I. The Land and the People

1. Remembering the subcontinent

I remember reading in my geography text in school that the Indian subcontinent is a vast territory, covering an area of several million and a half square miles. It is bounded in its northern regions by mighty mountain ranges: the snow-capped Himalayas that have for ages filled the people of India with awe and reverence; and embraced elsewhere by expansive waters: the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal, across which ships and boats have come and gone for trades and settlements since ancient times. As a youngster I used to want to get a glimpse of all this. Over the years I have had the privilege of being in many parts of India, surveying at one time the slopes of the hallowed Himalayas that provide a natural bulwark for the subcontinent in the north, and at other times, dipping my feet,  in the Ocean, the Bay, and the Sea on which the land has long shorelines.

I recall a visit to Kanyakumari in 1959 when I  spent a few minutes in the famed rock at the southern-most tip of the subcontinent. The town is named after the Maiden Goddess who, as per one version of our lore, once waited for the deity from Suchindram, some six miles away, whom she was to wed. Mounds of precious gifts and hallowed edibles came for the occasion, but for a variety of reasons, the arrival of the groom at the auspicious hour was thwarted. The marriage did not occur. The goddess cursed the articles of gifts to become sand grains and sea-shells, and she has remained Kanyakumari (Maiden Princess) for ever. The sand at the beach is of different hues, made up of monozite which contains uranium. I remember going into the temple of this goddess, and admiring the sparkling diamond nose-ring on the beautiful icon bearing a garland. Deities in our temples are adorned in multicolored costumes and glittering jewelry to reflect the effulgent splendor of the Divine.

When I was there, I thought of the Kali temple in Kolikata with which I was more familiar, because as per another episode in sacred history, once when the demons Bana and Muka were wreaking havoc, the deities appealed to Lord Shiva in Varanasi for help. By his magical powers, Shiva actualized his consort Shakti into Kali in Kalighat and Kanyakumari in the deep south as powerful guardians.

I was in Kanyakumari before they built the majestic meditation hall (Dhyâna ManDapam) to memorialize Swami Vivekananda, the orator-sage who brought  Hinduism within global reach, transforming it from what seemed to the outside world as pure  exotica into a virtual lighthouse, as it were, that illumines distant lands and beckons one and all to her bosom. It was exhilarating to recall that Vivekananda sat there in meditation before taking off to Chicago to preach and propagate the ideas and ideals of Hindu thought at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. Such was the impact of his eloquence that a newspaper reported, "After hearing him, we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation." He was described as "an orator by divine right."
Vivekananda was elated by India's spiritual strength, but he was also acutely aware of her material backwardness. He realized that the West needed the religious outlook and sensitivity of Hinduism, but he also felt that India could benefit from the scientific awareness that the West had acquired. His writings made us aware of the painful chasm between the spiritual ideals in the Hindu world and some of the appalling practices there: as true when he spoke a hundred years ago as, sadly, it is still today in many respects.
Facing north from that historic rock, I closed my eyes and visualized, as millions of others had done, the vast stretch of  the land-mass stretching all the way to the hoary Himalayas. Facing south, I saw the merger of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea with the Indian Ocean. That body of water, which I was to recall decades later when I stood at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, has a link with sacred history. It was across it that Hanuman took his grand leap to Sri Lanka to locate Sita who had been kidnapped by Ravana. Nearby on the islet of Ramesvaram  stands a large temple with impressively long corridors. Consecrated to Shiva and Parvati, known here as Ramanathar and Parvatavardini, Rama had this temple built, so says the lore, to redeem himself of the sin of slaughtering the Brahmin Ravana.

There are not a great many ancient historical monuments in India, but many precious relics of the Indus Valley Civilizations have been unearthed. Scholars have been able to draw many interesting information about the people who lived in these regions (most of which are now in Pakistan).  On the other hand, the countless temples, old and new, that adorn the Indian lanscape are constant  reminders of Hindu sacred history which plays a major role in the lives of millions of Hindus, within India and beyond her shores. Even Hindus who have made their homes and lives away from India refer to the land as Mother India: such is the power of Indic culture.


2. Physical geography and lore

Sloping from the Himalayas are vast plains, whose gentle slope from west to east causes the flow of rivers and rivulets which bring silt from the high mountains and nourish abundant fields of rice and wheat. The region is also blessed with regular rains. The majestic Ganga and her companion Yamuna are two great rivers which have played a dominant role in the culture of the people and the agriculture of the region. There are reasons to believe that  at one time there was also the sacred Saraswati as part of a triune of rivers which had their confluence in Triveni which is now one of the major pilgrimage-spots with which the land is studded. 

I was about six when I first heard of Yamuna, and this was in a bhajan song dedicated to Lord Krishna. Yamuna which has its source in Himalayan glaciers meanders  in the plains through Vrindhavan and Mathura. As per Srimad Bhagavatam, Krishna as lad and youth used to sport on the banks of this river. It was across Yamuna that Krishna's father Vasudeva stealthily transported baby Krishna to protect the child from his monstrous uncle who had vowed to kill every offspring of his sister. When little Krishna slipped in the waters by accident, Yamuna cleansed his Divine feet, and this is how it became a sacred river. When in my twenties, I rode in a car on the Lohe ka Pul, as the old iron bridge over the Yamuna is called in New Delhi. I recalled to myself the Bhagavatam story, and was amazed by the power of the Purana which had transformed what seemed like an indifferent flow into something so supremely significant in the Hindu world.

A tributary of the Ganga, called the Hoogli which is often identified with Ganga, is on the edge of Kolkata, separating the city from its principal railway station. I was familiar with its waters in my early years, and used to squat once a year on the bank of the stream behind the Kalighat Temple to renew the sacred thread that symbolized my status in Hindu spiritual hierarchy.

The rivers in India were safe and sacred in my youthful days. I have taken  pious plunges in the time-honored waters of more than one Indian river. But with industrialization, urbanization, increased population, and consequent pollution, the once clear waters have drastically deteriorated. Not so long ago, I read a report to the effect that the good people of Delhi dump more than 3 billion liters of sewage every day into this sacred river whose waters, after appropriate treatment, serve 60% of the Indian capital's residents for drinking, bathing, and more. I also read, to my shock and sadness, that at one time some 50,000 migratory birds used to hover around the Yamuna in Delhi during the winter months, but now there aren't any. Projects are under way to restore the rivers to reasonable pollution-free levels.

In the central regions of the body of India rises another mountain chain which divides the southern triangle from the northern mainland. These are the Vindhya mountains. Valmiki's Ramayana lists Mahendra, Himalaya, Vindhya, Kailash and Mandara as the five tallest mountains. It is said that once the sage Narada teased the Vindhya range by praising the much loftier legendary Mount Meru, whereupon the slighted Vindhyas grew high as the sky, making it difficult for sun and moon to rise and set. Whereupon Rishi Agasthya was dispatched from Varanasi, with Tamil language and all, to the south. The Vindhyas were on the path of the sage, and they bowed down reverentially to a smaller size, and let the holy scholar climb over and cross. Since Agasthya settled down in the Tamil country and did not return, the shrunk mountains have maintained their modest altitudes. Hindu imagination has always been fertile and fantastic.

The southern sector gives India its character­istic beautiful shape on the map. I may be biased, but I have often felt, upon inspecting the maps of nations on the globe, that India surely has one of the most beautiful forms, with a broad and well-sketched upper contour and graceful entry into the blues of the sea. The southern segment is known as the Deccan, an anglicized form of the Sanskrit dakshin meaning south.

On the western coast rise other slopes, known as the Western Ghats. In a train raid to Mumbai I once got a glimpse of some of the most picturesque and breath-taking sceneries in these mountainous regions where evergreen forests thrive in regions like Amboli and Radhanagari, bearing lush tropical vegetation, including the hog plum, coral tree, and jamun.

Nature has blessed the subcontinent with many bounties. How we take care of them is another matter. For in India, as elsewhere in the world, there are serious threats to land and air, to plants and trees. A population that has exceeded a billion human beings is hungry for food and thirsty for water. It is amazing that, even amidst serious growing scarcities,  the land is producing enough fruits abd grains, leaves and roots, to feed all of them and the millions more of animals that also thrive in those lush regions.

 

3. Forests, flora, and fauna

Many years ago I went as a tourist to El Yunque: a rainforest in Puerto Rico. Until then, I did not even know that there were rainforests in the world. Then I discovered that I had myself been living for many years not far from one. The Sundarban (Beautiful Forest), which I had known only as a jungle, is in fact a rainforest of great complexity. There are rainforests in  the Western Ghats of India as well.

The vast Sundarban is exposed to heavy monsoon rains, huge tidal waves, and much erosion. It spreads out in both India and Bangladesh. Nature knows no national boundaries. The Sundarban is where the famous Bengal tiger lives. The still surviving wild boar and the spotted deer help sustain the diminishing tiger population. Other beasts like the rhinoceros and the water buffalo have become almost extinct there. It is  also home to lots of monkeys and birds and fish, snakes and crocodiles; not to mention the mudskipper, an incredible fish that lives in water, but can come out on land and climb on trees too! I first learnt about this creature more than thirty years ago from an article in National Geographic.  

Historians say that there was an ancient township in the Sundarban back in the 3rd century C.E., and that some rulers used to take refuge there in the face of advancing armies. The folks inhabiting the adjoining villages today - fishermen, lumberjacks, people who work in the forest for the government, and their families mostly -  worship Goddess Banbibi of whom few Hindus elsewhere may have even heard. She is unique among goddesses in that the Muslims of the region also pray to her; both Hindus and Muslims celebrate her in a festival. 

The Rig Veda too speaks of a Forest Goddess: AraNyâni. A whole corpus of Vedic literature is known as the Aranyakas (Forest Texts). It was  meant only for those who had retreated into sylvan seclusion. They were the inspiration for the Upanishads. The most important Upanishad (BrihadâraNyaka) is an Aranyaka.

The Ramayana begins with the poet Valmiki strolling in the forest and hearing the agonizing wail of a bird whose mate had been killed by a hunter.  Sages like Vishvamitra and Buddha retreated to the forest to meditate on unfathomable mysteries. Many gurus established ashrams (hermitages) in the forests where they instructed the young. In the classical Hindu view of the stages of life, one was expected to retire to the forest in the evening of one's life  to become one with the fullness of nature.

India has a plethora of flora and fauna. I recall my botany professor who once listed  the names of dozens of plants and shrubs and trees, in their Latin and Indian names. I was impressed by his fund of knowledge when he rattled off names like Prosopis cineraria (Jand), Acacia jaoguemontil Benth (babool), Ficus religiosa (peepal), and many more. Ajay Rawat of Kumaon University informs us  that some 45,000 species of the plant kingdom and 65,000 of the animal are thriving on Indian soil.

Gardens and orchards have always been prized in India, as testified by many writers and in works of art. In his famous play Shakuntala, the playwright Kalidasa lists the names of a number of plants and trees in a pleasure garden: like madhavi, kadamba, parijata, etc. I can never forget the flower stalls at the approach of temples in India, busy and noisy and  full of life. The flowers, white and pink and red and yellow, rich in fragrance and beauty, that are offered with piety to the  Divine or pinned with elegance on the abundant hair of women on joyous occasions must impress even the most casual on-looker. I bring back to mind my visits to the Lake Market in Kolkata where I used to be  fascinated by the extraordinary variety of fruits and vegetables of every shape, size, and taste: gourds and stalks, roots and nuts, grains and spices: one can go on and on.

Over the ages, the people of India understood the role, and respected the presence of bio-diversity. That is why the rodent, the peacock, the cobra and the monkey have all gained a place in Hindu lore and legends.  The cow and the elephant, the margosa and tulasi plant have attained sacred status too.

Such is the terrain of India: plain here, mountainous there, rich and abundant in one place, parched and sparse in another, waterfall in Kottralam and desert in Rajasthan, valleys and jungles and more. In this grand backdrop, human-made structures may be seen everywhere: from humble hutments to lavish palaces, and much in between.

The fate of Nature is hanging mightily in a delicate balance in our age of technology. There are increasing demands to produce and build for more than the billion people who make their living on the ancient land which once supported just a few million inhabitants. The intrusion of modern civilization into every domain of Nature to quench its needs is threatening the balance and harmony that existed in the Indian subcontinent for millennia. 

 

4. Variety in India's people, and controversies on origins

Once, at the end of a talk I gave, someone came to me and asked, "Do all Indians have a sense of humor?" I don't know the answer to this question, but I do know that the people of India are of a tremendous variety, not just in external features, but  in creeds and convictions, in attitudes and values, and in other respects too. If I have to say anything general about them, I'd say that they are, by and large, friendly and hospitable. Educated Indians have more than their share of ethnic pride.  

In the course of her long history, India has witnessed many of the triumphs and tribulations that humanity is heir to. The subcontinent has witnessed countless political  struggles and conflicts, wars and battles, victories and defeats, joyous celebrations and days of harshness. In the midst of all this, the people have created and nurtured great poetry and philosophy, much art, music and science.

The inhabitants of India range from the so-called tribals, who still guard their pristine ways, to an array of sophisticated groups who speak a variety of languages and contribute as much to international debates as to modern science. I have seen the sacrifice of bleating goats at the altar of  Mother Kali, and there are Hindus who, like me,  meditate on an impersonal Cosmic mystery for spiritual fulfillment. I have friends whose travel plans are regulated by prohibitions in the astrological almanac, and I also know Hindus who make complex calculations for long-range missiles and nuclear reactions, device electronic instruments and perform heart surgery. Many Hindus still arrange marital partners on the basis of sect and sub-sect and horoscope  compatibility, but Hindus also fall in love in college or elsewhere, and choose  partners from other faiths and races.

Hindus of the twentieth century, notwithstanding their caste consciousness and lingering obsession with racial purity, are the product of healthy mixtures that have resulted from waves upon waves of immi­grants to the subcontinent. Present day Indians include descendents from Vedic rishis, from Negroid Africans, from ancient Greeks and medieval Mongols, from the Portuguese,  Persians and Afghans also.

In no other nation  is there a greater variety of facial features, skin pigmentation, and spoken English than one finds in India. Countries like the United States, Canada, and France, with large numbers of immigrants are slowly undergoing changes in the features of their average citizen, but the difference in appearance between Caucasians and others is all too glaring in these countries. In places like China and Korea people are far more homogeneous. But in India, the change in appearance constitutes  a continuous spectrum.

Nineteenth century Indologists, inspired largely by phonetic/linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and some European languages came up with a theory according to which a horde of nomadic peoples from Central Asia entered India via the perilous Khyber pass in the Afghan borders, and established Vedic civilization in the northern plains of India. This view has been subjected to severe critical analyses in recent decades. Most Indian scholars reject it as not convincing at all. Some have gone so far as to contend that it was a clever scheme, a trickery on the part of the British, to justify their occupation of India as simply another instance in a long pattern of invasions. The newly emerging paradigm is that of an Indus-Saraswati culture as the  original  Indic civilization  which emerged in the northern river valleys. Also, contrary to earlier views,  the first townships in India were not imported from Mesopotamian models.

These are important discoveries and perspectives, linked to cultural sensitivities. For me personally,  it makes little difference from where my most distant ancestors came, given that we all came from Africa anyway. They could have been from Hardwar or Holland or from what is now Mylapore in Chennai. I rejoice in the inspiring poetry and enlightened visions that arose from India's spiritual, intellectual, and moral roots. The worldviews and values enshrined in the Vedas and the Upanishads, in Tolkappiyam and Tirukkural, in Valmiki and Kamban have all enriched my life, and I am grateful for that. Linguistic connections between ancient Sanskrit and Latvian or Lithuanian are interesting, but they don’t stir me to the point of getting emotional about it. I enjoy the plays of Shakespeare whether or not they were written by the man whose supposed home I visited at Stratford Upon Avon,  or by an altogether different person who might have lived elsewhere.

What seems to be well established on the basis of literary and other records is that ancient Indic culture was nurtured by two principal streams, the Sanskritic and the Tamil, and enhanced in later centuries by many others. The first two interacted and mutually enriched each other. Whether both of these had an yet other common root is another issue of interest and debate among historians. However, it too touches many political and cultural raw nerves, and has lost its academic appeal to me.

 

5. Particular individuals

RS  was our family priest. He showed up periodically to remind my father of upcoming events which needed to be observed at home: a child's birthday, a son's Upanayanam,  the death anniversary of one of a departed  grandparent, or whatever. Clad in immaculate dhoti and sporting a hefty pigtail, he was alert and cheerful, and good at whatever he did. As and when the occasion came, he used to set up the altar with twigs for burning, arrange darbha and other paraphernalia, often with an assistant, and enunciate the appropriate mantras with impressive clarity. He was one of the millions of purohits, thanks to whom the rites, rituals, and sacraments of the Hindu world have been carried on from generation to generation over the past many centuries.

The purohit is different from the pujari whose role is mainly in the temple, offering periodic worship (puja) to the icons which are consecrated there. Traditionally, unlike the purohit, the pujari is not formally schooled. He has learned by rote the canonical prayers with the associated rituals, and that is about all. Few pujaris have had the training in Sanskrit diction and intonation that the purohits normally get. In Hindu temples outside of India, the same person is often both purohit and pujari. There are lots of other individuals in the Hindu world who are identified as persons with religious standing. They bear honorifics like guru, sadhu, muni, sannyasin, yogi, and more. I rather doubt that any other culture  has as many different categories of god-men as the Hindu world has. All of them command respect from the populace, not only because they generally lead simple lives, and are believed to abstain from the normal temptations, but also because such people are assumed to have a closer link to God than lay people.

Some of them are affiliated to a religious order, and hold the title of swami. Swamis are often far more learned than purohits, and seldom perform domestic rituals or temple services, because they have, in principle, renounced the world. Indeed, they don't even have the right to perform rituals, although I know of at least one swami who has conducted weddings outside of India. Generally, but not always, swamis sport a saffron attire. The more eloquent ones go on lecture tours to speak on Hindu philosophy and
religion, both within India and to Europe and English-speaking secular nations, but not as much to black Africa or China, and probably never to countries where Islam holds sway.

Another person I got to know as a youngster was Mr. LM, father of one of my college mates. He was an I.C.S. (Indian Civil Service) officer. The family lived in an upper-class neighborhood. They had cooks, servants, a chauffeur and all. I saw LM only in shirts and trousers, sometimes with jacket and tie, but never in an Indian attire. He used to smoke a pipe, and spoke with what sounded like an alien accent: British, perhaps. His wife was very "modern", as they used to say. Her hair was cut and bobbed in the Western style, her blouse often sleeveless, and though clad in sari, she wore lipstick which was not common in those days. Mr. and Mrs. LM had Indian faces, yet did not look Indian to me.

In conversations I had with LM., I often detected scant respect for things Hindu. He once told me that India was still living in the Middle Ages, and doubted if the country would ever enter the twentieth century. He expressed the view that India's future depended on how well its people assimilated the English language and learned to think  in Western ways. He thought the British had brought in a lot of education, science, and modern values to India. He was what some Indians call today a Macaulayite.

Mr. PKD was well-read, versed in Bengali literature and in popularizations of science in English. His hero was Sri Aurobindo, and he insisted I go through Savitri and Life Divine  which are not easy reads. He was convinced that India's spiritual message would be recognized by the West sooner or later, and then her former glory would be re-established in the world. I never understood then, and still don't understand now, why India's glory, past or present, should be connected to its being recognized by the West.

Next, I recall SB, one of my professors at the university. He could solve any problem in analytical mechanics, hydrodynamics, and complex variables theory. He was invariably dressed in Indian clothes of the Bengali version: dhoti and panjabi. He performed puja at home every day, and was very fond of Robindra shongeet.

I have recalled these different people to bring to mind the incredible variety among the people of India. And this is a minuscule sample of the whole. The ones I have recalled here represent the range from the traditional purohit to the totally Westernized Hindu, from the culture-sensitive scholar to the well-adjusted professor of modern mathematics who is respectful and appreciative of his tradition. They all live normally in peace with so many more with other faces and features. Together, they  all number more than a billion today with immense potential.

 

6. Example of cultural continuity: adhyayana

The rote learning of Vedic verses is called adhyayana. This is the basis of the oral tradition by which hundreds of thousands of precious literature and sacred verses have been preserved in the Hindu world.

At fifteen I was initiated into the adhyayana of some hymns. I recall, in particular, Purusha Sűktam, Rudram and Shri Sűktam which were taught to me by a pandit who came to our house every evening. He would recite the lines with the proper intonation:

sahasra sîrishâ purushah; sahasrâksha sahasra pâd;

sa bhűmim visvato vrtvâ; atyatishtad dasângulam. . . .

 

and we repeated the lines rhythmically. Our goal was to learn the stanzas with the proper intonation, not to study them in the sense of understanding or interpreting their contents.

When I came to understand them, the passage narrating the origin of the castes and the seasons seemed fascinating, wherein I read that Brahmins arose from the face of the Supreme Person while the Shűdras from his feet. Being a Brahmin, this made me feel good, but I began to wonder how a Shűdra would feel about this. Incidentally, this turns out to be the only passage in the Vedas where castes are mentioned.

When I was reciting Vedic passages, most of my friends were having what seemed like a much better time doing other things, such as playing soccer or cricket in the park, riding bicycles, or just gossiping. But I had little choice: I sat obediently in front of the guru, and kept repeating the hymns mechanically, watching the jaws and eyes of the priestly man, and occasionally thinking of my friends in the park.

I began to like the verses. While taking a walk around the Dhakuria Lake or while lying down in bed in the dark before going to sleep I would repeat some of them. Their spiritual content did not touch me as much as the rhythm of the words. The mystery in sacred syllables arises from their antiquity. There is magic in sounds because sounds bind us all as human beings. How isolated we would feel in a world where silence reigned!

I am grateful to my father for insisting that I learn these magnificent hymns by rote. I studied them after gaining some knowledge of Sanskrit, and have derived fulfillment from the fact that I can recite them even as I read them in the original. Hindus believe that theirs is the only religion which allows for other modes of reaching the Divine. In a sense this is true.

Indic civilization is so ancient and diverse that practically every perspective has been expressed in it: from the most liberal to the most narrow. Thus, though Hindus generally believe that their religion allows for other paths to the Divine, one of the lines in the Purusha Sűktam says there is no other path to liberation (but this): nânya panthâ ayanâya vidhmahe. Perhaps what is meant  is that the experience of the Divine is the only way we can apprehend it. I also like to interpret this line by saying that if one wishes to understand Hindu (Vedic) culture and philosophy at any significant level, there is no other path but to learn (at least some of ) the Vedic verses in the original Sanskrit.

Vedic hymns must be learned with the proper  intonation from an accredited guru. Their continued cultural power resides precisely in this dynamic and living aspect, not in the countless scholarly works that have been published on them in various languages.

There is an aphorism which says:

gîtî sîghrî sirahkampî tatha likhita paatakah

anarthajnah alpakanthascha shadete pâtakâdhamh.

 

Roughly translated, it means that there are six inferior modes of reciting the Vedas:

reciting musically, reciting fast, reciting while shaking one's head, reciting from books, reciting without knowing the meaning and reciting with a feeble voice.

Vedic culture was a very sophisticated one which prescribed and proscribed religious modes. It distinguished between individual spiritual pursuits and collective ritualistic rules. Thus Vedic recitation by priests in the context of sacraments was called prayogam - practice in rituals - which is different from adhyayanam. On course, one needs to be trained in adhyayanam to engage in prayogam.

That one needs to be trained for conducting religious services is  appropriate. But that such training would be available only to people born in certain families (castes), whether such was needed or relevant in a distant past or not, is unacceptable in the value framework of the age in which we live. Thus, both in the context of our Zeitgeist or  yugadharma, and in the interest of a tradition that needs to evolve to healthily survive, one would hope that adhyayana  will become more universal, indeed the birthright of all Hindus, male or female. A culture that does not transform with time is bound to stagnate, if not die away. Given the history of Hindu culture which has changed in many positive ways over the centuries, there is reason to hope that this would happen in this matter also.