Sunday, February 28, 2016

Many Threads of Hinduism - Evolution of a Faith

There are many views on Hinduism and Many Threads of Hinduism, essays on Hinduism by Bankim Chandra, the famous Bengali novelist, compiled by Alo Shome, doesn’t contest or confirm them but mainly aims to inform the reader about how Hinduism evolved over time. The earliest texts of Hinduism, their hierarchical order, how different political and historical forces have altered the position of Hinduism in the society, the other spiritual strain of thoughts Hinduism has had to share space with, the thinkers who have influenced it, the concept of one god, all find place in the book.

The essays were written by Bankim Chandra for a magazine and they essentially reflect his views on Hinduism and as it stood vis-a-vis the society and polity of his time, the end part of 18th century. Bankim is one of the most famed Bengali novelists who probably is among the earliest practitioners of the art form in India.  His novels are on social conditions and reforms with some dosage of religion. One of his novels, Anadamath, where a group of militant Hindu monks rise against the misrule of Mir Zafar, dealt with militant Hinduism and earned the writer the reputation of being anti-Muslim. Alo Shome has argued that the writer was anything but: militant Hinduism came in for criticism in Anadamath towards the end.

There was probably another reason why Bankim Chandra was unlikely to be out rightly supportive of Hindu extremism – his rounded education. He went to a convent school in Medinipur - and had a balanced world view.

This balanced view becomes more apparent towards the later part of the book where Bankim Chandra’s own Bengali tutor Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, another iconic figure who contributed to the development of the Bengali language, come in for criticism for his insistence that  the Hindu society be monogamous. Why? Just because our scriptures have no mention to the contrary (taking their silence as their disapproval of polygamy). 

I reread this to make sure I was reading right – that Bankim was in disagreement with his former tutor because of his insistence on monogamy – but later I realized it was not because of his former tutor's insistence on monogamy, which is obviously a more socially acceptable and progressive thing to do, but because of his insistence of a practice just because it was in agreement with the scriptures. In other words, following the scriptures for guidance on how we should lead our lives. 

This, according to me, underlines Bankim’s attitude towards religion. In the essays, he tells several times that Hindus don't follow what’s there in the scriptures nor is it possible to do so – because, he reasons, these books were written based on the existing realities and beliefs of the times in which they were written – and realities change over time. He says the very way the society conducts itself or its hierarchy is structured, is at variance with what’s recommended by the scriptures. And no one is going to change anything to put them in sync with scriptural recommendations.

Bankim Chandra says the idea of one god never and many gods has coexisted in Hinduism without one cancelling out the other. What has helped them coexist is worshipping various gods or powers representing different elements (like vayu, rain etc) has always been seen as a means to reach out to one supreme being. In the Vedas “sometimes the master of universe has been addressed as Indra, at other times he is addressed as Varuna, Agni or Surya”.

Although commonly four Vedas are believed to exist (Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva), some ancient books hold that there are only three Vedas (Rik, Yajur and Sama). There is another school of thought on the Vedas, that all of them were once one book – and later they were divided into different parts. The fact that parts of mantras of one Veda are often found in another Veda strengthens this belief.

Each Veda (Rik, Yajur or Sama) is not a separate book, but a class of knowledge. “Actually a Veda contains so much material that each one can fill a library.” However, each Veda has three parts – Mantra, Brahamana and Upanishad.

Through the book, Bankim’s attitude towards faith, in general, and Hinduism, in particular, comes across as tentative and questioning one which is devoid of any rigidity. This is only to be expected given his scholarly temperament which would have led to the tendency to engage with the ideas of faith and reason that were being dealt with by Western thinkers (he quotes John Stuart Mill, 1806 - 73) of his time. 

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, which argued species evolve through natural selection debunking the god as creator theory forced many Western thinkers to realign their thinking about faith and religion.

However, Bankim didn’t completely throw away his faith in view of Darwin’s theory, although he makes generous allowance for it. “But even if Darwin’s theory is true, it does not prove the non-existence of God. Lack of evidence about something or somebody’s existence doesn’t prove his non-existence.”

The Gita remained his soulful book (a moral navigator) and he had started writing his interpretation of the Gita only to die before he could finish it.

Bankim Chandra lived from 1838 -1894…and for most of his life the Indian society was in a state flux…with big social and political changes taking place. Supoy Mutiny in 1857, a historical event which marked the flashpoint of religious acrimony festering with the natives for several years caused by multiple factors - faiths jostling for space in the society, aggressive evangelism practiced by Christian missionaries, the declining Mughal empire, the administration and governance of India moving from the East India Company to the Queen of England,  the first faint clamors  for independence (which would lead to a nation-wide crescendo with Mahatma Gandhi emergence as a national leader about 12 to 15 years after the death of Bankim) among the educated elite of India.

Understandably, these changes had left the Indian society flummoxed with questions concerning identities (national, religious etc), one’s loyalty to society and nation and a search for a common anchoring (moral, religious, national). These essays, in a way, try to find answers to some of these questions – not in Hindu religious text but from within Indian societies, from past precedents and ideas of foreign origin like nationhood and nationalism (nationalism comes in for considerable criticism because of the example of hostility and warfare it was setting in Europe) which had not reached the Indian mainstream until then.

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