Art & Culture

So, who are the modern Hindus?

Renuka Narayanan
Renuka NarayananOct 04, 2015 | 12:43

So, who are the modern Hindus?

Modern Hindus are questioners who try to answer existential questions in just and inclusive ways and then try to live by those answers. Our Constitution that guarantees human rights to all Indian citizens is our religious book.

Where does this assurance come from?

It comes from different sources, each very respectable and from within the mainstream.

We hear it first in the Rig Veda, when the Hindus were still not "nagarik" or settled urban people but wandered the plains with their herds of cattle, frequently clashing over pasturage. So bad were these clashes that the encounters of two camps became a euphemism for battle, "sangram".


So you find the Vedas saying a curious thing, "ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti," or "the facts are the facts and smart people get it". This means "if everybody has to share the same space, they’ll have to work it out".

This is a first in conflict resolution, in keeping with the project of communal life along with maximum damage control. It’s a survival issue that spawns the first Hindu worldview that internal strife absolutely has to be managed because nobody is going anywhere. Here they are, and here they would stay and they have the same rights. So they published this official statement saying "live and let live for the greater good".

We hear this point again in many ways in the sixteen "principal" Upanishads that come after the Vedas. The Upanishads inquire, reflect, debate and theorise about this existential issue. And they keep expanding two aspects of the "ekam sat".

"Sat" literally means "What is" or what exists. One aspect of it, they think, has to be a superself, which they think is made up of intangible spirit. But amazingly, it contains every physical form and pervades every physical form. It’s an essence so subtle that mere words fail to present it.


But the Upanishads don’t mean to give up without trying, for the concept is too mind-blowing. So they settle for comparisons that everyone can understand. "Pushpa madhye yatha gandham, payo madhye yatha ghrtam, tila madhye yatha tailam," or "as scent in a flower, as ghee in milk, as oil in a sesame seed," say the Upanishads about the superself and hail it with a sense of conviction: "Om purnam adah purnam idam, purnat purnam udachyate, purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavashishyate." It means, "The superself that contains everything is the whole. Everything that comes from it is a whole in itself and yet it’s a part of the bigger whole".

This is our first theory of a cosmos or universe that includes earth and everything in it and also the galaxy comprising the sun, moon, stars and planets seen from the earth.

So, if it all belongs to the superself, the "Isha", what’s everybody fighting about? "Don’t be greedy," says the opening verse of the Isha Upanishad; "Ishavaasyam idam sarvam yat kincha jagatyam jagat, tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma gridhah, kasya svid dhanam," or "Everything moving or unmoving within the universe is controlled and owned by the One. So we should accept only the stuff we need and not covet anything else, knowing to Whom they belong."


The other aspect of "sat" is about human beings, who are seen as a species apart and therefore the link between the larger world outside and the inner world of thoughts and feelings. What connects human beings to each other and to the rest of the creation, visible and invisible, is an inner spark; the "light within the heart", according to the Upanishads (the Greeks called it en theos, "the god within" from which we get the word "enthusiastic").

Moreover, the Upanishads don’t see the supernatural world as a thing apart. Rather, they think there are six classes of beings, natural and supernatural in the cosmos: humans, good spirits, celestials, brahmas (creative principles), nagas (serpents, genies) and evil spirits. The "supernatural" is the stuff they don’t understand but can’t resist labelling (because they needed stories for entertainment like we need the internet, TV and the movies).

Having got that sorted nicely, with there being a superself of whom everything is a part; there is an inner spark that connects us to each other and to the superself; and that there seem to be six classes of beings that people the upper, middle and nether worlds, they want to know more.

Whoosh! We hit the Bhagavad Gita.

See, the Upanishads are reportage. Their authors "intuited" or "heard" things and said, "These are the thoughts that came to us and to others; and these are the questions asked and the answers that came to us.”

But in the Bhagavad Gita, they make the big leap. They want to hear the voice of the supersoul speak directly to them, “Talk to us, tell us all about it.” They wish.

It’s the philosophical parallel of what happens later in the material world after the Industrial Revolution, after people are done making machines and aeroplanes that actually fly and they think, “Right, let’s build a spaceship.”

And so our chaps make a story and they set up a big scene, an epic scene, and they make up a man who is half human, half celestial, and make him ask on their behalf because nobody will listen otherwise.

So they set up Arjun in the middle of two huge armies on the brink of war, in the ultimate sangram. And they make him stick his neck out and say, “katham vidyaam aham yogim” (How may I know Thee, Lord?) Bhagavad Gita 10:17.

You know the live-and-let-live answers to that, especially the bit with cult status, Chapter 16 in the Bhagavad Gita about "divine and demoniac natures".

But the work never stops because these amazing ideas are not exactly shared with everybody and things sink to the bottom of the sea with the later Puranas. It takes the Bhakti movement to haul it up and scrape off the barnacles and reassert the core values of the Upanishads about the supersoul and our inter-connectivity as human beings. Kabir, and a whole host of people up and down the land, say the exact same thing as the Upanishads, “jaise til mein tel hain, jyoon chakmak mein aag, tera Sain tujh mein hai, tu jaag sake toh jaag.”

And then we have the colonial age and it helps the work too because the Upanishads come right back, the new, improved version, that we know as the Constitution. It’s the modern Upanishad. So if we follow the morality of our Constitution, we are "modern Hindus", that’s what.

Last updated: October 06, 2015 | 11:16
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