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.
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
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
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.