Perspectives from the Indic Religious Traditions
Arvind Sharma, PhD
This column is designed to appear electronically every Monday, beginning December 4, 2000. It will consist of a piece typically between 1000 to 2000 words on a topic bearing on Indological discourse.
It is designed as a multipurpose column, in which views from or about the Indic Religious Traditions will be shared with the members. It is also designed as an interactive column, something to which the members of the group may react or something through which their views may be solicited.
It will run for as long as the members would like it to.
What Should We Call Ourselves?
We, that is, those of us who identify with the Indic religious tradition – what should we call ourselves in terms of that tradition itself? The expression – the Indic Religious Tradition (IRT)- is obviously not an expression drawn from the tradition itself.
Or, should we wish to look upon this process of self-designation as a form of namakarana samskara, what would we like to call ourselves, other than as members of the IRT.
The first question to arise naturally is: do we have a choice? And if we do have a choice then what are the options?
I can think of the following four. Members of the group may wish to propose more before we vote on it.
1. DHARMA: All the religious traditions of India employ this term in one form or another, and none those outside. The use of this term to translate the word “religion” is obviously of modern vintage and begs the question: should we translate the word `religion’ in the first place. Should we not use the English word religion itself in Indian languages as such, like motorcar, mistake, option, etc. and retain the word dharma in its Indic referent.
2. AUMDHARMA, OMKARADHARMA or PRANAVADHARMA : The sound of om is sacred to all religions of India (with the possible exception of Thervavada Buddhism?). Should not we then describe the Indic religious tradition in these resonant terms?
3. MOKSADHARMA: All the religions of Indian origin seem to accept the concept of moksa. The word has the merit of not being a neologism (it occurs as the title of a section in the Mahabharata), although the meaning which such use will impart to it could be considered new. So new wine in an old bottle. The question is – do we find the bottle attractive.
The following consideration may add to the attractiveness of the term: as moksa means emancipation, it could be extended to include all forms of emancipation, including the socio-political.
4. CATURDHARMYA: That is to say, comprising the four dharmas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It has the merit of belonging of “fours”: caturvarna caturashrama, caturvarga, and so on.
Further suggestions are invited.
Does the Bhagavadgita advocate war and violence?
It is easy to see how the Bhagavadgita may give rise to such an impression. First of all, its setting points in that direction. It is revealed while the opposing forces are poised ready for battle. Second, Arjuna does not want to engage in combat but is ultimately persuaded to do so. The Bhagavadgita starts with Arjuna too dejected to fight and ends as soon as Arjuna’s spirits have been revived. Third, one of the arguments which Krishna uses to urge Arjuna to fight appeals to the fact that Arjuna is a kshatriya and it is his duty to fight. And finally, when Krishna displays his cosmic form in the Eleventh Chapter, not only is a violent apocalypse disclosed, Krishna therein also tells Arjuna that he has himself made short work of Arjuna’s enemies, who have in effect already been killed by Krishna (XI. 33). That is, he should formally finish the job. Obviously then the Bhagavadgita seems to advocate war and violence.
Let us now take a closer look. The impression that the Bhagavadgita advocates war and violence is often formed by those who do not read it in the context of the Mahabharata. If one examines the context closely one realises that war has almost commenced. So the real issue is not whether war is good or bad but what is the duty of the warrior when war has as good as commenced. It is this question which the Bhagavadgita answers and not any other. It does not sit in judgment on whether war is right or wrong. That question does not fit its case. And its answer is that once the battled has commenced it is the duty of a soldier to fight, howsoever unpleasant that assignment might appear. One cannot become a conscientious objector after one has been mobilised. So to ask whether Gita advocates war or not is to ask the wrong question of it and one cannot hope to get the right answer by asking the wrong question.
Let us now broaden the context beyond the immediate one of the Gita to include the Mahabharata. It is well known that Krishna himself went on a peace mission to the Kauravas, in one last-ditch effort to avoid the war. He went as an ambassador whose person is held inviolable, otherwise it is impossible to negotiate. And what did Duryodhana do? Duryodhana tries to apprehend Krishna; Krishna assumed his cosmic form and broke loose. Many are aware of Krishna’s theophany in the Bhagavadgita, fewer are aware of Krishna ‘s theophany in the Kuru court. Let it be remembered that the first theophany of Krishna is in the context of a peace mission; when that mission fails and war breaks out, then the occasion for the better-known but second theophany presents itself.
Finally, the Mahabharata was not just a war; it was a just war. It was when Duryodhana `needled’ the Pandavas, challenged the Pandavas that he would not let them have even as much land as the point of a needle without a fight, that the Pandavas had to join issue with the Kauravas, to assert their legitimate right to the throne. The choice one was left with was that of letting injustice triumph over justice. If the Bhagavadgita, one insists, advocates war despite the evidence adduced above, then let it be remembered that a just war is involved. The Bhagavadgita does advocate that we fight for our right, and even then fighting alone is our right!
Does the Bhagavadgita uphold the Caste System?
A popular misconception about the Bhagavadgita relates to the issue of caste. It is said to support the caste system. Three verses from the Gita are often cited in support: (1) verse 31 of Chapter II in which Arjuna is asked to fight because as a Kshatriya it is his duty to do so; (2) verse 13 of Chapter IV in which Krishna says that he as created the four-fold order of the varnas and (3) verse 47 of Chapter XVIII which states that one should perform one’s dharma even if devoid of merit and rather than follow another’s even if well-performed.
Let us now examine each of these verses in context.
In verse 31 of Chapter II Arjuna is indeed asked to fight because he is a Kshatriya. Now the question is: how compelling an argument does Krishna consider it and how compelling an argument does Arjuna find it to be?
How compelling an argument does Krishna consider it? Not very compelling. He uses the participle api (moreover) while introducing the argument. It is an additional argument. And it is embedded in a whole web of other arguments. It is curious that this argument by duty (svadharma) is followed by an argument by booty – that if you die in battle you will gain heaven, and if you win you stand to gain a kingdom. So verse 37 of Chapter II.
Thus Krishna does not think that the argument by caste is going to clinch the issue. It is not that compelling. And obviously Arjuna does not find it compelling either. He finds it even less compelling, for he does not respond to it. The key question to ask then is: why does he not respond to it?
The answer is simple. Because he finds that many of the key figures involved in this battle are not Kshatriyas! In verse 8 of Chapter I Duryodhana identifies the main warriors on his side. These are (1) Drona; (2) Bhishma; (3) Karna; (4) Krpa; (5) Ashvatthama; (6) Vikarna and (7) Saumadatti. In some versions an eighth name, that of Jayadratha, is added.
Let us now examine the background of these warriors. Drona is a Brahmana; Bhishma qualifies, but barely; his father was a Kshatriya but his mother is said to have been Ganga; Karna’s ancestry is unknown at this point of the narrative. In fact, he was once faced down by Arjuna for this reason and was made a king and therefore a Kshatriya through consecration by Duryodhana (Mahabharata, adiparva, Chapters 134-136); Krpa is the son of an ascetic, brought up as a prince; Ashvatthama is a Drona’s son, and so a Brahmana; Vikarna (son of Dhrtarastra); Samadatti (son of king Bhurishravas) and Jayadratha (king of Sindhu) alone qualify fully as Kshatriyas by birth.
The reasons for the tentative nature of Krishna’s argument and the skeptical response of Arjuna are clear. An appeal that Arjuna should fight because he is a Kshatriya by birth runs into the following cognitive dissonances: (1) not all the warriors who have assembled to fight are Kshatriya; (2) not all the “Kshatriyas” who have assembled to fight are Kshatriyas by birth. Why should then Arjuna fight just because he is a Kshatriya? And why is Krishna standing aloof from the struggle when he too is a Kshatriya?
In Chapter IV Krishna indeed claims that he has created the caturvarnya (the word is important). Now the question is: (1) what does Krishna exactly claim he has created and (2) on what basis has he created what he has created.
Krishna claims that he has created caturvarnya, that is, the collectivity of four varnas. But it can also mean “that which is characterized by the four varnas” namely, the social universe; and not the four varnas themselves as such. The statement is a semantic double-decker.
The basis of either (1) the collectivity or (2) that which is characterized by this collectivity is guna, and karma (guNakarmavibhaagazaH). The word janma is conspicuous by its absence.
Thus even if Krishna has created the four varnas they are not based on birth but accord with qualities and actions and if he has created that which is characterized by the “caste-system” rather than the system itself, that entity or society contains divisions on the basis of qualities and actions. In either case birth-ascription is wanting.
In Chapter XVIII Krishna indeed lauds the performance of the svadharma. If, however, svadharma is based on guna and not birth, then the statement that it is better to perform one’s dharma though inferior, as compared to the superior performance of another’s dharma must be understood differently – as follows: “Although one may consider one’s dharma as inferior and think that one will perform another’s dharma better than one’s own…, one should perform one’s own dharma”, because it alone truly conforms to one’s nature. A statement similar to the above found in the Bhagavadgita is also found in the Buddhist Dhammapada (XII.166).
The question still remains: why is Arjuna not convinced by any shade of argument based on “caste”? To claim that the Bhagavadgita supports any version of the varna system is misleading because Arjuna does not consent to fight so long as such arguments are being adduced. He only resumes the fight when Krishna says: “Abandon all dharmas and seek refuge in me alone”. It should be carefully noted that Krishna uses the expression sarvadharmaan: All dharmas. All dharmas must include varna dharmas if all is to retain its meaning.
If it is claimed that the Bhagavadgita upholds the caste system then how are we to explain the paradox that Arjuna decides to fight precisely when the argument by caste is withdrawn?
Was Rama Wrong?
Rama (as in Ramarajya) has become the bete noir of many in our times for having banished Sita. I think his case should be revisited in the light of the scandal involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. As we revisit his case, however, it might be helpful to carry the following two items of intellectual luggage with us as we do so: a suitcase and a briefcase. The briefcase consists of the insight that the exercise of power will at least often, if not invariably, involve issues of morality, and that morality in turn can and will often possess the dimension of sexual morality. The portmanteau is stuffed with the following observation: a society without radio and TV is not necessarily a society in which scandal does not spread – and easily. Never underestimate the velocity with which a gossip goes around the globe, or at least a good part of it. And public opinion – a more civic and polished name for gossip – sometimes is as dear to a monarch seeking a legendary place in Hindu mythology, as to it to a President seeking a place in American history.
Thus equipped let us now revisit Rama’s banishment of Sita. While travelling incognito in his kingdom he hears (overhears) a washerman upbraid his wife for showing signs of “straying” (This is how he trips on the information – this is the equivalent of Linda Tripp’s secret taping for you). In the course of this upbraiding, the washerman compares Rama unfavourably to himself and claims that he will display greater (read: more severe) rectitude (read: treatment of his wife) by comparison.
Where does this leave Rama in a society in which he is seeking a moral, as distinguished from an elective mandate, or a mandate from Heaven, to govern? So if one wants to know how it felt in Rama’s sandals, get into Clinton’s shoes and imagine a scandal in which Mrs. Clinton had been taped confessing to doing to someone what Clinton had done, for which he almost blew his job. To those who bemoan the loss of Clinton’s standing in the eyes of America, where would he be left standing then? He would have had to be scraped from the floor.
Would a publicly cuckolded Clinton, as distinguished from a scolded Clinton, been able to complete his term?
The Story of Ekalavya
The story of Ekalavya is well known. Ekalavya was a young hunter who wished to train as a warrior under Drona, the best-known guru in this field at the time. Drona rejected him as a disciple on account of his low birth, whereupon he acquired the skills himself through rigorous practice, after installing a replica of Drona. In modern parlance, one might say that Ekalavya was an autodidact and Drona taught him in abstentia. Be that as it may, Ekalavya soon surpassed Drona’s favourite pupil Arjuna in skill and, in order to ensure that on one, but on one, could ever surpass Arjuna as an archer, Drona demanded the thumb of Ekalavya as his “tuition fees”, even though he had taught only in absentia.
This incident is regularly cited as an example of social injustice within Hinduism.
The clarifying question to ask here is: is this incident to be treated as an example, or as a warning?
The critics of Hinduism might wish to treat it as an example, but the Hindu would tend to look upon it as a warning. It is an example only in the sense that it is to be held up as an example of what happens when one acts unjustly. In the end, Drona is slain by the very Arjuna for the sake of whose supremacy Drona had amputated Ekalavya! And the irony here is not that of a Greek tragedy so much as that of a morality tale. Drona lost his life as the result of a lie told to him. What goes around comes around. If one takes an amoral view of the world, as some Marxists might, it is easy to overlook the moral lesson encoded in the incident, take the illustration for the point, and thus miss the point.
The point, moreover, does not consist of only the moral message. It also possesses a spiritual resonance. To hear the resonance, one must attune one’s ears to those vibrations of Hinduism, in which the guru is said to play a vital role in one’s search for perfection, spiritual or otherwise. Ekalavya’s story makes the point that it is the guru as one’s mental construct, rather than his or her physical form, which is the transforming agency. The guru, as a mental construct, imparted some supreme skill to Ekalavya, the guru in the physical form deprived him of his capacity to exercise it. Is there also a warning here against false gurus in the flesh as against those in spirit? And even the further teachings that “there are no gurus, only disciples”, that ultimately, one is one’s own teacher. It was the desire of Ekalavya to be a great archer which made him a great archer. No wonder Gautama Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Ramana Maharshi had no gurus. All that perfection ultimately requires of us is that our desire for it be perfect.
Popular Misconceptions about Hindu Astronomy
In this column I would like to deal with the popular misconceptions that Hinduism does not possess an adequate sense for the exact sciences, for instance, geography. This is a very common view. Lord Macaulay, in his famous Minute in which he argued for the introduction of English in India, poured scorn over Hindu geography whose inaccuracies he said would make English schoolgirls twitter. A more sympathetic scholar in modern times, A.L. Basham, could only say in its defense that it was a “brilliantly imaginative picture of the world” as if to atone for the scorn of Lord Macaulay. Both of them missed the point as I shall presently explain.
First of all, when the Hindus wanted to be exact and precise in their observations they were just that, exact and precise, and from very early on. There is a text called the Aitareya Brahmana which is a part of the Vedas and may be assigned to 800-600 B.C. The text declares (III. 14):
“This aditya (the sun) never sets and never rises. When one thinks him to have set, actually he creates night in that part and day in the other part (of the globe) at that time. When in the morning one regards the sun to have risen, in reality he terminates the night and creates day in that part; the other part being enveloped in night at that time. This sun never sets.”
Then what about the description in the Puranas and of various oceans of milk etc.? This is a mythology, not to be confused with geography. Because Hinduism is a tolerant and inclusive religion, it accepts the faith and beliefs of people who embrace it with little violence to them as possible. It may be that its spirit of charity sometimes led to lack of geographical clarity – but this is the price it has to pay for its hospitality to other faiths and beliefs. To illustrate: if Christianity had been absorbed by Hinduism over time then the Biblical view of a flat earth and a three-decker universe would also have found its way into it.
This specific point involves a more general issue. Did the evolutionary assumption, which then pervaded the intellectual climate of the West, lead to the presumption that `later is better’ and therefore led early Indologists into developing a blind spot in relation to pieces of evidence which did not fit the evolutionary pattern?
After all: Why did the scholars who translated the Brahmanas such as the one mentioned earlier fail to take note of the striking astronomical observations or accord them importance?
Comments for or against are invited from members, along with the relevant pieces of evidence. After all, the fate of Indology may be written in the stars!
How to Define Hinduism? Points to Ponder
There are two types of religions, those in which the doctrines and practices come first and then a community coalesces around them; and those in which the community comes first and the doctrines and practices are an expression of the togetherness of the community. If the first type of religion is described as associational and the latter communitarian, then Hinduism is a communitarian religion.
Implication for definition: One must define who is a Hindu (i.e. member of the community) before defining Hinduism.
There are two ways in which one may define a Hindu on account of Hinduism’s close association with India: from the point of view of those inside it and from the point of view of those outside it. This dualism implies a double-definition of who is a Hindu.
Implication for definition: A person who is an Indian citizen is presumably a Hindu unless one denies being one; a person who is not an Indian citizen is presumably a non-Hindu, unless one asserts that one is a Hindu, for while Hinduism may not seek converts, it tends not to reject them, either.
Since in its original location one must deny being a Hindu in order not to be considered one, Hinduism is non-exclusive – others exclude themselves from it.
Implication for definition: Others may exclude themselves from the Hindus but Hindus do not exclude the religious ideas of those people. This means that from the Hindu point of view, “Hinduism” is identical with the Indic Religious Tradition, although from the point of view of the followers of the other Indic religious traditions, such as those of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism this may not be so, should they choose to exclude themselves.
While in the case of Indic religions, Hindus identify with both the religious communities as well as their religious ideas, even if they exclude themselves; in the case of non-Indic religions they are unwilling to identify with such communities (Muslims, Christians, etc.) if these communities exclude themselves from the Hindus, but Hindus remain hospitable to the religious ideas of these communities.
Implication for definition: The Hinduism will always be more than just the sum of the religious ideas of the “Hindus”.
Just as Hindus do not exclude others, others exclude themselves, Hindus do not exclude what has happened in their past, or the past of others, whatever it might be.
Implication for definition: Hindus believe in a cumulative as well as an inclusive tradition of religion.
Hinduism may now be defined as the religion of the Hindus.
Implication for definition: 1. Hinduism is the sum total of beliefs and practices of those who identify themselves as Hindus, which is what they are because of this non-exclusive and cumulative attitude displayed by the Hindus. 2. Because Hindus also welcome the religious ideas and experiences of others it will always be more than itself.
The sum total of these beliefs and practices held in mutual tolerance and acceptance need not have any common thread running through them, except this attitude of mutual acceptance.
Implication for definition: Some broad similarities may be discernible but although these may be descriptive of Hinduism, they can never be definitional of Hinduism.
Thus Hindus can be identified but Hinduism cannot be defined, except as the religion of the Hindus. And being a Hindu requires no definition other than self-assertion, by implication if one is an Indian citizen and by articulation if one is not.
Implication for definition: Hinduism is a threshold, not an enclosure. Hinduism will always be more than itself.
Religious Freedom: A Hindu Perspective
(Testimony before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, September 18, 2000)
I have been asked to provide a Hindu perspective on religious freedom, to identify the diverse positions within it on the point and to comment on the relationship of Hindu nationalism to religious freedom. I shall offer my comments accordingly.
- I would like to use article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the basis for advancing three propositions:
(1) That the concept of religious freedom articulated in article 18 presupposes a certain concept of religion itself, a concept associated with Western religion and culture;
(2) That a different concept of religion, associated with Eastern and specially Hindu religion and culture, leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and
(3) That unless human rights discourse is able to harmonize these two concepts of religious freedom, ironically but not surprisingly, the clash of the two concepts might ultimately result in the abridgement of religious freedom in actual practice, India representing a case in point.
The concept of religious freedom as embedded in article 18 presupposes that an individual can only belong to or profess one religion at a time. If one believes that one can only belong to one religion at a time, then it stands to reason that religious freedom would essentially consist of one’s freedom to change such affiliation by the voluntary exercise of choice.
In parts of the East, however, one encounters a somewhat different notion of religion, as illustrated by the contemporary reality of Japan. According to the 1985 census, 95% of the population of Japan declared itself as followers of Shinto and 76% of the same population also declared itself as Buddhist.
To turn now to India. It is well-known that most modern Hindus do not regard the various religions of Indian origin – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – as mutually exclusive religions. If the Indian census-takers did not insist that one can only belong to one religion – significantly a British and therefore Western legacy – I would not be at all surprised if the Indian religious statistical reality began to resemble the Japanese.
What would the concept of religious freedom possibly mean in the context of such a concept of religion. I would like to propose that it would now imply the idea of multiple religious participation rather than the idea of religious conversion. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked: What if a Hindu comes to feel that he can only be saved by Jesus Christ? Gandhi’s reply may be paraphrased thus; So be it, but why should he cease to be Hindu (Harijan, 28-11-1936) Thus in the Eastern cultural context, freedom of religion means that the person is left free ot explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion. Such exploration needs not be confined to any one religion, and may freely embrace the entire religious and philosophical heritage of humanity.
Recent events in India indicate that the simultaneous operation of these two concept can lead to religious volatility. India’s religious culture is heavily imbued with the Eastern concept of religion, India’s political culture relies heavily on the Western concept of it. The tensions now building up in India seem to lend support to this third proposition. A number of states in India have introduced Freedom of Religion Bills. These legislations require prior clearance from government authorities before a conversion can be carried out. Hindus are resentful because conversion is thereby still allowed; Christians are resentful because conversion is therby impeded! Thus proponents of both Western and Eastern concepts of religion can allege that these enactments restrict religious freedom.
- In this second part of my presentation I would now like to examine the Hindu attitude towards conversion in more detail, in view of its centrality to the Hindu understanding of religious freedom. I shall confine my discussion to the range of opinion regarding conversion found in Hinduism to the modern period; that is, in the post-1800 period. During this period two attitudes in the main towards conversion can be clearly identified.
- Most modern Hindus are opposed to the idea of conversion from one religion to another per se. This opposition is rooted in the neo-Hindu doctrine of the validity of all paths to the divine. If all paths are valid, then conversion from one religion to another does not make much sense. Two counter arguments against this position now may be considered: (1) if all religions are valid then why object to conversion from one to the other and (2) sometimes it might be in a person’s interest to change to another religion, to ensure one’s spiritual progress. One neo-Hindu response to the first point would be that conversion often involves cultural violence and so if all religions are valid the relevant question is not “why not” but “why”? As for the second, one neo-Hindu response urges that if all religions are valid this makes all of them members of a fraternity. So if someone feels that one’s spiritual progress will be speeded up by adopting another religion there is no harm in doing so, but does one have to abandon one’s religion in order to adopt another?
- Some modern Hindus also believe that while conversion from Hinduism, like conversion from any religion, is undesirable yet conversion to Hinduism to India should be tolerated, and even encouraged. According to them the conversion of Hindus to Islam and Christianity, specially during Islamic and British Rule, took place during Hinduism’s times of troubles, and therefore such reconversion is now valid, as it represents the righting of a historical wrong.
If the first position may be described as the neo-Hindu position then this second position could be called the Hindu nationalist position. It should be noted thought that both are equally opposed to conversion from Hinduism.
III. I would now like to refer back to article 18 as I conclude, for it constitutes the bedrock provision for religious freedom in human rights discourse. It should not come as a surprise, in the light of what has been said, that according to most Hindus article 18 does not help insure genuine religious freedom because it seems to stack the deck in favour of the proselytizing religions. It recognises the right to change one’s religion, but does not, equally emphatically, recognise one’s right to retain one’s religion. It seems to recognise one’s right to proselytise, but does not, equally emphatically recognise one’s right not to be made an object of proselytization.
I thank you.
Can the Right to Proselytize be Derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
I begin by citing the two articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that bear on the matter in hand.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 18 leaves room for serious misunderstanding on this point. It speaks of one’s right to change one’s religion. This can be conflated with the right to ask someone to change his or her religion. But they are two distinct rights: (1) my right to change my religion and (2) someone else’s right to ask me to change my religion. That I have the right to change my religion does not mean that someone else has the right to ask me to change my religion. Thus the right to proselytise does not follow from this statement. If left unchecked, this line of reasoning could be used to justify even the Inquisition.
The same article also confers on one the right to practice one’s religion freely. This could be interpreted as conferring, on the proselytising religions, the right to proselytise. But the non-proselytising religions also possess the right to practice their religion freely. What if they claim that the proselytising religions are interfering with the freedom of the non-proselytising religions, when the members of the non-proselytising religions are asked to give up their religion? Thus the road to the right to freely proselytise under the banner of Article 18 is again blocked.
A third possibility then is to consider freedom to proselytise as of a piece with the right to freedom of expression conferred by Article 19. But the same right also includes “freedom to hold opinions without interference”. Is the proselytiser not interfering with the opinions of a person of the non-proselytising religion when he or she is asked to convert?
The right to proselytise therefore cannot be derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Indic Religious Tradition: What has the Indian Census got to do with it?
The purpose of a census is to reflect reality and not to shape it. If this point is accepted then the current mode of determining the adherents of a particular religion in India poses a problem.
According to the present method of determining religious affiliation, one person must specify only one religion as the one he or she follows. This view, however, that one can follow only one religion at a time reflects a Western concept of religion, according to which one can only adhere to one religion at a time. Indian religious reality, by contrast, permits multiple religious participation as well as multiple religious affiliation.
Three points are particularly significant in this respect.
(1) When the British Government had to actually face such a problem, it was resolved arbitrarily and imperialistically by forcing a choice on the people.
Consider the case of the “35,000-strong community of `Hindu-Muhammadans’ in Gujarat”. It caused a headache for the Bombay census superintendent as late as 1911, on account of its “inextricable combination of multiple practices, beliefs, and even self-definitions. The latter was pulled up sharply by his superior, Census Commissioner E.A. Gait, who ordered the location of the `persons concerned to one or other as best as he could'” (Sarkar 1999: 1694; also see 1996:285). Indian reality was falsified here to conform to the Western notion that belonging to a religion implies exclusive adherence to it.
(2) The point can now be reinforced with the help of the example of Japan. Such an exclusive concept of religion was not forced by the West of Japan, with the result that the results of its religious census appear as follows for the year 1985 (Reader, 1991:6).
Buddhist 92,000,000 Persons 76% of population
Shinto 115,000,000 Persons 95%
New Religions 14,000,000
Total population of Japan in 1985 was 121,000,000.
(3) Should not the census also have a new category for sarvadharma: one who believes in `all religions’ since there is already a category for no religion? Such a category is arguably more easily conceived in India than elsewhere.
Should India henceforth not replace the present Western mode and now follow the its own mode of census-taking when it comes to religion? And if not, why not?
India and the West do not share the same concept of religion. When the Indian census uses a Western concept of religion for determining religious adherence it distorts the Indian reality instead of reflecting it. The purpose of a census is to reflect religious reality, not to distort it. Henceforth Indians should be permitted to state multiple religious affiliations, when such multiple affiliation is constitutive of their self-perception and self-definition. Should Indian reality be changed just to conform to the conventions of European languages?
Reader, Ian, 1991. Religion in Contemporary Japan. London: Macmillan.
Sarkar, Sumit, 1999. “Conversion and Politics of the Hindu Right”. Economic Political Weekly, June 26, 1999, p. 1694.
Sarkar, Sumit, 1996. “Indian Nationalism and the Politics of Hindutva” in David Ludden, ed., Contesting the Nation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
More on the Right to Proselytize: Response to David Salmon
I am grateful to David Salmon for his detailed response. The issue under discussion is so significant that I would like to respond to his points, in the hope that thereby the issue will achieve greater clarity.
(1) What we mean by proselytization becomes crucial to the discussion. The Webster¹s New Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb proselytize as follows (p. 925):
vt: to convert from one religion, belief or party to another
vi: to make proselytes. 2: to recruit members esp. by the offer of special inducements.
Article 18 no doubt includes the right to manifest one’s religion in public or private through teaching. It is also true that “the plainest and most reasonable understanding of this language is that it includes the right to teach one’s religion in public”. However, when it is added : “Is that not at least a form of proselytization?” one must wonder whether such an extension of the point does not beg the question. For the point regarding proselytization is not whether the “plainest and most reasonable understanding of [the] language” of Article 18 includes “the right to teach one¹s religion in public”. The question is whether “the plainest and most reasonable understanding” of the right to so teach includes the right to proactively seek converts. The point at dispute is precisely the link between such “education” and “conversion”. Does the public have a voice in how it is being educated?
(2) The first legal principle related to the plain meaning of the text being the most important consideration. I submitted above that on this point the matter under discussion it is far from plain. Now one may turn to another “basic principle of legal interpretation: that statutes should be interpreted to mean what they were originally intended to mean by the legislature that adopted them”. But this is not the only approach which might be entertained in this respect. Alongside this “originalist” approach may be placed the “intentionalist” and “pluralist” approaches (the pluralist, of course, including the other two). If we take the intentionalist approach to mean that what the statute “intends” to accomplish, then the matter is not so simple. Did the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights intend human beings to be made unwitting or unwilling targets of proselytization? It may be that in 1948 “countries such as the United States would not have signed the Declaration without that clear understanding that it involved proselytization”; the question now arises: did countries like India sign it without a clear understanding that it involved proselytization?
(3) It is true that Article 19 invokes “freedom of … expression”. The relevant question to ask is whether it is an unqualified freedom. If it is not an unqualified freedom, and the right to proselytize is represented as based on it, then should one not stop to ask whether or not the right to proselytize is an unqualified right?
(4) The next point is directly related to the above for what is referred to as a “parable of horribles” carried the implication of such an unqualified right to its logical conclusion. The qualification introduced here by David Salmon is that such proselytization should not be such as “denies human rights”. The point at issue is whether proselytization as such denies human rights, and not such proselytization as does or does not deny human rights.
(5) Thus it becomes clear that two fundamental rights are in conflict someone¹s right to ask me to do something and my right to be left alone, and “when two fundamental rights conflict, an accommodation is implied which preserves the essence of both so far as possible”.
Now we approach the crux of the matter:
(i) Let us assume the two rights can be accommodated. Then the point of issue is: why does Article 18 not enshrine my right to be left alone as clearly and unambiguously as someone¹s right to make me an object of proselytization?
(ii) Let us now assume that the two rights cannot be fully accommodated. This would mean that one will have to be subordinated to the other. This is precisely what has occurred when it is said that the “balance already rests with the right of proselytization”. The question is: why should the balance rest with the right to proselytize? Why should the balance not rest with the “right not to be made an object of proselytization”? Again, why should the one being made an object of proselytization have to secure a legal remedy; why should the proselytizer not have to obtain prior legal permission before approaching someone?
(6) The same reversal applies to point six. Why should not proselytization in general be disallowed; and only allowed in “reasonable cases” where there is no disparity in the financial and educational levels of the two parties, for instance?
I realize that the discussion has now moved beyond the narrow purview of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . The point is that the very concept of “religion” which one brings to the text a Western one or an Eastern one leads to different interpretations of it. If we take the Eastern view of religion into account then Article 18 no longer remains a secular provision, because it reflects one particular concept of religion, a Western one. A truly secular provision must remain neutral in relation to both; and were that not possible, must be equally and evenly balanced.
Some Observations on Bias in the Study of Religion: I
There has been considerable discussion on the website about bias in the presentation of Indic Religious Traditions. I would like to share the following distinctions on this point.
(1) Personal versus systemic bias
I think we should focus on identifying bias on a systemic rather than individualistic basis. To be sure, systemic bias can only be uncovered by examining individual cases, but our focus should be the detection of systemic bias. Often individuals are themselves merely victims of systemic bias.
(2) To determine systemic bias we must collect a data bank of all cases, errors and biases we encounter – whether in Western or Indian sources. A sample of the data submission form can be viewed at http://www.mcgill.ca/religion (see Terra Ferma under General Suggestions). The following samples may be useful for this purpose:
SOURCE: BBC World Program broadcast in New Delhi; Dec. 28, 1995, around 12:30 p.m.
INSTANCE: During a segment on Buddhism in Thailand, Buddhist monks were shown blessing money held out by the disciples in the hope that it would thereby increase. The broadcaster referred to this practice as a Buddhist “superstition”.
REASON: The use of this word betrays an anti-Buddhist bias. The practice should have been described by the more neutral word “belief”.
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SOURCE: The New York Times, December 9, 1973, Sec. 10, p. 1)
INSTANCE: The article declared that “according to orthodox Islam, women do not have souls”.
REASON: This statement is erroneous and directly contradicts the Qur’an (see 4:124). For more discussion, see Jane J. Smith and Yvonne Y. Haddad, “Women in afterlife: The Islamic view as seen from the Qur’an and tradition”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 43:1 (March 1975), pp. 39-50.
* * *
SOURCE: The Globe and Mail, August 27, 1996, p. A7
INSTANCE: Shiva is described as the Hindu god of destruction.
REASON: Shiva should properly be described as the Hindu god of cessation. The description of Shiva as the god of destruction involves a bias and an error. The bias consists of an excessively negative portrayal of the god who also destroys illness, death, &c. The error consists of the fact that there is no final destruction in Hinduism. The universe undergoes periodic manifestation. Shiva is only the curtain-caller for the show.
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SOURCE: The Gazette (Montreal), August 25, 1996, p. A7, report entitled: “Muslims Help Stranded Hindus”
INSTANCE: The report goes on to say, in the last paragraph: “In a rare spirit of religious tolerance, Muslim residents… Offered food and shelter to… Hindu pilgrims.”
REASON: In associating a “rare spirit of religious tolerance” with Islam, the report betrays and anti-Islamic bias.
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SOURCE: The New York Times, August 27, 1996, p. A3, report entitled: “Rescued from Himalayas.”
INSTANCE: The stalactite of ice, the report states, which is the object of veneration , “the Hindus believe to be a manifestation of the phallus of Shiva.”
REASON: The Hindus call the object linga, which means a distinguishing mark. It is so called because it is a distinguishing mark of Shiva. Linga means phallus in certain contexts because the phallus is the distinguishing mark of the male. To call shivaliïga the phallus of Shiva is tantamount to describing Jesus as born out of wedlock, or worse.
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Further examples of bias in the media and in academia are to follow.
Some Observations on Bias in the Study of Religion: II
SOURCE: The Globe and Mail, August 21, 1995, “Indian Rail Crash Kills 300”
INSTANCE: The article contains the sentence: “Cows are sacred to Hindus, who make up most of India’s 900 million people.”
REASON: There is no reason to refer to the sanctity of the cow in Hinduism, since according to the article, “apparently the train had stopped because it hit an animal”. Irrespective of the animal being a cow or a buffalo – or even a zebra – the train would have stopped.
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SOURCE: The Globe and Mail, June 21, 1995, article headlined “Muslim Forces threaten Canadians” —- as identified by Wilfred Cantwell Smith in The Globe and Mail, July 5, 1995, p. A21
INSTANCE: In its coverage of the developments in former Yugoslavia, the June 21 article, “Muslim Forces threaten Canadians”, refers to other parties in terms of nationalities – such as Serbs and Croats – while referring to the Bosnians as Muslims.
REASON: Apart from the asymmetry, the prevailing prejudicial association of Islam with terrorism is reinforced – especially in view of the nature of the headline.
SOURCE: Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001) p. 104
INSTANCE: “As a result of the efforts of reformers like Gandhi, discrimination against the outcast (sic) was officially forbidden in the 1948 Constitution of the Republic of India.”
REASON: Two points: “Outcasts” should preferably be outcastes and the Constitution was adopted in 1950.
SOURCE: V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, Savarkar Sadan, 1969: fifth edition) p. 87
INSTANCE: “Harsha… being a Vaishya gave his daughter in marriage to a Kshatriya prince.”
REASON: Harsha was a lifelong bachelor and did not have a daughter.
(3) We need to distinguish between motive, method and material conclusions when we analyze these samples. A person may come up with a correct conclusion even if the motive is vitiated and the method wrong. However, unfair motives and erroneous methods are not thereby justified but perhaps deserve separate treatment.
(4) Some might be inclined to wonder why in a column devoted to the Indic Religious Tradition, one should talk about the problem of bias in the study of religion. The question is valid, if, in our view, also answerable. It has been said that to understand religion is to understand more than religion; that to understand one religion is to understand more than one religion. By the same token, to understand the Indic Religious Tradition is to understand more than the IRT. Often the stereotyping of one religion by another is in response to having suffered the same fate at the hands of the other. It is sometimes acknowledged by scholars on both sides of the fence, for instance, that some of the excesses of nationalist historians in India were a response to the excesses of “Imperialist” historians, and vice versa.
Pravritti and Nivritti as a Model for Studying Religion
Shankara writes in his introduction to the commentary on the Bhagavadgita:
The Twofold Vedic Religion
“The Lord created the universe, and wishing to secure order therein He first created the Prajapatis (Lords of creatures) such as Marichi and caused them to adopt the Pravritti-Dharma, the Religion of Works. He then created others such as Sanaka and Sanandana and caused them to adopt the Nivritti-Dharma, the Religion of Renunciation, characterised by knowledge and indifference to worldly objects. It is the twofold Vedic Religion of Works and Renunciation that maintains order in the universe. This Religion which directly leads to liberation and worldly prosperity has long been practised by all castes and religious orders (varna-ashrama) – from the brahmanas downwards – who sought welfare.
“Without any interest of His own, but with the sole intention of helping His creatures, He taught to Arjuna, who was deeply plunged in the ocean of grief and delusion, the twofold Vedic Religion, evidently thinking that the Religion would widely spread when accepted and practised by men of high character.”
Members of the group might wish to know that a doctoral student at McGill University (Arti Dhand) recently successfully defended a thesis which utilised emic categories to explain the inner logic of sexual ethics as elaborated in the Mahabharata. Even some Westerner scholars have turned to this classification for its illuminating properties. Greg Bailey, who teaches at La Troise University in Melbourne, Australia, is one of them.
It might be a mistake, however, to restrict the application of these paired categories to the Indic Religions, for could not the following sentiment of Lao Tzu be understood equally well in these terms?
Often times, one strips oneself of passion in order to see the secret life;
Often times, one regards life with passion, in order to see its manifold results.
But to stick to Hinduism: Even more significant than the categories of pravritti and Nivritti are the categories created by their juxtaposition, namely (1) pravritti in Nivritti and (2) Nivritti in pravritti . Lest this exercise be considered unduly scholastic, it should be indicated right away that the Bhagavadgita, when read as espousing karma yoga, and the attendant doctrine of niskama karma really advocates pravritti in Nivritti . Similarly, the doctrine of Incarnation (avatara) found therein may similarly be cited as an illustration of Nivritti in pravritti , if the godhead is identified with Nivritti par excellence.
Readers may wish to explore the applications of such classifications on their own. Thus the four Indic Traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism seem to acquire their particular flavour from the proportion in which they blend these two tendencies. Sikhism as we know it now seems to place maximum emphasis on pravritti and Jainism on Nivritti ; Buddhism leans somewhat more towards Nivritti than Hinduism, which seems to be perpetually trying to hold them in balance.
Manu on the Shudras
Much space has been devoted in the postings on this site on what Manu has to say on the Shudras. In this column I shall confine myself to some of the facts and perspectives which have been overlooked.
1. According to Manusmriti II. 238 (as interpreted by Kulluka Bhañña) a person of a higher caste may obtain knowledge leading to moksha from an “untouchable” or dalit.
2. According to Manusmriti VIII. 104 it is permissible to tell a lie in order to save the life of a Shudra (as also of a person belonging to other varnas). The category of Shudra here includes dalits (X. 4).
3. Manusmriti XI. 34 implies well-off Shudras and IX. 179 refers to Shudras possessing dasas.
Given the vogue of the psychoanalytic approach to the study of Hinduism, it is surprising that no scholar has proffered the following interpretation of the verses that call for pouring molten lead into the ears of the Shudras or brandishing their buttocks (Manusmriti VIII. 270-272; 279-286).
The rise of Shudra rulers in the history of India such as the Nandas, a phenomenon known to the Manusmriti (IV. 61), may have involved loss of privileges for the priestly class and these verses reflect the frustrated fantasies of the priestly class rather than historical realities. The fact that the text is arguably meant to be read only within that class (I. 103) lends credence to this view. Alternately, the priestly class could be expressing its resentment against the foreign rulers (mlecchas) but could not attack them openly for fear of reprisals so they were “coded” as Shudras, just as under Muslim rule, one dared not attack the rulers openly so that they were “coded” as demons or danavas.
It is surprising, given the current vogue of psychoanalysis in Hindu studies, that no one has even proposed this thesis much less examined it: that these passages are compensatory fantasies with which the priestly class consoled itself in the face of loss of actual power in the context of new political realities. Ironically, these passages then become signifiers of the powerlessness of the priestly Brahmins rather than their power!
What Should We Call Ourselves – Further Reflections
This present series of columns began with one on the topic: what should we call ourselves. It is now time to carry the discussion forward in the light of the responses. I draw the following conclusions on the basis of the responses:
1. Most (but significantly not all) were in favour of the word dharma forming part of any self-description.
2. Although some felt that dharma could stand by itself, others felt that the proper self-description required a qualifier such as omkaradharma, or bharatiya-dharma or sarvadharma or manavadharma.
I think these two points bring us to a critical phase in our discussion, for we are now at point at which what we decide to call ourselves will not only reflect but also shape who we are. For instance, by selecting omkaradharma we will be deciding in favour of a special symbol; by selecting bharatiya-dharma we will be anchoring the tradition more firmly in India that otherwise; by selecting sarvadharma we will be foregrounding its pluralism and by selecting manavadharma we will be foregrounding its universalism – and in effect moving beyond symbolism, Indicism and pluralism to universalism.
I incline in favour of manavadharma – for the following reasons. (1) It is universal without denying particular origin. After all, it is the Indic view that all human beings are descended from Manu. (2) Dharma by itself is so broad a term as to include even pasudharma and devadharma, hence manavadharma possessing a clarifying quality – that we are focused on human beings. (3) All religions make universal claims but in different ways. The proselytising religions want all to accept their religion but we want to accept all religions or the religions of all peoples. The word signals this fact. (4) The sound aum could be used as a marker of accepting manavadharma as one’s dharma, for the word by itself also means “yes” apart from its religious symbolism. Thus even a secular person can accept the fact of the existence of a cumulative religious tradition of humanity without having to accept any tradition as such.
Is Hinduism Non-Violent, Tolerant or Non-Exclusive?
Our first reaction to this question could well be – is there a choice involved? Is it not all three?
I submit that a choice is indeed involved if the matter is considered carefully. Hinduism is in favour of non-violence on the whole, but while it avoids violence it does not rule it out. Similarly, while Hinduism is tolerant, it is intolerant of intolerance. Were this not the case, why would it find Christian proselytization offensive?
No such reservations characterise its description as non-exclusive. Note that it is non-exclusive to the point of even accepting exclusive claims as claims. And its comprehensiveness even allows for the consideration of the possibility that exclusive truth claims may be true, like non-exclusive truth claims. But it must function basically from within a non-exclusive framework because such a framework allows room for both exclusive and non-exclusive claims in a way exclusive claims do not and therefore, its encyclopaedic imperative requires that it opt for the non-exclusive orientation.
Hence Hinduism may be more accurately described as non-exclusive rather than non-violent and tolerant tradition, although these are also acceptable descriptions.
I invite readers to respond to these views.