Posted on 6-June-2010
In 1927, Katherine Mayo, an American, published Mother India, an unflattering account of Hindu culture and shocked leading Hindus. In reality, charges of racism notwithstanding, all she did was to hold up a mirror to Hindu society and Hindu society did not like what it saw. While many people who know of this episode know of Gandhi's characterisation of the book as a drainpipe inspector's report, very few talk of Gandhi's other remark that the book should be read by no outsiders but by every Indian. In a recent newspaper article, a leading light of the last BJP government of India, quoted a passage from Katherine Mayo's book describing the gory scene of the sacrifice of an animal at the Kali temple in Kolkata, found such practices repellent, bemoaned Gandhi's lack of interest in ridding Hinduism of such practices and talked of the need to restore Hinduism to the glory of its past intellectual achievements exemplified by the Upanishads, for example. The writer of this article and the thousands of his persuasion will likely denounce a foreigner as a racist and an Indian as unpatriotic were he or she to say that this glorious Hinduism of the past never existed.
It probably all started with Sir William Jones in the second half of the eighteenth century with his study of old Sanskrit texts which had disappeared from the consciousness of all but a small number of scholarly brahmins. The discovery of these texts, particularly the vedas ( which include the thirteen ancient Upanishads) and the Bhagvad Gita, led some of the British in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bewildered by what to them were strange and multitudinous religious practices, to construct a "Hinduism" based on a limited number of canonical texts, and a single moral code represented by Manu's Dharma Shastra. This Hinduism was easier for the European mind, shaped by Greco-Roman classics, Christianity and the Enlightenment to grasp. It also helped the British deal with the abhorrence they felt for many Hindu practices sanctioned by their religion on the one hand and the respect on the other hand they developed for the poetry, the flights of imagination, the reasoning, the insights and the metaphysics of the ancient Sanskrit texts that were being discovered and translated.
In parallel with this British construction of Hinduism, possibly imitatively, possibly as a reaction or possibly through a simple process of awakening under an external stimulus there arose a class of Indians influenced by Western modes of thought who embraced this Hinduism and developed their own variants of it. For some like Ram Mohun Roy, Dwarka Nath Thakur, Keshub Chander Sen, Dayanand Saraswati and Aurobindo Ghosh, it was polytheism that had corrupted the original, pure monotheistic Hinduism which had so emphasised the importance of self-knowledge and meditation. For some, like Gandhi, a latter day descendant of this tradition, religion meant selfless devotion to a deity--one deity which went under different names. All these people were concerned with the eradication of undesirable social practices which were to them results of impurities that had crept into what was a great religion to begin with. Except in the case of Gandhi to a limited extent because he had simply adopted the established practice of singing devotional songs in a group, the variants of Hinduism propounded by all the other nineteenth century reformers failed to take root and if some of the social reforms advocated by them have now become more or less universally accepted it is because they are backed by law, economics and people's awareness not only of their rights but of what happens in the wider world.
What it has become convenient to call Hindu society has never shared a large enough number of common cultural traits (of which religion is also one) to be treated as if it was one homogeneous group. Throughout India's history people of different ethnic origins coming in at different times have shared a common geographical space. Of these, the the ideas and practices of one group, the brahmins, became during long stretches of time the ideas and practices of the ruling classes in different parts of the country. But the ideas and practices of the ruling classes never exterminated the ideas and practices of other ethnic groups. Nor were there ever impermeable walls created between different ethnic groups. Classical Sanskrit literature including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas is replete with references to both the two way flow of cultural influences and even sexual relations and marriage between say brahmins and untouchables. Then there are people who have quite cogently argued that already in the time of the vedas there was a rift between brahmins who adhered to the samhita and brahman texts with their emphasis on ritual and kshatriyas, many of whom were the enunciators of the Upanishads, who were more interested in metaphysics and later, as in Jainism and Buddhism--both Mahavira Vardhamana and Sakyamuni Gautama were kshatriyas--ethics. It bespeaks a dead mind and a dead soul in this situation to talk of "real" or "pure" Hinduism. Who can decide that the sacrifice of a goat to goddess Kali should be expunged while smoke creating fire sacrifice with the chanting of vedic mantras should be retained or who can decide that singing devotional songs to the glory of Ramachandra is pure Hinduism while offering alcohol to a pariah deity is un-Hindu or that slaughtering cattle is anti-Hindu while letting starving, crippled cattle roam the streets and die slow deaths cannot be against religion?
No one, not even the present day defenders of the "Hindu Faith", the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, needs to lose sleep ever the future of Hinduism in India. It thrives and will survive even the attempts of its defenders to homogenise it. One reason why it will survive is its inventiveness when it comes to entities to worship. For example, quite close to where I live is a temple to Sai Baba of Shirdi who as a Muslim faqir in the Sufi tradition, a miracle worker and a faith healer in Maharashtra acquired a large following. In the sanctum of the temple there is his one and a half life size image, the officiating priest is a brahmin (or someone wearing a brahmin's get up), the form of worship follows brahmanical ritual and the devotees who visit the temple are all Hindus. The second reason is that because of easy communication and travel, some forms of worship and some religious festivals that one or two generations ago were purely regional have tended to spread far beyond their home territory and the the construction of temples seems to keep pace with the increase in population. The third is the never dying tribe of Hindu gurus. Television helps a great deal and India has now telegurus to match America's televangelists. The waves at the moment are dominated by three or four of them. When their time will pass or when they will have accumulated enough riches--one is reported to have bought an island and is threatening to launch a political party, another was shot at recently but survived intact and yet other was accused of involvement in a death in his establishment but has been cleared--another lot will come up for religion still sells well in this country, even over television.
There may be one point on which the gentleman, with a reference to whose newspapaper article this essay started, may be right: the need to expurgate Hinduism. The trouble is that real Hinduism as opposed to the one imagined by the reformers is like an onion. You start peeling it layer by layer and in the end there is nothing left. Leaving aside Hindu practices and superstitions that have shocked Europeans and Hindu reformers, let us take the case of the shaddarshana, the six schools of Hindu thought (grammar, logic, epistemology, psychology and metaphysics all rolled into one). Hindus, the reformers of the 19th century and modern educated and semi-educated ones alike have taken pride in them as some of India's best intellectual achievements. The broad outlines of these six schools were already developed by the beginning of the Christian era. Brahmanical scholars spent the next eighteen hundred years, debating disputatiously, defining ever more finely and writing commentaries on earlier texts. They never ceased talking of the nature of the self and of the ultimate reality, of the duality or non-duality of nature. In all these eighteen hundred years not one new idea about the external or man's internal world was produced, not one book was written about what lay beyond the shores of India (remarkable achievement for a people whose descendants proudly talk of Hindu "colonies" in Southeast Asia and of Gujarati merchants having traded since "time immemorial" with places in the Arabian Sea!). In the mean time, as Indian astrophysicist, J.V. Narlikar, says in his natty little book, The Scientific Edge, the flame of science flickered off in India after Bhaskara II. Two thousand years of Hindu Philosophy so beloved of Hindu reformers have been intellectually sterile, other than in the fields of poetry, drama, painting, sculpture and architecture, especially temple architecture.
The movement of reform which started in India in the nineteenth has been dubbed the Indian Renascence by some historians. The intellectually respectable Hindu opinion about Hinduism--not the obscurantist fads promoted by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its friends--belongs to this tradition. But the Renascence tradition has in its own way harmed India in the sense that in a way more subtle than the BJP it seeks to keep alive an intellectual tradition that probably ceased being stimulating about one thousand five hundred years ago. There was no Hindu Arcadia just as there was no Christian or Muslim Arcadia. Such visions of Christian Arcadia as survived the European Renascence and Reformation were swept over board by the Enlightenment. There is no longer a Christian Arcadia except in the minds of some people in the Bible belt in the USA or of some people in the Vatican. There are Muslim clerics who cling to an imagined Arcadia of Mohammad's rule in Yathrib and in trying to recreate it do great harm to Muslim communities. This talk of Hindu reform is another way to keep this religion alive. Hindu reform in the nineteenth and early twentieth century served a useful and historically important purpose. What India needs now is a downgrading of religion in people's lives, not its revival in one form or another. It is not reform of Hinduism that is needed in this century but Enlightenment a l'europeenne. The alternative is to remain lost in the intellectual desert where India has been stuck at least for one thousand years.