Monday, August 10, 2020

The truth about Ayodhya that many journalists seem to ignore

  

(Published in MyIndMakers, 10 Aug 2020)


 

Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord (Aleph, Delhi 2018) is the first book by Valay Singh. It is a journalistic overview of the developments pertaining to the Ayodhya affairs of the last years. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, both about the recent Ayodhya agitation and how the locals experienced it, and about the late Middle Ages.

 

Balanced?

On the cover, the book is announced as “a balanced chronicle of faith, fanaticism and the war between secularism and religious fundamentalism in a key battleground in modern India". Balanced?

Even before reading the book itself, we can form an idea by checking its index and bibliography. There we find that the main scholarly writers arguing for the Hindu claim to the site and about the fact and foundation of the Islamic iconoclasm that created the dispute in the first place, are simply absent. There is no mention of the very key to understanding the whole affair, viz. the 1990 book Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them by historian Sita Ram Goel, which catalogues 1836 destroyed temples replaced by mosques, and presents the theology of Iconoclasm that explains it all.

There is only one mention of Prof. Meenakshi Jain. Perhaps her last Ayodhya book and certainly her book about the Hindu reaction to Islamic iconoclasm (2017, 2019) came a little too late for our author, but most certainly her earlier book (Rama and Ayodhya, Aryan Books, Delhi 2013) should have been a prime source for any later book on the Ayodhya affair. For one, by 2018 it was the only book that detailed how badly the Eminent Historians, Singh’s main source of faithfully parroted information, fared when put on the witness stand in Court. So, he only quotes Meenakshi  Jain (p.60) about a 5th-century Shiva linga, quite peripheral to the debate, though perhaps meant as useful to Rama deniers for asserting that Shiva was worshipped there and not Vishnu through his incarnations.

As a report, it is formally rather up to standard: when claims are made about living persons, he has contacted them for their version, as a journalist should. Thus, when the Shia Waqf Board became a party to the Ayodhya dispute very shortly before its conclusion, observers found it suspiciously close to the Hindu wish of weakening the Sunni position: “The desire of the Shia Waqf board members to ingratiate themselves to the Yogi or Modi govenments cannot be ruled out.” Valay Singh is a de facto supporter of the Sunni Waqf Board’s claim, so he has an interest in presenting all factors that may thwart it as suspect. Yet he admits, after due verification at the source: “The chairman of the Board, Wasim Rizvi, denied that this is the case.” (p.368) But then, Jesuits and journalists are known for wrong-footing the reader without brazen-faced lies but with selectively citing otherwise genuine facts.

 

 

The author

On the back cover, Singh is introduced as ”an independent journalist” who has launched himself by working for “NDTV as a researcher and editor” (not exactly a guarantee of objectivity) and has since become a widely-published columnist. Not a professional historian, and ever since the controversial intervention of the “eminent historians” in the Ayodhya affair, this might count as a good thing.

                His position in the ideological spectrum can also be deduced from the description (p.268) of  Irfan Habib as one of the “independent historians like Irfan Habib who had opposed the VHP”. The anti-temple historians representing the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) since December 1990 ludicrously called themselves “independent historians”, though they were statutorily and ideologically in the BMAC’s employ. An objective journalist would have taken his distance from this transparent camouflage, but Valay Singh has no qualms about showing on what side he stands.

By contrast, he sidelines the evidence dug up in the early 1970s by the dean of Indian archaeology, Prof. Braj Basi Lal, or rather, “pro-temple archaeologists like BB Lal” (p.268). No, first Lal did neutral excavations, and after that he stood by his findings; then, more than a decade later, the VHP showed interest in them. Note also that in the 1970s when he had made his discovery, PM Indira Gandhi emphatically ordered him to keep it secret. It is only when the debate came in focus in 1989 that he went public with it.

Unlike Irhan Habib, BB Lal has a record of going where the evidence leads him, regardless of partisan loyalties. Thus, when his diggings had found a human presence at the disputed site down to the -2nd millennium, this refuted the Eminent Historians’ claim that the Masjid had been built on virgin land, but it also conflicted with many Dharmacharyas’s belief that Rama had lived in the -6th or -13th millennium or even a million years back. He stood firm against their protests by replying: “I am not saying this, but my spade tells me so.” Likewise, in the Indo-European Homeland debate, he is nowadays falsely decried as “a convert to Hindu nationalism” for supporting the Vedic nature of the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization, but for decades he was cited as the lone archaeologist who had given physical proof for the hypothetical Aryan Immigration. As a junior scholar in the 1950s, he had made his name by documenting the Painted Grey Ware and fitting it into the dominant immigrationist paradigm by identifying it as a sign of the Aryan movement deeper into India. Since the 1990s, however, he has gone public with the insight that he had only force-fitted his findings into the reigning paradigm without ever proving it, and that the accumulated evidence of the last decades points in the opposite direction: “The Vedas and Harappa are but two sides of the same coin.” That may be to the VHP’s liking, but the development of this insight was demonstrably independent from any ideological loyalty.

                Finally, note that at the time of the Supreme Court’s final verdict the BBC selected Valay Singh to report the reactions in Ayodhya. There was nothing to report: the carefully crafted stereotype that Kar Sevaks express their joy by organizing massacres of poor hapless Muslims turned out to be false, probably to the BBC’s disappointment. Indeed, this was representative of the cold shower felt throughout anti-Hindu circles: the controversy had been so much fun for them, with plenty of opportunities for virtue-signalling (“look how free I am from this superstitious Hinduism”) and an enemy you’d love to hate.  At any rate, the Mendacious Media only hand out such plum posts to people whom they deem ideologically reliable, i.c. “secularist”. 

 

 

History and myth

The drawback of Valay Singh’s journalistic approach is that he has to rely on others and isn’t sure of his grip on the less obvious elements, hence many instances of “it is said that” and similar hazy claims. Hence also some writing mistakes against technical terminology and historical names, e.g. “Puspamitra Sung” (p.7) for Pushyamitra Shunga.

If these corrections could still be dismissed as pedantry, more consequential is his unsophisticated understanding of the basic categories of history and mythology. On the first page of text already, he shows reliance on the secularist superficialism that “the Ramayana is an epic of mythology and scripture and not a historically verifiable document” (p.3). In fact, a text that is pure fantasy or “myth” is a modern invention. Ancient epics were typically rooted in real history, but with a lot of embellishment. Pitting mythology against history is a 19th-century childhood disease of the scientist worldview, when anything scriptural was laughed off as “obviously unhistorical”,-- until amateur Heinrich Schliemann dug up Troy and showed that Homer’s “fanciful legend” did have a basis in real history.

Here and there, Singh has dug up interesting anecdotes, though always in the service of an anti-Hindu agenda. Thus, we learn that in 1938, the Vaishnava Pandit Ramtahal Das wrote a “hagiograpical” biography of Akbar-age Vaishnava saint Devmurari. Yet he claims: “Pandit Ramtahal Das, himself a Vaishnava, displays remarkable neutrality when writing about the historicity of the Vaishnava tradition. He asserts that if there was indeed a Ram or Vaishnava centre in Awadh at the time of Nabhadas (circa 1600) it would certainly have been mentioned in his Bhaktamal.” (p.60) “Neutrality” is of course code for a viewpoint that comes in handy for Singh’s own narrative. So when Babar’s contemporary Guru Nanak does report his pilgrimage to Rama’s birthplace in Ayodhya, we are expected to consider this testimony “neutralized” by the alleged non-mention in this Nabhadas’ writings almost a century later?

“According to a legend, corroborated by interviews with several Vaishnava saints in Ayodhya, ‘if 500 Vaishnavs used to go to the north, only 50 would return.’ Ramtahal Das also confirms this in Devmurari’s biography: ‘the Dashnamis, with the help of north Indian kings, started attacking Vaishnav saints who used to venture northwards for pilgrimages. It was the time of Muslim rulers and they had decreed that the sects be allowed to settle their scores without interference.” (p.60) No close sources are given, only a “legend”, that is (in spite of his claming otherwise) not corroborated by any real sources. A 20th-century writer is quoted as alleging only that Vaishnava pilgrims got “attacked”, yet Valay claims that 95% of the Vaishnava pilgrims were “killed”, a pretty sensational phenomenon that ought to have left tangible traces in the record.

 

 

Casteism

Valay Singh’s desire to belittle Hindus and predictably reduce Hinduism to “caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste” makes him put a casteist spin on many stories. Describing a controversy between the purely Brahmin Ramanujis (followers of Ramanuja, the medieval philosopher crucial in the tradition of Rama worship) and the Ramanandi order, he quotes the Dutch scholar Peter van der Veer as certifying that a particular Ramanandi leader, Lakshmandas, had been humiliated by a Ramanuji teacher of Sanskrit. This proved that the Ramanujis looked down on the Ramanandis simply because, according to Van der Veer, “he belonged to the Ramanandi community.”

But a sectarian conflict can exist within any religion, and for a Hindu-basher, that is not good enough: Hinduism must be confirmed to be blacker than the rest, viz. through caste. So: “However, the possibility that van der Veer leaves out of his anthropological study is that (…)  Lakshmandas was perhaps not a high-caste Brahmin and as his guru knew that, he could not have given him the same pot that was used in his kitchen.” (p.177) This Singh writes less than one page after he himself had written that Lakshmandas had been “born in UP in a Brahmin family”.

The Ramanandis, because of their association with the Janmabhumi temple association, tend to be back-projected as the bad guys, yet Valay Singh reports that in 1813-14, “Francis Buchanan found that the Ramanandi priests ‘stressed upon their followers a strict moral code and adherence to a daily regimen of prayer and physical exercise; they also forbade meat and alcohol. Observance of their Vaishnava traditions gave them, untouchables included, a substantial amount of self-respect’, he concluded.” (p.94)

Unlike the secularists, who have demonized the Rama devotees, the British (who must have recognized much of their own Protestant innovation of Methodism in the Ramanandis) actually liked them: “The British found the Vaishnava values of complete devotion to a personal god to be more in line with their own idea of religion. As opposed to the militant, extremely ambitious and warlike Shaiva ascetics, the British found common ground with Vaishnavas.” (p.92)

Singh even admits that throughout the Vaishnava world, a fermentation of caste reform was taking place ca. 1900. Far from leading the peasant revolt of 1921, MK Gandhi actually tried to rein it in: “You, the peasants, should bear a little if the zamindar torments you.” (p.151) In their quest for social justice, the Vaishnavas went farther than upper-Bania Gandhi was willing to go.

 

 

The much-maligned British

Valay Singh of course rehashes the very popular lie (not just among secularists and Indologists, but also among Hindu sentimentalists) that British policies “result[ed] in the partition of the subcontinent on religious lines”. (p.180) No, it was the Muslim League’s policy that did so. There were only two significant opinion currents in the Muslim community, both Muslim supremacist: the traditionalists like Maulana Azad who felt that, like until the 18th century, Muslims could take full power in India in spite of being the minority (silly secularists call them “nationalist Muslims” because they tried to use Congress as their vehicle); and the modernists who took the new wave of democratic thinking into account and calculated that the Muslims should first settle for geographically limited sovereignty and only prepare for the conquest of the rest of the Subcontinent once the demographic equation had evolved in their favour.  The British involvement was limited to unwittingly creating circumstances favouring the second party over the first.

So, Singh misrepresents Muslim attacks on Hindus, such as the “Great Calcutta Killing”, which took place when the British were on their way out and the provinces had native autonomy. This pogrom, which convinced the British that their resistance to the Partition plan was useless, was planned by the Muslim League, with the passive connivance of the police which was under control of the Muslim League state government. He, however, denies Muslim agency by calling it a “large-scale riot” and a “massacre of Hindus and Muslims” (p.181). This is the usual media discourse: two-sided violence or even one-sided Muslim violence is presented as a Hindu attack on the poor hapless Muslims (as in late February 2020, when the Wall Street Journal and Scroll.in notoriously misrepresented a photograph of a Muslim rioters’ attack in Delhi as showing a Hindu attack), and only when the Muslim initiative is too glaring to be denied, their rearguard tactic is to present it as two-sided. In the case of the Great Calcutta Killing, this was purely a one-sided attack by the Muslim League on the Hindus, with the passive complicity of the state police, which only started to intervene as soon as the Hindu side managed to mobilize for self-defence.

All manner of probably true statements are spun to convey some anti-Hindu or at least Hindu-belittling messages. Thus, “given the late development of Ayodhya as a pilgrim centre, it was not surprising that most Hindus had never been to Ayodhya.” (p.234) Not too late for Guru Nanak to go on pilgrimage there in 1510-11 as per his Janam Sakhi biography, at any rate. But alright, even in the present age of trains and airplanes, it is still only a minority that has actually gone there, let alone in the age before high-tech. In those days, how many Muslims had been to Mecca and earned the title Hajji (someone who has performed the Hajj)? And does this prove that Mecca “developed only late as a pilgrim centre”? Journeying was long and difficult, only available to well-to-do people, mostly only in the latter part of their lives if their health still permitted it. For every lay pilgrim who made it to Ayodhya, there were a hundred Rama devotees back home.

Singh claims about Walter Hamilton’s gazette of 1928: “It is noteworthy that Hamilton finds not one temple to be described in detail.(...) His account makes no mention of Rama’s birthplace temple or of the Hanumangarhi or even the ancient Nageshwarnath temple.” (p.97) So he himself admits at least the existence of the Hanumangarhi and Nageshwarnath temples, yet notes that Hamilton doesn’t care to mention them. Rather than taking this non-mention as proof of how unimportant Rama’s birthplace is, he should merely have drawn the obvious conclusion that Hamilton never sought to give a description of Ayodhya’s religious landscape. So the non-mention of Rama Janmabhumi cannot even be used as an argument from silence (as non-historian Valay Singh does here), which would still be the weakest type of argument anyway.

By contrast, other British sources are conceded to mention the Hanumangarhi, but he still finds fault with those: “In 1855, curiously enough, no extant British record of the Hanumangarhi identifies the said mosque as Ram Janmabhumi.” (p.111)  Well, of course, because it wasn’t.

He adds facts that might become important the day a real history of the Ayodhya movement is written, e.g. that Hindutva stalwarts MS Golwalkar and Nana Deshmukh had been present for the installation of the idols in 1949. The strong involvement of the Hindu Mahâsabhâ from the beginning was already known, but recently the RSS has been magnifying its own role in the early Ayodhya agitation. Here Singh maintains a proper distance, qualifying this claim with “if true”. (p.189)

 

 

Me

There is a mention of myself (p.29), where I discuss Ramacharitmanas poet Tulsidas’s perfectly explainable non-mention of the purported temple demolition by his contemporary Akbar’s grandfather Babar. (I later learned that in a lesser-known text of his, the Doha Shataka from 1590, verse 85-92, deposed before the Allahabad High Court in 2003, Tulsidas does mention Babar’s destruction.) This is a rather peripheral historical argument within my book Ayodhya, the Case against the Temple, which he has apparently read. The central thesis of the book, which he studiously ignores, consists of scholarly arguments for the temple, and a refutation of all the secularists’ and Eminent Historians’ attempts to escape this evidence.

Moreover, that book of mine also treats of a few parallel cases. Thus, it is where Singh could have found the demolition of the well-known false claim that Pushyamitra Shunga awarded a prize for the head of every Buddhist. Yet, he faithfully reproduces this false claim: “In Ayodhya, local tradition says that he declared a price of one gold coin for the head of one Buddhist. He is believed to have led a Brahmin campain to wipe out Buddhist rule from north India.” (p.7) The claim is not just wrong, but is also misattributed: his local informers have not expressed some “local tradition”. Being located far from Pushyamitra’s capital, the locals have merely parroted the Nehruvian story megaphoned through the textbooks and media. In history courses, you learn about the need for “origin criticism”; once you have some experience with this, you can, even before delving into the books or the dusty manuscripts, already see that in the present case, the claim is not based on some mysteriously preserved local tradition but on the (carefully engineered) received wisdom.

At any rate, Singh has been caught in the act of denying pro-temple evidence which he must have learned about as per his own testimony. So it doesn’t surprise us that he feigns unfamiliarity with the scholarly state of the art. According to him, the VHP sought “the cover of scientifically gathered evidence”  and “is said to have surmised that if the excavation proved (which it did in the minds of some Hindus) that there was a Hindu temple at the site prior to the Babri Masjid, then the demolition of the Babri Masjid was justified.” (p.270) No, proof from the excavations (converging with that from many documentary sources) did not just show the temple’s existence “in the mind of some Hindus”; this variegated proof is the scientific state of the art. Those who deny it, even if they boast academic titles, are ipso facto anti-science.

 

 

Some good things

Let’s not be overly pedantic. Some good things can be reported about this book. We learn here that Narasimha Rao (who, as PM, followed in Rajiv Gandhi’s footsteps by promising a solution in consonance with the historical evidence, a neutral way of saying: in accordance with the Hindu preference), according to a Congress politician, was “India’s first BJP Prime Minister”. (p.257) He certainly was India’s best PM so far, for he patronized the decisive move away from the Nehruvian socialist policies that had bankrupted India, and he sat unmoved through the news of Kar Sevaks demolishing the disputed structure without ordering the only thing that could have saved the Masjid: an intervention by the army. This actually saved many lives, for a standing Masjid would have swayed millions of fence-sitting Muslims to go on claiming this otherwise unimportant building, and would have dissuaded the Supreme Court from finally closing the controversy by letting common sense prevail: leave a Hindu sacred site to the Hindus.  

On p.82-83, he faithfully quotes the Austrian Jesuit Josepf Tieffenthaler, an eye-witness to the religious practices in Ayodhya. Like all witnesses in the first centuries after Babar, he reports plenty of Hindu activity at the site, esp. celebrations of his incarnation on Ram Navami; and conspicuously omits mentioning any Muslim activity there. Perhaps Akbar, who sought to curry favour with the Hindus as a counterweight to the sectarian and ethnic Muslim lobbies threatening his power, had reached a compromise with the Hindus to the effect that they could worship Rama there on condition of not offending the Muslims by demolishing the mosque architecture. The details about that period, probably ending with or interrupted by Aurangzeb’s iconoclastic fury, remain to be explored by the historians, who are all the more free to do so now that the burden of a momentous controversy has been lifted. 

Singh also approaches honesty when he reports: “On 27 February 2002, more than fifty karsevaks were burnt to death reportedly by a ‘Muslim mob’.” (p.262) These scare quotes were unnecessary, the facts have been established and even confirmed by the judiciary, but at least the true story is more or less explicitated.

This is his farewell sentence: “Ayodhya has come a long way in its journey over millennia, and while today it is called the graveyard of Inda’s composite culture and rule of law, I am hopeful that this label, too, will not stick forever. Ayodhya will keep changing its course with the river Sarayu as its eternal witness.” (p.369) We retain that the false label on Ayodhya as graveyard of pluralism will, in spite of frantic attempts by the secularists, not stick forever.

 

 


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Saturday, August 8, 2020

Down with birthdays!

 

Down with birthdays!

 

(Pragyata Magazine, 7 August 2020)

 

Last year, 2019, in a neighbouring civilization called the Year of the Pig, coincidentally on Autumn Equinox, there was a potentially important conference in Delhi Aerocity. Though tailor-made for welcoming foreigners arriving at the airport, I was the only real foreigner there: both foreign national and foreign resident. Yet, in the introductory proceedings, the organizers highlighted that I had recently turned 60. Since 60 = 5 x 12, a full Chinese 12-year Zodiac had revolved once more since my birth, which means I am a Pig myself. That must explain my fondness for Varaha, Vishnu’s Boar incarnation who saves the Earth goddess from the deep, and who spites pig-haters by showing how even a pig can be God. Pig and proud to be one!

Still, I had mixed feelings about this attention to my birthday. True, I have to plead guilty: they had asked me beforehand, and I had cursorily agreed, knowing Hindus’ penchant for celebrating. Earlier that year, I had attended a conference where invited speakers had been asked to shorten and even further shorten their prepared speeches to make room for more pomp and ceremony – and the audience loved it. That was an astrology conference which I only attended because a Serbo-Belgian friend of mine was being honoured, and for that kind of occasion and audience, all this empty glitter was what you might expect.

But this conference was different. It focused on the legal discriminations against Hinduism, a very grim reality about which six years of Narendra Modi’s rule hasn’t done anything (though indirectly, the purely secular reform of abolishing the special status of Jammu & Kashmir has remedied a de facto source of injustice to the Hindus). This birthday stuff seemed to me, an impatient Westerner, inappropriately frivolous for such a potentially consequential work meeting.

(It was not even the only off-topic venture. The organizers also honoured Alok Kumar, advocate and VHP leader. I was very happy to see him back: in the 1990s I had met him several times when he fought court cases for Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel, always victorious. Now this, even more than his side career as a VHP office-bearer, made him truly deserving of being honoured. Only, this was not the right occasion: it gave a handle to the Mendacious Media to misrepresent this independent pan-Hindu initiative as a VHP affair. And yes, the next day the Times of India reported the conference highlighting its VHP dimension but obscuring its theme, as it did not want the fact of anti-Hindu discrimination to enter its readers’ consciousness.)   

        I have never been into birthday celebrations. In Belgium, my own birthday fell in the summer holidays, so I didn’t have my schoolmates etc. around me to do any celebrating, and I noticed my parents not paying any attention to it either. When I had become a father myself, I noticed my mother, the kids’ grandmother, frowning on all the time and money spent by the new generation on such a silly mundane occasion.

        In real Roman Catholic tradition, it was not the birthday that was celebrated, but the “name day”. All Catholic children were named after a saint, and they celebrated the day allotted to that saint in the Saints’ Calendar. Good for me, as there were several saints called Koenraad. To limit myself to an example known in India: all boys named Valentine were expected to celebrate 14 February. The fact that birthdays had entered our consciousness at all was a symptom of the march of secularization. (But this had already been going on for long enough to produce a few good Dutch birthday carols, far better than the American tune everybody knows.)

        When I had gotten to know my mentor in Hindu matters, Sita Ram Goel, I noticed that he too frowned on birthdays and shuddered resignedly when he saw his grandchildren partake in the American fad of birthday celebrations. It was not a matter of which religion, but of religiosity as such: people aware of heavenly realities are not that euphoric about a mere birthday, the day an eternal soul takes temporary incarnation. The fact that spiritual level corresponds inversely with the value attached to birthdays is best illustrated by the fact that Hindu renunciates discard from their discourse all their pre-initiation life details, including their physical birthday. In that sense, it was another sign of mindless Americanization when, some years ago, thousands of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s disciples flew in to Bengaluru to celebrate their Guru’s birthday. Gurus are important precisely because they have transcended their personalities: them, you could call apaurusheya.

        Then again, the Hindu valuation of astrology upgrades birthdays somewhat. Not that the birth horoscope is intrinsically Hindu: unlike the simple rules a astrocalculation of auspicious times in genuinely Vedic astrology, the individualized astrology of the birth horoscope was imported from Babylon by the Greeks only some two thousands years ago, a trifle when reckoned on a Hindu timescale. But now horoscopy has become a part of most Hindus’ lives, so the stellar configuration at birth is deemed to contain the main features of one’s present incarnation. It’s only an incarnation, a hundred years at most, but alright, it is more than nothing.

        Why this contemplation of the birthday principle? This requires a little detour. On the occasion of the Bhumi Pujan in Ayodhya on 5 August 2020, Anjali George, a leader of the pro-tradition agitation last year regarding Sabarimala, sent around the reference to an article in The Hindu (“The conservative challenge to Hindutva”, Aug. 2020). It said that

        many Hindu Dharmagurus, including a Shankaracharya, believe that August 5 is an inauspicious day for the ceremony. According to them, astrologically, and in consonance with established religious practices, the second day (Dwitiya) of the dark fortnight (Krishnapaksh) of the Indian month of Bhadrapad (July-August) is considered inauspicious. Besides, gods are supposed to be resting during this month and must not be called upon. Despite this, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has decided to go ahead with the ceremony on this date.

        There far more knowledgeable commenters on Hindu astrology, but even this writer can comprehend the simple principle that an entreprise intended to grow and prosper should be started under a waxing moon. To be sure, I have no idea of the real-life effect of the waxing or waning of the moon at a foundational moment (it should be easy to test: compare the destinies of a hundred waxing-moon initiatives with a hundred waning-moon ones), and Hindus are at liberty to dissent from their own tradition in this regard, but then that should be openly debated in tempore non suspecto.

The Dharmacharyas had a point when they protested that the tradition they represent should not be simply ignored, and certainly not at an important event, religious par excellence, like the Bhumi Pujan. Some astrology enthusiasts even took it a bit far by allegedly “sending death threats to Pandit NR Vijayendra Sharma, who had suggested the Mahurat date- August 5, for the Bhoomi Pujan of Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir”. (OpIndia, 4 Aug. 2020) Reportedly, the Pandit had selected four dates, three of them with waxing moon, among which Modi had selected 5 August.

Apologists of the Hindutva movement counter that astrology-believing Hindus are "playing spoilsport" by pointing out the less-than-perfect constellation. They relied more on other considerations. As Anjali George comments, what we witness is “the growing process of de-ritualisation of the Hindu religion, primarily by the trustees of Hindutva, thereby pitting Hindutva against a section of religious authorities”. To her, it is obviously a repeat of what had happened in the Sabarimala affair: the Sangh had initially sided with the secularist disrespect for the traditional religious conventions of the temple, and only crossed the floor once popular opinion had asserted itself in favour of the tradition.

What were the “other considerations” that prompted the RSS-BJP to spurn the three alternative dates deemed auspicious and prefer 5 August? Very apparently, the reason is a birthday: it was the first anniversary of the normalization of Kashmir’s situation within India on 5 August 2019. This was a very good and necessary move, by itself already justifying all the votes cast for the BJP that had made this integration of Kashmir possible. But this is a process that has just started: the institutional normalization should be followed by a normalization on the ground, including the definitive elimination of the terrorist threat. When all that has been achieved, it may become time for a birthday celebration.

We can compare it to India’s Declaration of Independence on 15 August 1947. According to the Dharmacharyas and every Hindu familiar with the tradition, this was an inauspicious day totally unbecoming of such a solemn occasion. For starters, it had a waning moon. But these objections had been overruled by Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten. On 15 August 1945, he had, together with Douglas McArthur for the US, successfully concluded WW2 in the Asian theatre by receiving the Japanese capitulation; so he wanted to make the transfer of power an occasion for celebrating its second anniversary. No doubt this had been an important moment in his career, but not sufficient to overrule the concerns of a nation that was, of all things, becoming independent.

To sum up: birthdays are only relatively important, and they should not be used to subordinate a new event to an earlier one, much less if it means turning a religious event to a political one. It is the RSS-BJP that has played spoilsport and created an avoidable and unnecessary friction within Hindu society over this seeming trifle of the exact date. Perhaps modern knowledge warrants a rethink of the place of astrology with Hinduism, but there have been years and decades when this could have been looked into, and more to come. There are enough shadow moments for such ratiocination, discussion and consensus-building. Let's reserve sunny moments for celebrating. Jai Siyaram!


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Monday, July 27, 2020

The shoulders he stood on: the Buddha’s teachers and their legacy within Buddhism

 

 Conference on Buddhism & World Peace

Utkal University & KIIPS, Bhubaneshwar, 8 February 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

The Buddha was not the inventor of a new method in the service of a new philosophical goal. He trod into existing footsteps: seeking the goal of Liberation through the method of Meditation. This ideal was already available before he was born and that was what beckoned him into a spiritual career. Even more specifically, he learned meditation techniques from established pre-Buddhist masters and integrated these prominently in the Buddhist meditation curriculum.

 

 

 

1.     Navel-gazing

 

Less contemplative religions denounce Buddhists as “navel-gazers”. Indeed Chan/Zen Buddhists even literally focus on the energy centre just below the navel, a point borrowing its special meaning from Daoism, which calls it Dantian, ‘the field of cinnabar’. But the good thing about this focus on the navel is its unintended symbolism: a navel presupposes birth from parents. It proves you are part of a lineage, you have been born as an heir, and with a debt to your ancestry.

So indeed, Buddhist tradition pays a lot of attention to the role of Śākyamuni’s ancestry in his unique life path, particularly his father, also his foster-mother, his wife and concubines and his son. We know more about his family situation than of that of most sannyasins, who tend to keep their pre-initiation lives secret.

 

 

 

2.     Anti-ancestry bias: the Buddha as rebel

 

Every great thinker has numerous studies dedicated to the influences that formed him. For Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, however, this question is now systematically ignored or downplayed. Instead, the claim is propped up that he was a radically different mind from what surrounded or preceded him.

Either he is deemed a rebel against the ambient (partly or predominantly Vedic) culture. This view came about among 19th-century Protestant Orientalists as a conscious projection of Luther rebelling against Popery or of Jesus challenging the Pharisees. Thought up in Germany, today it is taught worldwide to almost everyone through school manuals and introductory books, both abroad and in India; the only exception is Buddhist countries to the extent that they maintain their own centuries-old tradition (e.g. the Buddha biography by Hsinng Yun 2013 used by the Fo Guang, “sunbeams of the Buddha”, school), but not to the extent that they too have absorbed the Western “consensus”. You can find it strongly in Bhimrao Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma, less strongly in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India (because he contradictorily adds that the Buddha’s contribution is typical for Indian culture).

The most subtle recent variation on this approach is by Richard Gombrich, who admits the Buddha borrowed from both Jainism (whose historical tīrthaṁkara Pārśvanāth lived some 250 years earlier) and the Upaniṣads: the Buddha “was alluding primarily to teachings in the early Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, (ĀUP) teachings which are usually known as Vedānta, a term which literally means ‘Conclusions of the Veda’. With some of these teachings the Buddha agreed; others he criticized, though usually he did so obliquely.” (Gombrich 2009:60) However, he only agreed with the words, not the meanings: he used the old words but gave them a new meaning entirely his own. Thus, for the Jainas karma refers to a form of matter, but for the Buddha, this existing term becomes a matter of intention. (Gombrich 2009:75)

So: “On the one hand, the Upaniṣads had a gnostic soteriology: our basic problem is a lack of understanding. (…) On the other hand, Jainism and related sects saw our basic problem as involvement with the world through desire: the answer lies in acquiring total self-control. (…) Though the Upaniṣads also deprecated desire and Jainism also advocated understanding, it was the Buddha who found the perfect combination of the two approaches.” (Gombrich 2009:74)  For Gombrich, the Buddha formally walked in the trodden paths of the ambient society, but only to revolutionize it in a very subtle way.

But if true, this reinterpretation does not put Buddhism outside Hinduism, on the contrary. Reinterpretation is already part of the evolving Vedic thought. Thus, Karma as understood in Vedic Karmakāṇḍa (ritual work) differs from what it becomes in the Bhagavad Gītā (in the source text and even more as nowadays interpreted: “the yoga of work”) and in reincarnationist context. The common measure is “action at a distance”: in Vedic ritualism, a fire sacrifice is performed with a chosen goal in mind, say victory on the battlefield, and hopefully causes through action at a distance the desired result, crossing the space and time between the ritual and the battlefield result; in reincarnationist parlance, karma from past actions signifies the causation at a distance of a destiny in the future. The shift is from a ritual causation to a moral causation, but the same term remains in use.

 

 

3.     The Buddha as fountainhead

 

An even more daring alternative within the ancestry-denying consensus is the one we might summarize as: “All roads lead to the Buddha.” Since rebellion against something is still a form of relation, a newer school claims that he was not a follower of nor even a rebel against earlier models, but an incredibly creative founder from whom his surroundings borrowed. Here he is the fountainhead of all that not just Buddhist but even Hindu culture has to offer: either it is Buddhist and obviously his, or it is non-Buddhist, and in that case it has been borrowed (or in neo-Ambedkarspeak: “stolen”) from the Buddha. “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good”, seems to be the operative guideline, so anything bad that can be found in Buddhism is a contamination from Hinduism (or “Brahminism”), anything good in Hinduism must be an import from Buddhism.

One core of truth in this view is that we may be mistaken in deducing all spiritual developments in India from the Vedas, too often seen as the source of everything worthwhile. Vedic culture with its hymn recitation and its fire sacrifice, and with an array of sciences growing around it (astronomy, mathematics, grammar) was only one of the tributaries of Hindu culture, viz. the tradition of the Paurava tribe centred on the Sarasvatī basin in present-day Haryāṇā. It was not the mother but the sister of other tributaries, like the devotional culture with its idols and idol-houses (temples), originating in peninsular India; the culture of mother-goddess worship with blood sacrifices, rooted in every village but centred mostly in Bengal and Assam; and the culture of Greater Magadha, roughly Bihar, where asceticism and the belief in reincarnation originate. It is when the Vedic culture expands to the east, where Yājñavalkya wins a debate at king Janaka in Videha (northwestern Bihar) that these elements become central in the youngest layer of the Veda, the major Upaniṣads. So, less than a reaction to the Vedas, the Śramana (renunciate) culture may be a sister tradition developing on its own, with the Buddha as one of its children.

As Shrikant Talageri always emphasizes: “In this Hindu culture, the original religious elements of the Pūru tribes (the Vedic hymns and different types of Vedic yajñas) became just one nominal part of the whole religion, subordinated in actual importance to the elements from the other tribes: the philosophical concepts (Upaniṣads, Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka’s philosophy etc.) from the Ikṣvāku tribes, Tantrism from tribes further east, idol-worship and temple culture from the tribes in South India, etc.” (Talageri 2019:169)

An academic support of this view is to be found in a Buddhacentric chronology. Johannes Bronkhorst (2000:112-123) has argued that the Upaniṣads actually postdate the Buddha, making the yogic ideas in them a calque on Buddhism. He brings in rather convoluted philological arguments, which have failed to find much approval among specialists in a position to judge this hypothesis. Thus Gombrich cites several Upaniṣadic verses as known to the Buddha (BĀU 1:4:5-6, Gombrich 2009:76; Gombrich 1987). However, the implied conclusion of Upanishadic non-originality has become popular in politically motivated circles in Western and Indian academe and in the Ambedkarite movement.  

Gombrich identifies the earliest reference to yogic practice as: “Therefore, knowing this, having become calm, subdued, quiet, patiently enduring, concentrated, one sees the soul [ātman, more usually ‘self’] in oneself.” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4:4:23) Even later is the first formal, self-conscious definition of the term Yoga (‘a yoke, the yoking’ > discipline): “The earliest known definition of yoga comes in the c. third-century BCE Kaṭha Upaniṣad” (Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xv), viz.: “When the 5 senses are silenced, along with the mind, and the intellect stops its activity: that is called the highest state. Strongly restraining the sense is what is called Yoga." (Kaṭha Up. 2.3.10–11)

 Having done a lot of research in Indian chronology, but without presupposing the late Aryan Invasion sequence (Ṛg-Veda in -1200 etc.), we always wonder where people get those dates from, posited with such confidence. The texts themselves don’t give these, and we know these dates are partly determined by the cramped and unhistorical hypothesis of an Aryan invasion ca. 1500 BCE. We find no reason to insist that the Kaṭha Upaniṣad postdates the Buddha. And let this still be a legitimate topic of debate, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad’s higher antiquity is just too well-established. That it is earlier than the Buddha, follows from the fact that, as per Gombrich, he quotes from it.several times. It is also taken to contain some ideas known through Buddhism but in less systematized form, not because the Brahmin editors were too simple to properly digest ideas borrowed from a prior-existing Buddhism, but because they came earlier and expressed the same ideas in a more spontaneous form.

Unlikely and criticized as it is, the hypothesis of a post-Buddha date for the Upaniṣads deserves to be taken seriously, if only as a thought experiment. Supposing it is true, then the Buddha’s lonely and therefore titanic achievements are impressive, but then this begs the question where the Buddha had it all from: if he did not build on the older tradition, Vedic or Magadhan, did he get is from revelation, or from pure genius?

 

 

4.     Proto-Buddhism

         In Siddhārtha Gautama’s life story, the presence of spiritualism and asceticism in his pre-ascetic years is striking. At birth, he is predicted to either become a great ruler (as had been planned by his father) or a great renunciate,-- a category clearly already known.  In the classical story of his four meetings at age 29, it is the sight of a renunciant that sets him on his distinctive course. He wants to realize an ideal that others have already pursued and, given the inspiring effect this renunciant had, probably realized.

No mention is made anywhere of his contemporaries being surprised that someone would go and become a forest ascetic. Among the Romans or the Aztecs or most peoples, this would have been considered strange: a healthy young man who spurns a family life with wife and child and, for a prince, even concubines, in order to go to the forest to pursue a bizarre state of mind which he fancies to be Enlightenment. This was, after all, Hindu civilization, already familiar with the lifestyle that the Buddha would make world-famous. It was a long-existing footstep in which Siddhārtha followed. And in a next phase, once in the forest, he does not just go his own way. Famously, for a while, he joins a group of extreme ascetics, perhaps Jainas or a similar sect already in existence: as sons of the same culture, they were on a search for the same thing as he. It is only after sharing with them a part of his spiritual path that finally he leaves them, continuing his search into its more distinctively Buddhist phase.

More than forty years later, in the final years of his life, after having amply developed his own Dharma, he lays down his view of the good society in “the Seven Injunctions of Non-Decline”. (Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūkta 1.1-5, “Chapter of the supreme exctinction”, Sanskrit; and Satta-Aparihāniya-Dhammā: “Seven non-decrease duties”, in Aṅguttara-Nikāya 7:21, Pali, treated by Elst 2018). These relate the sapta śīla, the “seven precepts” of non-decline. Just as in spiritual life, the Buddha’s apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, so in his social vision: it reproduces the institutions and traditions he has grown up with.

The first principle is unity in decision-making, deliberation till a consensus is reached, as the key to social cohesion and national invincibility. This was the political institution he had grown up with in the Śākya republic, and as a member of the Kṣatriya elite, he had been a full member of the Republic’s Senate, where deliberation and forging a consensus was his way of life. For the rest, a good cohesive spirit in society is furthered by respecting the laws, respecting women, respecting holy men, and preserving the existing religious traditions (sacred places, pilgrimages, festivals). Far from being a rebel, we learn that the Buddha was a conservative. Like his Chinese contemporary Confucius, he did not advocate draconic laws nor “more blue on the street”, but the force of traditional mores and the awe for the sacred to streamline society.

 

 

5.     The Buddha’s teachers

We know some specifics of his culturally approved search in the footsteps of earlier philosophers and renunciants. According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (“syllabus on the noble search”), before reaching his Great Awakening, he had two meditation teachers. The first one was linked with the philosophical school Sāṁkhya, “enumeration”, then having a more general meaning compared to later centuries when it had to compete with an array of other schools, roughly “philosophy”. These were Ālāra Kālāma, a famous expert in breath control and Dhyāna mārga, “the way of meditation”; and Uddaka Rāmaputta, closer to Jainism. They taught him two advanced meditation techniques: “staying in nothingness” (ākiñcaññāyatana), c.q. “entering the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānasaññāyatana), also qualified as “the peak of existence”.

The scenario in both cases was the same. He mastered the techniques in months, became equal to his teachers; but then he grew dissatisfied with them because these mental states did not, after the return to ordinary consciousness, eliminate suffering. In the Buddha’s own words: “But the thought occurred to me, 'This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness.' So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.”

Since the beginning, he had had this idiosyncratic concern, not shared with all other aspirants. Indeed, in the critiques of Buddhist meditation (as by Dayānanda 1875), the seeming self-evidence of suffering (duḥkha) as motivating starting-point of the spiritual search is rejected. Human searches for lofty goals including the quest for Awakening can have more positive origins than the attempt to quell suffering. The Upaniṣads strive for Mukti or Mokṣa (liberation), viz. from Avidyā, (ignorance), a very similar goal to Buddhist Nirvāṇa, “extinction”, but don’t start out with declaring that this is a matter of escaping from this Vale of Tears. Only in the Buddhist-influenced Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali do we find a less emphatic but real enough acknowledgment that “to the discerning, everything is painful”, 2:15; Yardi 1996:166).

Sometime in mid-quest, people redefine their goals, and the Buddha’s mature understanding of his spiritual goal could have changed from his juvenile impulse. But no, he remained entirely serious about his original goal, so after learning meditation, he moved on to develop his own variation. In modern introductions, to Buddhism, this is often portrayed as a revolt, even done in disgust. Thus, Bronkhorst breezily dismisses this evidence for the Hindu roots of Buddhism: “…the Bodhisattva’s training under Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka the son of Rāma, which he then discarded as useless.” (Bronkhorst 1993, emphasis added) This conflicts with the source text, and with Buddhist practice, which has integrated these meditation techniques in its training programme. They received the place of honour in the Buddhist curriculum: as the last two stages before Liberation, the final two of the four Jhānas (“meditations”, Sanskrit Dhyānas). It is not a rejection but rather a case of Friedrich Nietzsche’s remark that “you don’t honour your teacher by remaining his pupil”.

         The Buddha went beyond what he had learned, but the information given by the Sutta about the mutual relationship between him and his teachers during and after his apprenticeship is all positive. They remained friends, he called them “my companion in the holy life”. After his discovery of Nirvāṇa, the Buddha sent for them to share it, only to find that they had already died.

 

 

 

6.     All this and world peace

That Buddhism is but one of the evolutes of a much older tradition, is a modestly useful insight for world peace. It takes the doctrinal dimension out of the modern anti-Hindu animus in Buddhist countrie, which has led to the expulsion of Hindu populations from Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Bhutan. Inside India, it takes away a similar anti-Hindu animus among the followers of Jawaharlal Nehru, who turned Buddhism into India’s unofficial state religion, (reviving Aśoka’s state symbols). They and the Ambedkarites have started to wield Buddhism as a weapon against Hinduism. The Buddha himself would be surprised to see what has become of his legacy. He himself never had a quarrel with the ambient Brahmin-dominated culture, and the only attempts on his life were by one of his own jealous disciples.

But even without these political benefits, it remains worthwhile for its own sake to raise awareness of Buddhism’s profound rootedness in a much older Hindu culture. Compared to the Western and neo-Buddhist conflict models of the Buddha’s relation with Hindu tradition, it is simply more truthful.

 

 

Conclusion

Gautama the Buddha was part of an ancient tradition. Just as it is false to dub Mahatma Gandhi the "father of the nation" (because he considered himself the son of an ancient nation), it would be false to call the Buddha the father of anything. He was the founder of a monastic order, the Saṁgha, but not of a new religion. His Dharma was a variation on the teachings that already existed, perhaps with a few unique touches, just like most other Sampradāyas. Indeed, the differences between them are mirrored by the differences that soon developed between sub-schools of Buddhism. Nobody calls Mahāyāna a break-away from Buddhism, just as nobody calls Advaita a breakaway from Vedānta. Similarly, we should not call Buddhism a breakaway from Hinduism.

 

 

 

Ambedkar, Bhimrao, 1957 (Akash Singh Rathore ed. 2011): The Buddha and His Dhamma, OUP, Delhi.

Bronkhorst, Johannes, 2000 (1993): The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India, Motilal Bannarsidass, Delhi.

Dayānanda Sarasvatī, Svāmī, 1875 (2014): Satyārtha Prakāśa (Light of Truth, Sanskrit text with English trannslation), Vijay Kumar Hasananda, Delhi.

Elst, Koenraad, 2018: “The Buddha as political advisor”, unpublished paper read on 23 January at Jindal University, Sonepat.

Gombrich, Richard, 1987: “Old bodies like carts”, mentioned in Gombrich 2009:63, 213n.

--, 2009: What the Buddha Thought, Equinox, London.

Hsing Yun, 2013 (Chinese original 1998): The Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha, Foguang Publ., Taiwan.

Nehru, Jawaharlal, 1994 (1946): Discovery of India, OUP Delhi.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, ed., 1992 (1953): The Principal Upaniṣads, Humanity Books, New York.

Talageri, Shrikant, 2019: Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Aditya Prakashan, Delhi.

Yardi, MR, 1996 (1979): The Yoga of Patañjali, BORI, Pune



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