On mastering the spiritual and political strength required as a Hindu to resist the ugliness that goes on in the name of ‘Hindu honour’ in contemporary India.
In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists. Hence, I gather that God is Life, Truth, and Light. He is Love. He is the Supreme Good.
Is there anything good and life-affirming in what is being loosely regarded as Hindu tradition – its religious/spiritual practices, its ideals and earthly activities? I know that I am posing this question at a time which is not particularly conducive to the cultivation of the positive spirit of being a Hindu.
The manifestations of a terribly politicised Hindutva have already polluted the cultural milieu; moreover, the continuity of hierarchical caste practices and the rapidly growing industry of celebrity gurus and fake babas seem to have destroyed the confidence of seeing anything good in Hindu traditions. Yet, I keep asking this question, and for me, it is not merely academic, it is existential.
I cannot escape the fact that my Hindu upbringing has made me familiar with its symbolism and ideals – say, growing up with the imageries of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, the mythologies of the puranas , the revelations of the epics, and the wisdom of the Upanishads.
And yes, as a wonderer, I have looked at the snow-clad mountains from Badrinath, and felt the intensity of Sankaracharya’s journey from down south to the north, and experienced the intuitive flash of truth amidst the temporality of maya. And even now I can take a picture of Raman Maharshi, and for hours look at his meditative eyes. I love to get enchanted by the celebration of the elements like fire and wind through the Vedic hymns; I strive for an intense companionship with Surdas and Narayana Guru.
It is difficult for me to believe that there is nothing good in my tradition; and it gives me the strength –spiritual as well as political – to resist the ugliness that goes on in the name of ‘Hindu honour’ in contemporary India. And paradoxically, my engagement with these liberating traditions enables me to become more than just being a Hindu.
Love and awakening, not war and division
Verily, at the command of that Imperishable, O Gargi, the sun and the moon stand on their respective positions. At the command of that Imperishable, O, Gargi, heaven and earth stand on their respective positions. At the command of the Imperishable, O Gargi, what are called moments, hours, days and nights, half-months, seasons, years stand in their respective positions.
– Brhad-Aranyak Upanishad
They say that to be a Hindu is to be perpetually insecure and violent; to be a Hindu, they shout, is to remain exclusive and limited, and hate what M.S. Golwalkar would have regarded as the ‘debased civilisations of the Mussalmans and the Europeans’.
This politics of hatred or this mob psychology of stimulant Hinduism shocks me. Because I have grown up with yet another quest – the quest for the eternal and the universal: the urge to transcend whatever constrains, limits and restricts. In Yajnavalkya’s conversation with Maitreyi, I see the finest longing for the all-pervading energy; I see a quest for the eternal and the universal without limits and boundaries, something that is ‘neither gross nor fine, neither short nor long, neither shadow nor darkness’; I see what Rabindranath Tagore would have regarded as a bridge between the finite and the infinite.
When religiosity becomes this awakened contemplation, it unites; it becomes oceanic because as rivers merge into the ocean they lose their distinctive names; oneness prevails amidst apparent differences. Christ becomes Buddha; Buddha becomes Mohammad; Mohammad becomes Mira; and Mira becomes Rumi. Even if the ruling forces reduce Hinduism into a triumphant ideology causing a mob psychology of hatred , fear and exclusion, I would not become part of that crowd mentality because Nachiketa would give me the strength to realise the shallowness of this temporal power, and Swami Vivekananda would inspire me to experience boundless energy emanating from ‘Practical Vedanta’, and embrace everyone for collective redemption.
It is war, they say. Everyone – be it Rama, Krishna or Hanuman – for them, is a warrior; and militarised Hindutva as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar would have put it, is the ideal of the resurgent Hindu nation.
I loathe this idea not because I am an irreligious/secular atheist. I derive my inspiration from the ethos of bhakti or love that I have derived from the likes of Chaitanya and Mira. Even though it is possible to see Krishna as a diplomat/warrior in the bloody battlefield striving for ‘justice’, I have got a glimpse of yet another Krishna – musical Krishna with the flute, beloved Krishna as a point of merger and ecstasy beyond victory and defeat, sadism and masochism. And yes, God is not about mere abstracted intellectual argumentation; God is not a symbol of jihad against the ‘enemies’; instead, God, as Chaitanya’s ecstasy would suggest, is the embodiment of love; the full attainment of Krishna, as the bhakt realises, results from prem – the intense passion of conjugal love.
God is, as Mira’s longing suggests, the sublime experience of being reduced into zero in the process of the ultimate merger with the beloved. Neither a hyper-masculine ideology of war, nor a doctrine of hatred; God is love that unites the masculine and the feminine, and heals the wound of separation. Love is the ultimate yoga that unites what the Bhagavadgita regards as the knowledge of the One and the spirit of niskam karma or action without selfish motives.
Beyond fragments: For a non-hierarchical embrace
Of one kind, one faith, one God is man;
Of one womb, one form
Difference herein is none…
Of the human species
Is a Brahmin born
As is a Pariah too.
Where is caste difference, then,
Amongst the human species?
– Narayana Guru
What a similarity in Savarkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah! Look at their speeches — Savarkar’s presidential address at the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, and Jinnah’s speech at the Muslim League meeting in Lahore in 1940.
For them, it is impossible for Hindus and Muslims to live together. As both of them argued, Hindus and Muslims are entirely different in their beliefs, rituals and practices; separation, division and antagonism seemed to be their way of looking at the relationship between the two religious communities. The subcontinent did experience the devastating consequences of this ideology of separation. It is sad that even today, as the rise of Hindutva and Islamic fundamentalism indicates, this manipulated/politicised religion continues to spread poison.
However, the best of my tradition has taught me something else. Ramakrishna’s spiritual oneness has brought me closer to Amir Khusrau; I have realised that truth is one, although we speak of it in many languages. I have felt the extraordinary similarity between Ramakrishna’s celebration of the feminine energy that absorbs everything and Khursrau’s fusion of horizons—a blend of Persian and Indic traditions. I have understood the significance of Mirza Ghalib hailing Banaras as ‘the Kaaba of Hind’.
This elasticity has made me learn from yet another tradition – Gandhi’s dialogic Hinduism, his expanded horizon that makes it possible to unite the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavadgita, and above all, his politico-spiritual pilgrimage at Noakhali, and his constant prayer: Ishwwar Allah Tero Naam . Why should we allow our finest traditions to be overshadowed by the ugliness all around?
These positive possibilities in my culture make me open, self-reflexive, and enable me to resist, say, the way the laws of Manu sanctified a highly repressive/hierarchical division of people with its inherent violence and oppression.
Yes, once again, the liberating revelations in my tradition – say, it is the same Brahma that flows through all of us, and hence, as Narayan Guru realised, the futility of castes – saves me. I gain the confidence to proclaim that not everything about my tradition is about patriarchal Brahminism, or militant nationalism.
My heroes are not Golwalkar, Savarkar and Narendra Modi; my positive reference group consists of the likes of Nachiketa and Mira, Ramakrishna and Surdas. And paradoxically, because of this fresh air, despite being a Hindu, I feel the urge to transcend all ‘isms’ including Hinduism, and become nothing because in that nothingness lies everything.
Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.