A Nepali idiom for ritual absurdity is biralo bandhney, or “tying the cat”. It tells the story of a Brahmin performing the shraddha ceremony for his departed ancestor tying the family cat to a post so that it would not upset the ritual´s paraphernalia or pollute it. Years later, his grandsons, reconstructing the ritual from memory, remembered the tethered cat which they thought was an essential item of the ceremony. By this time, the family had no cat, so one was brought from a neighbour and tied to a post for the duration of the ceremony. A practical step by a Brahmin ancestor of yore thus got converted into a silly ritual when sundry cats were ritually collared by his descendants while establishing communion with the departed.
Today, Hindus all over the Subcontinent have to come to terms with many such ritual relics that are caricatures of ancient customs, their rationale long lost, and their accompanying Sanskrit liturgy wholly incomprehensible to the average practitioner.
If Hinduism were only a collection of absurd rituals and social evils, it would be easy to discard it and shop around for some other source of spiritual sustenance. However, Hindu tradition is also rich in methods and philosophy developed by mystics of varied callings, individuals who rejected society in their search for truth. These mystics and philosophers have brought forth a veritable supermarket of spiritual patrimony which the modem Hindu is proud to own. There is everything for everyone—Vedanta for the rational, Tantra and the yogas for the experimental, scores of Bhakti cults for the emotional, and even theologically neutral “non-attached” work or Karma Yoga for the practical agnostic. In fact, for an inquisitive modern Hindu, delving into these theological aspects is at first bewildering, then benumbing and, if that stage is passed, an all-consuming, life-long love affair.
In the religious supermarket called Hinduism, this freedom of choice is good for individualists and hippies with an inclination for introspection; but for those who cannot, or do not want to reject society, for those who need to work collectively, whether in groups or governments, for worship or community work, the situation is that of chronic anarchy bereft of redeeming social features. If one were to take literally what was said in the Gita by Krishna: Out of a thousand only one wants Me, and of a thousand of these only one finds Me, then, for every spiritual success, there would be a hundred thousand automatic failures. It is this broad base of the pyramid consisting of confused acolytes, cynical agnostics and the garden variety ´common man´ which socially and financially supports an apex handful of holy men, self-proclaimed messiahs and, perhaps, a few genuine mystics. It is no wonder that Hinduism to an outsider looks like a giant social failure.
True, in every religion the genuinely spiritual and the mystics who have achieved buddhahood are only a small number. But, unlike in Hinduism, the other religions and the social systems they spawned do cater to the less enlightened who are served with an organised structure that gives them at least a minimum of spiritual support and a functional moral code for public behaviour. Hinduism is very poor in providing such universally acceptable institutional backing to its army of the confused. The vast majority of today´s Hindus have picked up their Hinduism from their grandmothers. They could also have done so from two other sources: the ascetics or the lay purohits (priests). The former are well-respected but, as those who have rejected society and remain mostly outside of it, are ill-situated to advise on mundane matters of proper conduct in a conflict-ridden world. The latter, though part of society, are not as respected since they make a living from trade in matters spiritual.
This dilemma is a partial reflection of the crisis of identity a modern Hindu is born with—something which makes being Hindu in these modern times a constant emotional roller-coaster from exhilaration to depression, rarely tolerating any middle ground complacency. No sooner is one elated with the rich philosophical and psychological heritage which several millennia of Hinduism has to offer, then in the very next instant, one feels dejected at seeing the senselessness of a fossilised tradition full of inequity, antiquated norms, and sectarianism which respond so poorly to reform. One is inspired by the legacy of some of the most audacious spiritual attainments and intellectual explorations that Hindu sages left behind, but is unable to reconcile this universal with the particulars of everyday atrocities in the name of caste and sect. Being a modem Hindu is to find oneself within this yin-yang tension of defining one´s identity within contradictory realities.
There is really no answer to even simple questions such as: Who is a Hindu? or, What makes someone a Hindu? The term ´Hindu´ itself is not self-defined but imposed from the outside—by Persians who referred to anyone east of the Sindhu (Indus) as a Hindu; and it covers in one fell swoop everyone from Shaivites to Jains, animists to Vedantists, Tantrics to Vaishnavites. Hindus do not have a collective term for themselves mainly because there is little collective similarity among them. It is easier to define what a Hindu is not: he is not a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew and so on; but even this simple formula begins to fray at the seams when one looks at what is happening on the ground.
Would an American devotee of yoga, tantra, or any of the godmen South Asia produces in abundance, who swears he is not a Christian or a Jew, be called a Hindu? What of the Kathmandu valley Buddhist who devotedly perambulates the Pashupati or Sobha Bhagbati temples? Should Hindus own moral responsibility for Shokko Yoshohara, the Japanese poison gas guru of Aum Shinriku? Should not a blonde, dhoti-clad ISKCON bhajan singer in Moscow or a Rajneeshee in Oregon qualify as a Hindu? Orthodox Hindus would say never. But then, by the same count, why should a devotee of the Sufi mystic Sai Baba of Shiridi be considered a Hindu?
A Jew and a Muslim have more in common in terms of holy texts and rituals than a goat-serrating worshipper of Kali in the Nepali midhills and a strict vegetarian Vaishnavite Gujarati. These two Hindus, like many others, cannot marry each other; and if the latter landed in the kitchen of the former, he would probably starve to death if he were to observe all his dietary taboos. The first response of any of them, if asked whether they are Hindus, would be mixed. Some would say yes, others would say no and some others would probably query right back: tell me first what you mean by a Hindu and then only can I say whether I am one or not.
If defining one´s identity is a daily chore for the common people amidst their struggle for everyday living, if there is a confusing boundary between the insider and the outsider, if purity codes are rigidly strict but comically enforced, something is bound to give, and that is social ethics. Such confusion and nebulous interpretation of the larger social order nudges the average Hindu to recede into a more secure cocoon which is the family as the ultimate unit of social interaction and the clan its widest net. When the village, the municipality or the country essentially becomes the ´outside´, a free-rider rapacious mentality towards the larger social order—whether other caste groups or garbage-strewn municipal streets— is inevitable.
Being forced to define identity—individually and collectively, both to an external world and to co-religionists lumped under the generic Hindu label—lies at the core of a modern Hindu´s angst. Encounters with outsiders serve as mirrors for self-reflection, and the blemishes that are pointed out to him by all-embracing religions such as Christianity and Islam (to say nothing of the secular scientific West) are not flattering. If religion is about morality and justice, they are told, how is it that you have the inequity of a caste system that is exclusive to the point of having bred itself practically into racist segregation? How is it that you adhere to a social order which preordains second or even sub-human third class status to a vast majority of your brethren? How is it that you do not allow anyone to convert into your faith? If you are the repository of the universal truth and the correct lifestyle, why do you not invite me to partake of it?
Proper Ethical Conduct
In the last century, a stagnant Hindu society in Bengal was forced into an encounter with the West, first with the Christian missionaries and then with Western science and technology, the social carrier of both being the British East India Company. The vigorous debates these encounters generated over such civic and moral questions as described above have been given the rather grandiloquent epithet of “Hindu Renaissance”. Its energy, however, has long dissipated, and a lethargy currently dominates this arena at a time when there is urgent need to reconcile modern living with ancient strictures. The reasons for the lethargy could be that the best minds of the day are busy themselves with issues of political, economic or technological struggle. It could also be that the juggernaut of secular science makes it easy for the average, modem “confused Hindu” to become an agnostic, which seems to lead headlong into moral ambivalence.
But one cannot achieve much in the secular fields of economic development unless the essential ethical basis of a society´s lifestyle is sound. Perhaps the contradictions and blatant corruption one comes across in Hindu-dominated polity, whether in India or in Nepal, stems from this sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality as regards proper ethical conduct.
This fact alone would seem to prove the point made by Arnold Toynbee that Hindu civilisation has been in decline since the last millennia and has purchased a temporary reprieve only by submitting to forcible political unification in a universal state by outsiders, notably the Moghuls and the British. Almost absent in the Hindu firmament today, especially in the world´s only Hindu kingdom, are the necessary moral vigour and vibrant intellectual debates that characterised the period of European renaissance on the nature and purpose of religion in relation to society—in short, a debate on societal ethics which is the point at which abstract philosophy meets down-to-earth society. Such a debate can only be fed by a sense of moral outrage and a propensity to take risks: a very Kshatriya characteristic as opposed to a risk-averse Brahminical one of keeping things under control and not rocking the boat. When rulers are pampered into comfort by the Brahmins behind the throne, when their moral vigour has been sapped by a corrupt lifestyle, stagnation becomes the order of the day.
What a modern Hindu has inherited is a continuous tradition of at least 3,000 years which, like a dilapidated estate, is a mixture of grand vistas and broken-down fixtures enmeshed in cobwebs. Elaborating upon the metaphor, one may think of the magnificent elements as the philosophical and psychological content, and the dilapidated parts as the social features of what goes under the generic name of Hinduism. Very few Hindus have any problem with the mystical edifices, but many are deeply embarrassed by the decay which are mostly the accumulated result of different rulers of the day using religion for self-serving political ends.
In Nepal, for instance, Rana shogun Jung Bahadur promulgated his famous national code, the Mulki Ain in 1854. By a stroke of the pen, he classified all his subjects as tagadhari (high caste wearing sacred thread, mostly Brahmins and Chhetris), matwali (or those allowed to consume alcohol, mostly the ethnic hill groups, further sub-divided into enslavable or un-enslavable), and the untouchables (grouped into those whose touch pollutes severely, such as sweepers and cobblers, and those whose touch is easily purifiable simply by sprinkling Ganga water, such as the British envoy to the Kathmandu durbar). Kathmandu Valley Newars fell overnight into one single caste group of “matwali but un-enslavable”— small comfort to a culturally rich ethnic group with its own caste hierarchy. It was simply expeditious politics of suppressing the conquered and cosying up to the powerful, a 19th-century Nepali replay of what the Manusmriti did in the Ganga plains in the first century AD by encoding the notorious caste system.
Impure Onions, Pure Tomatoes
The rigidly ordered hierarchy that Manusmriti enforced was based on the concept of dharma (often translated as ´religion´ but meant to uphold one´s duty in society based on one´s location in the caste order), artha (earning the means of living), kama (the enjoyment of life, including sex) and finally mokshya (or spiritual liberation after “giving up the world”). Such a dharmic order could only sustain itself in a stagnant world, but history does not allow such luxury. Because of external onslaught, from Central Asian warriors of Bactrian to Moghul vintage down to the merchants of the Raj, the caste framework could not sustain its sanctity.
Even religious pilgrimage would not be spared. During the stagnant and slow feudal days, many people rarely travelled beyond their villages and perhaps attempted only one long-distance pilgrimage in a lifetime at the most. Today, such pilgrimage centres are a bus hop away, and everyday encounters with those traditionally considered outsiders—even in a simple act as buying a cup of tea from a road-side or railway platform hawker forces Hindus to question their age-old mundane practices which hitherto had remained unchallenged.
The first thing a young Hindu growing up today in an urban or semi-urban environment encounters is dietary restrictions of aged relatives and their acquaintances that strain the intellect. To some, wild boar is okay but pork is taboo, to others pheasant and venison are permissible but chicken and water buffalo are no-no. Why are some groups allowed to cook everything else for the Brahmin, but rice becomes polluted if they do? Many a young Brahminical mind has been forced either into submissive conservatism or heretic revolt while trying to understand why onions, like eggs, are unholy but tomatoes are not, except on ekadasi, the eleventh day of the lunar fortnight, when they become impure.
What then was one to make of one´s duty in society? This breakdown in dharma moved the spiritually inclined to the other extreme of mokshya, or rejection of society and the pursuit of individual liberation, When, therefore, a modern Hindu accepts the label as his identity much like an inherited estate, he has to accept the debris of historical burden as well, unless he chooses to pursue a new identity through a new path much as how a Buddha, a Mahavira or a Nanak managed. However, each of these three major reformers of Hinduism were the product of “times of trouble”, a state of chronic anarchy, where the loyalty of a massive proportion of internal proletariat, society´s political underdogs, menials and untouchables, was up for grabs to the first humanitarian who could come by with an all-embracing creed. In the end, these spiritual giants really could not reform Hinduism, much as the Christ could not reform Judaism, and their followers had to claim new identities. If Hinduism is too archaic and incapable of reform, this rejection is one path to follow.
The other path is the more difficult one of reform. In the last 1,000 years of Hinduism, Hindus have not come up with a solution to social ills and contradictions from within the religion´s mainstream, if one is to judge from the fact that hardly any Brahmin has ever led a noteworthy social reform movement. The three mentioned above as well as Vivekananda and Gandhi came from other castes. Reformers have been the by-products of civilisational encounters, such as the Kabirpanthis and the Sikhs who emerged in the Punjab plains to meet the challenge of an ecumenical Islam. Similarly, the Brahmo Samajists and the Ramakrishna Mission emerged in Bengal to face not only a Christianity whose tradition had sprung from its embracing the many-hued slaves of the Roman empire but also a secular Western science which piggy-backed on it.
It is while questioning irrational, unethical or unscientific social behaviour that Hindus have trouble with each other. With regard to what other religions say about Hinduism, the sensitivity of the debate is tempered by the “us vs them” factor. But when disagreements arise among those carrying the same label, when prospective ayatollahs of Hinduism tell them how they should behave, emotional chords can be pulled in many directions. Due to sheer diversity of religious traditions that have emerged over the centuries, Hindus have never had only one pope or one holy book. There are texts that accept dualism and texts that reject it outright. Practices that are essential in one school of belief such as blood sacrifice are taboo in another. Devotional worship of symbolic idols which is what the bhakti schools are all about is anathema to the vedantists or the yogis.
In this anarchic collage, attempts by Hindu fundamentalists to enforce a homogeneous identity across-the-board is repulsive to many who are happy to call themselves Hindus, of whatever persuasion. If the philosophical aspects of Hinduism are bewildering, its day-to-day ritualistic practices are far more confusing with as many contradictory customs as one cares to ask for. Hallowed rituals from birth to death—such as the name-giving, thread, marriage or shraddha ceremonies—are crying for rationalisation and re-interpretation. The need to introduce a more ecumenical order that does away not only de jure but also de facto with Manu´s anachronistic concepts is not just a moral but a practical compulsion as well. This compulsion is felt more strongly by the urbanised Hindu middle class whose secular scientific exposure is the most efficacious and whose ambit of interaction with the traditional “outside” is increasing day by day. The soil for reform is ready, but what of the seeds? The only variety marketed in an organised manner are fundamentalist brands, opting for which could be a civilisational mistake.
Hindu fundamentalism can be likened to driving a car looking only at the rear view mirror: one may be mesmerised by a glorious vista of the past but the trajectory pre-set by its inequities could be taking the vehicle to a tragic accident up ahead. The disenfranchised in today´s society are not going to accept past glories without taking into account past atrocities. And trying to fight Islam or Christianity would be fighting yesterday´s archaic battle. On that front, Hindus have a powerful weapon of great proven value: just declare the founders of those religions as avatars or parmhamsas with their own cults, large and powerful albeit but still two amidst the myriad already here, and move on. After all, Swami Vivekananda had already declared a hundred years ago that Hinduism´s greatest period was when five Brahmins could polish off a cow, that what South Asia needed was a Vedantic brain inside an Islamic body (implying a social order that embraced its members into a brotherhood and did not segregate them).
The real challenge is to meld the highest in Hindu philosophy with the best in the sciences, and jettison the rest. It would be an audacious exercise, but one already begun by western scientists such as Fritj of Capra (Tao of Physics) or physicist David Bohm´s dialogue with Krishnamurti. This effort at intellectual synthesis would help social reform because it would legitimise the rational and help nudge justice to the centre-stage.
In the social field, several things need to be done. The first is that modern Hindus need to rediscover the origins and rationale of Hinduism and its rituals because they are as ignorant of it as anyone. This is probably easier to do so for a modernist Hindu because Hindu literature is now more readily available in English than in native languages or the incomprehensible Sanskrit. The second is that modern Hindus need to reject the archaic, the irrational and the inefficient to make living a Hindu life less full of contradictions. The third is that they need to re-define the religion´s sane core in a manner that is not exclusive but allows their non-Hindu neighbours to participate as well.
Finally, and most important, there is a need to assert moral outrage rather than escape into flaccid tolerance whenever justice is being denied. Reforming an anarchic living tradition is probably the hardest thing to do. There is no visible enemy in the form of another religion without, and no pope to attack within. Reform in Hinduism therefore probably has to do with individual assertion of moral courage and backing to individuals who do so. That, after all, was how the phenomenon called Mahatma Gandhi came into being. What is needed in the lethargic social reform sector is more of such overt expressions if Hinduism is not to remain society´s nightmare even as it enjoys the status of a mystic´s heaven.
At the close of the last century, Swami Vivekananda, too, was outraged by Hinduism´s inequities even as he championed its philosophy. He advised students to “burn the Gita” and take up football if they really wanted to practise spirituality. A bit extreme and perhaps “irrational”, maybe, but a small start can be made by morally outraged Hindus today if they too publicly renounce the inequities of Manusmriti so that Hindu society can have a chance at rejuvenation.
When modern Hindus finally wake up to the need for religion to have a livable ethics, when they strive to understand rather than join unquestioningly the comfortable embrace of the “fundamentalist”, when hundreds of thousands of modern Hindus express their individual outrage against the way their religion languishes amidst ritual and liturgy—at that time we will have begun the real Renaissance of Hinduism in South Asia.