Pavan K. Varma | Its the Hindutva police versus Sanatan Dharma
By DECCAN CHRONICLE | Pavan K Varma
A very unfortunate aspect of ultra-Hindu zealots is that most of them know very little about the intellectual grandeur of Hinduism. Hinduism is an eternal faith — Sanatan Dharma. It has survived for millennia precisely because it is not a corpus of brittle dos and don’ts, but an immensely cerebral philosophical vision which accommodates a great deal of diversity in expression.
Hinduism has no one God, no one mandatory text, no compulsorily prescribed form of prayer, and no Pope. It has not one but at least six systems of philosophy — the Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva and Uttara Mimamsha, and perhaps the most powerful, Advaita. Within a unified central philosophy, it welcomes dissenting opinion. For instance, the materialist Charvaka school says the Vedas are lies, but is still a part of Hinduism. The esoteric practices of the Tantric school are different from mainstream Hinduism, but still part of the religion. No one has been burnt on the stake in Hinduism for heresy or blasphemy.
Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE), who is credited with the revival of Hinduism, could fearlessly say he is beyond the central tenets of conventional Hindu practice. In his famous stotra, Nirvana Shatakam, he states: Na mantro, nateertham, naveda, nayajnah: Neither mantras, nor pilgrimages, nor ritual, not even the Vedas are important. All that matters is Chitanandarupam: Awareness and Bliss. In this context, he actually conflates himself with Shiva: Shivo ham, Shivo ham: I am Shiva, I am Shiva. In most other religions, especially the Abrahamic faiths, this assumption of godhood would be considered blasphemy. Indeed, by contrast, we have the example of the Sufi mystic, Al-Hallaj (858-922 CE), in Persia, almost contemporaneous with Shankaracharya, who was put to death for saying — Ana’lHaq: I am the Truth.
These days there is much controversy on the depiction and attributes of Hindu deities. This debate can never be understood unless one understands the remarkable dialectic within Hinduism between nirguna (attribute-less) and saguna (attribute-full). This duality in the perception of divinity is the key to understanding both Hindu philosophy and Hindu religion. Assured of the primacy of the nirguna Infinite — Brahman — which is attribute-less, formless, eternal, indivisible, and cosmically omnipotent, and of which the Gods too are an emanation, Hindus have no inhibition in giving full play to the human imagination in embellishing, adorning, and humanising their deities. Tulsidas puts it beautifully — Aguna, saguna dui Brahma svarupa, akath, agadh, anadi, anupa: The formless nirguna and the manifest saguna, are two aspects of the same Brahman; which is unspeakable, unfathomable, without beginning and without parallel.
Since Brahman is the formless Infinite, its abundance must, at the level of Ishvara or Devi, be many splendoured, and not restricted by conventional notions of scriptural correctness, as is the case in most other religions. The firm anchorage of the one Brahman legitimizes the joyous variations in the depiction of the divine. Indeed, Hinduism provides exuberant evidence of this. The pantheon of our Gods and Goddesses, the range of attributes we give to them, the myriad ways we worship them, the uninhibited manner in which we portray them, the songs we compose for them, the art we create for them, the rituals with which we venerate them, the delight with which we humanize them, the personal rapport we build with them, is not a sign of primitive polytheism, but the joyous human depiction of a vision that is singular in concept and plural in representation—the ability to see the One in the many, and the many in the One. It is for this reason that Hindus can worship a stone, a rock, a tree, a mountain, a river, without compromising their monotheistic conviction. In the powerful Bhakti movement, the Divine is deeply personal, who can be imagined, loved, venerated, but also admonished.
Hinduism must be the only major religion to accord equal space to Devi in the devotional pantheon. In her saguna form, Devi or Shakti is presented in many variations, in order to capture as many variations of the Infinite. Sarasvati is the goddess of knowledge, art, speech and wisdom. Lakshmi is the goddess of good fortune, prosperity, wealth and fertility. Parvati represents the Shakti of Shiva. Sita is the symbol of the ideal woman, and Radha the parakiya beloved of Krishna. Perhaps the most dramatic form of the Devi is Kali. She is depicted as dancing wildly on the prostrate but calm body of Shiva. Black in colour, her eyes are red, her hair dishevelled, and her tongue sticks out of her mouth; she is shown wearing a garland of human skulls, in her many hands a scimitar, a severed head and a kapala (scalp). Her abode is the cremation ground.
Kali is incomprehensible to those who want to see divinity in predictable, linear terms. Hinduism often uses the intellectual construct of discordant juxtaposition. Kali’s deliberately dramatic iconography helps to pole vault the imagination to a new level of insight, a state of mind that is best attuned to realising the supra-human powers of the divine. To her devotees, she is the unvanquished and fiery Mahakali, the destroyer of evil, the goddess of Time, and the most powerful personification of Shakti.
To reduce such a great religion to simplistic fiats by semi-literate self-anointed ‘thekedars’ of Hinduism, is a crime. Hinduism is a way of life, animated by a profound philosophical vision. This does not make it a passive religion. On the contrary, it gives it the strength and resilience to be sanatan. A religion such as this cannot be brought down to its lowest common denominator of just ritualistic diktats. In fact, Hindus don’t like to be told what to eat, what to drink, how to pray, what to believe, who to worship, how to worship, what to read, how to celebrate festivals, how to dress, and women don’t like to be told to become a ‘chaste Hindu nari’. Hinduism cannot be ‘protected’ by making it a clone of Abrahamic faiths. It respects all religions because it is itself based on diversity and tolerance. And, the vast number of Hindus cherish the freedoms of practice and belief that their religion gives them.