This article appeared in The Guardian‘s Face to Faith column, July 1, 2006.
Hinduism’s focus on the eternal questions of self means it will thrive in the face of modern life, writes Shaunaka Rishi Das.
What hope is there for Hindu culture in the face of modernity and globalisation? These latter terms are very broad, and often difficult to define. But then again, so is Hinduism.
In recent years India has become a world-class industrial, economic and nuclear power, a development which belies its mystical setting and superstitious reputation. The rickshaw-walas of any major city, driving while speaking on their cell phones, deliver you to the shopping mall to look for a pizza.
Yet the traffic is two-way with words like guru, mantra and karma being used globally. Meditation, yoga and chanting are common practices of the stressed and cool among us. Many Hindus now hail from countries other than India, including westerners and a third generation of non-resident Indians, the British and American Hindus.
To its horror, Hinduism is sometimes only known for the infamous caste system, the kind of thing our modern world strives to eradicate because of its lack of democracy, its servile spirit and the subjugation of the individual. A ripe case to be bombed by Bush, the doyen of freedom and democracy. But wait Mr Bush, as all may not be as it seems. To clarify this we turn to Charles Bukowski. Although he wrote, “As the spirit wanes the form appears” in reference to poetry it is also a surprisingly good understanding of the Hindu worldview.
Hindu thinking is based on the primacy of the individual. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna begins by defining the atman (the individual self) as being eternal – not material but spiritual. Krishna insists that the question of who we are needs to be resolved as the first item in both philosophy and spirituality. Otherwise, after Krishna offered his teachings to his friend Arjuna he could not have invited him to make his own choice by saying, “now do what you wish to do”.
With this definition of the individual Hindu thought looks at our desires. Here is where the “waning of the spirit” generally begins. The mantra of our times is “if it feels good, do it”. We greatly resent our freedoms and desires being curtailed. Like children, we demand our desires to be satisfied now.
The individualism of modern times tends towards a materialistic worldview. Rather than a vision of serving the world we ask the world to serve us. Hindu traditions would claim that this individualism, asserting its rights at every opportunity, is destroying the fabric of society and even nullifying the very assumption it’s built on by limiting the choice of the individual. By offering only material choices, spiritual options are ignored or compromised. The Bhagavad-gita asserts the right to serve but the ability to do what we like. Its not a very great claim as every child ignores service and does what it likes. But the Gita recognises that we don’t really grow up. It applies philosophy based on common sense and the realisation that we generally do what we like to do, irrespective of rights.
Hinduism has no real interest in our current obsession with human rights (excluding, as they do, the rights of other living beings). They are an excellent example of loosing all perspective, the spirit waning to the extent that form supersedes all. It’s not about human rights but about being a right human. The Hindu dharma, the concept of duty and service, helps individuals chose to qualify their freedom with principles and values. It exhorts us to control personal desire in order to please and benefit other living beings, the environment, natural law and the supreme – becoming right humans.
In the light of Krishna’s concept of the spiritual individual and especially the eternal nature of the self, the history of modernity and post-modernity is very young indeed. In the light of eternity a few hundred years is a blip.
So, what hope is there for Hinduism? Well, it looks good. The challenges of modernity don’t even seem to address the fundamental question of who we are. The question that this Hindu offers is, “what hope is there for modernity?”