Musings of a Hindu Savage
I am a Hindu savage. And I need to be civilised.
My friends would have you believe so.
A recent conversation with a high school friend of mine on Hinduism reminded me of a scene from the 80s movie, Crocodile Dundee.
Dundee and Sue, the heroine, are deep in the forest when Sue gets startled by a native in the night. He turns out to be a friend of Dundee and as they start talking, she tries to reach for her camera to take a snap of the aborigine. He looks at her sternly and says, ‘Oh no…you can’t take my picture.’ An embarassed Sue tells him, ‘Oh I am sorry. You believe it (taking your picture) will take away your soul.’ He grins at her and says, ‘No…you’ve got your lens cap on!’
Just like Sue looked at the native ‘savage’ and immediately assumed that he must have some crazy and weird belief, many people today seem to assume that Hinduism is a just a bunch of crazy beliefs that is fit to be mocked, ridiculed and spurned.
That, to me, summed up the discussion between me and the obviously western-oriented, Hindu-bashing friend of mine who, in spite of being born in a free India, believes that we were the white man’s burden! Talk about self-esteem. Or rather the lack of it.
I could barely understand it even when my grandfather (bless his soul) used to say, ‘Oh, the white man has said so. It must be true.’ I cannot for the life of me understand why someone born much after we attained independence would still carry that belief. They make it look like the British came here out of some very enlightened goal of civilising us and building railroad for us.
Cho Ramaswamy summed it up beautifully in his 1980s TV series in Tamil, Vande Mataram, when, playing the role of the genius-lawyer Bhaskaran, looks at a Magistrate and says, “You guys are just a bunch of traders. Your sales managers have become Governors and marketing managers have become Governor Generals!”
And I am quite sure that the Brits did not create railways matching the travel demands of the Indian market. They did it just to ferry the loot to the ports. They were the progenitors of the modern axiom of “Wealth and profits are to be privatised while taxes and losses are to be spread across the public.”
But then, what would I know? I am just a Hindu savage.
Common allegations against Hinduism
The most common areas of complaint from my very ‘erudite’ fellow-Hindus about Hinduism are superstitions, treatment meted out to ‘lower castes’, yoga, sex etc.
I had a good laugh about a week ago when, during a WhatsApp conversation, a self-proclaimed-atheist friend suggested that all of us should convert to Buddhism. And why should we all do that? Apparently Buddhism has a lot less superstitions than Hinduism according to him. (And yes, I read up on Buddhism and superstitions. They have quite a few themselves.)
Of course, he may bring up other reasons for his proposed conversion but switching for superstitions…well, I don’t buy that. So time and again I bump into people who neither know Hinduism nor any of the other religions. Then they jump to conclusions on which one we be practising.
I don’t claim to be an expert by any means but for God’s sake, you, my friend, are an atheist! Why does it matter to you what I believe in? Why must you change my beliefs? If you want to complain about a woman’s PMS and also advise her on what brand of sanitary pads to use, please grow a uterus first. Or at least get a gynaecology degree. Otherwise you are grossly underqualified and incompetent to advise them on matters that you don’t know let alone comprehend.
Every people has superstitious beliefs. Across countries and across religions. I don’t know if anyone has yet done a comprehensive and comparative study on which religion has the largest number of superstitions.
The Merriam Websters dictionary defines Superstition as ‘a belief or a practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false concept of causation.‘ To say that only Hindus have superstitious beliefs is absurd. A black cat crossing your path is believed to be a cause for bad luck in many cultures, including India. A crow flying to your right as you embark on your journey is considered a good omen. If you know your Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, you would know that European folklore believed that babies were brought by storks from far away caves and dropped down chimneys. If the only fun in having a baby was to leave sweets out on your window sills for the storks, you might as well watch the paint dry with your partner.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such beliefs sprinkled across cultures and traditions. Is that what defines a culture, tradition and religion? Mere superstitions?
You don’t look at Kindergarten text books and say that the depth of education being provided at a school is bad. And that they are too trivial. It is an unfair and, perhaps, even a mischievous statement – dropping all the great intellectual works to take some of the most trivial things and putting them down as evidence of paucity of rational thinking.
You don’t need to tell Hindus to drop those beliefs, my friend. People who live their lives by the tenets of Hindu dharma will themselves drop those beliefs at an appropriate time. We don’t tell a three-year old child about how babies are born. There is a time and place for that. Hans Christian Anderson and his storks work just fine where children are concerned. But when the child enters teenage, the stork may fly but not your story. You don’t need to struggle to make the teenage kid drop the stork-bringing-home-the-babies-nonsense at that time. They will effortlessly do it themselves. Don’t look at some silly superstitions and decide that alone is what Hinduism teaches.
In fact, the Hindu scriptures have nothing in them that can be remotely called superstitions. The superstitious beliefs are more of cultural habits that can and will change over time. But the Hindu tradition is smart enough to use beliefs to drive home various and tough philosophical messages at appropriate junctures.
For example, in Advaita, there are prakriyā-s, or methods, which the scriptures and the Guru employ to teach. A prakriyā is nothing more than a pratikalpana, or a counter imagination or conception to drive out the original misconception. Students of Advaita would also know about adhyāropa and apavāda, where a false attribute is deliberately superimposed on a real substratum and removed at a later point. So we Hindus don’t get unduly perturbed by strange beliefs. We just smile at them. Beliefs are just beliefs and can be useful when wielded by a competent Guru.
But then, what would I know? I am just a Hindu savage.
Look at all the Yoga-teacher rapists in this world, my friend said. He made it sound like the whole purpose of Yoga was to train rapists. Imagine, now, a World Rapist Day.
Conveniently, Yoga then became a very Hindu thing and hence all Hindus were branded rapists. This very friend of mine had argued, a little while ago, on why it was right for the west to patent our yoga postures because yoga belonged to the whole world and not to one particular religion.
I then did a Google search on biology teachers and rapes. Well, lo and behold! I did find story after story of how biology teachers were charged with raping students. Then I found out about how physical education teachers and gym coaches have been charged with rapes. And then music teachers. And then…I am sure you get the point.
Hell, there was even an incident about a student who had raped his teacher. Student-rapists? So let’s all now condemn biology because it produces rapists. Let’s stop exercising and going to gyms because all coaches are rapists. Stop going to your music class because your music teacher could be a rapist. For God’s sake, teachers, stop teaching. Your student could be a rapist.
So I am confused. Yoga is a global phenomenon and now belongs to the whole world. Anyone can patent an asana and claim they invented it. Never mind the fact that the asana was already described in minute detail in the text Hatha Yoga Pradipika centuries ago. Then suddenly, Yoga becomes an exclusively Hindu thing only when you read about some rape charges levelled against a Yoga guru in the papers?
But then, what would I know? I am just a Hindu savage.
We will look at Yoga and sex a little later in this essay.
The Caste Stick
Let me take this issue of how Hindus divide the society using caste etc. The Shaiva and Vaishnava conflicts are brought up as an example of how we have infighting in our religion. Which implies that societal divide is unique only to Hinduism. Are there no differences between groups in other religions? Do Sunnis and Shias coexist peacefully all over the World? Have the Protestants and Catholics no violent past (and present) in Christianity?
Of course, my friend cited the familiar trope of how we treat shudras as sub-human in Hinduism. I could have counter-cited the verse
janmanā jāyate śudrah, karmaṇā dvija ucyate
veda pāthena viprasyāt, brāhmaṇo brahma vedanāt ||
But I let it pass.
By birth, everyone is considered to be a shudra. And who, then, is a shudra? kāmācārah, kāmabhakṣakah, kāmavādah śudrah…a shudra is one whose behaviour is driven by his base desires, who eats anything and everything and who utters unprintable words. In other words, a prākṛta puruśah, or an unrefined person who is governed by his animalistic instincts is a shudra.
And so, the definition is not damning a particular class of people as lowly curs. On the other hand, anyone who behaves according to the aforementioned definition is a shudra. All those whose behaviours are driven by animalistic instincts – including Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas – can be called shudras.
Moreover, if Brahmins held such a strong hold over learning of the scriptures, which are the defining and guiding light of the Hindus, and did not allow others any latitude, how come some of the greatest Rishis and teachers were not Brahmins?
If higher positions were merely conferred on account of birth alone, then we would not have so many great sages in the history of our nation. I came across this verse in a speech delivered by someone for which I couldn’t find a proper source to reference. However, it really highlights the point under discussion and so I give it below:
“gaṇikagarbhasambhuto vāsisthas ca mahāmunih
tapasā brāhmaṇo jātah samskāras tatra kāraṇam
jātau vyāsastu kaivartyah svapakyas tu parāśarah
bahavo’nyepi vipratvam prāpta ye pūrvam advijah.”
The gist of the verse is that Rishi Vasistha was the son of a prostitute. Vyasa was born to a fisherwoman. Parashara was born to a chandali. And all of them were mahāmuni-s, great Rishis.
The verse goes on to say that they and many others like them attained greatness and eminence by their work and austerities. They were revered not only during their times but are also considered beacons of light to the society even today.
Yoga Vasistha – Maharshi Vasishtha’s teachings to Lord Rama, is considered one of the most advanced Advaitic texts in our tradition. Vyasa – whom we address with utmost reverence as Bhagavan Veda Vyasa – wrote amongst other works the seminal treatise, the Brahma Sutra, which forms the Nyaya Prasthana of the Prasthana Traya – the three most important set of scriptural works of the Hindus. The Upanishads are called the shruti prasthāna, the Bhagavad Gita is called smṛti prasthāna and the Brahma Sutras are called the nyāya prasthāna, providing a logical foundation to the truths contained in the scriptures. Not only that, one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar, the auspicious guru pūrṇimā, is dedicated to this great son of a fisherwoman.
Adi Shankaracharya, born in a Brahmin family, did not say that the Brahma Sutras originated from the intellect of a shudra and hence is not worth commenting upon. His commentary on the Brahma Sutras of Sage Vyasa is a crest jewel among Hindu scriptures.
Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, also a brahmin by birth, extolled the Yoga Vasishtha by saying that this one text was enough for attaining liberation. Out of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the dashavatar, there are only two Brahmins, Vamana and Parashurama. We even have three animals, a couple of Kshatriyas and a couple of cow herders – depending on whether you count Buddha or Balarama.
This whole issue of Hinduism promoting only Brahmins is utter nonsense.
In which case, what about the incidents of discrimination and atrocities that occur from time to time and are being attributed to Hinduism?
Know for certain that they are not the teachings of Hinduism. In every religion and society there are people who misuse and misinterpret the teachings for their own personal benefits. For example, the incidents of the so-called high-class landlords gang raping the so-called low-class women for taking water from a prohibited well in the village…they are men who are led by their animalistic instincts. Make no mistake, if they believed in the stupid untouchability that they apparently follow and that it was against the rules to even touch the water that was polluted and spoilt by a low class woman, how will they justify penetrating her? These are just animals not fit to live in the intestines of worms.
But then, what would I know? I am just a Hindu savage.
Scriptures of Hinduism
Let’s now briefly look at the core Hindu scriptures. Hindu dharma is also known as Vaidika dharma or the Vedic dharma. The Vedas occupy a pre-eminent position and they have the status of being a pramāṇa, a veritable means of knowledge. Then come the smṛti, which literally means that which is remembered. They are always derived from the Vedas and are subservient to the Vedas. Then you have the itihāsa, purāṇā – historical epics, mythological tales etc.
In fact, all other texts are subservient to the Vedas. Hindus don’t attribute human authorship to the Vedas. Now someone might question: ‘If you don’t even know who wrote the Vedas, why you believe in them?’ Is knowledge of authorship the final proof of the validity of a work?
Look at this example. Many of us travel by planes these days. Complicated physics and engineering are at play every time we sit inside an aircraft. Bernouli’s principle of fast and slow moving air and their differential pressures contributes to the lift of the plane. There’s also the angle of attack of the wings and the air it cuts through.
I am sure there are a lot more complications than what I have summarised in very poor layman’s language. The point is I don’t know Bernouli. Neither does my father. And his father before him. But the principle continues to work everytime I fly in a plane.
My not knowing the author of a principle doesn’t take away the validity of that principle. How many people who travel by ships or boats know of Archimedes and his remarkable discovery while trying to figure out if the Crown of the king was really made of gold or if it was a fake?
It really doesn’t matter if I don’t know Bernouli. It really doesn’t matter if I don’t know Archimedes. Those laws will continue to work perfectly. We also trust the engineers at Boeing and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to design and build planes and ships that don’t violate these principles ‘found’ by Bernouli and Archimedes.
To me the Vedas carry that same weight. We not only trust the core principles of the Vedas but also the Rishis to whom they were revealed and who showed us how to walk on that path. We say that the Vedas are apauruṣeyam, not of human origin. They are considered to be divine revelations that were ‘heard’ by the Seers. Hence they are also called śruti-s.
The Essence of Hindu Scriptures
Let’s now dwell a little upon the intention of Hinduism and the Hindu scriptures. Especially in relation to some of the allegations we saw above.
In Sanskrit, this intention or desire is known as vivakṣā. What does it desire to convey and communicate? Is it to create a higher and lower class of people? Is it to make household slaves out of women? Does yoga create a rowdy bunch of physically fit men who only rape women?
Let’s take the example of an English magazine article about Rahul Dravid on his retirement from competitive cricket. If in the middle of this article, there is a mention of a bare-chested Sourav Ganguly waving his T-Shirt at the stands at the Lords, is that the core message of the Rahul Dravid article? If there is a mention of match-fixing in the very same article, does one come to the conclusion that every cricketer is a fraud and a match fixer?
How do we sift through all those words and come to the conclusion that this article is praising Dravid for his wonderful contribution to Cricket? There is a title, then an opening, the body of the article and a conclusion on how the sport and the fans will truly miss him. The article is peppered with anecdotes about Rahul, the great experiences his team mates have had with him, how youngsters learned from The Wall himself, how his rivals viewed him etc. When all these are looked at in unison, and they all point towards Rahul, one can and will come to the conclusion that this article is about Rahul, his amazing contributions and how there will never be another Wall.
The prerequisites to reach this conclusion were, knowledge of English, a bit of cricket interest etc. Poor knowledge of English can also twist the meaning and one can end up leaving with a poor impression of Rahul.
A similar method called tātparya nirṇaya is used to arrive at the philosophical essence of a school of thought. There are six pointers (śad linga-s), one or more of which tells us what the essence of a school is. We can employ them here as well and see for ourselves if what our friends allege is what Hinduism is.
- upakrama – upasamhāra: The beginning ( upakrama) and the conclusion (upasamhāra) can be looked at to identify the main theme of a book or section of a book. Imagine the title, the opening paragraph and the concluding paragraph of the Rahul Dravid article. We need to ask what does the scripture’s text begins and ends with.
- abhyāsa: Repetition. Dravid would be found with the most number of repetitions in the article, neither Sourav nor Sachin are assigned the same weight as Rahul is. We need to ask what the scripture says again and again.
- apūrvatā: That which is something unprecedented or original or unknown earlier. (This one may not apply as well to the Dravid article as it does to the scriptures.) Do the scriptures talk about something that was unknown to me before? Something whose knowledge I cannot gain by worldly means?
- phalam: The fruit of that study. The article aims for us to remember Rahul as the greatest Number Three batsman in the world. What does the scripture aim to give us as the fruit of that study?
- arthavāda: Eulogy or praise. We know it was Rahul who was repeatedly being praised in that article. What does the scripture heap praises on?
- upapatti: Demonstration through examples or analogies. We can also look at it as taking a train of thought to its logical conclusion. In the Rahul Dravid article, there would be enough analogies and anecdotes to support the idea of Rahul’s greatness as the Number Three batsman etc. What examples are available for us to conclude that the essence of the Hindu scriptures is such and such?
Some Application of the Pointers
upakrama – upasamhāra: Ask if Hindu texts begin and end with hatred towards a group of people? Which Hindu text begins and ends with creating superstitious beliefs? Which Hindu text begins and ends with demeaning women?
abhyāsa: Where do Hindu texts show a constant repetition on how to enslave a set of people, repeat how women should raped and subjugated and how to endorse superstitious beliefs?
arthavāda: Which Hindu texts eulogize these bad characteristics?
upapatti: Which Hindu texts gives many analogies of how to rape, kill, plunder and to create dumb beliefs to keep people enslaved?
Yoga and Sex
Take the Vedas and the Upanishads, the principal Hindu texts and systematically apply the six pointers shown above. Creating division in the society, enslaving a category of people, looking down upon women, raping them…these are not the essential themes of the Hindus and their scriptures.
No book of Hinduism I know of starts with how to put down a group of people and concludes with that topic while repeating that thought, eulogising the people who perpetrate such acts etc.
If you take the core Yoga texts like the Patanjali Yoga sutras, which clearly delineates the eight-fold path of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi and apply the śad linga-s, you will find the exact opposite of what my left-leaning and rational friends allege.
The Yamas and Niyamas talk about do’s and don’ts, which include ahimsa (non-violence / non-injury to others), satyam (being established in truth), brahmacharyam (practising celibacy)….where in the world is rape included here? Or injury of any form?
If you look at Vedanta texts like Jivan Mukti Viveka, it only talks about vasana kshaya (destruction of latent animal tendencies by cultivating appropriate good qualities and values), mano nasha (destruction of the lower mind through Yogic means) and jnana (acquistion of knowledge of the Supreme.) If you go deeper, the prerequisite for studying Vedanta itself is a set of mental qualities comprising discrimination, dispassion, mind, and sense control.
The entire aim of the scriptures is to slowly but surely take us away from our animal selves and refine ourselves to become higher beings. So if we read that some yoga practitioner somewhere was involved in a rape, he or she did it not because of yoga but inspite of yoga.
Because Yoga did not teach him or her that for sure. For yoga has taught celibacy vide Yoga Sutras 2:38: brahmacharyam veerya laabhah. Yoga Sudhakara, the definitive commentary of the great jivanmukta Yogi Sri Sadashiva Brahmendra on Panatajali’s Yoga Sutras says on this particular sutra, ‘veeryanirodho hi brahmacharyam’ which means ‘Restraint of semen is indeed brahmacharyam.’
Even if we take the extremely diluted and dumbed-down modern definition of brahmacharyam as being merely faithful and loyal to one’s spouse or partner, the question of a yogi’s violence against the opposite sex doesn’t even arise.
And if we do find some instances of ill-treatment of women or a group of people, if we do find absurd beliefs etc, can we conclude that they are the core essence of our texts? If your closest friend, who is soft spoken, mild mannered and cultured suddenly abuses someone on the road, would you conclude that he is a savage or would you give him the benefit of doubt and inquire into why such a mild-mannered person suddenly behaved differently?
Similarly, if all the Hindu scriptures teach non-violence, truth, respect for women, gaining knowledge and becoming free of the trappings of the mundane world and you suddenly come across a contradicting episode, would you rather lazily conclude that this isolated episode is the core teaching? Or would you take the effort to understand it properly by systematically applying rational rules in deciphering the core theme?
The Essence of Hinduism
Every Hindu scripture, be it the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Itihasas and Puranas…they all in unison talk about an immortal and ever-present Brahman, and how we can reach that state.
In our current state, we cannot comprehend that state and hence a whole range of scriptures on the preparatory steps are given. They all speak about giving up our lower selves riddled with anger, lust, hatred, jealousy etc and cultivate divine qualities like service to humanity, devotion, inner tranquillity, keenness of intellect, study of scriptures, and realisation of the divinity in oneself.
If one takes the Bhagavad Gita one will find that the start and end is about removing Arjuna’s delusion and sorrow, moha and shoka. Adi Shankaracharya says at the beginning of His Gita commentary that the purpose of the entire Vedas is to remove delusion and sorrow.
Lord Krishna asks Arjuna at the end of His lecture on the battlefield of life, depicted as the Kurukshetra, if Arjuna has destroyed his delusion and his sorrow. There are many repetitions of this theme throughout the Gita. The Gita is nothing but the very essence of the Upanishads.
What the Vedas communicate is what the Gita communicates, in different words and ways, keeping in mind the needs of the student, Arjuna. The Vedas and the Upanishads are for people who are of an extremely fine intellect and highly matured. Since everyone might not have that capability, the ancient sages wrote huge volumes of different works for different people. If you have the pithy sutra form literature on the one end, you have the beautiful story form of Bhagavatam on the other end. But both talk about the one great Indivisible God. And how one can be happy forever.
Hinduism is anything but dogmatic. No other scripture in the world boldly recognizes that someday you will not need the scriptures and what is enjoined in them. The Lord says in the Gita
yāvānartha udapāne sarvataḥ saṃplutodake
tāvān sarveṣu vedeṣu brāhmaṇasya vijānataḥ ।BG 2:46।
For a knower of Brahman, the Supreme Truth, there is as much profit from all the Vedas as there is profit from reservoirs where all around there is an inundation and flood of waters.
In his commentary, Adi Shankarcharya clarifies that here, ‘Vedas’ means the actions enjoined in them.
Hence Hinduism is anything but dogmatic. Just as your Third Grade books are of no use to you in college, the Gita itself says that for one who has attained the emancipating liberation, the scriptures are of no use.
But just as a Third Grade student cannot renounce her text books while in Third Grade, a person who has not realised the calm, tranquil and ever blissful Self within, cannot renounce the scriptures.
So the rider in the verse above (‘For a knower of Truth’) must be understood properly. It applies only to a person who has had the plenary experience and not others. However, the possibility of that stage is clearly laid out. There is a time and place for everything…including renouncing the crutch called scriptures. They will support us till we are fit to stand on our own legs.
We all love independence. Hindu scriptures themselves practice the adage, ‘give a man a fish and get rid of his hunger for the day. Teach him how to fish and rid him of his hunger all his life.’
Hinduism doesn’t want you to be dependent – even on itself. The entire support structure is there for us to lean on. All the way till we reach a day when we won’t need them for our support but we would still be living in its wondrous, open and egalitarian framework.
Hinduism recognizes that people have different skills, talents and temperaments. Everyone cannot be taught in the same way. Imagine if my school had made music compulsory. Being tone-deaf, I would have hated music. Imagine if math was made compulsory for arts majors. Many of them are math-phobic and would suffocate.
It’s the same way here.
The Rishis understood that some are action oriented and hence gave them the path of action. They were told do’s and don’ts, not to restrict them but to liberate them. Today’s addicts will find it difficult to fathom the truth but the biggest freedom is the ability to say No to oneself in the middle of a craving.
Hence restrictions help develop a strength of will and character. This austerity is called tapas. This very same Hinduism teaches that every being looks to drive away sadness and acquire happiness. Hence compassion to oneself and others is sine qua non. Many others who are of an emotional bent of mind were given the path of devotion. People who loved a good debate and expected rational explanations, to whom mere stories were insufficient, were given the path of knowledge.
Hinduism is like a large forest populated with the trees of many scriptures, vines and creepers of different cultures and traditions, the beautiful wild flowers of values and the fruit of the ultimate bliss called moksha or freedom. A vast biodiversity exists within it and supports not just humans but also other living beings like plants and animals and non-living beings like rocks, mountains and rivers.
Someone once told me that people who live in the forests are savages.
Are the people who live in the forest really savages?
Or are they who destroy the trees in the forest and the myriad lives in it?