Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Of Hinduisms and their Gods

Cousin Ashutosh asked me whether the gods my family and his worshipped / prayed to were not personal gods and if so how was any personal god of Hinduism different from the Abrahamic personal God. He in fact suggested that I respond in the form of an entry. I agreed to do so, but realised that the query and its context was broader - how exactly is the Hindu God concept different the Abrahamic one? In any case, the question pre-supposes that there is a unitary Hindu God concept, which in turn pre-supposes that there is a unitary Hindu-ness (for lack of a better word) that sprouts a unitary Hindu God concept. This needs some elaboration and that can best be done in an entry.

An ambitious entry it is going to be because it will explore several interrelated but distinct themes. I hope I can write something which is not totally incomprehensible to my readers. However, since most readers of this diary have hitherto displayed a perseverant capacity for intellection, I can be audacious enough to believe that as long as I do not go over-board with unexplained Sanskrit terms, my readers will be able to wrap their considerable minds around this one.

At one level, the differences between 'Hinduism' and the Abrahamic religious traditions are so obvious as to make this entry trivially superfluous. Polytheistic idol worship as opposed to monotheism worship 'in the spirit'. The well ordered church ceremony of the mass as against the chaotic throngs at the temples and the river-ghats. This entry is unnecessary. My contention though is that these obvious surface level contrasts distract from some of the core historical points of divergence. For a start then, I will enumerate a few key sources of differences which I shall subsequently elaborate on.

  1. Hinduism is not a 'religion' in the same sense that Judaism or Christianity or Mahayana is

  2. Even if we concede that Hinduism is a 'religion' in a broad sense; it is not ONE religion, but a conglomerate of religious traditions

  3. As far as I know, Hinduism is the only set of religions that has retained its pre-axial components in its post-axial theologies and liturgies

  4. Over the 4000+ years of its existence, the religious traditions have undergone significant changes to the point that the Hinduism of today would be unrecognisable to the Vedic Aryan

  5. All the above have resulted in a multifarious, multi faceted, multi layered, god concept which is prolific in its day to day manifestations and profusely even profoundly bewildering to outsiders

It is not a trivial fact that wide-spread self identification of 'Hindus' using the label 'Hindu' is a relatively very recent occurrence. It is common knowledge that the term 'Hindu' first came about as a geographic appellation. A Hindu is a native resident of 'al-Hind' the land beyond the river Indus (Sindhu). In pre-Islamic India, Hindus did not describe themselves as 'Hindu' as opposed to being Buddhist (Bauddha) or Jain (Jaina). He would most likely have described himself as Vaishnava and almost certainly would state his caste jāti. A straight forward question - "What is your religion?" would have been very perplexing to the average Hindu of 700 AD. More so, because the question would probably need to be phrased as "What is your dharma?" The puzzled Hindu in question would probably have hesitantly proffered some confused statements about his caste-obligations and ritual duties. Some vague word-concepts like sanātana dharma (eternal dharma) did exist - but no Hindu would probably give that as an answer to a question "What is your religion?". The other 'religions' of the period - Buddhism with its variants; Jainism were seen as heterodox (and to that extent heretical) philosophies or world-views (nāstika darshana). The idea of 'religion' constituting a sharp bordered group identity probably did not exist. The unit of group identity was the jāti, the caste. Buddhism was not juxtaposed with Hinduism - bhikkus (Buddhist monks) were juxtaposed with brāhmans (members of the priestly caste). Even with the advent of Islam in India the situation did not end up as a polarisation around 'religious' identities. Though it is possible that it was the Islamic invaders who commenced the use of the term 'Hindu' to describe the natives of their new conquest; it did not lead to self-identified concepts of 'we the Hindus' amongst the natives. It took a while for the Hindu collective self-identity to aggregate in polarisation set opposite to the mlechcha or the yavana (as the foreigners were called).

It was by late medieval times - in the Mughal and post Mughal periods that Hindu self-identity becomes apparent. But even then, it was inchoate and probably not labelled as such. When I think collective self-identity as 'Hindus' I imply the term across the geographic spread of India. When in Indian history did the idea of religious identity and commonality reach a stage where the Kashmiri Pundit, the Bihari Kayasth, the Maratha-Kunbi and the Canara Veerashaiva could collectively recognise themselves as possessing a shared religious identity. I would contend that this identity was not crystallised till the colonial era. I would contend that it was the 'Hindu Renaissance' (centred in Bengal and Bombay but later diffused into the Punjab and Madras as well) that led to the crystallisation of the collective Hindu self-identity.

It was around this time too that the religion of the Hindus came to be styled as an '-ism' as European Indologists (Max Muller, William Jones, Charles Princeps, et al) did their pioneering work. In their eyes 'Hinduism' was the religion of the remainder - all those native Indians who were not Muslims, Christian, Buddhist, Parsee, Sikh, Jewish or Jain were 'Hindus'. The early indologists were clearly used to monolithic creed based unitary religious groupings. Naturally, the bunched together most of the extant indigenous religious traditions of their colony under the convenient label 'Hinduism'. By what stretch of imagination can the beliefs and practices of a Tantric Kāpālika and a Brahmo-samaji be clubbed together under the single umbrella called 'Hinduism', I am unable to fathom.

The dictionary definition of religion ( cites several meanings of the noun of which the first two are what is pertinent to this discussion. As per this religion is:

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.

Even a new student of Hinduism will be able to see that Hinduism does not answer specify the above definitions in a single unique manner. There are multiple 'theories' and doctrines regarding the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. And even then, having a cause, nature or purpose is not seen as the essence of a universe in the Hindu world-view. "The universe just is" is a perfectly valid assertion very compatible with Indic thought. The universe as 'creation' is also not a matter of important commonly held doctrine; multiple 'creation stories' and innumerable versions of each story have been in currency. An average Hindu of today would just as easily think of creation as Māyā. Ideas of the genre of Creationism and Intelligent Design would seem far fetched and irrelevant in this scheme of things. It is in the realm of devotional and ritual observances and codification of moral requirements that the fullest extent of the mind-boggling variety of religious artefacts of Hinduism are manifest. But a neutral observer can easily see that the various sets of beliefs and rituals that go together under the label 'Hinduism' are so diverse; that if one were to apply the same criteria of extent of differences in grouping religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam could very well be clubbed together as one religion. I would in which case proffer the nomen 'Abrahamism' for this purpose.

The concept of the axial age and the axial shift - supposedly developed by Karl Jaspers is a useful generic classificatory scheme in the objective study of religion. To recapitulate these ideas in brief - most early religions developed by mankind were concerned with maintenance of the cycle or balance of nature, the universe. The aim of religious observances was to secure man's place in the greater scheme by ensuring the benign ness (if not the benevolence) of deities by ensuring that natural rhythms - seasons, monsoons, river-floodings, etc, on which man so heavily depended - did not fluctuate erratically. Religion therefore had pragmatic goals - to ensure abundance of food, health and offspring and a normal healthful life. In the period known as the 'axial age' mankind first began to think about deeper questions bringing about a new consciousness almost simultaneously in different insulated geographies. The Socratic tradition of Greece, the post-Persian exile introspection of Judaism, the Upanishadic upheaval in religious thought on the banks of the Ganges, Confucian and Daoist thinking in China all around the same time. This new thinking of the axial age led to the axial shift in religious thinking. Religion turned to soteric concerns. ideas about the human soul and its ultimate goal became the central concerns of religion.

It is quite clear that ancient Vedic religion, druidic religions, Aztec / Inca religions, the religions of the early patriarchs were all pre-axial non soteric religions. It is also evident that Vedanta / Bhakti traditions, modern Abrahamism, Buddhism, etc., are post axial soteric religious traditions. Modern Hinduism, to the extent that some Vedic rituals co-exist with more recent beliefs is, to my mind the only major religion to have retained its pre and post axial components. To give an example, a very common ritual celebration in India today is the Satya Nārāyan Pûja, a special ritual worship carried out either to commemorate a special occasion or as a thanksgiving. These and other such pûja celebrations are very clearly a Puranic (later Hinduism) versions of the appropriate grayha sutra (domestic) rituals of the Vedic era which the householder was enjoined to perform. The phala shruti or schedule of benefits accruing to the host (yajamāna) at whose behest the priests carry out these ritual celebrations clearly indicate the pre-axial emphasis - the benefits include clearly 'this-worldly' benefits like prosperity, male off-spring, health and longevity to the host, etc. However practices like dhyāna (meditation) or various bhakti practices like the singing of bhajans or rosary telling have soteric objectives as their stated intent (to greater or lesser degrees).

And finally and most obviously is the sheer impact of the passage of time. Even if we discount the theories of the Harappan origins of Hinduism, the Vedic roots are in themselves very ancient. Modern Historians contend that the Rik Samhitā the oldest and the largest of the Vedic corpus was composed between 1800 and 1500 BCE. The liturgical texts (the brāhmanās) were completed by 1000 BCE and the philosophical "forest" treatises, the aranyakas sometime soon after. The oldest of the Upanishads which lay the foundation of Modern Hinduism were already finished by 800 BCE - the estimated date for the beginnings of the sāmkhya teachings which outlined the theoretical basis for the practice of meditation - yoga which by all estimates is a very ancient practice (some contend it to be a pre-Vedic Indus culture practice). And yet through these 1000 years of transition - the yajna - the fire sacrifice was the central and the cardinal religious activity. Circa 500 BCE the present consensus date for completion of the Bhagawat Gīta by which time the Upanishadic ideas of ātman-Brahman had become established, a shift away from the ritualised yajna is clearly visible. The Gīta often talks of the 'internal' yajna of the yogin. But most importantly, the personal God complete with all the trappings of omniscience, omnipotence and omni-benevolence has made his appearance - as very clearly seen in several passages of the Bhagawat Gīta. True, the Vedic gods Indra, Vāyu, Varuna, etc too might be called personal gods, but these had no real claims to being omni-anything. But the idea of this god-concept of all powerful omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent personal Gods - Brahmadev, Vishnu, Mahesh, Devi, Ganesh et al was contemporaneous with if not pre-dated by the Upanishadic impersonal ātman-Brahman.

It is easy for us modern Hindus to underestimate or even ignore the stupendous importance of the yajna to the Vedic Aryans. Verily, the act of the yajna was for all practical purposes more salient than any god-concept of the Vedic era. Creation itself was not seen as an act of divine omnipotence - creation was a yajna like any other, where the Lord of Beings (Prajāpati) sacrificed himself to himself that beings (including the gods) may be. Idam yajnam bhuvaneshu nabhih (this yajna is the navel of the world) declared the officiator (the adhvaryu) of the yajna. The act of yajna itself, the very utterance of the hymns and mantras - chanted as oblations were poured into the sacred fires - were manifestations of a great power that actualised and sustained all creation (including Indra and the other gods of paradise). The ideation of this power was later crystallised as the Brahman in Vedantic thought. But more on that later. It is indicative of the sweeping change of emphasis that Hinduism has undergone that the yajna - a ritual of such all consuming importance in Vedic times - is rarely if ever performed today. Most present day Hindus can live a religious life without performing or even witnessing a single yajna. We have today a new pantheon, a new mythology, a new corpus of rituals. If you could time-teleport a Vedic Aryan priest to a 18th Century Hindu temple you would end up with a thoroughly bewildered man! Here is a quick comparison - the Vedic priest killed, cooked and consumed meat including beef (as part of the yajna) something which is an anathema to most modern Hindu Brahmins; the Vedic priest did not make and worship idols; the principal gods of Hinduism today were lesser known, minor or unknown deities in Vedic times; the most important sacred texts of today didn't exist in Vedic times. I could go on with the list, but I trust I have made my point. And yet, none of the old traditions were specifically or doctrinally discarded and all of them continue in some form or the other. The same applies to the god-concept. The old Vedic pantheon, the Lord of Beings, the new Puranic pantheon and running through these like a common thread the highly abstract god-concept articulated by Vedānta. Is it surprising that the god-concept that began as an idealised abstraction of this intensely ritualised act called the yajna is the very one which the leading proponents of the 19th Century Hindu renaissance turned to when they sought to resurrect and revitalise Hinduism in face of criticism from modern Abrahamism?

The above account is interspersed with examples of the various types of god concepts that have evolved over time and which continue to co-exist in Hinduism today. Can a religion with such multifarious and divergent god-concepts - from the nature gods of the Vedic times, to the Puranic personal Gods to the Vedāntin's impersonal 'God' - be effectively described as a single religion? Doesn't the idea of religion imply a common belief-set where the god-concept is concerned? And doesn't the lack of such a common belief set preclude a common nomenclature for the various religious traditions in question?

The answer is no - we are by and large justified in using the common label 'Hinduism' to describe these religious traditions precisely because 'Hinduism' represents an identity which is by no means a mere religion. As I have said before, it is not without reason or justification that the Supreme Court of India itself has ruled Hinduism to be a 'way of life' rather than a religion. A shared doctrinal belief-set for all its adherents is not a requirement for 'a way of life'. In this schema, Hinduism becomes a cultural identity that subsumes a range of religious persuasions. And yet there are shared features that almost all belief-sets that are grouped together under Hinduism possess.

  1. Acceptance of the 'authority' of the Veda (at least in name)

  2. Belief in the doctrine of Karma and reincarnation

  3. Acceptance of the possibility of achieving the soteric goal of Moksha or liberation

  4. The need to be born into a jāti (caste) in order to 'be' a Hindu (belong to a Hindu community)

It must be noted that these are all observed features that most people / groups that can nominally be called Hindu and which are nominally accepted as Hindu by other Hindu people/groups have. These are not beliefs which when accepted make a person Hindu. It is not a trivial observation that NONE of these pertain to a god-concept. It is not necessary to hold belief in a god-concept to be a Hindu.

Also, it must be noted that acceptance of the authority of the Veda is in no way comparable to the acceptance of the Bible in Christianity. No statement is made regarding the 'literal truth' of the Veda the way claims of this sort are made with respect to the Bible. In fact asking a Hindu "Do you think the Veda is the literal truth?", is a good way to baffle the poor fellow. Similarly the idea of there being 'Veda thumpers' is patently absurd. 'Veda' means 'knowledge'. The Rig-Veda is simply knowledge (in the form of the) Rik chants. The Vedas, unlike the Bible, is not a book. It has no narrative thread. The Vedas consist of four kinds of scripture - a compendium of hymns known as the samhitā, liturgical texts known as the brāhmanās, speculations on the meanings of the hymns and liturgies called the aranyakas, and finally philosophical treatise the Upanishads. The Veda was / are not meant to be 'read' - unlike the Bible. The Veda also unlike the Bible was not even written down until quite recently. The hymns of the Vedic samhitās were basically chants (udgīta) sung by a group of chanters (the udgatrs) to be used in yajna. The sequence in which to utter these chants, the ritual ceremonies and actions to accompany the chanting is described in great detail in the liturgical texts the brāhmanās; the liturgies often require specific verses from different hymns to be sung - so it was possible that an entire hymn never needed to be sung. It is obvious that the hymns of the samhitā were based on a detailed mythology involving the Vedic gods. However, this mythology is now lost to us because it was never written down or remembered unlike the Vedas themselves which were memorised and transmitted from generation to generation - teacher to disciple. In fact so accurate was the transmission of the Vedas over more than 2000 years that in the late medieval ages when the Vedas were finally committed to writing down the written versions of particular rescensions compiled from different groups of Brahmins in different parts of India were identical syllable for syllable. In any case, the point is that a fundamentalist or literal interpretation of the Veda is a meaningless idea.

This then concludes my belaboured exploration of the salient features that differentiate the god-concept and the 'religious' traditions of Hinduism from these ideas in Abrahamic monotheism.

blog comments powered by Disqus