The Hindu Traditionalist (I) : Culture, Morality and Reform
“We are not here for fun, we are here to do our duty in honor of our Gods and ancestors who gave us Life. Some of that may indeed be fun and some of that may well be difficult but what’s important is that we are ‘us’ and not ‘someone else’.”
Do we have fitting responses to the claims of Secular Atheists?
You worship elephants and monkeys; your religion is primitive.
If God is everywhere then your temples are meaningless.
Your 33 crore Gods could not prevent your defeat to foreign armies.
There is no rebirth, your life is meaningless.
There is no God.
Your traditions are a waste of money.
Nothing is sacred bro, it’s just chemistry.
Do we need to respond? Do we respond on their terms using a framework they understand, or do we answer them on our terms using our own frameworks?
I am not one for proper definitions, but do we at least have a fuzzy understanding of how we approach these issues? Are we conscious of our way?
The thing is, there are already multiple, extremely sophisticated Bharatiya ways of looking at the world that are millennia old. These darshanas were and are always intellectually available to scholars. But for the rest of us common folk, our rishis left something special – an inherited system of organizing life and mind via the medium of practice (ritual) and poetry (a metaphoric understanding of history — itihaasa). You and I were not expected to spend fourteen years mastering Sanskrit texts, but we were from birth expected to follow the ways of our ancestors, and in doing so we embodied the Bharatiya vision. Not only is the Bharatiya vision (multi-birth Karma and Purushartha) a superior vision but this remarkably long-lived means of transmission is also a superior, non-violent, non-didactic, and attractive way of creating a civilization. Today, Hollywood does the same for America in places where it does not go to war. We did it in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, in Tibet, and in Japan and Korea.
So, when then did we lose the plot?
Europe stole and innovated its way to technological supremacy while we were tied down in a death match with Islam. By the seventeenth century, they were already so strong, and we so weakened that they were able to walk into our country and toy with us.
What happened with the coming of the British was that we were faced with a very powerful adversary who scoffed at our practices and asked a lot of questions. We, the common people, came face to face with the white man, and for the first time in our long history we were shamed. Shamed because we did not know why we did what we did. Shamed because we did not know what we stood for. Shamed because we could not articulate our view of the world in terms that were understandable to the monster at our door.
Pretty soon, we assumed that our vision was inferior because, after all, we were physically inferior, and it must follow that the vision that led to this physical weakness too was inferior.
So started the great chain of reform. From Ram Mohan Roy to Narendra Modi, the only deep tradition that most educated Hindus follow today is the tradition of reform. Generation after generation, like clockwork mice, we pass on the idea to our children that we need to be reformed.
Reform started with the internalization of the idea that our ancestors were backward and superstitious, and that is why they were weak. We discarded our rituals in favor of Science with a capital “S” and our Itihaasa in favor of history. In the absence of our practice (rituals) and our poetry (itihaasa), our Bharatiya darshanas became disembodied: they no longer had a vehicle that carried them, and we, the modern-day Bharatiya people, became culturally orphaned. Our links to the darshanas, so carefully maintained over hundreds of generations by our ancestors through practice and poetry were severed, and within a generation, our children were cut loose from even a simple intellectual appreciation of the Bharatiya vision.
We’re so backward, dude…
This has left us in a strange post-colonial reality today that we are no longer ourselves. With every passing year, more children attend secular schools and are kidnapped from the Hindu-sphere. They either become Hindu-flavored Liberals or Atheists or out and out Abrahamic. On the surface, our festivals may be louder today with laser shows and pop music, but by any deep measure our Hindu world is going silent.
One may ask why Christians and Muslims appear to survive the secular onslaught? There are deep philosophical commonalities between Secularism, Islam and Christianity which help, but for the common Christian or Muslim what really helps is that their ideological religions provide them answers. Irrational answers, but at least some answers, to the questions posed by atheistic Secularism– about the origin of things, about good and bad, about us and them. These ideological religions are simplistic worldviews with clear blueprints and instructions. They insist that the flock meets once a week to generate community, brainwash children, and seek political power. Their answers may be irrational, but they provide form, shape, and identity to their flock…an armor to ward off the piercing gaze of Western reductivist logic.
We Hindus on the other hand, stand here naked, without the armor of ideology. Our traditional armor, caste/jāti-based tradition, has been stripped off our bodies and ridiculed until even we now hate that very thing that protected us and gave us shape, form, and identity all these long, difficult centuries.
Hindus today are left with four options – to become Christian, to become Muslim, to become Liberal, or to seethe.
We know not why we seethe, but we seethe. And that is good because it shows that deep down, we are still aesthetically so acculturated to the Hindu darshanas that we cannot abandon them. We hate our pathetic impotence, but we can’t let go. And that is a kind of love. It is that love that I want to give contours to. In the rest of this essay (and the two subsequent essays), I offer to ordinary Hindus a set of ideas that try to explain why we are the way we are, at a deep anthropological level. Those of us who cannot afford to join a gurukulam, need a foundation from which to pick our way through the minefield of atheist questions and Liberal accusations.
So then, “What is Culture?”
Culture is communal habit. Plain and simple. But the important question that arises after this is – where do these habits come from? What is their nature?
There are essentially three views (I will be using these three terms going forward):
- “Trad-Culture”— Culture comes from Tradition which in turn comes from a particular Metaphysical Worldview. This is the Traditional view.
- “Techno-Culture”— Culture is created when Humans react to the possibilities offered by Technology. This is the Modern view.
- “Whatever-Culture”— Culture is “whatever the hell” we want it to be. This is the Post-Modern view.
All of these are factual understandings of different facets of the amorphous thing that we call culture. But what is true for us?
I am going to consciously differentiate between the words Factual and True, so please follow my train of thought. Facts refer to happenings, occurrences in this physical world, empirical cause-and-effect — that sort of thing. Truth refers to that which lends meaning to our existence.
When we say Ram Naam Satya Hai, what does the word satya here mean? How can a name be true, what does it really mean? I would like you to take thirty seconds to think of this. Really try to define for yourself what the word satya could actually mean in the context of Shri Rama’s name. It is not so easy for an English thinker to get their head around this one.
That thing, that untranslatable word Satya, is Truth. It is not to be confused with mere Fact.
So, back to culture…
Let us say that communal habits arose as a means to negotiate three existential spheres:
- The Gods (Out there in the great Unknown)
- The Gods-made world (the Earth and life on Earth)
- The Man-made world (Human community)
The ancients approached the Gods through Metaphor— sacrifice, poetry, art, and beauty. They approached the Gods-made World of animals, earth, plants, and rain through Technology— their tools, the plough, the bow, the spear, fire, houses, boats.And they approached the Man-made World of communities through Ritual – marriage, naming ceremonies, festivals, rules around sharing, rules around war.
The ancients realized that ritual and metaphor were praise-giving and respectful acts, but technology was extractive. Tools are the necessary evil. They help us live, to build, to grow, to thrive but they are always taking and never giving back. To redeem our tools from their pure extractive functionality, the ancients understood that tools too needed to be brought under a metaphoric umbrella. This is why we have rituals associated with our tools in this nation and in every other traditional nation. Thanks are given (e.g., Ayudha Puja) and permission taken (e.g., Bhoomi Puja) before any extractive activity. These rituals make us conscious that our being here is a miracle and is not something to be taken for granted.
Anthropologist Wade Davis talks about this phenomenon in Peoples of the Anaconda— “When men go into the forest to hunt or fish, it is never a trivial passage. First the shaman must travel in trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals, forging a mystical contract with the spirit guardians, an exchange based always on reciprocity. The Barasana compare it to marriage, for hunting too is a form of courtship, in which one seeks the blessings of a higher authority for the honour of taking into one’s family a precious being. Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world. To kill without permission is to risk death by a spirit guardian…All of these ideas and restrictions create, as anthropologist Kaj Århem has written,” (in typically reductivist Western fashion) “what is essentially a land management plan inspired by myth”.
A delicate balance between these three existential spheres has existed since the dawn of humanness. But slowly and inevitably, human technology grew in complexity.
It first began to ‘erase’ the Gods-made World. Our dependence and enslavement to geography was ended by dams, roads, ships, planes, cars, the telegraph, the telephone, the internet, hybrid seeds…. This was a process whose effects became very prominent during the rise of modern Europe…the rise of Man and the “conquest of Nature”. In our minds we were no longer one of God’s creations linked in a series of complex relationships with other creatures and processes, but we were now separate, alone.
With the conquest of the Gods-made World it became clear that the Gods themselves were next. Atheism gained traction (starting with Western Europe and then spreading through the world). We could take care of ourselves! We did not need a father! Concrete, nuclear power, modern medicine, JCBs, and now genetic modification all enable humans to perform acts that were previously in the realm of Godliness. In our minds we were no longer grateful for the miracle of Life, but we were now free to do as we wished to fulfill our desires.
The last erasure has been of the Man-made World. Technology and technology-generated-surplus has allowed us to literally replace other humans in our lives. We have no need for them anymore…family, community, tribe, all of this is passé. Each of us can help ourselves or pay a stranger to help us. Home appliances, entertainment, psychiatry, money, online banking, computers, social media, cloning…all of these tools lead only one way–to the end of the rituals that have defined us for centuries and millennia — marriage, childbirth, festivals, generosity, kindness, good manners, hospitability — all of these are in a state of dilution. Especially in urban areas, the Man-made World is today replaced by a Machine-made World,and we humans limit ourselves to the internal logic of these machines in the name of convenience.
What this brief history of the world shows us is that the precepts of Techno-Culture are factual. Technology does change us. It changes our culture. It changes everything. If this reductivist, crude, materialist vision of history is right, then that leads us directly to conclude that the claims of Trad-Culture are not a given and so the claims of Whatever-Culture could possibly be right. That is to say, if the stories and traditions of the ancients are merely artifacts of the technologies of their time then they no longer hold the sanctity that they once did. It also follows that the term “culture” is just a word. Nothing more, nothing less. We can do with it what we will. If I get enough people to chant “Ooba Gooba” then that becomes our culture. If I get enough people to dance my dance move, then I have created a culture, like K-Pop for instance. This particular post-modernist, anything goes, aspect of Whatever-Culture is now in full flow in society, aided by all types of social media apps. Culture is being decentralized, democratized, trivialized, individualized, and de-temporalized (cut off from the idea of continuity). Culture today, gone tomorrow. Culture has become fashion. And as technological change intensifies, so too will the fashion of culture riding on its back.
So then, who are we?
And here is the crux of the matter. We, as Hindus, have very deep answers to this question. Our ancients realized the perils of relativist thinking a long, long time ago. They fashioned an incredible metaphysics to deal with it. Brahman, Moksha, Rebirth, Karma, Dharma, Guna, Varna, Purushartha together created a frame of reference for ordinary humans that maximized meaning, identity (belonging), order, peace, prosperity, and well-being for all.
But today, that framework has been burned to the ground by Christians, Atheists, and reformist Hindus. They have done a damned good job of it. Even our very minds are no longer our own.
But, there is a small awakening happening. In a few short decades, many of us have come to realize that modern Techno-Culture and post-modern Whatever-Culture may be factual, but they are not true. At least deep in our Hindu hearts we know that these ways of thinking about our place in the Universe do not lend our lives Meaning.
And if you are still in doubt, ask yourself this: “Are we simply carbon-based, gadget consuming individuals whose sole raison-d’être is the maximization of pleasure?” Does this self-definition do us justice? Do we truly feel that we belong to this definition of self? Can we truly surrender to its implications? There are indeed some people out there who can– the druggies and sociopaths of the West, hooked on TV and chips if not violence and porn. But is that us…the children of the Noble Arya? The men who were made with Sacrifice as their middle name? The women who held fast to their Faith? Them whose blood sanctified this land? Whose Gods walked this land? Whose deeds are etched in stone in our temples for all time to come?
It is clear now, about who we are. The fog is lifted. And Arjuna speaks through us when we realize like he did –“By thy grace I remember my Light, and now gone is my delusion. My doubts are no more, my faith is firm; and now I can say ‘Thy will be done’.”
It does not matter — the Adharmic technologies of the West. It does not matter — the Adharmic ideals of the West. It does not matter — the temptations of the Mayic social structures of the West. We know where they all lead. Their words, their data, their facts, their lofty ideals all collapse under the weight of the crassness of their outcomes. Porn, drugs, divorce, depression, school shootings, supremacy, cruelty, loneliness, narcissism, inhospitality, selfishness… and above all ugliness! What, in the end, is the use of their worldviews? Techno-Culture and Whatever-Culture may be factual, but they are not true. They are certainly not true for us. Truth…that which leads us higher, that which lends meaning, that which fills our hearts with love, pride, and joy… that which leads us away from addictions… that which sets us free from desire, that and everything that points in that direction is true for us.
We have known that this relativist physical reality is Maya– since forever. The Western man is only just discovering this. Covid-19 (a product of Techno-Culture) and Cancel Culture (a product of Whatever-Culture) show us practically in this day and age that everything is relative, and that change is the only constant. Our inability to control the outcomes of both Techno-Culture and Whatever-Culture is bringing into sharp focus the limits of the Western world view’s ability to manage Reality itself. If the human relationship to Reality itself becomes unhinged, then social collapse is guaranteed. The confused Western man has embraced postmodern relativism as truth itself. He has embraced this relativist Maya as Reality itself. This is leading to his fall.Even before our eyes, in a mere one generation, the monster grown fat on the blood of the ancients will implode. Have no doubt.
Our ancients, foreseeing all this madness, never embraced the Maya of relativism. Instead, they put their minds and hearts into designing a metaphysics that would help us navigate this Maya but simultaneously lead us towards the Real. If we Hindus of today choose to continue to follow their example, if we continue to plant our eyes on that which is truly Real, the eternal and the unchangeable,the formless, unknowable One, who the ancients have called Brahman, Ishvara, Narayana, Nirguna Bhagawan, then from that fountain will continue to flow our culture. If we opt for the relativist Maya, we are lost.
That which helps us organize society in a way that leads to the Real is true. That is our culture, and it is a culture of the True. It is OK for our rituals and art and technology to evolve as long as they continue to point towards that which is True. And the best clues we have to determine what is true are provided by our traditions. And that is why we, as Hindus, must choose Trad-Culture. Our view of culture is traditional, and we must find a way in this modern world to carry forward the traditions, to consciously mediate their evolution, and not just simply dump them by the roadside. The traditions work, the traditions create Meaning, the traditions lend identity, the traditions create community, the traditions help us, if we are conscious, to maintain balance, harmony, and the well-being of all creatures in both this Gods-Made World as well as the Man-Made World. In the medium term, we have to figure out how to accumulate the power needed to defeat our Adharmic rivals while we continue to protect our traditions from erosion (a hard outer shell and soft inner core model).In the long term, anyway, it is guaranteed that Dharma will prevail. The unsustainable Techno-Culture and the relativist Whatever-Culture will implode within our children’s lifetimes. If the Indian state links its fate to the West, we will all go down with it. It is important that our communities fiercely protect their autonomy while we ride the coming storm.
To recover the True from the mess we have around us requires two things:
- To reaffirm our commitment to that which is True. We do this by re-familiarizing ourselves with our traditions and darshanas (knowing who we are) and re-connecting to our brothers and sisters (coming together). It is only after doing so that we can talk about the future…an authentic Hindu
- To interrogate our relationship with our tools. To set limits that will guarantee that never again will technology be allowed to takeover and dominate our conscious relationships with the Gods-Made World of Nature and the Man-Made World of Community. To make sure that it is we who use our tools and not our tools that use us for the fulfillment of their own internal logic.
Once we do these two things, Hindu cultural evolution will occur on our terms.
Shri Aurobindo put it succinctly:
“The whole root of difference between Indian and European culture springs from the spiritual aim of Indian civilisation. It is the turn which this aim imposes on all the rich and luxuriant variety of its forms and rhythms that gives to it its unique character.
For even what it has in common with other cultures gets from that turn a stamp of striking originality and solitary greatness. A spiritual aspiration was the governing force of this culture, its core of thought, its ruling passion. Not only did it make spirituality the highest aim of life, but it even tried, as far as that could be done in the past conditions of the human race, to turn the whole of life towards spirituality”.
We aim to bring everything — music, dance, sex, money, alcohol, ganja, work, family, violence, everything, under the rubric of reverence – to give every human activity a context where it is legitimized but controlled and directed towards a higher goal. Nothing is simply for its own sake. The quelling of the impulse to irreverence is one of our shining achievements. This merely requires the discipline of our ancestors. It is that which we have lost, and it is that and only that which will ensure our survival and eventual success.
The Liberal Atheist civilization has irreverence as one of its cornerstones. This feature itself is sufficient to qualify Western civilization as Adharmic. It will cannibalize itself within one generation if we stop supplying it with our best, brightest, and youngest.
Livemint (June 10, 2021) “Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra: Devotees entry banned, fully vaccinated servitors allowed”.
The Print (December 2, 2020). “NGT imposes total ban on crackers in NCR, other places with ‘poor’ or worse air quality”.
Wade Davis (2008), The Peoples of the Anaconda, in Book of Peoples of the World: A Guide to Cultures (Eds. Wade Davis, David Harrison, Catherine Herbert Howell). National Geographic.
Kisari Mohan Ganguli, The Mahabharata (translated, 12 volumes), 1991, “Maharishi Veda Vyas, Antiquity”. Coronet Books.
Sri Aurobindo (1923/1968). The Foundations of Indian Culture. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.