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Counterpoint | Two views of Hinduism

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:05 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
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What are the consequences for India if development is to be held hostage to mythology?

It’s a measure of how careful secular, liberal Hindus are being this time around that the general response to the controversy over Ram Setu has been to take what might be described as a pro-religion/anti-history line. Even those who sneered at the VHP’s claim that the Babri Masjid was built on the site where Ram was born are bending over backwards to take a more nuanced position on this issue.

The broad, secular consensus appears to be that no matter what the historians and scientists may say, faith is an important constituent of public policy. To argue before a court that there is no historical evidence that Ram existed is regarded as unnecessarily provocative. And no matter how Ram Setu (or Adam’s Bridge) — the formation that links India with Sri Lanka — was really created, we should not tamper with it as long as Hindus regard it as the route that the Vanar Sena took on its rescue mission to Lanka in the Ramayana.

I understand the logic behind this position. It emerges from the realisation that the secular establishment may have gone too far in the other direction during the Ayodhya controversy. And many liberals are terrified that the Sangh Parivar will pick on this issue to fan more Ram Mandir-type hysteria.

My concerns in this controversy are slightly different. When we talk about Hinduism in much the same way that we talk about Islam or Christianity, we miss the point. Hinduism is fundamentally different from either of these religions — and from many others.

Almost all the religions that were founded over the last 2,500 years have several things in common. Most of them have a single founder (Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammad, Mahavir, the Buddha, Guru Nanak etc). Nearly all of them have a holy book (the Bible, the Koran, the Guru Granth Sahib etc) that is the centre of their religion. And all of them were founded by men whose historicity is not in doubt. We may dispute the exact circumstances of the historical Jesus’s crucifixion but there’s no doubt that a preacher of that name was crucified by the Romans and that he left behind a religious legacy. Similarly, we know where the Buddha came from and we can identify where he died. And the Prophet’s life is well documented.

Hinduism, on the other hand, is much, much older than any of these religions. It is even older than Judaism; by the time the Old Testament was written, the Rig Veda had been around for centuries. It has no single founder, no prophet, no messiah, no one holy book at its centre, and no set of rules that must be followed without question. It doesn’t even have an organised clergy: unlike the others, it tells you to look for God within yourself.

While the other religions were founded, Hinduism evolved. Nobody can say with any certainty how old it is. There is evidence that the Indus Valley Civilisation venerated a god who was very like Shiva in his Pashupati avatar. There are also many similarities between the gods of early Hinduism and the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. Perhaps, this is because the religion evolved before migrations at some place where Aryan-type people lived.

It is as clear that there is no constant in Hinduism. In the early texts, Indra, a god we never hear of today, played a major role. The two epics — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — were put together over centuries and the story evolved over time. For instance, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Tulsi Ramayana are not exactly the same. The Bhagvad Gita, the basis of much of Hindu philosophy, is said to have been delivered by Krishna to Arjun on the battlefield at Kurukshetra — but most scholars agree that the Gita was added to the Mahabharata many centuries after the epic was first written.

There are two ways you can treat this complex evolution. You can argue that it doesn’t matter whether there ever was a historical Ram or whether he actually got to what we call Lanka today (some scholars claim that Ram’s Lanka was not today’s Sri Lanka), or whether Krishna actually stopped his chariot for several hours to recite the Bhagvad Gita. The point of Hinduism lies in the message, not in the historicity.

It is significant that Hinduism is one of the few faiths that makes virtually no distinction between mythology and religion. The gods of the Hindu pantheon are not perfect beings, and there is scope for debate over the morality of their actions. Did Ram treat Sita badly? Was Krishna economical with the truth during the Mahabharata battle?

The point of Hinduism is that the stories emerged out of the shared experience of the millennia. And that we are free to draw our own conclusions. In contrast, there is very little scope to argue that Jesus got things badly wrong or that the Prophet acted immorally.

In many religions, a clear distinction is made between historicity and legend. For instance, Christians will tell you that the New Testament is broadly historical but will make no such claims for the Old Testament. Even the Jews, who regard the Old Testament as the basis of their religion, do not require you to necessarily believe that Moses parted the Red Sea or that the story of Abraham and Isaac is based on fact.

There is a second view of Hinduism and it came to the fore during the Ayodhya agitation. In this view, historicity is everything. All of Hindu legend must be taken literally. There must have been a historical Ram because otherwise the basis of our religion is a lie. If there was a historical Ram, then he must have had a birthplace — and so, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is central to our belief.

There are obvious problems with this view. During the Ayodhya agitation, Dr Karan Singh memorably described it as the Semitisation of Hinduism — as an attempt to decant the complex legends and stories of the world’s oldest religion into a restrictive Christian-Muslim framework. The Bible requires us to believe that Jesus walked upon on the water. But you can be a perfectly good Hindu without actually believing that Ravan had ten heads or that Hanuman set his tail on fire.

I see the current controversy as an example of the second approach to Hinduism. In its limited way, the ASI’s affidavit is accurate. There is no convincing archaeological evidence of the existence of Lord Ram — in fact, there are not even any coherent dates available for the events of the Ramayana. Similarly, the scientific evidence is conclusive. Ram Setu is not a man-made (or monkey-made) formation. It was created millions of years ago, before there were humans in the Indian peninsula.

And yet, even those of us who will accept all this at an intellectual level, will support the suspension of the hapless ASI employees and argue that to go ahead with the Sethusamudram is to hurt the sentiments of Hindus.

At a pragmatic level, this makes sense: why give the VHP another issue to inflame Hindu passions with? But my fear is that we cannot sustain this approach as a basis for policy-making in the long run. Are we to constantly bend to any politically-expedient interpretation of Hindu legend? Are we to completely disregard scientists and archaeological evidence?

For me, the defining argument of the Literal Hinduism position is the one that LK Advani offered in defence of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It did not matter, he said, whether this was really the birthplace of Ram. He was not obliged to provide any evidence to substantiate this claim. What mattered was that Hindus believed that this was where Ram was born. And that was more than enough for him.

In fact, it was never clear that Hindus believed this. Most people had never heard of Ram Janmabhoomi till the VHP made it an issue. And there are several other sites in that area that also claim to be the birthplace of Ram.

So, once you’ve disregarded history, archaeology, science and geography, how do you define belief? Is it what any political party says it is at any given time?

And what are the consequences for India if development is to be held hostage to mythology?

Like most liberals, I have no desire to inflame Hindu sentiment. But as a member of this great culture, I have a right to ask whether one of the world’s most intellectually-sophisticated religions is to be shorn of its layers of philosophical complexity, evolved over the millennia, and turned into a literal, history-based credo.

Those who say they are fighting to protect Hinduism are actually doing it a huge disservice by stripping it of everything that makes it great and by turning it into a mirror image of the simplistic, literal-minded religio-political cults (such as jehadi Islam) that have done so much damage to the world.

Their small-minded, petty approach makes a mockery of the greatness and complexity of the Bhagvad Gita.