Book Reviews

The Banyan, Not the Oak: Polycentric Hinduism

An alumnus of St.Xavier’s School Calcutta and Jadavpur University, Julius Lipner is Chair of Hinduism in Cambridge University and a Fellow of the British Academy, UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences. His recent translations of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Ananda Math and Debi Chaudhurani are exemplars of literary sensitivity and trenchant scholarship. When first published in 1994, “Hindus” was acclaimed as required reading in academia. The informed reader welcomed it for its readability, resulting in three reprints. A decade-and-a-half later the revised and enlarged second edition covers Hinduism in depth as a unique approach to worldly living characterised by “polycentrism”. Lipner’s chosen methodology is that of the Upanishad: a teacher taking the student by the hand on a journey, never talking down to him, sensitively even offering him short-cuts and bypasses should he prefer to jump over dense material. The study is phenomenological and historical based on vernacular and Sanskrit texts with the occasional Bengali touch so typical of the man. The book’s cover features the famous ancient banyan tree of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. Whether consciously or not, Lipner has adopted the Mahabharata’s organic tree image to represent the intricate web of Hinduism with its manifold roots and branches. The study is in three parts, each divided into several parvas or kandas reminiscent of the narrative structure of our mahakavyas:

  1. “Guiding Voices” split into Scripture (Veda); Tradition (smriti; varna; itihasa & narrative; folklore and intellectual heritage) and Experience.
  2. “Reason & Morality” covering dharma (examined through the Mahabharata), karma and rebirth.
  3. “Time, Space & Eternity” examined as: reckoning time and progress; the sacred and its forms; ways, means, ends.

With a glossary, a comprehensive index and an excellent bibliography, it leaves perhaps nothing to be desired.

Most satisfyingly, unlike Nirad Chaudhuri and Madeleine Biardeau, Lipner begins with how India got its name, going on to explain its Sanskrit name “Bharata” and “Aryavarta”, thus dispelling mists of misconceptions clouding the understanding of many. He clarifies that Hindus distinguished themselves from others not on ethnic or generic criteria (e.g. Hindus and Buddhists) but on grounds of teachings and practices (e.g. Vedic and non-Vedic as in the Shiva vs. Divodasa myth in the Kashi Khanda). “Sanatana Dharma” was the phrase used for the belief system by Vyasa. Later, the 16th-18th century Gaudiya Vaishnava texts used “Hindu” to distinguish indigenous people from Muslims on grounds of race, belief and practice. Not being “a religion of the book,” even today there is no attempt to standardise “Hindu” belief and practice. Religious synods laying down dogmas are precluded by the ancient banyan model forming a varied network that is microcosmically multi-centred yet macrocosmically one with an ever-expanding tracery of aerial roots. Not the written word but that which has been “seen”, “heard” and “spoken” is considered the authoritative communication. However, if there was no formal device to ostracise people for rejecting a particular dharma, as Lipner states, what of the killing of Shambuka, Charvaka, Vena and the condemnation of Uparichara Vasu, Buddhists and Jains (“nirgrantha, kshapanak”)? Yet, typically polycentric, the Mahabharata celebrates Vidura whose frenzied wandering in the forest and suicide by starvation is not the Vedic way.

Lipner makes the valuable point that the Shudra’s position was flexible. The sage Raikva revises his initial rejection of the rich Shudra Janashruti’s request for instruction on being given his daughter. It is not, however, just the renunciant who is persuaded by the present of a princess (Sharyati mollifying Chyavana by gifting his daughter Sukanya, Vishvamitra accepting Madhavi in lieu of horses as Galava’s dakshina) but even the raging daughter of a preceptor (princess Sharmishtha becomes Devayani’s slave). This does not work, however, if an apsara is sent to an ascetic!

Lipner states that the challenge of Buddhism (why not Jainism too?) turned Vedic religion defensive and produced rigid texts like Manusmriti (c.200 BC), the Dharma Sutra and Shastras, where caste distinctions become sharp. Caste was no creation of British rule, as is often argued. By the 1st century AD the mahakavyas had acquired similar authority and were popularly accessible through retellings unlike the Vedic texts. That status was acquired by the 28 Shaiva Agamas in Tamil and Sanskrit (6th c. AD). The 12 Tamil Tirumurai are even called the Tamil Veda. In the 12-14th c. AD come the 14 Meykanta Shastras, Tamil theological works. The Puranas of Bengal incorporated non-Aryan tantric practices in the Vedic fold, e.g. tantras are called the 5th Veda and the Mahabhagavata Purana states the Agama and Veda are two arms of the goddess. It also seeks to amalgamate the Shakta and Vaishnava traditions by making Krishna and Draupadi incarnations of Parvati and Radha and Krishna’s wives forms of Shiva.. Brihaddharma Purana states that Shiva presides over Agamas, which came first, and Hari over the Vedas. Thus a nexus of centres of Vedic authority developed, the new ones being salvific through relationship with the Veda, the Ancient Banyan.

Lipner traces current Vedic fundamentalism to Dayananda Sarasvati’s assertion that the Vedas contain knowledge of steamships and telegraph, which the Organiser developed into vedic references to aeroplanes of 8 kinds electrically controlled.

The Vedanga consisted of 6 limbs of the Veda [siksha (phonetics), chandas (metres), vyakarana (grammar), nirukta (etymology), jyotisha (astronomy-astrology), kalpa (shrauta sutras, sacrificial ritual)] and was the preserve of specialist Brahmins, beyond the comprehension of others. It reinforced the centrality of sacrifice as a ritual and the Brahmin as the authority for its performance. That is why Veda became the root of dharma, of right living. Today Vedanga is the preserve of indologists delving into its intellectual sophistication to shape theories of human language.

The Sutras attest that wisdom has traditionally been transmitted orally, serving as a mnemonic device. This also safeguards knowledge, as only the correct hermeneutic key will unlock the knowledge and it is available only to an entitled person belonging to a particular tradition: “It is like a drop of suppressed sound which, when released by elucidation, lends new meaning, new life to our unfolding worlds of experience.”

Dharma, not translatable by a single word, is that which upholds private and public order by marking the typical nature of things and recommending rules to live by. The context determines whether it is law, virtue, propriety, merit or morality. It acquired the sense of religion after the clash with Christianity and European rule (not just British, as Lipner asserts). Trying to interpret Dharma has been a preoccupation of Hindus as it is integral to their way of life. At its centre is a tension between two dyads: order and chaos; autonomy and duty. Dharma operates not at a level of ideas but in the here-and-now and that is why its dynamics are best communicated through myth, narrative, event.

Lipner makes the excellent point that varna is not caste. Caste can be understood as varna or as jati. Varna occurs first in the Rig Veda 2.12.4 where Indra is asked to disperse the “lower Dasa varna”. Translating it as inferior colour, i.e. darker, presumes Vedic Aryans were racially different, of which there is no material evidence. Dasa/Dasyu may well refer to hostile spirits and varna may well mean “type/group” and, if at all it refers to colour, could be symbolic: white associated with Brahmin, red with Kshatriya, yellow with Vaishya and black with Shudra. This has nothing to do with skin pigmentation. The racial colour theory about varna is “something of a red herring.” The sutras set up a 4-tiered stratification of society, chatur-varna (kinds/colours), determined generally by birth from the earliest times but also by natural characteristics. A Kshatriya like Vishvamitra could become a Brahmin, and many Brahmins became warriors (Drona, Kripa, Ashvatthama, Parashurama etc.). Later, varna became hereditary, with Brahmins having the most exalted status.

Lipner corrects the western misconception (following Gandhi) that Hinduism is a religion of non-violence. The Kshatriya’s job was to protect the community physically by use of danda, rod of authority, if necessary by force of arms even at the cost of one’s own life. Violence is sanctioned right from animal sacrifice to cremating widows on husbands’ funeral pyres, to war. The Vaishya props up society providing economic stability. These three are twice born, the second time ritually by initiation into Vedic study. The roots of untouchability lie in the Shudra being considered ritually polluting and hence being banned from Veda study. The hierarchically minded, purity-conscious elite used as scapegoats those socially ostracized due to social or other transgressions violating dharmic injunctions. Even a king, Trishanku, could be thus degraded but again redeemed by the rebel sage Vishvamitra.

Explaining “Apad-dharma”, Lipner states that it permits flexibility, e.g. taking up arms to protect, except ritually polluting work. There are, however, exceptions he overlooks such as Vishvamitra murdering Vashishtha’s sons, stealing dog-meat from a Chandala and Harishchandra working as a cremator?

Another important corrective Lipner points out is that Hinduism is not a religion of asceticism glorifying the renouncer alone. Worldly existence is affirmed through its celebration of the householder and the performance of worldly duties too. Husband and wife are jointly obliged to perform regularly the five mahayajnas to gods, ancestors, various life forms, humanity and Brahman. They are encouraged to procreate and offer hospitality. As for Artha, Dharma and Moksha, there were prasthana vakyas for Kama too. “Hindus leave nothing to chance”, hence we have the Kama Sutra (3rd-4th c. CE) on deriving pleasure from the senses addressed to the urbane man (nagarika). It enunciates that time should be divided to serve the three goals so that they interrelate: Dharma is superior to Artha which is superior to Kama. The influence it exercised on art, literature, drama was profound. While the Indus Valley Culture’s contribution remains obscure, the idea of yoga could have originated there. It shows a strong material civilization that might have lead to the materialist Charvakas or Lokayats who dismissed the spiritual ideals of Vedanta and even of logic, advocating hedonism, condemning rituals as merely means to earn a living for those lacking intelligence and strength. Hindu scripture is replete with worldly imagery on how to live well and attain spiritual fulfilment, even comparing the experience of ultimate consciousness to an orgasm.

Against the canard that Hinduism denigrates women is set the Brahmanas that specify no sacrifice can be performed without the wife, who is therefore called saha-dharmini. Together the couple form a unit, dampati, for ritual acts. Lipner adds that the wife is a junior partner who cannot perform alone nor act as sister or friend. Even westernized women do not participate in the Durga Puja if husbands are barred for ritual reasons. This ignores Shakuntala’s reprimand to Dushyanta on the wife’s status, the liberated ascetics Sulabha and Shandili, and even a tirtha celebrating a virgin attaining heaven. Of course, the polycentric Mahabharata simultaneously mentions another tirtha where the ascetic woman had to marry to qualify for heaven. Further, there are community Durga pujas being performed wholly by women in Kolkata.

By the 1st century CE Buddhists allowed women to become nuns. The onset of Buddhism made Hinduism harden its form. Coterminus with Manusmriti (c.200 BC), the Gita (9.32) brackets twice-born Vaishyas with women and Shudras in allowing them to attain salvation through bhakti. So do Shaiva Nayanmar and Vaishnava Alvar traditions (c.5th-9th c. CE). From the 12th century CE Lingayats/Virashaivas held male and female to be equal. Tantric and Shakta traditions accorded salvific importance to female sexuality. In medieval times this was reinforced by Chaitanya, Mirabai and the figure of Shabari in Tulsidas.

Lipner provides an excellent summary of the massive corpus of the Mahabharata in three-and-a-half pages making the thought provoking point that the most passively inclined characters—Dhritarashtra and Yudhishthira—appeal the most to superior powers to justify their actions. The analysis of the dicing episode is excellent, showing that rather than being an encoded secret teaching it puts us in the midst of human drama, the complexities of human psychology in relation to the demands of dharma. Draupadi’s critical question is never answered as the elders are silent being afraid to offend Duryodhana. However, he overlooks the point that the incident of attempted disrobing was a later addition. One wonders why he quotes J.D.Smith on the Mahabharata representing the eternal cosmic conflict when this was stated decades ago by Sukthankar and before him by Sri Aurobindo. Perceptively he states that jatras were pilgrimages for audiences into the religious event depicted. The tragedy is that in West Bengal the pauranik pala——the folk-theatre depicting mythological themes—has effectively been stamped out over the last two decades, cutting off the people from their mythic roots.

There is a fascinating presentation of how the Bengal Brahmins vedicized the region’s goddess worship by incorporating it into a varna framework they controlled and, affirming the primacy of Sanskrit, injected Vedic texts into local ceremonies. They got the puranas to acknowledge tantric texts as alternative Vedas. Gradually, the puranas (smriti) usurped the salvific power of the Vedas (shruti), by claiming they did so in the name of the Vedas. Even inadvertent listening to recitations of the names of Shiva/Vishnu was said to redeem the most heinous sinners. Such recitals sanctified the place of recitation, transporting it into a sacred sphere. Lipner gives the instance of how a Leicester playing field became Rameshwaram for a Bhagavata recital for over 11 days. The detailed coverage of Durga Puja in Kolkata is of great interest and a valuable record.

A significant achievement of the book is the lucid summary it presents of the amazingly complex Nyaya (Gautama Akshapada 3rd-5th c. CE) and Vaisheshika (Kanada 5th-4th c. BC) schools of thought, the one having an epistemological realism and the other ontological emphasis, and of Kapila’s Samkhya (3rd-4th c. CE) introducing the concept of Prakriti (material energy). While in the West commentators are derogated as derivative and dull, the ancient Indians displayed great originality despite attributing their new insights to an ancient sage. As Daniel Ingalls put it, “The Indians are not less original; they are simply more anonymous.” The Artha Shastra (4th-3rd BC/1st-2nd AD) shows how political and religious authority was kept apart. The absence of an established religion, writes Lipner, explains why independent India a secular state: no faith is privileged. Right-wing parties, therefore, are going against the weight of history. Literalists, who are unresponsive to rationality and transplant ideas from the past out of context into the present, bypass the process of history. For instance, Valmiki’s concept of Rama-Rajya is evoked ignoring the historical presence of Jainism, Buddhism, Shavisim, Vaishnavism, Islam over 2000 years in the disputed region that has always been a shared site. The Ramaite contrivance of Ayodhya emerges only in 15th-16th centuries. Ignoring the concept of harmonious co-existence that Rama-Rajya means, and of Ayodhya meaning “not to be fought over”, it has been turned into a ground for riots.

Lipner takes Shiva as an example of the process of acculturation typical of how Hindus grow religiously. Shiva’s routing of the Devas at Kanakhal and forcing them to give him a share of the sacrifice indicates this assimilation of a non-Vedic deity into the Hindu pantheon. The problem is that as we lose touch with our mythic heritage, the understanding that truth is partial and provisional gets attenuated, adversely affecting the capacity for accommodating plurality of beliefs. Pursuit of religious truth in Hinduism is assimilative and open-ended, digesting and transforming “alien” insights, making them compatible with the assimilative structure i.e. the relevant assumptions, ideas, attitudes.

Lipner perceptively warns that to substitute a part for the whole or taking a part out of context obstructs truth’s natural momentum towards enlargement e.g. Gandhi’s experiments with truth and Ramanuja, while inveighing against Advaita, admitting that other sources for knowing the spirit (samkhya, yoga, Vedas, pancaratra, pasupata) are not to be dismissed peremptorily. But Hindu tolerant plurality does not extend into tolerating orthopraxy (social practices) since acting in the proper way is seen as more important than orthodoxy (believing in the right beliefs). Hence the resort to Sanskritization to maintain caste hierarchy.

Spiritual and intellectual growth is believed to occur through searching inquiry guided by the guru. Gradually, the teaching tradition saw service degenerating to servility and the lack of mutual responsibility has grown. Yet the guru is not essential e.g. the great sages had no guru. He provides an important corrective to Zaehner’s misconception in “Our savage God” regarding beyond good and evil. Nowhere do the Upanishads say that a sage having achieved enlightenment may dismiss morality and commit murder. However, Lipner’s uncritical praise Drona as guru ignores his selfish reasons for disempowering Ekalavya.

The three kinds of Karma are clarified (prarabdha, maturing in one’s life; kriyamana, in the making: sanchita, accumulated karma that is not activated), the last two combining to mature and produce the first. Free will has a part in all three. We must respect our own and others’ maturing karma and overcome its undesirable aspects only by dharmic means and not adharmic in the name of fate/karma which do not override human responsibility. A lucid discussion on rebirth follows.

Lipner notes that Krishna is no man of sorrows and his lila is an anti-deterministic notion linked to Maya, “both support possibility of contingency and progress in the unfolding of human affairs.”

While discussing Kali Yuga, Lipner points out that Hindu recoiling from the beef eating of Muslims was a collective response in medieval times to distinguish themselves from the invaders. Hence the Puranas teach that though cattle could be killed in the preceding ages, it is banned in Kali and symbolizes its degeneracy. Till the end of the pre-Christian era cattle was killed to feed honoured guests and recommended as part of the marriage rite (Apastamba Dharmasutra specifies beef as permissible food, “denvanaduhor bhakshyam”).

While examining the concept of tapas that renunciation builds up and the negative role women play in destroying it, Lipner provides a balanced view through accounts of women accumulating tapas to save husbands e.g. Savitri and in modern times Anand Math. He overlooks that mortification is not the only way e.g. the housewife in the Mahabharata and Anasuya in the Puranas.

Lipner corrects the general misconception that Hindus only practised cremation. He points out that the earliest texts indicate burial of dead was an alternative. Anyhow, there was no cremation for children and ascetics because they were undefiled by worldly appetites.

He makes the interesting point that Christianity is not straightforwardly linear as it pivots on an event 2000 years old, recapitulating the past and looking forward to future second coming. Hindu sacred history similarly incorporates repeated descents of godhead and this does not stand in way of making secular and religious historiography compatible. Prasada is a graced substance establishing identity between deity and devotee. The leavings, ucchishta of a deity that a votary absorbs—which would pollute him if from a human—sanctifies him, enabling some sort of merging with deity. This is comparable with communion in Christianity. As the effects are temporary regular practice needed.

For Lipner polycentrism is the defining force of Hinduism, e.g. besides the original Kashi, many other Kashi-tirthas exist; Ganga is present in many rivers like Kaveri, Godavari. Narmada celebrated as superior in Kali. The multiple divine manifestations of gods and goddesses, each a supreme centre of worship, is not polytheistic but polymorphic monotheism. Only one divine manifests itself variously to provide multiple access points for devotees.

The concept of “dvesha-bhakti” is well discussed although the idea has not been worked out at length in Hinduism. It is seen only as a pointer to god’s supreme grace, and the idea that there is no permanent hell. Further, it anticipates the Freudian theory that extremes of hatred and love have unclear dividing lines.

The book has an excellent conclusion drawing together the multiple strands under the rubric “polycentrism”. Hinduism is too varied and vast to be defined in terms of a core belief shared by everyone like caste or belief in veda. Rather it is like a banyan with a multiple root system creating a cluster of trees linked together under a single canopy as in Kolkata Botanical Garden, unlike the monocentric/single trunk beech or oak. It is a web of numerous systems of belief and practice united by a common attitude of mind structuring the world in terms of a transcendent source that manifests itself in multiple forms. No other religion admits such polycentrism. This proposition provides a foundation for a constructive dialogue between two historically disparate religion-cultural matrices—the Abrahamic and the Hindu—that embrace together the greater part of humanity.

J.J.Lipner: Hindus—their religious beliefs and practices, Routledge, 2nd ed., 2010, 426 pages


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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