By Pavan K. Varma
Feb 16, 2014
Outrage is an easily ignited emotion, but only rarely has long-term staying power. Some situations require not the melodrama of outrage, but the far more difficult response of serious and sustained concern. The decision of Penguin India to withdraw all copies of Chicago University Professor Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, and to reduce all unsold copies of the work to pulp, requires precisely such a response. Penguin took this decision as a result of a movement by an organisation called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), which felt that Doniger was insulting to the Hindus and the Hindu faith.
It is true, of course, that no one has the right to wilfully or maliciously hurt religious sentiment. But all of us have the right to question what constitutes hurt. Hurt cannot be defined on the basis of somebody’s self-righteous assertion that only I know what Hinduism is. It cannot be defined by the inflexible dogmas of those reflexively intolerant to anything that remotely looks like a critique or is at variance with their narrow interpretations. Nor can it be defined on the basis of somebody’s inadequate knowledge or, worse, ignorance masquerading as piety.
Hinduism has a glorious legacy of the most remarkable eclecticism. The Upanishads and the Vedas clearly bring out its lofty dialogic nature and the tradition of debate and questioning which it has always nurtured. A religion with no one church, no one text and no one Pope, Hinduism is a way of life, and has never been a brittle collation of rigid dogmas to be ritualistically followed unthinkingly. The great philosopher Shankaracharya, who revived Hinduism in the 8th century CE, could lyrically question the very worldview of practised Hinduism. In his immortal Nirvana Shatakam, he says with divine abandon: “Na me raga dvesha, na me lobha moha, Mado naiva me naiva matsarya bhava, Na dharmo na chartho na kamo na moksha, Chidananda rupah, Shivoham, Shivoham.” Dharma, artha, kama and even moksha don’t matter, says Shankaracharya. All that matters is bliss and awareness, chidananda rupah, and once you access that you become — the ultimate blasphemy in many other religions — Shiva himself!
There are six systems — not one — in Hindu metaphysics. There is the Charvaka school, which is openly atheistic and ridicules the very notion of God. There is a powerful Tantric school of worship, secretive and replete with many practices that would be considered by the conventional as decidedly unorthodox. The Hindu pantheon has thousands of divinities, even stones and trees, while, at another level, the Upanishads say Neti, Neti: Not this, Not this, refusing to give any attribute to divinity because that would circumscribe its seamless canvas.
Ramanuja and Shankaracharya fought a prolonged intellectual battle over what constitutes divinity, the attributable Saguna concept or the attribute-less Nirguna one. Our sages at the dawn of time propounded the profound maxim: “Ekam Satya Bipraha Bahuda Vedanti (There is one truth, the wise call it by different names)”. The same eclecticism is reflected in another of Hinduism’s great guidelines: “Anno Bhadra Krtavo Yantu Vishvatah (Let noble thoughts come to us from all corners of the world)”. In Jagannathpuri in Puri, there are occasions when devotees have the freedom to roundly abuse Lord Krishna for not responding to their prayers. They do it because they believe he belongs to them and they have a right to this intimacy. Our Bhakti movement saints, and our Bauls, have sung about the Almighty in the most unconventional ways. It must require a great deal of uninformed audacity on the part of the members of Shiksha Bachao Andolan to assert that they alone know what this great religion stands for.
One grouse of the Andolan is that Doniger has a “sexual approach” to Hinduism. This puritanism in the context of Hinduism is so illiterate that it is offensive. It was the British during the colonial period who were scandalised at the philosophical acceptance of Kama in Hinduism. They accused Hindus of unacceptable carnality, and “unspeakable things”, with a view to asserting the superiority of Christianity. The Hindus always knew that Kama, or the pursuit of the physical as part of a balanced life, is one of the four purusharthas or goals of Hinduism, and that the sensual is equally a reflection of the divine. Educated Indians during — and, alas, after — colonialism internalised the British critique and set out to foolishly sanitise their religion of all categories that they thought would not win Western approbation. Such “reformers” need to remember that in Hinduism it is Krishna not Rama who is seen as the “purna avatara (the complete divinity)”. Rama was “maryada purushottam”. He is said to have 13 of the 16 attributes that constitute complete divinity. Krishna has all 16, and the three extra ones he has are of the sringara rasa, the sensual mood. The exquisitely erotic poetry of Jayadeva, Bihari, Chandidasa, Govindadasa and many others about Radha and Krishna wonderfully evoke this mood. All our Gods have female consorts. They are not complete without them. Our mythology is full of the grand celebration of the sensual, even as it also fully accepts the absence of the physical as a path to the divine. That is why in the temples of Konark and Khajuraho, while the panels at the base have explicitly erotic imagery, the panels in the middle show our Gods with their consorts, and the shikhar or pinnacle has only the trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, Mahadeva.
The cause for real concern is that fundamentalist organisations are seriously positioning themselves to hijack Hinduism to suit their narrow, uninformed and bigoted notions. If liberal India succumbs so easily to this onslaught it would embolden others. All kinds of lumpen elements would sit on a pedestal and lecture to us on what constitutes “correct” religious practice and belief. The moral police would be out in full force and resort to vandalism and violence with impunity. Penguin India’s decision and Wendy Doniger’s book would become a footnote in the face of this larger threat. Is this the kind of India we want?
Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma’s latest book is Chanakya’s New Manifesto: To Resolve the Crisis Within India