Book Review: Musings on Hinduism by Nithin Sridhar
Musings on Hinduism by Nithin Sridhar is a compact work (188 pp) comprising of independent articles and blogposts written by the author from 2007 to 2013. This handy volume can indeed serve as a useful introduction to the multiple ways through which a lay Hindu can approach and understand his/her dharma. It is possible, for instance, to teach/learn about Hindu dharma (I prefer this expression to ‘Hinduism’) with reference to select concepts and ideas that begin with the sound of (ga = ग), viz: Gayatri, Gita, Ganga, Guru, and Ganita. Hindus living in the diaspora can learn about their dharma in terms of the five topics that begin with the letter F in English: Festivals, Food, Fairs, Fables, and Films.
Musings on Hinduism (hereafter Musings), however, is packaged along more traditional lines being divided as it is into five topical sections: ‘Hindu Religion and Philosophy,’ ‘Vedanta,’ ‘Hindu Society,’ ‘Translations of Hymns,’ and ‘Miscellaneous.’ On face value, these section titles naturally indicate the theme that unifies the essays contained within each of them. But Nithin Sridhar’s (hereafter NS) deeper knowledge of Hindu philosophy, sampardayas, and myths bolstered by his inquisitive mind, allows him to see connections that others might overlook. Ideas and motifs, therefore, overlap or cross over from one section to the next. For this reason, Musings is not a ‘read cover-to-cover’ kind of book to read. Rather, it may be taken as a stream of consciousness book—you can pick an idea, say Karma, Tantra/Agama, or Advaita and learn more about it through the essays appearing in different sections.
The provision of cross-references, leads/links supplied at the bottom of the relevant page, and a good index render the book reader-friendly. As a result, a perceptive reader is likely to agree with NS on most points; including this one: “the claims that Advaita reduces the World to an unreal illusion and hence leads to immorality and idleness or that it is against the Vedic thought are rooted in improper understanding.” Because the fundamental ideas of Hindu dharma (hereafter dharma) are not presented chronologically, the reader is free to wander or saunter rather than march through the sections, pausing at one, browsing through another, skipping a third, but all the while ‘musing’ on dharma.
Maya and Zero
Because Musings carries the exuberance of wonder and the weight of experience, it is likely to provoke, startle, and even challenge the reader in many possible ways. When readers engage with the author seriously (and on his terms rather than on readers’), they are bound to ask questions, not only of him but of themselves and of their received knowledge. This reviewer, for one, was startled to read in Musings the connection that NS sets up between the Vedantic concept of maya and mathematical symbol of zero in a section entitled ‘Infinity and Zero.’ ‘Infinity denotes Brahman and Zero denotes Maya’ announces NS and then hastens to ask ‘Why does the Zero denote Maya?’ His answer is:
…Maya by definition means “That which does not exist” from the standpoint of Brahman but whose effects can be seen in the world. Maya is the Upadhi or Limiting principle that brings about the manifestation of various finite objects from the Infinite Brahman. Similarly, “Zero” is that which does not have existence from standpoint of Infinity as Infinity includes everything. But, its effect in the form of finite numerals and finite sets can be perceived (p. 99).
Being mathematically challenged, I discussed the claim of maya = zero with Professor Avinash Sathaye, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, Lexington (KY). It depends on, he explained,
[W]hat zero you are thinking of. If it is a mathematical object, then it cannot be equated to “maya.” Its existence is not in doubt or subject to annihilation due to further enlightenment. You may, if you like, describe the maya as zero in the sense of emptiness [शून्य]. There are suggestions that zero arose out of this…(Personal communication; see also Sathaye 2015).
It would seem that NS conceives of maya as zero in the sense of emptiness. Readers, of course, are free to draw their own conclusions.
Rituals and stotras
NS discusses the role of rituals (i.e., Karmakanda that includes performance of homa, havan, puja, and other actions prescribed by dharma) in the section ‘Religion and Philosophy.’ He explains that a steady and concentrated performance of prescribed rituals in the spirit of sadhana stimulates their internal corresponding forms that will eventually lead the practitioner to involve him/herself wholly in internal form of sadhana. If an aspirant persists in this sadhana, it will eventually burn away the burden of past karmas that block one’s journey towards the realization of ‘Truth.’ After thus explaining rituals, NS suddenly poses this question to the unsuspecting reader: ‘Are Hindu rituals still relevant today?’ His answer is: ‘[Hindu ritual] is more relevant today than it had been any time in recent history. Today, it is relevant not only to Hindus but to whole humanity’ (p. 36).
In the section ‘Translations of Sanskrit Hymns’ NS provides English translations of influential stotras dedicated to Ganesha, Shiva, and Sarasvati. Stotras are short devotional prayers (or hymns) that may be recited/chanted as Hindus engage in darshan (seeing one’s chosen deity or be seen by it). Since stotras address a deity such as Ganesha or Sarasvati with direct, devotional, and poetic language, their inclusion (in translation) in Musings is felicitous because it is likely to offer readers (many of whom might be unfamiliar with Sanskrit) a particularly fruitful avenue for exploring one of the oldest and most predominant features of religious life of a Hindu (see Edelmann 2017 for more information on stotras).
Veda and Tantra/Agama
NS assures his readers that, contrary to the general view that the system of Tantra is opposed to Vedas, the Tantra texts place themselves on the same platform as the Vedas calling themselves a ‘special branch of the Vedas (Shruti-shakha-vishesha).’ Pingalamata, an old tantric text, declares that the Tantras are Agamas with characteristics of Chandas (i.e., the Vedas). “The Tantrika system developed,” informs NS to his readers, “through two different paths–the exoteric, which continued as pure Shaivism and Esoteric, which continued as Shaktism.” He then describes how the landmass of India was organized in the Tantra system: The Sammohana Tantra divides Tantras into four classes: Kerala, Kashmira, Gauda and Vilasa. The Kerala class is said to prevail in countries from Anga to Malava, the Kashmira from Madra to Nepala, Gauda from Silahatta to Sindhu; while Vilasa is found everywhere.
Mahasidhashastra Tantra, on its part, divides Bharatavarsha into three zones: Vishnu kranta, Ratha kranta, and Ashwa kranta. According to Shaktimangala tantra, land east of Vindhyas up to Java is Vishnu kranta, land north of Vindyas upto Maha-china is Ratha kranta, and rest of the land in the west is Ashva kranta (P. 51).
Whereas the goal of Shaivism was only Liberation,” informs NS, “the goal of the Shaktas was not just Liberation. They wanted to gain ascendancy over the forces of nature and to carry on the experiments (pp 45-48).
Alarmed by the popular conception of Tantras as encouraging only carnal sex, NS explains that Tantra Agamas are practical manuals for meditation and are divided into the Shaiva, Shakta, and Pancharatra Agamas. Using sex for meditation is prescribed in only a few of the Agamas. The aim here is essentially to turn sexual union into meditation, a spiritual union that would ultimately result in Samadhi; not sexual gratification.
It is Victorian puritanical authoritarianism which condemns any mention or depiction of sex. Hinduism on the other hand, recognizes the role of sexual desires in human lives. The sexual depictions in some of the temples were meant to not only educate the people about role sex in householder’s life, but also to help those who were involved in sexual sadhanas (penance) for enlightenment (p. 59).
Concluding his discussion of the Tantra and Agama, NS insists that “sex is neither a taboo nor pornography in Hinduism. Instead it is recognized as a very basic block of life, which must be harnessed in a proper way so that it would lead to both sensual happiness and spiritual fulfillment” (P. 59).
NS’s stance on the Tantra and Agama is justifiable and finds support in the definition of Agama that Vacaspatimisra provides in his Tattvavaisaradi: Agama is the art, science, and technology that is necessary to attain prosperity in this world and liberation (moksa) in the next. When properly applied (viniyoga) by a qualified person, legitimate and appropriate means of attaining moksa dawn in that person (see Tilak n.d.). Harmony between Agama and the Veda (Nigama) is established by recognizing that they are dependent on one another or penetrate one another. A popular adage puts it thus: Vishnu is Shiva’s heart and Shiva Vishnu’s (śivasya hŗdayam vişņuḩ vişņoḩ hŗdayam śivaḩ) (see Tilak N.d.).
History or Itihasa?
NS engages in a lively discussion over the Western concept of history and its Indian counterpart—itihasa, which is more inclusive and wide ranging. Hindu scriptures speak of many immortal yogis and rishis, and munis. Hence, a person like Veda Vyasa who lived in Dwapara Yuga was also able to meet Shankaracharya in Kali Yuga. A Rishi like Vashistha or Vishvamitra could have been alive for thousands of years. Patanjali could reincarnate as Govinda Pada.
The present scholarship hesitates, reminds NS to his readers, to accept these instances as legitimate historical occurrences because it relies only on empirical evidence (P. 40). But, Hindu scriptures insist that the gross, manifest universe is not ‘Ultimate Truth.’ And then they lay down the path by which each person can realize that ‘Truth’ and its various layers directly. Whereas modern history speaks only about tangible history, i.e., ‘Human History’ recorded over a few thousand years, the Hindu tradition speaks of many layers of history spanning over many Yugas (P. 41).
Ramayana and Mahabharata are called as “Itihasa” i.e. History or human history. But, there are many characters like vanaras and rakshasas in them who are not humans. The Purunas not only speak about history of human kings but also about happenings in the various realms of existence. Hence, in the Hindu tradition, we find the presence of both allegorical stories and the history of various realms of existence’ (P. 41).
Hence, instead of rejecting all that is available to us in the tradition as a metaphor or as a story, NS invites us to inquire into them on case by case basis. There may be debates and discussions about which stories allude to ‘real events’ and which stories are only metaphorical and which are about events that happened in the physical realm. The outright rejection of everything as mere metaphorical would result in improper understanding and misconceptions. (pp. 40-43).
The above distinction that NS draws between ‘history’ and ‘itihasa’ is crucial and warrants further scrutiny. In his commentaries on major Upanişads, Śańkarācārya analyzes and brings out salient facts about itihāsa from the various episodes featured in them. The Kaţha upanişad, for instance, contains an episode involving Vājaśravas and his son Naciketas who received instruction from Yama. Śańkarācārya explains that this episode functions as arthavāda, that is, it pertains to an event that may actually have happened or not. The first part of the proposition—‘an event that may actually have happened’ refers to the bhūtārthavāda component of arthavāda. Itihāsa is therefore instructive, observes Śańkarācārya, in that there is something to learn from the behavior or actions of characters involved (Naciketas, for instance) (see Tilak 2017).
It may be argued that the bhūtārthavāda component comes closest to the Western notion of history because it (i) occurs in time that is measurable, (ii) is connected to a probable causal factor, and (iii) is verifiable against an empirical criterion such as an inscription or a written record. The second part of the proposition (an event that may not have happened) is closer to what in the West is known as myth, legend, or fiction (see Tilak 2017).
In light of the above discussion, it should come as no surprise that instead of dividing the sections on Hindu religion and philosophy or Vedanta into ‘historical periods,’ NS arranges them thematically. He devotes brief individual segments to Shaivism, Shaktism, Tantra, and to other expressions of dharma. This approach has advantages. First, by focusing on one tradition at a time, he reduces the confusion that can arise from the complex, intertwining nature of dharma, allowing the reader to grasp the immediate influences on a particular tradition. Also, because the thought patterns or chronologies of these traditions are interrelated, the segments often overlap in their coverage putting the material in a new light. For example, in explaining the intricate and complex Tantra/Agama system, the author shows how some of the techniques from that system have been used for different purposes in different traditions.
Narrativity and dharma
Speaking methodologically, the primary compass that guides the exploration of dharma in Musings is the narrative. The ideas that shape the contours of the Hindu universe and the Hindu aspiration for moksha are accordingly mapped in terms of narrativity, rendering dharma a lot more readable and accessible to seekers across the globe. What better example of the perils of not following dharma (or not engaging in prescribed karmas) could there be than the Mahabharata and the Ramayana?
In a section aptly entitled ‘The Need for Indian Narrative,’ NS comments that the issue of withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindu” (because of the demonization of Hindus therein) demonstrates the need for creating the ‘Indian Narrative.’ There is a lack of Indian scholars, writes NS, who are well versed in modern methodology as well as rooted in Indian culture and philosophy and who can refute the distorted and vulgar opinions being passed as scholarship. Such research and narrative, he cautions, should not be based on examination of Indian life through the lens of western scholarship; it should not be grounded in western concepts and perspective. Instead, it should be focused on bringing out the Indian perspective, the Indian view of art, religion, philosophy etc. The root cause of all these problems, concludes NS, is not just a lack of Indian Narrative. Rather, it is rooted in a lack of sense of Dharma among the masses (pp. 113-114, 117).
“The fall of Hindus or even Indians is rooted in this abandonment of Dharma. And a rise will result only from a revival of Dharma” (P.118).
A quibble or two
This reviewer did not find anything substantial to criticize in Musings in terms of its contents; the only concern (a couple of quibbles really) being transliteration of Sanskrit words in English. In Musings, nitya, for instance, becomes nithya and Gayatri becomes Gayathri. One suggested reason for this practice is that speakers/writers of Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil add ‘h’ to such words to differentiate between the pronunciations of ‘त’ and ‘ट’ (in this scheme of transliteration ‘t’ stands for ‘ट’ while ‘th’ stands for ‘त’). In other parts of India, however, ‘th’ stands for ‘थ’ while ‘t’ stands both for ‘त’ and ‘ट’ (presumably, the reader is expected to discern whether a ‘त’ or ‘ट’ is meant by resort to the context). I therefore wonder if it would be possible to adhere to the standardized convention of transliterating Sanskrit words into English. Another quibble with Musings that must be recorded here is the presence of a large number of typos. Hopefully, a good copy editor will take care of these two quibbles before Musings goes to the press for the next edition.
Musings is held together by a strong and distinctive authorial voice and vision of NS, a patriotic Hindu, who sincerely wants his beloved dharma not only to survive but to flourish. He laments that despite the size and growing affluence of the Hindu community in India and in the diaspora today and despite the enduring appeal of Hindu religiosity beyond India, Hindus in India (or in the diaspora) have not created a forum for tradition-based reflection.
There is no guidance for Hindus of today to study, teach, and write about their tradition within a context that is supported by Hindu scholars, Hindu rituals, and contemplative practices such as yoga and dhyana. “More important than protesting against a book or creating a narrative to counter, is to practice the tenets of dharma that one wants to protect,” concludes NS (p. 117). Inclusivism, a value that is repeatedly advocated in dharma, must be treasured:
Even if one does not agree with Vidyaranya’s conclusion that Advaita Vedanta is at the zenith, his work demonstrates beyond doubt that various Dharmic philosophies are inter-connected and are not exclusive” (pp. 120-121).
In the end, however, as Jonathan Edelmann has observed, seats of Hindu study and practice can develop (and should develop) by creating places for Hindu scholars to teach young Hindus how to think faithfully and critically about their tradition with the intellectual resources—this will require the financial support of Hindus themselves (Edelmann personal communication).
Edelmann, Jonathan. 2017. Introduction to Special Issue: Stotra, Hymns of Praise in Indian Literature. International Journal of Hindu Studies. DOI 10.1007/s11407-016-9201-x; accessed on March 22, 2017.
Sathaye, Avinash. 2015. Bhāskarācārya’s Treatment of the Concept of Infinity. Gaņita Bhāratī vol 37, nos 1-2 (2015): 55-67.
Tilak, Shrinivas. 2017. Professor Sheldon Pollock on history in ancient India: A critique from the perspective of Mimamsa. Paper presented at the Swadeshi Indology Conference II, Delhi: February 17-19, 2017.
Tilak, Shrinivas. N.d. Harmonizing Nigama and Agama. Unpublished paper.
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