India: The land of traditions, not religions(Part 1)

According to Dr. SN Balagangadhara, the framework to define a religion as done by Semitics does not apply to Indic religions as they more akin to traditions.

India: The land of traditions, not religions(Part 1)

Disclaimer: This piece by Dr Pingali Gopal was created with permission from SN Balagangadhara. The ideas and the themes solely belong to the latter. Many of the passages in the article are excerpted directly from the writings and essays of Dr SN Balagangadhara without direct indications in each case. Dr Pingali Gopal claims no expertise or primary scholarship in the subject matter. The purpose of the article is to bring the ideas of Dr SN Balagangadhara to a wider audience and hopefully stimulate the readers to explore further.  



This essay, in two parts, reproduces the ideas of one of the finest contemporary philosophers, Professor SN Balagangadhara, former professor of the Ghent University in Belgium, He is now retired but is doubly active in the pursuit of knowledge. Amongst his ideas in multiple domains of culture, sociology, Indology, philosophy, law, and so on, the most radical yet simple are his ideas about religions in India. He puts forth this elaborately in his book The Heathen in His Blindness (the simplified version of the book is Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem). Many scholars have disagreed vehemently with him but his thesis on religions and traditions remains unrefuted. Dr Balagangadhara (Balu) says that it is because they are not able to understand him properly or continue to indulge in lazy scholarship remaining fixed to established ideas.

A troubled India holds on to some very divisive narratives concerning religion, paradoxically caused most by our notions of ‘secularism’. As a citizen concerned about these divisive and distortive discourses, Dr Balu’s ideas might offer real solutions and apply a healing balm to the wounded country. His ideas should have ideally permeated into public consciousness through our academia, intellectuals, media, politicians, and bureaucrats. He has been working for more than four decades now and yet he remains ill-understood or even ignored for unfathomable reasons.

His claim about religions at the most basic level goes like this: India is a land of traditions and not religions. If Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are religions in their true definition (consisting of A Book, A God, A Doctrine, A Temple), then there are no indigenous religions in India. As a corollary, if what we have are religions, then Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are not religions.

The standard understanding of religion has only given us wars, strife, conversions, and Inquisitions. To understand ‘religio’ as a tradition, allowing varied practices with characteristic indifference to the differences, will build up far more harmony and understanding in the world still in the grip of religious friction. The present-day Indian intellectuals have internalized the standard colonial paradigms of religion with their accompanying divisive discourses. This is a classic colonial hangover- Dr Balagangadhara calls this ‘Colonial Consciousness’. The biggest problem of the world (colonial, post-colonial, modern, post-modern, and so on), cutting across all ideologies, is the continuous understanding of traditions as religions.

Metaphysical and Sociological Impossibility of Religions in India

The ‘metaphysical’ position of religion first must make a claim about the origin and purpose of the world; and second, this message must be true having the same status as other ‘true’ knowledge claims such as ‘objects fall on Earth due to gravity’. Based on such metaphysical conditions, Indian traditions are not possibly religions. The ‘origin’ question and the place of god are irrelevant. Vedas, Upanishads, Brahmanas, Puranas, Itihaasas have multiple stories of the creation and purposes of Cosmos.

The ideas in the multiple stories say just about everything and anything. Depending on the context, an individual in the multiple narratives may consider the question of the origin of the Cosmos illegitimate or pure speculation. One may also say that all claims are true or even suggest that Cosmos has no origin and is always present. The Buddhists and the Jains have no conception of God in the first place. Strangely, a person can equally believe or reject all the stories.

There are also certain sociological conditions absolutely required for the identity of religions and their spread across time, space, and generations: a widely known world-view codified in a textual source called a ‘holy-book’; a standard world-view with clear boundaries which cannot undergo generational changes; an authority to settle disputes in transmission and interpretation of stories (thus having a hierarchy of texts); a source of ex-communication when two interpretations collide (say Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism); and an organization to transmit and propagate its world-views. None of these conditions fulfilled in India with respect to Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, and so on. Hence, there is a ‘sociological impossibility’ of religion in India.

How Did Hinduism Come About?

Dr Balagangadhara says that Hinduism was an experiential entity of the colonials. The construction was not from any malicious intent as they tried to give unity to the varied practices and customs they saw around themselves in an alien culture. They united the different practices and narratives into a meta-narrative- a broad framework of explanation, into a single entity called ‘Hinduism’. And what guided them in the process? Their own cultural background rooted in religion, specifically Christianity. One of the important consequences of such a cultural background is that it also generates the belief that ‘religion is a cultural universal.’ They could not comprehend that cultures could exist without religions.

Tragically, the West and the colonials, in trying to understand and rule an alien culture, took hold of its various traditions and made them into different religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and so on). The individual branches fought or agreed with each other (popularly Buddhism with Hinduism) depending on the levels of scholarship. The frameworks for doing this remained rooted in European understanding of religions. Missionaries and intellectuals approached India with a poor stock of concepts including ‘heathen’, ‘pagan’, ‘idolaters’, ‘devil worshippers’, ‘zoolaters’. Hinduism was a ‘false religion’ a priori without any protests for such concepts.

There Has to Be ‘A Book’

Missionary and travel reports formed the theoretical sophistication of the Enlightenment criticisms. The source of beliefs had to be textual and thus began a search for a single book. Indian tradition confused the intellectuals with its many texts, sub-texts, stories, Puranas, mythologies. They finally zeroed on to the ‘Vedas’. Only books that were explicitly not religious, like a book on grammar or art forms became ‘non-holy’.

Frustratingly, it was obvious that most Indians were oblivious of most of the doctrines which the colonial intellectuals constructed for us. Even the Indians who were aware had a complete indifference to the differences in the texts. Thus, as an extension of their intellectual outpourings, ‘Hinduism’ became loose, non-canonical, vague, wavering, illusory, obscure, and inconsistent by people like Hume and James Mill. It never occurred to people then and nor does it now that the amorphous nature of Hinduism is simply because ‘Hinduism’ did not exist. It was an imaginary entity, conjured up in the best minds of Europe (mainly France, England, and Germany) due to their absolute conviction that there had to be a religion in the natives.

A theory identifies different phenomenon and instead of ad hoc explanations for each, join them in a single framework (like gravitational theory bringing together falling objects, sea tides, planetary motion, and satellite trajectories together). Was there such a scientific theory when the West unified some phenomena into a religion called ‘Hinduism’? Or importantly, did they describe ‘Hinduism’ as a religion (a unified phenomenon) precisely because it had no scientific theory?

Dr Balagangadhara says that the theory that guided western culture was Christian theology and that, unless we want to say that ‘theology is a science’, there was and is no scientific grounds to claim that there is religion in India. Islam and Christianity do exist as religions but Indian culture never produced a ‘native religion’ on its soil. It is extremely important to note that by suggesting that Hinduism does not exist, it is not that that beliefs and practices that went into constructing this unity do not exist. Only that these beliefs and practices (even when taken together) do not constitute either a religion or a phenomenon unified as ‘Hinduism’.

The Famous Hipkapi Analogy of Dr Balagangadhara

Imagine an Extra-Terrestrial coming to earth and noticing the following phenomena: grass is green, milk turns sour, birds use wings to fly, some flowers have a fragrant smell and that decomposed bodies produce a foul smell. Convinced that these different phenomena are organically related to each other, this extra-terrestrial coins a word and sees ‘hipkapi’ in them. This ET sees hipkapi as a single phenomenon that contains the above ‘parts’ but its presence also explains why the phenomenon itself must exist and how its ‘parts’ need study in the future. For the doubters, this ET gives proof by showing other visible manifestations: tigers eating a deer, dogs chasing cats, and the massive size of the elephants. All are facts surely.

This ET does not realize that all these facts independently or jointly tell us nothing about hipkapi as a phenomenon. Unlike gravity which brings multiple and apparently disparate phenomena into a single framework, here the ET ignores the question of how they become evidence for the existence of hipkapi. Later extra-terrestrials also continuously reiterate the presence of hipkapi on earth. Hipkapi is not only this ‘unified’ phenomenon but also becomes its explanation. Thereafter, to ask what is hipkapi (a self-explaining phenomenon now), or even how it explains anything, is to express idiocy.

For the Europeans, the puja in the temples, the sandhyavandanam of the Brahmins, the Sahasranamams, and so on became organic parts of Indian religion. Its ‘sacred text’ enunciated the Purushasukta– the divine origin of the caste system with untouchability as its outward manifestation. Even though there is some doubt about ‘who’ these followers were, and how the whole of India ‘subjugated’ to this religion, or whether everyone believed in the authority of the Vedas (Charvaks, Jains, and Buddhists do not), it was incontrovertible to them that Brahmins were the ‘priests’ of this religion; dharma and adharma meant ‘good’ and ‘evil’; Indian deities had their Greek counterparts; and so on.

Indeed, the puja, the Sandhyavandanam of the Brahmins, the Sahasranamams, the Purushasukta, our notions of dharma and adharma, all exist. Do these facts show us that ‘Hinduism’ also exists as a ‘religion’? Are these all organic parts of a phenomenon called ‘Hinduism’, even if that phenomenon is not a religion? The West did not provide a false or wrong description of the social and cultural reality in India. But problematically, the unity they created by tying these things together is a unity only for them.

The colonials created a unified phenomenon like a hipkapi because of their theology. They could not understand us otherwise. Hinduism, the phenomenon constructed by our colonial masters, is an experiential entity only to them and not to us. It has no existence outside the colonial experiences of India. The colonial now talks about this experiential entity, as his fellow Europeans do, in a systematic way.

Is ‘Hinduism’ (a Hipkapi) a unified phenomenon or an imaginary entity? The majority opinion still believes that ‘Hinduism’ exists, but not yet accurately described. The post-colonials are willing to concede that Hinduism is a ‘construct’ but suggest that it ‘exists’ now. Balagangadhara says categorically, ‘Hinduism’ is not a phenomenon in Indian culture.

The Common Claims Against and the Responses of Dr Balagangadhara

The first claim is that the belief of a majority of Indians is evidence for the existence of Hinduism. Dr Balu says we have any number of instances where people have entertained false beliefs like the Sun revolving around the Earth or the existence of witches. Many people believing in the truth of a claim alone does not make false beliefs true. Furthermore, the existence of a phenomenon (like atoms or genes) does not depend upon people believing in its existence.

One might object by claiming that this does not apply to social reality. A social or cultural phenomenon requires that we believe in its existence. In which case, we need a special kind of evidence. As a first step, we will have to show that an overwhelming majority of people believe that ‘Hinduism’ exists. Second, we must show that the existence of Hinduism is something like untouchability (a social phenomenon) and not, say, something concrete like the Earth or the Moon. Thus, we must stand on the statement that human beings only create ‘Hinduism’.

People who support this claim of human origin must also assume simultaneously that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have God as their author and creator. In that case, it logically follows that if Semitic religions are what religions are (viz., a revelation of God), then ‘Hinduism’ cannot be a religion at all. In fact, we are idolaters and worshippers of the Devil by the believers in the Semitic religions precisely because ‘Hinduism’ is not God’s revelation but a human creation instead. However, this is using Semitic theology as evidence for the existence of Hinduism as a religion. Thus, the ‘social reality’ claim is not evidence for the existence of Hinduism.

So Many People Have Used This Word and Studied It

One might claim that many from other times and places have registered the use of the word ‘Hinduism’ among Indians. But ‘Hinduism’ is an English word and of recent origin. Some may counter-argue that this implies the registered presence of its equivalent in other languages. However, if the reference is to other European languages, the problem recurs because one must then first demonstrate the equivalence. Again, the usage of a word does not prove the existence of a phenomenon.

There is another claim that ‘Hindu’ (Yin Du for instance) was in use for Indians from an exceedingly early period. However, it is not clear whether the word refers to a people, a region, or something else. However, using the word ‘Hindu’ is not enough: one must derive this word from ‘Hinduism’. That is, the usage must say that one is a Hindu because one belongs to Hinduism. Only then will the use become evidence.

Many who have been studying Hinduism and talking about it would not do so if Hinduism did not exist. Dr Balu comes back to the witches and their alleged intercourses with the Devil. There were books about these witches who also had legal trials initiated against them. A few unfortunate witches burnt at the stake. None of these is evidence for the existence of these phenomena.

Does Hinduism not unite India? Intuitions and Beliefs

A strong claim is that Hinduism unifies Indian culture (or at least some parts of it), and its people to create a nation. The existence of a ‘Hindu Nation’ is evidence for the existence of Hinduism. We need evidence for this again. Moreover, how do we know that India unified because of Hinduism? We are presupposing the truth of a proposition that needs proving as true (fallacy of petitio principii).

Most of us can make a list of things we intuitively associate with the phenomenon of Hinduism. We would not have similar intuitions if the phenomenon did not exist, say some. However, Dr Balu says, what happens when intuitions conflict? For example, Europeans claimed that “the evil of the caste system” and “dowry murders” are integral parts of Indian culture. Some Indians agree with this judgement ‘intuitively’, whereas some other Indians disagree with this ‘intuition’ vociferously. How do we arbitrate in such cases?

Across generations, people would agree with a minimal list of what ‘Hinduism’ is. But this assumption merely shows that there is ‘something’ we all agree upon. How does this provide evidence for Hinduism? The university courses, PhD programs, and writers of repute writing on Hinduism does not prove Hinduism because such courses exist even for proving the existence of God, ETs, parapsychology, and creationism. Another common claim is that Hindutva would not be possible without Hinduism. Balu says that this presupposes as true what requires proving. The burden of proof is the other way: one must show that Hindutva comes into being because of Hinduism.

Only Traditions Exist in India

Is there a different description of Indian culture which perhaps confirms the lived experience of most people? Yes, there is. We can only understand this if we first reject the present framework based completely on Western scholarship. This alternative understanding of Indian culture is cognitively superior to the ‘common-sense’ view today of ‘Hinduism’.

While calling oneself a ‘Hindu’ might be convenient, the danger is in trying to develop ‘doctrines’, ‘theologies’, ‘catechisms’ and our own ‘Ten Commandments’ so that we could identify people that follow a religion called ‘Hinduism’. (These are also applicable to ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’, ‘Saivism’ and all such entities). Intellectuals, in India and in the West, are transforming some of the multiple Indian traditions into a single ‘religion’ called ‘Hinduism’. The problem does not lie in trying to unify diversity into unity. Rather, it lies in trying to fit traditions into the straitjacket of ‘religion’.

Changing the Meaning of Traditions

‘Traditio’, as Ancient Romans used it, referred to ancestral practices transmitted over generations to posterity. One of the criticisms of Ancient Roman thinkers was that Christianity, as a new religion, was not a tradition of any people. Christianity, in its rejection of ancient practices, were in fact ‘atheists’. In their fight against the Romans, Christianity reconfigured what it meant to be ‘traditio’.

The Church said that she was safeguarding and transmitting ‘the Apostolic Tradition’ or the message of Christ. The apostolic tradition is about interpreting the Gospels. The Church alone can interpret the Bible because only she has the authority of the tradition behind her. Christianity transfigured the Roman ‘traditio’ (ancestral practices) to the permissible interpretations and meanings of a text. The Protestants rejected many of the Catholic claims but did not shift the reference of the word ‘tradition’: it continued to refer to the meaning of texts requiring the tradition to decipher.

Soon, Biblical Hermeneutics came into existence as a domain of learning. Lessons drawn from reading, understanding, and interpreting the Bible were transferred to other texts and became ‘textual hermeneutics. The British brought this approach to texts into India. Thus, we speak of ‘Indian hermeneutic tradition’, ‘Indian textual traditions’ etc. But when we do that, we face new problems when giving the greatest importance to the texts and its ‘correct’ interpretations.

Understanding Traditions

India is a land of traditions. There is no such entity called Hinduism in the world outside the universities in the West. Calling oneself a ‘Hindu’ for the sake of convenience is a continuation of ancestral traditions. There is also no need for a ‘reason’ to keep ancestral traditions alive. This is what traditions are and this is how we learn them. The notion of ‘practice’ is wide: from stories through visits to temples to performing rituals. They include the swamis, the matts, and the Gurus if and where they exist but can continue to do fine without these as well.

‘Tradition’ refers to both sampradayas and parampara in Indian culture. Sampradaya refers to customs and practices of a social unit- big or small, with vaguely defined limits on its extensions. One might say, “I am a Sri Vaishnava from the Vaishnava sampradaya”. Parampara localizes individual units by tracing lineages or relations. For instance, the ‘Guru-Shishya’ parampara localizes a single individual and traces the relationship between a teacher and his pupils. This lineage can easily nestle: an individual belonging to the Madhava or Vaishnava Sampradaya can claim an ‘acharya’ parampara by tracing the routes to a teacher.

This is a tracing of a knowledge route. When multiple sampradayas and multiple paramparas coexist, generically one can speak of following ‘prescribed’ ways, meaning those sanctioned by their sampradaya or parampara. Because both conform to ‘shastras’, this becomes ‘Shastric’. This appellation applies to knowledge domains, including arts, like music (Shastriya Sangeetha).

Transmission of Traditions

Traditions transmit through language, imitation, instruction, repeated performances, and so on. There is no one preferred way to transmit or practice a tradition. ‘Tradition’ does not refer to the presence of some specific component but picks out a totality. In fact, absences or minimal presence of a specific component do not make it any less of a tradition. Attempting to encapsulate traditions as ‘beliefs’ or ‘rituals’ or ‘festivals’ is to distort their nature.

Even though we assume that a set of practices from time immemorial transmits; in principle, there is no way of establishing the truth of this belief. Only certain knowledge such as the Vedas and mantras might have faithfully come down in their pristine form. Changes would have occurred; practices would have adapted themselves to ways of living. Thus, traditions are extremely dynamic and flexible. We modify some that we receive and transmit them to our children. Traditions live on precisely because of this adaptability; they are dynamic in their nature and are never static.

Thus, the claim that being a ‘traditionalist’ is to be a fossil and to be an ‘anti-progressive’ is as false and as silly as the suggestion that ‘traditions’ should undergo an antithetical process of ‘modernization’ or that they cease being traditions because of the impact of modernity. Whether one smokes, drinks alcohol, eats meat, goes to temples, performs rituals or not, one can be a part of a tradition. There is also no authority to pronounce whether someone based on his or her personal habits is a part of tradition or not.

Thus, belonging to a tradition is a fine-grained affair; it is not an all-or-none situation. When born into one, there is no way of determining who belongs to a tradition and who does not. Similarly, people not born into a tradition can also induct into it. The criteria of induction are fine-graded affairs as well.

To be continued..

About Author: Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Neonatal and Paediatric Surgeon practising in Warangal for the last twenty years. He graduated from medical school and later post-graduated in surgery from Ahmedabad. He further specialised in Paediatric Surgery from Mumbai. After his studies, he spent a couple of years at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK and returned to India after obtaining his FRCS. He started his practice in Warangal where he hopes to stay for the rest of his life. He loves books and his subjects of passion are Indian culture, Physics, Vedanta, Evolution, and Paediatric Surgery- in descending order. After years of ignorance in a flawed education system, he has rediscovered his roots, paths, and goals and is extremely proud of Sanatana Dharma, which he believes belongs to all Indians irrespective of religion, region, and language. Dr. Gopal is a huge admirer of all the present and past stalwarts of India and abroad correcting past discourses and putting India back on the pedestal which it so truly deserves.

About Author: SN Balagangadhara

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