The first edition was sold out in less than a year. I am grateful to the readers for the warm reception they gave to this book. I have added new matter in the 5th Chapter of this edition, doing better justice to eastern India in the process. Several typos in the first edition have been corrected now. Thanks are due to Professor M.S. Gore and Mr.Pradeep Chakraborty for carefully going through the first edition and suggesting corrections and additions, and also to Mr.Sunil Saxena for his enthusiasm in bringing out this edition quickly.
‘……..my regard for Hinduism and its beauties …. Did not, however,
Prejudice me against other religions.’
This book seeks to rearticulate Gandhiji’s rediscovery of Hinduism, traditionally known as Sanatana Dharma. This is a rearticulation, not just reiteration, because this is also an attempt to take a fresh look at Hinduism through a Gandhian perspective. There have been many books on Hinduism before, but this one is different. This claim is based on its following features: it tries to arrive at a holistic understanding of Hinduism. It is not written from any one exclusive theological or sectarian standpoint, but is guided by the Gandhian perspective which is distinguished from other perspectives on Hinduism in that it is socially concerned, compassionate, liberal, inclusive, ethical, humane and pluralistic, tolerant of other religions and free from dogma, it takes into account all the best strands of thought in Hinduism, and even from other religions, and tries to make a sense of what it all amounts to. Pluralism is a pronounced feature of Hinduism. Desirable though socially, this feature presents difficulties in understanding Hinduism as a whole. Yet, without a holistic understanding of a religion, its study would not be complete. A holistic approach does not eschew pluralism but us warranted by it. There is no intention here to standardize Hinduism. The use of the term Sanatana Dharma is not intended to confine Hinduism only to Sanskritic tradition but only to bring out its enduring character. True to the Gandhian perspective, the book does not see Hinduism as being based exclusively on the Vedas and Upanishads, and takes a dynamic view of its development through several millennia. The non-Sanskritic bhakti sants are as much a part of the dynamics of Hinduism as Vedas and Vedanta, not to mention the modern interpreters like Gandhi himself. As such I have taken into account, apart from religious literature in Sanskrit, such literature form Indian languages as well, in original as far as I could, and sometimes in translation.
The Gandhian perspective is not an innovation of Gandhiji. In his characteristic humility he declared. “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills”. His record breaking innovation was in applying the principles of truth and non-violence to public life and for resolving conflicts in the realm of the nation and politics. But the reason for his saying that he taught nothing new was that the Gandhian perspective of Hinduism was shared by Vedas and Upanishads, the Gita, the songs of the sants who led the Bhakti movement, and stalwarts of the modern era starting from Raja Rammohan Roy. His perspective is not an innovation of western-educated reformist intellectuals. I have used the word ”Gandhian” only because Gandhi was the most prominent spokesman of the perspective and to help me to distinguish it from other perspectives to which I come below. It is only because he had the grand old heritage to back him that Gandhiji accepted the term Sanatana Dharma as indicative of his perspective of Hinduism. As Fischer observes, ‘Gandhi’s intellectual receptivity and flexibility are characteristics of the Hindu mind, (1998:427). Gandhiji was a chip off the old block of Hinduism. (It does not mean that in every respect he followed the teaching of Hinduism. For example, he could hardly be considered as an ideal householder or grihastha. On his own admission, he was not considerate to his wife and sons.)
His view of Hinduism as basically ethical, a matter more of living a morally upright life than of mere intellection, and rooted in the principles of truth and non-violence, is reflected in the following ancient verse which explicitly mentions the term Sanatana-Dharma:
“The roots of Sanatana-Dharma are stated to be in being free from malice and greediness, in austerity, compassion for all creatures, self control, chastity, truth, tenderness, forgiveness, and fortitude.’
Though the Gandhian view of Hinduism put primacy on personal conduct and ethics, it did not eschew faith in God. But truth was God for him, and seeking truth was religion. Hinduism for him was a process of search after truth. As such, ritual found no place in his religion, though he did not object to others following rituals of worship, provided it was non-violent. Nonviolence was his basic means of search for truth. It needed no ritual. But bhajans or prayers with bhakti (devotion) without any sectarian bias were encouraged by him as the means of purifying mind, and strengthening one’s resolve to pursue truth.
His approach in prayer meetings as well as in general outlook was to welcome pluralism and diversity of all faiths. Though he sought universality and commonality in ethical and basic spiritual values in all faiths, he rejected the notice of any one religion- even Hinduism being universal in the sense of excluding the validity of other religions. A relentless search for truth could not admit to any dogmatic or fanatical faith in scriptures as infallible, particularly any claim of exclusive validity and unquestioning acceptance. Though Gandhiji respected scriptures of all religions, he did not consider them as infallible and did not consider any as exclusive repository of truth. He did not contest the divine revelation of the Vedas, the Bible and the Quran, but observed that they were after all revealed to the human media- however high and exalted – and therefore as handed down to us and so can give only a partial, fragmented view of the truth, and are thus not infallible.
In any moral dilemma, he resorted to unbiased reasoning and his ‘inner voice’. By this, he did not mean that rules of ethical conduct could be left to individual convenience and caprice. On the contrary, in his view, they were governed by the eternal and universal principles revealed to the Vedic rishis and also to great and selfless persons who came later. He believed that any one can tune in to the inner voice by shedding egoism and selfishness. The Gandhian perspective is really more about pure ethics and spirituality than about religion in a narrow sense of the term. It transcended religion because of its undogmatic universalism and its ultimate liberating potential even in the mundane world. But he did not decry religion, because he was convinced by its powerful potential to inspire and sustain moral conduct.
Non-violence (ahimsa) of Hinduism in Gandhian perspective was not just a negative concept of avoiding violence; in fact, it required its practitioner to be socially engaged, proactively kind and caring. An important aspect of the Gaudhian perspective thus is its emphasis on selfless social service. For Gandhiji, Truth or God was not something to be sought in some desolate and distant mountain peak, but to be sought only through removing the sorrow of others, empowering them in the process. In this he was not alone in modem Hinduism but nevertheless the most distinguished. He did even more. He created history as none before him in the long history of Hinduism. His distinctive contribution was to initiate and sustain constructive social and political change on a large scale, to revolutionize thinking among millions not only in India but also outside, and empowering them. His pro-active non-violence had a liberating potential, al3d enabled not only himself to find truth but also many others. When he was in South Africa, he recognized his life’s mission — to work for the oppressed and the deprived and end their oppression in a non-violent struggle (satyagraha), with no illwill against the oppressors. He could easily see the similarity in apartheid in South Africa and untouchability in India and toiled to end both. He derived inspiration for selfless service as much from Christianity and Islam, as from Hinduism and Jainism. He saw in this the very core of religion and true spirituality. Indian religions, including Hinduism, have a long tradition of, and scriputural backing to, selfless service to others, including even animals, which Gandhi rediscovered.
It is the contention of this book that the Gandhian perspective is the most authentic and perceptive way of understanding Hinduism. It is the most authentic not only because what he interpreted had the backing of authentic scriptures and also of the most liberal and selfless leaders of Hindu thought preceding him, but also — more importantly— because he lived according to his perspective. He practiced what he preached. For him, theory and praxis were inseparable.
The Gandhian perspective of Hinduism has to be distinguished from other perspectives on Hinduism. The other perspectives are mainly (i) the orthodox perspective (ii) some of the western scholars’ perspective, and (iii) the Semitized or Hindutva perspective. Gandhiji rejected these three perspectives as untrue and inconsistent with true Hinduism, and felt compelled to rediscover authentic Hinduism. The main purpose of this book is to explain why the Gandhian perspective is authentic Hinduism, and why the other three perspectives are not. The three perspectives are not only not authentic but also faulty.
The orthodox perspective accepts and even venerates the caste system as intrinsic to Hinduism. It is a perspective that intends to perpetuate the dominance of the upper castes, and is unashamedly brahmanical in character. It derives its support not from the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita, but from conveniently selected verses from a few Smritis like the Manusmriti, and a few other Dharmashastras, which have been discredited since long and do not have the scriptural authority of Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita. The orthodox perspective is dogmatic, illiberal and exciusivist, not permitting the Dalits (the earlier ‘untouchables’) and low castes an equal and honourable part in the Hindu society. It is so narrow-minded that some of the heads of the Mathas of orthodoxy do not permit not only non-Hindus, but also Hindu converts of foreign origin to temples like Jagannath mandir of Pun. Such Matha heads do not even hesitate to support heinous and criminal practices like Sati and ban foreign travel by Hindus and remarriage of widows. The status of women in orthodox perspective is low, not perirtitting them equal rights with men. It is this Manuvadi perspective of Hinduism which is the butt of attack by Dalit intellectuals.
Let alone social issues, even in its approach to religion it is too much obsessed with ritual as if it is an end in itself instead of being only a means. The limitations of the orthodox perspective are thus very serious. It was because of this that the essence of Hinduism was considered, by some western scholars, simply as binary opposition between ritual purity and pollution! It was because of this perspective that the Vedas and the Gita were grossly misinterpreted and not only Buddhism and Sikhism but several sects within Hinduism also refused to recognize their scriptural authority. Thereby the orthodox perspective harmed the cause of Hinduism immeasurably. It is sad and sickening that leaders and spokesmen of this perspective did not even bother about this harm. However, this is not an authentic perspective of Hinduism, but a degraded and rotting perspective, which the earlier removed the better it is for Hinduism and for India, as Gandhiji asserted so frankly. The orthodox perspective goes against the grain of Vedas and Vedanta and is inconsistent with the human values of Hinduism.
Some of the western scholars, like James Mill, Albert Schweitzer and Max Weber, created several misunderstandings about Hinduism due to their faulty perspective. Interestingly these misunderstandings arose not so much during the Muslim period as during the British Rule. They can be traced back to James Mill’s History of British india (1817). ‘For Mill, the principal value of a culture was the degree to which it contributed to the furtherance of rationalism and individualism. He saw neither of these two values in Hindu civilization and therefore condemned it severely’ (Thapar 1984: 4). Other misunderstandings about Hinduism relate to issues like whether Hinduism is a religion, whether it is other-worldly and hence indifferent to economic development and removal of poverty, whether the caste system is intrinsic to Hinduism, whether it is indifferent to ethics, and so on. As M S A Rao has observed, such misunderstandings are due to a certain naivety in interpreting key conepts of Hinduism like karma, maya, dharma and moksha (Rao 2004: 72).
Prof. M.V.Nadkarni an economist by training and profession, has a deep interest in social sciences, religion and philosophy. He was a professor at the Institute for social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore from 1976 to 1999 & is currently a honorary visiting professor at the same institute. He served as the Vice Chancellor for a full term of three years till 2002 at Gulbarga University, Karnataka. He was awarded National fellowship by ICSSR for two years (2002-2004) in recognition of his distinguished work in social sciences, under which this study was prepared. He was elected president at the 55th Annual Conference of the Indian society of Agricultural Economics and gave his presidential address on ‘Forests. People and Economics’ in November 1995 at IRMA, Ananad. He has over 22 books(including books edited and major reports ) to his credit, and over 100 papers in academic journals in India and abroad.
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