2 Jul 2015

Rajiv Malhotra on Hinduism (2)

Freedom to Choose a Personal Path (Svadharma)

In most dharmic traditions, each individual has a unique ‘svadharma’ (personal dharma) or purpose in this world. This is based on his or her ‘svabhava’ (character) as shaped by past karma and gunas and on the context or circumstances of the person’s life. Buddhists have the notion of’upaya’ (skilful means), which becomes the basis for mutual respect between those who are different. In the Jain tradition, principles of relative and multiple perspectives of truth, combined with the inherent uncertainty in knowledge, serve as protection against dogmas and universal absolutes. All of this demonstrates that dharmic spiritual practices are diverse, eclectic, and adaptable by communities, families, and individuals, and for specific circumstances.

The pursuits in life are organized into four categories with distinct ethics recommended for each: worldly dharma is the pursuit of righteous and ethical living, including one’s relationships with family, society and the natural environment; ‘artha’ is the pursuit of material wealth and prosperity by ethical means; ‘kama’ is the fulfilment of physical desires without compromising the ethics; and ‘moksha’ is self-realization and liberation.

Unburdened by the belief that there is only one right path to the ultimate truth, dharma has flowered in many directions. For example, Hindus often see themselves as following one or a combination of four main paths of yoga: direct intuitive knowledge (jnana yoga), meditation (dhyana), devotion (bhakti), and perfection in work (karma). These paths are not mutually exclusive nor conflicting, and they correspond to the individual seeker’s natural preferences.

Freedom of Choice of Deity (Ishta-Devata)

In Hinduism, avatars are incarnations of God. An avatar is a being who plays a role similar to the role played by Jesus in Christianity, except that the avatar is not exclusive and allows for similar claims by other traditions. Hindus, therefore, are able to accept Jesus as divine, as an incarnation of God, but not as the exclusive incarnation. Rama and Krishna are the two most commonly worshipped Hindu avatars. Devotion to one deity does not render the others defective, because Bhagavan’s omnipresence in the cosmos provides many access points.

The various deities are attributes, cosmic processes and energies of the one Ultimate Reality, and are not gods and goddesses in the pagan sense. They manifest as either feminine (‘devis’, such as Lakshmi, Durga, et al.) or masculine (‘devas’, such as Agni, Vayu, and so on). All goddesses are facets of the one Goddess, who in turn is not subordinate to God but is God herself in the form of shakti (intelligence-energy). Devi is simply the feminine equivalent of deva and not a derivative as ‘goddess’ is to ‘god’. The human-like images used to represent deities in Hindu and Buddhist tantra and yoga are not idols but are akin to an artist’s rendering of an abstract principle. Hence the same deity may be represented in thousands of variations, including images that are not personified (such as geometric diagrams), or indeed without any images at all. In certain kinds of tantra, the deities are imagined within one’s body as energies and intelligences which correspond to cosmic energies and intelligences. This is the principle of ‘bandhu’ at work. The divine as feminine is also worshipped as sacred geography; for instance, the river Ganga is a manifestation of Ganga devi and considered her body.

The concept of a personal deity for spiritual focus is called ishta-devata. Puja is a common ritual of worship in which a devotee invites the ishta-devata to be his or her honoured guest out of utmost love and devotion. Most Hindus believe in a direct private communion with their chosen ishta-devata without any intermediary, and most families set aside a place in their home to serve as a shrine for daily worship.

Besides visuals, the ishta-devata can actually be a mantra. Each sound in the Sanskrit alphabet corresponds to a specific divine intelligence or energy. This is why there are many mantras from which to choose depending on the individual’s nature or circumstances.

Each individual’s worship of his or her ishta-devata may be seen as a unique and personalized monotheism in the sense that, for the given worshipper, that deity represents the one Supreme Being. But this monotheism is not universalized and imposed on others. Only when the particular deity of a given religion gets universalized does the problem of exclusivism erupt. A Hindu would say that Christians have taken their ishta-devata (i.e., Jesus) and universalized him, then further boosted their own power by means of aggressive evangelism.

The Dharmic Golden Rule

The Western golden rule says we must do to others what we want them to do to us. This is, of course, a pragmatic way to optimize the outcome for each party concerned. On a higher level, the Judeo-Christian religions assert that one should love one’s neighbour as one loves oneself. The dharmic golden rule takes this a step further and says that there is no ultimate ‘other’ because each apparent other is ultimately the same as oneself. In short, love your neighbour as you love yourself because your neighbour is yourself. This is based on the metaphysics of integral unity discussed above.

The Bhagavadgita (2:14—15) advocates equanimity (samata) toward all because the Ultimate Reality is manifest as all beings, and all beings are in it and are inseparable from it. It clarifies (13:27) that the self is alike (sama) in all beings and that the development of character and personality (gunavikasa) is the chief means of cultivating equanimity. Sama is used here to mean ontological identity. The spirit of even-mindedness and disciplined equality (samata) generates the conviction that there dwells in each person the same spirit, and it is this that fortifies the feeling of solidarity. Arjuna is therefore told to cultivate samata (2:48).

This equanimity also permeates the attitude to skin colour in dharmic civilizations. Lord Krishna as well as Lord Rama, the two most prominent Hindu avatars, are dark, as are Kali and Durga, the most popular forms of the Goddess. Vishnu, too, is dark (‘megha varna’, i.e., the colour of the rain clouds), and so is Shiva. There is an explicit discussion in the Mahabharata in which varna as colour is disregarded as a criterion in preference to the criterion of gunas.

In the spirit of the same golden rule, dharmic practitioners are not asked to interfere with other faiths - an attitude sometimes mistaken for passivity. There is no requirement to proselytize, no doctrine to kill those who differ in their religious views, no teaching to destroy others’ places or forms of worship, nor to denigrate them as damned or evil, nor to impose punishments or taxation of any kind on them for their religious beliefs.

It is not surprising that Hindus gave sanctuary to the early Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who fled their homelands because of religious persecution in the early centuries following the rise of Christianity and then Islam. Zoroastrianism was a major world religion in and around Persia until the arrival of Islam. Fleeing Zoroastrians received refuge in India, and India is the only place in the world where they thrive today. Many of India’s top industrialists, public officials and professionals are Zoroastrians (who call themselves Parsees). The Thomas Christians of south India trace their origins back to the early period after Jesus and have a place of respect and honour in India’s pluralism. The oldest continuously operating synagogue in the world is in Cochin (now Kochi) in south India.

Had Jesus been born in India, he might well have been assimilated as another great avatar along with Rama, Krishna and others. As it is, Jesus is sometimes included in the Hindu pantheon of deities in many Indian homes and even temples (such as the Ramakrishna Mission and Paramahansa Yogananda’s ashram, for example) and is promoted by many Hindu gurus as being on par with Krishna, Rama, Shiva and other deities. For a Hindu, to say ‘one Lord, one church, one way’ is unacceptable, naive, and completely unimaginative; it is to ignore nature’s diversity, the human situation, and the abundance of divine communication that is available.

But short of rejecting its core beliefs, Christianity cannot recognize Krishna and Rama as it recognizes Jesus, i.e., as human incarnations of God, nor can it grant that Lord Shiva is ever-present as the supreme deity of transcendence, nor that Devi is God-as-Mother and also God-as-Consort to be worshipped as a manifestation of the Supreme Being. Nor can it grant that each deity has numerous forms accessible through multifaceted means and that none is under any centralized human authority or control.

It is not surprising that none of the Abrahamic religions has ever integrated with another Abrahamic religion, much less with any non-Abrahamic one. Hindus’ intrinsic belief in pluralism means that many of them are blissfully unaware that their sentiments are not at all reciprocated by the Abrahamic religions, which not only reject every other deity but also consign Hinduism to paganism and the worship of false gods.

Dharmic radical pluralism is integral and not an afterthought to be overlaid on original scripture. In our modern times, Jewish and Christian religions have to compromise or modify their otherwise rigid stance under the garb of tolerance, typically to appear politically correct and avoid conflicts. Or it is perhaps part of the strategy of inculturation, designed to disarm potential converts by pretending to respect their culture only to engage in aggressive conversion at a later stage.

The pluralistic ethos of the Mahabharata, for instance, is grounded in a non-exclusivist framework including multiplicity of beliefs, concepts and ideas. This is so deeply ingrained as to make Indians psychologically comfortable with relative truths, uncertainty, ambiguity, disorder and pluralism of all kinds. The Mahabharata records numerous philosophical dialogues wherein protagonists argue across different philosophical systems, and pluralism permeates these debates. The epic includes many philosophical systems, such as Samkhya, Vaishnava and Shaiva theologies, and various non-theistic Shramana ideas. Ethics, politics and sociology are debated in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. This is in contrast with Yahweh, the jealous God of the chosen people who demands unconditional obedience through His firebrand prophets and threatens to unleash His wrath if His strict rules of worship and conduct are not obeyed.

(Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different, pp 136-140)

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