India has such a diverse culture with a sizeable population of almost all major and minor religions of the world including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, Jains, and so on so forth. The country has approximately 80% Hindu population and terms like Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan are commonly used worldwide in recognition of the majority people, faith and land. Yet ironically within the country, some political parties, many in minority communities, leftists, self-styled secularists and liberals (aka rationalists) shy away using the term Hindu and Hinduism though the very people have no issues with the term ‘Hindustan’. I often wonder why these people shy away recognising cultural and religious heritage and identity of own people and land while the rest of the world recognises Hinduism as one of the oldest culture and religion that has survived through ages.
Some scholars and thinkers relate this historical shyness to the events leading to the partition of the country at the independence, the policy of the Muslim appeasement and the vote bank politics of the successive Congress governments, later adopted by some socialist parties too to snatch or share the traditional vote bank of Muslims. It is well known fact that the partition of the country was the result of the ‘Two Nation Theory’ propounded by key Muslim League leaders whereby they wanted a separate homeland for Muslims on the plea that Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nationalities that cannot peacefully co-exist together. Ironically, this theory based on certain misplaced ideologies could neither provide stability, peace and prosperity to Pakistan nor it allowed Muslims to live in peace with the majority Hindus in Hindustan (aka Bharat or India).
This situation exists despite the fact that acknowledging Hinduism or Hindu never meant curtailment or disrespect to other religions, the way Islamic countries do or the Vatican treats other religions. Different scholars give different assessment of the history of Hinduism in India but it definitely is no less than 4,000 years in the Indian sub-continent. As against this, Buddhism and Jainism date back to 6th-7th century BC, Islam to about 13th Century AD while Christianity came much later towards the 16th century AD, though the history of trade and missionary work by the Arab merchants and Christian denominations dates back to much earlier. So why should educated Indians be so shy of the terms Hindu and Hinduism by ignoring, and even opposing, the ancient history and cultural heritage of the Indian sub-continent?
A Foreigner's Views of Hinduism
The other day I read a blog written by a German National living in India for the last over three decades. Maria Wirth came to India on a stop-over on her way to Australia after finishing her psychology studies at Hamburg University. She visited the Ardha Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, met a few renowned saints and was so impressed with Indian culture and spirituality that she decided to stay in India abandoning the thought of ever going to Australia. She stayed back, dived deep into India’s spiritual traditions and continued to share her insights with German readers through articles and books.
Maria Wirth says in a blog that she has lived in India for a long time but there are still many issues that she finds hard to understand. She finds it strange why so many educated Indians become agitated when India is referred to as a Hindu country or there is a reference to Hinduism. Is it not a fact that an overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus? The country is special because of its ancient Hindu culture and the Westerners are drawn to India because of their curiosity about the Hinduism. Why then is there so much resistance by many Indians to acknowledge the Hindu roots of their country and some of them even give the impression that an India which valued these roots would be dangerous? She finds this attitude as strange for two reasons. First, such educated Indians (said seculars and liberals) seem to have a problem only with “Hindu” India but not with “Muslim” or “Christian” terms used with other countries.
She cites own country Germany as a case in point which is a secular country with only approximately 59 percent of the population registered with the two big Christian churches (Protestant and Catholic) but the country is bracketed under “Christian countries” with no controversies from any quarter. Only recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the Christian roots of Germany and urged the population “to go back to Christian values.” Two major political parties of the country carry term ‘Christian’ in their name, including Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. None of the odd fifty plus Muslim majority countries is secular and many of them officially carry ‘Islamic’ tag. Many Western countries including those like England, Norway, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and so on have given official recognition to Christianity. Israel is downright Jewish to the core. There are many countries including Thailand, where Buddhism is the official religion. But in none of these countries, or for that matter world over, any objection or controversy is raised in regard to their cultural or religious identity.
She cites another reason why she can’t understand the resistance to associate India with Hinduism is that Hinduism is quite different from the Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam. Compared to Abrahamic religions, Hinduism has undoubtedly been the least violent since ancient times by relying on arguments rather than force. It is not a belief system that demands blind acceptance of dogmas and the suspension of one’s intelligence. On the contrary, Hinduism encourages using one’s intelligence to the hilt in exploring the truth of life and universe. It is supported with a huge body of ancient literature, not only regarding dharma and philosophy, but also on society, economics, politics, music, architecture, dance, science and astronomy, etc. If Western countries like Germany had this kind of literary treasure like Vedas and Upanishads, they would be so proud and highlight its greatness on every occasion.
Some Educated Indians Look Down Upon Hinduism
India has a long history of foreign invasions during the last two millenniums. While the early invaders of the Arab and Turk origin like Mohammad Bin Kasim, Mahmud of Gazhni and Mohammad Gori largely engaged to mass killings, loot, arson and destruction of Hindu religious symbols and monuments, the subsequent invaders towards the late twelfth century preferred to stay in the country that established the dynasties of Slaves, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Saiyyids, Lodhis and Mughals. This period saw a large scale persecution of Hindus including mass killings, forced marriages of Hindu women, conversions and systematic destruction of symbols and monument representing cultural and religious heritage of Hindus and Hinduism till finally the British took over the reins of the country. Besides, the Christian missionaries in South India and several other tribal regions too worked for spread of their religion mainly through evangelism. The effort to impose Christianity on people during the colonization era by the European powers in various parts of the world including India could be best illustrated as a potent case of evangelism.
The British during their regime introduced modern western education system because they were in urgent need of creating a native subordinate class conducive to their ideologies and policies for the smooth governance of the country best suited to their colonial interests. To achieve this goal, they instituted a number of education acts to create an Indian canvas of English design through the education system. In this context, Lord Macaulay’s Education Policy Act of 1835 is often quoted as the most relevant and potent policy framework intended to create an Education System that catered for education of the upper strata of the Indian society through English which by the Act then also replaced the Persian as court language. The very origin of this move was the premise that the native languages Sanskrit and Persian (brought by Muslim rulers) and education system were inferior and not suitable for the modern education and progressive governance. Over a period of time, this created a section of English educated Indian politicians and bureaucrats who started looking down at their own language and culture.
The British colonial masters had been successful in not only weaning away many of the Indian elite from their ancient roots but even making them look down upon or even despise it. English educated class were preferred by British and they were no longer required to read the original Sanskrit texts and had to go by what the British masters told them. Thus the lack of the knowledge of own culture and traditions through the systematic brainwashing by the British education is perhaps the main reason of current mind-set whereby many so-called “modern” Indians speak or write anything against Hindu and Hinduism in the name of the freedom of expression under as secularists, liberals and rationalists. It would not be exaggeration if it is held as the chief reason why English educated and elite Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were preferred to write the destiny of newly created Dominions of India and Pakistan on independence despite the availability of many senior and capable leaders. The truth remains that these Indian elites are unable to appreciate the basic difference between Western (Abrahamic) religions that have to be believed (or professed) blindly, and which discourage, most often forbid, their adherents to think on their own, while the multi-layered Hinduism gives freedom and encouragement of using one’s own wisdom and intelligence.
I wonder if these self-styled secularists and liberals realize that by denying and denigrating own ancient cultural and religious heritage, they are actually serving the cause of fanatics and vested interests within the country and the world opinion largely dominated and driven by the Abrahamic religions against the culture of this vast country. It is unfortunate that many educated Indians on the false notion of secularism try to belittle Hinduism at home, while many Western scholars, including some staunch Christians, are able to appreciate the value of the rich heritage of the ancient Hindu culture on a variety of subjects as available in Hindu scriptures. Without bothering to seek the insight of own religion, such Indians under Western influence tend to believe and argue as if Hinduism is inferior to Western Abrahamic religions, more frequently citing idol worship and cast system without understanding their true essence.
Abrahamic View of God Taking Precedence
Most Indian people in religious parlance use the term ‘God’. I asked a few and they said that God is appropriate English term for the Creator of the Universe, the Highest Truth. God is often seen as the ultimate power from which everything else emanates. By implication, even if expletively not said so, in all Abrahamic religions the God has taken the attributes of a male who had allegedly spoken to a few special messengers about what he wants from the humans. He is said to be kind and compassionate to the believers who follow His instructions sent down through the special messengers but unkind and unmerciful to non-believers who are sent to the eternal hellfire. In compulsory religious sermons and teachings, the fear of eternal hell is inculcated since childhood, so even as adults they won’t question religious preaching. This Abrahamic view of God is predominant in the large part of the world perhaps because the majority of human population belongs to Christians and Muslims. Though both Christianity and Islam go back to Abraham and have identical views about God or Allah, yet ironically both religions insist that their own God alone is true God.
The history of Christianity and Islam is a witness that their followers consider it a divine duty to convert the whole world to follow their faith and particular God. The human civilization has experienced so much of the bloodbath due to forceful conversion during the last two millenniums with Hindus, Parsis and Jews as worst victims and the period incidentally coincides with the advent of two Abrahamic religions. These Abrahamic religions profess that those who worship many gods are the evil offenders in the eyes of their “only true” God; therefore these offenders should either convert or be wiped out. Hindus as ‘idol worshippers’ of many Gods ideally fall in this category, so justifiably in the eyes of hardliners of (Abrahamic) God, they should either convert or die. Such notions require serious rethinking and deliberation by the believers of these religions. Could a Supreme Divine entity ever be so overwhelmingly favourably biased towards His followers while unforgiving towards ‘others’?
Basic Philosophy of Hinduism
In ancient times, long before the arrival of any Abrahamic religion, Vedic Dharma (today it is called Hinduism) had a mature understanding of the Highest Truth which is referred to as Brahman in Hindu philosophy. Brahman is neither personal to a particular human race nor a superhuman entity and also nor a gender specific male or female; Instead He is the most divine, subtle, invisible, conscious and one basis of all. The ancient scholars (Rishis) gave astonishing insights on Brahman. Kena Upnishad so scholarly explained the Brahman (Vedic God) where it narrates “…Brahman is not what the eyes can see, but That whereby the eyes can see. Brahman is not what the mind can think but That whereby the mind can think”.
Perhaps religion could be dated as back as human civilization. Since early civilization, various socio-cultural and ethnic groups evolved in various parts of the world. Their faith, worship and cultural behaviour patterns loosely described their religion. Hence it is very difficult to say with a certainty as to which particular religion is the oldest one. However, among the major and more prevalent religions in the world, Hinduism undoubtedly appears to be the oldest religion.
It is difficult to give any authentic evidence as to when Hinduism started. But it is for sure that Vedic Dharma (Hinduism) existed well before Christianity and Islam, the other two major Abrahamic religions in the world today. Some scholars believe that the Vedic period dates back to 1500 BCE while others trace its origin even back in the time of Indus Valley Civilizations around 2500 BCE. As for Christianity, it grew from the first century Jewish following to a religion across the Greco-Roman world and beyond, and thus Christianity is not old more than two millenniums. Similarly, Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century that makes it about 1400 years old.
Hinduism is perhaps the only major religion which traces its origin in monotheism during the Vedic period but due to its diversified nature, philosophy and doctrines, it assumed the characteristics of a polytheistic religion over a period of time. Unlike monotheistic religions, no evidence exists that Hinduism ever had a single founder or source. Many scholars actually hold Hinduism as a way of life. Hinduism as on today is a fusion or synthesis of different Indian cultures and traditions with diverse roots ever since the Vedic dharma of the Iron Age probably dated from about 1900 BC to 1400 BC. Many scholars are of view that various Indian cultures and traditions including the Indo-Aryan and Harappan, Indus Valley Civilization, Dravidian culture, among many others, are collectively responsible for Hinduism as it exists today.
From the above account, it appears that Hinduism is at least about 4000 years old, and it can be reasonably argued as the oldest surviving religion in the world. As the oldest civilization and religion, the Hinduism is also metaphysically the most debated and complex religion that has origin in monotheistic belief yet spanned through pantheism, monism, polytheism and atheism during the vast expanse of time mainly because it professed tolerance and allowed debate, reasoning and dissent. Unlike monotheistic Abrahamic religions, Hinduism has a rich literature too in the form of Vedas (4), Upanishads (over 200), Shashtras and Puranas. As Hinduism allowed different school of thoughts to prosper, it has multiple doctrines of life after death, and the one propounded in Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita considered as the most authenticated and widely accepted one.
Hinduism and Abrahamic Religions
While the clergy of two major Abrahamic religions basically relied on one Holy book as discourse of God to His subjects through special messengers, the Vedic Rishis vigorously and intelligently enquired into truth since the Vedic period which is reflected in the ancient scriptures and texts, especially through the Veda and Upanishads. For example, they had criteria for what is true: that it must be all pervading i.e. through past, present and future; and that it must be self- evident. These criteria render the whole physical universe as untrue, leaving behind only the extremely subtle, conscious basis of everything. Most people tend to miss it because they prefer to look outward rather than making attempt to explore self by turning inwards.
While the Vedic etymology of Atman – Brahman is absolute and all-inclusive, the Abrahamic ‘God’ is actually not denoting the absolute, but a great power in this manifested reality, more akin to the stated many “Gods” in Hinduism. The Hindu Gods, for illustration the ‘Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva’ are mainly personified powers in charge of running the world but, unlike the two Abrahamic Gods, do not condemn anyone eternally to hell if people fail to propitiate them. It is surprising that the subjects of the Abrahamic Gods are unable to appreciate how a biased entity could be the ultimate truth. The obvious reason could be that they are made to believe since childhood rather than encouraged to apply mind for the realization of the ultimate truth.
There is a strong reason to believe that the clergy of Abrahamic religions are not keen to appreciate this personified and biased nature of God because it is conducive in pursuance of their cherished goal of world domination. If the threat of eternal hell is coming directly from the God, it’s obvious the people will be compliant to what clergy tell them to do without any resistance. At the same time, it effectively puts their wisdom and intellect into a bind which could otherwise pose challenge through reasoning. As against this, Hindus are not in a bind because they are not forced to believe. Many of them remain atheist and don’t believe in God or many Gods, but the truth-seekers for sure know the Truth i.e. Brahman, and the many Gods as real as their persona are real i.e. temporary aspects of the same eternal Brahman. This intellectual freedom may well be the reason why all over the world their intelligence is acknowledged and admired despite the unfair hurdle of the foreign language
Indian Secularists and Hinduism
Hindus Whenever any Hindu organization or individual speaks about the glorious ancient past or preservation and revival of the cultural heritage, it invariably evokes sharp reaction and opposition from the liberal(!) media, minority religious groups, some political parties and self-styled secularists and liberals in the country. They call it an attempt of Hindu dominance and some have gone even to the extent of calling it Hindu terrorism in the recent past. Ironically, the same liberal media and secularists world over and in this country have no issues and remain silent when Muslim majority Asian and African or Christian dominant Western countries officially address themselves as Islamic or Christian countries. A logical question is why calling it Islamic or Christian elsewhere is okay but in India even the reference to Hindu or Hinduism is objectionable. The fact remains that minorities in India are more pampered and receive special social, political and economic treatment from the government and other agencies compared to anywhere in the world.
To illustrate the above point, I would like to cite a controversy created nationwide around 2011 in the name of freedom of expression. An article ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ written by one Mr AK Ramanujam was included in the BA Pass course of the Indian Ancient History in the Delhi University. The article had incendiary references about Sita, one of the chief protagonists of Ramayan, being born from the sneeze of Ravana (Fact: He was abductor of Sita), illicit relation between Sita and Lakshmana, Hanuman (referred to as henchman of Ram) sneaking in the bed-rooms of Lanka residents, and so on so forth. Around 2008-09, when this distortion of facts maligning deities of Hindu faith came in knowledge and was objected to by some Hindu groups, even the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court reportedly refused to intervene citing it as the issue of the name of freedom of expression. Finally, after much persuasion and protests the Academic Council of the University decided to remove the offensive article from the curriculum after almost three years of controversy. The event invited the attention and criticism world over from media like the BBC, New York Times and India’s own liberal media and secular brigade citing it as an attempt to saffronization of education. Ironically, many of such elements pressurise and rejoice when the writings of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin are banned/curtailed for circulation in the country.
Hindu and Hinduism - Some Notable Features
Hinduism unlike Abrahamic religions does not discriminate humans on the basis of belief. In fact within Hinduism, there are different paths to reach the ultimate goal of life without inter-se conflict as against Abrahamic religions that differentiate humans into the believers as chosen by God and non-believers that are eternally damned. Hindu children are not taught to look down on those who are non-Hindus. The case in point could be the recent killing of a Christian student in Pakistan by his Muslim classmates just because he had drawn water from the same cooler.
By food habits, a high percentage of Hindus (about 40%) remain vegetarian and, in turn, kinder to animals compared to other major communities in the world. Since ancient times, no Hindu king is known to have ever invaded other civilizations outside the Indian sub-continent to consolidate land, wealth and power. Hindus have never resorted to crusade or jihad by engaging in loot, arson, rape and mass killings to establish and expand own religion in foreign lands. Even to sort out opinions within the different sects of Hinduism, the focus has been on the debate and free dialogue exploring facts and reasons rather than using force to subjugate the opposite side.
In the context of the foregoing analysis, it indeed appear so strange why the media worldwide, minority religions and secular brigade in India are so apprehensive and vocal even at the reference of Hindu, Hinduism or Hindu nation in the Indian context. Is it sponsored and motivated by the forces that do not want India or Hindustan to develop and prosper to regain its past and lost glory? Or, is this out of the hidden agenda of the fanatics and communal forces that want to take over the world under one umbrella in the name of religion by resorting to all coercive means including violence and systematic disinformation campaign?
Continued to Part II