Som Shah

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Hinduism and Scientific Ethos

by Prof. Som Shah

HINDUISM AND OTHER RELIGIONS

“Indeed, one characteristic that all Hindus claim for Hinduism is an all-embracing tolerance, its ability to encompass every path, finding a niche for each in the vast scheme of things. From the point of view of certain minority religions, this is precisely the difficulty. Any religion that does not want to be encompassed, embraced and indeed absorbed and perhaps ultimately transformed by Hinduism finds Hindu tolerance somewhat too demanding since it is conditioned upon a basic acceptance of a Hindu view of life and Hinduism’s peculiar genius for absorption.”

------BEATRICE LAMB

The above quotation from the famous British author sums up the discomfort felt by some religions that have come in contact with Hinduism. For an average Hindu it is difficult to understand why, in spite of an extreme degree of tolerance that he professes towards all religions, his religion is demonized and serious attempts are afoot towards proselytization. It is the innate strength of Hinduism that frightens all other religious sects who fail to comprehend a totally different approach to faith and belief that Hinduism portrays. Most Hindus do not realize how paranoid other religious sects are about Hinduism whether in India or abroad.

In order to understand this capacity of Hinduism to encompass all paths and practices and thereby to envelope all beliefs in its fold, one has to go back to the evolution of Hindu ethos through social and political turmoil and its survival potential. Hinduism is the only faith (it would be difficult to call it a religion since it does not fit in that definition, as discussed earlier) that has survived through several millennia and is still going strong. In spite of all contradictory social practices, a highly retrograde and demeaning caste system and an endless rigmarole of rituals, it has managed to survive through centuries of repression and political persecution, and risen like a sphinx from the ashes at every stage when it appeared to have been totally decimated.  More than two millennia ago it survived one of the greatest onslaughts from a highly progressive and socialistic religious movement, Buddhism. In the process it learnt many lessons from that great philosophy and imbibed it within its fold. In order to put a seal of acknowledgement to that effect it recognized Buddha as one of the ten incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu. Time and again new codes and practices brought in by great seers were incorporated within the framework of this thought process. In this manner Hinduism was transformed and revived from time to time. Some of these seers were even acknowledged as avatars according to one school of thought which recognizes twenty one avatars instead of ten.

Henry Kissinger, who could hardly be described as fraternally inclined towards India and Hinduism, had to admit, albeit grudgingly, the tremendous survival potential of Hindu culture. In an article in Herald Tribune (March 2006) he remarked: “The defining aspect of Indian culture has been the awesome feat of maintaining Indian identity through centuries of foreign rule without, until very recently, the benefit of a unified, specifically Indian, state. Huns, Mongols, Greeks, Persians, Afghans, Portuguese and, in the end, Britons, conquered Indian territories, established empires, and then vanished, leaving behind multitudes clinging to the impermeable Hindu culture.”

Probably the greatest challenge that Hinduism faced during its history was not from any indigenous religion but a Middle Eastern religion, Islam. Islam spread like wildfire during the first five centuries sweeping through all regions east, west, north and south of Arabian Peninsula, decimating all existing religious beliefs in those areas. However, its advance was checked and eventually stopped by three cultural bulwarks namely Christianity in Europe, Taoism in China and Hinduism in India.  In certain areas it did bypass these regions to spread its sway as in case of Indonesia , Malaysia and Philippines .

The phenomenal success of Islam lay in two factors. Its appeal as a religion was because it was primarily a revolutionary socialistic movement against the repression of elitist forces in the name of superstitious religious beliefs and ensured equality to all before God. The second reason of its success was that it was a politico-religious movement that combined politics, social life, administration, authority and religion in one fold. It was the latter reason that justified coercion and use of force to spread the religion. The directive principle in Islam was to aim at the administrative control of a geographical region and to achieve the same through any means in order to transform a region from Darul-Harab to Darul-Islam, that is from an area where Muslims are ruled by others to where Muslims are the rulers.

The relatively partial success of Islam in India can be ascribed to many factors. Probably one of the major factors was that India at that point of time was in a bad shape because of the turmoil in the country and political fragmentation that had taken place following the imperial eras of Mauryas, Guptas and Harshvardhan. Hinduism was also at its lowest ebb and had stagnated and degenerated into a repressive religion where the elite castes notably Brahmins had monopolized the ritualistic religious practices without even a trace of spirituality or capacity for theological leadership or erudition. The resultant revolt within the Hindu masses notably the lower castes, which were on the receiving end of caste hierarchy, found a channel of escape and were easy targets for proselytization by a new faith promising equality for all. The political success of Islamic rulers through internal dissension did the rest, since the rulers enforced the concept of zimmi taxation on all non-Muslims, in addition to other methods of persecution and forcible conversion.

Islam came to India at a time when the innate capacity of Hinduism to imbibe and encompass other religious beliefs had considerably waned through lack of spiritual leadership with a revivalist potential. The religious leadership was in the hands of semi-literate reactionary ritualistic Brahmins, ignorant of Hindu ideals and concepts as expounded in Vedanta and Upanishads.  Their plight was aptly described by Lal Ded, the great mystic poetess and visionary of Kashmir and contemporary of those times, in the following couplet: Acharya chhiya ha maali pothyan paraan, yitha pathya tota paraan Raam panjar; Gita paraan ta hitha labaan, param Gita paraan chhus.  (The so called religious scholars recite from scriptures the way a parrot recites the name of Ram; This way they claim the authority and scholarship of texts like Gita). The response of such a leadership to a revolutionary and aggressive religious movement like Islam could hardly be expected to be of the type that had been the hallmark of Hinduism through history.

In spite of all these infirmities, the intrinsic strength of Hinduism did eventually prevail in checking the forceful Islamic tide and restricting it to certain pockets and niches only. There was also an attempt, though only half-hearted,  to encompass it through Sufism, a movement that was positively a result of the interaction of Islam with Hindu ethos and not something intrinsic to Islam as is claimed by some scholars. The converts to Islam from Hindu fold by and large without any conviction or faith in the new belief, retained and perpetuated the Hindu practices like worship of saints, sages, kalanders, pirs and observing their urs (death anniversary) and burning incense at their shrines. These practices are totally un-Islamic but they are so deeply entrenched in the psyche of Indian Muslims and even Muslims in Pakistan, that no tirade by fundamentalists in recent years has been able to dislodge them. This way the Islam of the Indian subcontinent is totally different from that of other regions, notably Middle East .

One of the major factors that was helpful in making Islam a formidable force for well over a millennium was its exclusive philosophy. One was either a Muslim or a kafir, who had to be converted into a “believer” by whichever means possible. There could be no compromise in this dogma. In the event a kafir refused to get converted he became a zimmi or a second class citizen, no better than a slave, in a Muslim ruled region. While this exclusivity has been the strength of Islam, it is now proving to be its greatest weakness. In a rapidly changing scenario where science and technology has transformed the world into a global village, this exclusivity is like an albatross hanging around Islam’s neck. That accounts for the identity crisis from which it is suffering at present.

While Hinduism did encompass most religions in its fold and transformed others, including Islam, it has not been able to come to terms with Islam due to fundamentalist revival that has changed the face of the latter in recent years. There is turmoil within Islamic thinkers ranging between extreme fundamentalism and progressive revivalism. Because of the aggressiveness of the former the latter movement has not been able to make its presence felt. One has however to admit that this turmoil in Islamic ranks has also affected Hindu psyche to a considerable extent. Otherwise it was unthinkable that there could be a Hindu fundamentalist movement, since fundamentalism and fanaticism is totally irrelevant in Hindu ethos. As there are no fundamental doctrines in Hinduism, except for a faith in the unity of cosmos and the continuous and persistent emancipation of man through various levels of consciousness, fundamentalism is only a reaction to that of Islam. It is time that Hinduism realizes this and takes a proactive stance as has been its age old philosophy in line with scientific ethos and avoids a reactive role that will impede its progress in exploring higher realms of spirituality.           
  

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