Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You, by Hindol Sengupta
A thought-provoking and breezy account. Hindol hits the right points and notes. Informs and provokes in equal measure. Add this one to your year-end holiday reading list.
Being Hindu can be an amalgamation of many different things to many different people, at different times. Whatever being Hindu may be, it however – we need to be clear – cannot be about “discussing for years whether we should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left, whether the hand should be washed three times or four times, whether we should gargle five or six times.” But this was what discourse on Hinduism had been reduced to in the nineteenth century, in the words of none other than a young, thirty-something ascetic, Vivekananda, speaking to “an inherently orthodox populace in nineteenth-century, British-ruled India.”
Vivekananda and a handful of reformers pulled Hinduism out from the dark depths of mindless ritualism that it found itself in more than a century ago. Such was the greatest reformer Hinduism saw in a thousand years or more, and such was Hinduism that it accepted such a reformer. Hinduism listened to, accepted, and reformed. Or why just Vivekananda; take even Mahatma Gandhi, who had this to say to Dr. Ambedkar (another of the great reformers of Hinduism) – “Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful both to spiritual and national growth.”
But, Hindol warns us, “reform” itself has many different meanings, and consequences. Lost in the din of a mono-maniacal fervour with which the word “reform” is being hurled today is a recognition of what the history of reform actually has been. As I wrote in my review of a high-priestess of Islamic “reform” – Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s – book, “Heretic” (first published in IndiaFacts here), Ali’s prescriptions are presented in almost as fundamental a manner as the religious fundamentalism it seeks to reform, and wholly western prescriptions for the ails of a faith middle-eastern in origin.
Hindol writes about British journalist Mehdi Hasan, who reminded all what “what reformation was in Christianity.”
“He details, in case anyone has forgotten, that Martin Luther—the fourteenth century German cleric who was the Father of Reformation—not only broke the Bible free from Latin upper class domination by translating it into vernacular languages, but also wrote On the Jews and Their Lies (1543). In this, Luther referred to the Jews as ‘the devil’s people and called for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues’ The book is one of the seminal texts of German anti-Semitism, and later the Holocaust.”
Similarly, for Islam, Hindol writes, there has been reform. Indeed, there has been reform. The most successful “reformist” in Islam, to this day, remains Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, “the eighteenth-century purist, who bitterly critiqued the relative liberalism of Sufism and described both Jews and Christians as devil worshippers. The punishment for devil worshippers, said Wahhab, was the sword.”
The word “reform”, is however still used as a silver bullet of sorts by those looking for silver bullets with which to slay the werewolves of radicalism. The consequences of such shallow thinking is of course paid only by future generations to come – rarely by the proponents of such reform.
Hindol gives reason to consider carefully when we use the word “reform.” Reform can mean something different, and more meaningful. Hindol provides two examples. The first, as we saw earlier, is with Hinduism and its cast of reformers. The second, surprisingly, is with Islam – and Dara Shukoh – in the second half of the seventeenth century. Dara Shukoh was one of the sons of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and a sibling of Aurangzeb. Dara had a spiritual bent of mind, and if you consider that it was in the year 1656 – the zenith of the Mughal empire in northern India – that he gathered “at Kashi (Benaras) a vast troupe of bilingual scholars” to try and find harmony between the Holy Qur’an and the Upanishads, it truly boggles the mind. Dara was not Akbar, who could have done this with the weight of the imperial throne behind him. This was Dara, locked in a deadly struggle with his vastly more orthodox brother Aurangzeb, and yet chose to embark on this quest, knowing that doing so would put him on the wrong side of the orthodox Muslim clergy of the time. Dara’s efforts led him to state that the Upanishads “‘are first of all heavenly books . . . in conformity with the holy Quran’ and that the Upanishads are ‘actually mentioned in the Quran and designated as scriptural texts’.” Such a claim would be considered radical – perhaps even heretical – even in the twenty-first century.
Dara’s quest was perhaps the last, truly great, attempt at meaningful reformation in Islam. That it ended with Dara’s imprisonment and subsequent execution by his brother, Aurangzeb, underscores a tragic, if not common, theme in Islam’s history of encounters with reform.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has nothing to write about Dara in her book on “reformation” in Islam, hers is a very narrow, monochromatic prism through which she views solutions to complex issues.
Even if one is unsure about what makes or does not make a Hindu, even if one is or is not a Hindu, if one is not living in India, it is still a reasonably confident assertion that your view of Hinduism is being influenced by reading thinly-disguised racist screeds passing off as scholarly dissertations. How so?
Hindol has a brilliant – and biting – chapter titled “How to Write About Hindus?” that distills a century and more of western writing on Hinduism. I present here only a brief excerpt. The entire chapter is worth reading twice, and is perhaps alone worth the price of the book.
“‘Always use the word Hindu as if you really meant to write Hindoo (colonial spelling used to suggest parody) but are too polite. Words like “dusk”, “soul”, “heterodox”, “bourgeois”, “traditional”, “Orientalist”, naturally, help. Subtitles may include the words “ancient”, “plural”, “civilization”, “alternative”, “sex”. The last one is of the most vital significance. Without it, your book (article, essay) and Hinduism are doomed. Its soul will never be discovered. Worse, no one will tweet about your book (article, essay). Your book (article, essay) must have a picture. It must have the colour orange. Refer to it always as “saffron”. Without saffron, the sales (and readership) of your book (article, essay) are deep in the red. Which, as we all know, is not a nice colour. Especially when you are the one selling. The pictures you use along with the writing can never have kind, well-adjusted, pleasantly God-fearing folk. They should have great matted hair. A bushy chest. A trident in the hand really helps. They can’t wear too many clothes. It spoils the image of the warrior sadhu—the monk doth protest too much is a powerful tool. Don’t treat it lightly. Or you can have a bespectacled, grouchy old man holding a grammatically incorrect banner. Looking angry.”
And how can we talk about western “scholarship” about Hinduism without touching upon (I use the word “touching” in an entirely non-harassing and strictly metaphorical sense) the Hinduphobe scholar’s obsession with the prurient, and insistence on conjuring prurience where none exists. Sample the brilliant way in which Hindol takes down a certain, unnamed, Hindu “scholar.”
“Begin by writing that you love all gods and goddesses. The Hindus have many of these. So there are many books (articles, essays) to be written. But nowhere have you mentioned snake charmers or elephants. So your work is not about hunting down the exotic. It is scholarship. Oh, sorry, you did mention an elephant god. You said his trunk is the penis. Or his penis is the trunk. One can’t be entirely sure — but there is some cock (and bull) there. It is, after all, a way of life.”
And more so:
“Always subtly hint that while you have read and mastered all Hindu texts, there is actually nothing called Hinduism. This must be the great consistent revelation of your book. It is also great preparation just in case someone spots your errors and takes you to court. The more you write that you love the openness in Hinduism, the better it is for you. Because if nothing exists, and there are no rules, no facts, no realities and no texts — if there is no Hinduism — then you can write what you want. And anything you write will make you a scholar.”
This chapter served as a reminder of sorts for me of the ways in which Indians have lost self-respect for both themselves and for their culture and religion. Some may remember how there was a brouhaha of sorts on social media when some self-styled #science “intellectuals” had taken to asserting that there was no such thing as “Hindu or Indian science.” When confronted by facts (for e.g., that Baudhyana’s discovery of the so-called Pythagoras’ theorem preceded Pythagoras by at least a few centuries), the #science intellectuals’ argument then morphed into stating that there was no such thing as “India” in medieval times, and finally, into mocking critics for lacking a sense of humour. I was reminded of it reading about Manjul Bhargava in Hindol’s book.
“A mathematician of Indian origin, Manjul Bhargava, won the Fields Medal, one of the highest prizes in excellence in mathematics. Bhargava’s biggest achievement was probably solving a 200-year-old mathematical problem. How did he do this? Bhargava says he was able to accomplish this by reading old Sanskrit manuscripts preserved by his grandfather, Purshottam Lal Bhargava, who was the head of the Sanskrit department at the University of Rajasthan. In their library reserves he found the work of seventh-century Indian mathematician Brahmagupta, and he realized, using Brahmagupta’s work,
that he could crack a problem unresolved for two centuries. Essentially, when two numbers, which are both the sum of two perfect squares, are multiplied together, what is arrived at is the sum of two perfect squares. He found a generalization of this principle in Brahmagupta’s work that helped him simplify the expansive Composition Law introduced by the German Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1801.”
A favourite chapter for most Indophiles is likely to be the one where Hindol briefly enumerates the Hindu’s contribution to science, and in many cases, these contributions were verily the foundations of science as the world knows today.
“The seventh-century mathematician Brahmagupta devised a formula ‘for the sum of n terms of the Arithmetic Progression of which the first term is unity and the common difference is unity’15. With this, Brahmagupta was able to accurately devise the rules to measure the volume of a prism, the area of a cyclic quadrilateral and the formula for the length of two diagonals of a cyclic quadrilateral. Needless to say, these are rules that are being used even today.
Brahmagupta formulated ‘a thousand years’ before the great European mathematician Euler (17-7 -1783 CE) ‘a theorem based on indeterminate equations’
Hindu mathematicians also knew what is now known as Pascal’s triangle long before Europe and called it meru prastara. The mathematician Pingala (third century BC) dealt with this in detail in his Chandas-sutra.
Astonishingly, Panini’s immortal fame is not even as a mathematician but as the definitive Sanskrit grammarian. But he also ‘introduced abstract symbols to denote various subsets of letters and words that would be treated in some common way in some rules; and he produced rewrite rules that were to be applied recursively in a precise order.’ Mumford says, ‘One could say without exaggeration that he anticipated the basic ideas of modern computer science.’”
“Basically, each and every complaint of Dawkins about religion is aimed at the great monotheistic faiths—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—and his primary complaint that faith divides is one that can only be aimed at those faiths since they have clear boundaries between believers and unbelievers. For his entire intellectual prowess, Dawkins does not understand that there is an alternative to that version of religion. He does not understand that Vedic polytheism is not quite that because in polytheism ‘the gods worshipped retain their proper and well-defined places’. In Vedic culture though, ‘a god worshipped as the supreme deity pales into insignificance when another is adored as the highest’. This is the concept of the ishtadevata by which ancient Hindus chose a manifestation of God that appealed most to them and worked to reach the highest truth through this form or image.”
In closing, I want to talk about the good cop – bad cop routine, “a psychological tactic used in negotiation and interrogation” (Wikipedia), where the “‘bad cop’ takes an aggressive, negative stance towards the subject, making blatant accusations, derogatory comments, threats, and in general creating antipathy between the subject and himself. This sets the stage for the “good cop” to act sympathetically, appearing supportive and understanding, and in general showing sympathy for the subject.” Hinduism studies in the West have for long had their cast of good-cops and bad-cops. The bad cop, it’s been clear for many years now, is Wendy Doniger, the reigning priestess of everything crude and lewd that can be imagined or conjured in Hinduism. I recently discovered who the good cop is. The good cop is Diana Eck, but the goal remains much the same – a multi-pronged delegitimization of Hinduism and its symbols. I wrote about it in some detail in my review of her book, “India: A Sacred Geography”. Hindol quotes extensively from Diana’s work; I feel that perhaps Eck’s work at concealing her real agenda is better than I would have initially given her credit for!
The book is divided into ten chapters, each titled as a question for or about Hindus. For example, the first is “How to Write About Hindus?”, the second is “Who is a Hindu?”, the seventh is “Does Being Hindu Mean You Are Vegetarian?”, and so on… At 170 pages, excluding the acknowledgments, endnotes, and index, this book is a short read.
It is my hope that this book gives the reader reason to pause and reconsider the blind reverence that western studies on Hinduism have been accorded, it causes the casual Hindu to delve deeper into the meaning of his or her faith, it gives reason to the reader to question the basis for media-instigated anti-Hinduism hysteria.
Hindol’s book is a timely addition to the growing list of books that seek to question the bigoted and at times outright racist status quo that has been Hinduism studies for decades on the one hand, and endeavour to inform and gently correct mis-conceptions about Hinduism that have been unquestioned thus far.