Hindus Never Have Any Doubt About Being Indian, The Questions Are Raised To Non-Hindu Minorities: Lord Meghnad …

One of the world’s oldest forms of faith, Hinduism has an unbroken trajectory of beliefs and rituals that have passed on for many millennia through the footsteps of pilgrims and the pedagogies of theologists; through myth, science and politics. But what does all that mean to the modern Hindu today asks Hindol Sengupta in this special series – Being Hindu. Watch Sengupta in conversation with Lord Meghnad Desai, a self-proclaimed atheist.

I was once asked: ‘Is it true that the Hindus believe in dancing gods? This was at the Harvard Club in Manhattan where I was giving a talk. ‘Is it true,’ I was asked by a polite elderly gentleman who was a distinguished member of the club. A nearly naked dancing god – was that part of Hinduism? He was talking about the the Natraj, from  CERN,  the  European Organization for  Nuclear Research which is home to the Large Hadron Collider,   and   was   intrigued by the presence of this statue.

We had a long conversation about the relevance of the dancing Shiva in which I tried to explain to him the philosophy of the Natraj: the representation of the constant chain of creation and destruction in the  universe.  As the  art  historian Ananda  Coomaraswamy has  also  written,  the  dance  represents   the  god  Shiva’s  five activities—creation and evolution; preservation; destruction and further  evolution;  illusion  and  rest; and  release, salvation  and grace2. What  to Western  eyes is a wild-eyed image of a man— in a tiger skin, dancing  dervish-like,  drum  in hand,  his matted locks in a storm—was  in reality the succinct representation of relentless  creation  and  destruction, and  the  creation  again  of life itself. A fascinating belief system, yet packaged  in caricature to audiences.

Over the years that I have pondered about writing this book, I have always been fascinated  by many of the curious beliefs about  Hinduism; some funny,  some fantastical, almost all unrecognizable to practising  Hindus  like me.

As I spoke  to  people,  friends  and  strangers, around India and  the  world—on Delhi  streets  and  Kolkata  bookstores, in Mumbai restaurants and Bangalore clubs, waiting for the train at  Notting Hill  Gate  station,   in  a  village  in  Rajasthan, at  a bar in Copenhagen, outside  the Harvard Club in New York— wherever  I could,  I’d work  a question  or two about  Hinduism into   the   conversation.  The   answers   I received   sometimes amused,  sometimes  perplexed  me.

In a lot  of the  answers,  I heard,  naturally, much  about  yoga  (yet  not  much  about  the spiritual   principles  behind  it),  about   cows,  the  caste  system and  the  refrain  of ‘many  gods  and  goddesses’,  but  it seemed that  the  ‘colour’—as  we  journalists would  say—more  often than  not obscured  any understanding about  the richness of the philosophies, some of the oldest, most evolved principles  known to  man.  The caricatures, it seemed to me, had hardened into prejudices that blurred the core philosophies.

It occurred  to  me that  in many  ways  the  general  lack  of knowledge  about  this multitudinous, multilateral faith with its numerous sub-belief  systems and  also one great,  foundational narrative was  almost  impossible  for  most  people  outside  the country—indeed,  even  inside   the   country—to  comprehend and  communicate. In this specific context,  most  Hindus  have experienced  a simple unwavering quality  in their  faith,  which has seen them through 800 years of Islamic and British rule, as well as hundreds of invasions.  But ask most Hindus  to explain the principles,  history and belief systems of their faith and they would struggle. There is a reason why this is true. Conversion or proselytizing has never been core to the worldview of Hinduism in any shape or form, as it is an essential practice  in Islam and has largely been, and still is in some places, in Christianity. Ask a Hindu if he/she knows of verses, scriptures or even practices of proselytizing  or active efforts to convince and convert—and the answer would mostly be no.

The idea of conversion or spreading of faith by inducting  more followers  is not a characteristically Hindu  way of thinking.  The  emphasis  in Hinduism is on  the personal,  the private, and so the spread of the collective has less meaning.  There  are some fringe groups  like the Hare  Krishna movement which actively seek ‘members’, but this is not central in any  way  to  the  manner  in which  most  Hindus  access and address their faith. The lack of proselytizing zeal means that the average Hindu  is far less articulate about  distilling his/her vast polytheistic  philosophical ideals than in monotheistic faiths. At an everyday level, I’ve observed,  the Hindu  relies not so much on  scriptural texts  but  on  life  experiences.

A Hindu   would find it easier to describe  his relationship with  the divine, with the spiritual  part  of his life rather  than  explain  the faith  in its totality. Since the subtexts  are so diverse (remember  those  33 million,  some say 330 million,  gods and goddesses?), ordinary worshippers are  often  not  able  to  identify  and  articulate the dominant themes of Hinduism. They can, however,  talk about their personal,  empirical  faith.

In no  way  does  this  imply  that  there  aren’t  dominant or core  themes  and  values  embedded   in  Hindu   literature and rituals, because they are often deeply complex and nuanced theological  ideas. What happens  more often than not is that the believers or the practitioners, people like me for instance,  tend to get obsessed with the rituals at the cost of understanding the philosophies. We will address some of these themes through the book, but for the moment,  let us return  to my initial discoveries of what  many  people  think  about  Hinduism.

For  instance,  I learned that some shared the point of view that the great Hindu epics—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—were ‘fantasy stories’,  essentially  fiction  with  no  intrinsic  historical   value. Some even said  that  to  offer  any  historicity  to  mythology  is illiterate  and  imbecilic.  However,  I disagree;  my examination finds this not to be quite correct. I do not, naturally, believe that every idea  and  thought in every so-called  Hindu  text  should be  accepted  as  the  truth.   That  to  me  would  go  against  the Hindu  idea of relentless enquiry,  that  it is our duty to question everything before believing in it.

Let  us  take  an  example   from  the  lectures  delivered  by D.R.  Bhandarkar on  ancient  Indian  history  (specifically  the period  between  650  and  325  BCE) at  Calcutta University  in February   1918.  In his exploration  of  antiquity,  Bhandarkar  constantly  points   out how references in the Ramayana  and Mahabharata, written  as they were by men who attempted to capture  the zeitgeists, help confirm many historical  facts. I shall illustrate only three points from Bhandarkar’s lectures as examples.

For instance,   in one lecture, Bhandarkar talks  about   a Kshatriya  (the warrior caste of the four primary  Hindu  castes) tribe called Bhoja. He confirms  their existence from references in   Kautilya’s    Arthashastra—which   is   the    great    ancient Indian  socio-economic  treatise  predating Florentine   Niccolo Machiavelli’s advice on statecraft, The Prince, by around 1,600 years—to  the  Mahabharata and  the  Harivamsa,   one  of  the important appendices  to the Mahabharata.

Then  there  is a reference to the Ikshvakus, a major  ruling clan   from   the   north   of   India.   Bhandarkar  confirms   the presence of the Ikshvakus from three sources: first, inscriptions that  have  been  discovered  by  archaeologists  from  the  third century   which  talk  about   the  reign  of  King  Madhariputra

Sri  Virapurushadatta  of  the  Ikshvaku   family;  second,  from the Ramayana we know  that  Lord  Rama—the hero  of the text—was part of the Ikshvaku race, and finally, Buddhist texts tell us that  so was the Buddha.

My  final  example  from  Bhandarkar’s teachings  has  to  do with the Brahmin sage, Agastya. Now,  Agastya is mentioned in the Ramayana  as among  the first to have crossed the Vindhya mountains and  is admitted by all Tamil  grammarians as the founder  of the  Tamil  language,  the  great  Tamirmuni, or  sage of the  Tamils.  Also,  Bhandarkar points  out  that  if you  read Robert  Caldwell’s Grammar of the Dravidian  or South-Indian Family of Languages,  there is mention  of a hill where Agastya retired  after  his  work  in  bringing  forth  the  Tamil  language.

This hill, called Agastier (Agastya’s Hill) by local tradition and later adopted by the British, can still be found in the Tinnevelly district of Tamil Nadu. Caldwell was a Christian missionary and linguist in the second half of the nineteenth century.  The point is simply this: it is erroneous to suppose that myths and legends are not intertwined in history. What might be considered a mere myth might often be about  deep connections with history,  with real events and real people.

Now what Bhandarkar says about  these examples is of prime importance, ‘I am not unaware that these are legends. It is however a mistake to suppose that legends teach us nothing  historical.’

This  is exactly  the  point  of  revisiting  ancient  mythology from  a historical  point  of view. It is to  ensure  that  we make the relevant  connections between  the myths and  our  everyday landscape  so that  the legends do not  remain  fantastic  and  far away.