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Sunday, April 11, 2004

Hinduism Old and New


(This was originally part of the post below, as an aside about the violent Hindus, but it was long and didn't fit.)

Any of you who have taken world religion classes, and many of you who have Hindu friends, may be under the impression that Hinduism is, to its core, extremely tolerant and innately pluralistic and nonviolent. As Bob tells me frequently, all beliefs are acceptable to Hinduism, all people who have a knowledge of the divine in any form are Hindus, and it's just got a very tenuous connection to Indian culture to make it unique. These people who call for the murder of anyone who questions their version of Hinduism (including other varieties of Hindus), who go on rampages and kill thousands of Muslims, who demand that schools include astrology in their required science classes, are just aberrations and are perverting the eternally placid Hinduism.

However, the more I read, the more I realize that this is a belief that has really only been around in full force for eighty years or so, since the time of Gandhi, although the roots of nonviolence and its accompanying vegetarianism are in Buddhism and Jainism. Throughout the Vedas and the epics and other religious texts -- and many Hindu communities in South Asia -- there is very little hint of vegetarianism; it can really only be traced to a reaction against Buddhism and Jainism's massive spread. They've got animal sacrifices all across India to this day, but mostly in low-caste communities or in Bengal. From that time, as well, there are constant injunctions against joining those heretical religions (and other named and unnamed heresies that have since died out). Pluralism wasn't held in high regard. Of course, as with all religious and cultural systems, practices, epithets for the divine, and assorted beliefs changed over time, but it appears to have been an internal process influenced by the surroundings rather than a conscious adoption of the practices of the foreign neighbors.

For the next several centuries, the definitely non-pacifist warrior holds the place of honour in Hindu stories; when Arjuna has qualms about going into battle against friends and family, the avatar of Vishnu, Krishna, reminds him that his duty is to fight and kill, that fate has it all covered anyhow, and that pacifism for someone born a warrior will bring about his spiritual doom. True, Gandhi does interpret that speech (the Bhagavad-Gita) as one against war, but that's hardly a common interpretation.

Throughout the millennia, kings have been praised in stone and in song for their dharmic strength (their good Hindu-ness, before the word "Hindu" was coined), strength and divine honor that is shown by the ease with which they conquer all their enemies in battle. The one king who stands out, Ashoka, only became pacifist after becoming a Buddhist (and after he really had no land left to conquer, but that's another story). Throughout the twelfth through seventeenth centuries, the period I'm studying closest at the moment, the poets praise their kings for slaughtering the infidels (generally Muslim, by this time, but called "Turks") who do not have the proper respect for Brahmins. At least at the high-caste level, the level of the kings, the soldiers, and the priests, Hinduism was not conceived of as either non-violent or tolerant. I include only the high-caste level because "Hinduism" has generally been defined, in the modern period (that is, since the various religious beliefs of South Asia have been unified under the name of "Hinduism"), both by insiders and outsiders, as that system of beliefs common to the higher-caste members of society, with the folk-religions and tribal animism generally ignored until very recently; indeed, those who call themselves the more orthodox and who call on scriptures for support often claim that only the top three castes can consider themselves Hindu and can have access to the temples and the scriptures, while all others can simply hope to be born a Hindu in the next life. The low-caste and out-caste religious practices bear very little resemblance to what is taught in world religions classes as "Hinduism," but they are the communities who are truly and nearly invariably pluralist; there has been much delightful work done recently on these generally neglected communities and the way in which they have dissolved Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and high-caste Hinduism into their own belief systems and practices. [UPDATE: It's been frequently claimed, by western post-colonial theorists as well as by many South Asians of both militant and pacifist persuasions, that the move to non-violence came after the British Raj emasculated the Indian people. I know nothing of that cause-and-effect, but the timing's right.]

None of this is to say that not being non-violent is bad, or that not being vegetarian is bad, or not being pluralist is bad -- or, conversely, that being non-violent, vegetarian, and pluralist is bad. It's just to say that what modern westerners and many modern Indian Hindus think of when they think of "Hinduism" is not identical with most of the history of that religion. Bob and his very orthodox south Indian Brahmin family also agree with this thesis, that there has been a change on all those fronts, and they think that the change is good. It's not just Hinduism: for a small example, first century Christians looked down on braided hair as a sinful vanity; modern western Christians tend to see it as a modest and plain hairstyle, as women's hairstyles go. Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse; the fault here, in my eyes, is the refusal to believe that there has ever been change and the death-threats against anyone who suggests there was.

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