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REtoday magazine

May 2009, by Shaunaka Rishi Das

If you have ever been invited to a Hindu wedding or religious gathering you will have noticed the discrepancy between the time printed on the invitation and the time that the event actually begins.

I have spoken to many Indians about this phenomenon and they all declare how upset they are about their community’s attitude towards time. “It can be very embarrassing”, said my friend, Jayesh, “especially when British people are attending. They don’t understand our ways and must find our ways very shoddy indeed”. Yet, the same fellow had arrived half an hour late to the event he was commenting upon, suspecting that it would not start on time.

The tendency towards embarrassment about “our ways”, is quietly experienced in classrooms throughout the country among children, and expressed in quiet frustration in later years. Yet, the Hindu community in Britain is also quietly proud of its ways, as is evidenced by the fact that they host very large religious and cultural gatherings – and the fact that family ways are still such an important factor in their decision-making.

The consciousness of every Indian is infused with stories of gods and demigods, sages and holy men, warriors and weddings, and action and reaction. Ethical choice, their elders tell them, is less about religion and more about personal virtue, personal dharma. They are nurtured to believe that there are many sacred writings, many spiritual teachers, many religions – and all are to be respected. Kama, pleasure, is as important as moksha, salvation, depending on your stage of life. Yet, when they walk outside their front doors they encounter a different world with different stories and different conclusions – but mostly without the tools to analyse and make sense of the differences.

So, let’s go back in time – back 2000 years – no, let’s make it 3000 years. Back to a forest in India and a small gathering of sages who have come together to consider the nature of the self, the cycles of life, and the theory of evolution. The sages, after offering respect to each other with joined palms, sit in a circle on kusha grass in a small clearing beside a river. They open their discussion by considering a conversation between a Yaksha, a benevolent nature spirit, and Yudhishthira Maharaja, the Pandava king. The Yaksha had asked Yudhishthira four questions the last of which was, “what is the news”. Yudhishthira answered that the news is that this world is like a pot. The sun is the fire and the days and nights are the fuel. The months and the seasons are the wooden ladle, and Time is the cook that is cooking all creatures in that pot.

One sage remarks that later in the Mahabharata Krishna says, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all assembled here – nor in the future will any of us cease to be”. All assembled agreed that this was a good connection.

Right, let’s come back and connect with our own time. As we say in Ireland, “there’s eating and drinking in that” – so, a time to digest. We have heard the sages, and Krishna say that we, all creatures, are eternal by nature, that we have no beginning and no end. This perspective is very different from one where we are created. In fact Krishna’s statement confirms an eternal relationship between him and others – but in this view it seems there is no creator, there is no time, and the limits of space are irrelevant. Yet, as we have heard, Time’s dietary regime is making a stew of us.

Back to the river bank, and the sages are now discussing the song of Krishna, where he speaks of the difference between the living self, atma, and matter. The self is eternal, and matter is temporary, as it is called into being and into dissolution, and is subject to time and space. The body is referred to in Sanskrit as a yantra, a machine, which has a life span of 80- 100 years. So, now we have eternity as one energy, one reality, and time as another, albeit inferior reality. Thus for the manifest world there is a creator after all, Time is cooking, and space limits our world, or should I say, the pot.

A sage remarked how our eternal self could take no material distinction seriously, how different views of religion, different ways of thinking, different cultures, genders, and species are not views of the eternal but of the temporary. Thus, they deduced the tolerance and the pluralism of the holy men they had met.

As they nodded appreciation for the contributions to the conversation one sage asked about the cycles mentioned in Yudhishthira’s reply to the Yaksha. He noted that aside from the cycles of the days, months, seasons, and ages, there are also cycles of happiness and distress, and pleasure and pain. The sages concluded that everything they knew worked in cycles. By accepting the law that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction they discerned a cycle. Why, they reasoned, would they not thus consider the possibility of the eternal self inhabiting more than one machine, or body, during its journey – its cycle – through the material energy, through time? Even thoughts came around again and again, a fact they depended on in their meditations. By deepening a meditation they attracted that pure thought to return more frequently and thus improve their virtue, their dharma.

And now back to our time, to the Beatles, who sang, “It’s getting better all the time”, or further to Leona Lewis, who depends on things getting “Better in time” – and we see a pattern of linear time. Gone is the cycle and in is the progressive path to perfection. We inherit this hopeful worldview from Abrahamic thinking and the many philosophies that have grown up in its shadow.

The cyclical view does not credit things as getting better by default of time, but also allows for a realistic bit of worse. The eternal self’s journey through the cycles of nature is a process of evolution of consciousness – the evolution of bodies and minds being less significant – the object being to evolve into enlightened, loving, and knowledgeable souls, in spite of the cycles of nature.

The sages in the forest received no invitation, thus no one was late. Virtue, loving relationships (bhakti), and thoughtful understanding had always dictated their lives and they would never allow time to interfere. This is the mood and thinking behind their ways, and this is their legacy. Despite Jayesh’s frustration with himself he will not change easily as his script was written millennia ago, and until two world views begin a serious dialogue he will have to manage his embarrassment himself.

Jayesh will continue to arrive ‘late’ to functions but I do pray that his children may meet a religious educator who helps them value their world view as equally as others do, and encourages them to explore their tradition deeply. Thus the dialogue may begin – although, we could say it will be late in starting, better late than never.

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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?”

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