They were men who communed with the universe, who held mystic secrets in the palm of their hand, whose spiritual hunger led them to the face of dazzling eternity, and whose grandiose spirit brought back from the heavens the magnificent Vedas, Upanishads, and many more spiritual nuggets into the ambit of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, as it is called today.
Who were these men whose shining wisdom tantalized the world? They were none other than the radiant Rishis of yore, whose glorious flight of the spirit into the vast unknown brought back the powerful life-affirming essence of Sanatana Dharma.
A galaxy of illumined souls such as Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, to name a few, sought inspiration from the immortal classics and the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered by many to be a masterpiece of world literature.
Ever since its creation by the lustrous Rishis, the resplendent classics have been revered as the gold standard of spirituality since time immemorial.
Not only did the Rishis create a stupendous volume of timeless spiritual classics, they were also ancient seekers of truth, explorers, scientists, philosophers, and most important of all, they were unrivaled warriors. With pioneering thought that broke all frontiers, they not only scrounged wide expanses of time and space to bring to the world an enormous body of knowledge – such as ayurveda, natya shastra, material sciences, surgery, astronomy - but were also self-reliant, skilled warriors ready to defend the land and establish the currency of justice, making ancient India a wonderland.
That was Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism during the Vedic period. All the philosophic thought, metaphysical explorations, scientific and spiritual knowledge came from that glorious time – a time when there were no temples, no priests, no idols, where spirituality was knowledge-oriented instead of ritual-oriented. And where orthodoxy was not even a blimp on the horizon.
Today the pristine voice of Sanatana Dharma is a very faint echo of its shining past. Hinduism has morphed from a quest for truth to a religion of do’s and don’ts. The temples have become more and more rich; the idols are clothed in layers of gold and diamonds, and the priests perform more elaborate pujas. People are conditioned to unquestioningly follow the spiritual barometer of the swamijis, priests, and assorted spiritual keepers of today.
Therefore, in spite of a suffuse of religion in the air, there is a vacuum in people’s souls and an uneasy discontent with traditional beliefs. The young and the restless who seek answers are not content with “this has been practiced since the dawn of civilization and must be right.” They cannot understand why people would bribe the Gods with gold and silver but haggle with a poor orphan for a few pennies. Or pray for jobs, promotion, wealth instead of praying for inner wisdom. And why in spite of all religion and puja, society does not value honesty, dignity of labor, kindness, generosity, and giving back.
When such unifying values are ignored, can society unite and define itself, let alone defend?
In turbulent times, people have always introspected in a deep manner. However, Hindu society, even in desperate times, has refused to look inward and have hounded those that sought to bring back the spirit of the Rishis.
Their names have been boldfaced in history; names such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Ishwar Chander Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and many more. They stared down the fury of Hindu society of that time to abolish sati, promote education of women, remove polygamy, encourage widow remarriage, halt the oppression of the Dalits, and many more evils practiced under the “benign” guise of orthodoxy.
Even in the enlightened twentieth century, orthodox Hinduism was unshakeable in its rigid stance. In 1934 in Travancore, Kerala, citing the fact that certain mantras are required to consecrate the deity, the orthodox position stated that the rituals involved would have to exclude Dalits from entering the temples thus defying Ambedkar and Gandhiji. For two years, the storms persisted until the Maharaja of Travancore, facing mass exodus of Dalits to other religions, took a daring step and opened the temple doors to Dalits. Of course, the Maharaja did not have to face elections or possibly the historic change may have been scuttled.
People are conditioned by habit and environment. The medieval Catholic church maintained that the Sun goes around the Earth and for centuries people believed it, and the scientists who went against the grain of the church faced its violent fury.
Is orthodoxy right and justified when the only explanation it can give is, “it has been followed for ages” or the classic “yours is not to question but just do what we say, since we are the custodians of religion.”
Contrast this stance with the Rishis who revealed the mighty truths of the universe. They had only one simple requirement for entry into the spiritual domains of Sanatana Dharma – obey your conscience, the steady compass of your soul, and you will find a way to God.
Also contrast this with the DNA of the Rishis who questioned, explored, and encouraged wide debates in ancient Gurukuls.
Orthodox practices have been the bane of all religions. It has gotten away with cruelty in various forms, citing edicts of God and sages. In India it has been used as an excuse for some empowered Hindus to keep other Hindus away from the temples. Can Hindu society survive with such gaping holes in its body?
One such person imbued with the fire of the Rishis, Swamy Vivekananda - the titanic Hindu monk – refused to join the wrecking train that Hinduism had become in the grip of orthodox priests. A one of a kind renaissance man, he embodied the free spirit and revolutionary tenets of the Vedas and roused India with a clarion call – “Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached.”
Like the warrior Rishis of yore, he hunkered down to fight the evils of the day. For example, he initiated many Hindu untouchables with the powerful Gayatri Mantra in Kolkata and converted them to brahmins. He broke with moribund tradition and made the Upanishads accessible to all including the Shudras who were prohibited from reading the Vedas and Upanishads. Women were allowed to chant Vedic mantras, and women priests were allowed.
“Religion has no business to formulate social laws and insist on the difference between beings, because its aim and end is to obliterate all such fictions and monstrosities,” he said
For the first time, Hinduism was getting real with a social conscience. “So long as millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every person a traitor, who having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them,” he proclaimed. In one of his lectures in Chicago, the Swamiji said that “bread” not “religion” was the crying need of India and that “service to man is service to God.” “As long as even a single dog in my country is hungry, my religion will be to give him food. Doing anything else would be irreligious”, stated the sagely Swami.
For these bold moves, the Swamiji came under rapid fire by orthodox brahmins, and he lost many of his close friends. But the unfazed Swamiji remained dauntless. He had a long road ahead. The fight of cleansing Hinduism had just begun.
In his towering speech in Chicago at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Swamiji wowed the world with the dramatic opening phrase “Brothers and Sisters of America,” that still resonates around the world and earned him the title of the “Hurricane Hindu.”
But to appear in Chicago, he had to defy the priests who considered foreign travel taboo and became the first Hindu monk to cross the ocean.
On returning to India, he got a “reward” for his pains. The temple management denied his entry into the Dakshineswar Kali temple in Kolkata. He was no longer considered a Hindu as he mixed with foreigners. Such was the regressive hold of orthodox Hinduism in the name of a moribund tradition.
During the past few weeks, the familiar script of orthodoxy has jumped to life in Sabarimala. This time it states that women of menstrual age are not allowed; the idea being that a woman’s body is considered impure during those days. The Vedas, however, have no such restrictions. Vedic women like Gargi and Maitreyi have chanted the Vedas, and Vedic women priests have performed rituals every day of the month. Swamy Vivekananda smashed tradition that spelled that “women cannot chant Vedas during their periods.” Even Sarada Ma, the spiritual spouse of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, continued her spiritual practices during her periods.
Power is in the number of people you can influence. The priests have the means to mobilize the people they can collect and indoctrinate them on a daily basis. They may or may not be hot on the idea of looking up the Vedas, but the people generally do not question them. Thus, the devotees are solidly behind the walls of orthodoxy. And while that may get the priests a pass, it is not the way of the Rishis.
Perhaps, a solution can be hammered out if people acquire new eyes and look from a wider angle. They will have to boot out the pestilent media, the fake female activists, the serpentine logic of the opposition, and the storm troopers of Pinarayi Vijayan.
But before all that, Hindus everywhere will have to answer the million-dollar question – Is Orthodoxy in tune with the mighty Vedas?
Maybe, then the judgement scale can be truly recalibrated. For when politics and religion collide, it causes nothing but whirlwinds.