the most radical findings through that enquiry. In that article we have also delineated one of the possible methods of deciphering the essence of Hindu identity through the progressive negation of the apparent and the superficial identifiers. In the present one, however, we will investigate the same question of identity through comparative and affirmative methods.
The first part of this series seems to have garnered a little response – or at least I think so – because a keen reader reached out to me on my email, offered some kind words about the article and then presented me with a question: what should be the Hindu response to challenges posed to it by the Abrahamic religions? At first look his question might seem a bit out of context, even straightforward, but it is really not so. I believe that this question has more bearing on the central problem of the present series, i.e. the question of Hindu self-identification (hence the title “What Are We?”), than one would think at first. Indeed, one’s own identification is incomplete without determining one’s attitude towards the Other, and vice versa; for every attempt to define the Self would invariably involve defining the Other. Therefore in the present part we will try and determine the boundary of the Self; thereby delineating the Other, and consequently our attitude towards the Other.
The kind of Other which is most vividly present all around the Hindu Self is the set of Abrahamic faiths. Two of the largest Abrahamic religions have established themselves in the Indian Subcontinent as strong contenders for the battle over narratives – and the outcome of that long-drawn battle will decide who gets to write India’s history and construct the Indian identity (it should be pointed out that the reader would do well to use the categories ‘India’ and ‘Indian Subcontinent’ interchangeably in the context of the present discussion – for our subject is not contained by the political boundaries of the present-day Republic of India).
The first thing that should be observed about the culture of this Other – in contrast with the Hindu culture – is this: the Other fosters a culture of consensus, which is often brought about by coercion, leaving little room for disagreement; on the other hand the Hindu culture not only allows its members to frequently disagree with each regarding the fundamentals of metaphysics, in some cases it even encourages them to have a difference of opinion – even if that implies being strongly opinionated! It is perfectly alright to be opinionated, with respect to one’s personal view on the specific path to liberation one has chosen within the Hindu fold, without denouncing the fundamental divinity illuminating all things and more importantly, without becoming mortal enemies of each other. Sadly, that is not the case with the Other culture. True, each of the Abrahamic faiths have a number of denominations; but they also have something – and this is the crucial difference between them and the Hindu culture – called blasphemy, a notion which is alien to the Hindu thought-universe. No one can go around declaring either themselves or every other entity (or both) to be essentially divine and sinless and still expect to be regarded as a true follower of any of the Abrahamic religions – that will simply be a contradiction. Such an act would be deemed blasphemous and the person committing blasphemy would be immediately expelled from the fold – they may even be subjected to corporal punishment (and in the most extreme cases, the capital one) for attempting to ‘corrupt’ the faith. In fact, there have been several such ‘heretics’ who have been burnt alive/decapitated for allegedly subverting one Abrahamic faith or other. The example of the Persian Sufi mystic Mansur Hallaj, who was executed by the authority of the caliph of Baghdad for proclaiming “Ana’l-Haq” (I am the Truth), readily comes to mind in this connection.
But not so if the dissident happens to be an adherent of any one of the numerous expressions of the Hindu culture. In fact there are several Hindu sampradāya-s who insist that every single living and non-living entity is potentially divine – the divinity encapsulated within their physical coils being no less than Brahman, the highest form of divinity. It is true that in one famous mantra the Rig Veda does go on to pray for attaining “same direction”, “same speech”, “similar-minded people”, “same mantra”, “same heart”, “same mind” and so on, but that is not quite the same as saying that there must be an absolute homogeneity of opinion about people’s approach towards life (what a terrible thing to say!) The cultures which demand such homogeneity automatically become anti-life, because in actual life there are hardly any two entities that are absolutely similar to each other in all respects. Even twins turn out to be different in their thinking and proclivities more often than not.
Enough on what we are not. Let us now see what we are instead.
One of the traits that used to distinguish us as a nation from others is a remarkable amount of faith in oneself – something which is a ready ingredient for evoking one’s courage. The term that was used to signify this trait was ‘śraddhā’. Why do I use past tense when speaking about śraddhā? Have we lost this trait completely, irrevocably? Not so. While the inculcation of śraddhā used be part of the culture in Ancient India, it is no longer cultivated by either parents or the prevalent education system of our times. To understand what śraddhā is, one needs to be familiar with the tale of Naciketa as well as what transcribed between that young Brahmin boy and Yama, the god of death in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad. This is something that I have discussed at length in another series on India Facts, and interested readers might extract the necessary exposition on śraddhā from there. Suffice it to say here that the Ancient India and especially the Vedic culture made it a pervasive practice to imbibe śraddhā in the minds of its young. Thus, we have the tale of Queen Madālasā, who used to cradle her child while at the same time constantly pouring the words “tvamasi nirañjana” (thou art that Blameless One) into its ears. We have also been told the tale of Hari the lion by Sri Ramakrishna. A lion cub named Hari was raised among a flock of sheep when his lioness mother died soon after giving birth to him. Growing up with the sheep, Hari believed he was one of them, and as such acquired the habits and customs of the sheep foster family. He shared eating habits and fear of predators with the flock – until one day when another, larger lion caught Hari and showed him his face in the reflection on still water. Hari continued to cower in fear before the larger lion, as he still could not believe he was any different from the sheep and behaved as if he should fear the lion. The lion gave him freshly hunted meat, oozing with blood, to eat; which Hari ate with great reluctance. Finally Hari came to realise his true nature, which was revealed to him by the grace of his lion guru, and from that day on he started to truly live his life. This fable has deep implications for the sādhaka who is on the path of Self-enquiry. Like the tale of Naciketa, this fable too underlines the importance of śraddhā in pursuing Self-realisation. Unless one has a strong conviction in one’s own abilities and one’s true nature, which is confirmed and reinforced by guru-vākya or words of the guru, one cannot expect to have embarked on the path of sādhana. The story of gradual weakening of the Hindu nation is nothing but the unfortunate story of erosion in śraddhā from within individuals, and by extension from within the nation.
This view of the Hindu self-identity can scarcely be read as reactionary, neither can it be understood as mere conservatism, nor sheer nostalgia. Conservatives and reactionaries are opposed to the natural course of social progress. Conservatives across cultures show a general yearning for a nostalgic past where supposedly everything was nice and golden – and hence they long to go back to that golden past. But lamenting the loss of śraddhā in the context of Hindu history is not quite the same as all that. Śraddhā is a superlative human trait that can be imbibed into the individual and into the society inhabited by the śraddhāvān individual, irrespective of historical and social conditioning. This has been proved time and again by the rise of individuals and nations who, armed with nothing but śraddhā – that great faith and conviction in themselves and in their own idea of the divine, have conquered continents and built empires over both people’s land and mind. From obscure small tribes to isolated island-nations to unorganised warring nomads – many have experienced such sudden inspirations through absolute śraddhā to take on the world in this way and change the course of history.
This is not to glorify nor condone the great physical, cultural and epistemic violence and genocides that have come in the wake of such conquests, but only to underscore the power of śraddhā, which has primarily fuelled these epoch-making (as well as epoch-ending) historical events. The Hindu nation can once again re-organise itself as a nation, in the true sense of the term, if only it re-owns and re-imbibes śraddhā in the lives of its individuals and in the life of the nation, śraddhā which has once been its unmistakable marker and one of its defining identifiers. Indeed it was this śraddhā with which Arrian of Nicomedia, the Greek author who wrote the history of Macedonian conqueror Alexander’s campaigns in the East in his Anabasis, characterised Indians – especially the Brahmins whom alexander encountered near Taxila. It emboldened these learned men to shrug off the Greek Conqueror’s promises of riches and a comfortable life if they agreed to accompany him on his homeward journey to Greece. The description of Indians by Megasthenes further confirms this Greek awe at the Indian character. In Aubrey de Sélincourt’s English translation, Arrian is found exclaiming on the extraordinary strength that śraddhā brought forth in the Indians’ character in the following manner:
This story and others to a similar effect have been recorded by good authorities; they are not without value to anyone who cares for evidence of the unconquerable resolution of the human spirit in carrying a chosen course of action through to the end.
There, in the words of an individual from the conquering race – one of those who we have designated as belonging to the Other culture – we unexpectedly get a good, workable definition of this defining Indian character of śraddhā: “the unconquerable resolution of the human spirit in carrying a chosen course of action through to the end”. This is what śraddhā is, seen through the eyes of a Greek, and consequently through the eyes of a translator who happened to be an Englishman. It is no coincidence that a defining Ancient Indian characteristic is being related to our contemporary Indians here through a Greek and a second degree (that is to say, translated) English account: after all both Greeks and the English had conquered India. And it is also no coincidence that we are writing in the English language to give and exposition of an essentially Indian idea viz. śraddhā for Indian readers of English. So, it is still essentially through the eyes of the Other that we are identifying ourselves. But that is the problematic area, the anxiety of a comparative approach to come to an understanding of different cultures. It is what we have to make do with until and unless we have mastered and proliferated our own language, i.e. Sanskrit, to be able to speak effectively among ourselves and to the Other in our own terms; to be able to define ourselves in our own terms.
The selfsame “unconquerable resolution of the human spirit in carrying a chosen course of action through to the end” is what we get to see replicated and retold at different contexts bespeaking a common characteristic Indian or Hindu identity in the narratives of Naciketa, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – whose heroes reach an exalted station precisely by virtue of their śraddhā to perform their respective svadharma, kartavya or duties.
More to follow in the subsequent parts of this series.
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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]