The Caste System: the Hindu’s Imaginary Achilles’ Heel 

George Augustine

02 Sep 2012

The BBC commemorated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible last year in a special edition of the TV programme “The Big Questions” debating just one topic: “Is the Bible Still Relevant?” The chief participants were, inter alia, the former Anglican bishop Michael James Nazir-Ali and biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulos. The debate can be watched here.  Though the debate was about Christians and the bible, replying to an assertion by bishop Nazir-Ali that people would be savages without the ten commandments, Ms. Stavrakopoulus mentioned that people of other religions also live a moral life, and that they don’t need a book for that.

No sooner had she spoken these words did Nazir-Ali, a Christian fundamentalist from Karachi who had to run away to England to escape the wrath of fellow Islamic fundamentalists back home, retorted: “Are you talking about Hindus and the caste system? … Have you ever lived as an untouchable in a Hindu society”. It was enough to shut up Ms. Stavrakopoulus, and the bishop looked triumphant, as if scoring a point against the Hindu was enough to salvage the gobbledygook that has become of his faith!

The mention of ‘caste system’ is enough to shut up even the most eloquent advocate of Hinduism. In a way, this response is reminiscent of the German guilt that becomes active the moment somebody utters the word, “Jew”. I’ve never understood why present-day German humanists should feel guilty of a crime committed by their forefathers motivated by Christian prejudice, of which they have had no part. And it is a wonder why the word “gypsy” never causes such an uncomfortable German response, though the Gypsies too have had a thick slice of the holocaust share.

The ‘caste system’ in India at its worst was caused by a social prejudice rather than a religious prejudice and I’ve yet to hear of the Brahmans sending anybody to the gas chamber, or even imprisoning them in a concentration camp. Still, the Hindu hangs his head in shame if you mention the ‘caste system’.

The ‘caste system’ is a naturally evolved social system that existed and still exists in all parts of the world in one form or another, though it was and is most evident in the Indian subcontinent. Caste is defined as “any group of people that combine some or all elements of endogamy, hereditary transmission of occupation, and status in a hierarchy” [1]. According to social scientists, it develops “when the worth difference within a society sharpens to such a point that the social superior shuns fellowship and intermarriage with the inferior, thus creating a society made up of closed hereditary classes” [2].

When caste relations become extreme and infringe upon human dignity and the fundamental freedom of the individual, that is the point when the caste system becomes bad or termed evil, viewed through the lens of the modern moral sensibility. On the other hand, the social organisation based on occupation makes business sense even today, and more so in ancient times when the family craft was not imparted in a polytechnic but in the household, and the teachers were your own parents from whom you learnt your trade. Every member of the family, male or female, was a capital in the trade and it made sense to marry a trained member of a family engaged in the same trade. It is a natural phenomenon and occurs overarching religion and ethnicity.

Caste is no monopoly of the Hindus, but then why are they held hostage by this notion? The obvious reason is that it is generally believed, even by Hindus, that the “caste system” as defined above is mandated by their religion and was therefore institutionalised. Let us examine the verity of this belief.

Bhagavad-Gita

The line chaturvarnyam maya srushtam guna karma vibhagasha / tasya kartaram api mam viddhy akartaram avyavam  is spoken by Krishna (Gita 4-13) and means “I created the four varnas according to quality, activities and aptitude; although the creator of this, know me as the non-doer being immutable” [3]. The four varnas or divisions of human order are brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and shudra and are not at all the ‘caste’ spoken of earlier, though out of ignorance many people misunderstand them merely as occupational or trade classes ordained by birth.

According to an authentic source [4], the Mahabharata of which Bhagavad-Gita is a part, was written by Maharishi Vyasa for the benefit of certain sections of society at a time when their circumstances did not allow them to pursue the study of the Vedas. Vyasa’s effort was to make available the essence of the Vedas to the less privileged, which would enable them to follow the path of dharma.

In the Gita, for this very reason, Vyasa’s Krishna assumes superhuman dimensions that reflect the vision of the supreme reality of the Vedas. In Vedanta philosophy, this phenomenal vision of brahman is generally known as saguna brahman, the brahman endowed with qualities. In Advaita Vedanta Isvara, or the creator of universes, of the Upanishads is a reflection of (nirguna) brahman (supreme reality without quality) in maya or the phenomenal world. Therefore, the dissociation of Krishna from the act of creation of the four varnas is consistent with Vedanta.

In the four Vedas, there is no account of an almighty “God” who created the universe and everything in it. The narrative of Mahabharata being designed for those who were ignorant of the Vedas, Krishna (characterising saguna brahman) means by his aforementioned utterance merely that the four varna system is a natural phenomenon. This is easy to understand when one considers gunas as the scientific basis of the four varnas as described in the Vishnupurana. [5]

The physiological and psychological traits of people are ruled by gunas or qualities like satva, rajas and tamas. People are disposed to the various combinations of these gunas for various reasons including genetic inheritance, diet and discipline and it is the dominance of a certain guna or a combination of gunas that predisposes a person to certain qualities that are suitable or unsuitable for a certain activity or a job. Thus a brahmana is predominantly ruled by satva guna, whereas a kshatriya has predominantly rajas. The vaisya has both rajas and tamas and the shudra is dominated by tamas. It is actually the guna that makes them what they are and not vice versa.

The balance or imbalance of these gunas can be influenced by diet and discipline [6] and as such indicates a biological fact. Therefore the maintenance of the guna balance can also be cultivated through breeding, for example, by inter-marrying from the same group which follow the same diet and discipline. And the ensuing progeny will be predisposed to possess the dominant guna of the parents and the community. This process can also lead to the formation of a ‘caste’ as defined earlier.

Thus, we see that there are biological, social and economical factors involved in the formation of ‘castes’ and were not created by Krishna or his author Vyasa. The Gita is only stating a natural phenomenon and not ‘caste’, which is a social development arising from many different factors.

Purusha Suktam

Another text that is often cited to stick the ‘caste’ on the Hindu’s forehead is stanza 13 of Purusha Suktam, which says the purusha’s mouth became the brahmana, his arms the kshatriya, his thigh the vysya and his legs shudra. For the blame game, that is to beat the Hindu with the ‘caste’ stick, one needs to pre-assign lower points in the social scale for purusha’s lower limbs to make up an unequal hierarchy. For example, if purusha was considered a tree, its leg (roots) cannot be judged inferior in any way to the top, fruit-bearing branches.

Written by Rishi Narayana, Purusha Suktam [7] is a lovely hymn and a beautiful poem that describes organic evolution leading to human consciousness in the metaphor of a Vedic yajna. The main subject of this poem is purusha, which term is almost always mistranslated into English as ‘God’, but the purusha is beyond all definitions of ‘God’ in the dictionary and have no resemblance whatever to the hero of the Christian bible. In a dispassionate analysis of the hymn, however, purusha comes through as the unifying basis of organic life.

The first stanza describes an entity that has multiplied and spread beyond the earth. This entity is organic, because it has eyes, head and feet, indicating perception, intelligence and movement. The second stanza confirms it by stating that this entity sustains its perpetuity and grows enormously by consuming food. Later, the purusha takes on a variety of forms (virat purusha). The devas (natural elements) then perform the yajna (sacrifice) sprinkling celestial waters on purusha after laying him on the darbha grass.

At the end of the yajna, various things emerge, among them animals of all sorts including domestic animals like horses, cows, goats and sheep as well as the four Vedas. After this, in the aforementioned 13th stanza, is described the evolution of human society, whereby the purusha’s body becomes a metaphor for the organic body of society, and the various parts of his body become each of the four varnas.

The 14th stanza describes perception through the senses. In the 20th stanza the level of cognition has evolved to such an extent that the Self (I) is identified with the purusha. In the 22nd stanza, the light that shines in all including the devas alike is identified with brahman, the supreme reality. Is there anything false or socially evil in the depiction of this aspect of reality?

Cultural Changes

There are various factors responsible for the distortion of concepts and meanings in the Hindu texts, among which I would name the dominance of the Judeo-Christian thought and sensibility among Hindus as the foremost. It has become a fashion among Hindus today to portray themselves as more irrational than they really are by competing to be like Judeo-Christians in their worship, which really is a superstitious myth. In their ignorance, many still think that they have to go beyond common sense and intelligence in order to be considered religious or moral. Nothing can be further from the truth.

There is a new trend in the Hindu ‘caste’ criticism, especially by Christian missionaries worldwide, by naming it a ‘racial discrimination’. The accusation is that the Aryan invaders of yore, who are called Brahmins, consider themselves a superior race and the Hindu ‘caste’ has been created on the basis of racial categories. This myth can be exploded by just one instance. The Brahmin ‘castes’ in India as a rule did not intermarry with another Brahmin ‘caste’ in another language area, just like they didn’t with any other ‘caste’ in their own language area. This wouldn’t have been the case if the Aryan race was a fact or indeed the cause of the ‘caste’. The Aryan invasion theory has been dismantled since long, but the idea is still utilised by Christian missionaries in South India and by Tamil politicians to good effect.

The real victims of modern ‘caste’ discrimination are termed “untouchables”. Most of these people were originally outside the ‘caste’ society because from time immemorial they inhabited remote geographical zones (such as forests), where they had complete autonomy over their land, culture and society. Though interactions between the different groups were minimal, they were regular and recognised and accepted by Hindu kings and all caste groups. However, the old system and traditions broke down after the establishment of colonial laws.

The numerous traditional festivals [8], which have almost become extinct today, involving these groups indicate points of interaction between these societies on equal terms. Most of the “untouchable” groups enjoyed their own geographical space, occupation, customs and rituals, which were not violated under all circumstances by tradition and were accepted by all communities and the local Raja.

The violation began when European colonialists started clearing forests and encroached upon the geographical areas of the so-called ‘untouchables’ to preach Christianity to the forest dwellers. The rabid increase in the Indian population in the last 50 years combined with the import of European morality also compelled these vulnerable groups to also lose their dignity, forcing them to forsake their own land and traditions and learn the new language and culture of the Europeanised plains to become a servile class.

The significant number of dignified personalities (Vyasa, Visvamitra, Parasurama, Dronacharya, etc.) in ancient Hindu history who changed their ‘caste’ occupation indicates that the alleged features of the modern-day Hindu ‘caste system’ marked by extreme rigidity and inequality evolved later on in history. Foreign invasion was a major factor that rigidified social strata. A new study [9] shows a direct link between colonial practices and policies to the development of social inequalities in India. No doubt lots remains to be done not only in India but all parts of the world to get rid of social discrimination based on ethnicity, occupation and religion. This discrimination is not a monopoly of the religious group known as Hindus.

Notes

[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste

[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste#Theories_on_caste_formation

[3] http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-04-13.html

[4] Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto I, chapter 4, verse 25. See http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Articles/vyasa.html

[5] See Pandharinath H. Prabhu, Hindu Social Organisation, A Study of the Socio-Psychological and Ideological Foundations, in the chapter “Four Varnas” (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 2010) pp. 319-320. See in Google Books.

[6] For more details, consult a learned ayurvedic physician or Hindu acharya.

[7] See the ‘Simple English’ translation by Sri Kotikanyadanam Sreekrishna Tatachar: http://srivaishnavam.com/stotras/ps_meaning.htm

[8] The Mannarkadu Pooram in Palakad District, Kerala, which took place for the last time in 1972, was the last of such festivals to have disappeared in India. It was a joint festival of the Attapady tribes and the people of the plains, which was a traditional venue for goods and cultural exchange.

[9] See Arvind Kumar, How British socialism created poverty and caste inequality: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column_how-british-socialism-created-poverty-and-caste-inequality_1727277

 The author is a professional translator

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1. Reviving caste-ism, dividing Hindus

2. How and why British created the modern Indian caste system

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Physicist, Nobel Laureate:  When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.

W. Heisenberg (1901-1976), German Physicist and Nobel Laureate: After the conversations about Indian philosophy, some of the ideas of Quantum Physics that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense.

Dick Teresi, American author of ‘Lost Discoveries’: ….Some one thousand years before Aristotle, the Vedic Aryans asserted that the earth was round and circled the sun….Two thousand years before Pythagoras, philosophers in northern India had understood that gravitation held the solar system together, and that therefore the sun, the most massive object, had to be at its center….Twenty-four centuries before Isaac Newton, the Hindu Rig-Veda asserted that gravitation held the universe together….. The Sanskrit speaking Aryans subscribed to the idea of a spherical earth in an era when the Greeks believed in a flat one…..The Indians of the fifth century A.D. calculated the age of the earth as 4.3 billion years; scientists in 19th century England were convinced it was 100 million years…

 

Are Eastern Religions More Science-Friendly?

 

Philip Goldberg

Interfaith minister; author of the forthcoming book ‘American Veda’

 

Religion comes into conflict with science when it is defined by unprovable claims that can be dismissed as superstitions, and when it treats as historical facts stories that read like legends and myths to non-believers. Other aspects of religion — what I would consider the deeper and more significant elements — are not only compatible with science but enrich its findings. The best evidence of this is science’s response to the religions of the East over the course of the last 200 years. As the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland said early in the 20th century, “Religious faith in the case of the Hindus has never been allowed to run counter to scientific laws.” The same can be said for Buddhism, which derives from the same Vedic roots.

Most of the Hindu gurus, Yoga masters, Buddhist monks and other Asian teachers who came to the West framed their traditions in a science-friendly way. Emphasizing the experiential dimension of spirituality, with its demonstrable influence on individual lives, they presented their teachings as a science of consciousness with a theoretical component and a set of practical applications for applying and testing those theories. Most of the teachers were educated in both their own traditions and the Western canon; they respected science, had actively studied it, and dialogued with Western scientists, many of whom were inspired to study Eastern concepts for both personal and professional reasons.

As early as the 1890s, Swami Vivekananda spent time with scientific luminaries such as Lord Kelvin, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Nikola Tesla. “Mr. Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy,” the swami wrote in a letter to a friend. “I am working a good deal now upon the cosmology and eschatology of Vedanta. I clearly see their perfect unison with modern science.” Had Vivekananda lived three years longer, he would have rejoiced in Einstein’s discovery of E = mc2, which united matter and energy forever.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the great sage and Indian independence leader Sri Aurobindo, who had studied in England, blended East and West by extending Darwinian concepts to the evolution of consciousness and the cosmos. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda set a precedent by calling his first lecture in the West “The Science of Religion.” He befriended a number of scientists, growing so close to the great botanist Luther Burbank that he dedicated his Autobiography of a Yogi to him. Later, Swami Satchidananda, whose own teacher, Swami Sivananda, had been a successful physician before becoming a monk, encouraged the scientific study of Yoga; one of his early students was Dr. Dean Ornish, whose groundbreaking research sprang directly from Satchidananda’s teachings. And Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, even before he became famous as the Beatles’ guru, prodded scientists into studying the physiology of meditation, setting in motion an enterprise that has now produced over a thousand studies.

The interaction of Eastern spirituality and Western science has expanded methods of stress reduction, treatment of chronic disease, psychotherapy and other areas. But that is only part of the story. Hindu and Buddhist descriptions of higher stages of consciousness have expanded psychology’s understanding of human development and inspired the formation of provocative new theories of consciousness itself. Their ancient philosophies have also influenced physicists, among them Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who read from the Bhagavad Gita at a memorial service for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his landmark TV series Cosmos, Carl Sagan called Hinduism the only religion whose time-scale for the universe matches the billions of years documented by modern science. Sagan filmed that segment in a Hindu temple featuring a statue of the god Shiva as the cosmic dancer, an image that now stands in the plaza of the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

The relationship between science and Eastern spiritual traditions — which many prefer to think of as psychologies — is still in its infancy. In recent years, the Dalai Lama has carried the ball forward, hosting conferences and encouraging research. Western religions would do well to emulate this history. Their historical and faith-based claims conflict with empirical science and probably always will; but to the extent that their practices directly impact human life, they can be treated as testable hypotheses.

Caste based Census—A Conspiracy to destroy Hindu Society

 

Sadhu Prof. V. Rangarajan

About six crore of devotees from more than 140 countries speaking 56 languages visited Haridwar and took a dip in the holy Ganga during the period of the Kumbha Mela which concluded recently. They have all one and only identity—they are Hindus—children of Mother Bharat and those who adore this Holy Land as the land of their forefathers, the land of their hoary spiritual culture and heritage, the land of their salvation. When this ocean of humanity immersed itself into the surging waves of River Ganga, rubbing shoulders to each other, none of them did ask the question what was the caste of the one standing next to him or her in the cool waters of Mother Ganga, the Ganga maiya for all of them. When millions congregated in the dining halls spread out on the river bank by hundreds of religious and spiritual organizations to provide food for the pilgrims from far and wide, none in the gathering asked the question who was sitting next to him and partaking the food so lovingly served by their own Hindu brethren.

A few months earlier, there was a congregation of three million mothers lighting ovens in front of the Attukal Bhagavati temple near Tiruvanandapuram, to offer ‘Pongala’—sweet rice pudding prepared with milk and jaggery—to the Divine Mother. All the roads surrounding the temple town were blocked to enable the mothers to set up their ovens to prepare the Prasad for the Mother of all. The Guinness Book of Records called it the greatest congregation of women in the world. The mothers who stood in line to prepare the food for the Mother did not care to know to which caste the women standing next to them belonged. For all of them, She was the Only Mother and all were Her children.

Millions throng from all parts of the country and abroad to the renowned temples in India, whether Rameshwaram, Tirupati, or Kollur in the South or Kashi, Kedarnath, Badrinath or Vaishnodevi in the North. In last March, about 1 lakh devotees had Darshan of Tirupati Balaji on a single day. The pilgrims stand in long cues for hours together to have Darshan of their beloved Deity or to share the Prasad in the temple dining halls. None bothers about the caste of others standing or sitting by their side. In the schools, colleges, universities, market places, theatres and cinema halls, in the hotels and restaurants, in trains and buses, millions of people sit side by side, but no one has ever asked the caste of another sitting by his side. In crowded cities and towns, in flats and residential colonies, people of all castes and creeds live together.

Then where is caste?

Caste has never existed in the remote past nor does it exist today. The Vedas nowhere speak about caste system. Manu emphatically declares, “Janmanaa jaayate shoodrah, samskaarena dwijah”—all men are born as Shudras—unrefined—and by samskaara—refinement, one becomes a dwijah­—twice born, i.e., one among the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.

The classification of the four Varnas is not based on birth. Krishna says very clearly in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita—“Chaaturvarnyam mayaa srishtham, guna karma vibhaagashah”—”I have created the four Varnas on the basis of quality and temperament”.

Veda Vyasa was the son of Sage Parasara and born in the womb of a fisherwoman, but he became the Guru of all Gurus and compiler of the Vedas by virtue of his inclination and actions.

Satyakama Jabali was son of a woman who was serving many masters and therefore he could not know who his father was. His guru Haridrumata Gautama accepted him as a Brahmana because he spoke truth, and speaking truth was the noblest quality of Brahmana, and he became a great Upanishadic seer.

Narada was the son of a servant maid.

Ravana, though born as the son of a Brahmana, descended to the level of Rakshasa whereas his brother Vibhishana rose to become adored as an Alwar saint—a saint of the Vaishnava order.

There were anuloma and pratiloma marriages among the Hindus, one of the higher Varna marrying a girl from the lower Varna and vice versa, respectively.
 
The classification of the four Varnas mentioned in the Purusha Sookta, as rightly pointed out by Sri Guruji Golwalkar in the “Bunch of Thoughts”, speaks about the Raashthra Purusha.

The men in whom wisdom is predominant and who are inclined to spiritual life are the spokespersons of the Jnaanabhoomi, Karmabhoomi, Mokshabhoomi Bharat. Vasishtha, Viswamitra, Gautama and other rishis of highest enlightenment guided kings and emperors like Dasaratha and Janaka.

Men in whom the emotion, prowess—strength of the shoulder–, patriotism and the qualities of a warrior are predominant, become the protectors of the nation and society.

Men in whom entrepreneurial skill is predominant become Vaishyas or traders.

The common run, whose interest and inclination are to do casual work and eke out a living are Shudras.

All the four Varnas are various limbs of the Rashtra Purusha.  Nowhere it is said that one cannot move from one Varna to another.

Karna, who was considered as a charioteer’s son and was not accepted as Kshatriya, was appointed as King of Angadesha and elevated to the position of Kshatriya by Duryodhana.

Vishwamitra, who was a Rajarishi, was elevated to the position of Brahma Rishi and was accepted by Vasishtha.

Veetahavya, who was also a Kshatriya, became a Brahmana.

Valmiki, a hunter and dacoit by profession turned into the highest Brahmana of the land who gave us the Ramayana.

Parasurama and Dronacharya, though Brahmanas by birth, wielded weapons and chose to serve as Kshatriyas.

This classification on the basis of Varna gave strength to the Hindu society in most ancient times. When many civilizations and societies all over the world which arose in the later days crumbled because of their conflict with outside forces, Bharat withstood the invasions by Shakas, Hunas and Greeks and even absorbed many of them into the mainstream of Hindu race.

However, the rigidity of the Varna distinctions which later came to be called as casteism arose when society advanced with many professional groups coming into existence and intermarriages created many new castes and sub-castes.

In the historical period, reform movements like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism cleansed the Hindu society of the disintegrating caste system and movements like those of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Maharashtriyan saints like Ramdas, Tukaram and Eknath, the saints of South India like the Alwars and Nayanmars, Sri Ramanuja, Saint Ramalinga and Sree Narayana Guru fought against the distinction between castes as higher and lower.

 Swami Vivekananda, the greatest reformer and patriot monk of modern India, points out: “We believe in Indian caste as one of the greatest social institutions that the Lord gave to man. We also believe that though the unavoidable defects, foreign persecutions, and above all, the monumental ignorance and pride of many brahmanas who do not deserve the name, have thwarted in many ways, the legitimate fructification of the most glorious Indian institution, it has already worked wonders for the land of Bharat and is destined to lead Indian humanity to its goal.”

During India’s freedom struggle, many great Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Lokamanya Tilak and Veer Savarkar strove to break the barriers between different castes and integrate the entire Hindu society. Mahakavi Bharati, the poet-patriot of the South sang: “Jaatikal etume illayadi paappaa, kulat taazchi uyarchi sollal paapam”—“There are no castes, it is sin to speak of higher and lower births.”
Swami Harshananda rightly points out: “There is no gainsaying the fact that during the last 150 years, there has been a true decline of the true spirit behind the caste system. It has been much more pronounced during the 50 years after our political independence.”The British colonialists made the best use of the caste distinctions among the Hindus to divide and disintegrate the nation to keep the country as a part of their empire and the Christian evangelists converted the poor and downtrodden Hindus into their religion to perpetuate the white man’s rule over this nation.

 

Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, who founded of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925, had a deep foresight and he realized that unless and until the entire Hindu society from Kashmir to Kanyakumari stood as one man, wiping out all distinctions based on caste, colour and language, Bharatavarsha could not rise up once again as Hindu Nation and he launched the movement to integrate the entire Hindu society under one banner and with a fiery ideal of adoration of Motherland and elevating Mother Bharat once again as the Loka Guru.

In 1934, a winter camp of the Sangh took place in Sevagram at Wardha. One thousand five hundred Swayamsevaks participated in the camp which took place in an open ground near the Ashram where Gandhiji was staying. Seeing the disciplined manner in which the programme of activities of the Sangh were conducted, Gandhiji expressed his desire to visit the camp. As soon as the information reached the Sanghchalak, Sri Appaji Joshi, through Mahadeva Desai, Gandhiji was invited to the camp. On 25th December 1934, in the early morning, Gandhiji visited the camp and spent one and half hours with the Swayamsevaks. He was deeply impressed by their character, discipline and above all the unity which crossed all the barriers of caste and creed. He visited the camp hospital and the dining hall and when he found that the Swayamsevaks did not even care to know each other’s caste and lived like members of one family, he expressed his desire to meet the person who had built up this organization. Next morning, when Dr. Hedgewar visited the camp to participate in the concluding function of the camp, the information was conveyed to him and he accordingly called on Gandhiji in the night. Gandhiji spent an hour with Dr. Hedgewar discussing about the Sangh work. Gandhiji was amazed to find that what he was striving to do though his incessant propaganda, i.e., removing the blot of untouchability, was already achieved by Dr. Hedgewar through his Sangh Shakas.

After the attainment of Independence, it was expected that the distinctions in the name of caste will be totally wiped out, but the Europeanized politicians who came to power after the British left the shores of this land found a duck that lays the golden eggs in the caste system and realized that as long as they perpetuate the caste distinctions among the Hindus, it will be easy to create vote banks which will help them keep themselves in power perpetually. Therefore they have divided the parliamentary and assembly constituencies in such a way that one or the other caste is predominant there and by appeasing the caste leaders, they could create vote banks. Reservations in jobs, admission to educational institutions and even electing the peoples’ representatives on the basis of caste were found to be easy means to catch votes to remain in power. Today, even those who got converted to Christianity and Islam from Hinduism, apparently protesting against casteism in Hindu society, want to claim the rights given to Scheduled Castes and Tribes among the Hindus. It is those who want to deliberately keep the Hindu society divided for their nefarious political purposes that go on raising the charge that casteism is part of Hinduism.

The cunning politician today wants to perpetuate the disintegration and disunity among the Hindus by promoting census on the basis of castes. The foreign Christian missionary and evangelical organizations, who have a hold on the Government of India through a Christian leader of foreign origin controlling the ruling party, find an opportunity to fix their targets for large scale conversion through the caste based census which will disintegrate the Hindus.

The so called secular politicians of the country who have betrayed the Hindu society for the sake of power and have always been anti-Hindu, find this caste-based census as an opportunity to keep the Hindus ever divided so that no Hindu nationalist party would ever come to power. “The counting of castes in the ongoing census will weaken the efforts of social harmony and Rashtriya Ekatmata (national integration) being pushed by various organizations and people in the country. It will also ruin the dream of creating a casteless society as was emancipated by many great personalities like Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and others.

The RSS has been working since beginning for the unity of the whole Hindu society irrespective of castes,” said RSS Sarkaryavah Shri Bhaiyaji Joshi, while talking to the media persons at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, recently. Why is this caste-based census directed against the Hindus only? Among the Christians, there are so many castes like Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans and Syrians. Among the Muslims, there are Pathans, Labbais, Shias, Sunnis and Ahamadiyas. Will the caste-based senses take the head-count of all these groups? Caste-based census is a conspiracy of anti-Hindu politicians, Christian evangelists and Muslim fundamentalists to destroy Hinduism.

Patriotic Indian citizens, irrespective of caste, creed or linguistic differences, should oppose this caste-based census tooth and nail. In countries where Hindus are settled in large numbers, the caste distinctions are almost non-existent. Even in India, only in some remote village areas, these distinctions are prevalent, that too because of ignorance and because of the patronage of politicians who want to create vote banks in the name of caste.

The Sindhis, who are the descendants of the Vedic Rishis who built up the Hindu civilization on the banks of River Sindh, do not have any caste distinctions among them. The day casteism will be totally wiped out of India is not far. Why harp upon it again and again? Let us make positive efforts to remove the blot of Casteism that has crept into Hindu society as a virus infecting the whole body.

The Rishis addressed the whole of humanity as “Amritasya putraah”—Children of Immortality and called the whole world as one family, “Vasudaiva kutumbhakam”. They proclaimed a ‘Maanava Dharma’—Religion of Man— that is ‘Vishwa Dharma’—Religion of the World—which is the ‘Sanaatan Dharma’—the Eternal Religion.

They have entrusted to the children of Mother Bharat and their descendants the task of spreading in the entire world man-making and universal values of life. Let us fulfil the hopes and aspirations of our forefathers. We could achieve this mission only when we do away with all distinctions in the name of caste.

Let us declare ourselves as Hindus first and Hindus last and refuse to identify ourselves with any caste when the officials come to take the census.

Let us boldly declare that we have no castes and WE ARE HINDUS, WE ARE BHARATIYAS.

Vishwa Dharma ki Jai! Bharatamata ki Jai! Vande Mataram! 

Wendy Doniger denigrates Hindus once again

 

Arindam Bandyopadhyay.

  

The latest book of Wendy Doniger, the portrayed western expert of Hinduism, lecturer and author of many books and articles, and a leader with many followers including a stream of PhDs,  The Hindus – An Alternative History, (THAAH) has been on the news in recent times, earning praise and condemnation, alike from relevant circles. However a lot of Hindus, of whom, she intended to narrate an alternative history, are not quite impressed by her efforts. Many believe that the book is a false representation of Hindus and would perpetuate the demeaning representation of Hinduism that prevails in western beliefs and literature. Some have already expressed their resent in various forms including letters, articles and even protest marches.

The book which was considered by New York Times for the National Book Critics Award in the nonfictional category, thankfully, failed to make it.

Wendy Doniger’s homepage at the University of Chicago Divinity School website clearly states that, “Wendy Doniger’s research and teaching interests revolve around two basic areas, Hinduism and mythology. Her courses in mythology address themes in cross-cultural expanses, such as death, dreams, evil, horses, sex, and women; her courses in Hinduism cover a broad spectrum that, in addition to mythology, considers literature, law, gender, and psychology”.

Her Oxford dissertation was “The Origins of Heresy in Hindu Mythology.”

Some of her other works includes, Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva; The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology; Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts and Tales of Sex and Violence: Folklore, Sacrifice, and Danger in the Jaiminiya Brahmana.

The titles of her books confirm that she likes to play with Hindu sentiments with a sort of perverted, demeaning, sexual titillation.

She claims she loves Hinduism but she is not a practicing Hindu. It is quite obvious that there is a particular aspect of Hinduism that she is more interested to explore and has spent her whole career building on it.

The aspects of Vedic knowledge and wisdom, spirituality and philosophy; cosmology and astronomy; contributions to science, medicine and mathematics; literature, music and arts does not find much place in her depiction of Hinduism, unlike other scholars who had better understood and acknowledged India and Hinduism. For example, William James (1842-1910), American psychologist and philosopher, had commented, “From the Vedas we learn a practical art of surgery, medicine, music, house building under which mechanized art is included. They are encyclopedia of every aspect of life, culture, religion, science, ethics, law, cosmology and meteorology.”

According to Wendy Doniger however, “Intoxication, though not addiction, is a central theme of the Veda, since the sacrificial offering of the hallucinogenic juice of the soma plant was an element of several important Vedic rituals.” (THAAH, Chapter 5, P 122, line 1)

The statement as well as its reasoning is amusing but not when one feels that this is what a so-called authority has to say about the Vedas. It seems nothing but a deliberate malicious statement. It is distasteful and disgusting to even attempt to counter such an argument. 

It is true that the understanding of Hindu scriptures depends on one’s level of understanding. A skeptic’s interpretation is not expected to be the same as that of a faithful one. A common man’s understanding would be quite different from that of the revelation of an enlightened yogi.

In Chapter 1 of her book, Doniger wrote quite at length to answer her own question as to who is a Hindu. It is worth remembering that the French philosopher and writer, Alain Danielou (1907-1994) had once said, “I believe any sensible man is unknowingly a Hindu…”

One can argue that, “He, who believes he is a Hindu, is a Hindu”. Unlike other major religions of the world, Hinduism is spontaneous – no compulsion, no allurement, no proselytizing, no soul harvesting. Hindus accept and embrace different paths that lead to dharma, truth and righteousness. There is no dogmatic book or prophet; there is no collective council of religious leaders trying to separate convenient distillate of truth from uncomfortable mixtures of facts, deceptions and arguments. The followers of Hinduism, one of the most ancient religions of the world, do not protest with mass violence or do not issue fatwas. They have no problems in tolerating other religions but expect reciprocal respect for their own.

There are many histories of Hindus that have been written and many translations of scriptural texts that have been made. Scholars have made various interpretations of these original and translated versions to further elaborate their ideas.

Unfortunately, topics of Hindu’s and Indian history that had preoccupied most of such scholars were the desire to minimize the glory and worldwide significance of Indian civilization, the perceived conquest of India by the so called Aryans and other variations of the Aryan invasion theories, polytheism, idol worshipping, brahmanical tyranny and casteism, sati and women oppression and of course eroticism including Kama Sutra, Shiva Lingam and the naked demonic goddess, Kali, to name a few.

Wendy Doniger does not deviate much from this common theme but tries to make it appear more scholarly with her ‘academic’ touch. Her interpretation and representations of Hinduism, based on speculations and research of questionable websites and equally dubious books, written often by debatable personalities, some of them being her own students, is skewed and far away from what true Hinduism, as perceived by other eminent scholars and intellectuals, Hindu or non-Hindu, is.

A century ago, Louis Francois Jacolliot (1837-1890), French diplomat & author, had said, “India of the Vedas entertained a respect for women amounting to worship; a fact which we seem little to suspect in Europe when we accuse the extreme East of having denied the dignity of woman, and of having only made her an instrument of pleasure and of passive obedience…  What! Here is a civilization, which you cannot deny to be older than your own, which places the woman on a level with the man and gives her an equal place in the family and in society.”

Doniger, of course, does not agree with that.

In the preface of her book, THAAH, (page 1), she introduces, “It tells a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people – people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or genders (women). Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition – women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables) – did actually contribute to Hinduism.”

This narration says it all.

She straightaway starts with caste, fancifully divides Hindus into conventional and alternative, paints the ‘High caste Hindu males’ as conventional (villains?), lumps everybody else as alternative, including other religions too and in the process equates animals with women, claims they were silenced and not allowed to contribute but then refutes her own claim by projecting her agenda to show us how they did contribute.

One would like to ask her whether the contribution of the alternative group is in her imagination alone. For if there is a true contribution then the very basis for her imaginary division into conventional and alternative people falls apart.

True, she is absolutely entitled to make her choice but what she forgets is that, as a non-Hindu, she is dissecting the faiths and believes of the followers of the world’s third largest religious group of over 900 million people, belonging to one of the ancient religion that has been around for 10000 years.

She first describes most stories as mythological but then tries to look at their aberrations and presents and interprets them as truth, an effort that is contradictory by itself. Then she interweaves them into history, society and religiosity of Hindus with clear intent of denigration.

Like most of her predecessors, a large part of the book deals with eroticism and sexuality as well as character assassination of important figures in Hindu scriptures and history. Sex is not a taboo in Hindu literature. But even when a ‘scholarly mind’ tries to use sex and the limited tool of Freudian psychoanalysis, (itself a controversial theory with many opponents) as the main means of interpreting life, including spirituality of the whole human race, across ages and cultures, it is not surprising that it will incur mistakes and misrepresentations.

It is difficult for a believer in Hinduism to keep on reading the book without feeling repulsed on every page. One can possibly go on and on to enlist its numerous misrepresentations, its deviations from the truth, its biased presentation and its sensationalized story-telling but it becomes a futile exercise.

Besides, even a cursory reading reveals casual and factual mistakes mentioned in the book, such as,

a)    Chapter 16, page 456, Line 10 mentions Mt. Abu in Gujarat when actually it is in Rajasthan.

b)    The elixir of immortality from churning the ocean of milk, as mentioned in chapter 17, Page 470, Line 23, was not Soma, but Amrit

Coming from a perceived authority, it is not only disturbing but it raises serious questions of the motive of such ‘scholarly’ writings.

Wendy Doniger claims her training is not as a historian (THAAH, Chapter 1, P 3, line 20) but she writes an ‘alternative’ history. Neither is she an archeologist but she does dig into the Hindu history, culture and religion to explore filth.

 One can only request her to leave the Hindus alone.  Hindus are happy with their traditional view; they do not want to appreciate such biased alternative history and explanations.  She should feel fortunate that she got away with such cheap and derogatory remarks about a religion followed by over billion people and did not feel the wrath that the Danish Cartoonist or Salman Rushdie are facing today.

Also read

Hinduism and Zionism

AVATAR is an interesting, politically incorrect movie, acknowledging the age old Vedic traditions, wisdom and philosophy. The similarities with Vedic / Hindu concept, starting from the name itself was striking throughout the movie. A refreshing change from the usual pattern of negative depiction by the west, of Indic history and Hindu / Vedic culture and traditions.

A nice write-up too.

 

Cameron’s Avatar: The emerging zeitgeist?       

Come Carpentier de Gourdon

10 Jan 2010

 

Every now and then, a book, a play, or film, marks a watershed in the landscape of culture when it represents most eloquently a growing and world-changing (or “epoch making” as Marxists used to say) awareness.

James Cameron’s Avatar may well be one of those symbolic milestones. As the hitherto most sophisticated result of the technologies of virtual reality and computerized design, it takes place in an already long line of wondrous special effects extravaganzas which include George Lucas’ Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters, Cameron’s own Terminator and sequels, the Harry Potter series, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and so many others.

Yet, the message of Avatar synthesizes some of the most powerful calls that mankind is hearing nowadays: the appeal for a new communion with nature on the cosmic scale, the yearning for disclosure about the reality of other life forms from outside our planet, and the eternal nostalgia for legends and mythology which formed civilization from its origins.

Cameron situates himself in the sphere of mythology when he creates his heroic saga on the imaginary planet Pandora -“all gifts” in Greek, but also the name of the Goddess (Mohini) who brought them to Prometheus. The name hints at the pantheistic worldview that prevails on it and that the author advocates – inhabited by the peaceful and empathic Na’vi, cat-like, slender, blue-skinned humanoids who live in symbiotic communion with the magnificent but dangerous ecosystem of a primeval forest.

It is this ecstatic communion that the film’s hero, a paraplegic former Marine called Jake Sully, sent by the RDA corporation to help explore Pandora through the bio-engineered Avatar created for his late brother, learns from them and gradually becomes one of them. Though the story is set in 2154, Cameron seems to assume that little will change in America or on Earth by then. Our planet has been presumably turned into a biological wasteland by our industry, the economy is still in very bad shape, the US is still fighting wars in many poor and hostile lands on behalf of giant corporations dedicated to exploiting natural resources, but wounded US soldiers are still neglected and financially unable to undergo reconstructive surgery for the injuries incurred in the line of duty.

The contrast between the penniless, paralyzed and depressive discarded mercenary of the earth’s richest nation and the boundlessly free and luminous Na’vi is one of the many ontological antitheses presented in the film.

In building Pandora’s fictional world, the author borrows from the legends and traditions of many “primitive” cultures, as most myth-makers have from the dawn of humanity, to create monuments as diverse as the Book of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, the Iliad and Beowulf or Cuchulain. The Na’vi remind us of all bow and arrow wielding tribal peoples of warm climes, but they particularly evoke images of the blue-green divine heroes of ancient India, Rama and Krishna, whose wisdom and omniscience reflected their profound union with the Cosmic Whole which Cameron calls Eywa, the universal mother who embraces and comprises all creation, according to a concept embedded in Tantric philosophy.

Those people of the Pandoran forest will also remind people familiar with Indic culture, from Mongolia to Indonesia, of the Monkey people or Vanaras met by Rama and his companions in the deep woods of Central India, and who became his allies under the leadership of their king Sugriva and their champion Hanuman. However, the alien people created by Cameron are not modelled on a single historic or mythical race, but are inspired by many diverse shamanistic and pantheistic cultures.

The fact that in order to roam on Pandora freely and meet the Na’vi on their own terms, humans have to go into a state of conscious dream through the medium of a biological Avatar identical to the natives (contrary to the homonymous Internet creation, Cameron’s Avatar, like its Indic archetype is physical and alive) reminds us of the Dreamtime described by Australian aborigines or of the parallel worlds evoked by South American tribals and to which one can accede in sleep, with the help of hallucinogenic drugs such as the Ayahuasca just as Vedic Hindus and Avestan Iranians used the Soma or Haoma plant.

Like the Vedic peoples, but also like many other ancient races on all continents, the Na’vi are said to go through a ritual process of second birth (samsrkt dvija) which ushers them in as full members of the social and universal community of life and soul.

The metaphysical question raised by the cosmology of the Invisible has occupied much of Buddhist and Hindu thought over millennia since there is reason to question the “rational” assumption that only the facts experienced in our waking state are real. Many ancient religious systems relied on the opposite conclusion, which the Spanish writer Calderon de la Barca expressed in five words: “La vida es un sueno”: life is a dream! Other traditions teach that the other worlds we sometimes visit in trance or sleep are as material and actual as our sphere of familiar awareness.

Until we accept and integrate fully the parallel universes that we can visit only in the various subtle and psychic dimensions of our selves, we are doomed to living tragic lives in blindness and “quiet desperation”. For the Na’vi, becoming aware of this transcendent reality is “seeing” the truth of another person’s being. The reference to the symbolism of darsana in Indian psychology and philosophy is transparent.

Avatar dares to proclaim defiantly what many people in the West, and especially in the USA, are still afraid to admit. Cameron squarely points to the American military forces and the associated “private security companies” as the major agents in today’s world of uncontrolled corporate greed in all its brutal destructiveness. The film builds towards a cathartic massacre of the Pentagon’s robotic mercenaries and the utter annihilation (history repeats itself many a time!) of its space age war machine, personified by a Colonel whose face and gait mirror those of the many warlords who regularly appear in the news, from Odierno and Petraeus to McChrystal, just as his corporate army represents Blackwater, Triple Canopy and other such outfits created to privatise war and occupation. The polar opposition between the gracefulness of the native people of the Planet Pandora, the luminous and willowy Na’vi and the mechanical ugliness of the human killing machines is as striking as it is expected to be in a myth which is made up of allegories and signs.

The humanoid natives of Pandora look more than a bit like some of the Aliens described by several witnesses from the 1947 Roswell incident until recent times. Their four-fingered hands seem modelled after the tetradactyle extremities that at least some of the Greys or Zetas are reported to have. Such evocations are hardly surprising in ET-aware Hollywood, all the more from a director who authored the film Aliens in 1986.

The sort of  intuitive intelligence that the Na’vi demonstrate in their collective, beehive-like harmony, reminded me of a striking observation made by Whitley Strieber once about the “visitors” who have appeared to him at various occasions in his life: “animals far more intelligent than us”. The Na’vi’s fusional connection with the horse-like quadruped and the flying dragons they ride – as the bluish God Vishnu flies on the giant bird Garuda – through the merger of the tips of their respective capillary appendices is at once technologically inspired (fiber-optics and hints of David Cronenberg’s Existenz) and related to the Indian and Chinese belief that the brain is rooted in the cosmic oversoul through the pituitary seventh cakra at the crown of the head and also through the Kundalini coiled at the base of the spine as a vestigial tail.

As the polar opposite those fluid, intuitive lifeforms, Colonel Miles Quaritch, commander of the Company’s private army, the SecFor, is a mixture of Nietzsche’s “beast” and of a ruthless, calculating and emotionally deaf and dumb weapon of mass destruction. He uses the well worn Pentagon jargon which has become so recognizable during the last decade of “pre-emptive” wars: “killing the hostiles”, “minimizing casualties”, “winning hearts and minds”. He is unquestioningly committed to carrying out his mission, which is to allow “free market access” to the corporation to extract the precious mineral Unobtainium (a metaphor for oil or any other coveted mineral) from Pandora’s soil, and he regards all unfamiliar lifeforms as dangerous nuisances that must be “domesticated” or eliminated at any cost if and when they cannot be simply ignored.

That very attitude is made manifest in the policies enforced by the US and many other governments which consist in systematically ignoring and denying the presence of “Alien” life, especially that which strikes us as being far more evolutionarily advanced than our own. Those who are minimally aware of the Ufological reality realize that Cameron, like most in Hollywood, is not duped by the current political-scientific-military consensus and is making in his film an appeal for disclosure.

Quaritch reports to a wimpish, self-absorbed and infantile corporate boss of RDA, Parker Selfridge – a George W Bush to Quaritch’s Cheney or Rumsfeld – and they both have a conflictual rapport with the scientist, Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, who serves the operatives of the military-industrial complex in her research on Pandora in spite of her moral reservations. Yet, they finance her work so that she needs them to carry out her investigations. The ambiguous role of scientists as handmaidens of their corporate paymasters (somewhat like the missionaries of the colonial ages) is illustrated quite tellingly.

Another parallel is drawn between the wondrously strange and intensely alive but somewhat ethereal world of Pandora and the high tech, ugly and depressing artificial habitat in which the earthly invaders are imprisoned. Where is reality? In the scientifically controlled, drably military environment of the occupiers (where the only entertainment available is the mini-golf used by the corporate boss) or in the fantastic wilderness of Pandora, inaccessible to humans outside their heavily insulated and armoured aircraft and “exoskeletons” (dubbed AMP for “Amplified Motion Platforms”).

The reference to the US bases set up in many countries and thoroughly cut off from the outside world, making the American soldiers and administrators the real aliens for the rest of mankind, is obvious, and the Na’vi are virtual icons of all the native peoples subjugated and massacred by colonizers, from the Aztecs, Incas and Patagonians to the Bantus, the Red Indians, and the aboriginal Australians.

The analogy with the Vietnamese, Iraqis or Afghans is not so transparent because those martyred people are not “pristine” children of Nature, though the attitude of the US occupiers towards them is similar to that of most conquistadors of yore, but as the hero of the film points out, those alien people cannot be won over with baubles or “light beer” or even by giving them American education and teaching them English. The endeavour of the conquerors is tragically flawed and is bound to fail, but not without causing immense destruction.

Predictably, the target of Colonel Queritch after he has destroyed the “tree of voices” (“first, cut off the target people from their source of traditional wisdom” seems to be the rule followed by colonialists and missionaries) and the “hometree” of the Na’vi (which disintegrates in a manner intentionally reminiscent of the World Trade Centre’s destruction in 2001 and happens to stand on the largest deposit of Unobtainium), is to “preemptively” take out the soul tree, Cameron’s allusion to the Aswattha of Indian mythology (and to the Nordic Yggdrasil) which, as Augustine tries to explain to the dismissive colonel and the bemused corporate executive, lies at the core of the planet’s bio-botanical neural network. She provides thereby a graphic image of the phenomenon of non-locality explained by quantum entanglement in contemporary physics as it applies to the eco-sphere, but such a holistic perspective is predictably beyond the grasp of her mentally autistic listeners, bent on quick territorial conquest and financial profit.

Cameron makes it clear that the only option for survival and for the preservation of our environment is to overthrow the tyranny of finance and technology enforced by the warlords of the Pentagon and their soldiers of fortune and misfortune. His film is a rousing call for defiance and rebellion that many in the US civilian and military sectors may eventually heed, and it is symbolically enlightening and also inevitable that he should conceive an iconography reminiscent of the Hindu sacred epics in order to convey this radical and apocalyptic message. What splendid depictions of the Indian myths and legends could be made nowadays by using the stereoscopic and virtual camera “motion capture” techniques, aptly called “3D Fusion Camera System”, pioneered in Avatar!

The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal

Good to hear the acknowledgement. Even as a simple gesture it is far more welcome than shaking hands; at least it will reduce the incidence of  human diseases that are spread by hand contacts.

 Religion is a Western concept; the Indian concept is neither religion nor even Hinduism nor any ‘ism’ – it is Sanatana Dharma, the eternal law of the universe, which cannot be formulated in any rigid and final set of tenets. (Michel Danino, 1956-, French author).

Unlike early Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism (all obsessed with time) Hinduism and Buddhism have never been persecuting faiths, have preached almost no holy wars and have refrained from that proselytizing religious imperialism which has gone hand in hand with political and economic oppression of colored people. (Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963, English novelist and essayist).

Any sensible man is unknowingly a Hindu and that the only hope for man lies in the abolition of the erratic, dogmatic, unphilosophical creeds people today call religions (Alain Danielou, 1907-1994, French philosopher)

While Christian evangelists try to ‘buy’ or ‘force’ their religion on Hindu Indians, mostly the poor tribals, taking advantage of their poverty and ignorance,  Hinduism spreads its wings just by virtue of its sheer knowledge, wisdom and spirituality. And it is not restricted to yoga or pranayama anymore.

 

We Are All Hindus Now

 

By Lisa Miller | NEWSWEEK 

Published Aug 15, 2009,  From the magazine issue dated Aug 31, 2009

America is not a Christian nation. We are, it is true, a nation founded by Christians, and according to a 2008 survey, 76 percent of us continue to identify as Christian (still, that’s the lowest percentage in American history). Of course, we are not a Hindu—or Muslim, or Jewish, or Wiccan—nation, either. A million-plus Hindus live in the United States, a fraction of the billion who live on Earth. But recent poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.

The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.” A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”

Americans are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life”—including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone. Also, the number of people who seek spiritual truth outside church is growing. Thirty percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual, not religious,” according to a 2009 NEWSWEEK Poll, up from 24 percent in 2005. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, has long framed the American propensity for “the divine-deli-cafeteria religion” as “very much in the spirit of Hinduism. You’re not picking and choosing from different religions, because they’re all the same,” he says. “It isn’t about orthodoxy. It’s about whatever works. If going to yoga works, great—and if going to Catholic mass works, great. And if going to Catholic mass plus the yoga plus the Buddhist retreat works, that’s great, too.”

Then there’s the question of what happens when you die. Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the “self,” and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies. So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975. “I do think the more spiritual role of religion tends to deemphasize some of the more starkly literal interpretations of the Resurrection,” agrees Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard. So let us all say “om.