OPINION

Two Flawed Views of Hinduism

October 10, 2007
Sandeep

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.

Sandeep works as a writer in an IT Services company based in Bangalore. Blogging is his latest and severely active hobby.
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#1
Atlantean
URL
October 10, 2007
03:39 PM

Ah! The beauty of arm-chair journalism!

#2
Bihari
October 10, 2007
03:43 PM

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.

Marrying off little girls to older men was also a Hindu tradition lets not forget it.

Why can't they just pick the rocks up and place them somewhere else?

Why do we compare whats wrong with other religions to stop scrutinizing our own? Why does it sound like we are whining that the school bully is allowed to get away while we are being held responsible for being naughty?

Who cares about the school bully. He will reap as he sows.


If the mullahs and christian priests are fanatics doesn't mean we allow our religion to also become blind and stagnant.

They should be allowed to do carbon dating in Ayodha but Rama was North Indian king and the Ramayana clearly reflects the offensive hegemonic designs the north always had towards southern India.

Ravana was right to defend his land and by some stories Sita was actually his daughter. There are so many stories about the Ramayana that the truth is lost which makes one wonder about the historical validity of the entire epic.




#3
Capitol Guy
October 10, 2007
05:08 PM

I ws reading your post and it's interesting. There is a lot of flaws with a lot of different religions and peoples perception thereof.

For instance, the some greek population, the Basilideans I believe they were called believed Christ was a hoax. they nicknamed him Abraxas, and because he appeared, disappeared and suddently reappaeared, (was born, cruified, died, and resurrected) they came up with the term Abracadabra which today we recognize as menaning magic.

I personally think it's a crime - war started over all of these different beliefs. But I guess everyone has their own interpretations of religion.

#4
Harish
URL
October 11, 2007
01:27 AM

The Vedic religion also has historical founders in Shankara , Ramanuja and Madhva.

#5
annamma
October 11, 2007
04:13 AM

Sandeep,
So in your opinion, are both versions of Hinduism flawed? Or are you contesting that there are two versions at all?

#6
Krishnan
November 9, 2007
09:46 PM

Excellent rebuttal and counter point to psuedo secularists like Vir Sanghvi. It is important to take a clear stance on protecting one's identity as a Hindu. Otherwise such powerful proponents like Sangvi et al will surely dilute the belief of Hinduism amongst the educated Hindu masses.

#7
Sujai
URL
November 10, 2007
07:09 AM

In the early texts, Indra, a god we never hear of today, played a major role.
It is true that as with certain other mythologies, different gods we re popular at different times. Even in the contemporary India, we see this unfolding. Lord Venkateshwara is such popular god who has grown in popularity in recent times. It is linked to the popularity and also the increase in wealth of this god sitting on top of Tirupati. In the same way, Lord Shiva was more popular in three hundred years ago than he is now.
We have different gods taking on popularities at different time. For those time periods of Ramayana, the Vedic Gods might have been more prevalent. But for us, gods of Ramayana are more important.
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.
You should stick to fiction.
What do you mean 'this is wholly incorrect'? What evidences do you suggest that they are actually the same. Everyone who knows even a little bit about different Ramayana's know that their stories are very different from one another. Even during the screening of 'Ramayana' TV serial to millions of Hindus, there were many 'pundits' who have clearly disagreed with his version citing a different text. In addition to two popular texts, we have many more versions, even in South, which are quite different from one another.
The introductory verses in the Ramayana clearly indicate the unity of the epic as a single narrative.
Really? It is like saying Bible is word of God just because it is written in the bible that is the word of God ;-)
Besides, those familiar with Sanskrit poetry can easily discern the difference in style if an interpolation has occurred.
And they did. Their verdict is that there are different versions and that most probably these texts evolved over time.
It is beyond doubt that Ramayana and Mahabharata have numerous interpolations but the original epic remains intact.
Stick to religion. Don't discuss literary texts.
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.

Your interpretations are flawed - show you are standing on a very loose ground called irrationality.
Nobody denies 'religions, beliefs and values' have significance in real time. They originate, evolve and die just like life.
That does not mean we have believe and fight if Bay of Bengal was the sea where Asuras and Devas churned the sea on top of a giant tortoise using a snake and a mountain. We need not proceed to date that event and find the bones and skeletons of that giant tortoise or the remnant of that lost mountain.
Do we proceed to find the remnants of Middle Earth, the elves and goblins of Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'? Or do we go about finding Spiderman's webs all around the city after reading Marvel Comics?
it concerns preserving India's cultural heritage, of which the Ramayana--and consequently, Rama--stands in the forefront.
You should also preserve the sea where Asuras and Devas churned out the divine potions, where Vamana stepped on three different planets, and where the palace where Parashurama massacred his opponents, and so on.
And as citizens of the world, we should preserve Middle Earth, Kryptonite, and Hogwarts Castle.
Instead, without any historical, archaeological, and philological study of Ramayana, the ASI has concluded that Rama was not a historical figure.
As I said earlier, you should stick to fiction, or at the most become a priest who can keep on obfuscating statements.
What ASI said was very different.
ASI DID NOT say Rama DID NOT EXIST. They rubbished Valmiki Ramayana and Tulsidas Ramayana which were produced as evidences to claim Rama's existence saying that they are not historical documents and evidences. They also added there is not evidence to suggest that Rama ever existed.
It is like saying Harry Potter does not exist other than JK Rowling's books and the minds of millions. Just because million people believe Elvis Presley still exists does not make him real and story which suggests that Elvis Presley is my alibi not considered evidence in the court of law. Just because millions of kids believe in Santa Claus does not make him real. Can one submit Greek Mythology in court of law to suggest that Sun is actually a person riding a chariot and flying across the sky?

#8
Sujai
URL
November 10, 2007
07:12 AM

In the early texts, Indra, a god we never hear of today, played a major role.

It is true that as with certain other mythologies, different gods we re popular at different times. Even in the contemporary India, we see this unfolding. Lord Venkateshwara is such popular god who has grown in popularity in recent times. It is linked to the popularity and also the increase in wealth of this god sitting on top of Tirupati. In the same way, Lord Shiva was more popular in three hundred years ago than he is now.

We have different gods taking on popularities at different time. For those time periods of Ramayana, the Vedic Gods might have been more prevalent. But for us, gods of Ramayana are more important.

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.

You should stick to fiction.

What do you mean 'this is wholly incorrect'? What evidences do you suggest that they are actually the same. Everyone who knows even a little bit about different Ramayana's know that their stories are very different from one another. Even during the screening of 'Ramayana' TV serial to millions of Hindus, there were many 'pundits' who have clearly disagreed with his version citing a different text. In addition to two popular texts, we have many more versions, even in South, which are quite different from one another.

The introductory verses in the Ramayana clearly indicate the unity of the epic as a single narrative.

Really? It is like saying Bible is word of God just because it is written in the bible that is the word of God ;-)

Besides, those familiar with Sanskrit poetry can easily discern the difference in style if an interpolation has occurred.

And they did. Their verdict is that there are different versions and that most probably these texts evolved over time.

It is beyond doubt that Ramayana and Mahabharata have numerous interpolations but the original epic remains intact.

Stick to religion. Don't discuss literary texts.

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.


Your interpretations are flawed - show you are standing on a very loose ground called irrationality.
Nobody denies 'religions, beliefs and values' have significance in real time. They originate, evolve and die just like life.

That does not mean we have believe and fight if Bay of Bengal was the sea where Asuras and Devas churned the sea on top of a giant tortoise using a snake and a mountain. We need not proceed to date that event and find the bones and skeletons of that giant tortoise or the remnant of that lost mountain.

Do we proceed to find the remnants of Middle Earth, the elves and goblins of Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'? Or do we go about finding Spiderman's webs all around the city after reading Marvel Comics?

it concerns preserving India's cultural heritage, of which the Ramayana--and consequently, Rama--stands in the forefront.

You should also preserve the sea where Asuras and Devas churned out the divine potions, where Vamana stepped on three different planets, and where the palace where Parashurama massacred his opponents, and so on.

And as citizens of the world, we should preserve Middle Earth, Kryptonite, and Hogwarts Castle.

Instead, without any historical, archaeological, and philological study of Ramayana, the ASI has concluded that Rama was not a historical figure.

As I said earlier, you should stick to fiction, or at the most become a priest who can keep on obfuscating statements.

What ASI said was very different.

ASI DID NOT say Rama DID NOT EXIST. They rubbished Valmiki Ramayana and Tulsidas Ramayana which were produced as evidences to claim Rama's existence saying that they are not historical documents and evidences. They also added there is not evidence to suggest that Rama ever existed.

It is like saying Harry Potter does not exist other than in JK Rowling's books and the minds of millions. Just because million people believe Elvis Presley still exists does not make him real and story which suggests that Elvis Presley is my alibi not considered evidence in the court of law. Just because millions of kids believe in Santa Claus does not make him real. Can one submit Greek Mythology in court of law to suggest that Sun is actually a person riding a chariot and flying across the sky?

#9
Kerty
November 12, 2007
10:08 AM

It seems secularists have hard time respecting the faith, beliefs, traditions of Hindus. Sure they vary among hindus and they are somewhat localized, and there are always 'other' beliefs, but that is no reason to disrespect them. As long as large number of Hindus believe certain things, that is sufficient enough to warrant that their faith and tradition of belief be respected. The debate about historicity, questioning the beliefs, contradicting with 'other' beliefs merely adds insult to the injury. It is not for secularists to question or debate religious matters. They are merely asked to respect. Secularists do not put faith and beliefs of other religions to such scrutiny and dabate, and Hindus are entitled to similar respect.

Regarding economic development and religious freedom, one need not frame 'either-or' false choices. They both are possible. They have to be in any genuine secular paradigm. Any secularism that offers 'either-or' false choices will stand accused of pseudo secularism. They both must be possible. It merely requires redrawing of plans. We have had many cases where projects have been altered or abandoned in order not to upset religious sentiments of non-hindus. We have had many cases where plans that made great economic sense, had to be altered or dropped for purely secular or humanitarian reason i.e not to displace people. Hell, they have been routinely modified or abandoned for purely ideological and political reasons - communists and socialists do that routinely. Economic development has to remain flexible and sensitive to people and their wishes.

#10
v.c.krishnan
November 12, 2007
01:09 PM

Dear Sir,
Forget it. It is all a lot of hot air and as I would like to call it jornalistic clap trap. Please understnd he is just a servant to the media bosses. Do not get carried away because he talks english or that he wears a suit. He has to write like this to keep up his pay packet from his masters.
Regards,
vck

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