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The essence of Hinduism is spiritual freedom - The Hindu

N. S. Rajaram ()
April 28, 1998

Title: The essence of Hinduism is spiritual freedom
Author: N. S. Rajaram
Publication: The Hindu
Date: April 28, 1998

If there is one feature that stands above all others in Hinduism
it is pluralism: there is no one chosen path and no one chosen
people. As a result, there is no division of the world into
mutually exclusive camps of believers and non-believers. All
paths of spiritual exploration are valid, and there are no such
things as heresy and blasphemy.

What is Hinduism? Is it the observance of festivals such as
Deepavali and rituals such as the daily sandhya-vandana? Is it
reverence for the Vedas as the word of God, faith in the message
of the Bhagavadgita, or is it universal tolerance? And tolerance
- does it include unlimited tolerance of the evil? Is it total
pacifism, a belief that nothing is worth defending or worth
fighting for? Is it some or all of these?

When faced with these questions I find that the first difficulty
that a modern Hindu - especially a "westernised Hindu' like
myself - faces in defining Hinduism to others stems from his
difficulty in defining it to himself As a result his reaction is
defensive, and he mumbles something like ssential truth in all
religions or sarva dharma samatva or some such equally
meaningless platitude.

A basic problem that the Hindus are saddled with is that through
the centuries, particularly in the last century or so, educated
Indians have unconsciously acquired the habit of looking at their
tradition through western eyes. These western ndologists -
most of whom were Christian - applied their own yardstick to the
study of Indian scriptures and practices. This resulted in a
distortion of perspective. The vision and vocabulary of a
revealed religion like Christianity or Islam are fundamentally
unsuited to describing Hinduism, for Hinduism is an evolved
tradition and not a revealed religion. It is also pluralistic,
while Christianity and Islam are exclusivist - for they
acknowledge no beliefs other than their own as legitimate.

The problem is not just lack of sympathy, or even the history of
conflicts: it is the limitation of the concept of religion as the
revelations of a book or it prophet found in creeds like
Christianity and Islam in describing an evolving tradition.
Trying to understand Hinduism in terms of a revealed belief
system or creed is like trying to understand Quantum Mechanics
through Newton's flaws of Motion. it just cannot be done. One
must try to understand Hinduism on its own terms, and not in
terms of the internal and external features borrowed from other
creeds. This is what I shall try to do approaching the task as a
student of science who is by no means a devout Hindu.

The Rigveda, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures is said to have
always existed. As a scientist I find that claim hard to accept.
There must have been a time in the history of the world when what
is contained in the Rigveda did not exist. But there Is no period
in time which we can definitely point to and say that is when the
Rigveda began to be composed. In the 19th century, European
Indologists like Max Mueller tried to fix 1200 BC as the date of
composition of the Vedas, but this was based on their own
Biblical belief according to which the world was created on
October 23, 4004 BC and the Biblical Flood took place in 2448 BC.
And the history books continue to use the date of 1200 BC for the

Unlike Christianity and Islam, which are historical religions,
Hinduism cannot be traced to a historical person or an era.
Christianity cannot exist without Christ, nor can Islam without
Muhammad, but no such historical person exists in Hinduism about
whom one can say 'Without him, Hinduism cannot exist.' In other
words, Christianity and Islam are paurusheya religions, while
Hinduism is a-paurusheya. Christianity is the religion founded by
a purusha called Jesus Christ, while Muhammad is the purusha of
Islam. There is no such purusha of Hinduism.

Freedom to question

Even the Vedas are not the ultimate authority in Hinduism. The
word Veda is derived from the root 'vid'- meaning to know - and
Veda simply means knowledge that was discerned by the Vedic
seers. It is not a theology or a belief system that everyone is
required to acknowledge. A Hindu is free to question any or all
of the scriptures. One does not cease to be a Hindu if he denies
the authority of scriptures. The scripture is meant only to be a
guide and one is free to follow one's own interpretation. Appeals
to authority cannot be used to suppress dissent. In brief: in
Christianity and Islam, scripture is the book of authority, while
Hindu scriptures are guidebooks only, from which one is free to
choose a particular path.

Hinduism recognises no prophet as intermediary with exclusive
claim over truth. This is undoubtedly the greatest difference
between Hinduism and revealed religions. A Hindu who believes in
the existence of God (or Gods) can follow one's own path. One is
not required to acknowledge an intermediary as a prophet or as
the chosen agent of God. In a revealed religion, one who denies
the authority of this special intermediary is called a non-
believer. The Bible says: "I will raise them up a prophet from
among their brethren, ...and will put my word in his mouth: and
he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him."

This feature, of God communicating through a human intermediary,
called a prophet was later borrowed by Islam also. This means: in
a revealed religion, a believer in God has to believe also in the
intermediary. One is not free to believe in God and deny the
agent as intermediary. One who does so is still called a non-
believer even if one believes in God.

As a result, in a revealed religion, belief in the divinely
chosen intermediary is no less important than beliefs in God.
Often it is more important. The agents of this divinely chosen
intermediary are called the 'clergy,' who take it upon themselves
to enforce his diktats. Hinduism recognises no such intermediary.

Every man, woman and child has the same direct access to God
through his or her own efforts. Krishna. in the Bhagavad Gita.
says: "All creatures great and small - I am equal to all; I hate
none, nor have I any favourites." This rules out the claim of
anyone to be the privileged or 'chosen' agent of God. This makes
exclusivism impossible in Hinduism, for challenge to exclusive
claims can be mounted from within the system.

A personal God

Hindu God is not an external God who reveals himself only to a
chosen prophet to be imposed on others as the ultimate authority
on everything relating to God. God is something that anyone can
know through one's own effort and seeking. This is very similar
to the ancient Greek mysticism as practised by sages like
Pythagoras and Apollonius. There Is no set of dogmas that an
external agent enforces in the name of One God.

The Hindu God, like the Greek God, is a personal God - as diverse
as the individual. The multiplicity of Gods one sees in the Hindu
and the Greek pantheons is a reflection of the multiplicity of
pathways explored by sages. It is a natural consequence of the
spiritual freedom that is the right of every Hindu.

Monotheistic creeds, enforced by intermediaries in the name of
One God, do not permit this spiritual freedom. Believers have to
believe in what they are told to believe - they are not given a
choice. It is for this reason that theocracies always claim to
be monotheistic, invoking their One God in whose name His
representatives enforce authority. This may be called
'authoritative monotheism' as opposed to monotheism of choice in
which one is free to believe in One God or many Gods. Hinduism
gives this freedom of choice and of conscience.

Hinduism does not recognise claims of exclusivity or a clergy.
Anyone who claims to be the exclusive possessor of spiritual
truth or the only 'method' of reaching God rinds no place in
Hinduism: a method or a message can only be one among many.
Exclusivity divides the world into mutually exclusive camps of
believers and non believers which Hinduism does not.

Krishna, speaking as God in the Bhagavadgita, says. "All paths
lead to me," and also "those who worship other gods with devotion
worship me." This leaves no room for anyone to claim to be the
only true guide to God or in possession of the only path. As a
result, Hinduism has no clergy to monitor and enforce the belief.

Hinduism does not force itself on others through proselytisation.
Since the main emphasis in Hinduism is on the realisation of the
divine through personal effort and experience, Hindus have never
sought to convert others through force or persuasion. Hinduism
seeks internal growth within the individual.

There is now a substantial interest in the world in Hinduism and
its ottshoot of Buddhism. But there is no central authority like
the Pope who tries to monitor beliefs among the followers. Hindu
missions in the West are essentially voluntary organisations. The
priest or the sadhu claims to possess no divine authority
sanctioned by God or His agent. He is simply a repository of
learning and experience. It is for this reason, that Hinduism has
attracted men and women of the highest intellectual
accomplishments including scientists and artists in the West.
They are attracted by the rationalism of Hinduism which is a
method and not a creed; it seeks to impose no dogma and carries
no authority.

The only 'dogma' of Hinduism is freedom of choice and of
conscience. Hindu religious literature, in its pristine form, is
concerned mainly with the knowledge and method necessary to learn
the truth about God. This can take the form of Vedantic
philosophy like the Upanishads, practical techniques like Yoga,
or examples of great lives to be emulated like those found in the
Epics and the Puranas. It is a serious error to compare these
works with the scriptures of revealed religions which lay down
the beliefs required of true believers that are then enforced by
the clergy.

If there is one feature that stands above all others in Hinduism
it is pluralism: there is no one chosen path and no one chosen
peoples. As a result, there is no division of the world into
mutually exclusive camps of believers and nonbelievers.

All paths of spiritual exploration are valid, and there are no
such things as heresy and blasphemy. This is what makes Hinduism
Pluralistic. Any accommodation of a belief system that denies
one's freedom of choice and of conscience is fundamentally
incompatible with Hinduism.

To follow one's one chosen path calls for a guide and a
discerning intellect. The scriptures - the Vedas, the Upanishads,
the Gita and others - are this guide. And the search for such a
discriminating intellect the Gita Calls it sthitha dhi or 'stable
intellect' - is expressed in the great Gayatri mantra in the form
of a chant addressed to Savitar so that he may 'inspire our
intellect' - dhiyo yo na prachodayat. This prayer - dhiyo yo nah
prachodayat - as I see it embodies the essence of Hinduism.

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