Tribute to the resurgent power of Indian beliefs
By MANI SHANKAR
(The author is a filmmaker. Email him at email@example.com)
The beauty of being a Hindu lies in your freedom to be who you want to be. Nobody who you want to be. Nobody can tell you what to do, or what not to do. There is no central authority, no single leader of the faith. No one can pass an order to excommunicate you, or like in some countries, pass a decree that orders your death by stoning for walking with a strange man.
We don't appreciate our freedom because we can't feel the plight of others who aren't free. Many religions have a central authority with awesome power over the individual.
They have a clear chain of command, from the lowliest local priest to the highest central leader. Hinduism somehow escaped from such central authority, and the Hindu has miraculously managed to hold on to his freedom through the ages. How did this happen? Vedanta is the answer. When the writers of Vedanta emerged, around 1500 BC, they faced an organised religion of orthodox Hinduism. This was the post Vedic age, where ritual ism was practiced, and the masses had no choice but to follow. It was a coercive atmosphere. The writers of - Vedanta rebelled against this authority and moved away from society into forests. This was how the `Aranyakas' were written, literally meaning `writings from the forest'. These later paved the way for the Upanishads, and Vedanta eventually caught the imagination of the masses. It emerged triumphant, bearing with it the clear voice of personal freedom. This democracy of religious thought, so intrinsic to Vedantic intelligence, sank into the mindset of every Indian. every Indian.
Most couldn't fathom the deep wisdom it contained, but this much was very clear. They understood that faith was an expression of personal freedom, and one could believe at will. That's why Hinduism saw an explosion of Gods.
There was a God for every need and every reed. If you wanted to build your muscles, you worshiped a God with fabulous muscles. If you wanted to pursue education, there was a Goddess of Learning. If it was wealth you were looking for, then you looked up to the Goddess of wealth -- with gold coins coming out of her hands.
If you wanted to live happily as a family, you worshiped Gods who specially blessed families. When you grew old and faced oncoming death, you spent time in contemplating a God whose business it was to dissolve everything -- from an individual to the entire Universe.
Everywhere, divinity appeared in the manner and form you wanted it to appear, and when its use was over, you quietly discarded that form of divinity and looked at new forms of the divine that was currently of use to you. `Yad Bhavam, tad Bhavati'... what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth, and freedom to believe is always more important than belief itself.
Behind all this -- was the silent Vedantic wisdom that Gods are but figments of human imagination. As the Kena Upanishad says, "Brahma ha devebhyo vijigye..." -- All Gods are mere subjects of the Self. It implies that it is far better that God serves Man than Men serve God.
Because Men never really serve God -- they only obey the dictates of a religious head who speaks for that God, who can turn them into slaves in God's name. Hindus have there fore never tried to convert anyone.
Never waged war in the name of religion. The average Hindu happily makes Gods serve him as per his needs. He discards Gods when he has no use for them. And new Gods emerge all the time -- in response to market needs. In this tumult, no central authority could survive. No single prophet could emerge and hold sway, no chain of command could be established.
Vedanta had injected an organised chaos into Hinduism, and that's the way it has been from the last thirty five centuries.
Vedanta is also responsible, by default, for sustaining democracy.
When the British left India, it was assumed that the nation would soon break up. Nothing of that kind has happened.
The pundits of doom forgot that the Indian had been used to religious freedom from thousands of years. When he got political freedom, he grabbed it naturally. After all, when you can discard Gods why can't you discard leaders?
Leaders like Gods are completely expendable to the Indian mindset.
They are tolerated as long as they serve the people, and are replaced when needs change. It's the triumph of people over their leaders, and in this tumult, no dictator can ever take over and rule us. Strange how the thoughts of a few men living in forests, thirty five centuries ago, can echo inside the heart of every Indian.
That's a tribute to the resurgent power of India, and the fearlessness of its free thinking people.