Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Decoding Hinduism (book review)

Most Hindus have no clear idea where their own religion fits in the global religious landscape. Even the most illiterate Christian or Muslim ‘knows’ that his religion was brought into the world in order to supersede all other religions, which are false. The Hindus’ grasp of their relation to other religions, even (and perhaps especially) among the English-speaking literates, is characterised by crass ignorance and sweet delusions.

In Universal Hinduism (Voice of India, Delhi 2010), American scholar and Hindu convert David Frawley sets out to clear up this confusion. He takes the reader through the basic data that set Hinduism apart from the others, and specific Hindu schools from one another and from Buddhism. He also discusses what it has in common with the world’s eliminated and surviving Pagan religions, and sometimes with forms of Islam and Christianity too. In his typical kindly style, he gives every practice and every belief its due, but keeps his focus on the potential of Sanatana Dharma to heal modern society as well as to lead man to enlightenment.

One of the most useful parts for Hindus will be Frawley’s discussion of the motivation and strategy behind the missionary penetration of Hindu society. On this, most Hindu nationalist discourse is shrill and ill-informed. It usually amounts to an anachronistic identification of Christianity with “White racism” (which was a passing phase in the Church’s long history). Among other mistakes, this ignores the difference between Catholics and Protestants, with the latter marketing Christianity in India most aggressively. Such sloppiness contrasts sharply with the diligence and thoroughness of the Christian effort in mapping out the Hindu world, theologically as well as sociologically.

If Hindus want to develop a more realistic assessment of the missionary enterprise, Frawley’s chapter on it is a good place to start. He explains Christianity as a belief system and reveals its Pagan roots along with its anti-Pagan stance in terms that Hindus will understand. Thus, Catholic and Orthodox icon worship is a thinly veiled continuation of Pagan murti-puja, with the Virgin Mary as the acceptable face of the Goddess. Protestants had already pointed out that much of what endears the Virgin, the Saints and their idols and pilgrimages to the common worshippers is plain Paganism. The co-optation of Pagan elements into folk Christianity, that is, of the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin (whose temple in Mexico was forcibly replaced with a chapel) as the Virgen de Guadalupe, is being replayed in India today by the mainstream Churches under the label “acculturation”. By contrast, Evangelical Protestants pursue a more confrontational strategy, labelling Hindu gods as devils and making no compromise with “idol worship”. They are very straightforward about the essential exclusivism that contrasts Christianity and Islam with pluralistic Hinduism.

On the contention between Hindu nationalism and Hindu universalism, Frawley charts a middle course. Of course, Hinduism is tied to India, yet at the same time it is ever more present on all continents and has even welcomed some unsolicited native converts there, besides sharing some values and practices with other religions worldwide. There is little point in trying to Indianise these others, but the common ground should be explored further, as is being done at the annual Gathering of the Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures, where Native American, Yoruba and Maori medicine-men make common cause with Hindu gurus like Swami Dayananda Saraswati. “All such true spiritual traditions face many common enemies in this materialistic age”, so “they should form a common front”.

At the same time, non-Indians who adopt Asian spiritual practices should realise that this system for liberation is embedded in a culture with many other dimensions. Some of these more worldly elements (arts, dress, lifestyle) could usefully be adopted as well. Frawley ought to know, as a practising Ayurvedic doctor who habitually wears Indian clothes. Thus, vegetarianism is not merely a different cuisine, it is objectively superior to meat-eating, and this is now being acknowledged by non-Hindus concerned about health and ecology. While differences must be tolerated, it doesn’t mean that all beliefs and practices are of equal value.

Knowledge is preferable to faith. At inter-faith conferences, Hindus usually cut a sorry figure, ill-prepared as they are; but at “inter-knowledge” meetings, they would have more to offer. The Hindu-Buddhist network of teaching traditions aims for “liberation through knowledge” rather than “salvation through faith”. Defensively, they should uphold religious diversity (on a par with the concern for biodiversity) against the levelling campaigns of missionary creeds and consumerism. But in a forward perspective, they should also communicate their own tradition of respect for all that is sacred and integrate it with the modern world.

(book review published in The Sunday Pioneer, Delhi, 13 March 2011)


Sandeep said...

Unfortunately, almost anyone who writes about Hinduism is either a guru-follower-type moron with barely half a neuron, or a professor with inexplicable, ingrained and intense hatred of the religion. Frawley's notion of "intellectual kShatriya" is the need of the hour. Only, these kShatriyas badly need to be untainted by devotion and not another nut-case guru follower.

The lack of spirituality is the strength of Islam : it is all about identity-consciousness. In this age of confirmation bias, that is what a religion needs to survive.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

This book sounds like it addresses some very important issues. The world desperately needs greater communication and coordination among Hindus, Buddhists, Native traditions, Pagans, etc. In essence, and even though it is impolite to say so, what we need is a world-wide religious United Front against Christianity and Islam.

B.N.Gururaj said...

One of the greatest weakness of the Hindus who are concerned about the proliferation of Christianity at the expense of Hindu population is that they are hardly knowledgeable about the religions that are their adversaries. Hindus perceive Christians are monolithic block. This is not true. There are scores of sects and cults within Christianity. Hindus, for most part, are not even aware of the basic tenets of Islam or Christianity. Hence, they tend to treat these beliefs are religions. Whereas, these are actually amongst the oldest political cult, donning the robes of religion. Both Islam and Christianity aim at augmenting their number at the expense of Hindus. They are guided by the Pope's exhortation that the third millennia of Christianity will be that of Asia, meaning thereby that Church intends to convert entire Asian continent into Christian continent.

If the persons claiming to be Hindu protagonists pay more attention to the belief structure of Islam and Christianity, Hindu response is likely to be more coherent and better targeted. A broom should be held by its handle, not by its bristles!

VAMANAN said...

Hallo sir. Hope you are fine. Recently when I gently pointed out in a social networking site that St. Thomas' 'visit' to Mylapore is fraught with doubts, I had some impertinent responses from fellow Hindus, who seemed to think I was narrow-minded. One such respondent later posted a pic of a faithful paying obeisance to St. Thomas' 'coffin' in Santhome with the line, 'faith is everything'! Hope such characters read your 'Decolonizing the Hindu mind'. It is quite a book and I have benefited from it greatly. I am a deeply spiritual person and have no stomach for such controversies but I believe that the remarkably plural ethos of Hinduism has to be protected.

Karthik rajan said...

It is high time hindus launched an all out attack on Christianity and islam. But before that hindus have to define their religion clearly. Even the famous vociferous champions of Hinduism in india : BJP and VHP , have never managed to give a clear explanation. Only a week mumble that Hinduism is ‘all inclusive’ and ‘all encompassing’. But why is this so ? why has Hinduism not shown a definite god and a path like Christianity and islam ? Have these organizations never thought about this before, or , is the answer too difficult to obain ?
On reading your articles only I came across the word pagan and heathen . A Tamil t.v channel is airing a program on temples of tamil gods with names like karuppasamy, ayyanaar samy, maariamman (goddess), muththaalamman etc. ( the list is huge !) , which seems to have no relation to the hindu gods/goddesses like siva, Vishnu, saraswati, lakshmi etc. , except that small idols of these gods are also installed in these temples. Such temples are flourishing side by side with other hindu temples, where the priests are mostly non-brahmans. Age old rituals (some gory) are still being followed in these temples like goat sacrifice, priest sucking the blood out of a live goat, devil chasing by whip lashes, body piercing, breaking coconuts on devotees heads, fire walk, liquor / cigar offering etc.

A retired professor of history , in a seminar , mentioned that the god of ancient tamils is karuppasamy, who got transformed to Bhairavar, then to Dakshinamurthy, and finally to Lord Siva. He also informed that the Brahmans who migrated down south indulged only in fire rituals (homams) at first and then switched over to promoting temple culture of cultic gods like siva , vishu, durga ….., simultaneously taking up priesthood in these temples.

Putting two and two together , I am inclined to believe that Hinduism is nothing but a Reform movement started by the vedhic Brahmans aimed at reforming paganism in india. They gently persuaded the pagans to look into the truth behind their religious practices ( ‘yekam sath, vipraha bahudhaa vadhanthi’ seems to be the famous hymn which does so ) without attacking their gods or idol worship culture. They placed their own gods by the side of the pagan gods with a claim that these gods are similar to them but have to be approached in a disciplined way to get their divine blessings/help. Hence the agama rules were formulated by them. Vegetarianism was promoted by them not only because it is safe but also helps in reducing aggressive behavior in humans and develop appreciation for wild life. In these pagan temples too, Brahmans are being appointed as priests and gory rituals like goat sacrifice are being stopped. Just why the Brahmans started a reform process rather than creating a new religion and thrusting it on
everyone remains to be seen. Probably they were wise enough to realize the violent backlash it would have created.
In contrast , Christianity and islam have been destroying paganism everywhere. Reading the bible , quran and biography of Mohammad came as a rude shock to me. It is incomprehensible how Christians and muslims are able to ignore the blatant hate verses found is these texts and still claim that these are great religions. In fact , the author of the book on Mohammad even brags about how only islam has managed to eliminate paganism while Christianity was still hobnobbing with it by indulging in idol worship of jesus and mary.
Your statement “While differences must be tolerated, it doesn’t mean that all beliefs and practices are of equal value” has to be etched in gold !! Jesus and Mohammad may have uttered all kinds of rosy statements, but putting them on par with Buddha, Mahaveera or other Indian saints is a colossal mistake.

B.N.Gururaj said...

In response to Mr.Karthikrajan's mail, I would say that it is not a case of Hinduism absorbing other pagan religions. On the other hand, Hindus is the biggest surviving pagan religion. Hence, the revived interest in paganism in Europe and American continent.

Secondly, if Hinduism too were to moot "my godism" like other semitic religions, it will also inculcate the same fanaticism, fundamentalism and hatred of other religions.

Hinduism has survived the onslaught of other invaders for over two millennium, by its adaptability. It is better that it remains open ended as it now stands.

The fact remains that Hindus must understand their rival religions before they can respond sensibly. When I speak of response, I do not mean the ham-handed and violent response. It is intellectual response of showing the flaws of Christianity and Islam, and how they are essentially political ideologies masquerading as religions.

One example is everyone speaks of Christ standing for peace, love and tolerance. I am sure none of these people have actually read the Gospels. They have not read Jesus's curses, intolerant response to his followers and the like. Most of the Hindus know Islam and Christianity from secondary sources and have hardly bothered to read the Books.

NVAS Enterprise Ltd said...

I think Brahmins must have been paid lots of money to you to talk good about Hindu (Vedic) dharma. Most hindu people except brahmins do not know about their own religion because Vedic dharma shit everywhere and had and have controlled by Brahmins and their thoughts only i.e. Brahmanism. This Brahmanism is a thought to divide people and downtrodden them. If you take Islam, you eat in one plate but if you take Hindu Dharma (Vedic), Brahmans create JAAT (Cast) first but still Vedic hindu says "Say proudly I am Hindu". Your most books referred and favoured for Brahmins only. You have taken good step to study relogions and political study of india but you have driven yourself by Brahmins only and now you are basically nowhere. Brahmanism alias Vedic spoiled india than Islam. I read few books which you wrote and most of them just talk to fake history. You are basically second version of James Laine.

B.N.Gururaj said...

The toxic comment by the person hiding behind the corporate identity NVAS Enterprises Ltd deserves to be ignored. This person's jumbled thoughts written in bad English spews venom and pollutes a clean discussion atmosphere maintained in Dr.Koenraad Elst's blog.

Karthik rajan said...

@ Mr B.N Gururaj: Sir, “My godism” does exist in Hinduism. Before 3rd century A.D people didn't differentiate between Siva and Vishnu. In the temples built in tamilnadu by various kings, both siva and Vishnu are depicted side by side like comrade-in-arms. Later, with the advent of staunch saiva and vaishnava saints like ramanuja, thiagaraja etc., the saiva and vaishnava cults got separated from one another. One vaishnava saint says that even in his dreams he has not thought about other gods except Vishnu. To such people their god is supreme and in general did not care about other gods. Anybody putting faith in their god is also saved. In a way this sounds logical. If you decide to take the help of a big shot (a politician in power for eg.) then it is better to put your request to one person only. If you seek the help of several bigwigs, chances are that you will get help from none since every bigwig tends to think that the other one will do the job. You can find this logic in a write up hung on the walls of offices titled ‘anybody-somebody-everybody-nobody’. SriKrishna also says in The Bhagawad Geetha (BG 18:66) “abandon all your dharmas and take refuge in ME ALONE , I will get rid of all your sins and provide moksha.” There are staunch pro-tamil saiva devotees (called odhuvaars), who believe that Madurai meenakshi temple was once a Sivan temple. One such odhuvaar enters the temple thro the northern tower, which provides the shortest route to the Sanctum of lord siva, walks face down to the Sanctum , lifts his head to pay obeisance and then exits the temple face down via the same northern tower. Nowhere in between does he lift his head , lest his eyes should fall on the various other deities which adorn the temple !! So strong is his ‘my godism’ instinct !!!!!

In christianity and Islam ‘my godism’ goes to an extreme. Not only is their god supreme, other gods are FALSE/incompetent as well. So, it is the job of Christians and Muslims to thrust their god/religion into the heads of others. In islam this surpasses all limits. The other day, in a Tamil TV channel , a Muslim speaker speaking to a gathering (probably a Sunni muslim) was taking a dig at ‘dargaah’ (grave) worship indulged in by some Muslim groups. He mentioned the testimony provided by Ayisha , prophet Mohammad’s youngest wife, about how the prophet cursed those Muslims who continued with the practice of dargaah worship and how he ordered his son in law to demolish a dargaah. The speaker then exhorts the audience to demolish dargaahs and then hastens to add that they should not do so until they became politically/numerically strong to do it (yeeeks !!). This is egoism at its worst. I pulled out my handy-cam just in time to record this program.

There is nothing wrong in Hinduism absorbing paganism or adopting it, destruction / disruption is.

Let people like 'NVAS enterprises ltd’ write whatever they want. They are thoroughly exposing themselves.


B.N.Gururaj said...

@Karthikrajan - I agree with almost everything you have said, except to point out that the "mygodism" within Hinduism was confined to Hindu cults and was not thrust upon followers either other cults, or of other religions, much less with violence that semitic religions pointed out. There is a case where a Pandian king converted from Jainism to Shaivism after losing a philosophical disputation. Apparently, he commenced persecution of Jains, avert converting to shaivism. But, such episodes in the history of India are an exception. Whereas, thrusting their belief on others is the rule without exception is the consistent practice of semitic religions. It is this ability to nurture different beliefs amongst its followers simultaneously that has given Hinduism its catholicism.

Karthik rajan said...

@Mr B.N Gururaj: Yes sir, you are correct. When several religious ideas vie with one another to gain the support of the public , some amount of jostling can be expected. But, the persecution of the jains by the pandiya king is most probably a myth propagated by the jains who lost out to saivism after ruling the roost in tamilnadu for over 700 years. Most probably they committed suicide en masse. There are no records to this effect except for a beautiful painting in a temple which depicts jain monks falling on vertical spears fixed to the ground with the king and courtiers looking on. Another painting shows the saiva saint Sambandhar performing a ‘miracle’ in which bundles of palm leaves containing his songs ‘swim’ against the current of vaigai river just by a hymn sung by him in praise of lord siva , the king, jains and courtiers looking on. There is no dearth of such ‘miracle’ mumbo jumbos in Hinduism, duly copied by Christianity and to some extent by islam too. But why suicide ? Because, the jains themselves developed an extreme method of committing suicide called ‘sallekhanaa’, as a way to attain moksha. On the day of ‘enlightenment’ the jain monks would go to a hilltop and eternally stand nude in attention posture facing the east , until their soul is ‘liberated’ from the material body (the body collapsing to its death) to reach the free-from-birth moksha state called ‘sivaththaanam’ (the ‘siva’ in this word has nothing to do with lord siva) . All this with a gentle smile adorning their face unmindful of the vagaries of the weather and of course biting hunger. Jainism degenerated to such a extent that it began to indulge in black magic and witchcraft to regain public patronage.


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