Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Modern misinterpreters of old Hinduism, influenced by Western Christianity

There is a certain trend in modern literary criticism which celebrates misinterpretation as something creative. This aspect of hermeneutics will always remain a problem. Even as the country gears up to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda -- he sometimes signed it as 'Vivekanandh'-- in 2013 (he was born January 12, 1863) after completing the celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, it might be good to look at the real intellectual contribution of individuals like Vivekananda, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, and the founder of the Swami Narayan sect. It seems all of them were responding to the challenge of modernism brought in by Christian colonialists like the British despite the liberals among the English like William Bentinck. This was a natural response and it cannot be faulted. Ram Mohun Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda and Swaminarayan were taking note of the reality and challenges of their day. So, Rama Mohun Roy got Brahmo Samaj going, influenced by Protestant Christianity, where there is no idol worship. Dayananda Saraswati solved the issue of idol worship by invoking the Vedas in his Arya Samaj system. He also wanted to cut through ritualism of the Vedas and argued that the ritual parts were of later origin. Then he tried to offer pseudo-scientific explanations for the Vedic hymns themselves.Vivekananda and his master Ramakrishna Paramahamsa were trying to hit at a syncretic solution by sticking to the higher ground of devotion to God which is to be found in all religions, and rationalising idol worship as a prop for a person at the beginning of his religious journey, and that as he progresses he will worship God at the thought level. Swami Narayan on the face of it accepts one of the older traditions -- the Uddhava sampradaya -- of old Vaishnavism founded in the Bhagavatapurana, but gives it a modern social content. In the process, Swami Narayan is deified, something that happens partially in the Ramakrishna Mission system where Ramakrishna Pramahamsa, his wife Sharada Devi and Vivekananda are almost deified and worshipped.
Ram Mohun Roy, Swami Narayan, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda are also keen to change the social distortions in Hindu society, especially the caste system. And they sound the nationalistic note as well, though each in his own way. Ram Mohun Roy remains a liberal, Swami Narayan a social liberal and a political conservative, Dayananda Saraswati a social reformer and a political rightist of sorts, and Vivekananda an apparent socialist and a liberal with a desire to understand and tolerate the conservatives.
But in all this social turmoil, none of them has contributed to the intellectual traditions of Hinduism in the manner of Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhava, Vallabha and Nimbarka. The last of the great original thinkers of Hinduism was Jnaneshwar, the Mahasrahstra saint-thinker, whose Bhaavarthadeepika, is a commentary on the Bhagavadgita and written in old Marathi and also known as Jnaneshwari.  Neither Ram Mohun Roy, Swami Narayan, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda were intellectual enough or they were not interested in purely philosophical and intellectual issues. They did pretend they were grappling with the philosophical issues per se, but their writings betray utter intellectual incomprehension and therefore intellectual incompetence. If one were to write a history of Hindu thought, it will not be intellectually justified to include these 19th century social activists and reformists.
Activists have their historical place but one would not give them intellectual credence of any kind. As a matter of fact, none of these moderns have the scholarship to understand the intricacies of philosophical disputation in the way that Adi Shankara and others understood. You cannot turn to these modern reformers to grasp the rich intellectual traditions of Hinduism because they are really out of depth in these matters.
Of course, it will be difficult to convince the admirers and followers of Ram Mohun Roy, Swami Narayan, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda that their heroes are intellectual non-entities. It would be seen as heresy because these men have gained stature as national heroes and not in terms of the brilliance of their religious thought. They just did not think, and their followers also do not think. It is no sin not to think. Rousseau thought that thinking was a disease, and it was the theme song of another pseudo-sage, Jiddu Krishnamurthy.
Just to make today's Hindus understand as to what is meant by standard Hindu intellectual competence, I will just cite a small passage from Gaudapada, a pre-Shankara Advaita thinker:
"There is no dissolution, no origination, none in bondage, none possessed of the means of liberation, none desirous of liberation, and none liberated. This is the ultimate truth." This is from Mandukya Karika, Gaudapada's commentary on Mandukya Upanishad. And Gaudapada acknowledges and agrees with the arguments of Shunyavadins, the Buddhist school represented by Nagarjuna. This might prove a little problematic because of chronology issues which have not been sorted out. But this is the quality of intellectual argument. And even as late as 14th century, Vidyaranya, also known as Madhavacharya, displays admirable intellectual subtlety in his Sarvadarshanasamgraha, a textbook showcasing the arguments of different philosophical schools.


Ramachandra Parsa ( Parsa V R Rao ) said...

Intellectual brilliance is not for the masses. The bulk of humanity is the masses who have to be addressed or guided when they are going astray. Thus the non intellectuals cited by the writer did more service to humanity than the intellectual giants like Adi Sankara or his predecessor Gaudapada, who catered to the Ego of intellectually brilliant minority. Also Ramunuja cannot be counted as an intellectual, he was only a Reformer and a missionary who excelled in combatting the conversion of Hindus to Islam and Christianity. He reconverted back all non Brahamins to Brahamins and in that task he really did a great job. Intellectual brilliance serves only one purpose, it satisfies one's Ego that one is nearing the goal of understanding Creation and it's Secrets. That is all. It encourages and enhances Ahankara, which again is counter productive. What Humanity needs is to live a life of some order and discipline so that society at large has Peace in the world. Which Adi Sankara could not achieve, but the so called non intellectuals called "just social reformers " achieved in a large measure.

Raghuramaraju A said...

While agreeing with you that these 19th and 20th figures from india are no philosophers in the strict sense of the term in comparison to Gaudapada, it is possible to extract philosophy from their writings the way in which Nagarjuna did to the sayings of Buddha. This task is not undertaken by philosophers today. While the non-academic followers though wrongly active in eulogizing the modern icons, the academicians contribution seems to be a non-starter. Alternatively, this non-performace by the academic that enables the distortions by the followers.

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