Being Different: Book review

Have you ever wondered why and how have Hindus and Hinduism managed to not only survive but also thrive in spite of being subjected to innumerable cultural and political assaults, physical and mental enslavement for over 1000 years? How is it that in a world where “Gods” can’t stand competition and are always urging followers to either convert or eliminate opponents, here in India over 33,000 Gods have managed to find mind space and that too without any major blood bath? How is it that philosophers like Charvak who took a complete contrarian view to prevalent moral beliefs weren’t killed by the authorities of the day for dissent and find respect even today as rishis? Even today, how if it that a muslim fakir like Shirdi Sai baba has the largest following amongst Hindus?

From Afghanistan to South East Asia, Hindu kings ruled over the sub-continent at one point in time. However, there isn’t one pogrom of forcible conversion imposed on non-Hindu subjects. Quite the contrary, Hindu kings have given shelter to religious minorities expelled from other regions – be it Syrian Christians or Parsis from Iran. These minorities have been given the space and the right to maintain their distinct identity and have been assimilated seamlessly in the Indian ethos. Why is it that we easily talk of “sarva-dharm sam bhav” (सर्वधर्म समभाव) – “equal respect for all religions”, but even after all the enlightenment, all that we get in return is “religious tolerance”?

Has it ever struck you that unlike other religions, the Hindu has no one book of law which indicts what to do and what not to? Even in Gita, Krishna after giving a discourse to Arjun on work, life and duties spanning over 700 Shloks, concludes in the end saying

इति ते ज्ञानमाख्यातं गुह्याद्गुह्यतरं मया  
विमृश्यैतदशेषेण यथेच्छसि तथा कुरु।।18.63।।

“I have told you what I know, now you decide what you should do”.  Own your action and your destiny, says Krishna. Act and bear the results thereof, nobody will and nobody can do it for you!

Of course, there are law books attributed to different authors (eg. Manusmriti, Yagnwalkya smriti), but these aren’t considered divine like Veda, nor are they written in stone. Our scriptures suggest that duties and law must change by desh (place) and kal (time) – laws relevant in Krita yug won’t be applicable in Kali-yug. And the starkness of this cannot be better explained than the difference in our 2 most respected Avtaars – Ram and Krishna, same Vishnu-tatva, same objective but vastly different approach and even nuances values. To a mind conditioned to think in black and white, this is absurd, but not so to the billion Hindus, we cherish both equally – extolling Ram as “Maryada Purshottam” and Krishna as “Purna Purushottam”.

Many Indians have moved abroad and made other countries their homes, but there is not one example of them fighting with natives or trying to seek special hindu laws or rights.  They have always adapted themselves to the host nations. Ever wondered why are we the way we are?

And I can go on and on…if these or some such questions have struck you before or now after having been pointed out, Being Different is a book for you. It is a book for all us English educated Youth who have little, no or only shallow understanding of Indian ethos. The book doesn’t claim to be a 101 on Hinduism. But what the book does is definitely makes the reader curious about understanding Hinduism better, beyond the leftist narrative, beyond the usual caste, cow, curry image. What it definitely establishes though that Hinduism is not really an “ism”, as Dharma, unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam doesn’t really mean religion.

From Willian Jones to Max Muller of yester years and Wendy Doniger to Pollock, today, interestingly, most “experts” on Hinduism are not practicing Hindus. While they could be genuinely intrigued by the Hindu phenomenon, when they analyze the Indian ethos, they do it from their own framework of what is “stable state”. The stable state being the environment or culture they come from. Hence, a Hanuman (Monkey God) or an Ganesh (Elephant head God) are “Weird and Amusing” but a “Virgin birth’ is sacred and purely scientific, hence Polytheism and worship of nature is “uncivilized” but monotheism is “civilized”, hence Jesus is History but Ram, Krishna are Myths, hence, the jealous God who punishes and takes revenge is seen as True God and his followers are macho, but loving, playing, singing Krishna and his followers are seen as “effeminate”

What Rajiv Malhotra does in Being Different is “reverses the gaze” – he challenges of the notion of “stable state” based on the western narrative from a very Hindu view. He compares the eastern knowledge systems and western religions (what he calls Judeo-Christian) on four key aspects –

These are

  1. Embodied knowledge vs. History centrism
  2. Integral Unity vs. Synthetic Unity
  3. Comfort with complexity and ambiguity vs. anxiety over chaos
  4. Cultural Digestion vs. Sanskrit non translatables

Do note: There is no Good or Bad, or right or wrong, it is about differences – objectively stated.

Embodied knowledge vs History Centrism

Last 200 years, we’ve been told our Gods are all myths. That there was no Ram, no Krishna, no Ayodhya, no Mathura, no Dwarka, that we have no “real God”. But in spite of that, Dharma and Hindus survived. For Hindus, divinity is not only about Krishna or Ram, divinity is within all living beings – animals, trees, plants included. We grow up learning “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am that divinity). Spirituality is ingrained in Dharma. We believe individuals have it in them to experience divinity themselves through tapas तपस् (no it doesn’t mean penance), tapas loosely means committed effort to achieve a certain goal – physical and mental. This is what RM calls embodied knowledge, which every being has the right and ability to achieve and doesn’t require any central agency like temple or clergy.

Christianity on the other hand, sustains on the notion of “original sin” of Adam and Eve, and hence the virgin birth of Jesus is important to raise him above mortal humans. If “original sin” is dismissed as myth, there is no justification for virgin birth and neither for redemption by the one who will suffer on our behalf. There is no direct link to God, can’t be, as sinners can’t be choosers, they have to be saved. This dependence on specific events is what RM calls History Centrism. No wonder that when westerners see Hindus worshipping anyone and anything and also aspiring to experience divinity, they see it as occult and mystic on one side to devilish and dangerous on the other.

Integral Unity vs. Synthetic unity

In spite of the 33,000 Gods and Goddesses, the Indian thought ultimately believes in “Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti” (एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति) the truth is one, the wise talk of it in multiple ways. However, as stated before, this Truth is not a well-defined object, it is a subjective truth that everyone should define and find for themselves, the routes could wary. Hence there is respect and acceptance of these different routes. The unity is inherent, it being the divinity in all, irrespective of gender, species or race. Differences are omnipresent and they are let be, there is no fear of the “other”, even if there is, there is no urge to eliminate it, not even convert, not celebrate may be. (Frankly, this is the reason, why Hindus rarely understand the magnanimity of the opponents it faces in the form of Church and Wahhabism today). Moreover, the encouragement of inquiry allows philosophy and science to co-exist and be interspersed in culture and spirituality. There is no fight of one upmanship between Dharma and science.

Abrahamic faiths on the other hand have a religious responsibility to “spread the good news”, even if it is by force. “The other”, is dangerous and hence should either be killed or converted. The True God, and the History Centrism, cannot be questioned. Hence religion and Science have always had a very acrimonious relationship.  Hence, unity has to be forced or patched in, somehow, like the Hellenistic/Aristotelian philosophy.

Comfort with complexity and ambiguity vs. anxiety over chaos

Unlike a parochial centralization that determines clearly the Dos and Don’ts, there is no one manual for Hindus. In spite of the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, there is no one book like Bible which one may follow. Hence, everyone lives life the way they deem is right or convenient, the same has extended to the society. There is no black and white, but a whole range of grey through which the society navigates. The ambiguity and multiplicity is comprehensible to the Hindu mind, as ultimately beyond all the differences is an integral unity. For a western eye, used to a disciplined system where once rules are laid, they have to be followed, this ambiguity in the eastern society is chaotic and mind boggling.

To the Indian mind, which thrives in ambiguity and “jugaad”, the western discipline is overly limiting and rigid. While both systems have their utility value, the difference in approach is definitely stark and anxiety creating.

Cultural Digestion vs. Sanskrit non translatables

Over years, as Christianity spread, pagan traditions were digested into it, including the celebration of Christmas of 25th December and the Christmas tree. Today, nothing of the pagan culture remains, with most no even aware about the pagan roots of Christian tradition. Being the dominant force, it absorbed what it thought was desirable from the conquered cultures and rejected what was not palatable. Going forward, the source is conveniently forgotten and the practice becomes very much a part of the western narrative, while the host culture is vanquished and forgotten. This kind of digestion is also seen today, Yoga becomes Christian Yoga or plain exercise and Dhyan/Dharna becomes “Mindfulness”.  The exercise part of Yoga is retained but the sacred that underlines Hindu Dharma, is rejected.

While exchange of thoughts is pivotal to evolution of cultures, the exchange has to be genuine and enriching to both cultures, and the host culture has to get its due referencing. To ensure this, Rajiv Malhotra insists on the use of the Sanskrit terms even while conversing in non-Indic languages. For example – Dharma is not Religion.  That overarching framework which sustains the world is Dharma, religion is merely a subset, if at all. Dharma is more than a way of life, even animals, trees, oceans and air have their Dharma, failing which the world will not sustain. Similarly, Yagna is not mere sacrifice and tapas is not penance. Yoga is not gymnastics and Moksha is not salvation.

Not only just to maintain the sanctity of these terms, but also to understand the Hindu thought in its entirety with its many a nuances, it is important to use them as is and understand them in their right context.

In “Being Different”, Rajiv Malhotra elaborates in detail, each of the above, with numerous interesting examples from both eastern and western knowledge systems. The book literally jolts the readers from their comfort zone, challenging prevalent and well accepted “universal values”. This is one of the most important book written in recent times putting Hindu thought in perspective. A must for every Indian to read, absorb and discuss.

ॐ शान्ति |

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