The essence of Hinduism is spiritual freedom – N.S. Rajaram

Dr. N. S. Rajaram“Since the main emphasis in Hinduism is on the realisation of the divine through personal effort and experience, Hindus have never sought to convert others through force or persuasion. Hinduism seeks internal growth within the individual.” — Dr. N. S. Rajaram

If there is one feature that stands above all others in Hinduism it is pluralism: there is no one chosen path and no one chosen people. As a result, there is no division of the world into mutually exclusive camps of believers and non-believers. All paths of spiritual exploration are valid, and there are no such things as heresy and blasphemy.

What is Hinduism? Is it the observance of festivals such as Deepavali and rituals such as the daily sandhya-vandana? Is it reverence for the Vedas as the word of God, faith in the message of the Bhagavad Gita, or is it universal tolerance? And tolerance—does it include unlimited tolerance of the evil? Is it total pacifism, a belief that nothing is worth defending or worth fighting for? Is it some or all of these?

When faced with these questions I find that the first difficulty that a modern Hindu–especially a ‘westernised Hindu’ like myself—faces in defining Hinduism to others stems from his difficulty in defining it to himself. As a result his reaction is defensive, and he mumbles something like essential truth in all religions or sarva dharma samatva or some such equally meaningless platitude.

A basic problem that the Hindus are saddled with is that through the centuries, particularly in the last century or so, educated Indians have unconsciously acquired the habit of looking at their tradition through western eyes. These western Indologists—most of whom were Christian—applied their own yardstick to the study of Indian scriptures and practices. This resulted in a distortion of perspective. The vision and vocabulary of a revealed religion like Christianity or Islam are fundamentally unsuited to describing Hinduism, for Hinduism is an evolved tradition and not a revealed religion. It is also pluralistic, while Christianity and Islam are exclusivist—for they acknowledge no beliefs other than their own as legitimate.

The problem is not just lack of sympathy, or even the history of conflicts: it is the limitation of the concept of religion as the revelations of a book or its prophet found in creeds like Christianity and Islam in describing an evolving tradition. Trying to understand Hinduism in terms of a revealed belief system or creed is like trying to understand Quantum Mechanics through Newton’s Laws of Motion. It just cannot be done. One must try to understand Hinduism on its own terms, and not in terms of the internal and external features borrowed from other creeds. This is what I shall try to do approaching the task as a student of science who is by no means a devout Hindu.

The Rigveda, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures is said to have always existed. As a scientist I find that claim hard to accept. There must have been a time in the history of the world when what is contained in the Rigveda did not exist. But there Is no period in time which we can definitely point to and say that is when the Rigveda began to be composed. In the 19th century, European Indologists like Max Mueller tried to fix 1200 BC as the date of composition of the Vedas, but this was based on their own Biblical belief according to which the world was created on October 23, 4004 BC and the Biblical Flood took place in 2448 BC. And the history books continue to use the date of 1200 BC for the Vedas.

Unlike Christianity and Islam, which are historical religions, Hinduism cannot be traced to a historical person or an era. Christianity cannot exist without Christ, nor can Islam without Muhammad, but no such historical person exists in Hinduism about whom one can say “Without him, Hinduism cannot exist.” In other words, Christianity and Islam are paurusheya religions, while Hinduism is a-paurusheya. Christianity is the religion founded by a purusha called Jesus Christ, while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. There is no such purusha of Hinduism.

Lord Ganesha being interrogated by a Nazi in an Australian play.Freedom to question

Even the Vedas are not the ultimate authority in Hinduism. The word Veda is derived from the root ‘vid’—meaning to know—and Veda simply means knowledge that was discerned by the Vedic seers. It is not a theology or a belief system that everyone is required to acknowledge. A Hindu is free to question any or all of the scriptures. One does not cease to be a Hindu if he denies the authority of scriptures. The scripture is meant only to be a guide and one is free to follow one’s own interpretation. Appeals to authority cannot be used to suppress dissent. In brief: in Christianity and Islam, scripture is the book of authority, while Hindu scriptures are guidebooks only, from which one is free to choose a particular path.

Hinduism recognises no prophet as intermediary with exclusive claim over truth. This is undoubtedly the greatest difference between Hinduism and revealed religions. A Hindu who believes in the existence of God (or Gods) can follow one’s own path. One is not required to acknowledge an intermediary as a prophet or as the chosen agent of God. In a revealed religion, one who denies the authority of this special intermediary is called a non-believer. The Bible says: “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, … and will put my word in his mouth: and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.”

This feature, of God communicating through a human intermediary, called a prophet was later borrowed by Islam also. This means: in a revealed religion, a believer in God has to believe also in the intermediary. One is not free to believe in God and deny the agent as intermediary. One who does so is still called a non-believer even if one believes in God.

As a result, in a revealed religion, belief in the divinely chosen intermediary is no less important than beliefs in God. Often it is more important. The agents of this divinely chosen intermediary are called the ‘clergy,’ who take it upon themselves to enforce his diktats. Hinduism recognises no such intermediary.

Every man, woman and child has the same direct access to God through his or her own efforts. Krishna. in the Bhagavad Gita, says: “All creatures great and small—I am equal to all; I hate none, nor have I any favourites.” This rules out the claim of anyone to be the privileged or ‘chosen’ agent of God. This makes exclusivism impossible in Hinduism, for challenge to exclusive claims can be mounted from within the system.

Kanchi Mahaswami Chandrashekarendra SaraswatiA personal God

Hindu God is not an external God who reveals himself only to a chosen prophet to be imposed on others as the ultimate authority on everything relating to God. God is something that anyone can know through one’s own effort and seeking. This is very similar to the ancient Greek mysticism as practised by sages like Pythagoras and Apollonius. There Is no set of dogmas that an external agent enforces in the name of One God.

The Hindu God, like the Greek God, is a personal God—as diverse as the individual. The multiplicity of Gods one sees in the Hindu and the Greek pantheons is a reflection of the multiplicity of pathways explored by sages. It is a natural consequence of the spiritual freedom that is the right of every Hindu.

Monotheistic creeds, enforced by intermediaries in the name of One God, do not permit this spiritual freedom. Believers have to believe in what they are told to believe—they are not given a choice. It is for this reason that theocracies always claim to be monotheistic, invoking their One God in whose name His representatives enforce authority. This may be called ‘authoritative monotheism’ as opposed to monotheism of choice in which one is free to believe in One God or many Gods. Hinduism gives this freedom of choice and of conscience.

Hinduism does not recognise claims of exclusivity or a clergy. Anyone who claims to be the exclusive possessor of spiritual truth or the only ‘method’ of reaching God finds no place in Hinduism: a method or a message can only be one among many. Exclusivity divides the world into mutually exclusive camps of believers and non believers which Hinduism does not.

Krishna, speaking as God in the Bhagavad Gita, says. “All paths lead to me,” and also “those who worship other Gods with devotion worship me.” This leaves no room for anyone to claim to be the only true guide to God or in possession of the only path. As a result, Hinduism has no clergy to monitor and enforce the belief.

Hinduism does not force itself on others through proselytism. Since the main emphasis in Hinduism is on the realisation of the divine through personal effort and experience, Hindus have never sought to convert others through force or persuasion. Hinduism seeks internal growth within the individual.

There is now a substantial interest in the world in Hinduism and its offshoot of Buddhism. But there is no central authority like the Pope who tries to monitor beliefs among the followers. Hindu missions in the West are essentially voluntary organisations. The priest or the sadhu claims to possess no divine authority sanctioned by God or His agent. He is simply a repository of learning and experience. It is for this reason, that Hinduism has attracted men and women of the highest intellectual accomplishments including scientists and artists in the West. They are attracted by the rationalism of Hinduism which is a method and not a creed; it seeks to impose no dogma and carries no authority.

The only ‘dogma’ of Hinduism is freedom of choice and of conscience. Hindu religious literature, in its pristine form, is concerned mainly with the knowledge and method necessary to learn the truth about God. This can take the form of Vedantic philosophy like the Upanishads, practical techniques like Yoga, or examples of great lives to be emulated like those found in the Epics and the Puranas. It is a serious error to compare these works with the scriptures of revealed religions which lay down the beliefs required of true believers that are then enforced by the clergy.

Gayatri DeviIf there is one feature that stands above all others in Hinduism it is pluralism: there is no one chosen path and no one chosen people. As a result, there is no division of the world into mutually exclusive camps of believers and non-believers.

All paths of spiritual exploration are valid, and there are no such things as heresy and blasphemy. This is what makes Hinduism pluralistic. Any accommodation of a belief system that denies one’s freedom of choice and of conscience is fundamentally incompatible with Hinduism.

To follow one’s one chosen path calls for a guide and a discerning intellect. The scriptures—the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and others—are this guide. And the search for such a discriminating intellect the Gita calls it sthitha dhi or ‘stable intellect’—is expressed in the great Gayatri Mantra in the form of a chant addressed to Savitar so that he may ‘inspire our intellect’—dhiyo yo na prachodayat. This prayer—dhiyo yo nah prachodayat—as I see it embodies the essence of Hinduism. – Hindu Vivek Kendra, 28 April 1998

» Dr. N.S. Rajaram is a scientist, historian and contributing editor to  Folks Magazine.