Som Shah

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Hinduism and Scientific Ethos

by Prof. Som Shah

INTRODUCTION

Whenever we talk about important religions of the world we count Hinduism as one of them. This is essentially based on the number of people professing this religion. However, what we miss in this classification is that almost all other religions are what may be called as revealed religions. A revealed religion is one where a prophet makes a revelation and is the originator and author of a code or philosophy which becomes a holy scripture that needs be followed by its adherents in its entirety. Hinduism is not a revealed religion. While there are several acknowledged revelations in Hinduism, notably those of the various incarnations (avatars), and including the sayings of saints, sages and holy men and many more in the process of formulation even now, there is no revelation that is sacrosanct and absolute. All these constitute a process of introspection like a flowing river fed by several streams, none of which can claim to be the whole river. It is necessary to appreciate this difference between Hinduism and other revealed religions in order to understand the historical, political and social interactions of Hinduism in modern world of science and technology. In fact in the strict sense in which a religion is viewed all over the globe, Hinduism cannot be classed as one. It is more of a philosophy wherein all views, methods, processes and thoughts are analyzed and adopted according to their merit and value towards the goal of human emancipation.

There is a common belief that Hinduism is a soft “religion”, without hard and fast dogmas and dos and don’ts, and therefore easily amenable to proselytization. This belief has historical roots since Hinduism has been at the receiving end of aggressive proselytization from revealed religions of Middle East for more than a millennium. Since Hinduism is not a revealed religion (in fact it cannot be even classed as a religion as it is more of a philosophical approach to spirituality, as logic is to science), proselytization is totally an alien concept for it, especially through use of force, administrative discrimination and political pressure. Hinduism allows free scope for thought and introspection and any dissent is acceptable within the framework of logical discussion and debate. Debates and discussions are a basic tenet of Hinduism in Guru-Shishya Parampara as Shastra-arth. Dissents and cross currents have been a common phenomenon in Hinduism, long before the impact of Middle Eastern revealed religions. In fact Buddhism and Jainism, not to speak of Charvakism and a host of other dissenting beliefs have been a part of Hindu ethos and the dissent was at no stage through use of force or through the concept that the last word had been said. There have been conversions and re-conversions throughout the long history of the evolution of Hinduism before the advent of Middle Eastern religions, but the Middle Eastern assault was entirely of a different nature.

A basic difference exists between all oriental religions, especially those that have emerged from India, and the Middle Eastern religions. There is a long history and tradition of violence and wars among the religions that have originated from Middle East. In fact this war is going on even now although in a different garb. As against that there has never been any violence in the eastern religions among themselves. Buddhism launched a massive propagation drive not only in India but throughout Asia but it was all in a peaceful manner through persuasion and discussion. At no stage in conversions and re-conversions was any violent tension generated or a drive to use force. While rulers did patronize the religions they professed, at no stage was there any violence or even discrimination against those who held different beliefs. In many parts of India, including Kashmir, the conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism and re-conversion was a perpetual phenomenon and this was accomplished without any shade of violence or recrimination.  

The interaction between Middle Eastern religions and indigenous Indian religions that constitute what is the Hindu ethos was really a clash of civilizations. This term is frequently used nowadays by the politicians of the western countries, notably USA, following Huntington’s dogma, to designate their war with the fundamentalist Islam. In that context it is a misnomer. The western Christian world and Islam both have a Middle Eastern origin and constitute al kitab group of religions  with same roots and a common book of genesis and line of prophets. This is true also of Judaism. If the three are in conflict nowadays, it is the hangover of centuries of war that has been their tradition throughout history. As against that with Hinduism these religions have a basic difference of approach. Hinduism is pacifist, rationalizing all different beliefs as a process of evolution of thought, and encompassing all shades of opinion, some of them often mutually contradictory.  There is no scope for fundamentalism in such a philosophy. Hinduism regards all religious beliefs only as relative truths aimed at unraveling the absolute truth that can be an ultimate goal of spirituality. The quest for that is perpetual and almost never ending. Even the concept of avatars denotes a relative requirement of a particular time, place and stage of evolution. That is how a succeeding avatar supersedes the earlier one in thought and belief. As against that for the al kitab religions the kitab is the last word and there is no scope for any change or modification with passage of time.

The impact of al kitab religions in India was the incorporation of a totally alien concept to Hinduism. The sheer aggressiveness of these religions notably that of Islam, coupled with violence and political control, totally confused the pacifist Hindu ethos. For a period of time it lost its bearings and even confidence in its approach. It also tried to emulate the fundamentalist approach of these al kitab religions, albeit clumsily, in order to counter the impact. In the process it partially lost its all encompassing capacity to absorb diverse and contradictory beliefs, though it did make some half-hearted attempts in that direction through the Sufi movement.

Hindus in general are apprehensive about the proselytization designs of these aggressive religions. These designs have been successful not through any inherent weakness in Hindu ethos but because of an Indian social order which had degenerated into a malicious and discriminatory caste configuration. Obviously, these deprived and discriminated castes became easy targets for proselytization by an aggressive religion promising equal opportunities for all irrespective of caste, creed or color.

While the Hindus are wary about the proselytization, the other religions are equally apprehensive about the innate capacity of Hinduism to absorb diverse beliefs in its fold. It has been a battle of wits on either side. Simultaneously both are making half-hearted attempts to emulate each other in their methods without any apparent success. The Hindu attempt at fundamentalism, which is totally foreign to its philosophy, was ludicrous and achieved almost nothing except a bad name for it. The attempt at absorbing Hinduism by using its own method of rationalization by an Islamic organization, Dindar Anjuman, drew a blank, although it was meticulously planned. The literature circulated among elite and educated Hindus quoted profusely from Bhagwat Gita and Upanishads to illustrate that these scriptures forecast that a tenth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Kalki would appear and He would be the last and final avatar. The Prophet was projected as that final avatar. Well organized and well attended meetings in many South Indian towns commenced with the recitations from Gita, notably the verses7 and 8 from fourth chapter “Yada Yadhahi Dharmase…………” and were followed by eloquent discourses. However, the bubble burst when through a mere chance it was discovered that this was actually a terrorist organization and had accumulated huge quantities of arms and ammunition and was eventually banned and its superstructure decimated. An attempt is still continuing in a subdued manner through a TV channel, though bulk of Muslims themselves do not subscribe to this approach.

As mentioned above, most Indians believe that Hinduism is vulnerable because of its innate contradictions and mild and pacifist profile. This belief has resulted in generating insecurity, bordering on paranoia. However, nothing can be farther from truth than this belief. Hinduism is a resilient philosophy which is not resistant to criticism, modification, revision and questioning. It does not adopt any creed or concept as final and unequivocal. Annie Besant rightly pointed out that Hinduism commits suicide when it adopts a creed. As such its philosophy is in no way different from that of scientific ethos which is entirely based on perpetual questioning and a never ending investigation. It is surprising that similarity between the philosophy of science and that of Hinduism has escaped the attention of most of our scholars and religious leaders. In this context it is necessary to compare the evolution of scientific thought in the western world with that in India.

When scientific thought and investigation proliferated in Europe following Renaissance Movement it immediately fell foul with the Church. Science was considered as heresy and blasphemous. There are stories galore of the battle between Church and scientists since all scientific research negated the entire book of genesis. The battle is still on, though Church has almost lost it. One cult of the Church called Seventh Day Adventists is trying to rationalize the situation by attempting to show that Bible has a scientific approach. But the success in this direction is limited since it is an attempt to prove the improvable through sheer verbiage.

As against this, the advent of scientific thought in India, though somewhat belated due to political reasons, was smooth and rapid without even making a ripple. The Indians took to science as a fish takes to water. The rapid stride that this country is making in spite of a late start is astounding. Same is true of other Asian giants like China, Japan and Korea. All this is possible because there is no tension between scientific thought and religious ethos.

The present day turmoil in Middle East and the terrorism that it has exported in the process is a result of identity crisis. There has been a total change in the life style through technological inputs, thanks to the oil boom, but the outmoded religious mores are not able to rationalize this change. There is a basic contradiction between last word philosophy of religion and the investigative and questioning logic of science. The schism generated in the process breeds insecurity and confusion, resulting into a mental conflict that takes some grotesque directions, including an atavistic fundamentalism.

Hinduism has no reason to be afraid of proselytization attempts of other religions. Nor does it need to emulate those methods that are totally alien to its ethos. Hinduism has consanguinity with scientific ethos and two can evolve simultaneously in a symbiotic relationship. It is the revealed religions who need to worry about their future and to devise means to rationalize the impact of scientific thought on religious beliefs.   

  

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