Answer to Why I Am Not a Hindu

by A Hindu Woman

 

I

First, I wish to make clear that I have no quarrel with Mr. Ramendra Nath for declaring that he is not a Hindu. He has listed four reasons for declaring why he is not a Hindu:

  1. "I do not believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avatars and rebirth."
  2. "I do not believe in the varnashram dharma or varna-vyavastha either in the sense in which it is explained in Hindu dharma shastras like Manusmriti or in the so-called Vedic sense."
  3. "I do not believe in the Hindu taboo of not eating beef."
  4. "I disbelieve in idol-worship."

As it happens, I am fully in agreement with the above statements. I do not believe in the existence of any God or soul. Therefore the question of scriptures as divine revelations, rebirth and avatars is moot. I do not believe in the caste-system. I have eaten beef. Again, since I do not believe in God the question of worshipping anything--idols or otherwise--is moot. Nevertheless, I still call myself a Hindu. However that is a completely separate matter.

Mr. Ramendra Nath has discussed in length why he rejects the Vedas as infallible. Since I have no disagreement with him on these grounds, I am skipping it.

He next attacks "varna-vyavastha or varnashram dharma." If it had been a simple exposure of the evils of this system, again there would be no problem. But what I essentially find troubling is that he does not present a balanced appraisal. He rejects emphatically the story in the Vedas that the Brahmins are created from God's mouth, the Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs and Shudras from his feet--plainly this story appeared later to account for a reality that was already present. He dismisses evidence that originally it was nothing more than a functional division which ultimately hardened into a rigid system backed by the religious authority of the Brahmins and the military might of Kshatriyas as something unimportant to the issue at hand. After all, today the Hindu social system functions quite well in the metropolises where the rules of purity and impurity regarding caste are no longer important. Also when he discusses the evils from which Hinduism has traditionally suffered, he ignores the good that is in Hindu Dharma as well. In particular his criticisms against Manusmriti or Manusamhita is one-sided. Above all he ignores the entire picture to concentrate on certain negative aspects only. To put it plainly, I think his account is biased.

II

Ramendra Nath charges that Ram kills Sambuka, a Shudra, because he was performing tapasya or ascetic exercises which are the province of Brahmins alone. Certainly the story is there. But what he does not mention is that the story belongs to Uttarkanda (lit. "later chapter"). Along with the story of Rama's adventure, every child is also taught that this chapter was added much later and that Valmiki's Ramayana ends with Rama's coronation. In Valmiki's Ramayana itself, we have two very important stories: that of Guhak and Sabari. Guhak is a Nishada king of Sringaverpur who is described as Rama's friend as dear as life, with whom Rama stays while going to the forest (Ayodhyakandya, chaps. 50-52). Shabari was a practitioner of asceticism. Rama's first question on meeting her was, "Have you conquered all that disrupts tapasya? Has your tapasya increased?"; from her hands Rama accepted food and her soul ascended to heaven (Aranyakanda, 74). Nishadas are an 'uncivilized' forest-tribe who include the Chandalas among them. Shabari is the feminine of shabar, the hunter community. Manusmriti states that Nishadas are the offspring of Brahmin male and Shudra female (an obvious afterthought)--they are what we call today 'untouchable'. The shabars are designated simply as 'mlechha,' completely outside Vedic/Hindu society, yet Shabari performs perfect tapasya and goes to heaven blessed by the avatar. The story has often been offered as proof that neither birth nor gender is important in performing tapasya and going to heaven. The apparent contradiction between Rama's behaviour towards them and towards Sambuka need not puzzle anyone; the Sambuka story was clearly added later to strengthen Brahmin hegemony. My question here is why does Ramendra Nath ignore these points which are known to any ordinary Hindu? The answer became clear when I looked at his citations. He was simply quoting from another person's work rather than from the Ramayana itself. Apparently he had not bothered to read the text he is criticizing.

Next Ramendra Nath speaks of a certain episode in Mahabharata. Certainly the story of Ekalavya is true. Because he was a Nishada, Drona refused to teach him. The text explicitly states that being nishada he was 'asprishya' (untouchable) and it is never allowable that he should be put on a par with the general populace. Obviously social stratification has taken place since Ramayana. When Ekalavya learnt on his own, Drona made him cut off his finger. However, Ramendra Nath places undue emphasis on the fact that Arjuna is his Khastriya student. Drona asked for this terrible sacrifice because he did not wish anyone to exceed his favourite Arjuna, who had promised to give him whatever Drona desired materially. Caste here had nothing to do with it.

More importantly, Ramendra Nath ignores those portions of this epic which obviously belong to earlier stratas and which show a far more humanitarian stance. The grandmother of both Kauravas and Pandavas (of whom Arjuna is one) is only a fisherwoman. She had a liaison with a Brahmin (which did not make the latter an outcaste) and gave birth to an illegitimate son who became a sage himself and the writer of Mahabharata. If she wants to marry into a respectable wealthy family, to be a fisherwoman who ferries passengers on a boat and who has a bastard child is definitely a handicap yet today even in developed countries. Nevertheless, she marries a Kshatriya king, her sons become kings and she is never reproached because of her sexual misconduct. How could such miscegenation and its placid acceptance by the population (which includes Brahmins) have been possible unless the varnavyavastha in ancient times was very much a fluid system?

We also have the story of Dharmabyadh. A Brahmin had gained power to work miracles by his penance and became arrogant because of this. When a woman seems to ignore him, he becomes enraged. But the woman demonstrates that merely by carrying out faithfully her duties as a housewife she had gained even greater power; she tells him that only a man who controls his sensual instincts, never hates another person, thinks of all human beings as his own [kin], tells the truth always, and never wanders towards unrighteousness--is acknowledged as a Brahmin by the gods. He is then sent to a meat-seller known as Dharmabyadh to learn what dharma is, as he is ignorant of it. The meat-seller says, "I follow my ancestors' livelihood; I tend to the elderly; I always speak the truth; I never show hatred for anyone; I give to charity as far as I am capable; I never speak ill of anyone; I eat the leavings of the gods, guests and servants [I eat after all these have eaten]." It is these simple things that has elevated a meat-seller above the powerful Brahmin (Vanaparva, 205-213).

Yuddhistira (the son of the God of Justice) is asked what is the cause of being a Brahmin. He declares that neither birth nor learning makes a Brahmin, that only proper conduct does. Even a Brahmin learned in four Vedas cannot be considered as a Brahmin if his conduct is evil. [However it must be noted that performing proper rituals is also included in the passage as the mark of a Brahmin (Vanaparva, 312).] In another place he is asked by a serpent who a true Brahmin is. He answers, "The person in whom resides truth, charity, forgiveness, courtesy, rejection of cruelty, austerity, is a Brahmin." The serpent argues that the Vedas have given every varna their dharma or law. "Therefore truth, charity, forgiveness, non-violence, rejection of cruelty, and compassion based on Vedas is noticed even in Shudras. If even in Shudras these symptoms of Brahamandharma appear, then Shudras too can be Brahmins." Yuddhistira's answer is, "In many Shudras symptoms of Brahmin appear, and among many of the twice-born, symptoms of Shudras appear. Therefore it is not that to be born in a Shudra family makes one a Shudra or that to be born in a Brahmin family makes one a Brahmin. The persons in whom such behaviour [the qualities mentioned above] ordained by Vedas appear are Brahmins and those in whom they do not appear are Shudras" (Vanaparva, 180). From such episodes it is obvious that the ideal was a high one and low castes were honoured by society if they were virtuous. Critics would say that the reality does not often match the ideal. True. But where is the paradise on earth where there is no discrimination on the basis of class, irrespective of the law? I do not see why varnavyastha should be singled out with special virulence. It is simply that some countries have made greater progress in doing away with systems like feudalism (which was held to be reflection of cosmic hierarchy) and slavery (backed by the story of Noah and his sons) while India is starting to catch up.

Ramendra Nath argues that Gita too teaches every caste to do their Dharma. Certainly if in these "enlightened" times a soldier like Arjuna would refuse to fight on the battlefield when the war has begun, the government would punish him and he would be called "deserter" and "traitor." Again Shankar is pointed out as supporting the caste-system. This is essentially true. But why does Mr. Ramendra Nath slight the entire Bhakti and Tantric traditions in both North and south India? Did not the practitioners of these traditions, many of them Brahmins themselves, try to do away with caste? In such movements, outcaste teachers and Brahmin students were common.

III

Next, Mr. Ramendra Nath--like many others--attacks Manusamhita. What all these critics do is to imply that the entire book was written by one man. Yet research has proved that many verses were added to the main text throughout later ages and other verses left out or edited to bring it in line with contemporary thought. (The interested reader can look up the works of G. Buhler, P. V. Kane, and Max Muller.) The result is that it is cris-crossed with contradictions.

Now let us take a close look at the book. Each of the verses he quotes declaring the inferiority of Shudras and dominance of Brahmins, do exist. Yet he also skips verses that directly contradict those verses. "If a woman or lower (Shudra and younger) person performs goodly ceremonies [holy or good works], then the Brahmachari must join them with enthusiasm" (2:223). "The Shudra who devoid of jealousy engages himself in honest work receives honour in this life and heaven in the next" (10:128). (Of course another verse has been added immediately after saying that Shudras cannot accumulate wealth because a rich Shudra might despise Brahmins.) "A wife, jewels, knowledge, dharma [religion/duty], rules of purity, good advice, vocational skills, can be received by everyone from everyone else [irrespective of caste or family]" (2:240). "A devout person can [I use 'can', but it is actually in the imperative mood] accept even the best knowledge from Shudras; accept ultimate truth from outcastes like chandalas; an excellent wife even from low families" (2:238). Nothing can be more amusing for a social historian than to see how Medhatithi, a Brahmin commentator (c. A.D. 900) tries to explain away this verse. He argues that "shubham [holy, best, pure] vidya [knowledge]" refers to logic, magic formulas and singing and dancing. Similarly "param [ultimate, best] dharma" is redefined as knowledge of local geography and customs. Never mind that Mahabharata also defines--on the basis of Manu--'param dharma' as knowledge of moksha/liberation which can be acquired from anybody. Medhatiti's argument is that since low castes are not eligible for religious knowledge they cannot teach anything. Obviously the upper castes were anxiously trying to impose hegemony over lower castes. Again, the verse stating that "he [the Brahmin] who studies from a Shudra teacher or teaches a Shudra student" cannot officiate in funeral ceremonies (3:156) offers evidence that Shudras were teachers, a fact that the Brahmins wished to change. The rules and later condemnations regarding marriages between castes offer proof that for a long time it had not hardened.

Incidentally, may I ask how the terrible punishments inflicted on Shudras can be reconciled with marriages between castes, both anuloma and pratiloma, division of property among children born of such 'miscegenation,' rule that in distress a Brahmin might serve a Shudra as a servant, or that a Brahmin householder must feed his Shudra servants first, if he has any? There is a distinction between what some men would like society to be and the social reality. For example, Louis Dumont observed that power did not automatically reside in the hands of any specific community. The caste that actually owned land in a region enjoyed actual power; in many cases such power and property lay in the hands of the Shudras. Though the Brahmins were the priests they were actually dependant on the Shudras for their favour. Surely Mr. Ramendra Nath knows that there are thousands of Brahmin families whose only means of subsistence is being priests of low-caste families?

Like Mr. Ramendra Nath, I too cannot help it that an objective reading exposes how the caste system degenerated. He accuses that untouchability and allowing men of one caste to become priests alone is peculiar to Hinduism. But apartheid was peculiar to the rational democratic white Christian races, as was the Holocaust peculiar to the industrialized Nazi Germany. In neither case had it been claimed that these two factors represent the sole face of Western culture. So once again, why is varna-vavyastha presented as proof that Hinduism is intrinsically evil, instead of realizing that untouchability is simply the result of human love of power and not integral to Hinduism itself?

Now we come to women. Yes, Manusamhita does have these verses that paint women as evil and deny them any freedom. But again we see how other verses, remnants of earlier times, paint a different picture. There is a whole portion called naribandana (Praise of women) where it is insisted (3:55-62) that only a house where women are respected and made happy is favoured by the gods and that--where women are treated badly--all worship and ceremonies are in vain. There are verses such as, "Mother is a thousand times holier [can also be read as worthy of obedience] than the father" (2:145). "It is better that a daughter should live at home till death rather than be given to an unworthy husband; After menstruation, a girl should wait for three years and then choose her own husband; If a girl at proper time should select a husband herself, then she is not to be blamed" (9:89-91). "Any relative [including a husband] who uses stridhan [lit. property of woman which is both liquid cash and land, here a wife's], vehicles and animals given for the wife to ride or a wife's clothes [and ornaments] for himself, is a sinner who falls [into hell]" (3:52). I can give other verses as examples.

Again Mr. Ramendra Nath charges that a widow cannot marry. Nothing arouses my ire more than this statement. An illiterate villager might be forgiven for believing this since this is the reality in many places, but an educated Hindu would know better. These verses, of a later origin, hold out inducements to widows not to remarry--such a course would hardly have been necessary if widows never remarried. "The woman who abandoned by her husband or left a widow marries of her free will another man, is punurbhu and the son of such a union is called pounorbhava"; "If a wife who is still a virgin, or a wife who has left her husband to consort with another man returns to her husband's home, then [another] ceremony of marriage can take place" (9:195-196). Insistence in numerous verses that a Brahmin who is a second husband or son of a woman's second marriage should not be allowed to perform religious ceremonies merely prove that remarriages were frequent. "While the mother is alive, if there is a dispute between the son of the [first] husband and between a pournorbhava or a golok (bastard born after the husband's death) regarding property, then each son will receive the property that belongs to his biological father" (9:191). "If the husband goes to foreign lands for holy purposes, the wife will wait for 8 years; if he goes to study or earn fame she will wait for 6 years; if he goes for pleasure then she will wait for three years--after that she will marry again [alternative explanation, she will go away somewhere else to support herself" (9: 76). Moreover the commentator Madhavacharya declares, "Manu has ordained, if the husband is missing, dead, has become an ascetic, impotent, or outcast, then the second marriage of woman is lawful according to the shastras." Again this verse is present in Naradasmriti, which is stated to be a collection of more important verses of Manu. Not so surprisingly, this verse cannot be found in the relatively modern edition of Manu we have today. Ramendra Nath is strangely ignorant of history of his own country if he does not know that Vidyasagar persuaded the British authorities to pass the widow-remarriage bill by proving that it is enjoined in the shastras.

Mr. Ramendra Nath also gets excited while heaping scorn on the notion that Hinduism is tolerant. Perhaps it has escaped his attention that Hinduism is considered not tolerant socially as such, but from the religious point of view. It is a religion that does not declare that it has the sole monopoly on truth nor does it try to impose its gods on other cultures by force. That is what is defined as religious tolerance. Manusamhita certainly has many harsh things to say about nastikas, but they are limited to denunciations. What did Hindus, Mr. Ramendra Nath, actually do to disbelievers in this physical life? Usually nothing. Buddha lived and preached peacefully. So did Mahavira. The worst that some of them suffered was ostracism. But as Ramendra Nath himself acknowledges (4:30), though rationalists and freethinkers are not to be treated respectfully, they can be given food, according to Manusamhita. For some reason Mr. Ramendra Nath seems to think that a devout believer in God and afterlife should welcome a disbeliever worshipfully (arcchana) as proof of his humane attitude, yet in the same breath he denies that there is any human value attached to the injunction that even hellbound disbeliveers are to be fed. Considering the way Semitic religions have dealt with unbelievers and apostates in the past (and do so even today), indeed "such is the generosity of Hindu dharma."

Above all I find Mr. Ramendra Nath's focus on Manusamhita puzzling. The British in an attempt to codify law focused exclusively on Manusamhita. But why should an educated Hindu do so? There are nineteen other dharmashastras all held to be of equal importance. He ignores Arthashastra, the secular manual for Hindu kingdoms. He ignores that every region had its own particular laws and every community in it had its own set of customs which even the king was forbidden to override. He ignores that often in villages--even today--the shastras are only a hallowed name; if they routinely consult any texts, those are the Ramayana and Mahabharata and often the two epics are retold differently to suit that particular region. Unlike the Bible, there is no text that forms the basis of Hindu law. The simple result is that society varied from place to place and age to age. Yes, class-system based on birth is wrong. Yes, the ugly face of caste is encountered daily in many places in India. But the picture he presents is one of absolute stratification, with the cruel Brahmins trampling down the helpless Shudras for thousands of years. This picture is very biased. In the first place, the Brahmins are not like the clergy of church; only a certain percentage actually enjoys real power and wealth. Secondly, from reading Mr. Ramendra Nath's article, no one would have any idea of the low-caste royal dynasties like Mundas, Chandellas, Nandas, Gurjjaras, Senas, the rule of the Lingyat community, the rise of the Alvars, or the elevation of Reddies and Jats to the warrior caste. Shivaji was a Shudra landowner who dreamt of creating a Hindu empire (with all that it implies to him) and brought the Mughal empire to its knees; he kept Brahmin ministers. A 1345 inscription of Reddi kings read, "With death of Ksathriyas [by the Muslims], duty of defending cows and Brahmins fell to Shudras." It was the Shudras who drove away the Muslim invaders and reestablished Brahmanical educational institutes. If the Shudras, treated as Mr. Ramendra Nath assumes followers of Manu treated them, say and do this after gaining power (and when the Brahmins were at their nadir), then obviously the Brahmins are a superior race who deserve to rule over a spineless inferior caste.

IV

Just as Mr. Ramendra Nath concentrates on Manusamhita alone among the dharmashastras, so too he concentrates on Gandhi alone. Apparently Gandhi is to be taken as the representative of Hindu society at large. Gandhi had supported varnashrama. But Gandhi had also said, (The Collected Work of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. LXII, p. 121).

  1. "I believe in varnashrama of the Vedas, which in my opinion is based on absolute equality of status notwithstanding passages to the contrary in the smritis and elsewhere."
  2. "Every word of the printed works passing muster as `Shastras' is not, in my opinion, a revelation."
  3. "The interpretation of accepted texts has undergone evolution and is capable of indefinite evolution, even as the human intellect and heart are."
  4. "Nothing in the shastras which is manifestly contrary to universal truths and morals can stand."
  5. "Nothing in the shastras which is capable of being reasoned can stand if it is in conflict with reason."

Again, Vivekananda the monk came from a conservative family of the nineteenth century and fiercely advocated doing away with untouchability. He even declared that doing social service is more important than worshipping God, because the former is true worship. Rabindranath Tagore's family was orthodox and he himself was very devout; yet he declared that though the caste-system has become integral to Hindu society it must be done away with. There were as many Hindus who attacked the caste-system as those who tried to defend it. Similarly, the Shankaracharya of Puri recently declared that women have no right to learn Sanskrit or read Vedas. The head priest at Jagganath temple, on the other hand, has started training women priests--yet both are pious Hindus. Why then is there the assumption that all believing Hindus are retrograde?

Mr. Ramendra Nath grieves that the upper castes are not reconciled to losing their power. That generalization is too sweeping. Some are not, but the present generation has grown up accepting it. There is still resistance, but is there any reason to think that the situation will not improve? Even in England, full-fledged democracy did not spring up miraculously with Magna Carta. The very fact he is able to write an article such as this and post it on the Internet is proof that Hindu society has undergone a sea-change. Again in speaking of agitations against reservation policy for untouchables, he does not give the full picture. Major factors in that agitation had been economics and competence. Many untouchables have become rich by means of affirmative policies and government aid. There is a substantial body of untouchables and lowcastes who have now become middle-class and many who have become legislators. However, they insist on their children enjoying the same advantages they had enjoyed. But if they have become rich, is it not unfair for their children to take advantage of the policies meant for their poorer brethren? Again, why in reverse discrimination shall the desperately poor of other castes be deprived of government help and seats in educational institutions while those who have become rich demand more advantages and money? This has led to the extremely ridiculous situation of uppercaste people changing their surnames by deed-poll and bribing officials to declare them untouchables. More, those who have made it to the top now hog every post and then lobby to pass laws for their own advantage so that the benefits no longer trickle down to those who really need them. Recently, members of the Dalit educated community themselves said that the reservation policy is not working; a political party based on backward votes immediately expelled those members who had dared to utter such heresy. That is why those who agitated against widening of the affirmative net were students--it is their future that is being jeopardized in the name of social justice. The people of India wish for a fairer affirmative policy--one that is based on poverty; the poor alone should get preferential treatment.

About moksha, karma and avatarvada I have nothing to say on rational grounds. However once again, it appears that the two Hindu epics need defending on moral grounds. Rama is an avatar, but nowhere it is said that all his behaviour is perfect. In particular, Mr. Ramendra Nath singles out his notorious treatment of Sita--he makes her undergo ordeal by fire to prove her purity. But what also needs recapitulating is how the 'higher authorities,' so to speak, react to this. The soul of Dasaratha, father of Rama, descends from heaven and begs Sita, "Do not be angry; forgive my son for having abandoned you" (Yuddhyakandya, 120). More importantly Brahma appears and gives a long speech. The gist of it is that since Rama is lord of all, why is he ignoring this terrible event? He is God, so why he is meting out injustice to Sita? (Yuddhykandya, 118). Rama's answer is that he knows himself only to be a man, not a god. Since the Creator himself declares Rama's deed is a sin, I do not see why the ordinary Hindu would face a moral dilemma here and go on insisting Rama did no wrong. The case is the same with Krishna. Many explanations have been given for his behaviour, but all of them have one thing in common--it is acknowledged that he did wrong and human beings must not follow his ways. Most telling is the evidence of Mahabharata itself. After the war is over, Gandhari--the only perfectly virtuous human--curses Krishna for the evils he had committed; as her relatives and friends had been destroyed [deceitfully by Krishna's advice], so too Krishna's family would be destroyed and he himself will die a horrible death (Striparva, 25). The curse comes true. Dharma or moral law of the universe would not allow it to be otherwise. In other words God incarnate is accountable to man--even an avatar must be punished.

Mr. Ramendra Nath also simply omits all positive aspects of Hinduism. He makes no mention of the philosophies, logic systems, mathematical contributions, music, temples, poetry, teachers and reformers, or the heroes and heroines in myth and history. He simply makes no attempt to explain the Hindu world-view or dharma (in the secular sense). Nor does he give a full picture of Hindu history. Anyone reading his article would get the impression that no decent man can call himself a Hindu. (On the other hand I too can quote only favourable verses and examples and give the impression that Hinduism is flawless.)

If Mr. Ramendra Nath had rejected Hinduism on rational grounds, then this answer need not have been written. If he had balanced the good, the bad and the ugly and then declared, "You have been judged and found wanting", again this present article would not have a leg to stand on. Let me repeat, it is the one-sided picture of Hindu culture that I protest.

It is only right that a culture's worst excesses be condemned, but it is only equitable that its highest ideals and what it has achieved also be considered. By writing in such a superficial manner, he denies a Hindu any pride in his heritage. Mr. Ramendra Nath would not allow anyone to admire Rama as a human being, nor Yuddhisthira or Gandhari; enjoy the philosophy and symbolism; be proud of either high caste or low caste leaders and teachers, or of reformers who came from Hindu society itself--or even how Buddhism, Jainism, Zorastrianism and Judaism have been protected by the Hindu community. Above all, he makes it seem as if reform and Hinduism are inherently incompatible. Gandhi said, "My belief in the Hindu scriptures does not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely inspired .... I decline to be bound by any interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason or moral sense" (The Collected Work of Mahatma Gandhi, The Publication Division, Government of India, Vol. XXI, p. 246). Yet Gandhi was only following Hindu law. Every shastra and epic states that no age is identical to other ages, therefore the law of every age must be different. Dharma changes from age to age depending on circumstances. It is this that has allowed Hinduism to withstand ravages or war and time, constantly remoulding itself to survive.

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