Monday, July 22, 2013

Britain and Hinduism 4: The Current Situation

Homer gives credit to an Eastern Prince for leading the Greeks into what became their homeland, and Alexander the Great grew up with the belief that he belonged to an ancient Indian royal line.

That belief, more than world conquest, fired his ambition, and in noting this in The History of Philosophy, Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) wrote that Alexander “destroyed the Persian kingdom and burnt Persepolis, the old enemy of Indian religion, in order to take revenge upon it for all the violence exercised through Darius on the Buddhists and their co-religionists.”

Hegel also observed that Alexander had “found on the lower Ister [the Danube] Indian priestly states where the immortality of the soul was taught,” an idea he was familiar with, “certainly not without the counsel of Aristotle, who, through Plato and Pythagoras, was initiated into Indian wisdom.”

Ironically, when Alexander confronted Darius at the fateful battle of Gaugemala a contingent of Indian cavalry was the most potent threat he faced: it broke through his lines, killed 60 of the elite “Companions” and could have wreaked further devastation had it not chosen at that point to loot the Greek camp.

 Four centuries after Alexander’s death “Arrian of Nicomedia” (86–160) wrote about the last days of Europe’s greatest military hero. In doing so, he devoted one short book (better described as a chapter), to a description of India, basing it on the reports of earlier writers, especially Nearchus, Alexander’s contemporary.

Arrian recounted at length what Nearchus had to say about Indian philosophers. Alexander chanced upon a number of them “in a meadow, where they used to meet to discuss philosophy.” When they saw him “these venerable men stamped with their feet and gave no other sign of interest;” he asked them through interpreters “what they meant by this odd behavior” and they replied: ‘King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth' surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others. Ah well! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you’.”

In Taxila, Alexander met with some “Wise Men whose practice it is to go naked, and he so much admired their powers of endurance that the fancy took him to have one of them in his personal train.” The leader of the group, Dandamus, responded: “If you, my lord, are the son of god, why, so am I. I want nothing from you, for what I have suffices. I perceive, moreover, that the men you lead get no good from their worldwide wandering over land and sea, and that of their many travels there will be no end. I desire nothing that you can give me; I fear no exclusion from any blessings which may perhaps be yours. India, with the fruits of her soil in due season, is enough for me while I live; and when I die, I shall be rid of my poor body, my unseemly housemate.”

Seeing that Dandamis was, “in a true sense, a free man” Alexander did not try to compel him. However, another of the group, Calanus, did accompany Alexander. Declaring that no account of Alexander’s withdrawal from India “would be complete without the story of Calanus,” Arrian then told of what happened to the Indian sage.

He fell seriously ill in Persia, and became an invalid, a condition in which he did not wish to remain. He decided to kill himself on a funeral pyre. Alexander tried to dissuade him but to no avail. So one of the elite Companions built the funeral pyre Calanus wanted. At the appropriate time, he was carried on a litter to the pyre “by a solemn procession – horses, men, soldiers in armor and people carrying all kinds of precious oils and spices to throw upon the flames.”

At the pyre he distributed all the gifts Alexander had given him, and then mounted the pyre and laid himself down. “All the troops were watching. Alexander could not but feel that there was a sort of indelicacy in witnessing such a spectacle – the man, after all, had been his friend; everyone else, however, felt nothing but astonishment to see Calanus give not the smallest sign of shrinking from the flames. We read in Nearchus’ account of this incident that at the moment the fire was kindled, there was, by Alexander's orders, an impressive salute: the bugles sounded, the troops with one accord roared out their battle-cry, and the elephants joined in with their shrill war-trumpeting. This story and others to a similar effect have been recorded by good authorities; they are not without value to anyone who cares for evidence of the unconquerable resolution of the human spirit in carrying a chosen course of action through to the end.”

 That high opinion of Indian philosophers, and indeed of Indian society in general is notable in all early Western writings.

A year after Alexander’s death, one of his Generals who had installed himself as ruler of Syria, sent an Ambassador to India, Megasthenes, whose book, Indica, is by far the most extensive account we have of our society at the time.

The country, he wrote, was “peopled by races both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent, but all were evidently indigenous. Moreover, India neither received a colony from abroad, nor sent out a colony to any other nation.” Of “several remarkable customs existing among the Indians,” the one that impressed Megasthenes most was that according to the prescription of “their ancient philosophers which one may regard as truly admirable,” no one “under any circumstances” was to be a slave. Thus, they had “learned neither to domineer over nor to cringe to others.”

Why We Are Different

 Why were Indians of that era so different from us?

 The answer lies in a simple, glaring fact: our ancestors had internalized the values their philosophers taught; the values that prevail today are those forged in centuries of defeat and humiliation.

It is not that the values of Sanatana Dharma have disappeared from our midst. They are evident in the massive endurance of our people, in the grace and tolerance of our society amidst heart-rending loss, in our survival as a nation and a democracy; but when it comes to individual Indian behavior it is quite a different matter. The tragedy is that even after independence there has been no one to remind Indians of the people they once were. That is because the intellectual scene has been dominated by “secular” amnesiacs and the voices raised in defence of traditional values have been regressive and reactionary.

 Remedying the matter has become urgent because the emerging battle lines for the 2014 elections could precipitate an ugly level of confrontation between “Secular” and “Hindutva” unless there is a new level of awareness of the past – which is to say, of ourselves.

The best way to that end might be to clarify what exactly we mean by “Hindu.”

The British have been trying for generations to make the case that there is no such thing. In their view, taken up by a number of paid Indian proxies, the concept arose as part of the Indian nationalist response to their rule, unifying under the “Hindu” umbrella a multiplicity of caste and tribal faiths.

The only reason that claim has not met with general ridicule is that most Indian intellectuals are too ignorant of history to assert a counter-claim.

 The story is essential knowledge for every Indian regardless of religion for it explains the nature of our society. 

The Emergence of Hinduism

Hinduism began as a peace project in a land of many tribes. The Saptarishis (Seven Sages) of ancient tradition probably initiated it by collecting all tribal religious lore into what became the Vedas (literally, “what is seen”). Successive generations of thinkers extracted from that collection the teachings of the Upanishads, a word that means to “talk sitting together;” today we would call them “conference reports.” The concepts that India’s best and brightest distilled from the Vedas became popular knowledge through two great epics that have inspired every generation of Indian storytellers to poetry, drama, dance and song. In that process, they united India culturally.

 The core of the Hindu belief system thus created and celebrated is the concept of the Universal Soul, known more fondly now as God. In Hindu cosmology God is not in Heaven or separate from the Universe but immanent. Everything is God, including ourselves. What separates the essence from the dross of the Universe is the delusion of Maya: to have a material body is to be part of its endless shadow play.

How does God control the Universe? Through Dharma (with a capital D): Universal Law. The subsection of it that applies to living beings is Karma (with a capital K); it is the Law governing Action. Lower case dharma and karma bring those concepts down to the level of individuals.

 It is important to understand how these concepts shaped Indian society and what effect their migration out of the country had on the rest of the world.

 Within India, the individual soul, being a part of the Universal Soul, is seen as eternal; it moves from one life form to another, the passage determined by the unbreakable matrix of dharma and karma. Parents and Teachers can help as guides but no more; how a young person’s fate evolves depends entirely on his/her past karma and present effort.

Where every soul is subject to karmic law, no priest can offer redemption from bad karma, no Inquisitor can pass judgment on another's faith. The basic concepts of Hinduism assured freedom of faith and worship in a broadly tolerant society.

Those safeguards were lost when Indian ideas migrated to the Mediterranean world, and through the teachings of Plato and Judaism, entered the mainstream of Western civilization. The Universal Spirit held firmly in place by Dharma and Karma in India, became the remote male “God in Heaven” of West Asia and Europe, His will interpreted on earth by the founders of religions and their interpreters. Power struggles invoking God were inevitable and, as so amply illustrated by past and current events, unending.

When rationality finally rebelled against religious madness in Europe, it took the form of Science, founded on the same basic beliefs as Hinduism: Universal Law (Dharma) made manifest in the law of causality (Karma). Those are the two cardinal elements of the Scientific Method.

In the last century, Western Science has validated other fundamental Hindu beliefs, including the existence of the individual soul and its reincarnation. That little noted development has been the result of two discoveries, one that matter and energy exist in an indestructible continuum, and the other that each individual has a unique genetic code. In combination, those two scientific discoveries mean that at death the genetic design of the individual survives as an energy pattern; it is only a matter of time before scientists discover how it is transmitted to a new body.

A Time of Peril

 All this is relevant to us today – and especially to the outcome of the 2014 elections – because it underlines a basic fact about Hindu society. At its most successful, and even in its millennium of defeat and loss, it has given pride of place to the intellectual. The Indian Renaissance, beginning with Guru Nanak’s bid to heal the Hindu-Muslim rift, to Raja Rammohun Roy’s counter to Christian evangelism, to Gandhi’s spiritual politics, has been guided by a towering acuity of intellect at its humane best.

It is the one critical quality missing in Indian national life today.

 The deficit lies not just with the “secular” and “Left” intellectuals. Their ignorance of the Indian past, insensitivity to fundamental Hindu values, their inability to chart an independent course for Indian development or even to deal with the manipulations of British proxies in their midst, are widely shared on the Hindutva Right.

So much so that Hindutvadis have welcomed into their ideological ranks a number of “White Hindus,” Europeans who have such violent, intemperate views as to be wholly alien to the Indian ethos. Going by what L.K. Advani has reportedly said, the destruction of the Babri Masjid was a direct result of activism inspired by one of them.

It is no wonder that foreigners have taken control of the Hindutva brigade for its homegrown ideologues seem incapable of recognizing basic realities. Writing about modern India at a time of historic resurgence, one of the most vocal of them titled a 2011 tract "Eclipse of the Hindu Nation" with the subtitle "Gandhi and his freedom struggle."

 We cannot afford such an obtuse level of discourse on matters of national importance. When the world order is caught in deep currents of epochal change the Indian political elite cannot continue in its current state of intellectual torpor without putting the country in very great danger.

Part 5 will focus on how we can address this situation.

Read Part1, Part 2, Part 3

No comments: