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Hinduism through Western Glasses
A Critique of some Western views on Hinduism
By Gaya Charan Tripathi

Source : Hinduism Reconsidered. Editors Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke. Pp- 123.

The easiest and the most common way in the West to deny a non-European people an achievement or a phenomenon whih the Europeans are proud of calling as their own and which they wish to lay their exclusive claim on, is to define it in such a way and so narrowly, that only the Western pattern of this phenomenon would fit into it.

It is widely thought that true philosophy is a prerogative of ancient Greece and the modern West, and that India has not given rise to any philosophy because the definition of the philosophy is ….this this this…and the Indian philosophy obviously does not fall within this definition.

India does not have any true religion, in the true sense of the term should be defined as….such such such…. And that these characteristics do not apply to Hinduism nor, for that matter, to Buddhism or Jainism. As illustration to this mentality the reader is referred to the book Hinduism and Buddhism by Monier Williams in which he denies the status of "true religion"to Buddhism because according to his self-invented definition, a "true religion must have a belief in one single personal God which Buddhism does not have."

Some Commonly held Views of the West on Hinduism

Let us now examine some of the most common misconceptions of the Western scholars about Hinduism.

They represent a sort of communis opinio, general opinion of the people at large, who may or may not have had the occasion to come into direct contact with Hinduism.

It is obvious that these views have been generated and propagated in the West basically and in the first instance through the writings on Hinduism by the Indologists and the Historians of Religion.

The Caste System

Those who wish to criticise Hinduism hardly ever fail to highlight the point that Hinduism breeds social inequality and, tries to justify it with its religious code.

I donot think that it is proper to see and evaluate the caste system exclusively in terms of social inequality or social injustice. The system is so complex and multifaceted that it usually defies its comprehension in totality to an outsider. No social system, especially a system which is based on or which aims at exploitation of a group of its members can last so long and be so firmly rooted in the psyche and behavior of the people as the Indian caste system has been, withstanding all historical changes and strong and social upheavals; nor can it be said to be only negative and disadvantageous to the society. Its role in preserving the social and ethnic identity of a group, in building resistance against foreign religious and cultural influences has also to be taken into account.

It is not widely known that a sort of strong "family relationship" transcending the caste barriers existed and still exists among the members belonging to different castes and different castes and different social groups in the village society where the persons belonging to different castes are brothers and sisters, maternal and paternal aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, etc, to each other and this relationships is zealously maintained in personal behavior and in social interactions.

The myths of the "other worldly" character of a Hindu.

Following the views of certain Indologists of the earlier generations, it is very common with the Western scholars (e.g. Albert Schweitzer) to stress the "world-fiendly" (weltfeindlich" = hostile or inimical to the world) character of Indian religions, especially of Hinduism. According to the opionion of these scholars Hinduism is "Weltabgeneigt", i.e. averse to the worldly affairs and is primarily and mainly concerned with the problem of salvation or getting rid of the cycle of life and death since it considers the human life on this earth so burdensome and the material world as an illusion. Now this is an over-exaggeration of the Hindu view of life and does not represent the true nature of Hinduism.

A normal Hindu is as much concerned with the world and its affairs as his Western counterpart. He is in no way less practical and in no way less involved in the material world than the followers of any other religion.

We should not forget that besides moksa, to a Hindu, there are two other very important purusarthas ("aims of life" )to be achieved in this life namely artha (wealth) and kama (fulfillment of desires), which have precedence over the final purusartha, which is moksa. The illusory nature of the World and the idea of moksa may be of relevance to a handful of sannyasins who live away from the society, much like the Christian monks in the monasteries of medieval Europe, but when a common Hindu thinks about the life after death, he thinks of and aims rather at going to ‘heaven’ and does not strive towards ultimate salvation leading to the complete dissolution of his personality.

The picture of a Hindu as a person averse to the pleasures of life and as the one who does not accept the realities of this world has been generated by overemphasizing (or should we say:misinterpreting"") the Advaita branch of Vedanta Philosophy which is but one school of Vedanta besides at least five others.

Lack of Charitiable activities and social responsibility

Some Western critics of Hinduism, especially those inspired by missionary spirit, highlight the charitable activities of Christianity, and point towards its absence in Hinduism. To my mind this is neither kind nor fair to a people whose knings (eg. Karsavardhana of Kanauj, 606-47 A.C.) are known to have distributed the entire collections of their treasury to the poor and needy every five years at Prayaga as attested by Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) in his memoirs (cf. Also Raghuvamsa of Kalidasa, Canto 5.15).

Charitable activities are parts of every high religion because they constitute the core of their social philosophy. In India, too, charity or danam has been praised directly and through a number of myths and legends right since the time of RigVeda throught the Upanisads, to the Mahabharata, Puranas, and Dharmasastras.
The much publicised caritative activities carried out by an organized Church, especially in Asian and African countries, with the money received from its Western followers as church tax, revolve round the idea of presenting a superior picture of Chrisitianity and ultimately aim at luring "heathens" to the Christian fold.

The polytheism of Hinduism

The tendency to see and judge all Indian religious, cultural and philosophical phenomena in the light of Western ideology is also seen in the strong condemnation of the Hinduistic polytheism by Christian writers, espeically missionaries of the nineteenth century. The presence of a large number of gods and temples dedicated to them in India annoyed them and the belief in many gods instead of a single, the most exalted one, was depicted as something primitive, a stage preceding the emergence of a high religion. It was neither properly understood nor properly represented that the existence of myriads of temple as well as faith in and worship of a multitude of gods for various worldly purposes does not affect or impair the belief of a Hindu in the Highest Divine Substance, which is but one and which alone is the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe.

Further, to regard polytheism as something inferior to monotheism is an undue imposition of a semitic religion on Indian culture. Why should monotheism be regarded as a sort of philosophical advancement over the polytheism?

The monistic/monotheistic character of Hinduism is of late origin.

Europeans often take pride in contending that the Jewish folk was the first to resort to monotheism and feel proud that the religion which they follow and which believes in one single God has its origin in the cultural background of Judaism. First of all it is not a historical fact that the Jews were first with a religion with a monistic system of thought. A number of references may be cited right from the Rgveda through the pages of the Upanishads to show that in spite of directing their prayers to a multitude of gods, the Vedic Aryans, basically believed that there is only one single abstract source of the origin of this world which is beyond the categories of sat (existent) and asat (non-existent). This one substance holds the world, destroys it in the end and is the only one which/who is to be worshipped and amired.

The " idolatry" of Hinduism.

Hinduism came under heavy attack in the tracts of many western writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the first instance it would look rather strange because Christianity all along its long and glorious tradition has been excessively friendly and favorable to the "cult of Images" and has produced some of the best religious art of the world in all possible mediums. And when we add to this the fact that the Christian churches in a number of South-European countries have the same type of cult images in their sanctum and the ritual of offering worship to them consisting of sprinkling of holy water, offering of flowers and lamps and distribution of "prasada" ( in the form of wheat wafers) is not much different from the ritual practised in Indian temples, the strong condemnation of Hindu "idolatry" by some Western writers seem neither logical nor reasonable.

In spite of this, some western scholars, driven by the Anglican-Protestant ideology whetted by missionary zeal launched a scathing attack against the "monstrous" cult images of Hinduism – especially those having semi-anthropomorhic features – ignoring their subtle symbolism. It was strongly projected that the practice of having images as cult-objects and of worshipping them represents the beliefs and practices of culturally backward and unadvanced social groups and those who worship abstract symbols are religiously far more advanced.

Western scholars also miserably failed to appreciate the aesthetics of Indian art. Biased in their opinion by the aesthetics of Greek and Christian art and basing their opinion on the canons derived therefrom they could never come to terms with the Indian deities having some unanthromorphic features like multiple arms and multiple or animal faces. They either remained blissfully ignorant about the deep symbolism of these images or deliberately ignored it. They also failed to properly understand the subtle ritual of the ceremony of Puja underlying the worship of these images.



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