Arun Shourie: Of course, he knows every mother’s heart! – M. Pramod Kumar

Prof. M. Pramod Kumar“We cannot make suffering the pivot of our whole existence because it is only one side of human life. Human beings cannot abandon their pursuit of joy and happiness even in the midst of the most crushing adversity because ananda is the very essence of our nature. And that is why the gloomy world of suffering and pain that Buddhism painted, with monasticism and ascetic withdrawal from life as its only solution, crumbled and declined.” – M. Pramod Kumar

Arun Shourie with son AdityaHaving defended Hinduism in the public space against the onslaught of India’s secular intelligentsia for many decades, Magsaysay award winning journalist and politician Arun Shourie declared his agnosticism to the world in 2011 with the publication of the profoundly moving, Does He know a mother’s heart – How Suffering Refutes Religions. The book was motivated by his personal experiences in dealing with the pain and suffering of his spastic son, Aditya, and his wife, Anita, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

Shourie raises deeply philosophical issues about the nature of suffering in human life and finds the ‘answers’ popularly found in the world’s major religions to be inadequate and sometimes even cruel, as the explanations, he says, seem to mock at pain and suffering.

Ever since the publication of his disturbing book in 2011, I have wanted to respond to some of the sweeping accusations and distortions found in his book, but could not do so due to various commitments, academic and personal. In this essay, I will try to respond to some of the central arguments of his charges against Hinduism and its response to human suffering, in the hope that all those who grapple with the question of suffering will find solace through one or more of the answers Hinduism provides. This is not to belittle in any way his painful personal life experiences, but the questions he raises are of universal relevance and deserve to be debated.

The fundamental problem with Hindus today is that they have no proper exposure to the teachings of our sastras. The traditional institutions of Hindu society which imparted religious knowledge and values to us – mainly the families and the gurukulams – are no longer fulfilling this function today. Instead, we pick up bits and pieces as we grow up, through the media, books and articles, which only confound us further, given the vast scope of the subject matter involved. Hence, the faith of the common English educated Hindu rests on shaky ground. One develops an emotional value for religion without clarity of understanding. An unexpected setback in life is often sufficient to topple this emotional faith.

This is the reason why we find even highly educated Hindus like Shourie taking recourse to agnosticism, unable to resolve their doubts or come to terms with pain and suffering. In his lecture delivered at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Coimbatore on 22 September 2011, Shourie candidly admitted that many Punjabis, including himself, go through rituals during marriage and other ceremonies mechanically because they do not understand the Sanskrit mantras uttered by the priest [1]

Shourie’s God vs Hinduism’s Isvara

Shourie goes hammer and tongs against a God who is declared to be all-compassionate and almighty, but watches on mutely as human beings suffer or, worse, brings down calamities on people as punishments. Clearly, this is the intolerant, judgmental Abrahamic God who sits in heaven and rules with an iron hand over his tribe of believers.

A creator who creates the universe while remaining outside of it is a logical fallacy which Hinduism never subscribed to. If the creator is not located outside the universe and if he cannot be inside the universe, then where is the creator located? The third and only possibility left is that the creator and the created are not two different entities. The Isha Upanishad declares, “Isavasyam Idam sarvam” (the whole universe is pervaded by Isha).

Every object which is created presupposes a material and an intelligent cause. For example, a pot. The potter is the intelligent cause who has the knowledge of the pot and the clay is the material cause. If the object to be created is the whole universe itself, then the intelligent cause is Isvara who has the perfect knowledge of what is to be created. But what is the material cause of the universe? Since everything is yet to be created, Isvara could not have borrowed this material from anywhere. Thus, the only logical possibility is that Isvara is not only the intelligent cause but also the material cause of the universe. Just as the clay pervades the whole pot, Isvara pervades the whole universe as its material cause.

The Upanishads give us two beautiful metaphors to comprehend this stunning conclusion. The first is the example of a spider and its web: Yathornanabhihi srujate gruhnate cha – just as a spider weaves its web out of its own body and swallows it back when it desires, the creation is born of, is sustained by and dissolved back into Isvara. (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/1/7)

The second example is that of a dreamer and his dream: “The dream is an even better example: you are the creator of the dream as you have the power and the intelligence to create the dream world, based on your own experiences, memories, etc. in the waking. You are also the material from which the space/time and all the objects such as rivers, mountains, road etc. and people, yourself and everyone around you in the dream are created. As the material cause of the dream creation, you pervade the whole dream world. You are the lord of the dream world, both efficient and material cause of the dream world. Similarly, Isvara is both the efficient and material cause of the entire universe” [2]

The Vedic concept of Isvara is thus the logical finale of the vexing problem of creation and its creator. Thus, Isvara pervades you and me also! So, when the question of suffering comes, we cannot create a bogeyman called God to blame Him for our suffering, for He pervades the one who is suffering too!

Shourie’s vitanda vaada against Hinduism

Shourie asks, “What answers does our religion, Hinduism, offer? Do those answers escape the dilemmas that we have encountered while glancing through the scriptures of other religions?” (p.195) He goes on dissect conversations that saints like Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa had with their disciples when asked about the cause of human suffering. In the case of the Abrahamic faiths, Shourie goes to the source texts like the Old and New Testaments, whereas when it comes to a critical examination of Hinduism, he confines himself to just two concepts – the karma theory and ‘mayavada’ (Chapter 7, ‘As everything including the world is unreal…’)

Why doesn’t Shourie examine the source texts of Hinduism properly before jumping to the conclusion that Hinduism also does not have anything better to offer on the question of human suffering? The Bhagavad Gita alone is sufficient to set at rest all the doubts that Shourie is troubled with, but he is in a great hurry to damn all religions except Buddhism. Now that he has found some solace through Buddhist philosophy, every other religion is held faulty and all his readers should now find refuge in Buddhism as he did.

Often, Shourie sounds like an importunate child or an angry young man rebelling against the system: “Could He (God) not have arranged the food chain in such a way that one species would not have to kill the other so as to survive? Could He not have planted a gene for vegetarianism in humans, for instance? In the alternative could He not have created food directly from molecules – as is going to be done using nanotechnology tomorrow….”

Shourie’s ‘God’ and his idea of the universe are static to the point of stagnation with no scope for evolution, improvement or growth at all. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, one will end up with the final question: “If ‘God’ was to create a world perfect in all aspects, then why create the world at all?” But he stops short of raising this final question because it is not convenient for establishing his thesis here.

Is karma logical or cruel?

Shourie finds the theories of karma and mayavada to be a mockery of human suffering. If anything, the theory of karma has made Hindus more accountable and served as a shock absorber against the blows of life. Where other civilizations and cultures have collapsed under lesser strain, Hindu civilization has withstood, survived and thrived in times of difficulty precisely by holding onto the karma theory which is the very basis of human ethics.

Karma is a ‘convenient fiction’ to let God off the hook, Shourie says. And the source? Not Gita, Upanishads or the Mahabharata, but Eliot Deutsch, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Hawaii! (p. 272)

As a scholar and writer who has recommended profound reforms in the processes of law and justice in India, has Shourie lost faith in the basic principle of accountability? Is it cruel then for the courts to punish a rapist, a murderer or a thief as per law? Also, what happens when man-made laws fail to deliver justice? If, for example, Dawood Ibrahim dies a natural death in his ‘White House’ in Karachi at a ripe old age, is he then to be absolved of all the crimes against humanity that he did in his life?

Perhaps, it does sound cruel to say that human suffering has a cause in previous actions. But can Shourie come up with a better logic to explain away the inequalities and contradictions we find everyday in life? It is easy to deconstruct theories, sir, but it is very difficult to provide answers to the mysteries of life.

We find a similar parallel in the life of the angry young man Narendranath Dutta (later Swami Vivekananda) who once rebelled against idol worship and what he perceived as social evils under the influence of the Brahmo Samaj, but became the most ardent disciple of the ‘idol worshipper’ Ramakrishna Paramhamsa. Swami Vivekananda’s experience at Kshir [Kheer] Bhavani Temple in Kashmir is worth recounting:

“A few days after returning to Srinagar, he (Vivekananda) went to visit Kshir Bhavani Devi and staying there for seven days worshipped the Devi and made homa to her with offerings of kshira (condensed milk). Every day he used to worship the Devi with a maund of kshira as offering. One day, while worshipping, the thought arose in Swamiji’s mind: “Mother Bhavani has been manifesting Her Presence here for untold years. The Mohammedans came and destroyed her temple, yet the people of the place did nothing to protect Her. Alas, if I were then living I could never have borne it silently”.

Thinking in this strain, his mind oppressed with sorrow and anguish, he distinctly heard the voice of the Mother saying, “It was according to My desire that the Mohammedans destroyed this temple. It is My desire that I should live in a dilapidated temple, otherwise, can I not immediately erect a seven-storeyed temple of gold here if I like? What can you do? Shall I protect you or shall you protect me!”

Swamiji said, “Since hearing that divine voice, I cherish no more plans. The idea of building maths etc I have given up; as Mother wills, so it will be”.

The disciple, speechless with wonder, began to think, “Did he not one day tell me that whatever I saw and heard was but the echo of the Atman within me, that there was nothing outside?” — and fearlessly spoke it out also – “Sir, you used to say that Divine Voices are the echo of our inward thoughts and feelings”. Swamiji gravely said, “Whether it be internal or external, if you actually hear with your ears such a disembodied voice, as I have done, can you deny it and call it false? Divine Voices are actually heard, just as you and I are talking” [3]

It is folly to assume that the oldest religion on Earth has not bestowed sufficient thought on such perplexing existential questions or to think that more than a billion people who profess Hinduism today, despite the onslaught of proselytizing religions, gross materialism and scientific scepticism, do so without finding any satisfactory answers to the problems of life.

Realistic suffering, unrealistic understanding

Shourie says that any explanation which dismisses suffering as unreal is a mockery of the pain of others. One cannot disagree with this statement, but there is an inherent misconception and an underlying assumption that Adi Sankara uses ‘maya’ or ‘mithya’ to dismiss the whole world, including suffering, as illusion. The same Adi Sankara whose heart burst with such compassion for his ailing mother that he broke and reformed the strict rules of the institution of sannyasa and set an example for all sannyasis. The same Adi Sankara who composed hundreds of devotional hymns seeking the grace of God for the alleviation of human suffering?

Elsewhere, Shourie admonishes secularists and leftists alike of the pitfalls of quoting a source piecemeal and out of context. And yet throughout his book, he quotes piecemeal from the scriptures and out of context as long as it suits his point.

Neither Adi Sankara nor the Vedas deny the reality of human suffering. The Vedas prescribe elaborate rituals, charity, mantras all with the one purpose of addressing various sources of human suffering – disease, death, poverty and insecurity.

The karma kanda of the Vedas is specifically addressed to all human beings whose notion of the self is linked to the body-mind-ego complex and therefore vulnerable to suffering. The Upanishads seek to release the human being from his notion of a limited self to that of the infinite Self, but do not in any way mock at or dismiss the experience of individuals before they attain the knowledge of the Self.

The Vedanta distinguishes the reality of the world as a different order of reality compared to the absolute reality of the Self. These two different orders of reality cannot coexist and cannot be superimposed on each other. This is the fundamental problem with Shourie’s superimposition of Sankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras to the question of suffering.

Buddhist ‘self’ vs Hindu ‘atman’

And what answers does Buddhism provide which Hinduism doesn’t? It is only Shourie’s ignorance of Hinduism which leads him to this leap of logic and faith. For Shourie, when Buddha quotes a parable on suffering to his disciple (p. 388), it is sufficient explanation. If Ramakrishna quotes a parable on suffering, it is a mockery of pain! When Buddhism teaches forbearance of pain and suffering as the only way out, it is explanation, but when the Bhagavad Gita speaks of equanimity in happiness and grief, it is a mockery of pain!

For Shourie, Tibetan meditation and mindfulness are the panacea to suffering, but when the Bhagavad Gita reveals a vision and a way to overcome sorrow, they are a mockery of human suffering! The Buddhist way of seeking a way out of suffering is the only way, everything else is just armchair philosophizing, including the search for the meaning of our very existence! Because the Buddha said so (or so he believes).

When the Bhagavad Gita speaks of cultivating the values of non-violence, compassion, humility and empathy, it is armchair philosophizing, but when the Dhammapada talks of compassion, it is divine. When the Gita teaches us not to react to the dualities of life, it is mockery, but when Tibetan meditation asks us to be contemplative, it is soothing. Shourie’s book rests on this foundation of emotional rebellion and the bitterness born of a life that has seen intense and prolonged suffering.

But we cannot make suffering the pivot of our whole existence because it is only one side of human life. Human beings cannot abandon their pursuit of joy and happiness even in the midst of the most crushing adversity because ananda is the very essence of our nature. And that is why the gloomy world of suffering and pain that Buddhism painted, with monasticism and ascetic withdrawal from life as its only solution, crumbled and declined.

The last word

Hinduism does provide satisfactory answers and methods to reduce as well as understand the cause of human suffering and it shows us a glorious way out of it. While Advaita Vedanta unfolds the vision of the Self through pure reason, the dualistic Dvaita sects provide solace through a devotional way of life committed to dharma. The common man is willing to learn and seek these answers within his own faith. Millions of poor Hindus have held onto their faith in the face of the most trying adversities. It is appalling and unfortunate that leaders who espouse ‘Hindutva’ in public life have such a poor understanding of their own faith and philosophy. Leaders who espouse Hindutva must understand Hinduism properly first. They are supposed to be the Hindu elite – who will teach them? – Vijayvaani, 12 December 2013

Notes

  1. ‘Time to realize richness of Indian culture, values’
  2. The cause of the universe
  3. Swami Vivekananda’s experience at Kshir Bhavani

» M. Pramod Kumar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural Education at Amrita University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

5 Responses

  1. Sri Kumar has made valid points. Buddhism was totally negative in its overall approach, showing samsara as full of dukha and providing a way out by opting out of life through sanyasa. It was monk-oriented, centered in the Sangha, had not much to offer to householders . When Muslim hordes killed the monks and destroyed the Sangha, the faith collapsed. Since it had prescribed no ritual or any other aid to the householders, it could not be revived. In contrast look at Hinduism. It was practiced by householders individually, its scriptures were carried in the head, not in books, and so it withstood thousand years of Muslim onslaught, even when thousands of temples were razed to the ground and new ones were not allowed to be constructed.

    The problem of pain is important to all religions.They derive their mass appeal by claiming to provide solutions. Many people report success, but many face failure too. ( Just like medical system )Unlike Abrahamic religions which attribute it to a Satan or wrath of God, Dharma based religions attribute it to one’s own karma. The Tamil Poet-saint Avvaiyar asks: What does it help to blame God, when one has to reckon one’s own karma? ( ‘Saida teevinai irukka Deivattai nondakkal eitha varumo irunidiyam?’) The real question here is: is karma final and unalterable? Buddhists believe so- it is automatic,Different branches of Hindusm provide different answers. The Bhakti schools believe that Bhagavan can and does mitigate suffering, and alter fate, because it is by his order that karma bears fruit The strict Vedantins believe that the only way to overcome suffering is to go beyond the dualism of suffering and its opposite.This argument will go on.The final stand of the faithful is that we have to pray to God for relief. If it does not change external factors, it will at least change us.

    The ‘maya’ or mithya of Shankara is generally misunderstood .It only means the world is not really ie ultimately real.; there is a greater reality behind it. It is a technical expression and cannot be translated as just unreal. In fact, real mayavada belongs to Buddhists for whom everything ends in shunya. For Shankara everything ends in Brahman- he is therefore a Brahmavadin, not mayavadin!

    The scriptures can only be understood in the light of the life of genuine saints who lived their truths. Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi, two of the greatest Saint-Sages of the modern era, and both greatest devotees, suffered terrible pain through cancer in the end. And both refused to pray for their own relief. But such are the wonders of religion that people pray to them and obtain relief!

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  2. Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same phenomenon. This is according to Buddhism itself. It arises from the like/dislike, attraction/repulsion character of the mind itself. It is the perception that is our problem.

    Shourie (or me) will not stop eating vegetables because the vegetables feel pain. Now, If we were vegetables, we would not like to be eaten. So if we identify enough with our objects of desire, sustenance etc, we have to stop eating, for example. We see that the dualism is inside, and shows up our own spiritual hypocrisy.

    The best thing is to blame God for setting up the system, not ourselves. There ARE people who live on air, sunlight alone, did you know ? Requires genuine and life-long practice.

    The Atman does not need any of these. It is the body, prANa and mind that desire, and Nature fulfills these desires. These three koshas will wither away, but the Atman does not.

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  3. Dear Mr. Pramod Kumar,

    I am still going through the article but have to say something now. Do you have to understand/interpret hinduism through the lens of Advaita vedanta. Are there no other vedantic thoughts on hinduism? You are parroting the words of adi shankara like karma kanda, efficient and material cause, tricky and evasive interpretations of ‘maya’, etc. I think that is very reason Mr. shourie hates hinduism and became an agnostic. Both of you are childish and you guys need to study a lot, lot about vedanta to understand the human problems and suffering.

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  4. I have read Shourie’s book, and Mr. Pramod Kumar seems to have missed the point. Shourie’s book has more facets than the theistic one, and PK has just not addressed it. Moreover, Shourie has praised the Bhagavadgita as an ‘activist’ text in his book, and explicitly bemoans the rise of fatalism and inaction in Hindu society in spite of it, something that Will Durant also pointed out. And, for someone who was at least a Marxist fellow-traveler to start with, and also wrote something like ‘Hinduism: Essence and Consequences’ (1977) that was even translated by the comrades of those days, the book is really good. The title of one chapter – ‘Two saints, so unlike God’ – should wake up every somnolent Hindu weaned on ‘radical universalism’ (ref. Frank Morales) if they are still in a position to actually comprehend what they read. He, in fact, explicitly acknowledges that ‘our religion’ (sic) i.e., Hinduism, is more nuanced and subtle than the creedal religions when it comes to understanding suffering – hence his focus on Karma and Mayavada. As to karma, Shourie acknowledges that while it seems to justify the present based on the past, it also gives hope that the future can be made better by right action in the present. He also says that the idea that everything is unreal is a ‘device’ (sic) to overcome suffering, and discusses on how to deal with it at the personal level. Shourie also brings into focus (but doesn’t analyze) quite a bit of research that is usually glossed over by most professional scientists, especially ones with Hindu names – the study of states of consciousness. There’s much more to this book, but yes, theists, especially those with a belief in a personal deity (dualistic) and repeated divine intervention, are apt to be riled. In the end, Shourie seems to converge on the opinion that any practice – ritual, pilgrimage etc., is good for the person doing it so long as it creates a positive transformation. Yes, Shourie has a preference for Buddhism and focuses on its teaching in the book, perhaps because it starts with the question of suffering, first and foremost, and perhaps because he has a philosophical problem with devotional theism. If anything, the book is pretty much a call to action for Hindu society, exhorting people to be at least servants of servants, even if they cannot directly serve those in need.

    However, I also agree with Mr. Pramod Kumar when he says that “…we cannot make suffering the pivot of our whole existence because it is only one side of human life. Human beings cannot abandon their pursuit of joy and happiness even in the midst of the most crushing adversity because ananda is the very essence of our nature.”

    But then, it’s not true that: “And that is why the gloomy world of suffering and pain that Buddhism painted, with monasticism and ascetic withdrawal from life as its only solution, crumbled and declined.”

    ‘Crumbling and decline’ required communists and/or Buddha-busting Abrahamics for the most part, as we know from history.

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  5. A brilliant rebuttal of Shourie’s very superficial understanding of Hinduism (as it is portrayed in this essay; I haven’t read Shourie’s book).

    It is to Shourie’s credit that he didn’t go to Christianity. He had been rather sympathetic to Christianity until he met Sita Ram Goel who told him the truth about this dubious creed and set him on the right path of his own native Dharma. But apparently Shourie has not been able to carry his limited understanding of Hinduism forward and has done what many Westerners do, accepted Buddhism over Hinduism because it has a clear cut doctrine and world view and is easier to understand.

    Buddhism realised very early that an all inclusive universal religion cannot be based on the specific philosophy of sannyasa (which is the end part of religion not the whole of it). So some of the history and mythology of Hinduism that had been abandoned (or rejected) was accepted back into the system along with a whole new mythology created around Buddha’s birth, life and teachings. When Buddhism went abroad, it was then quite easy for it to accept the native religious mytho-history and practices it encountered, as these served the spiritual needs of the people where Buddhism did not.

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