The pull of Hindu thought and culture transcends religion, but can it survive Hindutva?
II AM NOT A HINDU and will probably never be one. In the same way, I am also not a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh. It is unlikely that I will ever be any one of these either. But I believe that I have a right to think about and admire and mull over what these great traditions tell me about how to live in the world, what it means to be human, how to be good. I care what they teach me about dying and what comes after; I am interested in what they think the great truths are.
I can honestly say that I am enriched by all the religions that I do not follow, perhaps most of all by Hinduism. It is true that I take what appeals to me from here and there (compassion from Buddhism, an insistence on justice from Judaism, sharing what I earn each year with those who have less from Islam) and try to construct a coherent and ethical way in which to live my life. But it is what I have cherry-picked, if you will, from Hinduism that forces me to confront myself existentially—it makes me consider who it is that I want to be every day of my life. When I am at my best, ideas of karma and dharma make me aware of my actions and push me to consider their motivations. Most of all, they remind me that the consequences of what I do also has an impact on others.
The exquisite tension between karma and dharma lies at the very heart of Hinduism. It is the tension between our actions and what we believe is the basis for those actions, the tension between what we do and why we do it. Although we may not be aware of it— for everything we do involves making a choice—at every moment in our lives we inhabit multiple obligations. We are simultaneously mothers and daughters and sisters and wives and friends and teachers and employers, for example. We have social, family and professional roles, each of which requires us to follow a code of behaviour as well as provide a set of expectations. In our modernity, we also have expectations for our individual self, the self that is not determined in relation to anyone else. Each role
THE EXQUISITE TENSION BETWEEN KARMA AND
DHARMA LIES AT THE VERY HEART OF HINDUISM
constrains us to behave in particular ways if we are to be considered ‘good’.
DASHARATHA, IN THE RAMAYANA, was a king, a father and a husband. The boons that Kaikeyi demanded of him on that fateful night before Rama’s coronation impinged on all these aspects of Dasharatha’s life simultaneously. Acting in conformity with one of them necessarily meant violating the obligations placed upon him by the other roles. Dasharatha chose to be a good husband by honouring his wife’s wishes to exile Rama for 14 years. In that very moment, he transgressed his duties, his dharma, both as a king and a father. Unable to live with what he had done, Dasharatha died soon after his beloved son went into the forest. Rama, on the other hand, lived with the consequences of what he did when he banished Sita to the forest after their return to Ayodhya. Living in the world of humans and acting as humans do, Rama also had to choose between his obligations as a husband and his duties as a king. By sending Sita away, he chose to act as a king should but not for a minute after that did he forget that he had failed the wife he loved beyond all else. Bhavabhuti’s eighth century play, Uttararamacharita, draws out the pathos of Rama’s devastation and profound sorrow when he is alone, expanding on the emotions that the epic and later Rama stories do not explore.
Achieving a balance between what we want to do and what we should do is, surely, the essential dilemma of being human. Hinduism explores this problem
theologically, mythologically and philosophically. In the epics, it is the gods who negotiate these fundamental human confusions for us. I think of Krishna’s complex conversation with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, capped by one of the most magnificent theophanies ever when he reveals himself in his divine form. The dilemma of choice could not be more dramatically presented to us: if Arjuna acts as he is expected to, he will kill his elders, his teachers and members of his family. It is no wonder that he is paralysed and lets his mighty bow slip from his hand as he sinks to the floor of his chariot. The Gita foregrounds the problem of human action and while there are parts of the text I do not fully comprehend and I cannot endorse the idea of a code of behaviour based on any kind of social hierarchy (kshatriya dharma), I am deeply moved by Arjuna’s distress when he is presented with two equally unbearable choices. In a sense, Krishna resolves Arjuna’s existential dilemma by telling him who he is and indicating what the basis of his actions should be. I long for that kind of clarity—the capacity to rise above the immediate and place myself in a larger framework— when I am faced with difficult situations in my own life. It comforts me to know that clarity is possible, whether it comes from god or from a new understanding from within myself.
I have no doubt that thinking about “the Hindu view of life” (as S. Radhakrishnan calls it) has deepened my understanding of what it means to be human. I have never felt closer to the gods than when I read the Ramayana; I have never grasped more eagerly for a sense of a transcendent reality than when I am with the Upanishads and Shankara; the Rig Veda has moved me to tears and lifted my spirits on more than one occasion. And so it is with immense sadness, rather than with anger, that I look upon what has happened to us in these past decades. The text that I have spent 30 years with, the Valmiki Ramayana, is being increasingly restricted in terms of who can talk about it and what we can say. More often and more loudly we hear that there is only one Ramayana (and, as it happens, it is not Valmiki); that no one but Indians have the right to talk about the text; that no one but a Hindu should be allowed to consider what the story and its characters might mean; that no one but a believing Hindu can be moved by Rama and Sita and all that they endure when they live in the world of humans; that no one but a bhakta can truly love Rama.
There are so many more caveats about who is the appropriate reader and commentator that I strain to remember them. I cannot understand why anyone, especially those who believe in the glories of Hinduism, would want to diminish the power and reach of something as compelling as the story of Rama’s life on earth by allowing only some people to read it, write about it and learn from it. On the streets, culture vigilantes enforce these and other restrictions through threats and physical violence, but we have come to expect that from politically motivated urban thuggery. More disturbing is that in the intellectual world, a growing cohort of nativists who accuse Western scholars of being gatekeepers to Hinduism (by allegedly devaluing Indian positions and perspectives) have become guardians of the faith and all that relates to it, most particularly, to the category of ‘myth’. More and more, these aggressive cultural nationalists are becoming the watchdogs of Hindutva itself.
IT HAS BECOME USELESS TO REPEAT that Hinduism has always lived and flourished in its diversity, in its capacity to hold many stories and arguments and positions within itself, even those that contradict each other; that many strands contribute to the grand tapestry that a great religion has created in theology and philosophy and literature, in art and culture and language and thought. We can say a 1.3 billion times that Hinduism is plural, Hindutva is singular. But these distinctions are meaningless when, between the newly empowered local gatekeepers of Hinduism and the active proponents of a Hindu rashtra, access to one of the richest lodes of human thought and experience in the world is being closed off.
I grew up with stories that told me to look for the man on the moon. When I started to read Sanskrit, I learned that the moon was mruganka, ‘marked with the deer’. For years, I struggled to see the deer when I looked at the moon. But as the full moon rose over 2018, the deer was all I could see. The man had disappeared.
Arshia Sattar is an author and translator. Her most recent book is Uttara: The Book of Answers
THE TEXT I HAVE SPENT 30 YEARS WITH, THE VALMIKI RAMAYANA, IS INCREASINGLY BEING RESTRICTED IN TERMS OF WHO CAN TALK ABOUT IT, AND WHAT WE CAN SAY