Monday, 6 April 2015

The Three Hinduisms

It's not easy to describe what Hinduism "really" is, and I believe this is because there are three very different Hinduisms. If we take the allegorical example of a house, the different versions of Hinduism are to be found in different locations within that house. We have:

Attic Hinduism - the stuff Hindus want to keep out of sight and never talk about
Living-room Hinduism - the stuff Hindus practise on a day-to-day basis
Coffee-table Hinduism - what Hindus want other people to think their religion is all about

Hinduism is a very old set of traditions that have evolved over millennia, not just centuries. It had no single starting point, no known founder, no single holy book. It's a religion that has developed by adopting different ideas and practices from internal and external sources over centuries, many of these being mutually contradictory (although Hindus would like to imagine that there is a single underlying unity of thought that makes the entire agglomeration consistent in spite of its superficial contradictions). Hindus themselves have a very tenuous idea of what their religion is all about, and when asked, often respond with generalities like "Hinduism is a way of life".

The fact is that Hinduism is an earthy religion that was associated with an agrarian lifestyle, so it was probably not far from the truth at one time to assert that it was a way of life. Hindu religious rituals were closely tied to the day-to-day activities of a society living in an agrarian setting. There are propitiations of deities that are deemed to control the weather, ensure the success of crops, and ward off disease, there is worship of agricultural implements and useful animals (the cow), there are harvest festivals, fertility rituals and more. The phrase "way of life" is relatively meaningless today when so many Hindus live in urban apartment blocks, pursue a modern-day profession and obtain their groceries from a supermarket. The connection to the land and an agrarian way of life is largely broken today, and consequently the bulk of Hindu ritual (the "way of life") makes no sense anymore.

Some philosophical ideas (i.e., Vedanta) that bear little relation to the literal narratives and rituals of day-to-day Hindu practice have been repositioned as the philosophical underpinning of the religion, and although these philosophies are talked about, they do not form the basis of day-to-day Hindu religious practice for the simple reason that they are antithetical to ritual, and ritual is the tangible lifeblood of Hindu religious practice.

Attic Hinduism

Many aspects of Hindu thought, belief and practice have begun to be left behind as times change. Indeed, some of these have become downright embarrassing to modern Hindus, to the extent that they are often angrily denied. Perhaps the most controversial deal with sex, violence and unfair treatment of fellow humans. Criticism from other cultures and philosophies has doubtless influenced the evolution of Hinduism over the centuries. The ideas of non-violence in Buddhism and Jainism seem to have softened Hinduism's literal sacrifices into symbolic ones (although Kali temples to this day conduct bloody animal sacrifices); Muslim and Victorian disapproval turned Hindu society from one that was relatively relaxed about sexual behaviour to one that is extremely prudish today; modern society with its liberal ideas of individual rights and the equality of all has placed traditional gender and caste roles under an uncomfortable lens.

Attic Hinduism - a bunch of R-rated and X-rated material, and a set of politically incorrect ideas that are increasingly hard to espouse in public

A lot of authentic Hindu thought is therefore being actively denied today by those who claim to be Hinduism's most loyal spokespeople. Quite often, there isn't even the acknowledgement that these ideas were part of Hinduism. For example, the ideas that the lingam and yoni are meant to represent the male and female sexual organs, that beef may have been eaten by Hindus at some stage, or that brahmins were not always vegetarian, are hotly contested. The Tantric school of thought is a set of earthy ideas and practices that have been consigned to the attic and never mentioned again. The system of caste is being repositioned as an originally egalitarian division of labour that has been lately misinterpreted as an oppressive and rigid hierarchy.

Attic Hinduism is something Hindus would not want their children asking them about, because honest answers would be embarrassing. It is not discussed even with other practising Hindus. Any discussion about it is marked by dishonesty, obfuscation and outright denial.

Living-room Hinduism

When a family claims to be Hindu, what it means in practice is that the members of the family follow certain dietary and hygiene rules, perform some daily rituals like reciting prayers, lighting lamps, making offerings of flowers to idols, and the like, familiarise themselves with mythological stories about gods with human foibles, and observe festivals and auspicious events that occur during the course of a year, with specialised delicacies for different occasions.

Living-room Hinduism - The part of Hinduism that one can touch and feel, yet not what Hindus would want projected as its exclusive face

This is the face of Hinduism that Hindus do not mind showing to their children and to fellow practitioners, if not to outsiders. It is practical Hinduism, which is a tangible experience. It has distinctive colours, sounds, smells and tastes. It is taught to children without reservation and passed on through generations. Living-room Hinduism seems largely harmless, although some of the elements of Attic Hinduism do seep into it, such as the casual caste discrimination and patriarchal values that permeate Hindu society.

Living-room Hinduism doesn't actually have a whole lot to do with Coffee-table Hinduism, although the devout would strenuously insist that the two are one and the same, or at least entirely compatible.

Coffee-table Hinduism

Coffee-table Hinduism - a set of abstract ideas that fail the evidence test, but (apart from that) are relatively benign and inoffensive

Hindus will tell you that, at its heart, their religion is neither polytheistic nor idol-worshipping, because what Hindu philosophy really believes in is the existence of a single supreme consciousness, and that all of creation, including all living and non-living things, is simply a manifestation of that supreme consciousness. A human being is simply a temporarily deluded part of that supreme consciousness which does not realise its true nature and is trapped in an illusory existence. That piece of the supreme consciousness that represents an individual (a "soul") needs to embark on a journey of self-realisation over multiple incarnations, the aim of which is to one day reunite with the supreme consciousness.

There are four paths that the soul can choose from. Gnyana Yoga is the acquisition of cognitive knowledge about the nature of the self and of the supreme consciousness. Raja Yoga is the set of meditative techniques that alter one's state of consciousness to be able to perceive the supreme consciousness. Karma Yoga is the detached pursuit of righteous action that gradually casts off all ties to the illusory material world. Bhakti Yoga is the joyful embrace of love for all manifestations of the supreme consciousness, with the adoption of any harmless practical expression of that love, such as service, song or ritual.

When all is said and done, though, it is only the singing, chanting and ritualised form of Bhakti Yoga that crosses over from the coffee table to the living room.

Hinduism and Political Reality

The political reality of India today sees Attic Hinduism being denied ever more aggressively, Living-room Hinduism practised more loudly and ostentatiously, and Coffee-table Hinduism hypocritically proclaimed as being the philosophical underpinning of Living-room Hinduism, even though they could not be more opposed on the issue of ritual.

The Journey of Hinduism's Soul towards its Nirvana

Setting aside the ultimate desirability of a rational world order where all truth claims that fail the evidence test are discarded, a few things need to happen for the reform of Hinduism and its evolution into a respectable faith.

The existence of the attic must not be denied. There must be an honest acknowledgement of all that has come before, with a secure acceptance that not everything that is old is necessarily gold. The violence and unfairness must be repudiated (as opposed to denied), and the undue prudishness about sex rejected as well.

[I remember a conversation with an older gentleman a few years ago, where he made a conventionally critical remark against modern films, with "all that sex and violence". "Yes", I agreed mischievously, "too much violence and not enough sex". He was embarrassed into silence.]

The rejection of violence may seem a no-brainer, but it is in fact a complex issue when it comes to diet and the eating of animal flesh. There are no easy answers, but a workable solution is what is adopted in most democracies - an attempt at humane breeding and slaughter, and no imposition of diet on anyone.

Unfairness in Hinduism is manifested as casteism as well as sexism. Sexism is perhaps easier to roll back, since women are increasingly aware of their rights, and feminist arguments are gradually winning converts. I'm relatively sanguine about the improvement in Hindu society in terms of gender equality. However, casteism is still entrenched, especially in less urbanised settings. It will only begin to retreat as urbanisation increases.

It would be asking too much to demand the end of Living-room Hinduism, and I hardly believe that to be necessary. Living-room Hinduism is what makes even the atheists among us culturally Hindu. All that singing, socialising and eating is the stuff of good old human interaction. A little ritual is harmless social bonding, as long as it isn't taken too literally.

As for Coffee-table Hinduism, it is a philosophy that is far more accepting and inclusive than any Abrahamic faith, its unsupported mysticism notwithstanding. It's probably not a bad set of ideas to teach to Hindu children as a means of connecting them to their heritage, because it does not in any way disrespect or denigrate the billions of other humans with whom they share the earth.
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