'Can't take away from Hinduism what’s its characteristic’

Writer Pavan K Varma explained how the accommodative and adaptive nature of Hinduism helped the religion survive for over 8,000 years
Understanding the essence of Hinduism through texts.
Understanding the essence of Hinduism through texts. Gomantak Times

PRAVEENA SHARMA

At a time when India is in the throes of Hindutva, the true meaning of Hinduism has been ever so elusive. Politician and former diplomat Pavan K Varma tried to lift the mystique over one of the oldest religions in the world during his lecture on ‘Hinduism’ last week at The International Centre of Goa (ICG).

Having authored The Great Hindu Civilisation, Adi Shankaracharya, The Greatest Ode to Ram, The Book on Krishna, Being Indian and a host of other such books, Varma is an authoritative voice on the subject.

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He traced Hinduism from the Rigved era – through the ancient texts of Samaveda, Upanishads, Brahma Sutra, Tulsidas’ Ramayana and Kama Sutra – to the diluted, distorted and watered-down political ideology it has become today.

The erudite writer described the texts on Hinduism as being dialogic and not prescriptive or a fiat. He said many of them are even “atheistic” in their critique of Vedas as they do not talk about God. According to him, Sabhya Samvada (civilised conversation) was the essence of Hinduism.  

According to Pavan Varma, Sabhya Samvada (civilised conversation) was the essence of Hinduism.  

Deriding the new thekedars of Hinduism for their lack of understanding of the religion, he said if they were locked in room and told they would be released only after they wrote two pages on Hinduism and its philosophy, they would be left in the room forever.

Here are some excerpts from his lecture...

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 QUESTIONS ON HINDUISM

What is Hinduism? Who is a Hindu? What is its world view? What does it teach us?

Today, these are questions which we need to ask ourselves because there is a churn on in the country to interpret this great religion, also called Sanatan. It is essential to understand why this religion has existed for thousands of years. What are its distinguishing characteristics? What is happening with it today?

It is essential to understand why this religion has existed for thousands of years. What are its distinguishing characteristics? What is happening with it today?

It was traditionally thought Rigved was written around 1500 BCE. But today modern science tells us this chronology is false. I say this, not with any sense of chauvinism or xenophobia but purely on verifiable scientific data that Rigved must have been written 8000 years ago. A remarkable passage in it – Nasadiya Sukta – gives you the tone and tenor of what Hinduism began with. 

“Nasadiya Sukta (a hymn of non-eternity and origin of universe) said: There was neither non-existence nor existence then; Neither the realm of space, nor the sky which is beyond; What stirred? Where? In whose protection? There was neither death nor immortality then; No distinguishing sign of night nor of day; That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse; Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness there was at first, by darkness hidden; Without distinctive marks, this all was water; That which, becoming, by the void was covered; That One by force of heat came into being.

Understanding the essence of Hinduism through texts.
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Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? Whether God's will created it, or whether He was mute; Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not; The Supreme Brahman of the world, all pervasive and all knowing. He indeed knows, if not, no one knows.

These ruminations on the origins of the universe are remarkable for its eclectic tone and tenure. There are no injunctions for obeisance, (it’s) not prescriptive, there are no religious command of calls to rituals. Yes, there is a sense of awe or wonderment but the important thing is that there is a proclivity to ask questions, to interrogate, to explore, to assert by accepting the possibility of negation.

Yes, there is a sense of awe or wonderment but the important thing is that there is a proclivity to ask questions, to interrogate, to explore, to assert by accepting the possibility of negation.

HINDUISM TEXTS

That is from where Hinduism, as a way of life and philosophy, has evolved. After that came the four Vedas called the Samaveda.

Each of them divided into roughly three parts. One of them is Brahmanas, which are priestly manuals of rituals. Others are called Aranyaka, which means forest. The Upanishads are the attachments to different Vedas. From these texts evolved the philosophy of Hinduism. The three foundational texts of Hinduism are Upanishad, Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. 

The three foundational texts of Hinduism are Upanishad, Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. 

To give you a flavour of Upanishad, (it said) above the sense is mind; above the mind is the intellect; above that is the ego and above the ego is the unmanifested cause and beyond that is brahma, which is omnipresent and attributeless.

The chief message of the Upanishad is Brahma is not a deity. Brahma is the insight of the ancient seers, perhaps in a forest, trying to find the underlying cause of this brahmand or the cosmos.

To give you a flavour of Upanishad, (it said) above the sense is mind; above the mind is the intellect; above that is the ego and above the ego is the unmanifested cause and beyond that is brahma, which is omnipresent and attributeless.

THE ESSENCE OF HINDUISM

The three foundational texts of Hinduism are dialogic. They are not prescriptive or a fiat. The Upanishads are dialogic. The Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna and Arjuna speak to each other, are also dialogic. Even the Brahma Sutras are dialogues. They are remarkable for the brevity of their aphorism on Vedanta. In their commentary, they always put the point of view of the opponent rather than saying this alone is right.

Two intellectuals of the eighth century – Adi Shankaracharya (the Vedic scholar and Hindu philosopher) and Mandana Misra (ancient philosopher who wrote on Hindu system of thoughts) had different views. Shankaracharya believed in Jnana Marga and Misra in Karma Kanda. Shankaracharya goes to Mandan Misra’s house. He does not take a gun and shoot him. It has happened with some people in our country. He doesn’t beat him.

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Cancel him. He requests him for a dialogue – Sabhya Samvada, which went on for a month along the river Narmada. The point is that, in an era when there was no social media nor TV, all Hindus followed it (discourse) and internalised the basic messages. Dialogue, and not violence, is the essence of this (Hindu) religion. In the end, Mandan Misra loses. Interestingly, Mandan Misra’s wife was the umpire, who decided the winner. She and Mandan became the followers of Shankaracharya.

Upanishads say by knowing one lump of clay we know all things made out of clay. They differ only in name and form – naav or roop.

You have to understand Hinduism in order to prevent it from being distorted as we see, sometimes, happening around us today. We had six systems of Hindu philosophy.

Upanishads say by knowing one lump of clay we know all things made out of clay. They differ only in name and form – naav or roop.

HINDU PHILOSOPHERS AND THEIR TEACHINGS

Shankaracharya said we make the mistake of taking this empirical and transient world as real, ignoring, eclipsing or marginalising our essential being – our cosmic consciousness. Why does that happen? Our philosophers ascribe it to something called Avidya, meaning ignorance or error of perception.

According to them, mind consists of three basic elements – Buddhi (intellect), Ahamkara (ego) and Chitta (silent consciousness), which is mostly overwhelmed by worldly occupations that keeps the Buddhi forever active and ensnared in its own web of constant activity. Ahamkara – I am – also pushes the Chitta to the background.

Shankaracharya said we make the mistake of taking this empirical and transient world as real, ignoring, eclipsing or marginalising our essential being – our cosmic consciousness.

If you remove the ego that Chitta – the silent consciousness – within you awakens. That consciousness is Atma. One of the great Mahavakyas of the Upanishads is Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahma), tat tvam asi (Thou art that). Ayam Atma Brahma (I, Atma and Brahma are the same).

(Hindu saint and poet) Tulsidas’ brilliant brevity takes your breath away. Shri Ram is once asked by Bharat what is Maya. In one line he says; “Mai Aru Mor, Tor Te Maya” (I, mine and yours is Maya). (It means) that illusion is separateness because we are all indivisibly part of that same consciousness.

If you remove the ego that Chitta – the silent consciousness – within you awakens. That consciousness is Atma.

ATHEISM IN HINDUISM 

All the six systems (of Hinduism) can be called atheistic. They do not talk about God. All of them are trying to understand what could be that mystery or secret or cause of the deep cosmos. They are explorations. They are not devotional texts. They can be called atheistic. One of the gifts of the Upanishads is Ekam Satya Vipra Bahudha Vadanti (the truth is one, wise people call it by different names). They did not say the truth is what they say.

All the six systems (of Hinduism) can be called atheistic. They do not talk about God.

Another Mahavakya (of the Upanishads) is Aano Bhadra Krtavo Yantu Vishwatah  (let good thoughts flow to me from all directions). Another Mahavakya is Udar Charitanam Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (for the big hearted, the entire world is a family). This is what is Hinduism.

I want to stress a point here. The Charvaka (an ancient and atheistic school of materialism in the Hindu system) is deeply scientific philosophy and believes in materialism. It has called Vedas a bunch of lies.

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SURVIVAL OF HINDUISM

The reason why Hinduism has survived is its conquering of eclecticism. How do you describe something which accepts movements that came out it – Budhism and Jainism. There were Hindu kings who went to Buddhist sanghs and also gave donations to temples. One of the things Hinduism teaches is to respect all faiths.

There were attempts to destroy the centres of Hinduism with pillaging and plundering during the Turkish rule. Nalanda, where both Hinduism and Buddhism were taught, was burnt by the Turkish ruler Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji. Its library burnt for over a year. It was so rich in manuscript. But Hinduism survived. The Turkish invasion finally assimilated into the syncretic Ganga-Jamuni culture we have.

The reason why Hinduism has survived is its conquering of eclecticism.

Hinduism survived because it moved away from clutches of the largely priestly class to the common man. It happened over the 600 years of the most remarkable movement called the Bhakti Movement. Here, common people, many from lower caste and even women, wrote in their language. This touched the common man and took it (Hinduism) away from the sanctum sanctorum of temples to the masses for 600 years. Hinduism survived because it is not brittle as some people are trying to make it today. It can adapt. It is accommodative.

Then came the British conquest. When they came Asiatic Society was established in Kolkata. It was a group of remarkable scholars who had incredible profundity of the ancient Indian civilization. Soon, they were marginalised as progressive colonisation took place. Then came 1947 (and Hinduism survived).

Hinduism survived because it moved away from clutches of the largely priestly class to the common man. It happened over the 600 years of the most remarkable movement called the Bhakti Movement.

THE FOUR KEY CONCEPTS

The four Puruṣarthas (concepts) of Hinduism are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values, self-actualization). 

Hindu philosopher Vatsyayana, who authored Kama Sutra (text on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfillment in life), was asked in the first chapter by an interlocutor why do we need this book. He replied; of the four Purusarthas, each of first three if pursued in proportion, not in exclusion, as part of a balanced life, will lead to Moksha. Today, you have marauders harassing young (dating) couples saying it is against the Hindu culture.

They have imbibed the Victorian morality and are not protecting Hinduism. It’s a distortion (of Hinduism). 

The four Puruṣarthas (concepts) of Hinduism are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values, self-actualization). 

‘EXCAVATING’ THE HINDU ANGST OF YORE

There was a growing angst among a section of Hindus in the pre-independent era. (It was witnessed when) Mahatma Gandhi supported Khilafat movement, opposed by the people in the Congress. Gandhi did it in order to preserve the Hindu-Muslim unity.

Post 1947, angst amongst a segment of Hindus has been exploited to create a new form of Hinduism. Somnath temple, which has one of the 12 Jyotirlingas and is a very sacred spot for Hindus, was vandalised and plundered 17 times (by invaders). It was renovated by public money. When late President Dr Rajendra Prasad agreed to inaugurate it (Late Prime Minister), Nehru publicly objected to it, saying it was anti-secular. He was well intentioned but it was interpreted as secularism being viewed narrowly.

Post 1947, angst amongst a segment of Hindus has been exploited to create a new form of Hinduism. 

Later, when the supreme court gave a completely balanced and progressive judgment in the Shah Bano case, (Late Prime Minister) Rajiv Gandhi, who supported SC judgement, was advised to use an ordinance to overrule the judgment.

This created an angst among the Hindus. In fact, Hindu temples are not being run by Hindus but by trusts created by the government and is the only religion where this happens. This is a matter of angst amongst Hindus.  The rise of the BJP has been built on these angsts, culminating first with LK Advani-led rathyatra to Ayodhya and later, in the current regime.

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HINDUISM NOT A POLITICAL WEAPON

I am not against the reclamation of Hinduism. I am against its distortion and mutilation. You cannot revive Hinduism by taking away from it what is its essential characteristic or its eternality with Sanatana. Making it something different or weaponizing it or by using it to create a divide in the society or by using Shri Ram as a political tool.

Ram was called the Maryada Purushutam. When asked by Bharat what is the highest dharma, in Tulsidas’ words Ram says; parhit saris dharam nahi bhai par pida sam nahi adhami (there is no greatest dharm than welfare of others. There is no greater sin than injury to others). This is Shri Ram.

I am not against the reclamation of Hinduism. I am against its distortion and mutilation. You cannot revive Hinduism by taking away from it what is its essential characteristic or its eternality with Sanatana.

The new thekedars of Hinduism tell you – this is what you must eat; this is what you must drink; what women should wear; how to be a chaste Hindu. The irony is they have little knowledge of Hinduism and its philosophy. If one of these (Hindu) elements is locked in a room and told they would be released only after they wrote two pages on Hinduism and Hindu philosophy, they would spend their entire life inside the room.

So, these illiterate people who don’t know Hinduism are interpreting it for us today. Who take any criticism of Hinduism as being anti-(Hinduism). Hinduism has survived through dialogic critique.

You have to understand Hinduism before you say I alone know what it is. That is what is, unfortunately, happening today and we must be vigilant. Always remember to be a true Hindu is to respect differences, respect diversity and respect all faiths.

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