Sunday, September 06, 2009

The dilemma of a liberal Hindu

With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs, says Gurcharan Das

I was born a Hindu, in a normal middle-class home. I went to an English-medium school where I got a modern education. Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hinduism. My father, however, took a different path. While studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly guru who inspired him with the possibility of direct union with God through meditation. The guru was a Radhasoami saint, who quoted vigorously from Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, Bulleh Shah and others from the bhakti and sufi traditions.

Growing up Hindu was a chaotically tolerant experience. My grandmother visited the Sikh gurudwara on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays; she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses by holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between, she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies when someone died or was born. Her dressing room was laden with the images of her gods, especially Ram and Krishna and she used to say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. My grandfather would laugh at her ways, but my pragmatic uncle thought that she had smartly taken out plenty of insurance so that someone up there would eventually listen.

I grew up in this atmosphere with a liberal attitude - that is a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for my tradition. Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends — from the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. Hindu nationalists have appropriated my past and made it into a political statement of Hindutva. Secularists have contempt for all forms of belief and they find it odd that I should cling to my Hindu past. Young, successful Indians, at the helm of our private and public enterprises, have no time or use for the classics of our ancient tradition.

A few years ago, I told my wife that I wanted to read the Mahabharata in its entirety. I explained that I had read the Western epics but not the Indian ones. She gave me a sceptical look, and said, “It’s a little late in the day to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?” To my chagrin, I became the subject of animated discussion at a dinner party soon after.

“So, what is this I hear about wanting to go away to read old books”, asked my hostess, “aren’t there any new ones?” She gave my wife a sympathetic look.

“Tell us, what you plan to read?” asked a retired civil servant who had once been a favourite of Indira Gandhi. He spoke casually as though he was referring to the features of a new Nokia phone. I admitted that I had been thinking of the Mahabharata.

“Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?”

I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to think that reading an epic was a political act. I was reminded of a casual remark by a Westernized woman in Chennai who said that she had always visited a Shiva temple near her home, but lately she had begun to hide this from her fiercely secular friends, who she feared might paint her in saffron.

With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit to being Hindu for fear they will be linked to the RSS. Liberal Christians and liberal Muslims abroad have had the same experience. Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists. Not only do they not believe in God, they actually hate God. As rationalists they can only see the dark side of religion -- intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism and cannot empathize with the everyday life of the common Indian for whom religion gives meaning to every moment. Secularists speak a language alien to the vast majority, so they are only able to condemn communal violence but not to stop it, as Mahatma Gandhi could, in East Bengal in 1947.

Part of the problem stems from ignorance. Our children do not grow up reading our ancient classics, certainly not with a critical mind as youth in the West read their works of literature and philosophy in school and college. In India, some get to know about epics from their grandmothers; others read the stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics or watch them in television serials.
If Italian children can read Dante’s Divine Comedy in school, English children can read Milton and Greek children can read the Illiad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? It is true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods and in particular that elusive divinity, Krishna, who is up to all kinds of devious activities. But so are Dante, Milton and Homer filled with God or gods?

I suspect Mahatma Gandhi would have understood my dilemma about teaching the Mahabharata in our schools. He instinctively grasped the place of the epic in an Indian life and he would have approved of what V S Sukthankar wrote: “The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it." The epic has given me great enjoyment in the past six years and I have become a Mahabharata addict. I feel sad that so many boys and girls in India are growing up rootless, and they will never have access to these forbidden fruits of pleasure.

As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each other’s beliefs as well as the atheism of non-believers. Hindu nationalists must resist hijacking our religious past and turning it into votes. Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India.

34 comments:

Prats said...

I can't agree with you more on this. This is so true. Even I got a similar response when I told my friend that my fav book till date is Shri Bhagwad Gita. I don't think that they understand these epics are beyond the realm of any religion it is not only sacred but also some of the ultimate treatise in Humanity.

Shoonya said...

I completely agree with you on this.

The pseudo intellectuals / secularists probably think a liberal hindu is an oxymoron. They have become used to the words hindu chauvinist / saffron oriented / hindu fundamentalists etc.

Although 'secular' in absolute terms is absence of religion, it should be understood differently in indian context. As long as we do not mix religious interests of communities with their economic and political interests, religious practices will do no harm to our secularist society.

DS said...

Sir,

I agree with your post 'The dilemma of a liberal Hindu' completely. It is a very sad fact that a lot of our countrymen do not understand the importance of the 2 best epics in the world - Ramayana & Mahabharata. I was very fortunate that my grand mother narrated stories of Ramayana almost every single day of my childhood. These were just stories then but they got imprinted in me and always stayed in some corner of my mind. Later in life when I started reading about mythology it was not alien as the context was always there in some corner.

Many of my generation (I am 29) are not that fortunate and some don't care. Others just thing it is just one another cock and bull story while they are fascinated with Roman mythology. What is ours is not good. But if it somebody else's then it is marvelous. These people will never be able to explain the importance of these epics to their children as they themselves do not believe in it. We are in danger of losing connection with these epics and not being able to draw from their wealth of knowledge.

At the same time I believe that these epics are so great that it will sustain the test of time. They can be hated but not ignored. It is great that people like Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik (http://devdutt.com) and you continue to write about our mythology highlighting the teachings in a contemporary manner.

My intention of writing to you is not just to convey my appreciation for you. I write to you with a humble request.

I believe that we should write these epics in different formats and as series of short stories which can target different age groups and can also be used as text books for different classes. These stories should act as moral guidelines so that later in life when people encounter similar situations they can dig deep and draw from these stashes located in some corner of their minds.

Anyway your latest book, I guess, starts with educating our generation about dharma so that these can be trickled down later. Probably that is a subtle start to the long journey!

Regards,
Dilip

Vinod said...

I do not have any dilemma at all in being a Hindu.

Since I know that we all our just, pure human beings, I have no dilemma or need to identify myself as a Hindu or Non-Hindu.

Dear Gurcharan Dass Ji, If you are really in a dilemma over calling yourself a Hindu, then please give me a chance to remove all your doubts or dilemmas.

But if you are raising this question just as an intellectual query then this dilemma will be there foreover.

But if you are experiencing this dilemma in your personal life, then I will be more than delighted to remove this dilemma in the mind of such a successful person like you.

I repeat : I am a thorough Hindu in the sense that I follow the life principles as advocated in our Upanishads and other ancient sages. And I have no dilemma at all in calling myself a Hindu.

I can explain you more if required.

Vinod Kad
kad.vinod@gmail.com

Badal said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for such a wonderful talk yesterday at IIMB on your new book ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’.

You come across as a genuine person open to dialogue giving valuable insights.

I particularly liked your explanation of ‘Cosmic Justice’ and the thought that it would have been a different story had Buddha been in place of Krishna.

I wonder if in the book you have explored the feeling of ‘Samarpan’ (Surrender) which is at the heart of The Gita, a part the Mahabharata. The issue of morality is surely very ambiguous as you rightly said. The energy of enquiry with a genuine openness to knowing the Truth and acting upon it does help, but at times when one is confused, Krishna advises Arjuna to Surrender to Him.

Ananth Vaidyanathan in the introduction of Kishori Amonkar's album inspired by Meera Bhanjans titled 'Samarpan says:

"...To survive is an animal instinct. To conquer is a base human desire. Samarpan or to surrender is the first act of being truly human, the first footstep towards attaining the divine. Surrender is not supplication. Surrender is the act of freeing oneself from the trap of the human design. To surrender is to let go of the belief that I am on my own, and I am my only protector. To surrender is to dive into the ocean of conviction that life is a divine design, and I can play in that pool of divine love like a child.

...Surrender is the first step to true living - the first door to the world of genuine joy. Surrender opens up a world of immense brightness, serenity, peace and happiness..."

I just felt like sharing this with you as Surrendering to a Higher Force has helped me. A friend of mine says “paradoxically, to be free one has to surrender!”

Tulasidasji in Sri Ramcharitamanas writes in praise of a Gyani Bhakta, a person who strikes a balance between Wisdom and Devotion.

I like your name which means ‘a person who has surrendered to a Higher Force’!

A Sufi considers him fortunate to have had an opportunity to Surrender oneself at the Feet of the Guru.

In my experience being good puts one’s body and mind to ease and peace, whereas indulging in bad actions creates stress and disease. The mind has to be manipulative, cunning, scheming and afraid that someone will discover the truth and prove him guilty. This stress manifests as diseases on physical level.

Your book seems lovely. I’ll read it. Hope many bad people read it and get transformed into good people :)

Warm regards,
Badal Suchak
(badal.suchak@gmail.com)

ms said...

gurcharanjee, it has always been fashionable to be seen as secular, even at the cost of preserving one's religious identity. i hear the admiration and awe when people say that this person attends friday prayers and is 5-times namazi. but say that one goes to the temple once a week and has interest in the hindu epics and can recite one or two "chaalisas" -you are a fanatic and "so backward". ditto attitude towards those who attend sunday mass and display vatican pictures in their homes. i am forced to quote acharya rajneesh (who never impressed me with his brand of religion) where he says that religion should be like our inner garments: everyone should have one but never on public display.

Anirudh blog said...

I absolutely agree with you. I am struggling to live with dignity and dignity of labour being a liberal Hindu. My journey as a rationalist, secularist and now a liberal Hindu taught me a lesson that the secularism talk only fine in paper. But in reality, I observed that Hindu ratioinalist/ secularist argue against Hindu/Hinduism, while Muslim rationalist will not come strongly against the religion but talk about Hindism, while Christian rationalist/ secularist talk against Hinduism but not against Christianity and their practice. The so called secularist don't want to talk about value system,civil liberty, openness and have a clear hidden agenda in their mind.

In my real life experience, our society is rasically biased and the upper caste liberal section facing for the dilemma being liberal hindus, like you, like me.In India for the liberal Hindus, there is no platform and some organisations in the name of Hindu, Christian and Muslim trying to implement barbarian agenda.

Swetha said...

Hi,

One major problem is we cannot go public and say I love Ramayana or Mahabharata if we say that we are branded as fanatics of religion or followers of RSS but there in one another major problem I feel to be addressed and I being a big fan of your writings feel if people like you take up this issue it would reach to a larger set of audience.

The problem I was talking is religion, prayers and God being seen only as a way to fulfill worldly desires keeping aside the actual thought of divinity I see these days most people going to temples or performing puja's to get some worldly things like...
for example I pass this exam I will perform this puja...I buy a flat...my daughter gets married I will visit some temple...do some vrath...or offer something to God..I guess this kind of publicty for the religion is not so desired...there should be some one to tell people that there is something more(actually much more) to religion and God beyond this worldy acheivements....

I definetly agree reading our great epics with right intention will change the mindsets but I dont think anyone these days are even bothered to know about our great treasures.. we are in a pathetic situation of having such wonderful treasures but not being able to use the...

Finally as quoted by Sri Krishna everything in life happens for a purpose and everything that happens happens for GOOD..with that belief I am optimistic that this phase of our religion or Nation is happening for some purpose and has some good to happen..

Hope for the best to come..

--Swetha.

ranaga said...

When saffron has been made a color of discomfort for the elite and it is looked down upon by the media without any realization that saffron meant a part of our national flag and the sacrifices that the millions of Indians did in order to achieve independence, then the joke is on Hindu Indian. By reframing symbols any civilization can be made a mockery off for the financial interests of the few. Secularism does not mean that the symbols of the majority should undergo ridicule to protect the minority expression of their symbols and religious rites. When learned people like Gurcharan Das needs to flinch at the mention of word “saffron” , then it is for him to address his own short coming. It is only those few who truly believed in their own religion and its symbol who got the establishment of their countries like, Israel and Pakistan. Liberal elites never won a movement for they always stayed on the side lines waiting for the fight to be over to join the game. India will soon find its color as ever so often external colors come and go like the rainbow. For all said and done, our Motto is “Truth alone triumphs”. Dharma never fails.
Ram Kumar

zoomindianmedia said...

Gucharan

Namaskar

There are people offended by this innocuous word Namaskaar, especially the ones that believe Diwali is pollution causing wastage of resources while xmas is celebration of greatest thing that ever happened.

This is an outcome of the xian/islamic civilisational assault that goes on against native Indian beliefs under the garb of secularism. You are perceptive enough to understand that the above assertion is not untrue. Indian Government's selective targeting of
temple control, temple property, attack on Karnataka priests by communists in Nepal are some of the manifestations of this assault.

When someone equivocates between seculars and Hindutvavadis, s/he is probably guilty of the 1/4th sin that Mahabharat apportions to the silent accomplice to the crime that cites "Hamaam Mein Sab Nange Hain" and refuses to take a dharmic position. The blog post speaks out why the costs of absence of moral clarity on this issue will remain high.

http://zoomindianmedia.wordpress.com/2009/06/30/radha-krishna/

Common natives instinctively seem to understand the moral position and ground realities better than the intellectuals. There are chowkidars of apartments that see with perspicacity, RSS is one force standing between complete islami-isaisation of India/undermining of native traditions.

Heart of the issue in India is that Dharma has a higher chance of success with RSS/BJP on the reins rather than congress I (islami-isai). Ratan Tata et al. instinctively seem to grasp this as they publically batted for NaMo, BJP.

disjointedlaptop said...

I happen to be from a generation that has grown watching Mahabharata on DD and attending catechism on Sundays. Though I do not believe there is a God, I respect the significance He holds in the life of an average human. However, more than God religion talks about how one should lead their life. A rule book to life, in a sort.

The question of religion is a matter of one's own faith and belief. It is wrong for anyone to question someone else's faith or exploit it. But most religions are tainted with propaganda and there are many who exploit religion for the same. It is necessary to identify the right from the wrong.

In the end, may your faith guide you in the right way.

Benedict G said...

Sir,
Iam writing this since I do not have your email ID. I have been reading you blog and your newspaper articles regularly, the one you wrote recently on 'mythology to be taught' in schools was wonderful. I completely agree with you on this.

On behalf of TEDx Chennai I wish to invite you to speak on this subject - mythology in schools, creating thought leaders, our spiritual wealth etc... We have planned to have the event on Nov 29th 2009... It would be great to have you in Chennai for this. My email id - benedictg@gmail.com

Kapileswar Bolisetti said...

In someways I disagree with you. I don't find the discomfort of being a Hindu. Neither do any of my friends. Not just being Hindu but Christian or Islamic. The reason probably is our middle class back grounds. Infact its a matter pride within my circle of friends to be religious and reading books religious importance, either Bhagavatham or Quran. However, from your post it seems to be pain point among the self proclaimed elitist community. This shows the gap between the so called intelligentsia and the common man. To add to the note I live in US with friends/colleagues from various nationalities and religions and atheists too.

Orso Raggiante said...

Excellent post. I agree with your experiences wholeheartedly as I have experienced the same. However, I am not afraid of being painted saffron or Red or whichever hue people are in the mood for on a given day. After a while, they give up on the reductive analysis and actually start listening to you.

BV said...

Thanks to you & this column, I'm realizing my poverty of knowledge of India's epics.

Realization, as they say, is the first step.

Abhishek Chaudhari said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abhishek Chaudhari said...

Agreed with this dilemma of liberal hindu. But Hindus in general facing a kind of dilemma, a kind of identity crisis. The very notion of so called Secularism becomes contradictory to Indian context. Agreed, attempts were made to put it in Indian context by Gandhiji, Nehru and others at the time of independence. But not revised latter on according to changed situation. Even after 60 years, we still argue with same kind of arguments Nehru had put. The legacies of these days still haunts on us not allowing us to cross the Rubicon.

Need is what legendary veteran Gangadhar Gadgil wrote to Sonia Gandhi. India needs Pluralism and not secularism as such, as Secularism brings issue communalism with it and whole debate gets perverted. So, it will be difficult for secularism to find comfort in India.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure I understand your objection to the RSS/Hindu Nationalists. Which of their positions do you disagree with? All that Hindu nationalists say is that the Hindus have been a civilization for 5000 years or so. That our nationhood is based on that civilization, much as America is said to be based on Judeo-Christianic civilization. I find nothing objectionable in that. If you want to call them a 100 derogatory names, pl. don't let me stop you, but your writing indicates a lack of clarity as to why you object to them.

M said...

Mr.Das, what do you think Krishna would have done if he was in the place of Raama when Kaikeyi asked her wish to Dasarath to ask Raama to leave on Vanvas for 12 years?

would have krishna upheld the dharma of a kshatriya and told kaikeyi that her unjust baseless wishes wont be heeded to or he would have upheld the honor of his father and went off for vanvas?

Hindu Friend said...

I really pity you. You want yourself be be recognized as "Secular" at the same time you want to be recognized as 'Liberal Hindu'. in spite of your liberal attitude If someone calls you a 'Fundamentalist' you fear a lot. Your EGO wants you to be recognized as a 'Secular and Liberal Hindu'. For the sake of that title you are ready to forsake 'Dharma' and 'Satya'. All you want is a title 'Liberal Hindu'.

What is Liberal Hinduism? Hinduism itself is Liberal. Had it not been soft and flexible, no other religion would have entered our country. Softness, compassion and mobility is the philosophy of Hindus. What is Fundamental Hinduism? I don't know.

I'm not from RSS but still i don't fear to be branded as 'RSS'. I'm not prejudiced like you about RSS.
Hindu civilization is something of which I am very proud of. If that is evidence of my being 'communal/fundamentalist/RSS',then my inner voice tells me, 'SO BE IT'"

Gandhi could deal with Britishers who tend to pose as morally superior to any other race but Imagine Gandhi dealing with Aurangazeb/Hitler/Stalin in same style.

Gideon Thomas Mathson said...

A very interesting blog. The dilemma is understandable. However some of the comments that followed were disturbing.

Perhaps I could add a perspective while publicizing a blog I wrote recently about the Ayodhya verdict: http://spontaneousorder.in/?p=1293

AC said...

I agree with you completely. I have seen this bigotry and double standards of the so-called secular Hindus who so easily bash a religion and its scriptures, without knowing anything about it (and sometimes possibly quoting some disconnected verses from here and there). I have faced backlash from my friends when I said my fav book is Bhagwad Gita but that hasn't stopped me from saying it in public--above all, I have to be true to my own self.

Civilian Commando said...

Dear Gurcharan das !Please read my article on blog civilian commando ,titled : Nightmare trauma of son of a 1947 Indian partition refugee!

thanks,

naresh sehgal

mail.nsehgal@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Respected Sir, I have read both your books, 'The difficulty of being good' and 'India Unbound'. I have understood Indian history better, reading 'India unbound', than I had understood while reading Indian history in my social studies class. I want to expose my children to Indian history. Could you please recommend books on Indian history. My kids are 11 yers old. My kids have read biography on Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teressa and a lot of amar chitra katha books on kings, saints of India. They are avid readers and have enjoyed reading Rajgopalachari's 'Ramayana'. My email id is vbalakrishna@nc.rr.com

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Mahesh said...

nice post! really it was good reading the article, can anyone please provide lingashtakam which will be chanted in favour of lord shiva..

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