Deepavali marks the peak of the festive season. Though in this land festivals abound round the calendar, the religious fervour that begins with Gokulashtami, usually in August, runs a packed and continuous course till it subsides with Sankaranthi, in mid Jan. And if one were to add Ramzan, Christmas and the New Year to the scores of Hindu festivals that dot this period, not a soul in this far-flung country would be untouched by some spiritual celebration or the other. Indeed, the Gods, tired by persistent devotees, should be thinking of outsourcing some of their own divine duties!
The mood of the season does make one muse aloud. Is religion still relevant? For that matter, is it necessary at all? Would not the world be a better place – less divided and more peaceful – without it? Indeed, these questions have haunted the human mind for centuries and are being raised now with renewed vigour by atheists, agnostics and even some believers, particularly in the current context of global religious terror, and if I may add, TN’s ‘rational terror’. I, for one, am inclined to believe that such skepticism may be justified in West Asia, where most of the recent religions have originated and the West, to which they have primarily spread. The much touted clash of civilisations is a happening reality in these regions to our west because those religions are intrinsically watertight, they do not allow for multiple loyalties and are mutually exclusive: One can exist only at the expense of the other. The Indian Hindu experience, however, is totally different and precludes such scepticism.
While all faiths doubtless offer a vision and version of the Ultimate Reality, the western faiths are also political in nature. Territorial and demographic expansions form as much a core of those religions as spiritual pursuits. This is not so with oriental faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism wherein religion is solely a spiritual search. While there are wholly Islamic States and Christian States or at the least, surrogate Christian States, one can hardly find a Hindu State or a Buddhist State, strictly on the lines of the above. While medieval marauders and imperial colonisers had ensured that these oriental countries were adequately ‘secularised’, religion as a political vehicle had also never been part of the ethos of these nations, particularly India. Even Nepal, which is billed as a Hindu kingdom, has no zeal to expand Hinduism as such, even within its borders not to speak of beyond. For that matter even Bharat’s kings of yore, who coveted and conquered lands were not propelled by religion, and whatever impetus they gave to their own faiths were purely incidental and post facto. In any case, Hinduism and Buddhism have never relied on the sword to sustain themselves. Rather, religion in India has largely been confined to the intellectual and spiritual fora rather than battlefields. Even today, had Hindus lent themselves to be politically motivated or mobilised, as the minorities often tend to do, the BJP would be ruling with over 540 seats!
But let politics be. At a personal level too, without prejudice to friends of other faiths, I can say with pride (I concede it may not be fashionable or even prudent, though) that Hinduism, with its myriad godheads, festivals, rituals, traditions, sects and systems is the greatest celebration of God’s diverse creation. Theological criticism of Hinduism by proponents of other faiths is usually on two counts: Polytheism, i.e., worship of multiple gods and idolatry. Without being defensive or apologetic, both critiques can be taken head on. In fact, both are virtues that set apart Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma as a truly pluralist body of beliefs that accommodates all the possibilities that a human mind can conjure or will confront in its quest for the ultimate truth. In contrast to the ‘One God’ theologies, Hinduism’s motto is: There is only God! The entire creation is only a manifestation of the Supreme Reality. So, if the divine is inherent in every object, animate and inanimate alike, and the One is seen as several by divine design, what is wrong in acknowledging that divine diversity in worship? Instead, why impose a uniformity that is not there even in the creator’s scheme? Really, I would say that variety and choice is the spice of a Hindu’s religious life!
Idolatry? Why not? Thought is abstract and language gives it form. Music is abstract and notes give it different forms. If that be so for just human creations, how can one comprehend the supreme cosmic abstraction without visual or such other aids as idols and rituals? And just as thought finds expression in words and music flows through notes, the divine too could just as well manifest and even get embellished and enriched in those idols. The beholder believes, just as a reader relishes and a listener lilts. Their ‘satisfaction’ is adequate acknowledgement of the abstraction. But having said that, Hinduism does not lay store only by Idols. In the scriptures, the ultimate reality, Brahman, is referred to as ‘that’ — tat: no gender, no form, not even attributes! So if indeed, one is capable of perceiving that formless reality (Nirguna Brahman) without the aid of sense organs or physical objects, he is by all means welcome. There is no fatwa against that!
The lack of a single document or a sole founder is again not a weakness of Hinduism as is paraded. Rather, it stands as a bold admission of the fact that the ultimate truth cannot be confined to one book or to the wisdom of one messiah, whatever his mandate or mental maturity. Hinduism is not given to such human hubris and on the contrary, is frank in acknowledging human limitations vis-a-vis the mysteries of creation. It has the guts to say that there are other paths too, reason why Hindus have no problem in revering non-Hindu Gods without any conflict of faith. Hinduism does not preach paranoia nor is its Gods jealous. Its DNA is programmed to co-exist, not compete, with other faiths. Hence, there is no obligation for a Hindu to wage a holy war or swell his flock by securing the souls on sale. Again, if one chooses to shun it totally or court blissful ignorance of its tenets, one can still remain in the fold without fear of ex-communication. It is a self-confident, resilient faith that can handle all the atheists, secularists and even rationalists that society throws up.
Hinduism does not foreclose a spiritual seeker’s options and is quite open-ended: its pursuit of truth is an on-going process. The last ‘word’ is yet to be said. One can still add to the pool of knowledge, just as in science, without inviting charges of blasphemy. Also, the words of wisdom contained in the vedas, upanishads, ithihasaas etc are only guides and recommendations; they are by no means unalterable injunctions and one is expected to exercise one’s free will and be ready to face the consequences. At the end of the Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: I have said my bit, it is up to you to do what you think is fit! Indeed, such leverage and latitude allows a Hindu to choose his own personal pace and path in spiritual progress. The stress is on an individual aspirant, not on a congregation. Really, there are as many Hinduisms as there are Hindus! But despite its varied hues, there are several underlying commonolaties, besides festivals like Deepavali: the concepts of pava, punya, janma and karma and the faith in Navagrahas, to name some. I bet, the spouses of all those sethu-busters would now be busy propitiating the planets in a bid to offset their respective, if not respectful, husbands’ political adventurisms! Aah, Hindus, on the sly, too, can survive here!
But pride cannot camouflage the pitfalls. Hinduism is not without its blemishes and banes. Though no other religion has been subjected to as much scrutiny and reform as Hinduism, craters of ignominy remain, particularly in the social sphere. But such self-analysis will have to await another day. For now, let the festive spirit prevail.
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