Ar­shia Sat­tar

The pull of Hindu thought and cul­ture tran­scends re­li­gion, but can it sur­vive Hindutva?

India Today - - INSIDE - By AR­SHIA SAT­TAR

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



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


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