Sunday, 18 February 2018

On misinterpretation of Hinduism, and on Vatapatrasaayi

First, an apology. My knowledge of Sankrit genders is limited. Hence while I will try to present a correct transliteration, those who know better must forgive me for my apses.

There are many reasons that Hinduism is not doing as well as it could be or should be. I will elaborate over a few posts. One simple reason is misinterpretation - either wilful or by mistake.

There have been many who have set out to present Hindu thought to the world - from the old authors of the bhashyaas or commentaries, to the much later colonial Indologists, to the Devdutt Pattanaiks of today's world, to spiritual speakers like Sri Samavedam Shanmukha Sarma and Sri Chaganti Koteswara Rao. The reasons also have been many, genuine intellectual curiosity, intention to make money, to get fame, dissemination of knowledge to seekers, a drive to remove misconceptions etc.

In an open letter to DP that I had written earlier I mentioned how he seemed to be lacking in basic Sanskrit knowledge. Now, reporting what has been read is one thing. However, trying to interpret the basic meaning of Hindu scriptures without the necessary knowledge is like trying to do a surgery by reading a manual - the patient will end up dead.

Knowledge of Sanskrit, while being a necessary and basic prerequisite is not sufficient. To truly interpret and understand the Vedas a person needs to be an expert in the Vedaangaas. There are six of these - shiksha (शिक्षा ), chandas (छन्दस), vyaakaran (व्याकरण), jyotish (ज्योतिष), nirukta (निरुक्त) and kalpa (कल्प). All these are needed to correctly interpret Vedic slokas. 

Further, even words can have multiple meanings.

For example the word go (गो) can mean a cow, the 5 sense organs or even the sun's rays. Thus Govinda (गोविंद) can be a protector of cows (Krishna), ruler of the senses (God) or even the Sun God as he is the Lord of the rays.
Similarly, giri (गिरि) can refer to both slokas of the Veda, and to mountains.
Hence, trying to do a literal interpretation of a Vedic sloka will not give the complete meaning. 

Additionally, Hinduism is rich in symbolism. There is a tale where after the pralaya (प्रलय), i.e. dissolution of creation, only the primordial waters were left. Markandeya is said to have seen Vishnu or Krishna come floating on a banyan tree leaf on these waters. He was in the form of an infant. As infants tend to do, he had his toes and fingers in his mouth. What is the symbolism? We do our actions using the hand. Thus the hand is a symbol of creation. We walk with our legs, which indicate movement. This indicates the movement of this world, what Hinduism calls sthiti (स्थिति) after creation. This is basically a state of maintaining the world as it is. We use the mouth to eat. For the Lord, the mouth indicates where he takes in creation when he decides to end it. Thus it signifies dissolution (I prefer not to use the word destruction). Thus the image of an infant is used to explain the concept of the almighty God who is responsible for creation, maintenance and dissolution.

Now, tell me if any person who does not know about these multiple layers of meanings should ever try to interpret Hinduism!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

On idol worship

This is in continuation with my earlier post.

Before writing this post I glanced through a Wikipedia article on idolatry. I would recommend that you read this as well. Broadly speaking Abrahamic religions discourage (some sections, radically and violently) reverence to any physical idol, while Hinduism does not.

When we mention an idol what comes to mind more often than not, is a physical image or portrait that is treated with reverence and to which worship is offered. However, here I want to extend the concept of idol beyond just this over-simplified concept.

Let us first understand why Hindus offer worship to actual physical images. In my earlier post I spoke about Hinduism believing in both saakaara (साकार) and niraakara (निराकार) worship. It allows the devotee to approach God as either with form or without form. It offers that flexibility. Why? For the average human mind it is not possible to visualize a formless, shapeless object of devotion. We are material and physical creatures. We cannot wrap our heads around the concepts of quantum physics which at the end of the day, according to today's scientists are part of our physical, "rational" world. How can one understand and revere something which has no shape or form? This is the reason Hinduism encourages reverence of physical images, to begin with. 

The devotee however, is asked to progress from worship of God with form to the next level, without form. Also, whenever he worships a murti the devotee is asked to understand that the ultimate receiver of this worship is the shapeless and formless parabrahma

This is also a reason for the importance giving to the worship of a Sivalingam. I will cover that later.

Another aspect, possibly not known to many is that the murtis in Hindu temples are not necessarily simple images. Any temple worth its name is supposed to have a yantra installed under the main deity. There is a process called praana pratiShtha (प्राणप्रतिष्ठा) through which divine energy is invoked and is asked to enter the yantra and hence the murti. I have read that a mirror placed in front of such an "idol", into which energy has been invoked, will break. Only then is the process said to be complete. I am not sure how many people are left in this world today who can achieve this.

Now let us consider the Abrahamic religions. We have seen how hardline interpreters or Islam have been against what they think is idolatry. Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas comes to mind immediately. However, as I said earlier even these religions are not above idol worship, at least as far as their own religions and their own concept of God is concerned.

  1. Christians, even Protestants pray in front of the cross. Many have a portrait of Jesus in their homes. I believe the Christian concept of God has been influenced by Greek and Roman imagery (old man with white beard etc.).
  2. Muslims, of all denominations pray facing Mecca, where the Kaaba is present. This is reverence to a physical image.
  3. Many Muslims have verses from the Koran framed and kept in their shops and houses. This is reverence to an image. Many in fact have the number 786, which I understand is a numerical representation of Allah written down.
  4. The Parsees worship fire.
Hence, irrespective of religion, an average human being needs some image/imagery using which he can revere God.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Is Hinduism a polytheistic religion?

As mentioned in my earlier post, I will from this post onwards, write occasionally about Hinduism and try to answer some questions that people may have. The words that I put down here are not from my own knowledge. They come from reading and listening to people like Sri Rajiv Malhotra (RM), Sri Chaganti Koteswara Rao garu (CKR), Sri Samavedam Shanmukha Sarma garu (SSS), Paramahamsa Yogananda (PY), Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (SJV) et al. As always, please feel free to add questions when I post this on Facebook. And as always, I am open to (hopefully constructive) feedback.

I want to put forward certain points on Hinduism that are either not known or are misunderstood. If my writing helps people to better understand and appreciate the culture they are born into, I would be happy with that. Going by certain conventions followed by the aforementioned people, I will mostly refer to Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, or SD and Judaism, Christianity (the Biblical version) and Islam as Abrahamic Religions, or ARs. For convenience most references will be masculine - he, him etc. Feminine references can be assumed as necessary.

Let me start now. If you were to pick an average Hindu and ask him the question in the blog post title, he would in all probability say yes. He would not be wrong either. Going by SD's own scriptures, the number of gods is 33 million, yes 3.3 crores. Now please note that I did not say Gods with a capital G but gods with a g. 

Most of you may have heard the following sloka.

gururbrahmA gururvishnuh gururdevO maheshwarah
gurussAkShAt parabrahmA tasmai sree guravE namah

गुरुः ब्रह्मा गुरुः विष्णुः गुरुः देवो महेश्वरः 
गुरुः साक्षात्परब्रह्मा तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः

This sloka extols the importance of a guru and salutes him. Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara (Siva) are ok. Who is this Parabrahma? This Parabrahma is the true concept of God in SD. According to SD, everything - which includes all gods, this creation, the universe(s) and time - are manifestations of something greater. To give an example, a woman can wear bangles, rings, ear rings, anklets etc. However, all of these will be made out of gold. So the gods that Hindus worship in daily life are but manifestations of this essence and universal consciousness called brahman (not the caste, which is brAhman) but brahman or parabrahma. From this perspective SD is very much monotheistic. ARs think that there is only one God. For SD, EVERYTHING is God. 

This is one reason there is no Satan or purely evil force in SD. There is no need for one. What we perceive as evil is only a different manifestation of what is ultimately God. Now, before you protest, let me state that I will cover this later. So, do let this point rest for now.

ARs also like to think of God as male. Today, only Roman Catholics seem to have some reverence left for Mary. Else, all ARs follow a strictly male God. It is probably blasphemy to think of a Goddess in place of God in ARs. Hindus have gods and goddesses. However brahman is beyond everything. As I mentioned earlier, by definition It cannot be defined and is beyond comprehension. It does not even have a gender. 

So, the obvious question that will come to mind is, what about the 33 million number earlier and why so many? I will answer this by taking another example. Do we not use electricity to power various electrical items like fans, lights, TV etc.? However, is it not the same electricity powering everything? Is not the same potato consumable as chokha, French fries or tikki? As Paramahamsa Yogananda put it, Jesus liked the fatherly aspect of God. So to him God became male. However, to a Ramakrishna Paramahamsa the motherly aspect of God was of supreme interest. So he worshipped Goddess Kali. As SJV puts it, SD is not a religion of believers but one of seekers. A seeker in SD is given the freedom to approach God the way he wishes. SD is a "religion" that allows its followers maximum flexibility. Let us think logically. When a devotee or seeker says that God is infinitely capable, almighty and beyond comprehension by humans, who is this seeker to impose any attribute to God and insist that his interpretation alone is true? By doing this are we not imposing human restrictions on God? This is the true beauty of SD. There are no such restrictions needed. However, to quote RM, SD does not say all paths to God are the same or are of the same merit. This is merely an interpretation.

God in SD is said to be approachable as both with form and without form - sAkAra and nirAkAra. God is to be with attributes and without - saguNa and nirguNa. Here is where "idol" worship comes into the picture. I will cover this shortly. However, the important point is that whenever a Hindu performs his worship, whether it is at home or in a temple he has to remember this parabrahma as the power/essence behind the god or goddess that he is worshipping. All offerings are ultimately to this essence and not just to the god/goddess that is a manifestation of this essence. The ultimate aim of worship is freedom from the cycle of births and union with this parabrahma. I will cover idol worship in my next post.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

An open letter to BBC Knowledge on an article by Devdutt Pattanaik

I saw an article in BBC Knowledge written by Devdutt Pattanaik and wrote a letter to them. I would like to reproduce the same here.

Dear Ms Monteiro-D'Souza,

I am an avid reader of BBC Knowledge and have been seeing a few articles being written by Devdutt Pattanaik (DP).

While I am happy that he has reintroduced Hindu tales to a wide audience, I would also like to share that

  1. his articles are more tuned towards a western audience.
  2. He conveniently twists points to suit his narrative.
  3. He is often wrong
  4. I find it insulting to me personally and to the millions of Hindus worldwide when he refers to the Ramayana, Mahabharata et al as myths. 

I wonder whether he or your magazine would have the audacity to write about stories from the Bible and the Koran and describe them as Christian and Islamic myths respectively.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean by saying he twists points and is wrong.

  1. Kubera's father is Vaishrava - This is wrong and betrays a basic lack of understanding of Sanskrit. I shudder to think of a person who dares to describe Hinduism without understanding Sanskrit. Kubera's father is Vishrava, which is why Kubera is called Vaishravana. Similarly, Krishna (the son of Vasudeva) is called Vaasudeva, Rama (the son of Dasharatha) is called Daasharathi. In the same way, Paarvati is so named as she is the daughter of Himavat Parvata.
  2. Kubera is no longer worshipped in India - This is false. My own mother has undertaken a vrat that is specifically performed to propitiate Kubera. Towards the end of every Hindu ceremony, the Mantrapushpam is recited. This has a specific phrase - Kuberaaya vaishravanaaya, mahaaraajaaya namah. Please ask DP to understand Hindu rituals before he makes comments.
  3. He talks about scholars deciding things in multiple places in the article. Who are these scholars? Western scholars who have no idea about the layers of meaning inherent in all Hindu scriptures? Those who are arrogant enough to think mere bookish knowledge, interpreted through their western and Christian upbringing is enough to comment on material they do not even understand? He does not even mention who these "scholars" are. Does he think he is one of these scholars?
  4. He talks about the Yaksha prasna in the Mahabharata. He conveniently omitted that the "yaksha" turned out to be Dharma (or Yama) at the end of the episode.
  5. Yakshas and especially Yakshinis are still mentioned in Tantra. Please ask him to read Robert Svoboda's books.
  6. He talks about "tension" between yakshas and rakshasas, tribal practices being picked up by "Brahmanism". These smack of western arrogance that I spoke about earlier.
  7. He talks about yakshas and rakshasas being "associated" with Siva rather than with Vishnu. DP, being a Brahmin himself is supposed to do the Sandhyavandana on a daily basis. I am not sure if he has even heard of this practice. Towards the end of the Sandhyavandana comes a verse which talks about the unity of Siva and Vishnu. DP so conveniently sees a dichotomy between the two. I am just curious if he is aware of this unity.

I hope I have made my point. How you want to act further, is up to you.

V Chaitanya

Saturday, 13 January 2018

On a life-changing experience

On 4 June 2017, I was in the thirty third year of my existence in this life. I was under the impression that with my general exposure to the world I had hardened enough to be no longer very emotional, or at least no longer was prone to breaking down in tears. This was when fate decided to spring a surprise on me.

This was the day my daughter was born. Unfortunately for me, I was out of town on some work and could not be present at the exact time of her birth. I had gotten out of the flight and was on a call with my brother-in-law. He told me my wife had gone into labour a little while before and as he was speaking to me, he suddenly told me that the child was born and that I was the father to a daughter. To my utter surprise I broke down in tears of happiness and gratitude. With the quantum of tears streaming down my face, I am quite sure I was noticeable to other travellers. I immediately called my parents and boss to update them. My boss, who knew we were expecting, was initially worried as he could only hear sobs at the other end of the line. A few seconds later he understood they were the outcome of too much joy.

My mother and father still dote on me and my sister. I used to make fun of my mother when she used to be very caring and protective of my sister and me. Now in an interesting twist she makes fun of me for the attachment I have towards my daughter (I still make fun of her that I take after my mother). My father used to tell me that for parents, a thorn that hurts a child's foot is like a thorn in the parents' heart. Now I understand what he meant. She is a few months old. I am already planning to get her husband to stay with my wife and me when she gets married. Recently there was a possibility that I my wife and my daughter to stay away from me for a few months. I was surprised by the sadness I felt (thankfully, the need no longer looks to be there). My wife keeps asking me how we used to spend time, especially on weekends before she was born. I do not have a specific response as such!

On a lighter note, an anecdote. My mother, mother-in-law, wife were in a room and my daughter was playing on the bed. My mother stood up on the bed to adjust a malfunctioning tube light. I immediately asked her to be careful so that she did not fall on the little one. My mother-in-law remarked tongue-in-cheek that the father was more worried about his daughter getting hurt than the son was worried about his mother losing her balance and hurting herself! True, no? :D

On a related note, a man can only wonder about the pain a woman goes through in her life. There is the monthly pain they experience for most of their lives. On top of it is the pain of childbirth. If I as a father who plays no physical role in the actual birth of the child can be so attached, one can only wonder about the love and attachment of a mother.

I occasionally read spiritual stuff. I am not saying I am a spiritual person, but I do read stuff. One thing that keeps cropping up a lot is how we build attachments and that is the root of our misery. Recently when my daughter was sitting in my wife's lap and refused to come to me, it hurt. It makes me wonder, how petty can one be? I obviously could not remain angry with her but that kind of reminds me of a sloka from the Bhagavad Gita.

dhyaayato viShayaan pumsah sangasteShoopajaayate
sangaat sanjaayate kaamah kaamaat krodhobhijaayate

When one constantly thins of worldly things, one gets attached to them. From attachment arises desire. From (unfulfilled) desire arises anger.

Is this not true in our daily lives as well? We have expectations from the people in our life. These may be our "loved one" - spouses, parents, friends, relatives etc. in our personal lives or our bosses, colleagues etc. in our professional lives. When they do not meet our expectations, we become angry with them.

Starting from this post I am planning to write up stuff on Hindu dharma and philosophy.

For the moment, my daughter is 7 months old, and I am already wondering how I will survive sending her off after marriage!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

On the language divide in India - part 2

Continuing with my earlier post here I want to address the potential reasons for the anger against the "imposition" of Hindi.

  1. The theory that is easiest to discount is the Aryan-Dravidian divide. Just to give one example of the long-standing unity of the country - Agastya who is said to be the father of all things Tamil is an "Aryan" rishi. Tamil Sangam Era literature talks about the Ramayana. Adi Sankara who was from what is today Kerala was the key figure in rallying together Hindus after the impact of Buddhism. The strongest constituency for this reason would be Tamils who are steeped in the ideology of "Dravidian" politics. On the other hand there are Tamil scholars like Dr. Nagaswamy who themselves are debunking this divide.
  2. The second reason is to put it simply, money. There is no monetary incentive for a non-Hindi speaker to learn the language. English on the other hand is today the lingua franca not only in India but across multiple developed nations. It is felt to be one of the few positive outcomes(?) of the British Raj. I do not need to dwell on the importance of English in the contemporary world. Let me give you another example. For reasons best known to them a lot of people mistake me for a north Indian (at least till I open my mouth, and occasionally even after that - I am grateful to my BIT Mesra batchmates who taught me the language!). When I had newly moved to Chennai on work, one day I hailed an auto. Even before I opened my mouth the much-maligned Chennai auto driver, started speaking Hindi! Further in places frequented by tourists, and in Marwari enclaves I am sure you will find local shop keepers speaking the language even in non-Hindi areas.
  3. A very, very important factor that I feel is a reason is that the imposition, perceived or real, is one-way. Nobody can dispute this fact. I do not think there is any school in north India which offers a south Indian language as an elective. Our leaders need to remember that our states are formed largely or completely around languages, and that is good. We need to nurture the diversity that we have. However, in this scenario, where only non-Hindi states have Hindi imposed on them there is justified anger on why a non-Hindi language is not offered in the north. 
My personal sympathies lie with the third point. Hence let me dwell on this point. 

  1. First of all people staying north of the Vindhyas seem to be utterly, and I mean Utterly ignorant of those to the south of the range. I am sure all my south Indian friends, especially the non-Tamil ones will agree that being called a Madrasi is one of the most irritating things. Why? Because the ignorant person calling me that is erasing an identity that I am proud of and is confusing with something that I am not! Many north Indians probably may not even be able to name the four major south Indian languages. And for crying out loud, the linguistic basis of statehood that we have today, is because of the south Indian states, especially (erstwhile) Andhra Pradesh. Even for those who know a little, my mother tongue is "Telegu". For God's sake, it is TelUgu. Hence if Hindi is made compulsory unilaterally consciously or unconsciously the government is furthering ignorance and possibly giving rise to a (potentially) false sense of superiority as well.
  2. Further, our languages are wonderful and logical. How many people know that the consonants in our languages form sounds from the back of the mouth, the throat to the lips? Try pronouncing ka, cha, Ta, ta and pa if you have not tried this earlier. I am not sure if anyone knows why the English alphabet extends from A to Z in that order with vowels randomly thrown in. There is a lot that our languages can communicate to one another. For example only two languages (in my knowledge) - Sanskrit and Telugu have an event/performance called an avadhaanam. This is a fantastic feat of scholarship and memory that I am not even sure how many other languages can reproduce. How many non-Telugu speakers have even heard of this? I myself have very little knowledge. I am sure the current generation, even in Telugu families are not aware of this. By giving greater and greater importance to one language we risk giving a quite burial to some of these fantastic inheritances of ours.
I respect the sentiment that is often cited - it is better to learn a common or widely spoken Indian language than English, which is a foreign tongue, that too of an oppressor. I agree to that. In fact if I know the other person knows Hindi and English both, I would like to speak Hindi. However, I have one request to anyone who gives this reason to me. You show equal respect to something which is not your own and learn a language. It need not be mine. But this removes the feeling I have of something being pushed down my throat without reciprocity.

Now I move to the third part of this topic. What can the government do? There is no short term solution to this. I would suggest that in every state there must be an elective to learn make the student learn a language that is NOT the student's mother tongue and one that s/he is familiar with. Benefits?
  1. Students get to know firsthand the diversity of our country and can gain new respect for other cultures. We will hopefully have less usage of Madrasi and Telegu.
  2. Learning a new language is one of the things scientifically proven to improve brain function and keep it active. And I do not need to say this is important to a kid.
For those who will blame me for further loading, burdened students I do have a response. Let this not be a single year language. There is no use to doing that. Let it be spread over a few years. Let the child understand the language in its majesty and beauty. Let him not fear it as another subject to be learnt by heart. Also, I understand there are multiple approaches to teaching any language. Learning by starting with grammar is definitely going to be painful. Let us try to find one that is not painful, by teaching use first, and hardcore grammar later.

In choosing electives, at whatever level it may be, we suffer from the tyranny of large numbers. I cannot choose to learn an elective I like unless there is a certain minimum number of students who also want that. This need not be a constraint in today's world where video conferencing/lectures and learning apps are increasingly becoming the norm. NPTEL is already present. Why can't we have something like that for languages?

So to summarize the last section:
  1. Make the student compulsorily learn a non-familiar language.
  2. Do not restrict it to one year, let the child take time to learn it.
  3. Give the child the freedom to choose any language of his or her choice.
  4. Instead of every school maintaining a dedicated pool of teachers for all languages, these can be taught remotely.
This concludes this topic. I look forward to writing more. I eagerly await the vistas that the train of my thought will unravel in the days to come.

Edit: I just read an article on Swayam. This further strengthens my point above about teaching languages via video lectures - real time or recorded.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

On the language divide in India - part 1

A long break from writing. I recently discovered that there ARE people who read my posts :) I anyway have stuff to share. Hence I am back!

This article is based on the recent arguments over "imposition" of Hindi on south Indian states. In the interest of brevity I am dividing what I have to say it into multiple portions. Also, as mentioned in an earlier post, apart from commenting about the present state, I will also suggest what I feel is a resolution to the issue.

As always, I am open to being corrected if I am wrong. Let me state at the outset the following:

  1. My mother tongue is Telugu. I am extremely proud of being born into it. Sanskrit is another language I respect immensely (maybe more than Telugu?). I am decently fluent in Hindi and English apart from Telugu.
  2. I am one of the increasing number of Telugu speakers who lament about the increasing usage of English in daily Telugu speech. Today a majority of Telugu speakers seem to be more comfortable inserting English words (Hindi/Urdu in Telangana) into their daily speech. I am sure this is the case throughout India, with other languages as well. In fact I recently saw an interview of an important Hindu religious leader who is supposed to have been educated in Telugu medium. His speech was possibly peppered with more English than mine! Funnily enough Christian preachers and evangelists seem to be sticking to an almost outdated mode of Telugu, what is called, graanthikam, or one that is found in books.
  3. Chronologically, Hindi is a relatively new language compared to the south Indian languages. Hence the amount of "classical" literature in this is less than that in the south Indian languages. I am clubbing dialects like Awadhi (with apologies to the speakers of these "dialects") with Hindi as we know it today. 
  4. Due to geographical reasons the northern part of the country has had immense damage caused via invasions from outside - Mongols, Turks, Greeks et al. This has had impact on multiple facets of what we call north India today - language, food etc. For this reason, I believe that what one gets to see in the southern part of the country is actually closer to what was the original Indian version of that cultural aspect. For example, there are certain Vedic rituals which are not retained in memory by anyone outside Kerala. 
  5. I believe the Aryan-Dravidian hypothesis is hogwash and is just an attempt to drive a wedge in a land that is culturally one. Point 4 above is another reason I believe the theory is rubbish. 
  6. Further, I believe many of the so-called "Indologists", especially westerners are not fit to comment on Indian texts. I will explain why. As many would know, the Vedas were passed down orally for thousands of years without putting them in writing as the pronunciation is almost if not equally important as the text of the slokas. There are Vedic scholars called Ghanapaathis, especially in Andhra (I have not seen them elsewhere) who have committed Vedas to memories. I believe that a lot of Vedic scholars DO NOT KNOW the meaning of what it is they are reciting. The simple reason is that to truly know the meaning one has to be well versed in nirukta and that is a different subject altogether. Also, Sanskrit is a language where the same word can mean different things in different contexts. And to borrow from Rajiv Malhotra's books, the same thing has multiple names depending on the characteristics. For example, the word maa can mean "to me" or it can mean negation. On the other hand paavaka, agni, havyavaahana are all terms used for fire. Also, India's many texts are interlinked. Hence without truly understanding the multiple meanings and multiple sources it is foolish to claim to be an expert on anything related to Indian culture.
Having laid this foundation I will next proceed to build my case as to WHY (in my opinion obviously) south Indians seem to be prefering English over Hindi. I will also put forward suggestions on HOW to remove some apprehensions. Some of the suggestions I have in mind are really long term-oriented, in the sense that they cannot be implemented overnight. I will share these in the forthcoming posts.