Sunday, June 20, 2010

Before the beginning – al-Jahiliyyah

Religions do not arise in vacuum; there is no big-bang, no “non-being” from which being arises as far as religious traditions are concerned. The context for the life and teachings of the Prophet lie in the historical circumstances and the religious potpourri that existed in in Arabia – especially in and around Mecca (the city of the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh), on the eve of his birth and ministry.

The historical Setting:

Arabia in the 6th Century CE was a land on the fringe of the great civilisations of the time. To its north were the empires of Byzantium and Sassanid Persia. In the south, in what is today Yemen were the ancient city-states Saba, Maʿīn, Qataban, Hadramauth and Himyar, that had links of trade, culture and perhaps kinship across the Red sea with the Christian Kingdom of Aksun (Abyssinia/ Ethiopia). In the north were the Bedouin tribes of the Ghassanids and Lakhmids – who served as clients for the Byzantines and Persians respectively. And along the mountainous Red sea coast of western Arabia, was the Hejaz or al-Hijaz, region of the great caravan-trading Bedouin tribes, united under the mercantile aristocracy of the tribe of Quraysh, with the sanctuary in Mecca as its spiritual centre.
The religious landscape of the peninsula was similarly diverse. The Arabs of the Hejaz were ‘pagans’, but the Ghassinids were monophysite Christians, the Lakhnids too, though they served the Persians, followed Christianity, probably Nestorian. The peoples of south-western Arabia were probably multi-religious – pagans, Jews and monophysite-Christian. In fact, according to some sources, the last Himyarite king in the Yemen region, Dhū Nuwās, converted to Judaism and began persecuting the Christian population, who appealed to the Byzantines for aid. The Byzantines arranged for the Christian Kingdom of Aksun to send an army under the general Abraha into Yemen. Abraha deposed Dhū Nuwās and became Governor. He is believed to have constructed a great Church at Sana'a and sought to extend his influence into the Hejaz to which purpose he led an army that included elephants against Mecca. According to Arab tradition the city was miraculously saved. This is said to have happened in the year of the Prophet’s birth (CE 570), which perhaps to commemorate this miracle, is known as “the year of the elephant”. In any case, this Christian kingdom of Yemen is believed to have ended after the Sassanids launched a counter-intervention and expelled the Ethiopians.

Pagan Arab Religion:

The pagan religious traditions of Arabia show great diversity. The Southern Arabia had ‘Athar, the god of thunderstorms and rain. ‘Athar is believed to be derived from the old Semitic sky-god El. Apart from ‘Athar, the city-states also had local patron deities. Most southern Arabian deities were associated with astral bodies – the Sun, moon, stars and planets.
The Northern Arabians, including the tribes of the Hejaz followed a complex religious tradition which had incipient monotheism embedded in it apparently early on. The supreme deity was called “al-Lah”, a sky-god, and thus similar to El, he was also the chief deity of the Meccan sanctuary of the Ka’bah. While nominally the creator and the greatest of the gods, al-Lah (which means simply “the God”) was believed to be too remote. Popular worship was dedicated to three goddesses - Al-Ilāt (“the Goddess”), believed to be daughter or a consort, of al-Lāh; al-ʿUzzā (“the Powerful”) and Manāt (“Destiny”). These goddesses had shrines throughout Arabia. Amongst the Nabataens of Petra who came under Hellenic influence, al-Ilāt, was associated with Aphrodite. Important to this pagan religion was the functioning of seers or soothsayers called kāhins who interpreted the word of the gods in ecstatic trances – much like the Delphic oracles.

The Ka’bah

In the time before the prophet, the Ka’bah was a polytheistic centre and is believed to have housed idols of the three goddesses and other gods of Arabia, including Hubal, a Syrian god. Even prior to the advent of Islam, the Ka’bah was the greatest shrine for the Arabs of the Hejaz and pilgrimage to the Ka’bah along with circumambulation of the shrine was an important part of the Arab religious experience.
According to legend, this sanctuary was first built by Adam (the first man), and later re-erected by Abraham (or Ibrahim) and Ishmael (Ismail). These traditions link the Arabs back to the early patriarchs of the One God – al-Lah. The Arabs believe themselves to be the descendants or Ishmael the eldest son of Abraham.
Not far from the shrine of Ka’bah is the sacred spring Zamzam. This is said to be the miraculous spring that al-Lah created to sustain Ishmael and Hagar when Abraham drove them out into the wilderness! Control over the shrine of the Ka’bah and the sacred spring seems to have given the Quraysh the leadership of the tribes of the Hejaz! The Quraysh established an area of ‘truce’ around the shrine of Ka’bah which provided respite from the inter-tribal warfare which was endemic to the Hejaz. A crucial result of this was the development of Mecca as a significant trading centre. It is possible that the inclusion of many idols representing the deities of several Arabian tribes in the Ka’bah shrine helped achieve a happy coincidence of pilgrimage and trade which eventually led to accumulation of great trade wealth.
It is claimed that destruction of the Ka’bah to establish the primacy of the Church at Sana'a was the primary aim of the failed Aksun attack on Mecca in the year of the elephant, but given the trading wealth of the city, plunder may have been a significant motive too.


The monotheistic core in the religious beliefs of the Arabs of the Hejaz in the form of al-Lah, the God, creator, is very likely to have led at least some Arabs to identify al-Lah with the God of the Jews and the Christians – religious traditions with which the Arabs were familiar with, and hence the feeling that they belonged to the same religious traditions as “the people of the book”.
On the other hand, the Arabs of the Hejaz also monotheists, known as Hanīfs, who distanced themselves from the Meccan religious system by repudiating the old gods. In fact the term Hanīf derives from the Arabic root ‘hnf’ meaning “to turn away”. One of the ḥanīfs, Zayd ibn Amr, is described by Ibn Hisham (Ibn Ishaq in some sources), an early biographer of the Prophet, to have been a severe critic of the polytheistic ways of the Meccans. Zayd repeatedly called upon the Arabs to turn back to worship of the God of Abraham! Hanifism seems to have been known throughout the Hejaz, especially the Meccans who were sure to have encountered Hanif preachers. It is possible that this ideology had its influence on the Prophet, and some traditions have also recorded an encounter between the youthful Prophet and the aged Zayd!

Reform not New Religion

The above context, and in some ways the words of the Prophet himself seem to indicate that Islam was not perceived by the first Muslims as a ‘new’ religion. It was a return to the old uncorrupted monotheism that belonged to the uninterrupted lineage from Adam through Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, David and Jesus! Allah as the God of Abraham, was the same as the Jewish Yahweh! And the shrine of Ka’bah was founded by the Patriarch for the aniconic worship of the One God. How the Prophet melded these historic elements into the new faith, while at the same time preserving a lineal linkage to elements from the hallowed past is a matter for another entry.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bismillah – the Beginning

Bismillah, the first verse of the first "...
Image via Wikipedia

"In the name of God, the Gracious, the merciful" – not without this recitation may the faithful begin any task. This is the sacred Bismillah. All chapters, but one, of the Holy Book commence with this invocation. Daily prayers, important texts, all begin with this phrase.

It is only fitting that Dharmaraja starts this series of study entries about Islam, with this phrase, the Bismillah.

Despite being the second largest religious tradition in the country, most non-Muslims in India tend to have very limited knowledge about this great tradition. When compared with the familiarity most English speaking non-Muslim Indians have with Christianity, the contrast seems shocking! There are several practical reasons for this. A large number of Indians get their 'English Medium' education from 'convent' schools. And while they are not out to do so, Hollywood and American TV shows beam Christian symbolism on to our screens for us to watch.

And then there is this whole thing about cultural receptivity of yuppie Indians. My feeling is Christianity, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and Christmas sit there along with Coca Cola, McDonalds, Ford, Disney, Nike, Microsoft and Mercedes Benz as the aspirational symbols of the global cosmopolitan consumerist lifestyle! Other religious traditions we know about just don't seem to have the same brand equity!

And then there is this 'other' issue which often blocks the most naturally accessible source of information – friends and colleagues belonging to other religions. For all its much vaunted secular and democratic values, India has often witnessed much violence and rioting between religious communities right down to the present time. The shadow of partition looms over the sub-continent several decades after the trauma, the festering distrustful relationship with the neighbouring nation complicate the matter further. An inter-religious dialogue between Hindus and Muslims becomes particularly tricky.

But I digress.

This series of entries is my attempt to correct this gap in my knowledge. I need to know more about the religion of 160 million of my countrymen!

Unfortunately, my sources of information will, at least initially, all be introductory works about Islam in English written by western authors. I hope in course of studying for this entry – to find more Indian works for reference.

Wish me luck and good reading!


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Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Awakening

Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra) Loc...

Many days of painful austerities did Gautama Siddhārtha endure, but Realisation eluded him. Many days of self mortification and starvation left him emaciated, a mere bag of bones. And yet Realisation eluded him.

Was this the right path to awakening, Gautama wondered. He then recollected a time, many years ago, when he was sitting in the cool shade of a tree "quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskilful mental qualities" when he had slipped into meditation (dhyāna) and had experienced "rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation". That was the path to awakening.

But Gautama realised that such a state of serene contemplative meditation was not easy to achieve when ones body was starved. Accordingly, Gautama Siddhārtha gave up self-mortification and nourished himself on milk-rice. This so disgusted his five companions and disciples that they left him.

Whereupon, Prince Siddhārtha sat down under the sacred Bodhi Tree, facing east, his back to tree trunk, and made a mighty resolution - “Let my skin, sinews, and bones become dry, and let all the flesh and blood in my body dry up, but never from this seat will I stir, until I have attained the supreme and absolute wisdom!” And he sat himself down cross legged in an unconquerable position, from which not even the descent of a hundred thunderbolts at once could have dislodged him!

The demon Māra did all he could to thwart Prince Siddhārtha from fulfilling his resolution – fire and rocks and wind and rain and wild animals and sharp weapons – all of Māra’s fury was expended, but Prince Siddhārtha was not dislodged. Defeated, the wicked Māra and his army fled in all directions.

And Gautama Siddhartha plunged into dhyāna deeper and deeper, to a stage of purity of equanimity and mindfulness. He attained the first layer of knowledge, complete recollection of all his past lives. He attained the second layer of knowledge, of the birth and passing of beings and the accretion, unfolding and fruition of their karma.

And finally, he attained to the third and highest layer of knowledge, knowledge of the noble truths. Knowledge of suffering, origination of suffering, cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering.

This was the Awakening, the Realisation. Ignorance was destroyed, knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed, light arose. Birth was ended. The Holy life fulfilled, the task done. There was nothing further for this world. The Supreme Awakening was actualised. Prince Siddhartha was now Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Having attained to Buddha hood, the Supreme Awakening, the Tathāgata exclaimed:

I have run through a course of many births
looking for the maker of this dwelling
and finding him not;
painful is birth again and again!

Now you are seen, O builder of the house*, You will not build the house again.
All your rafters are broken, your ridge-pole is destroyed,
the mind, set on the attainment of nirvāna,
has attained the extinction of desires.

- Dhammapada, Jarāvaggo – Verse 153, 154

* the builder of the house is craving (thirst), tanhā !

Today, the full moon day of the month of Vaishākha, is the day of this Supreme Awakening!

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Monday, July 23, 2007


(First Posted on bloopdiary on 09/05/2003)

Classes of Worship

Modes and methods of Hindu worship can be classified into two distinct categories, the Vedic, (based on the prescriptions of the Vedas, primarily the Samhitaas and the Braahnmanaas), and the Aagamic or Pauranic, (based upon later scriptures, the puraana, the sutra, the shaastra and the Itihaasa, literature). Aagama literally means ‘that which has come’; thus Aagama rituals are derived from some older source, canonically the Veda.

Vedic worship centred on the fire-sacrifice, (the Yajna), certain religious and domestic rituals, (shrauta sutraas and griyha sutraas), and the sacraments, (samskaara). Very few of these rituals are in common practice today. The most widespread rituals of worship today are of the Pauraanic or Aagaamic variety. One very important difference between Hindu forms of worship and Judeo-Christian / Islamic ones, is that congregational or public worship is absent in Hinduism. This is traditionally because of the Hindu concept of adhikaara or spiritual competence; not every one is competent for every form of worship.

Most present Hindu rituals of worship seem to have developed after the establishment of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. This is because the changes in religious rituals from the Vedic to the Aagaamic seem consonant with the themes prevalent in the six orthodox systems (darshanas); this rationalisation was missing in many Vedic rituals. A very significant change is the integration of Yoga methodology into the rituals; given that Yoga was a non-Vedic, and probably a pre-Aryan system. The orthodox Yoga system, also called the Ashtaanga Yoga or eight limbed Yoga has eight ascending stages that culminate in realisation of the Brahman in a state of super-consciousness, samaadhi. Four of these eight stages are an integral part of all ‘worship’ – namely, posture, (aasana), breath (life force)-control, (praanaayaama), placing or fixation, (nyaasa or dhaaranaa), and deep concentration & contemplation (dhyaana).

The presence or absence of these components separates the worship rituals from the preparatory rituals; more on this later.

The significance of Yoga is also seen in temple worship where the installation of the image of the Deity, the vigraha or the pratimaa in the sanctum-sanctorum (from the foundation upwards) is analogous to the six plexuses (chakras) in the body; the image itself being equivalent to the thousand-petaled-lotus, (sahasraara-padma). The temple thus depicts the body of the yogin.

Methods of Worship

There are three forms of worship in present day Hinduism (almost entirely Aagama). These are described below:

This form of worship is common in temples. It is also a daily activity in Hindu homes where images in the family altar are worshipped. Special Poojaa rituals, worshipping specific deities as parts of specific festivals or otherwise (e.g., Ganesh Poojaa during the Ganesh Festival, or the Satya-Naaraayana Poojaa) are also common.

Poojaa includes the four elements of Yoga as described above. In addition, it involves invocation of the Deity in the worshipper, specifically at his manipura chakra, which is transferred to the image. In the main, Poojaa consists of the five offerings or attendances (panchopachaara). Though they are called ‘five offerings’, these are really ‘six’; they are yet called ‘five offerings’ probably because the first and the sixth offering have the same ‘seed mantra’. These six offerings are represented by the material used during Poojaa which are water, (paadya), sandalwood paste and other fragrant substances, (gandha), flowers, (pushpa), incense, (dhoopa), light, (deepa) and food, (naivedya). Each of these has an emotional and theological significance. The Deity is the all-pervading Absolute, the six offerings represent the five elements that constitute the manifested universe and the individual-Self (jiva) of the worshipper. The offerings thus symbolically represent the return of the manifested universe, including the individual-Selfs, to the Brahman, the all-pervading Purusha.

The offerings also imply an emotional relation to Deity. Thus the offering of water, represents that element, (Aapa), and denotes ‘acquaintance’ with the Deity. Sandalwood and fragrances, represent the element earth, (prithvi), and symbolise trust in Deity. Flowers represent ether, space, (Aakaasha), and convey adoration of Deity. Incense represents wind, (Vaayu), and denotes devotion, (bhakti), to Deity. Light represents energy, (Tejas), and stands for knowledge, (jnana) of the Real. And finally food, representing the individual-Self, (jiva), denotes the realisation of the identity of the worshipper with Deity. The offering of food is accompanied by what is called ‘oblation of the life-forces’, the praanaas.

After the Poojaa is completed, the Deity is transferred back to the manipura chakra within the seeker. This symbolic step is not observed in temple worship, or after worshipping at the family altar because Deity is in a way ‘permanently’ invoked in those images.
Japa / Dhyaana

Chanting and contemplation of Deity is a very private, one-to-one form of worship. No image is required here. The four steps of Yoga are followed. In most cases, Deity is invoked, but the transference does not occur t any physical image, rather to the image residing in the minds eye. Japa involves repeating the name of the Deity or repeating the mantras of different Deities, Ishthas.

Sometimes, a hymn of praise or a strotram is recited, instead of performing japa, making the worship akin to a prayer, (praarthanaa). Most often, the stotram recitation is not a prayer making requests to the Deity, but simply comprises of verses of adoration, describing the form of the Deity (Ishtha) to be remembered, (smaran), and contemplated upon (dhyaana), or praising the greatness and goodness and benevolent deeds of the Deity.

Practice of the eight-limbed Yoga, or Raaja Yoga meditation, as it is often called, is itself a form of worship. This method of worship doesn’t have any ‘external’ symbolism associated with it. Yoga is different from the other modes of worship though, in that it goes for the gold as it were. The goal of Yoga is salvation, (Moksha). The first two stages of Yoga constitute ethical readiness, the next two stages physical readiness, the fifth stage ‘withdrawal’ refers to control of the senses, (this is where the difficult part begins). The sixth and the seventh stages are fixation (“dhaarana” = holding on), and deep uninterrupted contemplation beyond any memory of ego or ‘I-ness’, (dhyaana). Japa or recitation of the name or mantra is often used as an aid for fixation, while a hymn (stotram) describing the form of the Deity (Ishtha) may be recited to help create a mental picture of the Deity, the object of meditation. The final stage is samaadhi; a state of ‘realisation’ of the identity of the Self, (Aatman), and the Real, (Purusha); the fruition of all worship. This realisation is Moksha. The Ashtaanga Yoga therefore is often called the most perfect, the best and the ideal mode of worship.

This rarely practiced form of worship is a legacy of the Vedic yajna. It involves making oblations (of clarified butter, rice, etc.,) into the sacred fire with the chanting of mantras.

Other religious activities include singing of songs of praise or bhajans, which is usually done in groups, listening to religious discourses (pravachana), etc. These activities are most often communal and congregational. However, they do not typically constitute ‘worship’, (Upaasanaa), but are preparatory and educative in nature.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Inter-Religious Dialogue

(Reposted with some changes from the original entry on bloopdiary posted on 10/06/2003)

What is dialogue?

Simply put, a dialogue is a conversation between two people. But in the context of religions the definition most apt is “an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.” However, the definition is still too general. In the domain of religions, an amicable settlement or agreement is difficult. Firstly, such ‘agreements’ would require centralized decision-making; something that even the most organized of religions cannot possess, (especially in comparison with entities like the nation-state), primarily because faith/belief is a matter of individual conscience which is inherently beyond the scope of any form of legislation. Secondly, the very nature of belief in religious matters renders agreement that can resolve the conflicts exceedingly difficult, almost impossible to achieve.

The expected result of inter-religious dialogue then cannot be agreement; it has to be comprehension. Naturally, a superficial conversation cannot be dialogue in this sense. A sustained encounter between members of different religious traditions with the stated intent and determined efforts towards understanding another point of view; this will be our ‘definition’ of ‘Inter-Religious Dialogue’ (IRD), for the purpose of this entry.

Owing to my situation and scope of knowledge, this entry, while it attempts to be about IRD in general, is likely to get an ‘India & the West’-‘Hinduism & Christianity’ slant, particularly in terms of the examples I would cite. In contrast to most other entries on this diary, this entry is also going to contain my personal opinions & views, rather than simply information. I request the reader’s indulgence.

The purpose of dialogue

Why is IRD required? To gain an understanding of the other religious tradition is simplistic answer. Comprehension cannot be an end in itself. There could be many reasons why people would want to indulge in IRD. There would be those who like to engage in scholastic discourse, philosophers of religion, students of comparative religion, theologians, and such like scholars would fall in this category. However, their objective usually is to gain knowledge about several religious traditions and they usually would not focus on the interactions between two specific traditions. An increasing number of people seek to know about other religions with a view to promoting diversity and pluralism. Often, instruction about ‘World Religions’ creeps into school curricula at least in part for this reason. Civic authorities in areas having large minority population often ‘teach’ facts about the minority religions to those of their employees that are likely to come in contact with the minorities, with the view to enhancing sensitivity towards cultural issues. Historically though, proselytisation has been the most important reason for engaging in IRD. In fact IRD began as a kind of ‘by-product’ of Christianity’s missionary activities. It was the Vatican, which formalised IRD as a kind of ‘policy’ in what has often been perceived as an effort to tone down the aggressive/offensive thrust of its missionary activities. Owing to this history other considerations often clouded IRD. For much of the Americas, Asia and Africa, Christianity was a pre-cursor and/or compatriot of colonialism.

IRD with a view to proselytisation involves negative ad well as positive scrutiny of the ‘other’ religion. Negative scrutiny focuses on the flaws of the other tradition & its customs and contrasts those with the merits of ones own. Positive scrutiny, on the other hand, tries to identify points of similarity, and then attempts to use these as points of reference for reaching out and convincing.

Types of dialogue

Dr. Eric Sharpe, the renowned scholar of Comparative Religion categorises IRD into four types. Other scholars (Donald Mitchell) have also arrived at very much similar ‘levels’ of dialogue.

Human Dialogue or the Dialogue of Life: At the most basic level, this involves courteous interactions with adherents of other religions that are encountered. It involves exchanging gifts and greetings and in many ways to meet simply as human beings rising above the different religious traditions that separate them. Most of us indulge in this kind of dialogue when we interact with people of other faiths.

Secular Dialogue or the Dialogue of Collaboration: This level of dialogue sees people of different faiths collaborating in matters of public / common concern. The religious beliefs while relevant to such collaboration are not be discussed or brought into focus. A good example would be joint declarations by several religious figures adhering to different faiths against sectarian violence.

Discursive Dialogue or the Dialogue of Theological Discussion: This involves debate, study of scripture and such ‘scholarly’ endeavours. It can often involve heated arguments. Most formal IRD processes fall into this category. It is a very specialised level and involves comparison of beliefs and values. Hence it is required that the participants are well informed about the theology, philosophy, beliefs and customs of the two traditions involved.

Spiritual Dialogue or the Dialogue of Religious Experience: This level of dialogue involves spiritual practice. It involves praying, meditating, fasting, etc., often involving the use of the spiritual methods of the other tradition. It can also involve praying together, each according to his/her own tradition, or narrating / sharing ones spiritual experiences. Some would contend that this level is no ‘genuine’ dialogue in any way. I would tend to believe that this is the deepest level of dialogue possible and one, which most benefits the dialogists concerned. Spiritual dialogue, by its very nature can never be a mass activity. There are likely to be even fewer spiritual dialogists than there would be discursive dialogists.

IRD in India

Lets take the example of India and the history of Hindu-Christian dialogue. Christianity came to India, most probably via Syria, through trading routes with South India. Legend has it that the apostle St. Thomas landed in India in 42 AD and won a substantial following. These Christian communities though, remained small and little if any records of ‘dialogue’ exist. The coming of the Europeans in the 16th Century, led by the Portuguese started the first sustained ‘missionary’ effort in India. Each colonial power brought its own set of missionaries and they wrote back to Europe of the appalling religious beliefs and practices of the Indians. Much of the study of Hinduism emanating from these missionaries for the next 200 years focused on ‘negative proselytisation’. Such horrific ‘Hindoo’ (sic) practices like ‘suttee’ (sic) were written about, convincing devout audiences back in Europe of the need to bring both Christianity and European rule to the barbaric natives of India.

Starting the 18th century, this began to change. Visionaries like the French Catholic missionary, Jean-Antoine Dubois, who believed that the work of a Christian missionary should be based on a thorough acquaintance with the innermost life and character of the native population, began to study Hinduism closely. The second phase in Hindu-Christian IRD began advent of British rule in several parts of India. This brought intellectuals to India and less biased information about the Jewel in the Crown began to flow back to Europe. Stalwarts like Sir Monier Williams, Sir Edwin Arnold, Dr. Max Muller, pioneers in the translation of Hindu scriptures, aimed to study and understand. While their stated objective continued to be evangelism, they were scholars and not preachers. The ‘positive proselytisation’ phase of dialogue had begun. In parallel, secular and human dialogue evolved and continued in parts of India with substantial Christian communities (Goa, South India, the North East, etc), this continues to date.

An interesting and indirect result of the first century of British Rule was what has been called the ‘Hindu Renaissance’. This manifested in three distinct ways. The first to emerge was the need for reform. The impact of western education produced reformers and thinkers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Keshubchunder Sen, Justice Ranade, etc. Many of these thinkers studied Christianity and felt that Hinduism had several things to learn from it, particularly in areas of religious organisation (the Church, Hinduism does not have a parallel institution), and a systematic approach to community & social service. Several of these thinkers initiated steps in this direction by founding spiritual societies and organisations. A second manifestation was spearheaded by Hindu mystics like Shri Ramakrishna, and his foremost & most famous disciple Swami Vivekananda. Their lives and teaching sought to demonstrate that Hinduism is not a dead religion of the hoary past but a vibrant religion that retains its vitality and has an immense amount of spiritual wisdom to offer to the west. It is unclear to what extent the British rule was causally responsible for this reaction, however it certainly gave rise to the means (enhanced communication, modern means of transport, etc) to enable Hinduism to reach out to the west in, what has often been described as, the Indian ‘counter-mission’. Their pioneering impact was extended by scholars like Dr. S Radhakrishnan, philosopher, teacher and statesman, who chaired the Oxford department of Indian Philosophy.

A third and somewhat militant outcome was an antagonistic revivalism that held that Hinduism did not need to learn from other religious traditions, it needed to rediscover its ancient wisdom and past glories. This school of thought is epitomised by Swami Dayanand Saraswati and his Arya Samaj. While this school had limited impact on dialogue directly, it found increasingly vocal support in the rising tide of Indian Nationalism. The association, if not the identification, of Christianity with colonialism meant that India’s nationalist leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, naturally looked askance at missionary activity.

Owing to these factors the history of discursive Hindu-Christian dialogue in India has been rather turbulent. The scars of partition and the horrific communal conflicts that preceded and followed the division have made religion is a very sensitive issue in modern India. On one hand are the ‘secularists’ who vehemently proclaim the oneness of all religions, on the other hand is the militant Hindu right, (a very new phenomenon in Hinduism), who demonise other religions as anti-national. Both positions render dialogue difficult. The first renders dialogue unnecessary, the second position prevents it.

Political ideologies however cannot seggregate people into isolated compartments. Religion, in India is a very visible feature and it permeates the daily lives of its teeming millions; not for nothing has India often been described as the most religious country in the world. A multitude of religions not withstanding, commonalities of culture and language ensure a thriving secular & human dialogue between the adherents of various religions. All said and done, it is this spirit of tolerance that is ingrained in the Indian ethos as a result of millennia of living with adherents of ‘other religions’, that binds the nation together, despite all the contradictions and tensions.

Assessment & Conclusion

Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology is an example of successful dialogue. Gandhi is best known for his doctrine of non-violence (ahimsa). Like many educated Indians of his time, Gandhi travelled to England to study Law. It was while in England that Gandhi studied the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount profoundly influenced him. He saw the life transforming moral courage that would be needed if a person were to be able to ‘turn the other cheek’. The life and teachings of Jesus Christ certainly played a role in Gandhi's thinking when he formulated his method of non-violent resistance (satyagraha).

Popular thinking about the colonies in Britain (and other Western imperial powers) was the ‘White Man’s Burden’ ideology – the belief that the barbaric lesser races of the world required the civilising & moral influence of firm and paternalistic European rule to prevent them from disintegrating into chaos, (negative proselytisation was fodder for this ideology). Rudyard Kipling's entire generation, most Europeans & North American’s at some level believed this and thought that their rule in the colonies was morally justified. The importance of Gandhian thinking, which even Indian historians often miss is that he snatched that 'moral high ground' from the British! He put India's freedom struggle on an EVEN higher moral pedestal. Most reasonable Christians in Britain & America saw that Gandhi & his followers who 'turned the other cheek' were BETTER Christians than the British police who beat them up!! The insights Gandhi derived from the teachings of Christ made him a BETTER HINDU than he was before and in becoming a better Hindu he became a better Christian than his Christian oppressors! Such insights ate the ‘Eureka’ moments of IRD.

In my opinion, the four levels of dialogue should ideally follow in that sequence. Only if IRD ultimately leads individuals to participate in spiritual dialogue can it attain its stated objective – comprehension of the other religion in a ‘religious’ sense. Dialogue in this sense involves understanding that all religions seek to address the fundamental questions of human existence. Thus it is very much possible, that learning about the answers provided by another tradition can help us better understand the answers given by our own. This enhanced understanding is the fruition of dialogue. The sincere attempt to understand another faith often results in us seeing glimpses of our own faith in what we considered an alien line of thought.

At all levels, when sincerely attempted IRD usually does lead to more harmonious relationship between the various religious traditions. The sincerity is a key qualifier, essential to retain the 'spirit' of dialogue. It is this sincerity that leads to true tolerance. A polite glossing over of differences between religious traditions, or a mushy mushy over simplification of the core issues with superficial statements like 'it is all one God' is anti-thetical to the spirit of dialogue. Hinduism has the idea of spiritual competence, (adhikara). And only someone who has that competence, (the adhikarin), has the right to declare the identity of some spiritual concept or say that some ritual is meaningless. Only someone who has the adhikara to really see the identity of Christ & Krishna has the right to proclaim that. Often enough, well intentioned but over-enthusiastic attempts at dialogue fail because people fail to recognize this caveat.

Friday, June 01, 2007

On Moksha


Soteriology (the science of salvation) in any religious tradition starts with a spiritual problem, a ‘Fall’ as it were, to which salvation / nirvana is put forward as a solution. In generic terms, most religions propound that the present human existence is a state of imperfection. This imperfection is seen as the ‘fallen, sinful’ state by Christianity, it is seen as a state where mankind is has to endure endless (dukhkha) suffering through countless cycles of rebirth by Buddhism, it is seen as a state of ignorance (avidya) and hence of limitations and karmic bondage by certain schools of Hindu thought. Soteriology, then, would deal with the principles and methods that bring about transformation of man from his present state, to a better state, a state of perfection, completeness, or happiness. It is but natural, that the ideas of what this state of perfection / completeness is like, and the method by which the transformation of man is to be achieved, is determined, at least in part, by ideas about what gave rise to the state of imperfection in the first place. Christianity, postulates that it was Adam & Eve’s choice to disobey God that brought about the fall, Theravada Buddhism, while it does not state so clearly, seems to take the stand that ‘dukhkha’ is an inherent property of existence, some schools of Hindu thought, take a similar stand in that ‘separateness’ developed as an inevitable consequence of creation. In this sense then, ‘Moksha’ describes the state of spiritual perfection, as variously conceived in Hindu thought.
Moksha is the highest of the four legitimate aims (purusharthas) of human existence. However, it is difficult to get clear definitions of Moksha in Hindu scripture. The state of Moksha has been differently conceptualised by various schools of thought, and the Upanishads, the bedrock of Hindu philosophy, often describe Moksha in metaphorical and poetic language that easily lends to different interpretations. The Mandukya Upanishad, at one place, (III.4), describes Moksha as absorption into the Brahman; “

As on the destruction of the jar, the space (ether) enclosed within merges with akasa (the space element), even so the individual sould merge into the Atman.

” The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, (IV.3.21), however, describes Moksha as the state where all desires and the resultant sorrows have been quelled; “

As a man in the embrace of his beloved wife knows nothing without and within, so the person when in the embrace of the Intelligent Self knows nothing without or within. That, verily is his form in which his desire is fulfilled, in which the Self is his desire, in which he is without desire, free from any sorrow.

” Such differences have led Hindu philosophers to present several models of Moksha, bothe theistic and non-theistic. At the heart of these differences is the acknowledgement that different metaphysical conceptualisations of the imperfection of the human state and of the phenomenal universe would lead to correspondingly different ideations of the perfect and hence desirable state that is to be strived for.


Moksha derives from the root verb ‘muk’ = to loose, to let loose, to free, to let go, to slacken, to release, to liberate, through its participle form mokshyati = to be loosed, to be set free, to be released. Moksha thus means emancipation, liberation, release. Two other terms often used as synonyms for Moksha are kaivalya and nirvana, though the later is more common in Buddhist philosophy. Kaivalya is the noun form of the adjective kevala = only, exclusively one’s own, not connected with anything else, isolated, abstract, absolute, simple, pure, uncompounded, unmingled, entire, whole, all, complete. Kaivalya then is the state of perfect isolation, of absolute unity, abstraction, detachment from all connections, beatitude. Nirvana is a derivative of the compound word ‘nirvati’, ‘nir’ = without, not (the prefix of absence), ‘vati’ = to blow (as vayu = wind). Nirvana thus means blown out, put out, extinguished, calmed, quieted, and tamed.

The ideals of Moksha

The six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, (astika darshanas), namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva-Mimamsa, and Vedanta or Uttara Mimamsa, have differing concepts of Moksha. These six schools are not entirely divergent. They are often grouped into pairs owing to the commonality that they have amongst them. Thus Nyaya-Vaisheshika forms a pair because logical analysis and empirical attempts go hand in hand. Samkhya-Yoga are paired because their cosmogony is nearly identical. Purva & Uttara Mimamsa base their doctrine on scripture, with the Purva (pre) Mimamsa focusing on the first part of the Vedas, namely the Samhitas and Brahmanas, while the Uttara (post) Mimamsa focuses on the last portion of the Vedas, namely the Upanishads, hence the name Vedanta. While most of these schools do not emphasize or even necessitate a deity, theistic interpretations find a strong voice in some of the sub-schools of the Vedanta Darshana. It needs to be noted that it is the theistic view of Moksha, especially within the context of devotional theism that is most commonly held in popular Hinduism today. The differing views on Moksha as per the six darshanas are given below.

Moksha in Nyaya

Nyaya, the school of Hindu logic, defines moksha as freedom from pain. “This condition of immortality, free from fear, imperishable, consisting in attainment of bliss…” Nyaya adopts a negative definition of Moksha rather than a positive ‘enjoyment of pleasure’, (a view inherent in the idea of heaven present in the Vedic hymns), out of the view that pleasure is always tainted by pain. This position thus prima facie is analogous to the Buddhist idea of duhkha.

Moksha in Vaisheshika

The vaisheshika school postulated an atomistic (and hence a pluralistic) world view. Moksha according to this school was the state of freedom from all connection with qualities, conditions and attributes. The Self attains Moksha when it rids itself of the qualities produced by contact with names and forms (nama & rupa) and regains its independence.

Moksha in Samkhya

The samkhya, enumeration, is a dualistic school, which postulates an eternal distinction between matter or nature, prakriti, and the Self, purusha. Intellect, buddhi, evolves from matter and generates the ego, ‘I’ ness, ahamkara, from which evolves the mind, manas, and so on. The Samkhya system thus enumerates the 25 principles, tattvas, (the non-material Self, purusha, and the 24 material principles evolved from nature, prakriti). Owing to the activities of the intellect, buddhi, the Self, purusha, identifies itself with nature, prakriti. It becomes ignorant of its true nature as pure unfettered consciousness. Moksha, as posited by samkhya is the state of pure consciousness when the Self, the purusha, detaches from prakriti, thus regaining its inherent nature by quelling ignorance through discriminative knowledge. The samkhyan state of moksha is not defined in terms of pain or pleasure, because these are modes of prakriti and do not apply to the Self.

Moksha in Yoga

Yoga draws heavily upon Samkhyan cosmogony. It however stresses upon the method of attaining Moksha more than explicating it as a concept. Yoga however admits theism; a deity, Ishvara, God, is postulated as the object of meditation. Moksha in yoga is kaivalya, perfect isolation, absolute independence. The Self is shrouded in ignorance, avidya, which causes it to possess desires and fetters it to matter. Moksha, kaivalya is attained when ignorance is destroyed by attaining discriminative knowledge in the final stage of meditation, super-conscious samadhi.

Moksha in Purva Mimamsa

The mimamsa school which stresses upon ritual, originally did not concern itself with the problem of Moksha. Mimamsa stated that scrupulous performance of Vedic rituals led to the attainment of heaven, swarga, and stopped at that. The later mimansakas gave very divergent views of Moksha. Some defined Moksha as ‘the absolute cessation of the body, caused by the disappearance of dharma & non-dharma.’ Others stated that Moksha is simply the natural form of the Self. Still others adopted the nyaya definition of freedom from pain. There were also some mimamsakas that defined Moksha as ‘realisation’ of the atman, thus bringing them close to the non-dualist view.

Moksha in Vedanta (Uttara Mimamsa)

Undoubtedly the most popular school of Hindu philosophy, Vedanta derives its philosophy from the Upanishads. A key text for the Vedanta school is the Vedanta Sutra or the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana, a compendium of 555 highly cryptic ‘aphorisms’ that summarise and attempt to systematise the philosophy of the Upanishads. In line with the classical Hindu scholastic tradition, the various schools of Vedanta explicate their interpretations by way of commentaries, bhashya, on the Brahma Sutras and the Upanishads. So esoteric, speculative, metaphorical and varied are the ideas presented in the Upanishads, so cryptic are the aphorisms of the Brahma Sutra, most are no more than 2-3 words long, that they are amenable to various interpretations and hence the Vedanta schools present diverse ideas. At core however, all Vedanta schools accept the doctrine of ‘Atman-Brahman’. The fact that they postulate a Unitary Absolute Reality distinguishes the Vedanta schools from the other darshanas talked of above.

The Ultimate Reality, Atman-Brahman

The notion of ‘Atman-Brahman’ is central to the concept of Moksha in Vedanta. Even the theistic schools, postulate the Deity as ‘Saguna Brahman’, the Brahman with qualities / attributes. As detailed in the entry ‘On the Nature of Deity’)., the Brahman is the single eternal absolute impersonal supreme reality, the ground of the cosmos, the primal source and ultimate goal of all existence, which is attribute-less and beyond all literal expression and comprehension. The ‘Atman’ is the immaterial, innermost ‘Self’, the essence of the being, the eternal core of the personality that survives after death and that transmigrates to a new life. Dr. Radhakrishnan defines Atman as the ‘foundational reality underlying the conscious powers of the individual, the inward ground of the human soul, the super reality of the individual ego, jiva.’ The Upanishads proclaim the identity of the Atman and the Brahman, the Self and the Absolute. The Vedanta schools differ in their views on the nature of Moksha in terms of the interplay of Atman-Brahman.
Advaita (Non-dualism, Monism)

Advaita, monism or non-dualism, of Adi Shankaracharya is the most influential of the Vedanta schools. To understand the concept of Moksha in Advaita, we need to put in place some of the basic definitions of Advaita-vedantic metaphysics.
Advaita defines the Brahman as absolute knowledge, pure consciousness. Brahman is without any attribute (nirguna), without any activity or movement (nishkriya), without any parts (niravayava), unconditioned and absolute, (nirupadhika), and having no distinguishing element, (nirvishesha). Brahman is One, indivisible, without a second, and having in itself no difference (bheda).The common description ‘sat-chit-ananda’ of the Brahman, does not imply any qualities, it simply means that Brahman is ultimate reality (and hence absolute & unchanging), pure consciousness, and perfect bliss.
This definition of the Brahman raises a tricky question. How can an ever-changing universe be causally linked to the absolute, unchanging Brahman? It is not, argued Adi Shankara. The ever-changing material universe with the many individuals (jiva) inhabiting it are declared to be unreal (as opposed to the Absolute reality of Brahman); the Brahman merely appears as the world due to avidya (nescience / ignorance), causing the jiva-atman, to believe that it is distinct from Brahman. This principle that ‘makes things appear what they are not’ is Maya or adhyasa. Given this illusory nature of the universe, there is, strictly speaking, no creation. In reality, the world does not exist, never existed, never will exist. Advaita hence propounds strict monism. It states that the Atman and Brahman are one and the same; the individual and the absolute are identical - That Thou art, tat tvam asi, say the Upanishads. The very ‘individual-ness’ of the individual, is Maya. Moksha is the knowledge, jnana, of the identity of one’s Self with the Brahman. Moksha can only be attained through knowledge, jnana, not through action, karma, because, Moksha is ‘direct knowledge’ of the Brahman. When the person experiences ‘I am Brahman’, aham brahmasmi’, that is Moksha. At Moksha, all limitations are lost, the atman expands into the infinitude of Brahman; becomes Brahman.
Adi Shankaracharya’s doctrine of Maya, which uncompromisingly declared the world to be unreal, was unpalatable to many Hindu philosophers. A disturbing point was that Advaita left little room for a deity. Advaita stated that Ishvara, God, and the deities of the Hindu pantheon, are Brahman seen through the mirror of Maya. The other schools of Vedanta, some of whose adherents severely criticised the ideas of Adi Shankara’s Advaita, were staunchly theistic, and actively promoted the Bhakti tradition.
Vishistadvaita (Qualified Non-dualism)

The qualified non-dualism, Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya is primarily a theistic, and particularly, a Vaishnavite, interpretation of Vedanta. Ramanuja’s work was possibly the earliest attempt to provide a philosophical structure to devotional theism and demonstrate its orthodoxy in terms of the Shruti, Vedic Scripture. In many ways, it serves as an antipode to Shankara’s non-dualism.
Ramanuja’s Brahman, is saguna Brahman, the Brahman with attributes, attributes of perfection and goodness. Ramanuja argues that the qualities of Being (sat), consciousness (chit) and bliss (ananda), give to Brahman a character and a personality. The most prominent qualities of Brahman are knowledge, power and compassionate love (karuna). The Advaitic impersonal absolute Brahman is thus transformed into the all powerful, all knowing, benevolent, God, Bhagawan or Ishvara. The Upanishads declare that Brahman is satyam-jnanam-anantam, Truth, Knowledge, Infinitude. Ramanuja’s metaphysics, postulates the reality of three distinct orders; matter (prakriti), souls (jiva) and God (Ishvara). He maintains that there is non-duality between these orders in the form of an underlying unity in the infinitude of God/Brahman; but Brahman/God is qualified (Vishishta) by the orders of matter and souls; hence the name, qualified non-duality, Vishishtadvaita.
Moksha, for the jiva is a state of bliss in the company of Ishvara. Thus the jiva maintains its individuality even in the state of Moksha; there is no merging of the “I” into the “All”. The route to Moksha is bhakti that leads to the grace, kripa, of Ishvara.However, bhakti for Ramanuja is dhyana, meditation bearing the character of devotion / love.
Other schools

There are numerous other Vedantic schools; the dvaita, dualism school of Madhavacharya; the bhedabheda, difference-non-difference, school of Bhaskaracharya, Nimbarka, and others; the Achintya Bhedabheda or Bengal school of Chaitanya; the shuddhadvaita, pure non-dualism of Vallabhacharya, and some more. All of them are theistic in character and lay stress upon bhakti.


The concept of Moksha is inextricably linked with its corresponding concept of deity. Each philosophical system has its unique metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology, and these serve to define the concept of deity as well as the notion of Moksha in the system concerned. As Moksha is the summum bonum, the highest goal of spiritual endeavour, each system recommends its own ‘prescription’ to achieving it. These prescriptions basically involve four methods, paths, margas.

Monday, May 28, 2007

On Karma


The word ‘Karma’ has for some time now become part of the vocabulary of the West. But the general understanding of the concept is limited to vague notions of the ‘what-goes-around-comes-around OR as-you-sow,-so-shall-you-reap’ variety, very often leaving out the theory of rebirth. This is a major lacuna. Belief in reincarnation and transmigration of the Self (samsara) is an important component of the Hindu doctrine of Karma. It is believed that the Law of Karma symbolises the perfect justice inherent to the cosmic order. Together with Dharma, it gives a more complete picture of Hindu ethics.


‘Karma’ derives from the Sanskrit noun ‘karman’ meaning an act, action, performance, work, labour, activity, etc., which in turn derives from the root verb ‘kri’, which means to do, to make, to perform, to cause, to effect, to undertake, and a whole such host of actions. Over time, the word has come to mean a whole cluster of words and ideas. Karma thus means not just the actions, but the cumulative consequence of all ones actions. The idea of Karma is so deeply ingrained in the Indic mind, so entrenched is the notion that an individual’s destiny is the direct consequence of his / her past actions, that, in popular parlance, Karma is often used as a synonym for ‘fate’.

Historical Development

Like most ideas in Hinduism, Karma traces its roots to the Vedas; particularly, the principle of ‚ta, which amongst other things envisages that an eternal moral order is involved in the very course of nature. The idea that no action by anybody is lost in vain and that a person has to undergo the consequences of his action according to its merits or demerits, is found in the Vedic literature. However, these ideas were still inchoate in the early Vedic period (1800 – 1200 BCE). These ideas start becoming more articulate from the period of the Brahmana literature (ritual commentary), till by the time of the early Upanishads (1000 – 800 BCE) the Law of Karma was well established in Hindu Philosophy. Gautama Siddhartha, (563-486 BCE), the Buddha, carried forward these ideas to Buddhism; albeit with some changes.

The Doctrine of Karma

The Principle of Karma has two aspects to it. Firstly, it states that NO action is lost in vain (kritaprasnasah); one can in no way escape the consequences of his action(s). Secondly, it also categorically states that NO one is to bear the consequences of actions which he has not one himself, (akritabhyupagamah). If somebody does not exhaust the fruits of his actions in the present life, he has to assume a future life by way of rebirth. This makes rebirth / reincarnation & transmigration of the Self, together known by the Sanskrit word ‘Samsara’, a necessary consequence of the law of Karma. Seemingly ‘undeserved’ pleasure or suffering is believed to be the outcome of meritorious or wicked deeds done in past lives. A commonly known image of the concept of reincarnation is the ‘Wheel of Rebirth’ which holds the individual in bondage. Karma leads to rebirth in order that the Self may face the consequences of its past actions which in turn causes the Self to perform more actions resulting in even more consequences for it to face. This cycle goes on endlessly; the Self is as it were in ‘bondage’ tied to the ‘wheel of rebirth’ enduring endless cycles of births and deaths. A rather gloomy pessimistic outlook for the fate of the Self, but more on that later.
While Karma literally means action of any kind done by a sentient being, only voluntary (aichchika) karma is thought to be morally significant, it is these Karmas that generate effects or consequences.

Corollary: Latent Tendencies (Samskaras)

A very important corollary to the law of Karma is the law of desires, “As is his desire, so is his will; as is his will, so is the deed he does, whatever deed he does, that he attains.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV 4,5). It is believed that each action gives rise to latent tendencies (samskaras) which the Self carries forward in each successive rebirth. Good actions give rise to good tendencies and wicked actions give rise to wicked tendencies and these cumulatively reside in the karmic memory, as it were, of the Self. In effect this means that each Self, accumulates both benevolent and malicious tendencies over many births. Thus every person is born with great capacities for both good and evil. This gives rise to a strange combination of pre-destination and free-will. It is believed that each action that a person chooses to perform (free-will at work here), either good or bad, awakens a corresponding latent tendency for good or bad which in turn impels (pre-destination) the person to perform even better or wickeder actions. As these latent tendencies are awakened, it takes greater resolve, stronger exercise of will on part of the person to halt and reverse the virtuous or vicious cycle, in a persons life.

The ‘playing out’ of Karma

Depending upon the kind of influence they have on the Self, Karma is classified into four categories. Accumulated (sanchita) Karma, is the sum total of all the unrecompensed mass of Karma cumulated over many births. Matured (prarabhdha) Karma, is that portion of accumulated Karma that ‘plays out’ in a persons life as ‘fate’. It is matured karma that determines such things as the circumstances of birth, the fortunes (good or bad) that the person encounters in his life. Present wilful (kriyamana) karma, is that currently being accumulated owing to actions being performed. Immediate (agami) Karma, is the immediate consequence / recompense of our present wilful actions. To explain it differently, we are constantly performing actions some of which have immediate consequences, some of which get accumulated to be recompensed later; some of the recompense we face is on account of actions performed in this life, some on account of those performed in previous lives. For example, if I over eat today, I will face its recompense (indigestion) tomorrow. If I steal from someone, and manage to go unpunished by the law, I will have to face the consequences in some future birth.

On things to come

The Law of Karma has often been accused of being pessimistic, of promoting fatalism, and of being an explanation given by the higher castes to justify the exploitation of the lower castes by blaming their miserable conditions on wicked actions of a previous birth. Indeed, when seen in isolation, the doctrine of Karma may seem like an elaborate attempt to come to terms with the unfairness of life, by inventing a system that tries to explain the unfair events by a fictitious cause and effect logic. However, when interpreted along with the ideas of Dharma and the concept of Moksha, (the Hindu equivalent of the Christian concept of salvation), it becomes clear that the doctrine of Karma is not pessimistic or fatalistic, and that it was not propounded as a justification for an exploitative social system.