Temporal Reconciliation between Śruti and Smṛti

July 6, 2010

Generalizations, not only about Hinduism in general but of periods within Hinduism, are not free from peril, but must be made, just as one must live in a polluted environment. One such generalization in the field pertains to the notion of cyclical time, which is believed to be, in the main, absent during the Vedic Hinduism but prevalent during Classical Hinduism.

The fact that the idea of cyclical time is largely absent in Vedic Hinduism may in part explain its greater interest in explaining the ‘origin’ of the universe. Even in the case of cyclical time such an explanation may be required, but when required the necessity is perhaps felt less urgently from the fact of its happening so often. Be that as it may, the Vedic hymns are full of attempted cosmogonies, modeling the emergence of the universe on a whole variety of creative paradigms visible around them. Creatures are born from eggs or living beings – the oviparous and viviparous accounts of creation are obviously suggested by them. There is even the model provided by grass growing on a field. Things which bring things into being – causes which create effects – are all grist to the mill; thought, speech, sacrifice, down to a blacksmith.

When we turn to the Smṛti literature, however, this colourful variety is compromised in the monotonous regularity of creation which a pulsating universe requires. And this is where we make our suggestion: to couple the two.

The Vedic literature speculates on various kinds of possibilities regarding the origin of the universe. Smṛti literature, on the other hand, provides different occasions for the origin of a universe which continually appears and disappears. Could the two then not be combined – with the universe originating in different ways, as it does so again and again – with a quality in its manner to match the quantity of manifestations?

Hinduism – At a Loss for Words!

June 22, 2010

The number of times it is claimed that Hinduism does not have a name for something is nothing less than striking.

Let us begin with the claim that Hinduism does not have a word for itself. A. L. Basham writes:

There are probably over 300 million Hindus in the world, most of them in India, but also many in other parts of Asia, and in Africa and the West Indies. Though they form one of the largest and most important groups of the world, their faith is indefinable in a few words. It is possible to define the Christian or Muslim as the man who attempts to follow what he believes to be the teachings of Christ or Muhammad respectively, but Hinduism had no such single founder. Some modern sociologists have defined Christians and Muslims as those who consider themselves as such, but a similar definition cannot be applied to Hindus, for probably most of them have never even heard the word Hindu, and have no name for their religion. It was once said that anyone might be considered a Hindu who respected the Brāhman and his cow, and maintained the rules of caste, but his definition would exclude many of the most earnest of modern Hindus, as well as a number of unorthodox Hindu groups of earlier times. We can perhaps best briefly describe a Hindu as a man who chiefly bases his beliefs and way of life on the complex system of faith and practice which has grown up organically in the Indian sub-continent over a period of at least three millennia.[i]

Then comes the claim that the Hindu does not have a word for religion:

In classical India – again if we exclude personal religion, or religiousness, there is no word for our concept. In the threefold trivarga of mundane life, the realm of human behavior is classified into those actions that one does for the sheer enjoyment of them (kāma), those that are means to some end (artha), and those that are duties (dharma). The last of these, dharma, ranging in its reference from propriety to public law, from temple ritual to caste obligations, and much more, has on occasion been proffered by moderns as a term signifying systematic religion for Hindus. It does include a good deal of what the modern Western student regards so, as normative ideals and as sociological pattern; though it includes also a certain amount of matter that falls outside such a concept.[ii]

Next comes the claim that Hinduism does not have a word for caste:

The Hindus have not any name for the caste institution, which seems to them part of the order of nature. It is almost impossible for a Hindu to regard himself otherwise than as a member of some particular caste, or species of Hindu mankind. Everybody else who disregards Hindu dharma is an ‘outer barbarian’ (mlechchha) no matter how exalted his worldly rank or how vast his wealth may be. The proper Sanskrit and vernacular term for ‘a caste’ is jāti (jāt), ‘species’, although, as noted above, the members of a jāti are not necessarily descended from a common ancestor. Indeed, as a matter of fact, they are rarely, if ever, so descended. Their special caste rules make their community in effect a distinct species, whoever their ancestors may have been. [iii]

Finally we learn that Hinduism does not have a word for ‘conversion.’

The diffusion of Vaiṣṇavite and Śaivite ideas outside India is enough to show that Hinduism, too, was a missionary religion; at a very early date a Hinduist movement took root in the Hellenistic world and penetrated as far as Egypt. The decline of Hinduism after the Moselm period must not be allowed to obscure this fact. The old lawgivers say that to be a Hindu, or, more exactly, to belong to one of the three Āryan classes, means to have been born in a certain area of Hindustan, the Āryāvarta (or homeland of a the Āryas); but this assertion need not be taken literally. Hinduism long ago advanced beyond the limits assigned to it by the laws of Manu, by means of conquest or peaceful absorption, by marriage, and by adoption. Hinduism has not a word to express the process of conversion so frequently referred to in Buddhist and Jaina apologetics, books written by the converted for those to be converted; but passages can be cited from the Mahabharata which show that people of low caste, enemies and foreigners who were received into the Hindu fold. Many people wanted to raise their status and to be admitted to the Ārya society; others fell away from it through marriage outside its ranks and by transgressions and misfortunes. A passage of Patañjali attests that the Śakas and the Yavanas could perform sacrifices and accept food from an Ārya without contaminating it. The fact is that Hinduism is a way of life, a mode of thought, that becomes second nature. It is not so much its practices that are important, for they can be dispensed with; not is it the Church, since it has no priesthood, or at least no sacerdotal hierarchy. The important thing is to accept certain fundamental conceptions, to acknowledge a certain ‘spirituality’, a term much abused in current parlance. For many Hindus it would be quite legitimate to take Jesus as iṣṭadevatā, without even regarding him as an avatāra, so long as Indian tradition were acknowledged.[iv]

If we couple this with the fact that those who take to Hinduism in the West do not to admit to doing so, we have the spectacle of countless unacknowledging people converting people anonymously though a nameless process, to a religion which does not even have a name.

[i] A.L. Basham, “Hinduism”, in R.C. Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967) p. 225

[ii] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York: Mentor, 1963 [1991]) p. 55-56

[iii] No longer traceable.

[iv] Louis Renou, Religions of Ancient India (New York: Shocken Books, 1968) pp. 54-56

Hinduism: A Missionary Religion?

May 27, 2010

Most Western scholars think that Hinduism is not a missionary religion.

A remarkable exception to this statement is Louis Renou, who has consistently argued that Hinduism is a missionary religion. He makes the following salient statements in his connection:

The expansion of Hinduism from at least the second century onwards over the whole of South-East Asia, from Burma to Java and Bali, is well known. The facts have been partially obscured by the predominance of Buddhism….

It should be remembered that Buddhism played little role in the developing science and technology: for the diffusion of grammar and poetics, for example, it made use of treatises of Hindu inspiration, thinly disguised as Buddhist works.

The diffusion of Vaisnavite and Saivite ideas outside India is strong enough to show that Hinduism, too, was a missionary religion; at a very early date a Hinduist movement took root in the Hellenistic world and penetrated as far as Egypt. The decline of Hinduism after the Moslem period must not be allowed to obscure this fact.

Hinduism long ago advanced beyond the limits assigned to it by Manu, by means of conquest or peaceful absorption, by marriage, and by adoption.

Hinduism has not word to express the process of conversion….

…at a later date, a Brahmanical corps was formed in Combodia.

To confine Hinduism to the circumference of India, however, would be to bypass its missionary character.

Louis Renou even offers some advice to modern Hindus on this point.

Some people think that Hinduism should cease to be ethnical in character (assuming that it ever has been so), and become once more a missionary religion. There are already several organizations for spreading a knowledge of Hinduism in the West, but very often their propaganda does not reach the right circles. When Hinduism is ‘exported’, it tends to be regarded as a kind of theosophy – after all, the basic doctrinal principles of theosophy are rooted in Hinduism – or as a brand of Christian Science, tinged with pseudo-Vedāntism. It can only become a force for good in the world when it emerges in India itself as a purified form of religion, free from primitivism and the cult of images. Extreme practices, such as Hahayoga and Tantrism ‘of the left’, which often make such a deep impression on Europeans, never constitute the main strength of a religion; they are special features that should not be intimated outside of their land of origin.

Louis Renou is thus prepared to accept Hinduism as a missionary religion, both in the past and the future unlike many other scholars of Hinduism, both Indian and Western.

Satī as an Ideal Hindu Woman

February 14, 2010

Satī as an Ideal Hindu Woman

The stories of Satī and Sāvitrī are among those which have been have been held up as ideals for Hindu women. But in the popular Hindu imagination they have not merely been held up as ideals for Hindu women. They have been held up as upholding a particular kind of ideal for Hindu women—that of devotion to the husband. There are good reasons for this. Both the stories are heavily freighted with conjugal devotion. But is that the only ideal they hold up to women?

Let us consider only one of them for the time being—the story of Satī. The story is found in many versions but the following account should suffice. One begins with the general background of the story:

Very long ago there was a chief of the gods named Daksha. He married Prasuti, daughter of Manu; she bore him sixteen daughters, of whom the youngest, Satī, became the wife of Shiva. This was a match unpleasing to her father, for he had a grudge against Shiva, not only for  his disreputable habits, but because Shiva, upon the occasion of a festival to which he has been invited, did not offer homage to Daksha. For this reason Daksha had pronounced a curse upon Shiva, that he should receive no portion of the offerings made to the gods. A Brāhman of Shiva’s party, however, pronounced the contrary curse, that Daksha should waste his life in material pleasures and ceremonial observances and should have a face like a goat. [1]

This may be followed by an account of their wedding.

Meanwhile Satī grew up and set her heart on Shiva, worshiping him in secret. She became of marriageable age, and her father held aswayamvara, or own-choice, for her, to which he invited the gods and princes from far and near, except only Shiva. Then Satī was borne into the great assembly, wreath in hand. But Shiva was nowhere to be seen, amongst the gods or men. Then in despair she cast her wreath into the air, calling upon Shiva to receive the garland; and behold he stood in the middle of the court with the wreath about his neck. Daksha had then no choice but to complete the marriage; and Shiva went away with Satī to his home in Kailās. [2]

It is however the following sequence of events which has made the name of Satī a byword for devotion to the husband in Hindu mythology and Hindu homes.

One day Daksha made arrangements for a great horse sacrifice, and invited all the gods to come and share in the offerings, omitting only Shiva. The chief offerings were to be made to Vishnu. Presently Satī observed the departure of the gods, as they set out to visit Daksha, and turning to her lord, she asked: “Whither, O Lord, are bound the gods, with Indra at their head?” Then Mahādeva answered: “Shining lady, the good patriarch Daksha has prepared a horse sacrifice, and thither the gods repair.” She asked him: “Why dost thou not also go to this great ceremony?” He answered: “It has been contrived amongst the gods that I should have no part in any such offerings as are made at sacrifices.” [3]

This led to trouble.

Then Satī was angry and she exclaimed: “How can it be that he who dwells in every being, he who is unapproachable in power and glory, should be excluded from oblations? What penance, what gift shall I make that my lord, who transcends all thought, should receive a share, a third or a half, of the oblation?” Then Shiva smiled at Satī, pleased with her affection; but he said: “These offerings are of little moment to me, for they sacrifice to me who chant the hymns of the Sāmavada; my priests are those who offer the oblation of true wisdom, where no officiating Brāhman is needed; that is my portion.” Satī answered: “It is not difficult to make excuses before women. Howbeit, thou shouldst permit me at least to go to my father’s house on this occasion.” “Without invitation?” he asked. “A daughter needs no invitation to her father’s house,” she replied. “So be it,” answered Mahādeva, “but known that ill will come of it; for Daksha will insult me in your presence.”

So Satī went to her father’s house, and there she was indeed received, but without honor, for she rode on Shiva’s bull and wore a beggar’s dress. She protested against her father’s neglect of Shiva; but Daksha broke into angry curses and derided the “king of goblins,” the “beggar,” the “ash-man,” the long-haired yogi. Satī answered her father: “Shiva is the friend of all; no one but you speaks ill of him. All that thou sayest the devas know, and yet adore him. But a wife, when her lord is reviled, if she cannot slay the evil speakers, must leave the place closing her ears with her hands, or, if she have power, should surrender her life. This I shall do, for I am ashamed to own this body to such as thee.” Then Satī released the inward consuming fire and fell dead at Daksha’s feet. [4]

The story certainly testifies to Satī’s devotion to her husband and her unwillingness to stand by when he husband is insulted. But there is much more to the story than this. First of all, Satī chooses her own husband, despite paternal opposition to the choice. There is indeed an element of irony in the fact that Satī should be held up as a model wife to those women, whose husbands have not been chosen by them but by their families! Second, Satī shows great physical courage in insisting on going to the father’s house in full awareness of what her father thought of her husband. It is again ironical that such a person should be held up as a model for young women who are usually reared in a sheltered environment and will hardly have had occasions to witness displays of physical courage by women—given the kind of cloistered existence led by most. Third, not only does Satī exhibit physical courage, she also displays great mental toughness. Very briefly, she is self-willed. She tried to have her way. She asserts he rights and reacts strongly when she sees them compromised. Finally, there is this tremendous devotion displayed toward her husband.

Why is it only one of these four aspects of Satī’s character-profile—the last—so dominates our perception of her? Is it because historical trends have left this as the only aspect of her example Hindu women could follow—when avenues of self-selection of mates, display of physical courage and expression of will-power were closed to them. And if such is the case then is the last ideal viable in itself—without being nourished by the other three?

[1] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita, The Myths of the Hindus and the Buddhists (New York: Dover Publications, 1967) p. 288-289.

[2] Ibid, p. 288.

[3] Ibid, p. 288-289.

[4] Ibid, p. 288-289.

43.) Evidentiary Elisions of Mutual Convenience

September 29, 2009

India’s struggle for independence against British rule was essentially a non-violent struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who adapted Indian and Western ideas “to the needs of the political movement which, with remarkably little bloodshed, was to drive the British from India’”[1] In the context of such a struggle it was helpful to project the view that India was a pacific country so far as other countries were concerned. If the Cōlas conquered Ceylon and “sent out a great naval expedition, which occupied parts of Burma, Malaya and Sumātra,” then “this naval expedition is unique in the annals of India”.[2] I just quoted a Western historian but it was also in Indian interest to say so. This pacific imaging is not merely the product of history but, it seems, has even been an element in the writing of it. George Macdonald, for instance, makes the following statement:

The geographical connexion between India and Persia historically was a matter of fact that must have been known to both countries in antiquity through the contiguity of their territorial situation. The realms which correspond to-day to the buffer states of Afghānistān and Balūchistān formed always a point of contact and were concerned in antiquity with Persia’s advances into Northern and North-western Indian as well as, in a far less degree, with any move of arrgrandisement on the part of  Hindustan in the direction of Iran. Evidence from the Veda and the Avesta alike attests the general fact.[3]

He supplements this remark with the following footnote:

Arrian, Indica, 9, 12, for example, may be cited in support of this statement; for he avers, on Indian authority, that a ‘sense of justice, they say, prevented any Indian King from attempting conquest beyond the limits of India.’ This assertion certainly seems true for the earliest times.[4]

This chapter also contains the following passage:

Megasthenes, on the other hand, as quoted by Strabo (Georgr. XV, 1, 6, pp.686-687 Cas.), declares that ‘the Indians had never engaged in foreign warfare, nor had they even been invaded and conquered by a foreign power, except by Hercules and Dionysus and lately by the Macedonians.’ After mentioning several famous conquerors who did not attack India, he continues: ‘Semiramis, however, died before [carrying out] his undertaking; and the Persians, although they got mercenary troops from India, namely the Hydrakes, did not make an expedition into that country, but merely approached it when Cyrus was marching against the Massagetae.’[5]

It is also clear, particularly if one is canvassing an Aryan invasion into India, to be able to say that the Indians (and by implication Aryans) could not have gone out in a reverse direction, thereby squelching the possibility of India as the homeland of the Aryans.

Thus the idea that India did not even invade other countries met the emotional needs of both India’s rulers at the time and those who were fighting against them. Is that why one barely finds any reference to the following account of Indian aggression carried out beyond India’s traditional borders:

The Yavanas, Kirātas, Gāndhāras, Chīnas, Savaras, Varvaras, Sakas, Tushāras, Kankas, Pahlavas, Andhras, Madras, Paundras, Pulindas, Ramathas, Kāmbojas, men sprung from Brāhmans, and from Kshattriyas, persons of the Vaiśya and Sūdra castes—how shall all these people of different countries practice duty, and what rules shall kings like me prescribe for those who are living as Dasyus? Instruct me on these points; for thou art the friend of our Kshattriya race.’ Indra answers: ‘All the Dasyus should obey their parents, their spiritual directors, persons practicing the rules of the four orders, and kings. It is also their duty to perform the ceremonies ordained in the Vedas. They should sacrifice to the Pitris, construct wells, buildings for the distribution of water, and resting places for travelers, and should on proper occasions bestow gifts on the Brāhmans. They should practice innocence, veracity, meekness, purity, and inoffensiveness; should maintain their wives and families; and make a just division of their property. Gifts should be distributed at all sacrifices by those who desire to prosper. All the Dasyus should offer costly pāka oblations. Such duties as these, which have been ordained of old, ought to be observed by all the people.’[6]

[1] A.L. Basham, “Hinduism”, in R.C. Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959) p.258.

[2] A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (London: Sigwick & Jackson, 1967) p.75.

[3]George Macdonald, “The Persian Dominions in Northern India Down to the Time of Alexander’s Invasion”, in E.J. Rapson, ed., Ancient India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922) p.321.

[4]Ibid note 1.

[5] Ibid 331.

[6] J. Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts (Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1972) Part I, p.484-485. This should be distinguished from another account which indicates an attack on the ‘foreigners’ to avenge an earlier invasion by them (ibid p.487-488).


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