The Myth of a Hindu Way of Thinking

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Hinduism is a myth. There is no religion such as Hinduism at least in the way we understand religion. It does not have one prophet, set of unchanging beliefs or rituals, a single scripture, or any mandatory requirement. In fact, the word Hindu was used by Persians for the people who lived about the Sindhu or Indus river. If that is true, then it is only a local or regional tag. 

But if we go deeper into this so-called Hinduism, we will find all kinds of contradictory practices or beliefs, rituals, and denominations, that there might be only a few assertions made. That Hinduism is not a religion in the ordinary sense of the word. That a better word for it might be Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Way, although the term has been abused lately by some zealots without understanding it fully. That the Rig Veda has influenced a large part of Sanatana Dharma and its various darsanas, although there may be exceptions with the so called anastika traditions. That the underlying theme of the Vedic way was a journey into the inner worlds. No other record of the time from any other part of the world describing such Mysteries exists. And, most importantly, that this inner journey, relentless and fearless, confirmed the underlying unity of the whole Universe in the strictest Monism ever articulated by mankind to this day. 

The term absolute monism is usually reserved for Advaita Vedanta, propagated by Adi Sankara. But absolute monism not only of the origin of things, but also their substance and essence, may be seen in all the Srutis. Perhaps a better term for this monism is non-dualism, what the word advaita truly means. 

So, the myth of Hinduism is that there is really no such thing as Hinduism if by that we mean a single religion. We may perhaps call it a way of seeing and being where the Many is One and the One is Many. 

It is due to this non-dualism taken to its completest understanding that we see the whole plethora of completely contradictory and opposite philosophies being taken as valid in the practices that form the corpus of Sanatana Dharma. And each individual is free to create and live his own. In a sense, this is completely liberating. And yet, it puts the entire responsibility on the individual to take the onus of his or her own understanding, development, refinement, and eventual direction. If this is understood, one can understand the confusion that one sees among even some of the most astute thinkers of our times. 

In his essay Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay, published in Contributions to Indian Sociology (1989), A.K. Ramanujan complained of the trait of inconsistency in the Modern Indian way of life. And that modern Indian intellectuals “seemed to agree on one thing: the Indian trait of hypocrisy. Indians do not mean what they say, and say different things at different times.” And he wondered if they “may be using a different ‘logic’ altogether. Some thinkers believe that such logic is an earlier-stage of ‘cultural evolution’ and that Indians have not developed a notion of ‘data’, of objective facts.”

And he quotes Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst, to note that “Generally among Indians, there seems to be a different relationship to outside reality, compared to the one met with in the West. In India, it is closer to a certain stage in childhood when outer objects did not have a separate, independent existence but were intimately related to the self and its affective states…. The Indian ‘ego’ is underdeveloped; the world of magic and animistic thinking lie closer to the surface; so the grasp of reality is relatively tenuous.”

He also noted a third trait to the inconsistency and ‘the apparent inability to distinguish self and non-self’ and that was ‘the extraordinary lack of universality’ among Indians. And he surmises that “Indian philosophers do not seem to make synoptic systems like Hegel’s or Kant’s.” And he concludes that “In cultures like India’s, the context-sensitive kind of rule is the preferred formulation.” 

There may be some truth to Ramanujan’s observations although it cannot be said that Indian philosophers cannot or do not generalize. One only has to look at the formulae of the Upanishads, ‘tat tvam asi’ and ‘so hum’ to realize that the Indians generalized at the far deeper and unitary levels than those of western philosophers. In fact, there is none more unitary than the Indian when he says, ‘sarvam khalvidam brahma’ or ‘etad vai tat.’ The difficulty with the Indian generalizations or consistency is that it goes beyond intellectualism and speculation to psychological and experiential formulations that are not conceivable to the average human mind. And if the generalization is so general that it is applicable everywhere and anywhere, it tends to get overlooked in the practical world unless one is practicing intensely the spiritual disciplines called yoga in India. And thus, it means nothing in vyavhara, and is not noticed. 

There are no external rules, moral or ethical dicta, no edicts or farmaans. And such a profound unitary rule gives paradoxically the utmost freedom and latitude to the individual. And thus, there is no abstract reality out there; it is all lived intensely, personally by the practicing seeker. Thus, all subsequent declarations that deal with more superficial matters become nuanced and seem applicable only to a particular situation or time-space or to a particular kind of person. 

The Indian paradigm belongs to another order of experience that underlies the Western approach to blanket universalisms without being universal. This is almost akin to the Einsteinian world being another order to the model of the Newtonian world. Or the paradigm of quantum mechanics that forms the substrate in the modern understanding to the Rutherfordian, atomic model in physics. 

Obviously, any such generalizations as mine about India itself would be flawed and self-contradictory since Indians defy generalizations at least on the surface. And if it is true, that the Indian culture even today is together because it springs from the artesian wells of Vedas and Vedanta, then this too is easy to understand.    

India confuses, confounds, and confronts with its myriad array, that are spiritual and materialistic, subtle, and gross, cultured, and gross. Even time and space, the universal frames of reference, are inconstant. Rules change by yugas and kula, jati and ritu. And ritu, as Louis Renou points out, in Sanskrit et Culture, is not just a season, but also a crucial moment in Vedic sacrifice (the word ritam meaning right and the dynamic aspect of Sat). There is a constant flowing together in samsara (which is the literal meaning of the word) and the body too is not just physical, it has also subtle and causal aspects.   

Perhaps one may say here that any generalization about the Indian way of thinking itself would be, paradoxically, an error.  The Indians traditionally have thought a lot (and even argued a lot), the more qualified understanding of an Indian way of thinking at the highest level is that it is not only immensely refined but also one that comes after a long preparatory development in self-refinement. Unfortunately, this refinement was restricted to only a select few in the Vedic times perhaps due to the nature of the society. And any attempt to spread the word had to use simplifications with its national epics, music, arts, darsanas, mythology, education, social and political sciences, and economic theory. This is where it began getting confusing. For the epics such as Mahabharata included multiple and diverse viewpoints of powerful personages in unique situations. Epics such as the Ramayana had almost 300 various tellings, each with its own storyline and interpretations, and the only common theme among all of them was perhaps the central place of the protagonists, Rama and Sita, and the tectonic shift in human society and evolution with their incarnation.

It does not faze me that in some of these Ramayanas, the narrative changes. What is most unnerving is that the Indian mind of today does not understand the event that Rama’s life was in the national consciousness, and how it transformed humanity at a crucial juncture of its development. Those who need to understand Rama have no clue; they either turn into zealots or fiery partisans, blind to who Rama truly is. And those who have no clue about Rama write tomes on him and his human limitations. Nor does it disappoint me that the original impetus of thought and its energies are now lost in the confusion of modern India. For such is still latent and subterranean in my opinion and can always resurface, if we were to understand what it truly is.  

Ramanujan concluded his essay with the projection that “One might see modernization in India as a movement from the context-sensitive to the context-free in all realms; an erosion of contexts, at least in principle.” He also criticized the generalizations of “a Hindu view of life by apologues like Radhakrishnan for the benefit of both the Western and modern Indian readers.”

Personally, I would hope that if India moves to a context-free way of thinking, it would be through the discovery of its own innate genius and the tremendous discoveries of its ancient past, although, necessarily, the modern formulation would be different. And if the generalization of a Hindu view of life by Radhakrishnan is too facile and superficial, so is Ramanujan’s hope that India would lose its unique way of seeing the world by getting modernized in the Western mode. 

William James with his sub-universes and Alfred Schutz with his ‘finite provinces of reality and relevance’ as central concepts, the paradoxical theories in modern physics with its wave and particle theories of light, and economic theories, micro- or macro- after E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, according to Ramanujan, might be worthy of being re-read in the light of these context-sensitive and context-free modes. Yet, in the same breath, he argues against the inconsistencies of Indian thought or, shall we say, Indian thoughts. 

It is the same bias towards looking outward for one’s salvation. Ramanujan looks towards the modern West even for his theories about the Indian way of thinking. The colonial mindset continues to haunt even the best and brightest of Indian minds. This might be a clue to the Indian way of thinking. 

There is none at present, actually. What we need perhaps to do is to retrieve it. To be able to question anything and everything in the original Indian manner, to be able to reject everything and start afresh perennially, neti neti (not this, not this), to never be satisfied and be complacent, to experiment and explore boldly. For if there was ever an Indian way of thinking, it was this. Not proceeding from fear but with innocence and profound questioning. And not rejecting one’s own way of being even if it meant rejecting the more successful and superficially enticing thinking models of the est. To articulate clearly and simply. Calmly and directly.  

Perhaps there is no bigger question facing the nation today than what Hinduism truly is, if it is not a religion, and how must it grow or be replaced by something greater, stronger, truer. And how does defining Hinduism or thinking about it change Bharata, which designation literally means a people deeply involved in discovering the Light and its manifestations. This self-lit way, this thinking lit by the glow of the Self or Atman, is the Indian way of thinking. This is our genius. And it can be recovered and re-discovered into the modern life. 

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