Who is a Hindu? Hinduism’s DIY kit

Art by Devdutt Pattanaik

Published on 21st January, 2018, in Mumbai Mirror

What is the goal of Hinduism? If someone replies, ‘Moksha, liberation, from the cycle of birth and death,’ you witness the impact of British and American ideas on Hinduism. A more appropriate response would have been: Hinduism has no concept of goal. That’s an Abrahamic concept, like the Promised Land, or Heaven, something to be reached eventually. Hinduism is all about many lives, many births, each lifetime a unique product of karma, each with different needs and different capabilities. There cannot be a goal. Instead, Hinduism offers human life (purusha) meaning (artha), with four spices to be used in different proportions by different people in different periods of their different lifetimes: obligations (dharma), success (artha), pleasure (kama) and freedom (moksha).

The concept of purush-artha is at least 2,000 years old. Initially there were only three spices: dharma, artha and kama. Vyasa, composer of Mahabharata says, if one follows dharma, the other two follow. Vyasa refers to moksha-dharma in the Bhisma Parva, where the idea of freedom simply informs the idea of obligations. There is no special status is given to moksha.

Initially, Hinduism was all about dharma, which tempered the natural and default preferences: success and pleasure. Dharma was the social force that enabled human beings to do the right thing, think of others (para-jiva) before the self (svajiva), and this was institutionalised through marriage, the household rituals, and caste rules. The books on dharma, the dharma-shastras, saw the hermit’s life, one of giving up the world, and living as a monk, as an inferior choice, one that was acceptable to Hindus only after the completion of family life, when the children had children of their own.

The idea of giving up the world, of seeing it as source of misery, of delusions, is an idea that comes to us from the Buddha, who proposed nirvana (oblivion of the self) as the ultimate goal of his doctrine (dhamma, which is dharma in Pali), for nirvana alone ends all suffering. The Hindus rejected this vehemently.

In Hindu temples that started being built 2000 years ago, almost as a counter to Buddhist chaityas and viharas, deities got married (dharma), and enjoyed wealth and power of markets and kings (artha), and indulged in pleasure of boat rides, swings, and love-making (kama). No one spoke of liberation. It was all about enjoying this world, with responsibility.

Some sages had contemplated on the nature of reality in Upanishads, around the same time as the Buddha. But Hindu moksha was very different from Buddhist nirvana. Both spoke of liberation from birth and death cycles. While nirvana was oblivion of self, moksha was about merging of the individual soul (jiva-atma) with the cosmic soul (paramatma). This journey was facilitated by devotion (bhakti), duties (karma) and knowledge (gyana).

The wisdom of the Upanishads, which we now call Vedanta, was supposed to transform the king (raja) into the hermitking (tapasvee-raja) who upheld dharma in action and spirit, as we learn from the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. This is the basis of Yoga Vasishtha, where Ram wants to renounce the world, but his teacher makes him see the wisdom of dharma, and engage with the world.

Giving up marriage and giving up the material world started being valued in Hinduism about the same time as Buddhism started to wane from the Indian landscape 1200 years ago. This was the time that Buddhist monastic orders (sangha) started being replaced by Hindu monastic orders (matha, akhara), the earliest of which were set up by Shankara, who, some critics claim, appropriated Buddhist concepts and subsumed Buddhist practices into Hinduism.

These Hindu monastic orders were attached to temples. However, they were located outside the temple. Married priests and dancing girls (devadasi) performed the rituals in temples inside, not monks. Later, Ramanuja and Madhva, with their administrative skills, mingled Vedanta philosophy and the monastic orders with rituals of grand temple complexes, especially in the South. They also merged the doctrine of devotion (bhakti) with Vedanta. But visit to temples continued to be about worldliness, success and pleasure.

This idea was radically denied by Hindu reformers of the 19th century, who were embarrassed by Hindu materialism and sensuality. Under the British gaze, they were determined to make Hinduism more spiritual and otherworldly. Devadasis were driven out of temples, and labelled ‘prostitutes’. Dharma was reduced to casteism. The purpose of prayer was now only about liberation from caste, from family life, from success and pleasure, from the material world. In a way, Hindu temples were seen as Jain temples, where monasticism reigns supreme, not as anchors of material life. This reformation of Hinduism, which made Hindus less worldly suited the colonisers well.

Today, the Hindu monks dominate Hindu thought. The temple culture of material success, sensory pleasure and responsible worldly life is all but obscured by conversations on liberation. The singular goal of moksha is used to shame people who seek pleasure, burden the successful with guilt, and pretend to be noble and otherworldly. Simultaneously dharma has been reduced to a set of ‘commandments’ designed by politicians to torment non-Hindus. It is clearly time to reclaim the diversity offered by the four spice model of purusha-artha, which has been denied by the moksha-centric approach.