Hindu – The Archetypal Liberal

The natural liberal outlook of the Hindus has long been obscured by the left-right conflict of the western world.

Hindu – The Archetypal Liberal

Introduction

The general dichotomy in modern political parlance, of the ‘liberal’ and the ‘conservative’, is as foreign to India as the persecution of any religious faith, at least by the Hindus. Whoever has landed here has thrived, either by plundering it or by getting influenced by it. So why then do the Hindus need to prove their liberal character? For that matter, any person whose mind hasn’t been poisoned by an ideology(either religious or political), would value compassion, believe in righteousness, be charitable, and hence could be considered liberal. Then how come in recent memory has anything under the political stance of the “Left” subsumed control of the human value of being liberal?

Historical baggage

Originally, liberals tended to frown upon things such as “identity politics” and “class struggle”, now with time they seem to have merged with the leftists who tend to reject the idea of meritocracy and champion the idea of a welfare state. While ‘Right’ of center people have been branded as unyielding, greedy and forcing their majoritarian, often religious, view on society. Where does a Hindu, who has till recent times remained untouched by such binary terms, fit in? Do present day Hindus need to live their lives under the shadow of the 18th-century revolution in France that paved the way for the Enlightenment and brought an end to the horribly skewed outlook of the Church? The left-right divide of that time helped distinguish supporters of an absolute monarchy from those of a constitutional monarchy. There was no such overbearing religious authority in India that meddled in the political functioning of the state and hence the need for secularism did not arise. Europeans though, had been in the dark for millennia and it took a bloody revolution for them to finally gravitate towards science and rational thought. How do Hindus reconcile with the fact that there was no such stifling atmosphere that persecuted critical thought or the freedom to practice any religion? Having science woven into philosophical thought, religion became scientific and in turn acted as a monetary benefactor to science, therefore the idea of a divide between different realms did not exist, as it all came from the ‘One’.   The West has assumed that once the theocratic rule in Europe was over, Post-Enlightenment, and things turned secular, that the same premise was applicable to other civilizations with a much older and profound cultural past. With Europe taking the lead in the last 200 years with the industrial revolution and lighting the path for the rest to follow, their view of history as the makers of the modern world holds sway. A cursory glance back at history though would show their fledgling state compared to India and China. But deemed rudimentary and relics of a forgettable past, they have been clubbed together with pre-enlightenment Europe as religious regimes with a static culture and no scientific progress to speak of.  The fault lies both with the broad generalizations of biased historians and also the sheer ignorance of the countries who post-colonization and world wars, became stunted with no knowledge of their heritage. The makers of modern India were one such group, steeped in the ways of their colonial masters from whom they inherited power. A combination of English educated elite who despised their native culture together with a Soviet support system which brought in Marxist ideas, produced a deadly cocktail of intellectual chicanery to serve their political interests. Hence, catering to a largely alienated majority of Indians with dole outs and victimising became ‘liberal’, though very much socialist in outlook.  An incisive observation by the great Sita Ram Goel drives the point home,”The Leftists were small in number to start with. But they were ideologically equipped and spoke in a language which was prestigious in the eyes of the fast multiplying English-educated Hindu elite. They were supported by university professors and student leaders who had become fascinated by Marxist phraseology with which the country was being flooded by both Soviet Russia and Western democracies, and which the British authorities patronised to wean away the nationalist revolutionaries from what was described as terrorism.” 1

Religious overtones

These days it is common for Hindus to refer to themselves as SBNR [Spiritual But Not Religious], a by-product of our westward looking nature. While the new age westerner makes religion an a la carte affair by picking and choosing from different faiths, we seem to be unaware that their brutal religious history has forced them down this path, however erroneous in practice it might be. Hindus on the other hand already have the freedom to choose from their varied philosophies and comfort the chattering mind. So the need to disassociate ourselves from our culture speaks volumes of our psychological makeup. An incident by Gurucharan Das who is not exactly sympathetic to the devout traditional Hindu, highlights how warped things have become: “A few months ago the confident and handsome friend of our son’s gave a telling reply to a visiting Englishwoman in Khan Market in Delhi. “I am a Hindu, but”, he said, and he went into a winding reply about his beliefs. He hastily added that he was an Indian first. It was a perfectly honest answer, and any other person might have given a similar one about Islam or Christianity. But I sensed an unhappy defensiveness, the ‘but’ betrayed that he might be ashamed of being Hindu.This happened two weeks after I got a call from one of Delhi’s best private schools, asking me to speak to its students. “Oh good!” I replied on the phone. “I have been reading the Mahabharata, and in that case I shall speak about dharma and the moral dilemmas in the epic.”The principal’s horrified reaction was, “Oh don’t, please! There are important secularists on our governing board, and I don’t want controversy about teaching religion.”“But surely the Mahabharata is a literary epic”, I protested, “And dharma is about right and wrong”. But my remonstration was to no avail. She was adamant and scared.”  This aptly describes the state of mind of most nominal Hindus, which has now percolated into practising Hindus as well, who because of the fear of being labelled communal and causing harm to the ‘secular fabric’ of the nation, shy away from questioning such biases. In what way has our history been shaped that we feel so embarrassed about accepting our roots? One wonders then why ‘The Iliad’ or ‘The Odyssey’ is taught in the west, for that matter even in India. Perhaps it is because even though semi-religious in nature and considered as sacred texts by the ancient Greeks, they are a relic of a society and culture that no longer exists! So the forthcoming generations need to wait for Hinduism to disappear before any of the beautiful prose, life lessons and value inheritance can be passed on.   With Europe dumping Christianity, there has been a rise in neo-paganism with Wiccans, Heathens, Druids across different European countries. The total number of neo-pagans worldwide is small and varies between 1-2%. [If Dharmic religions are included into this grouping (as they often were), then approximately 40 per cent of the world’s religious adherents could be considered pagan] This has led to some animosity against them, for instance in Greece during the Olympics in 2004 where the Ancient Greek pantheon was praised and one father Eustathios Kollas of the Greek Orthodox priests, said: “They are a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past.” 2 The hatred is palpable. Nearly 2000 thousand years ago they sought to convert pagans and turned the Roman ruler Constantine into a Christian on his deathbed, before they could start their massive campaign of saving people from eternal damnation. A tyrannical god who needs absolute obedience versus one that considers each living being as a manifestation of itself. As the ever articulate orientalist Koenraad Elst has stated, “Consider the situation in Africa: in 1900, 50% of all Africans practiced Pagan religions; today, Christian and Islamic missionaries have reduced this number to less than 10%. This is the kind of threat Hinduism is up against. So far, the biggest success of these aggressors is at the level of thought: many Hindus have interiorized the depreciation of Hindu culture and society which their enemies have been feeding them from the relative power positions….” People try to either purposely force-fit or are sloppy in their thinking, when they put Indic faiths into the monotheistic box. Dharmic belief is by definition liberal, an open source for anyone to develop their own path and live according to it. Freedom is its essence and thus nobody is deemed a heretic or an infidel. Many sects under its umbrella have come and gone, but the divnity of the supreme reality has remained.  Koenraad Elst highlights how inane the comparison is,”The fundamental mistake of Indian secularism is that Hinduism is put in the same category as Islam and Christianity. Islam and Christianity’s intrinsic irrationality and hostility to independent critical thought warranted secularism as a kind of containment policy. By contrast, Hinduism recognizes freedom of thought and does not need to be contained by secularism.”

Indian/Hindu liberal

Going back to Gurucharan Das again, he says the following to get a feel of how the educated class felt, having swallowed the rhetoric of India as a superstitious, and utterly backward land.  “We likened his midnight speech at Independence about our ‘Tryst with destiny’ to Wordsworth’s famous lines on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. Hindu liberals or rather seculars, have no doubt made self-loathing an art form, thinking of new and ingenious ways to criticize Hindu beliefs and practices. They fear a theocratic Hindu state and consequently feel the need to break down Hindu society from all sorts of angles, be it festivals, cultural mores, or the all too familiar dead horse, the caste system.  As they are so fond of picking up causes that the west espouses, let’s see how it fits within the Hindu ethos: Nature conservation – An essentially pagan tradition, nature is interwoven into Hindu philosophy & hence worshipped in all its forms. Environmental exploitation is avoided to live in harmony with it, still practised by certain groups and tribes in India. Vegetarianism/Animal Rights – To purify oneself as a preparatory exercise for spiritual practices as well as to avoid taking on bad karma, now associated with Hindus only in name. Though animal rights activists target temple processions that use animals for instance, they conveniently stay silent when billions are butchered every day for food, strange world we live in. Rights of homosexuals – They were free to practice their own way of life in India historically, though their professions were limited(the section 377 of the IPC, 1861 is a legacy of the Christian colonial era). Rights of minorities – The constitution itself is so generous to them that crying wolf at any random incident is pretty foolhardy. Besides, different religious fraternities who were ostracized from their home land, such as the Jews, Parsis, Tibetans, have always been welcomed with open arms here. As bleak a picture as the media might paint, it is only the Hindus whose numbers, as a percentage, have decreased since independence while others have stayed the same or even increased in number. One look left or right of India would tell you how minorities actually get treated in a majoritarian world or a theocracy. Pro science and evolution – From heliocentricism to boundless achievements in medicine, mathematics, physics by greats such as Susrutha, Varahamihira, Bhaskara, Madhava, much has been written about it though not given nearly enough credit. Despite incoherent ramblings from certain Hindu quarters, evolution too is very much a part of Hindu thought.  Why then is Hinduism compared with the Christian/Islamic Right, that denies or disbelieves such principles is truly baffling. So for the secular/liberal Hindu to act as if these are ideas outside the realm of Hindu belief, truly speaks of their ignorance and disdain to familiarize themselves with their own culture.  The West from the time of the Enlightenment has criticized its religion, embraced atheism or science and moved to a secular form of society. This seems natural when one looks at their violent religious history (which is synonymous across all Abrahamic faiths), as fear-mongering and death are pretty strong motivators to stay in line and not question any perverse belief.

Conclusion

The need for Hindus to understand their own inheritance might help solve the dilemma and cure them of the disease of looking at everything through the Left-Right divide. Though as long as subterranean forces are at play, and the ‘machine’ is well funded, it looks tough. There probably won’t be much left to vilify anyway if this trend continues for a couple of more generations, as the interiorization will be complete.


References / Footnotes 

1. Defence of Hindu Society by Sitaram Goel 

2. Ancient Greek gods’ new believers. Retrieved February 10, 2007, from BBC News 

3. Negationism in India: Concealing the Record of Islam – By Koenraad Elst 

4. Bharatiya Janata Party vis-a-vis Hindu Resurgence – By Koenraad Elst  —   The Dilemma of a Hindu Liberal by Gurucharan Das

About Author: Vinayak Sridhar

Vinayak has degrees in engineering & managment, with interests in philosophy, music, history and politics. He currently resides in New Delhi and is the co-founder of Pragyata. Twitter Handle - vsridha2

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