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A Way of Life and More; and a response - The Pioneer

C N Venugopal ()
15 December 1996

Title : A way of life and more
Author : C N Venugopal
Publication : The Pioneer
Date : December 15, 1996

Introduction: Cognitive, institutional, ritualistic, spiritual, devotional
and secular - Hinduism's greatest strength lies in its ability to harmonise
diversity and its proficiency in internalising change without altering its
fundamental philosophy of life.

Hinduism has had a protean character. During the five millennia of its
existence, it has changed in some respects; but it has also remained
tenaciously unchanged in others. Hinduism has a complex network of
institutions, elaborate rituals and sacred complexes (temple towns, holy
rivers, mountains, etc) which attract numerous pilgrims from different parts
of the country. Unlike the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and
Islam), Hinduism is a-historical and pantheistic. The monotheistic doctrine
of Semitic religions withdrew divinity from the world and made it
transcendental; but the pantheistic religions such as Hinduism and Shintoism
have regarded the manifestations of nature - sun, moon, mountain, river and
sea - as sacred.

In spite of its impressive elitism, Hinduism is also a religion of the folks
who dwell in the villages and small towns in which gregariousness and
collective ecstasy are pre-eminent. Hindu religious participation is not only
solemn but also joyous. Music, entertainment and feasting are blended into
the religious events. Besides, the fairs held periodically in connection with
festivals are also the marts for the exchange of goods, tools and livestock.
Thus, in villages and towns Hindu religion has been associated with the
productive processes.

The bewildering socio-cultural diversity of Hinduism has impressed many
observers. Apart from the numerous caste-groups whose contours have been
moulded through centuries by specific historical, cultural and regional
influences, the tribes of northern, north-eastern, south-central,
south-western and south-eastern zones have composed Hinduism. While some of
these tribes are integrated into the religion, others have remained marginal
to it. There has been a continuous interaction between castes and tribes. Not
only religious beliefs and practices but also the techniques of agriculture,
handicrafts, etc have been borrowed from each other. The interactions between
castes and tribes have often been punctuated by tensions and conflicts. Yet
the final outcome has been a cultural symbiosis which has more or less
persisted up to the present.

Just as castes have been characterised by an interdependence, the castes and
tribes have also been dependent on each other. However, in recent years the
competitive element has entered into the intercaste and caste-tribe
relationships. In the words of GS Ghurye, the castes in India are moving
towards a pluralistic pattern wherein an economic relationship rather than
cultural unity becomes dominant. But despite these, there are still segments
in Hindu population which carry on the symbiosis with zeal and dedication.
The religious celebrations which are periodically held in villages and towns
bear witness to the cultural integration of Hindu society.

Hinduism has the following dimensions: cognitive, institutional, ritualistic,
spiritual, devotional an secular. Surely, these dimensions tend to overlap;
it is only for analytical purposes that we have to deal with them separately.
Cognitively, it has a number of sacred texts in Sanskrit Vedas, Vedanta,
Ramayana, Mahabharata, Dharmasastras and Puranas. Bhagwad Gita, the most
widely-acclaimed sacred text in India, is a summation of Hindu cognitive
endeavour. Although Hinduism is heterogeneous in regard to sects and patterns
of beliefs, yet this text succinctly presents its main aspects. It is for
this reason that great thinkers from Shankara to Aurobindo have drawn upon
it. Year after year new commentaries on the Gita are being written in many
regional languages and also in English, revealing the abiding interest in it.

The main sectarian forms of Hinduism are Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism.
These are different paths to God; while acrimonious debates have often taken
place among the elite belonging to these sects, on the popular level
sectarian distinctions are not usually a matter of contention. In many
temples, for example, different deities (drawn from Shaivite and Vaishnavite
back-ground) are installed adjacent to each other; the visitors bow down to
all of them without any distinction. Although Hinduism abounds in gods and
goddesses, yet they are all either derived from or linked to the three
primordial deities, namely, Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti.

The institutional network of Hinduism is built around family, kin-group and
caste. The tolerance shown in Hinduism on the cognitive level is less evident
in the institutional behaviour of people. In the villages people who belong
to a different caste tend to be treated as outsiders. While the people
employed in the urban occupations mostly forego normative restrictions on
purity and pollution, in their domestic circles these still operate. The
caste system was once a useful classificatory device for accommodating
various ethnic groups, but during the last few centuries it has lost its
flexibility and become insular.

Ritualism is a pervasive aspect of Hinduism. There are many sacred days
marked on the Hindu calendar during which people participate in the domestic
or collective rituals. Rituals were also a part of the productive process in
India; for example, agriculture, artisanry and governance of the state were
usually accompanied by ritual acts. The rituals have contributed to the
solidarity of the Hindu society; for most common people the religion is not
demarcated from the ritual. In the domestic circles, the life cycle
ceremonies (birth marriage, death, etc) have been marked by ritual
performances. In the public sphere rituals have declined except in a
symbolic way.

Spirituality in Indian society developed in early Hinduism among the monks
scattered across the country. Since the reforms of Shankara in the 8th
century AD, Hindu monasteries have operated as spiritual centres where sacred
learning, meditation and quest for salvation are encouraged. However, at no
time have the monastic centres remained aloof from common people. It is a
paradox of Hinduism that its "otherwordly" ascetics are entrusted with the
creation and propagation of Hindu values for the guidance of householders.
This type of monklaity relationship is also found among the Buddhists and
Jainas. Many reformers in Hinduism have come from spiritual-ascetic
backgrounds; the contemporary figures such as Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi
and Aurobindo have left an indelible imprint on the collective psyche of

The resurgence of Bhaktism in South India from 6th to 9th century AD and 14th
to 17th century AD in north India imparted a dynamic element to Hinduism. It
challenged orthodoxy in the cognitive as well as other spheres. The
rigidities of caste, the domination of priestly hierarchy and the mindless
proliferation of rituals have been considerably modified by the Bhakti
movement. In addition, the vernacular and regional literatures were mainly
created in response to the Bhakti movement. It is a confirmed fact that the
modernisation and standardisation of Indian regional languages antedated the
colonial rule. To cite a few examples, the early literature in Tamil,
Kannanda, Marathi, Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi bear the imprint of devotional

Bhaktism enabled the Hindus to transcend narrow caste feelings and opened up
new frontiers of cultural communication which ended the isolation of local
areas. The Bhaktas (Alwars and Nayanars in the South, Kabir, Nanak and many
others in the North) achieved renown not only through devotion but also
exemplary conduct in their own lives. In more intellectual terms, the 19th
century reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy and Dayananda Saraswati continued the
reform of Hindu society and created a liberal climate.

Although it may surprise some people, secularism was not alien to Hinduism.
At the basic level, the interdependence between different castes in Indian
villages revealed a secular element. Hindu rulers of renown never imposed
faith on non-Hindu subjects. In Kautilya's Arthasastra the ruler is advised
to protect the diverse faiths of the subjects who resided in his kingdom.
This was also true of non-Hindu rulers. Emperor Asoka, for example,
patronised Buddhist and non-Buddhist subjects alike. In sum, what was upheld
was Dharma to which all rulers, Hindu or non-Hindu, subscribed. The Indian
Constitution has in a sense continued this policy of secularism: it stands
for non-interference between religions.

Even a cursory look at the daily living of Hindus in towns and cities shows
their many religions or ritualistic engagements in spite of secular demands
on their time. Busy office-goers manage to take leave for a few days to
visit holy places or conduct some domestic rituals. While the urban pattern
of religiosity is somewhat individualistic, in the villages there is a
collective sentiment in which group participation is emphasised. No part of
India - tribal, rural or urban - is secularised completely. Thus, the secular
behaviour of Hindus is interlaid with a number of domestic or collective
religious performances.

There are numerous problems which have afflicted Hindus all over India such
as superstitions, religious bigotry of some sects, priestly appropriation of
temple resources and oppression of people under the norms of village or
caste. The recent decades have also witnessed the rise of pro-Hindu militant
groups which have politicised religion and culture. Yet Hinduism has the
resilience to move forward and implement its reforms. The reforms that come
from within Hinduism are likely to be more effective, longer lasting than
those that are initiated by the West-inspired ideologies.

There is no doubt that notwithstanding its present regressive tendencies,
Hinduism has the vitality to rise to the challenge of restoring a composite
culture in the years to come.

(The author teaches sociology at JNU)



Ashok Chowgule
President, Mumbai Pranth.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

December 20, 1996.


One cannot but agree with Shri C N Venugopal ("A Way of Life and More", Dec
15) when he says, "Hinduism has the resilience to move forward and implement
its reforms. The reforms that come from within Hinduism are likely to be
more effective, longer lasting that those that are initiated by West inspired
ideologies." What would be interesting to know is the role played by
intellectuals to undertake this reform. I am sure that Shri Venugopal is
fully aware that a colleague of his, namely Smt Romilla Thapar, propagates
that there was nothing like a Hindu period prior to the advent of Islam in
this country. Her theory that there were a group of disparate people living
in this land, and they had nothing in common with each other.

It is our conviction that the prime objective of the intellectuals was to
denigrate Hinduism. Reform work has been carried by people like Pandurang
Shastri Athavale, and not the sociologists and psychologists in institutes
like the JNU. While Pandurangji carries forward the work through funds
received from his followers, the academics actively demand support from the
society as their god given right. However, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement has
opened the eyes of the West inspired intellectuals. Shri V S Naipaul said,
"What is happening in India is a new historical awakening....Indian
intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not
understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is
happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at
times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening."

In contrast, the JNU academics have been playing games with the people with
whose money they have been earning their livelihood. In "New dawn at JNU?"
(Business Standard, Oct 21, 1996), Shri TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan, said, "(I)n
spite of its small size, thanks to official patronage that JNU has received,
it has captured...a disproportionate amount of intellectual space in the
country....Official patronage has also lent it an air of moral superiority
which anyway comes so easily to the Left. The overall result has been an
attitude which assumes that a view is virtuous merely because JNU holds
it....There has also be a strong version of the party line....To get anywhere
in JNU professionally, it is necessary to subscribe to that line. This is
especially true of the history department, which is even more prone to the
pressures of ideological purity."

Yours sincerely,

(Ashok Chowgule)

The Editor, The Pioneer,
Link House, 2nd Floor,
3 Bahadurshah Zafar Marg,
New Delhi 110 002.

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