Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
The Hindu mentality
Agni, "whom I have seen passing secretly from place to place, shining brightly of his own accord," was one of the most loved and revered gods of the Hindus in the third millennium BC, the days when the first or earliest hymns of the Rig Veda were composed; it was through Agni that one obtained access to the other gods. The logic of this will be immediately apparent to anyone who has experienced the cheering, tranquilising, steadying, reflection-inducing effect of the diyas that are so widely used in prayers and festivals in Hindu homes and temples.
Both in the form of the sun and in the form of the domestic fires, Agni was,
of course, freely accessible to everyone. However, over a period of time,
rich patrons and the priests associated with them came to loom larger and
larger on the social scene, as a result of which it was soon discovered that
although Agni, the lord of the dwelling, indeed
abides with the five classes of men in every dwelling - those radiant
fires at which the well-born sacrificers assemble, shine more brightly.
The disease was as yet in an early stage; but it had definitely taken root.
Manoj K. Jain
Till this time, Hinduism had had only a personal (or devotional or moral) aspect, a social (or cultural) aspect, and a transcendental or self-surpassing aspect which impelled men to ever newer discoveries about themselves and the world they lived in; impelled them to discover their first and their finest gods, rather than invent them. It is to these three aspects that Hinduism owes its beauty and power. But the religion now began to acquire a "political" aspect as well.
The story about the ascendancy of this political aspect of Hinduism over the other aspects, which were often driven out altogether, is something like this. First of all, as the priests ventured deeper and deeper in the pursuit of God, they increasingly found themselves faced with the problem of how to support themselves financially in a way that left them free to give their undivided attention to the job at hand. This problem is quite clearly articulated in the following hymn from the Sixth Mandala of the Rig Veda (VI.5.4) :
Pushan, lord of paths, we attach thee to us like a chariot, for bringing
food and for solemnity.
These "gracious householders" that a section of the priests began to attach themselves to from the first few centuries of the second millennium BC were none other than the "kshatriya" leaders of the Aryan clans. The reason for this was simple; there was at that time no one else they could turn to. Neither businessmen nor the common people could be relied on for this; there were simply not enough of them to go around. The economy was in an early stage of development, and large cities had yet to come into being. And so, over a period of time, there resulted a situation in which it was the priests and warriors "versus" the rest. This give and take between these two classes is neatly brought out in a subsequent hymn (Rig VI.6.13):
The spoil borne off in his car, in which his weapons and armour are deposited,
is the appropriate oblation of the warrior; therefore let us, exulting, daily
do honour to the joy-bestowing car.
As we shall see, the most important function of this political "branch" of Hinduism (which was of course, very literally, the most resourceful and the most powerful branch of Hinduism), was to "keep people in their place", to keep them from getting "above themselves". The vaisyas were left out of the "alliance" at this point of time; when, at a later date, excluded members of society began "storming the Bastille", vaisyas too were to be found in their midst, not only women and sudras (see Chapter IX of the Bhagavad Gita). This was to have profound consequences for the viability of Hinduism. As industry, finance and trade grew over the centuries, replacing land and war as the prime movers, businessmen prospered and refused to be content with the inferior position to which the Brahmins had sought to relegate them. And so there was a mass exodus of businessmen away from Hinduism. This was a critical factor in the rapid growth of Buddhism and Jainism from the sixth century BC. For almost a thousand years thereafter, Hinduism was definitely on the run.
The best place to see the transition taking place, from the "good" Hinduism to the "bad", the best place to see this "maturing" of Hinduism from its uncorrupted to its corrupted form, is at the juncture of the Vedas with their corresponding Brahmanas; i.e. the voluminous and intimidating "manuals of ritual procedure" that came to be appended to the Rig, the Sama and the Yajur Veda (the "trai-Vidya"); from about the middle of the second millennium BC. The trend is perceived even earlier; even in the Rig Veda one finds a gradually increasing complexity of ritual procedure. More and more priests are to be found at prayer, on more and more occasions, and for increasingly protracted periods of time. But it is in the Brahmana period that this trend reaches its peak.
Prayers have by now become exceedingly complicated and intricate. Hundreds of little things have to be done for the puja, each of them very precisely, in the way laid down, in the manner laid down, in the order laid down, by the priests laid down. Even the most minute details are of immense importance.
References to animal sacrifices are to be found even in the Rig Veda (for example, Rig I.22.6,7) but it is in the Brahmana period that this part of the ritual becomes more and more prominent; and very, very sordid.
The refreshing symbolism of the earlier Rig Vedic prayers is now a thing of the past, now that every single thing has come to be laden with such heavy significance. And of course, as intended, increasing "mystique-ification" has rendered the whole affair entirely beyond the comprehension of the people on whose behalf the priests perform their prayers.
The slightest omission or error can render the puja infructuous; it will no longer yield the desired "results", and, who knows, might even bring down the wrath of the gods. Brahmins have therefore not only become very important but also very feared.
The whole business has become a monopoly of the priests; this huge "bureaucracy" now controls access to the gods : the gods no longer freely make themselves available in their splendid entirety when invoked, by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. On the other hand, purity of heart or moral worth is no longer necessary for access to the almighty; so the process has in a way become so much simpler.
These, yes these, the Shuthapatha Brahmanas (the "manual of ritual procedure" for the White Yajur Veda) explains, are the forests and deserts of sacrifice, which require hundreds and hundreds of days of cart-journey, and those ignorant people who enter them will meet the same fate as the foolish people, who, wandering about in jungles, are tortured by hunger and thirst, and are persecuted by wicked men and monsters. But learned men go safe from one place to another, from one deity to another, as if from one river to another.
Serious doubts had arisen by now about whether the almighty had any time to spare for vaisyas, sudras and women. Indeed he was sure to be polluted by their very presence. And so began the long history of the deliberate pollution of others by the devout in order that they themselves could feel pure.
It was because of these developments that we began to be lashed and battered by the tidal waves of obscurantism and prejudice that were to take such a heavy toll over the millennia; that were to drain us of vigour, and deprive us of our ability to discriminate.
What we have here, then, is a case of priests seeking to do their jobs more and more "thoroughly"; in the process substituting invented gods for discovered ones. So far as spiritual matters were concerned, patrons must now have felt that they were getting better value for their money. There was also a frank pandering to personal vanity; patrons were receptive to even the most shameless forms of sycophancy. For instance, in the first panegyric that I came across (Rig VII.2 1), the priests are found telling Indra:
Our forefathers, glorifying thee, have obtained all desirable riches.
But one must not conclude that the whole thing was one big hoax. Many patrons must sincerely have believed that they were on the trail of god. Indeed, many of the priests seem to have thought so too; judging by the way they kept slipping in requests of their own amidst the petitions they made to the almighty on behalf of their patrons. One hymn (Rig VII.2.2) includes the following prayer to the powerful Indra:
Let us not be exposed at this ceremony addressed to thee; protect us with
impregnable defences; may we be held dear among thy worshippers.
But the whole thing was also politically necessary, for the survival of order. All the deliberately ostentatious pomp and show was intended to suitably impress and overawe the general public. Without it, it was said, the whole world would collapse. The basic logic is neatly summed up in Section 56 of the Mahabharata's Shanti Parva :
Thou shouldst not indulge in jest with thy servants - they forget their own position - ordered to do a thing, they hesitate. They go to the length of displaying their wrath and seek to outshine the master - If the king becomes angry, they laugh - They disclose the secret counsels of their master and bruit his evil acts - and always give the people to understand that the king is very intimate with them and loves them (the servants) dearly.
And so, the king, the Mahabharata tells us (Shanti Parva, Section 53):
with an eye to both religious merit and profit, whose considerations are often very intricate should, without delay, appoint a priest possessed of learning and intimately acquainted with the Vedas and the scriptures. The Brahmin and the Kshatriya are connected with each other naturally, and each protects the other. The Kshatriya is the cause of the Brahmin's growth and the Brahmin is the cause of the Kshatriya's growth. When each helps the other, both attain to great prosperity. If their friendship breaks, a confusion sets over everything. The four orders of men become confounded and destruction overtakes all.
Or, to put it another way :
The Brahmins, if enraged, can inflict diverse kinds of wrong, O king. If they be gratified, high fame will be thy share (Shanti Parva, Section 113).
In kingdoms torn by anarchy or normlessness, Section 67 of the Shanti Parva tells us;
righteousness cannot dwell; people there cannot enjoy their wealth and wives. The inhabitants devour one another. The wealth of one is snatched away by two. That of those two is snatched away by many acting together. That is why the coronation of a king is the first duty of a kingdom. Men desirous of prosperity should crown some person as their king. "All of us shall worship him, and he shall protect us. No one should disregard the king by taking him for a man, for he is really a high divinity in human form.
In this way, Section 90 continues, fear of both God and King could work in tandem to keep everything going smoothly :
Among all things that conduce to the prosperity of kings, righteousness is the foremost. Dharma, again, has sprung from the Brahmins. For this reason, the Brahmin should always be worshipped. Placate Brahmins so that the goddess of prosperity may not in wrath desert thee.
The problem, of course, was that the whole thing was fraught with grave danger. There was the possibility that things could go seriously wrong, and this in fact is exactly what happened. All too often, the commanding heights of this once promising religion got occupied by "demoniac" persons:
neither purity nor yet correct conduct nor veracity are in them. Entertaining insatiable desire, full of vanity, ostentatiousness, and frenzy, they adopt false notions through delusion, and engage in unholy observances. They wish to obtain heaps of wealth unfairly for enjoying objects of desire. This wealth is mine, they say; and this shall also be mine; this foe I have killed; others too I will destroy; I am lord, I am the enjoyer, I am perfect, strong, happy; I have wealth; I am of noble birth; who else is like me? I will sacrifice; I will make gifts; I will rejoice. Honoured only by themselves, void of humility, and full of pride and frenzy of wealth, these calumniators perform sacrifices which are sacrifices only in name, with ostentatiousness and against prescribed rules; indulging their vanity, brute force, arrogance, lust, and anger; and hating me in their own bodies and in those of others (Gita, Chapter XVI).
The priests too were humming along nicely by this time:
All friends rejoice when the friendly libation, the support of the assembly
of the priests, has arrived at the sacrifice; for Soma, the remover of iniquity,
the giver of sustenance, being placed in the vessels, is sufficient for their
The rest of society, however, was becoming increasingly troubled and restless. Clear signs of this had begun to emerge long before the actual collapse of Hinduism before the onslaught of Jainism and Buddhism in the middle of the first millennium BC. Among the later hymns of the Rig Veda, for instance, we find "orthodox" brahmins addressing the deity with the words:
Let not fools, seeking protection, nor mockers, trouble thee ; favour not the enemies of the brahmins. (VIII.6.3)
The striking thing is that the attack on such priests was not only from "outsiders", but also from members of the "ruling coalition". The Upanishads are full of instances of devastating attacks on orthodox Brahmins by more enlightened Brahmins, and by Kshatriyas. Indeed, even in the Rig Veda we find the contemptuous verse :
You know him not who has generated these beings; his life is another, different from yours; wrapped in fog, and foolish speech do they wander who are gluttonous and engaged in devotion (X.6.14).
Similarly, the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata starts off with Bhim telling Yudhisthira:
Thy understanding, O king, has become blind to the truth, like that of a foolish and unintelligent reciter of the Veda in consequence of his repeated recitation of those scriptures (Section 10), while Draupadi adds: do your duties, leave the duties of the Brahmins to the Brahmins. (Section 14)
Even as the onslaught on this decadent form of "Vedic" Hinduism gathered momentum, the "orthodox" priests, instead of seeing the message that was so clearly writ on the wall, began declaring that:
They that perform the sacrifices of Vaisyas and Sudras, they that officiate in sacrifices on behalf of a whole village, and they that make voyages on the ocean, these five are regarded as Chandalas among Brahmins. (Shanti Parva, Section 76)
Meanwhile, the "fight" between Hinduism on the one hand, and Jainism and Buddhism on the other, was depicted by these people as a straight fight between the gods and the demons; which, in a way, was apt enough because neither of these new religions "believed in God" in quite the same way as the orthodox Hindus. It was the quality of the life you led that mattered to them, not the quality of your prayers.
In this battle, the Gita came out tactfully, but very definitely, against "Vedic" Hinduism. It warned, for instance, against those who are:
strongly attached to pleasures and power, and whose minds are drawn away by that flowery talk which is full of the ordinances of specific rituals for the attainment of those pleasures and that power - that flowery talk which those unwise ones utter who are enamoured of Vedic words, who say there is nothing else. (Chapter 2)
The Gita stated categorically that it is not right to unduly favour Brahmins, or be prejudiced against outcastes (Chapter V); and it sought to debunk the surfeit of the ritualistic claptrap with the position that:
even a few drops of water, or a fruit, flower, or leaf, if offered with devotion, He accepts from a devotee whose heart is pure.
The Gita also repeatedly made the point that things should be done because they ought to be done, without hankering for the results thereof; that prayers which are intended to procure this or that boon, or those that are done with a great deal of outward show, are in fact not prayers at all.
So far as praying for individual salvation is concerned, the position of the Gita was that the only use of prayer is that the resultant sanctity helps you to get yourself together, serves as a steadying influence. It is for this that one must pray, for god to "guide you", "hold your hand", "show you the way"; not in order to "please" the gods, by chanting this or that mantra or by following this or that procedure. It is your own taste and convenience that you must look to in such matters, the Gita tells us; it is yourself you must please:
whichever form any worshipper wishes to worship with faith, to that form I render his faith steady. (Chapter 7)
There is one very striking passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad that is worth quoting in this context:
The householder is verily the support of all beings. It is by offering libations in the fire and performing sacrifices that he becomes a support to the gods. By reciting the Vedas, he acts as a support to the sages. By making offerings to the manes and desiring offspring he is a support of the manes.(I.4.16)
These are indeed three very remarkable propositions. The first very clearly makes the point that it is we that "uphold" the gods, not the other way around; in order that these creations of ours can then uphold us; can give us the strength and peace of mind to do our duties honestly and well. For in the end, it is to steady themselves that people pray; not to "prop up" the gods, as some foolishly imagine. The second proposition speaks of the need to support the preservation of a spiritual (and intellectual and literary) tradition. And, finally, the last points to the need to keep family traditions intact, in an extremely under-institutionalised state of development in which, had this focus been absent, society would have reverted to a very primitive existence indeed. As the Gita puts it, with its characteristically dramatic use of metaphor :
On the extinction of the family, the eternal rites of families are destroyed. Those rites being destroyed, impiety predominates over the whole family. In consequence of the predominance of impiety, the women of the family become corrupt, intermingling of castes results; that intermingling necessarily leads the family to hell; for when the family ceremonies of offering the balls of food and water to the ancestors fail, the ancestors fall down to hell. (Chapter 1)
The Gita recognises the utility of the political aspect of religion:
Whatever a great man does, that other men also do. There is nothing, O son of Pritha, for me to do in the three worlds, nothing to acquire which has not been acquired. Still I do engage in action. For should I at any time not engage without sloth in action, men would follow in my path from all sides. If I did not perform actions, these worlds would be destroyed, I should be the cause of caste-interminglings; and I should be ruining these people. As the ignorant act, O descendant of Bharata, with attachment to action, so should a wise man act without attachment, wishing to keep the people to their duties. A wise man should not shake off the convictions of the ignorant who are attached to action, but acting with devotion himself should make them apply themselves to all action. (Chapter 6)
The point that is specially worth noting in the present context is that the word "action" in this passage of the Gita is used exclusively in the sense of participation in ritual procedure. Amazing as it now seems, the "orthodox" priests had managed to make this the standard meaning of the word "action": so far as your salvation was concerned, the priests said, this was the only sort of action that really mattered.
Keeping in mind both the personal and political angles, the meaning of this passage from the Gita is of course that:
Unattached at heart, though attached in outward show - such a man, O king, is regarded to be emancipated. (Shanti Parva, Section XVIII)
But, despite the near lethal onslaught on them, the tyrants managed somehow to survive, and in the course of time, flourished once again. By the time that Fa Hsien travelled the country, at the beginning of the fifth century AD, the position in some areas had degenerated to the point that "if an outcaste was so much as seen at close range by a dvija, the latter had to perform a ritual ablution to purify himself". Even at the height of the Brahmana period, things were never this bad; all that was then required was that women and the low castes avoid polluting religious ceremonies by their presence.
Another grand contribution of the Gupta period, the "classical" or "golden" age of Hindu civilisation, a period of unprecedented prosperity and vitality, to which we also owe the mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhatta, the poet Kalidasa, and the Kama Sutra, was that, jealous of the enormous prosperity of the trading classes and of their patronage of the rival religions, Brahmin lawmakers, more and more obsessed with "ritual purity" (far from the sweat and dust of the real world, Brahmins and Kshatriyas had a "natural" advantage over everyone else in this regard), now began objecting to travel to distant lands by the captains of industry, "because it meant contamination with the mlechcha and non-caste people". You may be rich, these Brahmins were in effect saying; we are virtuous.
This concern for "ritual purity" was to later impact on the upper castes as well. Upper caste women to be precise; they too later became the targets of the urge of Brahmin males to remain pure and unsullied. Lower caste women, fortunately, were spared the suffocation of the purdah, and the cruel tortures that were as a rule inflicted on widows in upper caste households in later times; in which, indeed, they were sometimes simply fed to the flames; in the name of Hinduism and under the supervision of priests.
It is now time to begin wrapping up this story. The divisiveness and intolerance that have for thousands of years seemed to outside observers to be one of the most striking characteristics of the supposedly tolerant Hindu religion, were in fact not aberrations at all; they were a fundamental part of the "original" design. This design was superseded a very long time ago; by better, more wholesome, designs. But the problem continued; for thousands of years, and in a very acute form. New ideas simply mingled with the old ones, they rarely drove them out. It is because of this that the aggregate of the cruel and undeserved hardships inflicted, in the name of god, on Hindus by Hindus, over the thousands of years of our known history, greatly exceeded the brutality that was, for relatively short periods of time, inflicted on Hindus from time to time by tyrannical Muslim rulers or marauders. Hinduism long ago moved on ahead; Hindus have remained behind.
Today, now that for the first time in our long history despising and humiliating the lower castes is no longer feasible, except in private, now that women too have started getting more assertive, it is perhaps natural that some people who are reluctant to shed long and deep-seated traditions of prejudice, who have always found it necessary to "pollute" others in order to themselves remain "pure", find it convenient to now turn their fury on Muslims and Christians, an exercise which our former victims too can be encouraged to gleefully join. The parallel between the trap we walked into three or four thousand years ago and the trap the BJP is leading us into today is obvious.
Hinduism unites us and uplifts us? Definitely so. But the hateful and divisive effects of its political aspects too cannot be ignored.
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