Ram Madhav
September 16, 2023

Misreading Hinduism

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(The article was originally published in Indian Express on September 16, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

Hindu- or Sanatan-phobia, which the Hindu American Foundation in the US describes as a “set of antagonistic, destructive, and derogatory attitudes and behaviours” towards Sanatan Dharma, is a disorder rearing its head globally. As the influence of the Hindu ecosystem grows in Bharat’s public life, its detractors have started resorting to Hinduphobic attacks through events like the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference in 2021. These attacks continue in various forms.

We now witness such trends in Bharat also. Statements by DMK leaders in Tamil Nadu equating Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism with the plague, malaria and dengue and insisting on “eradicating” it betray the ugly face of Hinduphobia.

These Hinduphobics lack proper knowledge of Sanatan Dharma and are filled with blind hatred based on a faulty interpretation of the philosophy peddled by their leaders. The vast body of knowledge and philosophical doctrines that evolved over millennia as Sanatan Dharma, which a foreigner like Annie Besant described as “so perfect, so scientific, so philosophical, so spiritual”, is branded by these Hinduphobics as a rigid, oppressive and inhuman social order.

The British colonisers had deliberately misrepresented the Hindu social order. British educationist Thomas Babington Macaulay resorted to a diatribe calling Sanatan Dharma as “pernicious” in the “highest degree… unfavourable to the moral and intellectual health of our race”.

That Macaulayist mindset continues to haunt sections of Dravidian activists, who seek to reduce Sanatan Dharma to the present-day caste system and call for the annihilation of the cultural and civilisational structure that is the lifeline of the world’s third-largest religious group of more than a billion believers.

South India in general, and Tamil Nadu in particular, has produced many great saints and scholars who occupy a place of pride in the Sanatan hierarchy. From Sage Agastya in Vedic times to Ramanuja and Avvaiyar in medieval times to Ramana Maharshi in the recent past, sages of the Sanatan tradition have emerged from the Dravida lands and are revered by the entire nation.

Challenging caste hierarchy is in no way an attack on Hinduism. But using it to demonise the entire Dharmic order is ignorance. Ritualism and hierarchical casteism in Sanatan traditions attracted criticism and revolt from time to time. Buddha and Charvaka led early revolts against the ritualistic aspects of Sanatan Dharma. These continued as reformist movements in later centuries. The caste system as an institution was subjected historically to continuous scrutiny and reform for evils like hierarchical discrimination and untouchability.

In Plato’s Socratic Dialogues, an Athenian prophet called Euthyphro of Prospalta gets into an argument with Socrates over “what is pious”. “What is dear to the gods is pious. What is not is impious,” he proposes. Socrates argues that some gods may see certain actions as pious, and others may not. Euthyphro then modifies his definition, saying “the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious”. Socrates then asks the most important question: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”

This is called the Euthyphro Dilemma. Many Sanatanis face this “Euthyphro Dilemma” on the question of the caste system because of its divine origin tracing back to Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, who informed Arjuna that the varnas were created by him.

But it was not exclusive to India. Medieval Europe had rigid classes like royalty, clergymen, nobles, burghers and serfs. Ancient Iran had its class structure in the form of atharva (priest), rathestha (warrior), vastrya fsuvant (head of the family) and huiti (manual worker).

Plato too resorts to a similar tripartite division of the soul into appetitive, spirited and rational parts. “The common people are driven by base desires, soldiers by a yearning for honour, while rulers look to reason. Mostly, it is a matter of birth – we are born to be blacksmiths or soldiers or philosopher kings”, writes Keanan Malik explaining Plato’s logic.

In the Sanatan tradition, birth-based division was never accepted in ancient times, nor was any hierarchy codified. Sankara Digvijaya by Madhavacharya makes knowledge the basis for social organisation, proclaiming that “by birth, all are Shudras only. By actions, men become Dwija — twice-born. By reading the Vedas, one becomes Vipra and becomes Brahmin by gaining the knowledge of God.”

A passage in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata states that a person, in whom the qualities of truth, munificence, forgiveness, gentleness, abstinence from cruel deeds, contemplation and benevolence are observed, is called a Brahmin. “A man is not a Shudra by being born a Shudra nor a Brahmin by being born a Brahmin,” it states categorically. The Shanti Parva rejects the idea of some varnas being superior to others.

The evil of birth-based casteism is a distortion of the varna system. Not just Ambedkar, even the Hindu icon Savarkar vociferously rejected it. “Just as I felt I should rebel against the foreign rule over Hindustan, I also felt that I should rebel against the caste system and untouchability in Hindustan”, he wrote from the Andaman jail in 1920. A reformist RSS chief, Balasaheb Deoras, categorically stated that many things in the Manu Smriti had become outdated. It is “no longer wise to accept every word of it, as valid in modern times,” he declared. Gandhi, who always called himself a Sanatani Hindu, called caste a “monster”. “It is this travesty of varna that has degraded Hinduism and India,” he bemoaned.

Casteism should go. But the Sanatan-phobic Dravidianism that seeks to defame and, if possible, destroy Sanatana Dharma, too should go. Besant’s caution that “there is no future for India without Hinduism” should always be remembered.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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