Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Hindu" not synonymous with "Vedic"

Very many Hindus will agree with this statement, uttered on Rajiv Malhotra's list: "For a Hindu, it is mandatory to accept the authority of the Vedas." Very fundamental, and shared by many, yet demonstrably wrong.

1) When the Muslim invaders introduced the Persian geographical term "Hindu" into India, adding the religious meaning to it that has become central to "Hindu", they meant "Indian Pagan", nothing else. They excluded non-Indian Pagans, such as the idolators of Arabia or the Persian Zoroastrians, and the Indian non-Hindus, esp. the part-Indian Jews, Syriac Christians and Arab "sons-in-law" they encountered in Kerala. They made no difference between Brahmins and Buddhists ("clean-shaven Brahmins"), upper and lower castes, urbanites and forest-dwellers, temple-goers and worshippers in sacred groves or in the open air. This definition has essentally been adopted by VD Savarkar in his founding tekst Hindutva, and by laws like the Hindu Marriage Act, piloted by Dr. Ambedkar. The criterion "believer in the Veda" does not appear there.

2) Many Hindus, claimed as Hindus by the Hindu nationalists, don't acknowledge the Vedas as authoritative: the tribals, the ex-untouchables, many other communities such as the Lingayats. Patanjali, chided by Shankara for never ever citing the Veda, doesn't go by Vedic authority. Indeed, the Vedic seers themselves, the composers of the Veda, didn't know of any Vedic authority. They preceded their Vedic product and didn't extol or divinize it. Are you willing to say out loud that the tribals etc. in the present, as well as Patanjali and the Rishis in the past, are or were not Hindus? If so, one of the implications is that  Hindus are already a minority in India.

3) It is doubtful that those who wax eloquent about "the authority of the Veda" have ever read the Veda. For, the text of the Veda rarely contains commands. The Shastras contain prescription, but even according to the Veda-touters themselves, these are part of the Smrti, not of the Shruti/Veda. The Vedic hymns were poems, and then a comment literature that grew up around these, containing instructions for the accompanying ritual and interpretations of these, but no commandments comparable to the Ten Commandments. They are in the form a man addressing the Gods, not of God addressing mankind. But instead, many Hindus have hypnotized themselves to see the Veda as an alternative Quran, divinely revealed.

4) Hinduism is not book-centred. At most, some (by no means all) books contain reports of an experience, and this experience inspires Hindus. But the book itself is only a medium to this experience, a ladder which you throw away after having climbed to the top.

So, Hindus should disabuse themselves of the divinization of the Vedic Book, an attitude which makes them Indian counterparts of the Christians and Muslims, people of the Book. This should make them proud of their Rishi ancestors, who composed such beautiful poetry.



amAtya said...

Very timely Elst-ji.

In fact, when I was reading that post today on the list, I was thinking about same things and more specifically, about your book 'Who is a Hindu?'; and also of your definition, that any Indian pagan is a Hindu (which Sarvesh-ji has taken a step further by stating that Hindus are a civilization).


Unknown said...

Indeed, Dr. Elst. The belief that the Vedas are divine seems to be the result of an inferiority complex among the Hindus of today. I believe of the 6 major philiosophical schools some do not believe in the existence of a divine being! I do not think they are any less "Hindu" on that matter. Indeed, this attempt to Semitize / make a nation of Hindu civilization should be got rid of at the first instance.

Golden Reed said...

Dr. Elst, I'd like to think that the belief regarding the nature of the Vedas has an exact parallel to the range of belief in worship of a personal God to Self-realization. On the one end of the spectrum are people who have the need to idolize and venerate an ideal - these are people who need to worship an anthropomorphic God, and also hold up the Veda as a Holy Book. On the other end are people who recognize the existence of a Universal Spirit and also see the Veda as a record of the spiritual experiences of seers. Surely, these 2 views are not opposing - they only have a different purpose. The former serves the purpose of rallying the society around a structured religious self-identity, whereas the latter enables a private path-finding for the individual. What do you think?

Turbolag Panja said...

Dear Koenraad Elst Sir,
Can you please recommend some good translations of the 4 Vedas?The ones in your estimation are the best judging various criteria...I have delved into the Upanishads a little bit..and I like the Radhakrishnan,the Nikhilananda (of Rama Krishna Mission of New York) translations...I loved them...I had been advised to stay away from the Easwaran translation and was also recommended the Gambhirananda translation

Now coming to the Vedas ----many Indians recommend against the Griffith and Müller translation--though to be frank Müller's Upanishad translations are quite astute though in many times doesnot get the Yogic concepts (in many places he does)

I am loath to delve into Dayanada Saraswati's Veda translations after your elaboration of his work (In my opnion, he though successfully tackled Abrahamic evagelism)

So could you please say which translation of the Vedas you find the best and the most faithful to the original literla meaning as well as essence?

Vraja said...

Koenraad, you wrote:

But the book itself is only a medium to this experience, a ladder which you throw away after having climbed to the top.


But you also wrote this right after:

So, Hindus should disabuse themselves of the divinization of the Vedic Book, an attitude which makes them Indian counterparts of the Christians and Muslims, people of the Book. This should make them proud of their Rishi ancestors, who composed such beautiful poetry.

Maybe you have an idiosyncratic interpretation of the word divine? In standard English it means something which proceeds from a transcendental realm of being. Usually it means that which comes from God.

The problem with your first thought leading to the second in the above, is the nature of the enlightened teachings in those writings. They teach that upon attaining a high enough level of realization one realizes that everything, all things of this world, are a manifestation of the divine. All is God, God is all. That includes the Vedas.

Your point that Hinduism is in essence a teaching which leads to an experience, and therefore it is not a book centered religion, is really the opposite of the truth. Hinduism is a teachings system, books are the most common way to preserve and present that tradition.

The tradition teaches that once you no longer need the teachings, once you attain the purpose of those teachings, you are no longer a practitioner of religion. You are no longer a Hindu. A religion is a path to a goal. Once you attain the goal the path is over for you.

So, I would say that Hinduism is all about divine knowledge, commonly contained in books. Once you have attained the purpose of that knowledge, you are no longer a Hindu (in the religious sense) because Hinduism a path, not the goal.

Upon attaining that goal, reality will be seen as divine, all of it, i.e. everything is a manifestation of God, all is God, all is divine. It may not feel great or look beautiful from one perspective, but from another all is perfect.

From Isha Upanishad

Īśā-vāsyam-idaṃ sarvaṃ yat-kiñca jagatyāṃ jagat।

That Brahman indeed is the indwelling Self all, and by being so It rules. One has to enwrap the world with that view.

And from Chandogya Upanishad:

yatha somyaikena mrtpindena sarvam mrnmayam vijnata
syadvacarambhanam vikaro namadheyam mrttiketyeva satyam
|| 6.1.4||

yatha somyaikena lohamanina sarvam lohamayam vijnata
syadvacarambhanam vikaro namadheyam lohamityeva
satyam || 6.1.5||

yatha somyikena nakhanikrntanena sarvam karsnayasam vijnata
syadvacarambhanam vikaro namadheyam krishnayasamityeva
satyamevasa adeso bhavatiti || 6.1.6||

4. 'What is that instruction, Sir?' he asked. The father
replied: 'My dear, as by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known, the
difference being only a name, arising from speech, but the truth being that all
is clay;

5. 'And as, my dear, by one nugget of gold all that is made
of gold is known, the difference being only a name, arising from speech, but the
truth being that all is gold?

6. 'And as, my dear, by one pair of nail-scissors all that is
made of iron (karshnayasam) is known, the difference being only a name, arising
from speech, but the truth being that all is iron,-thus, my dear, is that

Rita Narayanan said...

How nice to read those words, about *seers themselves not having read the Vedas*. Hindus love to tout the fact that we are not like those Christians and Muslim zealots but are slowly becoming worse than them.

Hindu concepts are complex and sophisticated and our strength has always been to integrate a larger view of life but today I find people telling me that the final solution to our problems will be found in the Mein Kampf.Tragic :(

Hindu society has lost it's character after independence a good dose of Gandhian-Nehruvian virtue with shots of socialist capitalism has pretty much done us in.

Hope you will share with us your thoughts on the Wendy Doniger-Penguin issue.Thanks again for all your posts!

Unknown said...

"So, Hindus should disabuse themselves of the divinization of the Vedic Book, an attitude which makes them Indian counterparts of the Christians and Muslims, people of the Book."

This recommendation is just as monotheistic as Abrahamisms. The way a monolithic 'Hindu is one who holds Vedic authority' is untrue, 'disabusing' as if that is some faith issue and not to do with the epistemology of each school is as ridiculous.

Why can't people just live with the fact that there are traditions which are entirely based on the primacy of Veda as the authority and some which don't, both types being Hindu? Why should that be such a problem?

Arun said...

The modern Hindu leadership suffer visibly or in hidden ways, a jealousy of Christian and Islamic societies. They keep trying to give Indic Traditions the form of a Abrahamic theology. In the practical realm, they mistake Islamic militancy to be a sign of strength. The passivity of Hindus is indeed a weakness, but the antonym is not Islamic militancy, it is an active, vigorous engagement in constructive activities.

In particular, instead of funding some more temples, we need to fund students and professors and research and institutions to build a modern body of scholarship that can face as an equal the Western Academia.

Gururaj B N said...

Hinduism, as practised now is based more on Puranas, Epics and Agamas. Mere lip sympathy is paid to the Vedas. See my blog link below, which is the 4th part and last of series of four blogs I wrote.

Koenraad Elst said...

@Turbolag: I mostly use (apart from the German translation by KF Geldner) the HH Wilson Multi-volume edition, which includes Sayana's commentary. It has the complete Sanskrit text (with Rishi, metrum etc.) alongside an English translation, which is probably outdated but which I only use for browsing. Once I found what I was looking for, I switch to the Sanskrit original. I am not sufficiently at home in Sanskrit to have a good overview through Sanskrit, but when it comes to scrutinizing a hymn, I would not rely on a translation.

S.Srinivas said...

Sanatana Dharma can become a world religion when we relegate Vedas from Upanishads.

pro_scribe said...

Dear Dr. Elst,

I can see why your repeated reference to the human origin of the Vedic Samhitas raises the hackles of the orthodox Hindus (I think this is the second time you have stated so on your blog). But do the leading lights of the Purva Mimamsa school not say more or less the same thing? Mimamsakas have argued that the Gods in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that invoke them. Ram Swarup, in "Hindu View of Christianity and Islam", seems to refer to the same idea (although he doesn't go into the detail)when he says that Gods of Western pagan traditions weren't extinct, but merely not manifest because they were not being invoked.

Kumarila Bhatt strenuously objects to Vedas being attributed to any divine origin (or human one, for that matter). Commentators of Jaimini's Purva Mimamsa Sutras are unanimous in their view that the Vedas are eternal, which, if read allegorically, seems quite an elegant thesis.

Best regards,

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