Sunday, May 19, 2024

Faith imbued with scientific temper


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The recent discourse (in your Letters section) on the Aryan invasion or migration theory (as an explanation of Hinduism’s origin outside the Indian subcontinent) has been interesting – with Dr Bhogtoram Mawroh supporting this theory, and practitioners, like Homnath Gautam and Salil Gewali objecting. To his credit, Dr Mawroh cited not just western scholars but those from other parts of the world as well. While I admire his scientific rigour – and Mr. Gautam and Gewali for their loyalty to their faith – both approaches merit scrutiny.
In Dr Mawroh’s most recent letter (TST, Apr 25, 2024), he speaks of the influence of Buddhism on Hinduism. Indeed, Buddhism may have influenced and cleansed Hinduism. But surely such influence was mutual – not one-sided? Religions often cleanse one another. This may have been the relationship between the ordinary levels of Hinduism and Buddhism. But at their highest levels of pure mysticism, no cleansing is ever necessary. For, they are each as glorious, as is the summit of Christian mysticism.
Western intellectuals have long subordinated Hinduism to Buddhism, perhaps because Buddhist non-theism, although faith-based, matches their own cynical nihilism. But the prejudice against Hinduism is worse at the popular level, where the world’s oldest religion is often reduced to just two things – the caste system and the proverbial cow!
But that said, the problems lie on both sides (western and Indian) and the difference between the two perspectives lies in their different methods of knowing. While the west uses the scientific method, rooted in external, fact-based truth, Indians can sometimes veer to the other extreme of a subjective inwardness that neglects facts altogether. It is possible to be critical of both approaches. Facts, on their own, say little, until interpreted by reasoning. Already an imperfect science, history becomes even more fallible, when the historian projects his own mind onto the facts. Laden with a soul-searing cynicism, the western mind sees what it wants to see and interprets facts by projecting its own nihilism onto these facts. One example is the Shiva Lingam, which western intellectuals interpreted as a phallic symbol. Swami Vivekananda protested and corrected this misperception – but without calling it what it was – insulting. This is just one example of objectionable subjectivity (disguised as objectivity) in the western scholar’s approach to India. Yet, not for a minute does this mean that western scholarship and objectivity are irrelevant to India.
While I admire the west’s scepticism, which stems from its scientific genius, I do not admire its cynicism. Almost the only way to overcome this cynicism is by returning to the higher faith that illumines reason – because faith draws from interior Truth, which Gandhi and St. Augustine, both identified with God. This inner Truth is superior to fact-based exterior truth. A faith-based interpretation of historical facts could lead to a very different conclusion. Here I mean true faith in God – not the blind faith that comes from a narcissistic love for one’s own religious identity.
At the other extreme, we have the Indian tendency to neglect external truth and facts altogether – by taking the Hindu scriptures literally. No scripture is meant to be taken literally. As to the point (made by Salil Gewali and Homnath Gautam) – that the great Hindu scriptures make no mention of the Aryan migration theory – most likely this is so because scriptures like the Upanishads are laser-sharp in their unwavering focus on how to reach God and experience enlightenment. Hence, the running motif of the Upanishadic great sayings (Mahavakyas) is, “I am Brahman (God)” – a triumphant cry that has long fascinated the west. Compared to this living and luminous mysticism, historical issues like whether or not the Aryan migration took place, pale into insignificance. What makes India unique is not whether or not Hinduism originated there, but that this ancient civilization has never swerved from its unwavering focus on self-realization. As if to prove this point, the highest India repeatedly gives birth to great sages, saints, and spiritual masters – from all religious backgrounds (not just Hinduism).
This difference between western and Indian methods of knowing, gets elevated to the highest level, when comparing a scholar like Max Mueller, to a great master like Swami Vivekananda. Max Mueller had a profound love for India – an enviable love that impressed Swami Vivekananda, who met him in person. Yet, despite this love, Max Mueller may not have overcome the religious and theological cynicism so characteristic of modern western intellectuals (even theologians). If Max Mueller used research methods and facts, which he then interpreted – Swami Vivekananda used meditation to derive his insight-laden deep and penetrating objectivity that far surpasses scientific objectivity. Unlike Max Mueller, Swami Vivekananda used yogic omniscience and divination to make his pronouncements on the historical past.
The relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism deserves a careful sifting of facts, to be interpreted by a most discerning, unbiased, and truthful eye. If Jesus was Jewish to start with, then the Buddha was Hindu. Both gave us great new religions, but without vilifying their roots in the older religions. Moreover, the theological contrast between Hinduism and Buddhism is a fascinating testament to the kind of religious plurality and democracy that must have prevailed at the time of the Buddha. In a way, Buddhism is a total theological converse of Hinduism. Nevertheless, great Hindus have always admired the Buddha, quite as they have admired Christ. Thus, Swami Vivekananda was a great admirer of both the Buddha and Christ. But western scholars – whether Christian or secular – rarely understand this kind of noble catholicity and religious universalism, which can arise only from a genuine love for God.
If cynicism is the pitfall of the western mind, then religious credulity is that of the Indian mind. Indeed, the danger of taking the scriptures literally still lingers and almost the only way to fight this unhealthy inwardness, is to tie the Indian mind to external facts.
My larger point is this – if the west needs India’s glorious inwardness and faith, then India needs the scientific spirit and ordinary objectivity of the west.
Yours etc.,
Deepa Majumdar,
Via email


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