Variety of Views on Religion (VVR) 1

Variety of Views on (Hindu) Religion (VVR)  

For These Changing Times

Preamble: Whatever I will be writing in this series on this subject will be colored by my upbringing, background, and perspectives as a scientist-scholar. Let me be clear at the outset that it is not my intention to preach or to prescribe. If you resonate with me in some ways, that is fine. If you view these matters differently, that is fine too. In principle, there can be as many views on religious theory and practice as there are reflecting people in the world. Expanding on a thought of a Vedic sage-poet, views on religion are many, and people see them in different ways. That makes it all that much richer, even if unpleasant sometimes.

 

1. The Background

The major religions of the world are millennia old. And of them, Hinduism is reckoned as one of the oldest. It had its origins in the Indian subcontinent in a misty antiquity of which we have but blurred and uncertain images.  Scholars are still arguing about when and how this powerful religious system emerged. Questions of origin are always fascinating, whether of a religion or of a language, or of the universe at large. But they are also difficult ones to unravel. There have been tentative answers to such probes, but few ideas relating to the origin of any of these can be affirmed with incontrovertible finality; and none has achieved significant consensus. In the case of religions, these seldom add to the experience of the practitioner.

What is beyond any doubt, on the basis of well established facts of history, is that not a single religion or language is practiced today as it was a thousand and more years ago. Should that happen, it would be a case of moribund stagnancy. Two points must be remembered with regard to dynamic religious systems: The first is that they transform with time. It is fair to say that any religion that does not undergo transformation will not only keep its practitioners in the dark, but can also become downright dangerous to its own flock, and also to others with whom it may come in contact. The second point is that all great religions are anchored in some ways to the past: whether through scriptures or symbols, feasts or festivals or whatever. If all connections with the distant past are severed, that would be the end of that religion.

The challenge for the practitioner of any religion is this: How to preserve one's links with one's roots while accepting, if not fostering, changes? Every generation of followers of every religion faces this question. And it is a difficult problem, because every religion has a thousand aspects, and who is to say what needs to be preserved and what is to be changed or eliminated? Some may feel that certain elements in its revered texts are deserving of more preservation than some others. Then again, which particular transformations are more or less preferable than others? It isn't surprising that these questions generate conflicts among practitioners. In some situations, there are recognized authorities who have the final say on these matters.

The matter is complicated for a member of the Hindu faith because the sources of the religion are limitless, and its worldviews are often articulated in mounds of metaphysics. Most of its sacred writings are in languages and cast in aphorisms that the average practitioner cannot decipher easily. When examined closely, they are cluttered with mutually contradictory tenets. The spokespersons for the religion present different perspectives, and some of these have little relevance to the world in which we live.

Then again, for the good or for the bad, there is no central authority to impose this doctrine or that as essential for being certified as a Hindu. As a result, every Hindu can, in principle, formulate his or her own version of the religion.

I have my own views on some of these issues. They are colored by my upbringing, background, and penchants as a scientist-scholar. But they too are of a Hindu thinker. I will be sharing these in this series with those who may be interested. But let me be clear that it is not my intention to preach or to prescribe. If you resonate with me in some ways, that is fine. If you view matters differently, as far as I am concerned, that is fine too; because, the way I see it, there can be as many views on these issues as there are reflecting Hindus in the world. Expanding on a thought of a Vedic sage-poet, truths are many, and people see them in different ways. That makes it all that much richer.

 

2. The traditional mode: views on revered personages

All of us function in the framework of values and worldviews. Religions furnish us with a grand backdrop for life, which provides meaning and purpose in the context of a community. From this perspective, all of us are religious one way or another. It has been rightly said that in a deeper sense human beings are more religious than rational.

There are many dimensions to religions. Of these, the most important relate to the theoretical framework, the practical aspect, and the associated value-system.

There are many ways of being religious. Perhaps the most common one is what may be called the traditional mode. Here too there can be a wide spectrum in theory and practice. Generally speaking, on the theoretical side, a person following the traditional mode accords a special status to the recognized authorities of the tradition. In the Hindu world these include saints, gurus, babas, and certain revered texts. Which particular ones are accepted will depend on one's sectarian affiliation or personal choice.

In the traditional framework, certain historical personages are regarded as embodiments of the Divine, or at least that they have achieved higher spiritual knowledge and wisdom than the common people, either by virtue of their own spiritual efforts or through actions in previous births.

Such, for instance, are saint-scholars like Shankaracharya and Ramanuja. Others are revered through the works they have left behind, more than for their metaphysics or historicity. Such are the Vedas and the Upanishads. Then, there are some instances where the text and its traditionally ascribed author are the targets of worship. The Bhagavad Gita and Lord Krishna stand out as the supreme example of this.

Finally, there are the current and more recent masters of spirituality. In the Hindu world, every generation has its own foci of spiritual attention. During the past century or so we have had, for example, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi, at least two Sai Babas, Bhakti Vedanta Prabhupada, Ma, and others. They have attracted countless people who experience significant spiritual fulfillment in their presence and from their teachings. Thus, aside from worship of the traditional gods of the religion, one calls oneself a devotee or follower of this swami or that guru.

Such saintly personages provide - and have provided over time - much comfort and spiritual experience to their countless followers, often serving as the closest one gets to a god for the longings of many people. Such gurus are believed to have attained what is generally recognized as spiritual enlightenment and the associated charisma.

But none of this, in my view, puts them on a higher pedestal except in a community setting. I have seen a few of them, and I have paid my due respects to them with folded hands in reverential modes. This comes to me as a result of cultural conditioning.  And yet, while I respect such revered personages and some of their teachings, I have never been able to take any of them as more divine than any other human being I run into in the course of my everyday life.

To my mind, the lives and thoughts of even the greatest swamis and saints of the tradition are as subject to logical challenges and critical analyses as any philosopher, thinker, or writer. I feel this way not only because I rather suspect that when this is done, one will often find matters that are either objectionable or not altogether as becoming of the near-god souls they are supposed to be, but also because, in my view, no human being of whatever religion or stature or reports of extraordinary feats, knows more about God and the hereafter than any other.  

 

3. Views on the Vedas

Every religion has its sacred works. In the Christian tradition the Bible is reckoned as the most sacred writing, and it is called Scripture (always with a capital S). The term is used by English-speaking Hindus to describe the Vedas and other such works revered in the tradition as Hindu scriptures. Technically, this is not quite correct since Scripture literally refers to what has been written down. Vedic mantras are believed to have been heard by  rishis, and transmitted from generation to generation through the oral tradition, and are therefore more properly known as shruti (that which has been heard).

Be that as it may, in the traditional framework, the Vedas are to be taken as eternal knowledge.  This is reasonable if one accepts that their sources were super-human, and their contents revealed to Vedic rishis by a higher source. There have been thinkers and religious movements within the Hindu tradition that have rejected this thesis. Those who do not consider the Vedas to be God-given are described as nāstikas by the orthodoxy.

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by a swamiji who spoke fairly well about the Vedas and their significance. He chanted some of the mantras beautifully. I was very impressed with his knowledge and presentation. During the question and answer period a  student, who had not grown up in traditional Hindu culture, asked the saffron-robed swamiji when the Vedas were composed. The learned speaker answered something to the effect that the question that was raised was "more blasphemous" to Hindus than Rushdie's Satanic Verses were to Muslims. He went on to explain that the Vedas were eternal and impersonal (apaurusheya), and have existed since the birth of the universe. 

The young man had asked the question out of a genuine wish to know about his tradition, and he felt terribly embarrassed. Was the swamiji wrong? I don't know,  but he was honest from the traditional perspective. Was the student wrong in posing the question? Not in my view.  I thought he was sincere and no less honest. Though he was unfamiliar with the system in which traditionalists look at such matters, his question was natural and valid in the age in which we live, while the answer he got may seem very strange to someone who is familiar with biological and cultural evolution.

I have respect for the traditional belief on this question. I am familiar with Sri Aurobindo's profoundly meaningful analysis of the symbolism behind Vedic hymns, and I was fascinated by his  thesis that the Vedic seers expressed in a twilight language experiences which it was impossible to convey directly. I liked his interpretation of Vedic sacrifice as an elaborate effort to transform humans into the divine.

With all that, I do not and I cannot accept the notion that the Vedas have been there all through cosmic history, much less that Sanskrit sounds have existed in the void of space for billions of years until they were recorded in the brains of Hindu sages a few millennia ago. I believe that the Vedas were uttered or written down in historical times, perhaps some 3500 or more years ago, but certainly not millions or billions of years ago.
There have always been Hindus who have held such views about the Vedas, especially if they have gone through the texts as poetry rather than simply as mantras to be recited by rote. As I see it, the poetic stature and spiritual value of Vedic hymns are not affected in any way if they happen to be just a couple of thousand  rather than 13 billion years old. I am inclined to think that being a Hindu in these times has little to do with the acceptance or non-acceptance of the divinity or the eternity of the Vedas.

By mythologizing sublime poetry by our foremost thinkers, which convey deep-felt mystical experiences, we are not elevating them to higher levels.   

 

   4. On Temples

I have always considered places of worship to be among the most uplifting edifices. Whether it is cathedral or kovil, mosque, pagoda, or synagogue, there is something awesome about structures which were inspired by pure faith and erected from love of God. Places dedicated to the Divine are joyous expressions of the human heart to give thanks and to reach out to the Unfathomable Mystery that has given rise to conscious life.

As a Hindu I have been to many temples in India and beyond. In my boyhood days I used to visit them with the piety instilled in me by my parents and cultural milieu. I admired the colorful icons (mūrtis), beautifully adorned and often garlanded. Whether it was serene Rama-Sita or joyous Radha-Krishna, austere Shiva, ferocious-looking Kali, charming Ganesha, or mysterious Venkateshvara, I have stood in their presence with customary reverence, sometimes recited a mantra or two. I have circumambulated deities in holy precincts, washed myself in temple ponds, dipped into sacred rivers in temple towns. I have sipped sanctified water from my cupped palm, and relished prasādam, free or for a fee. I have stood in line for darshan and tipped minor temple employees to get unmerited priority in the queue, and flung flowers at the altar with fellow worshipers. I have prayed shamelessly to Sarasvati for good grades in school. All this I did because I was convinced that Divinity was present in those adorable and adored mūrtis.

Later in life I became consciously aware that practically all the temples into which I gained easy entry were verboten to some of my fellow Hindus, because they belonged to lower castes. During a visit to a major temple at Canjeevaram I saw a banner proclaiming that non-Hindus were not welcome. Slowly I began to feel that temples were not as sacred as they once were for me. I reflected on Prahalada's statement that God is in a sliver as also in a pillar, meaning that Divinity is not confined to church or mosque, to temple or gurudvara. I came to look upon these as centers with sectarian significance, and historical reminders of how communities paid homage to their different versions of the Divine. But the Divine is equally present in lakes and mountains, in caves and dungeons, in filthy puddles and in fancy palaces, in minute atoms and in grand galaxies too.

I still go to temples, for sure, and participate in bhajans, in arati, and in relay readings of Tulsi Das. I do all this, not because I believe God dwells especially in temples, but because temples are part of my heritage, the icons are associated with my youthful years and with the worldviews of my ancestors. I recognize that temples have deep spiritual significance for vast numbers of my co-religionists. And I am happy for them.

For me, however, communion with the Cosmic Mystery has no longer anything to do with priest or puja, or periodic rituals of the tradition. I am not against these, and I continue to be culturally enriched when I watch them: they are aesthetically satisfying and have a magic implicit in them by virtue of the weight of centuries. Yet, from my current perspectives, their value lies primarily in the happy memories of years and eras gone by. If I am now moved by places of worship, whether Hindu or other, it is for their impressive architecture beautified by marble, stained glass, carved pillars, old sculptures and such. I also reflect on the associated myths that have inspired great art, music, poetry, dance and drama. I also regard places of worship as convenient community centers for celebrating festivals, singing sacred songs, and listening to discourses. But they are as essential for my own religious experience as they once were. I feel fortunate there was a time when temples added meaningful experience to my life, but I also feel a sense of liberation that I am not affiliated to them any more in those ancient ways.

5. On rational, irrational, and transrational

An ancient maxim, sometimes attributed to Aristotle, is that Man is a rational animal. We should take this to mean that human beings are capable of rational thinking, rather than that they are always rational. But what is rational thinking? Generally, we describe that as rational which conforms to basic logical reasoning, and is also consistent with well established facts of common experience and observation. Through evolution, human brains, though each is unique in its own way, share certain commonalties in their functioning. One of these is the universal logic to which normal brains conform.

Perhaps nowhere else are the principles of strict rational thought as meticulously and successfully applied as in mathematics and theoretical science. On the other hand, when it comes to issues involving history, politics, religion, and the like, logic is seldom unadulterated. Subtle factors, springing from emotions, ideals, frustrations,  and cultural conditioning come into action. They play important roles in our being human. Though they often color our reasoning, without them we would be merely thinking machines, spewing out impeccably correct results that follow from inputs to the brain, but devoid of the feelings that make life rich and meaningful.

Decades ago, during the horrific Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta, a Hindu mob circled a Muslim vegetable vendor at the Lake Market, and beat him up to death. This was irrational behavior. My father intervened and tried to prevent the lynching, risking his own safety and in vain. In that context, my father's behavior was not rational either. 

Reflecting on this episode years later, it occurred to me that there are, in fact, two ways in which one might deviate from rationality. The first is through the irrational mode. Here, one adopts positions or engages in actions which are grotesque, absurd, silly, and even dangerous. Abusing through words or deeds, regarding groups of people as inferior, refusing to accept evidence against one's cherished beliefs (such as the earth's rotundity, or biological evolution), are all examples of irrationality. None of us, scientists, mathematicians, scholars, intellectuals, whoever, is altogether immune from spurts of irrationality. Sometimes institutions, political ideologies, economic schemes, religious systems, or even governments, become irrational. Any individual or system that preaches needless hate and hurt qualifies as an irrational entity.

The second way in which one may digress from rationality is through beliefs and actions that are non-hurtful, fulfilling, uplifting, enriching, or helpful to others. I call this transrationality. Thus, while elements in the religious framework may be non-rational, religious behavior need not always be irrational. It can be transrational. Praying for the well-being of others, and going through the rites and rituals of a tradition, are instances of transrational acts. Doing an act of sacrifice, giving up one's own needs for the service of the sick and the needy, are transrational gestures. Religious doctrines which call for the death and destruction of those who don't subscribe to particular tenets or prophets, which deny salvation to non-believers, or deny spiritual rights to some members of one's own group, are all examples of irrationality in religious systems. On the other hand, singing hymns to the Divine and reading from time-honored texts are instances of transrational elements in religions. Transrational belief and behavior are meaningful and fulfilling.

Art, poetry, and the tales in mythology are transrational.  They add to our aesthetic experience. But it is important reckon the distinction between the real which is related to rationality and the ideal or the imagined which may be transrational. Rationality must be respected for intelligent living, and transrationality cherished for meaningful life.

6. On sectarian affiliation

Of ten major religions of the world, eight - Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Bahai - are known to have historical founders. Hinduism doesn’t have an identifiable initiator, and with Judaism, the names of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses figure as prominent first Jews.

In every religious tradition, splinter groups have arisen because religions are based on doctrines. New thinkers emerge who claim that their own interpretations of the original doctrines are more faithful to the religion, and argue that the religion practiced by the majority is an unacceptable transformation or corruption. Break-off groups from a religion are called sects. There are hundreds of religious sects connected with the various religions. Scholars of religion make distinctions between sects and denominations; the latter term usually refers to groups with a very large following.

In the Hindu world we many sects. But not all of them were formed as splinter groups. The Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, and Smarta sects which are the major subdivisions of Hinduism, date back to very ancient times. They too don't have traceable historical founders.  Dvaitins and Advaitins base their separateness on different visions about the nature of Ultimate Reality. These sects were started by eminent philosopher-sages who (as also their scholar-followers) have argued their positions ably through debates and books. Sages like Kabir, Sai Baba, and Swaminarayan have also initiated their own sects. Some Hindu sects, like the ones initiated by Gautama Buddha and Guru Nanak, have evolved into separate religions.

The advantages of being affiliated to a particular religious sect are not unlike those of belonging to a happy family. We feel a special kinship with our brothers and sisters, with our cousins and aunts and uncles. This is a circle with whose members we share common experiences, and  in which we feel morally and sentimentally comfortable.

Indeed, in the Hindu tradition, traditional affiliation generally results from one's birth in a family, which has for generations belonged to that sect. Thus, it does not result from a conscious acceptance of the doctrines professed by the founder of the sect. In fact,  very few Hindus belonging to any of the major sects can spell out the tenets on which their sect is based, nor explain how these differ from those of other Hindu sects. This situation changed in the 19th century with the formation of new sects which emerged as a result of our encounter with Christianity. That is how the Brahmos, the Arya Samajis, the Prarthana Samajis, and the Ramakrishna movements arose. In these and similar instances, one gains membership through conscious decision.  In any event, sectarian bonds, when healthily nurtured, can give people a sense of belonging and fulfillment.

Though conscious sectarian affiliation can inform or reinforce doctrinal beliefs, and though such reinforcements could bring spiritual benefits to its practitioners, my birth in a Tamil Shaivite smartha family has not added much of significance to my own religious life. I have learned some mantras and modes of puja specific to this group, and have gathered some understanding of its metaphysics, but all this has not helped me be a better human being, or even a better religious person in any way I can recognize.

There have been many squabbles between members of various sects even within the Hindu tradition, and more hurtful internecine hatred and persecution within other religious traditions. My own respect for sectarian subdivisions is therefore not of a high order. As to my religious affiliation, I regard myself as a human being first, then a Hindu, and that’s all.

7. On theism and atheism

We don't know who first thought, or became aware, of God, nor even when or where  the recognition or the imagining of God first arose. All we know is that in practically all cultures there has been some notion or other of a superior being that is above and beyond the world of perceived reality. Such a being has been variously called and described in many regions and religions of the human family.

God, in most religious frameworks, refers to a supernatural personage who is ultimately responsible for the creation of the universe, its sustenance, and its possible ultimate dissolution. This seems to be a reasonable, but by no means a universally demonstrable proposition. Those who are convinced of the existence of a God are called theists (Greek theos: God). Those who explicitly reject any such notion are the atheists.

It is important to distinguish between metaphysical theism (MT) and religious theism (RT). Not making this distinction can lead to a lot of needless controversies. MT posits God as a plausible explanation for the emergence and existence of the universe, and stops at that. RT goes beyond the proposition of a Creator. It envisages God with several attributes, most of which are infinitely enlarged versions of the best of human qualities, along with extraordinary capabilities. Thus, the God of religions is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere. This God is imagined to be kind, loving, merciful, noble, good and everything positive that one can imagine. Such a God is pictured in some traditions in a human form, with head, body, and limbs, even with a gender. The God of historical religions is primarily male, though Hinduism also associates a female principle (Shakti) to its three primary male-divinities.

Atheists keep saying that there is really no God except in human imagination. Though I won’t call myself an atheist, I can think of at least three good reasons why the God of religions seems highly improbable. First, God cannot have a human aspect because this form is just a couple of million years old in the 13 + billion years of cosmic persistence. Such a God would not have spoken to a mere handful of people in just a few languages, as alleged by the great religions. Thirdly - and this is the most powerful argument – a merciful God will not tolerate the kind of unwarranted pain and suffering that we see all too often in nature and in human experience. How can a compassionate God, atheists have asked in anger, allow innocent children, helpless invalids, and praying persons to die in earthquakes and tsunamis, in hurricanes, tornados and the like?

We may wonder how the idea of God emerged in the human mind? Anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, cultural evolutionists and other scientists have offered a variety of interesting answers to this question, just as in earlier times, theologians offered a series of proofs for the existence of God. Scientific theories of theogenesis often account for the notion of a generic God, and not for the Gods of particular religions, such as Marduk, Minerva, Zeus, Vishnu, Gabriel, Allah and the hundred other gods and god-like beings that have become part of the religious culture and psyche of humanity.

And yet, while one may challenge the logic that upholds anthropomorphic gods, one should also recognize that belief in a religious God is deep in the culture and personal mystical experience of billions of people. Not all theists are fools as atheists sometimes say, and not all atheists are evil either, as theists often believe.

As I see it, one cannot rule out on purely logical grounds an undergirding consciousness in the experienced world (the Hindu Brahman). The principle of metaphysical theism cannot be as easily demolished as notions of historical divinities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. On rational, irrational, and transrational

An ancient maxim, sometimes attributed to Aristotle, is that Man is a rational animal. We should take this to mean that human beings are capable of rational thinking, rather than that they are always rational. But what is rational thinking? Generally, we describe that as rational which conforms to basic logical reasoning, and is also consistent with well established facts of common experience and observation. Through evolution, human brains, though each is unique in its own way, share certain commonalties in their functioning. One of these is the universal logic to which normal brains conform.

Perhaps nowhere else are the principles of strict rational thought as meticulously and successfully applied as in mathematics and theoretical science. On the other hand, when it comes to issues involving history, politics, religion, and the like, logic is seldom unadulterated. Subtle factors, springing from emotions, ideals, frustrations,  and cultural conditioning come into action. They play important roles in our being human. Though they often color our reasoning, without them we would be merely thinking machines, spewing out impeccably correct results that follow from inputs to the brain, but devoid of the feelings that make life rich and meaningful.

Decades ago, during the horrific Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta, a Hindu mob circled a Muslim vegetable vendor at the Lake Market, and beat him up to death. This was irrational behavior. My father intervened and tried to prevent the lynching, risking his own safety and in vain. In that context, my father's behavior was not rational either. 

Reflecting on this episode years later, it occurred to me that there are, in fact, two ways in which one might deviate from rationality. The first is through the irrational mode. Here, one adopts positions or engages in actions which are grotesque, absurd, silly, and even dangerous. Abusing through words or deeds, regarding groups of people as inferior, refusing to accept evidence against one's cherished beliefs (such as the earth's rotundity, or biological evolution), are all examples of irrationality. None of us, scientists, mathematicians, scholars, intellectuals, whoever, is altogether immune from spurts of irrationality. Sometimes institutions, political ideologies, economic schemes, religious systems, or even governments, become irrational. Any individual or system that preaches needless hate and hurt qualifies as an irrational entity.

The second way in which one may digress from rationality is through beliefs and actions that are non-hurtful, fulfilling, uplifting, enriching, or helpful to others. I call this transrationality. Thus, while elements in the religious framework may be non-rational, religious behavior need not always be irrational. It can be transrational. Praying for the well-being of others, and going through the rites and rituals of a tradition, are instances of transrational acts. Doing an act of sacrifice, giving up one's own needs for the service of the sick and the needy, are transrational gestures. Religious doctrines which call for the death and destruction of those who don't subscribe to particular tenets or prophets, which deny salvation to non-believers, or deny spiritual rights to some members of one's own group, are all examples of irrationality in religious systems. On the other hand, singing hymns to the Divine and reading from time-honored texts are instances of transrational elements in religions. Transrational belief and behavior are meaningful and fulfilling.

    Art, poetry, and the tales in mythology are transrational.  They add to our aesthetic experience. But it is important reckon the distinction between the real which is related to rationality and the ideal or the imagined which may be transrational. Rationality must be respected for intelligent living, and transrationality cherished for meaningful life.

Variety of Views on Religion (VVR) 1