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Keep the light shining

The key to the continued dynamism of Hinduism despite so many challenges and persecutions lies in its remarkable capacity for creative rearticulation by a whole succession of seers and social reformers.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2003 16:56 IST

The public debate regarding Hinduism and its various definitions has become a topic of animated political controversy. Hinduism is the world’s most ancient living religion, going back to the very dawn of history, and is unique in that it is not tied to any one text, one individual or one point in time. This gives it a remarkable built-in pluralism which has incorporated a wide spectrum of philosophical, theological and sociological concepts.

The key to the continued dynamism of Hinduism despite so many challenges and persecutions lies in its remarkable capacity for creative rearticulation by a whole succession of seers and social reformers. The entire panorama of Hinduism from Vedic times down to the present day can be looked upon as a series of challenges and creative responses.

The latest of these was the ‘Indian Renaissance’ led by great social reformers such as Raja Rammohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore, Keshub Chunder Sen, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in Bengal, R.K. Bhandarkar and M.G. Ranade in Maharashtra, Swami Dayanand Saras-wati in Punjab and the great spiritual luminaries, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramana Maharshi. Gandhiji himself was essentially a profound social reformer. Between them, these thinkers were able to break through the accretion of superstition and dead habit that had gathered around this great faith over the centuries, and once again illuminate its essential core.

The master principles upon which Hinduism is based are to be found essentially in the Upanishads, which represent the high watermark not only of Indian but of world philosophy. It is in these luminous dialogues that the great issues confronting humanity have been addressed in a manner that seems to grow in relevance as we move into the global society. Out of the whole range of concepts found in the Upanishads, five deserve special mention.

The first and most basic concept is that of the all-pervasive Brahman — “Isavasyam idam sarvam yat kincha jagatyam jagat” (Whatever exists and wherever it exists is permeated by the same divine power.) While many philosophies have postulated unbridgeable dichotomies between god and the world, matter and spirit, the Upanishadic view is that all that exists is a manifestation without the light of consciousness behind it, and this, in a way, is the realisation of the new science.

The second concept is that this Brahman resides within each individual consciousness, in the Atman. The Atman is the reflection of this all-pervasive Brahman in individual consciousness; but it is not ultimately separate from the Brahman. The concept of “Isvarah sarvabhutanam hriddese tishthati” (The lord resides within the heart of each individual) is the second great insight of the Upanishads, and the relationship between the Atman and the Brahman is the pivot upon which the whole Vedantic teaching revolves.

Another important Vedantic concept is that all human beings, because of their shared spirituality, are members of a single family. The Upanishads have an extraordinary phrase for the human race, ‘Amritasya putrah’ (Children of immortality), because we carry within our consciousness the light and the power of the Brahman regardless of race, colour, creed, sex, caste or nationality. That is the basis of the concept of human beings as an extended family — ‘Vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ — which is engraved on the first gate into our Parliament House.

A fourth major philosophical concept of the Upanishads revolves around the essential unity of all religions, of all spiritual paths — ‘Ekam sad virprah bahudha vadanti’ (The truth is one, the wise call it by many names), as the Rg Veda has it. This is the philosophical basis of the inter-faith movement which aims at bringing together people of different religious persuasions in a friendly and harmonious dialogue.

Here is a philosophy which cuts across barriers of hatred and fanaticism that have been built in the name of religion. At its highest Hinduism is a universalist religion. It accepts the infinite possibilities of movements towards the divine, and does not seek to limit or confine us to any particular formulation. Each one of us has to seek our own path, and Hinduism welcomes and accepts the multiplicity of paths to the divine. Thus the seers of the Upanishads, the great Christian mystics, the Muslim Sufis, the Sikh gurus all finally speak of a luminescent awareness of the divine presence.

A fifth Vedantic concept is that of the welfare of all beings — ‘Bahujana sukhaya bahujana hitaya cha’. It is true that the lofty thought of the Upanishads coexisted with an iniquitous social order, much as the great Greek philosophy coexisted with the obnoxious practice of slavery. But at its highest, Hindu philosophy seeks the welfare of all creation, not only of humans but of all life forms on this planet.

These five concepts of Hinduism, if taken together, provide a comprehensive world view which will be of real value to us in these troubled times. Indeed, an exclusivist approach to Hinduism would constitute a grievous injustice to this great philosophy. It would be tragic if we do to Hinduism what the jehadis have done to Islam.

The confusion between Hindutva and Bharatiyata also needs to be clarified. It is certainly true that Hinduism has provided the broad cultural and religious framework that has held India together despite its astonishing linguistic, ethnic and political diversity and divisions. Hinduism is as essential for an understanding of Indian culture and civilisation as Islam is for the Arab world and Roman Catholism for Latin America.

But many other religions have also flourished in India for centuries, and there are today several states and Union territories where Hindus are not in a majority. Three other world religions — Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism — were born here, while four religions — Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — came to us from West Asia and also flourished here. Along with the Baha’i faith as well as some new Buddhist sects, they represent a rich, pluralistic religious mosaic that needs to be carefully nurtured.

India has by no means a monopoly over Hinduism. All Indians are not Hindus and all Hindus are not Indians. There are millions of Hindus living around the world who, while certainly having special regard for India as their spiritual motherland, are yet loyal and patriotic citizens of their respective countries. To equate Hindutva with Bharatiyata, therefore, is to create an avoidable semantic and conceptual confusion. Hinduism is one of the great religions of the world, and to seek to confine it to India or to give it an exclusivist and majoritarian interpretation is to do it a disservice.

Anyone who lives by the great ideals of Hinduism should, by definition, adopt an attitude of amity towards other religious traditions. However, we have had in history figures like Hiranyakashyapa, Kansa and Ravana who were also Hindus but who took to the path of intolerance, cruelty and oppression. Incidentally — and this shows the essential liberalism of the Hindu tradition — Ravana, although bitterly opposed to and finally killed by Rama, is nonetheless respected for his spiritual learning. His scintillating hymn to Lord Shiva — the ‘Shiva Tandava Stotra’ — is still recited with reverence by Shaivites around the world.

The real debate, therefore, is not between secularism and Hinduism. Secularism is built into the basic structure of our Constitution which also enshrines the freedom of religion, while Hinduism is the largest of the many religions that flourish in this country. The debate should be between differing versions of Hinduism. Let us never forget that one of the great glories of Hindu thought has been its capacity to embrace the entire human race with its concept of Brahman-Atman.

While every nation and every community has the right, indeed the duty, to defend itself against attack and aggression, we must never take on the role of the aggressor.

As the country with the largest Hindu population in the world, India should be in the forefront of actualising the highest universal principles upon which this great religion is based. Only then will we be doing justice to Hinduism as well as to India itself.

First Published: Feb 21, 2003 12:36 IST