“Gotee, what’s wrong with you man?”, a friend asked.
“Why, what happened?”, I asked back, wondering which of my idiosyncrasies was she referring to.
“You’re reading the Bhagavad Gita it seems! You’re going to temple daily. Knowing you, and the rate at which you change, I think after five years in the US, you’ll come back a Christian!”
I laughed. But the part about Bhagavad Gita didn’t really amuse me. In fact, it confused me. Why should anybody reading the Gita or the Upanishads be immediately labeled as “religious” ? BTW, It’s not just me, I found another blogger who had an almost similar conversation.
My interest in Hindu way of life started not with the rituals or the ceremonies, but with the stories from the ancient texts, which my grandma used to narrate. Her purpose for doing that might only to keep me occupied, but each one of those stories made me think. I couldn’t simply gulp it down when encountered with what appeared to be an inconsistency. I used to tire her with a question after every sentence. Thankfully for me, she was patient enough to dissect the context of the story and help me find the answer. I liked this part of being a Hindu. And I was not forced to go through the other parts either.
In fact, going to the temple was something very personal, which I used to do during my birthday or some other festive occasion. I remember not liking the fact that I couldn’t play cricket on sunday mornings because my team-mates, most of whom were Christians, had to attend the sunday mass. One of them even asked me, “Don’t you have to go to the temple?”. My answer was, “Yes, but only when I feel like.” Probably because of this non-compulsion I was bold enough to question everything. Why wear the sacred thread, why go through all the rituals, why participate in utsavs? I never got a satisfactory answer, but no-body forced me to blindly follow it either. My philosophy was – be good, do good, and there is no need to believe in God or perform the rituals. The rituals have no meaning if you don’t understand what they are for.
This continued for the rest of my life. Like most people, I was thought that Hindu way of life was only about mindless rituals. And having grown up reading English books, watching English movies, my idea of a religion was unfortunately defined by a book, a prophet and a God. Thus, I believed that the Hindu Religion, instead of having one book, one prophet and one God had several of them. I was happy in my ignorance.
However, the recent “Hindu-Terror” campaign by the main-stream media made me think. For whatever it’s shortcomings, mindless violence was something I could not associate with the Hindu thought. Maybe I haven’t read enough, I told myself. The mainstream media cannot be wrong. I should find out more – this was my reaction. Also, I had a rather spirited argument with wanderlust, which I thought I lost due to my ignorance.
Thus, for the past two or three months, I have been reading books, listening to lectures, reading articles and papers on Hindu philosophy. And I must say, I am impressed. I am impressed , at the intellectual ability of some of those Rishis to probe so deep into the nature of the human mind. What I find amazing is that the template they came up with is so damn flexible that anybody can mould it to suit their purpose. There is no rule book, with rigid do’s and don’ts. There’s no prophet or God, whom I have to pray, without which I won’t attain salvation/heaven. There is no particular way of praying. It’s so damn open. Even if you don’t believe in God, not a problem. Because “God” is nothing more than the place holder for what you may want to call the ultimate truth. That’s the Hindu way of life. The reason for multiple gods is that a Hindu considers God to be a personal concept. Hence it doesn’t make sense for him to impose a single “God” on everybody. Probably the word “God” is not right here. The word should be on the “way” or “path”. Hindu believes that the ultimate reality is infinite, and to realize it, there can be infinite ways or paths. Some try to attain it by means of rituals, some through good deeds, some through knowledge, some through devotion. And not having a rule book helps. A Hindu can introspect, analyse and dissect the ideas propounded by his predecessors, just like how modern scientists do. Just think of it, abolishing age old customs such as Untouchability and Sati, and encouraging the alien concept of widow-remarriages, would these have been possible in a country with majority of “Hindu” population, if there was a rigid set of rules that governed their day to day activities? From time immemorial, providing a shelter and religious freedom to the outcasts, be it Jews, Syrian Christians or Parsees, has been a norm in this country. Would that be possible if the indigenous people were so intolerant. Consider the field of philosophy. We have multiple schools of thoughts like Advaita, Dvaita and Vishistadvaita based on their interpretation of Self. These are somewhat well-established schools. Despite that, a recent philosopher like Aurobindo Ghosh could re-interpret scriptures and come up with a new concept of “Evolutionary Philosophy”.
So, how different is this from the scientific-temper that we are taught about? True, there are many of those who call themselves Hindus without understanding the meaning of it, who approach it in the same religious fanatic manner that we see in other sects. But blaming the Hindu Philosophy for that is not only being short-sighted and lazy but also being stupid. It’s like saying, since the Arsenal fans are crazy, Arsenal is a violent club.
Every group with a certain line of thinking, whatever is it, has a few flag-bearers and a whole bunch of followers. We identify the group usually by the flag-bearers. Consider the open source world. There are a few Linux fanatics who hardly know their stuff, but only take a liking to Linux because it’s “cool”. We don’t consider such fanatics to be the flag bearers of Linux or open source, do we? So, I fail to understand why it should be any different for the Hindu way of life.
There are multiple reasons for this, but I think one of them is staring in the mirror. I am an Indian and was born in a well known Hindu family. At the age when I could debate on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche with considerable ease, I had no clue whatsoever about what Hindu Philosophy was. In fact, based on my school education, I got the impression that the orient was filled with mysticism which was of no use in the modern world. But that’s not how I find it to be.
The another reason could be the nature of Hindu way of life, which due to it’s belief in infinite paths makes propaganda and marketing redundant. Think of it. When is propaganda necessary? When does marketing become essential? When you want more buyers, more followers. When you want to sell something to the millions. A Hindu doesn’t need to do that. Because the way or path for him does not start somewhere outside, but starts with himself.
Thus, for me, “Hinduism” is not a religion. It’s truly a way of life. It’s not a dead-philosophy with definite constraints, but a dynamic evolving philosophy that strives to thrive by manifesting itself in various forms. So, yes, I do read the Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads, the Vedas, not to find the one perfect “way” to reach “God”, but to appreciate a framework of philosophy, that strives to be universal not by the strength of numbers but with the ease of adaptability.
Suggested Reading: Paper on Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions.