3 The Spiritual Centre of Hindu Society
3 - The Spiritual Centre of Hindu Society
Hindu society has had to go on the defensive against monotheistic creeds masquerading as religion mainly because it has lost consciousness of the spiritual centre round which its religious, cultural and social life has revolved, and which has sustained it through the ages.
Hindu society has failed to fathom the chasm which separates its own sterling spirituality from the “only true” creeds because it has fallen in love with a dead uniformity in place of a living plurality prescribed by its own spiritual centre.
Hindu society will never be able to win the debate with thoughtless theologies unless it rediscovers its own spiritual centre, and holds in its hands the scales of yogic spirituality on which alone all theologies should be weighed for whatever worth they have.
It was an active awareness of its spiritual center which emboldened Hindu society, at the very dawn of its history, to explore all varieties of religious experience, to evolve endless ways of religious worship, to express its philosophical insights in many metaphysical points of view, and to project its plastic genius in many forms of language, literature and art.
It was an active awareness of its spiritual centre which encouraged Hindu society to experiment with cultural, social, economic, and political pluralism on a scale such as has been unknown to any other human society.
It was an active awareness of this spiritual centre which provided an inner stability to Hindu society in the midst of outer change, and which proved its inexhaustible source of strength in weathering the vicissitudes of worldly fortune.
Hindu awareness of its spiritual centre suffered a steep decline after a long spell of spectacular creativity in all fields of human endeavour. Hindu society also suffered a corresponding decline of its vitality and vigour. Even so the awareness remained sufficiently strong to see Hindu society through a few more storms.
One of these storms was the Islamic invasion which brought death and destruction to large parts of the Hindu homeland. But thanks to the still surviving awareness of its spiritual centre, Hindu society was able to preserve its patrimony in the face of a totalitarian imperialism spreading fire and sword, pillage and rapine for a thousand years.
It was the still surviving awareness of its spiritual centre which enabled Hindu society to stick to its own Gods and Goddesses and to honour its own seers and saints, in the midst of a large-scale desecration and destruction of its temples at the hands of Muslim swordsmen, and harrowing humiliation of its holy men and women by haughty Muslim hoodlums. Some of these swordsmen and hoodlums styled themselves as sultans and sufis, and proclaimed that they had been commissioned by an almighty Allah to spread the latest and the last ilham (revelation). But Hindu society refused to be hoodwinked by the honorifics donned by these disciples of the Devil.
It was the still surviving awareness of its spiritual centre which steeled Hindu society to witness the sacrifice by fire of hundreds of thousands of its daughters who cherished their chastity above every allurement offered by the Islamic marauders. Some of these marauders were known as kings and generals, governors and great dignitaries, qazis and mullahs, living in mansions full of every kind of luxury available in the world at that stage of human history. But few daughters of Hindu society yielded willingly and voluntarily to the amorous advances of these animals masquerading as men.
It was the still surviving awareness of its spiritual center which inspired Hindu society to send hundreds of thousands of its sons into unequal battles and inevitable martyrdom against a militarily superior monster. Countless Hindu heroes courted death in defence of their heritage and honour rather than seek power and pelf in the courts of Muslims swordsmen masquerading as monarchs.
And it was a resurgence of its spiritual centre which rallied Hindu society round a counter-attack which rolled back the Islamic invasion, and wrested victory from a ferocious and formidable foe. At the same time, a victorious Hindu society was prevented by its spiritual centre from being vindictive towards an erstwhile enemy, and extending to him the same treatment which he had meted out to Hindus during the days of his own domination. Muslims could have easily met the same fate in India as they did in Spain, had not this spiritual centre of Hindu society intervened and saved them from a holocaust which the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet have prescribed for defeated adversaries.
Hindu society was humbled once more by another invader who swore by another but a similar closed creed. The Christian missionaries mounted a vicious and well-planned attack on the outer forms as well as the inner core of the Hindu heritage. Hindu awareness of the Hindu spiritual centre revived once more and the Christian attack was not only contained but also reversed. Hindu thought stormed into the strongholds of Christianity in Europe and America. Hindu religion and philosophy lent a helping hand to the revival of humanism and rationalism in the modern West against a fanaticism which had dyed Europe deep with several hundred years of bloodshed.
What is this spiritual centre of Hindu society?
We must first understand quite clearly as to what it is not, before we come anywhere near comprehending it in all its dimensions. This negative approach has been rendered necessary because the language of religion has been confused by Christianity and Islam to such an extent that darkness now passes for light, the Devil for the Divine, vice for virtue, and vice versa.
The spiritual centre of Hindu society is not constituted by the book or al-kitab revealed by an almighty Jehovah or Allah to a Chosen People, through the only saviour or the last prophet, at a particular point in human history. Nor is it a Church or Ummah entrusted with the mission of saving mankind, if need be, by force and fraud. All these formulations of religious doctrine are inspired and sustained by the dark drives of an unregenerate human nature.
Three Sublimities of SanÃtana Dharma
Hindu seers and sages as also Hindu shastras, no matter to what Hindu sect they belong, designate this spiritual centre of Hindu society as Sanatana Dharma. This designation can be loosely translated into English as the Perennial Philosophy or the Permanent Principle of Sustenance.
Firstly, Sanatana Dharma says that the aspiration for Truth (satyam), Goodness (Śivam), Beauty (sundaram), and Power (aiśvarya) is inherent in every soul, everywhere, and at all times, like the physical hunger of the body for food and drink. The satisfaction of this spiritual aspiration is neither dependent upon, nor waits for, a particular prophet or revelation, as the physical hunger has never been dependent upon, or waited for, a particular pioneer in food production or a particular textbook of food technology. The soul of the spiritual seeker in all ages and among all races of mankind has soared upwards till it has found its true status in its own heights.
Secondly, Sanatana Dharma states that spiritual aspiration cannot come to rest till it overcomes all limitations of human nature, lower as well as higher, and emerges as master of one-self. Simultaneously, one emerges as master of the universe also because human nature, in all its dimensions, is a segment of Universal Nature. One arrives at the end of one’s spiritual quest only when, Buddha-like, one can say to oneself: “I have known whatever is to be known; there is nothing more to be known. I have attained whatever is to be attained; there is nothing more to be attained. I have done whatever is to be done; there is nothing more to be done.” This is the boundless bounty which flows from becoming a Buddha. This is the mighty meaning of becoming a Mahavira.
Thirdly, Sanatana Dharma promises this supreme fulfilment, this acme of attainment, to every being born in a world brimming with blind forces of Nature, ignorance, evil, suffering, disease, deprivation, and death. The path is summed up in three spiritual steps-self-exploration, self-purification, and self-transcendence. One has to travel inwards and upwards, and reverse the law of human nature in the raw which is outwards and downwards. This reversal is not brought about by an outer baptism but by an inner opening. The very first perception of the earliest Hindu seers has been - yatha piNDe tatha brahmaNDe (as in the microcosm, so in the macrocosm), that is, the way to world-discovery is through self-discovery.
The Upanishadic prescription, atmanam viddhi (know thyself) is a variation on the same theme. It leads to the same attainment - aham brahmo’smi (I am Brahma), tat tvam asi (thou art That), and sah tadasti (he is That). It is a steep spiritual ascent at the end of which the Ãtman (Self) becomes Paramatman (Supreme Self), and the PuruSa (Person) becomes PuruSottama (Superperson). In the language of Theism, man becomes God.
Here there is no place for an almighty Jehovah or Allah, sitting outside and above the Cosmos, communicating with his creatures through the medium of a privileged historical person, and coercing them through a Holy Roman Emperor or an Amir-ul-mu’minin to conform to a closed code of moral and social conduct. Here there is no place for a world-wide warfare between a True One God who has to be wooed and worshipped, and the False Many Gods who have to be disowned and destroyed. Here there is no command for Crusade or Jihad by a Church or an Ummah for spreading the “only true creed” at the point of the sword.
Nor is a metaphysical speculation of any sort relevant to this spiritual seeking which has an entirely and intensely practical purpose. The Buddha was so indifferent to metaphysical questions that most of the time he fell silent when he was faced with them. He always repudiated all metaphysical curiosities with the stern rebuke: “How will it avail you if you accept or reject this theoretical postulate or that? The problem is practical. There is all this suffering. The suffering has a cause. And whatever has a cause can be cured. I tell you of the cause, and also of the cure.” Patañjali systematised this curative prescription into a scientific discipline, the system of Yoga, locating all landmarks and signposts along the path in purely psychological terms, without reference to any metaphysical proposition.
One is, therefore, free not to give any name to the Self which seeks the Truth. One is free not to accept the ontological language of Ãtman and Paramatman, PuruSa and PuruSottama. One is free to describe the spiritual experience in cryptic aphorisms or sonorous songs, or to say that it is indescribable and fall silent. It is the discovery and not the description which is significant. All sects of Sanatana Dharma share this discovery in common, and have their starting point in it.
It is this spiritual centre of Hindu society which has been the watershed of many ways of worship, each with its own outer forms; many religious sects, each with its own private and public rituals; many shastras, each with its own language and metaphor; and many metaphysical points of view, each with its own ontology, epistemology, axiology, and ethics. They are like the streams of crystal clear water which spring from the same snow-clad Himalayan heights, which become many rivers as they meander through the plains with many villages, towns and ferries on their banks, and which merge in the same Great Ocean to become one wide spread of water once more.
True and False Universalism
This is the basis of true universalism envisaged by Sanatana Dharma. One is free to take a start according to one’s own individual stage of spiritual evolution and preparation (adhara), and also free to follow along the curve of one’s own cultural moorings, one’s own individual inclination and aptitude (adhikara). The pace of spiritual progress can be slow or fast, evolutional or revolutional, depending upon the drive towards divinity which one feels within oneself. One is free to choose this form of worship or that, this round of ritual or another, this religious sect or a different one, this philosophy or some other speculation.
Here there is no place for that counterfeit universalism which has only one closed concept of God, one dogmatic designation of the deity, one fixed form of faith, one regimented mode of worship, one rigid code of moral conduct, and one strait-jacket of social culture. Here there is no place for hysterical harangues to conform to the One True God’s commandments in the only life one has, and no forced pace by fear of an eternal hell or promise of an eternal heaven. On the contrary, here one can start again after every false step, wander away and wait till the inner call comes again, and resume the journey in as many rebirths as are required to arrive at the ultimate goal of final freedom from bondage.
It is this sterling universalism of its spiritual centre which has sustained Hindu society as a spacious platform for the free play of a large number of spiritual traditions, and for the fullest functioning of a still larger number of religious denominations. Hindu society has never known the religious strife which has characterised the closed creeds throughout their history.
There have been prolonged and many a time heated debates among different Hindu religious sects and Hindu schools of philosophy. Some sects and schools have also used sometime a vituperative language about the precepts or practices or both of some other sects and schools. But there has never been breaking of heads, nor killing of heretics, nor a desecration or destruction of rival shrines or shastras, nor a marshalling of military forces in a war against another religious community, such as has blackened the annals of Christianity and Islam.
Hindu history has known many monarchs who subscribed to this or that particular religious prescription in their private lives. But Hindu history has seldom known a prince who patronized his own sect to the exclusion of others, or persecuted sects other than his own, as has been the standard practice of potentates most highly honoured in Christian and Muslim history.
Hindu society has sent out many saints and sages to distant lands down the ages. But Hindu society has never equipped an armed force to impose its own Gods on other people by fire and sword, as has been done by Christian and Muslim societies whenever they got an opportunity.
There is no sociological explanation for the votaries of the Vedas, the Jains, the Buddhists, the Vaishnavas, the Shaivas, the Shaktas, the Alvars, the Nayanars, the Sikhs, and many other Hindu sects never exchanging blows in pursuit of power, or privilege, or prestige for people of their own persuasion. There is no sociological explanation for several members of the same family subscribing to as many religious doctrines and yet living amicably under the same roof.
There is no political explanation for princes engaged in warfare but never quoting a shastra in support of their defensive or aggressive designs. There is no political explanation for no conqueror casting a covetous eye on any religious place, howsoever rich its coffers may have been in gold and silver and precious stones.
There is no economic explanation for rajas and rich men contributing with even-handed munificence towards the building of rival religious shrines or towards maintaining the monasteries of rival religious orders. There is no economic explanation for every householder extending equal hospitality to monks and mendicants who come to their doors in multifarious attire, and who invoke for their hosts the blessings of different deities.
It is very often stated by students of Hindu culture that Hindus have a genius for unity in diversity. But Hindus have never claimed to be the Chosen People who are radically different from other members of the human family, either in terms of native propensities or in terms of creative capacity. In fact, Hindus are never tired of repeating that all human beings, in all places and at all times, are similarly constituted, have the same appetites and aspirations, can descend to the same depths and rise to the same heights. In fact, Hindus have always failed to understand why people do not practise religious tolerance, and continue to quarrel over questions of no relevance to spiritual seeking.
The only explanation for this Hindu broad-mindedness, this Hindu spirit of religious tolerance, and this open psyche of the Hindus towards all currents and cross-currents of thought and culture, is to be found in the spiritual centre of Hindu society. It is this spiritual centre which has given to Hindu society a calm and quiet dignity of its own, and a compassion which reaches out equally not only to all members of the human family but also to all elements in the human environment-the insects, the animals, the birds, the creepers, the plants, the trees, the rivers, the oceans, the mountains, and the minerals deposited in the womb of Mother Earth.