No Alternative

The “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History by Penguin is yet another blow to the freedom of expression by the religious radicals and fundamentalists who take offence at the drop of a hat. The instances of such attacks — started in 1989 when the Indian government banned Satanic Verses — have increased dramatically in recent years, and the offence-mongers’ purview has expanded from books to movies, artists, and even celebrities. This is not surprising. When a society obliges to a culture of mutual intolerance by capitulating to those who are easily offended, it results into an if-them-then-why-not-us race, with every faction of society vying appeasement for their injured self-esteem.

the hindusI read this book back in 2009. Although the size and scope of this epic was prohibitive (with more than 700 pages), I found Doniger’s vantage refreshing and thought-provoking. The book offers an alternative history of the Hindu religion, looking through the prism of scriptures and tales, zooming into the role of women, members of the lower caste, and animals. It’s a story about the alternative people and characters. Her rationale is to provide an auxiliary viewpoint to show that the so-called marginalized groups (women and Pariahs) actually did have substantial contribution to the development of Hindu tradition. The book is a “celebration of diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus “.

By renouncing such scholarly work, the Hindu radicals are not only attacking the liberal values of our society, but (ironically) also weakening the pluralistic nature of Hindu tradition. It doesn’t surprise me that this regressive act is braced by the right-wing Hindus that are often politically motivated. What troubles me more is the passive support from the moderates. “Yes, I believe in freedom of speech as well, but we have to draw the line somewhere”, “We need to be careful about hurting other (religious) people’s sentiments”, “No one gets away with an offensive book about Muslims, then why shouldn’t we protect Hindu sentiments as well?” are some common responses to this controversy by the religious moderates. It’s dismaying to see a rather large section of the Indian society supporting (however passively), and hence fortifying, the spirits of offence-mongers.

A culture with no space for alternative interpretations and ideas is a culture of putrid orthodoxy. We must not succumb to these regressive forces that are destructive to an open society. 

Blue Moon

Today is our last chance to view the “blue moon”… before it occurs again in 2015. And I thought, may be once in a blue moon, I should recycle one of my blog posts. So here’s it goes — I am reproducing (a modified version of) a short blog post from 2007:

The time it takes for Moon to complete its orbit around Earth is 29.5 days. (The Moon would have needed only about 27 days, but due to Earth’s own orbit around the Sun, it needs a few more hours to catch up.) Since the length of one moon cycle (moonth?!) is pretty close to our calendar month, the Moon usually completes 12 orbits in a year. Hence, we normally see only one full moon in each calendar month. But because the moon cycle is few days shorter than an average calendar month, once in every two-three years two full moons would fall within a single month. When that happens, the second full moon is known as the blue moon. The phrase ‘once in a blue moon’ owes its origin to the rarity and inconsistency (in terms of which calendar month it will occur) of such event. Tonight (August 31st) is our once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to enjoy an “extra” full moon!

And while you’re at it, take a moment to observe the Sea of Tranquility where Neil Armstrong took the legendary ‘small step for [a] man’ in 1969.

PS: I think the concept of extra month – called adhik māsa – in the Hindu calendar is created to fix this mismatch between lunar months and solar year. Because the months in Hindu calendar are based on lunar phase, they won’t completely align with the solar year and approximately every three years it will have to play catch up, i.e. adhik māsa.

Working with Available Light

In the introductory chapter of the book, The Hindus: An Alternate History, Doniger cites the Sufi parable of Mulla Nasrudin — the one in which after having lost his key inside his home during a night, Nasrudin was searching for it outside under a lamp post, because there was more light there than in his house — to remind us that there’s a shortage of “available light” when it comes to the history of the Hindus. She warns the reader that (as it might well be true for any other history book) this is a history, not the history of the Hindus.

As a preamble to the upcoming chapters, Doniger lays out some ground rules and provides a laundry list of concepts that are necessary to grasp if one wants to understand Hinduism. This list is probably more useful for an “outsider” (a non-Hindu, or a non-Indian), but I learned few interesting facts and perspectives as well.

Tolerance: By citing some examples – like how Hindus have no problem worshiping Kabir (the great Indian poet who publicly denounced both Hinduism and Islam) and Satya Pir (or Satya Narayana, a Sufi pir) – Doniger briefly talks about the ingrained tolerance (both inter-religious and intra-religious) of the Hindu philosophy.

Pluralism: “Multiple narratives coexist peacefully, sometimes in one open mind and sometimes in a group of people whose minds may be, individually, relatively closed. A pivotal example of such individual pluralism can be found in the law text of Manu, which argues, within a single chapter, passionately against, and then firmly for, the eating of meat.”

Myth and Symbolism: It’s good to see the author recognizing the importance of myth and symbolism in understanding the history of Hinduism. These are not the sources of “hard” history (as compared to scriptures that has more solid records historical events and ethics etc., for instance) but they are precious to apprehend the history of ideas rather than principles, sentiments rather than events, motivations rather than movements.

Diversity, and the polycentric nature of Hinduism: Because of the vast spectrum of beliefs and practices, it’s hard to define Hinduism in the way other (especially, the Abrahamic) religions are defined. The fact that there’s no Hindu cannon surely makes it more difficult to spell out what all Hindus believe or do. In the words of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (president of India from 1962 to 1967) Hinduism can be defined as a belief that: “a truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express.”

Women & dalits: These two groups are referred to as marginalized Hindus in this book. According to the author, most Brahminic scriptures and texts tend to avoid delving too much into the lives and conditions in which women and dalits lived, so one has to really read between the lines to squeeze out some insights about how the society treated (or rather, mistreated) them. I am not quite sure if I agree with the author’s remark about the “ironic” presence of women in Mahabharata though (“perhaps beyond earshot, but definitely heard”).

I already found myself at odds over some of her interpretations or remarks, but given the vastness and all-inclusiveness of Hinduism, disagreements are inevitable. Her despise for the Hindu fundamentalists becomes quite apparent from the first few pages of the book, and I am noticing that she has already started getting into some controversial areas – akin to the one that led to that egg-hurling incident back in 2003. (“He missed his aim. In every way.” remarks Doniger.) But overall, I am enjoying reading this “outsider’s view” of Hinduism and Hindus so far, for Doniger is quite witty, observant and knowledgeable about the Hindu scriptures, the history and the people.

Religion, Culture and Mr. Hitchens

If not anything else, religion seems to have managed very well in poisoning Christopher Hitchens’ mind, who is the the author of the book titled God Is Not Great, and subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything. As he goes on and on with his seemingly endless ribaldry on how religion poisons everything, I wonder how many of the empirical evidences he has presented are fabricated, manipulated or depicted without a detailed research or deeper understanding of different religions (Hinduism in specific).

Now, I am not a big fan of religion myself (am an atheist, and an agnostic) but the attitude and the amount of honesty with which Christopher has tried to bash religion is quite cringe-worthy if not outright deplorable. He comes up with myriad examples about how we humans have acted inhumanly and often violently because the religion instructed or guided us to do so. The chapters in his book are filled with such examples: the burning of “witches” (previously “blessed” by Christianity), the disgusting and unhygienic way of circumcision of Jewish children of Hasidic tradition by rabbi (called mohel), the hypocrite mullah in Iran who conveniently marries with the prostitutes before having sex and then divorcing them after the business is done (again conveniently with the simplistic “Talaq, Talaq, Talaq”!) because extramarital intercourse is prohibited in Islam but polygamy is not, the nonsensical claims of the parents who believe in “Christian Science” and hence refuse urgent medical care for their offspring, and how newly-wed Hindu girls are burned alive or murdered because they didn’t bring enough dowry. Wait, come again? Anyone who is a Hindu or has some knowledge about Hinduism will attest to the fact that there’s nothing religious about expecting dowry from a female  spouse and murdering her if she didn’t bring enough. This is a despicable tradition that probably stemmed out of, and along with sati pratha (burning of a widow on the pyre of her dead husband – another shameful tradition) became a symbol of, subjugation of women in Indian society which happens to be predominantly Hindu. Mr. Hitchens is either confusing correlation as causation, or just being plainly dishonest by presenting many such social or cultural phenomena as purely religious ones.

Digressing from the topic briefly, these deplorable traditions thrived in India for several centuries. Now, the blame should fall completely on Indian society but there are other factors that helped these traditions to survive over such prolonged time. Majority of India was under the Mughal rule for over three centuries (early 16th century to 1858), and then British ruled India for another couple of centuries (from 1757: Battle of Plassey to 1947). Both Mughal and British rulers were foreign to Indian masses. An obvious strategy for avoiding big troubles for them was to implement and practice a strict criminal law but leave the traditional and religious things on their own. By not interfering into the socio-cultural  matters of the Indians (among other things) they managed to keep the masses somewhat, if not completely, calm. The Indians hence remained devoid of a secular, independent public courts that can impeach those ugly traditions of a society that was male dominant and heavily laden with caste based discrimination.

Back to Christopher’s poisonous book. So far I have completed four chapters filled with shoddy provocations and I think I’ve had enough. I was looking for intellectual arguments against religion and in favor of atheism/agnosticism, but all I found was a book filled with empirical evidences that are often botched conveniently to prove the point. I don’t think I am going to finish reading the entire book unless I ever have a desire to find out how low Mr. Hitchens can sink to prove his point, but what made me wonder after reading first few chapters, is this:

  • I don’t know how true it is for some of the other ancient religions, but in Hinduism, it often becomes very difficult to separate out a religious practice from a traditional/social/cultural one. After centuries of intermingling between religious and cultural practices, there are many things that Hindus do today that can not be traced back to their origins and identified accurately as a religious or socio-cultural phenomenon. One reason of this could be that unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism doesn’t have a strict “rule book”. And that takes me to the second point.
  • Not having a “rule book” is a boon, I think. Muslims have their Qur’an, Christians have their Bible and Jews have Torah (which literally means ‘instructions’ in Hebrew). Hindus do have the Geeta, the Vedas and the Puranas – but they are more like “guide books” rather than “instruction manuals”. (Also, note the plural noun.) This allows some flexibility and openness to change, at least in theory. How much this helped in practice, is a big question, but for example, Hindus did not have any trouble accepting the Darwinian theory of evolution. Compare this with the attitude of many Christians who, to this date, refuse to believe in evolution because that stands in contrast with the creationist theory that was written in Bible thousands of years ago. (Factoid: According to Gallop poll conducted in 2001, 45% Americans believe that God created humans in their present form.) When Ram Mohan Roy ran a strong and effective campaign against sati pratha in the 19th century and eventually convinced many Hindus that this tradition had to be abolished, the Hindu society didn’t have to go back to their religious book(s) for guidance. There was no need to amend a particular passage from the Geeta, the Vedas or the Puranas. Abolishing the sati pratha made sense and after some initial resistance the society accepted the change and moved on. [Claims were made by some that the Puranas approves sati pratha. But a justification that was purely based on scriptures had limited impact when people decided to abolish a ghastly tradition.] It’s difficult for me to imagine if a campaign to abolish polygamy, for instance, would face a similar reaction from the Muslims.
  • I think that not having a Book also came with a cost – a lack of unity – as there was (relatively) a weaker cohesive thread that tied all Hindus together. Though one could argue that having a “manual” did not completely help The People of the Book much, as they stumbled upon different interpretations of the same text and ended up segregating ideologically.

Atheism and Agnosticism

There is a common misconception about the definition of atheism. Many perceive an atheist as someone who believes that God does not exist (i.e. there’s no God.) — which is not necessarily true.

Let’s consider the term theist first. A theist is someone who believes in God. If you think of this particular belief (there’s a God) as a metaphysical entity=A, then A exists in the mind of a theist. While in an atheist’s mind that belief simply does not exist. This does not necessarily mean that an atheist believes that there’s no God.

There are two possible opposites of belief  (1) disbelief, and (2) absence of belief. The first one is active denial. While the second one is a mere passive position. Normally when one hears the term atheist, they think about the 1st position (i.e. disbelief in God). Position (1) is called active atheism, while (2) is referred as non-theism. Generally, (1) and (2) are lumped together and the combined category is tagged as atheism. But it’s important not to forget that an atheist (defined this way) can belong to either (1) active atheism, or (2) non-theism. Active theist affirms the non-existence of God, while a non-theist rejects theism. 

Another misconception is that agnosticism and atheism/theism are mutually exclusive.

While theism (or atheism) is about belief, agnosticism, on the other hand, is about knowledge. A person who knows for sure that God exists is a gnostic. And a person who doesn’t claim to know whether God exists or not is an agnostic.

Contrary to common understanding, a person can be both: a theist and an agnostic. A believer without claiming to know for sure if God exists or not is both. Similarly you can be an atheist as well as an agnostic. In fact, being an agnostic  can be a reason why someone is also an atheist (i.e. he lacks the belief, because he’s not sure.) 

On religious subjects, the only world religion that’s firmly agnostic – Buddhism – is of Indian origin. A particular school of thought in Buddhism, called Theravada, a predominant religion in Shri Lanka, is actually non-theist. In Hinduism too, the Carvaka philosophy of skepticism and materialism (also known as Lokayata), which originated in the 6th century, is classified as a nastika (i.e. atheist) system. Jainism also rejects the beliefs in a personal creator God.

Amartya Sen has explored the heterodoxy of Indian religious beliefs in his fascinating book The Argumentative Indian. I take the following passage from his book: The so-called ‘song of creation’ (or the ‘creation hymn’, as it is sometimes called) in the authoritative Vedas ends with the following radical doubts: 

Who really knows?

Who will here proclaim it?

Whence was it produced?

Whence is this creation?

The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.

Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen –

perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –

the one who looks down to it, in the highest heaven,

only he knows –

or perhaps he does not know.

[From Rigveda. English translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, in Rigveda: An Anthology.]

Lord Macaulay "chaar sau bees"

I received a forwarded e-mail, titled “See what was [sic] India at [sic] 1835”, from one of my friends. The e-mail included the following quote that was supposedly spoken or written by Lord Macaulay.

“I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”

The validity of this quote is quite unclear. I tried to look up on-line and see if I can find any authentic source, but I found none. There are many who claim this quote as false, but none of these sources look authentic too. In any case, a quick look at Macaulay’s writings and thoughts would make it clear that this man is very unlikely to utter such words of glory for anything that is Indian. 

Anyway, I found couple of interesting things about Macaulay. He came to India in 1934 to serve in Supreme Court and spent about 4 years there. During his tenure in India, he made two major contributions. He created the criminal law system that was enacted in India after the Great Mutiny of 1957. This code was soon to be reproduced in many other British colonies. It was Section 420 of this code, that became a very popular cultural reference. Even today, after more than 150 years of its creation, tricksters are called chaar sau bees (Four Hundred Twenty in Hindi) in India. His second contribution is quite controversial. In 1835, he convinced the Governor General to replace Sanskrit (and Arabic) with English as the medium of higher education (6th year of schooling onwards). He wrote a well-known article called Minute on Indian Education, which played a pivotal role in convincing the British government to implement this change. [The full text can be found here]

A century and a half later, one can make an arguement that the software revolution might have never happened if it wasn’t for Macaulay.

Looking at this article more closely, many of his quotes look highly dramatized and controversial. Here’s one for example: “… a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”. This is an exaggerated statement at its best. The whole article is full of many such false claims and justifications, but I think there are few points that are worth giving some thought. While I strongly disagree with the construct and reasoning of his argument, I tend to agree with the core reason to opt for English because it had the necessary vocabulary to explain modern science and medicine. What makes his argument difficult to digest is his prolix claims about Sanskrit/Arabic being useless languages 

“… the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India, contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.”

On the other hand, I think there’s some fact in his proposition that there’s very little historical information in the books written in Sanskrit (most of them are fables, poems, and shlokas), but again, his proclamation about this [read the entire text here] is full with spurious nonsensical comparisons.

Here’s another interesting quote from Minute on Indian Education:

“…it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

This passage gave birth to the term Macaulay’s Children, which is used (often in derogatory fashion) to refer to any Indian born individual who has adopted Western culture or lifestyle or values (Anglophiles that are not loyal to their own Indian heritage).

There are different school of thoughts in India that either revile or revere to Macaulay’s impact on education in India. There are some dalit activists that believe that it was because of the introduction of English medium that the lowest strata of the Indian society could become even eligible to get eduction. Their claim is based on the postulation that Sanskrit was considered a sacred language, and only the upper caste Hindus were entitled to learn the scriptures and texts written in Sanskrit. Once English became lingua franca in schools, that bar was removed. [Source] And on then there are protectionists who think that Macaulay’s actions was a severe blow to the native languages as well as culture. To them Macaulay has become  synonymous with cultural estrangement of Hindus. [Here is an article, with saffron color sprinkled all over, on Hindu Jagruti web-site.] According to such measures, the four biggest enemies of Hindu Dharama are: Muslims, Missionaries, Marxists and Macaulayites… known as the 4 M’s!

For further reading, here’s a link to Ramachandra Guha’s take on Macaulay’s Minute. And the Wikipedia link.

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