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Hindol Sengupta asks the modern Hindu what Hinduism means to him. Watch Sengupta in conversation with Lord Meghnad Desai, a self-proclaimed atheist.
I was once asked: ‘Is it true that the Hindus believe in dancing gods? This was at the Harvard Club in Manhattan where I was giving a talk. ‘Is it true,’ I was asked by a polite elderly gentleman who was a distinguished member of the club. A nearly naked dancing god - was that part of Hinduism? He was talking about the the Natraj, from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research which is home to the Large Hadron Collider, and was intrigued by the presence of this statue.
We had a long conversation about the relevance of the dancing Shiva in which I tried to explain to him the philosophy of the Natraj: the representation of the constant chain of creation and destruction in the universe. As the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy has also written, the dance represents the god Shiva’s five activities—creation and evolution; preservation; destruction and further evolution; illusion and rest; and release, salvation and grace2. What to Western eyes is a wild-eyed image of a man— in a tiger skin, dancing dervish-like, drum in hand, his matted locks in a storm—was in reality the succinct representation of relentless creation and destruction, and the creation again of life itself. A fascinating belief system, yet packaged in caricature to audiences.
Over the years that I have pondered about writing this book, I have always been fascinated by many of the curious beliefs about Hinduism; some funny, some fantastical, almost all unrecognizable to practising Hindus like me.
As I spoke to people, friends and strangers, around India and the world—on Delhi streets and Kolkata bookstores, in Mumbai restaurants and Bangalore clubs, waiting for the train at Notting Hill Gate station, in a village in Rajasthan, at a bar in Copenhagen, outside the Harvard Club in New York— wherever I could, I’d work a question or two about Hinduism into the conversation. The answers I received sometimes amused, sometimes perplexed me.
In a lot of the answers, I heard, naturally, much about yoga (yet not much about the spiritual principles behind it), about cows, the caste system and the refrain of ‘many gods and goddesses’, but it seemed that the ‘colour’—as we journalists would say—more often than not obscured any understanding about the richness of the philosophies, some of the oldest, most evolved principles known to man. The caricatures, it seemed to me, had hardened into prejudices that blurred the core philosophies.
It occurred to me that in many ways the general lack of knowledge about this multitudinous, multilateral faith with its numerous sub-belief systems and also one great, foundational narrative was almost impossible for most people outside the country—indeed, even inside the country—to comprehend and communicate. In this specific context, most Hindus have experienced a simple unwavering quality in their faith, which has seen them through 800 years of Islamic and British rule, as well as hundreds of invasions. But ask most Hindus to explain the principles, history and belief systems of their faith and they would struggle. There is a reason why this is true. Conversion or proselytizing has never been core to the worldview of Hinduism in any shape or form, as it is an essential practice in Islam and has largely been, and still is in some places, in Christianity. Ask a Hindu if he/she knows of verses, scriptures or even practices of proselytizing or active efforts to convince and convert—and the answer would mostly be no.
The idea of conversion or spreading of faith by inducting more followers is not a characteristically Hindu way of thinking. The emphasis in Hinduism is on the personal, the private, and so the spread of the collective has less meaning. There are some fringe groups like the Hare Krishna movement which actively seek ‘members’, but this is not central in any way to the manner in which most Hindus access and address their faith. The lack of proselytizing zeal means that the average Hindu is far less articulate about distilling his/her vast polytheistic philosophical ideals than in monotheistic faiths. At an everyday level, I’ve observed, the Hindu relies not so much on scriptural texts but on life experiences.
A Hindu would find it easier to describe his relationship with the divine, with the spiritual part of his life rather than explain the faith in its totality. Since the subtexts are so diverse (remember those 33 million, some say 330 million, gods and goddesses?), ordinary worshippers are often not able to identify and articulate the dominant themes of Hinduism. They can, however, talk about their personal, empirical faith.
In no way does this imply that there aren’t dominant or core themes and values embedded in Hindu literature and rituals, because they are often deeply complex and nuanced theological ideas. What happens more often than not is that the believers or the practitioners, people like me for instance, tend to get obsessed with the rituals at the cost of understanding the philosophies. We will address some of these themes through the book, but for the moment, let us return to my initial discoveries of what many people think about Hinduism.
For instance, I learned that some shared the point of view that the great Hindu epics—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—were ‘fantasy stories’, essentially fiction with no intrinsic historical value. Some even said that to offer any historicity to mythology is illiterate and imbecilic. However, I disagree; my examination finds this not to be quite correct. I do not, naturally, believe that every idea and thought in every so-called Hindu text should be accepted as the truth. That to me would go against the Hindu idea of relentless enquiry, that it is our duty to question everything before believing in it.
Let us take an example from the lectures delivered by D.R. Bhandarkar on ancient Indian history (specifically the period between 650 and 325 BCE) at Calcutta University in February 1918. In his exploration of antiquity, Bhandarkar constantly points out how references in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, written as they were by men who attempted to capture the zeitgeists, help confirm many historical facts. I shall illustrate only three points from Bhandarkar’s lectures as examples.
For instance, in one lecture, Bhandarkar talks about a Kshatriya (the warrior caste of the four primary Hindu castes) tribe called Bhoja. He confirms their existence from references in Kautilya’s Arthashastra—which is the great ancient Indian socio-economic treatise predating Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli’s advice on statecraft, The Prince, by around 1,600 years—to the Mahabharata and the Harivamsa, one of the important appendices to the Mahabharata.
Then there is a reference to the Ikshvakus, a major ruling clan from the north of India. Bhandarkar confirms the presence of the Ikshvakus from three sources: first, inscriptions that have been discovered by archaeologists from the third century which talk about the reign of King Madhariputra
Sri Virapurushadatta of the Ikshvaku family; second, from the Ramayana we know that Lord Rama—the hero of the text—was part of the Ikshvaku race, and finally, Buddhist texts tell us that so was the Buddha.
My final example from Bhandarkar’s teachings has to do with the Brahmin sage, Agastya. Now, Agastya is mentioned in the Ramayana as among the first to have crossed the Vindhya mountains and is admitted by all Tamil grammarians as the founder of the Tamil language, the great Tamirmuni, or sage of the Tamils. Also, Bhandarkar points out that if you read Robert Caldwell’s Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages, there is mention of a hill where Agastya retired after his work in bringing forth the Tamil language.
This hill, called Agastier (Agastya’s Hill) by local tradition and later adopted by the British, can still be found in the Tinnevelly district of Tamil Nadu. Caldwell was a Christian missionary and linguist in the second half of the nineteenth century. The point is simply this: it is erroneous to suppose that myths and legends are not intertwined in history. What might be considered a mere myth might often be about deep connections with history, with real events and real people.
Now what Bhandarkar says about these examples is of prime importance, ‘I am not unaware that these are legends. It is however a mistake to suppose that legends teach us nothing historical.’
This is exactly the point of revisiting ancient mythology from a historical point of view. It is to ensure that we make the relevant connections between the myths and our everyday landscape so that the legends do not remain fantastic and far away.