Two Flawed Views of Hinduism
A question that repeatedly seems to haunt the Indian mainstream media: how to "balance" Hinduism with Semitic religions? This question assumes importance in issues where the religious aspect assumes great significance. So Sethusamudram is the latest issue, which has been haunting the media for several weeks now. And so, Vir Sanghvi writes about the "two views of Hinduism," his attempt to keep mythology from getting in the way of economic development. He elaborately tries to define Hinduism, and concludes that the anti-Sethu advocates are tarnishing Hinduism’s fair name.
Unfortunately, the article shows a poor understanding of Hinduism, and a shocking lack of the issues surrounding the Sethu project.
Very early in the article, Vir deplores the fact that even secularists/liberals have taken what he calls "a pro-religion/anti-history" line. Apart from the most vocal Hindu groups like the VHP and RSS, no secularist or liberal has ever focussed on the religious aspect of this controversy. Sanghvi’s anti-history remark also smacks of ignorance: sufficient research has not been done to conclusively prove whether Ram Sethu is a natural formation. Sanghvi reveals his bias when he accuses that
..the Sangh Parivar will pick on this issue to fan more Ram Mandir-type hysteria.
Sanghvi’s genuine concern for policy being held hostage to religion is laudable but does it mean that this should be at the cost of destroying a crucial aspect of the nation’s heritage?
He turns his focus to how Hinduism evolved and repeats the discredited Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory.
There is evidence that the Indus Valley Civilisation venerated a god who was very like Shiva in his Pashupati avatar. There are also many similarities between the gods of early Hinduism and the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. Perhaps, this is because the religion evolved before migrations at some place where Aryan-type people lived.
It is unclear what "migrations" he refers to. One would expect this much from an article that traces Hinduism’s evolution from an archaeological perspective, too. Sanghvi blunders further when he says that there is "no constant" in Hinduism. To prove this, he uses Hindu gods and the Ramayana and Mahabharata as examples. We shall examine each of these at some length.
In the early texts, Indra, a god we never hear of today, played a major role.
If we take Vedanta as the earliest Hindu philosophical texts, it very clear that they talk of Brahman or the Ultimate Reality, which is a formless, changeless, nameless, and transcendent reality that can be realized only through experience. Indra is an important part of any Vedic ritual even today. As the God of Rain, it is logical that Indra occupied a preeminent place in the largely-pastoral Vedic society.
Vir Sanghvi says that Ramayana and Mahabharata were
...put together over centuries and the story evolved over time. For instance, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Tulsi Ramayana are not exactly the same.
This is wholly incorrect. The introductory verses in the Ramayana clearly indicate the unity of the epic as a single narrative. Besides, those familiar with Sanskrit poetry can easily discern the difference in style if an interpolation has occurred. It is beyond doubt that Ramayana and Mahabharata have numerous interpolations but the original epic remains intact. In his On the Meaning of the Mahabharata, V.S. Sukhtankar, an authority on the epic, has refuted precisely this claim--that the epic evolved over time. It is also shocking how Vir Sanghvi states this without as much as hinting that there’s a concept of "primary sources." Valmiki’s Ramayana is the primary source and Tulsidas’ work is an embellishment of Valmiki’s epic. As a broad analogy, Sanghvi’s seems to say that there are as many moons in this world as there are countries. In addition, by failing to name at least one scholar, Sanghvi fails to backup certain serious, scholarly conclusions he makes:
...but most scholars agree that the Gita was added to the Mahabharata many centuries after the epic was first written...some scholars claim that Ram’s Lanka was not today’s Sri Lanka...
Vir Sanghvi’s approach smacks of a dismissive attitude towards Hindu epics. Proceeding on similar lines, he treads interesting but familiar territories.
The point of Hinduism lies in the message, not in the historicity.
Interpreted another way, this also implies a denial of historicity to Hinduism. Religions, beliefs, and more importantly, values, do not exist in a vacuum bereft of time and space. The message of Hinduism certainly has a rich, varied, and traceable history behind it. We can reasonably trace the history of each of the six darshanas (philosophical schools) of Hinduism. Sanghvi speaks about this in the context of "historical" religions like Islam and Christianity. From this perspective, can we reasonably conclude that those religions are only valuable historically but are really pointless in the message they deliver? Vir actually argues that Islam and Christianity are "out of scope" of argument but Hindu Gods, heroes and saints can be dissected at will.
The point of Hinduism is that the stories emerged out of the shared experience of the millennia. And that we are free to draw our own conclusions. In contrast, there is very little scope to argue that Jesus got things badly wrong or that the Prophet acted immorally.
Islam’s books have enough material to show that its Prophet was a little more than a pedophile but that fact according to Sanghvi is beyond scrutiny. This train of thought is familiar in Indian secular discourse, which imposes a self-ban on critically examining Abrahamic religions.
Sanghvi uses this rather elaborate examination of Hinduism to prove that even educated Indians supported the suspension of the two ASI officials, and consequently, allowed development to be held hostage by religion. This goes against commonsense and widespread public perception that the suspended ASI officials were mere scapegoats to protect the powerful.
And yet, even those of us who will accept all this at an intellectual level, will support the suspension of the hapless ASI employees and argue that to go ahead with the Sethusamudram is to hurt the sentiments of Hindus.
I had written earlier that till the UPA scored a self-goal by filing the affidavit, most ordinary Hindus had never heard of Ram Sethu. Vir Sanghvi’s deliberate attempt to obfuscate the real opposition to the Sethu project also holds good in this light. The larger aspect involved here is more than hurt sentiments; it concerns preserving India’s cultural heritage, of which the Ramayana--and consequently, Rama--stands in the forefront. As this post perceptively observes, the ASI actually went against its very raison d’être and bent to accommodate political whims.
[ASI’s] goal is to conduct archaeological research and protect India’s cultural heritage. This caused an arc of outrage and a political crisis. To control the political damage, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government withdrew the affidavit and suspended the concerned ASI officials. This makes sense, not so much for shielding the Minister for Culture, but for making unwarranted statements about the historicity of Rama.
Vir Sanghvi further complicates the issue by delving into the details of the affidavit.
In its limited way, the ASI’s affidavit is accurate. Similarly, the scientific evidence is conclusive. Ram Setu is not a man-made (or monkey-made) formation. It was created millions of years ago, before there were humans in the Indian peninsula.
Scientists have not stated anything conclusive so far on Ram Sethu so far but it is incomprehensible how Sanghvi reached this conclusion. On the contrary, scientists and other experts oppose the project on the grounds of economic non-viability, ecological concerns, and national security. A recent update tells us that in January 2005, the Prime Minister himself had raised 15 objections, which the Sethu project authorities failed to clarify convincingly.
Also, Sanghvi mixes issues when he contends that it is only the Hindu groups that are obstructing policy-making by making "politically-expedient interpretations of Hindu legends." In the same breath, he urges us to consider scientific evidence where no definitive conclusion has been reached yet! As this article (free PDF download) observes,
Mythologized histories are not easy to study unlike straightforward histories. This does not mean that they cannot be studied with a view to extract historical information. Instead, without any historical, archaeological, and philological study of Ramayana, the ASI has concluded that Rama was not a historical figure. For an organisation that claims to be scientific, the ASI has failed to research and examine data, come up with facts and the make a judgement.
The "Other" View of Hinduism
Vir Sanghvi then examines the "other" view of Hinduism. He assigns different labels to it: "historical," "semitic" and "literal."
There is a second view of Hinduism and it came to the fore during the Ayodhya agitation. In this view, historicity is everything. All of Hindu legend must be taken literally. There must have been a historical Ram because otherwise the basis of our religion is a lie. If there was a historical Ram, then he must have had a birthplace — and so, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is central to our belief.
There is nothing in the whole corpus of Hindu literature and scholarly works that can remotely testify this view. The Ayodhya agitation wasn’t whether Ram was real or not. Admittedly, thousands of mostly-illiterate Hindus believe that the Ramayana actually happened the way it is described by Valmiki. However, the Ayodhya movement was to preserve--like the Sethu agitation--a cultural heritage. Besides, Rama is not the basis of Hinduism. As I said earlier, the foundation of Hindu thought lies in the concept of Brahman. A brief survey of Rama-related literature tells us that Rama is repeatedly worshipped as Brahman. Vaishnava literature repeatedly eulogizes him as Sri Rama Parabrahma (a noted mantra is Om Sri Rama Parabrahmane Namah). This applies equally to almost all Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon.
Sanghvi also calls the "second view" as "literal" Hinduism, a strange beast. This beast, according to Sanghvi, didn’t exist until L.K Advani defined it.
For me, the defining argument of the Literal Hinduism position is the one that LK Advani offered in defence of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.It did not matter, he said, whether this was really the birthplace of Ram. He was not obliged to provide any evidence to substantiate this claim. What mattered was that Hindus believed that this was where Ram was born. And that was more than enough for him.
According to this argument, Vir Sanghvi is content to accept as the final verdict (on Hinduism, no less), the statement of just one man! This approach is consistent with his earlier statement that Prophetic deeds were beyond scrutiny. He extends this argument to make a rather ridiculous claim that Rama Janmabhoomi didn’t exist till the VHP invented it!
In fact, it was never clear that Hindus believed this. Most people had never heard of Ram Janmabhoomi till the VHP made it an issue. And there are several other sites in that area that also claim to be the birthplace of Ram.
The first thing that any child learns about the Ramayana is that Rama was born in Ayodhya. It is beyond the scope of this entry to examine the mountainous evidence that the pro-Ram Janmabhoomi groups presented before the government. What is interesting that Vir Sanghvi does not present an iota of proof to substantiate this assertion, which borders on fraud.
Sanghvi prides himself on being a liberal. One of the characteristics of a liberal is being open-minded and unafraid to criticize irrationality. Unfortunately, Sanghvi’s liberalism is restricted to criticising a truly liberal religion without taking the effort to understand its fundamentals.
Two Flawed Views of Hinduism
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