Readers Write In #388: Hinduism – Its Philosophy, Science and Politics

Posted on July 26, 2021

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(by G Waugh)

I had written a bit about my interest in space and evolution in this piece** almost a year ago. The most interesting part of my space ‘journey’ was the place where Stephen Hawking was to a very great extent able to fully explain what is often meant by ‘The Big Bang’ theory. When I think about it, it doesn’t make any sense at all because the idea of the big bang itself has absolutely nothing to do with the ideas of modern science- the universe was once a tiny, in fact extremely tiny space that had what is called an unimaginably infinite density. Inside that super-tiny space similar to what we see inside a black hole, none of the laws of modern day physics applied. It was tiny for God knows how many billions of years but suddenly one day, at some divine moment, the space exploded and formed almost everything that today’s Universe is so full of- stars and meteors and a lot of residue. That particular moment when that tiny formation burst out when there was absolutely no reason for it to, was the beginning of time, according to Stephen Hawking. And that explosion needless to say, is called ‘The Big Bang’ and this concept is the highest point our modern scientists have reached in their quest to knowing about ourselves- the origins of the Earth that formed us, the origins of the stars that formed the Earth, the origins of the Universe that gave rise to these stars, etc.

For centuries together, our understanding of the Earth was in fact, pretty much confined to the idea that it was the Sun that kept travelling around us leading to days and nights and it took a lot of time for us to come out of that naïve understanding. Einstein’s arrival on the scene changed things for the better and the last century- the twentieth was the period when enormous advances were achieved in this discipline and our understanding of the universe, its purpose, its laws and its supposed destination became clearer by the day. And modern science today, of course derives a lot of pleasure and pride in the achievement it has made so far and in trying to answer these primal, extremely difficult questions it has succeeded to an extent, even in shaping our futures for the better.

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As many of you might be knowing, my inclination in politics has always been towards the Left- that particular end of the spectrum whose origins were often profoundly European and to an extent, to put it simply, completely anti-traditionalist. The Left leaders of today, many of them I have to admit have a strong antipathy to whatever that is Oriental- they hate traditional medicine, traditional ideas of society and even something that is as valuable as the Yoga. Recently I saw a small piece in The Hindu where the current general Secretary of the CPI(M), Sitaram Yechury had referred to the various ‘asanas’ in Yoga comparing them with the stretching movements that dogs make as soon as they wake up from sleep. In fact, I completely understood his disenchantment with it since Yoga today is often associated with modern day Godmen and their variants of customized, consumer-friendly, packaged ‘religion’.

According to many Leftists and rationalists of today, religion, the idea itself was devised by the ruling classes to keep the working classes in perpetual subjugation to them and the moment religion is broken into smithereens, all the sufferings of humanity would immediately end. There is of course, some truth in this belief and that truth had for decades together kept me away from learning the ideas behind the Hindu religion and its supposed philosophy. I have been a believer in God ever since my childhood but I have had complete contempt for the rituals and ceremonies that were often associated with my religion. In fact, if you ask many people about religion, their immediate idea about it would often be associated with visiting shrines, performing poojas and donating money to the temples. But is that all our religion is all about?

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It must have been Bertrand Russell if I remember correctly who explained to a layman like me what is exactly meant by philosophy. His explanation can be summed up as follows-‘science belongs to one end of the spectrum, religion belongs to the other, philosophy falls somewhere in the middle’. Doesn’t it sound vague? Let me explain further. Man even before he devised modern tools and implements to conquer nature had a deep curiosity to know about it. His quest towards nature and its workings led him to religion. The forest-dweller couldn’t master fire that sometimes burnt his habitats and left him homeless. He couldn’t master water when floods swept his villages away. So he wanted to please nature to save himself. So he started worshipping it. Nature became his God and he was its slave. He could perform some rituals and attract the attention of the Gods. He prayed for rains and sometimes he got it. He prayed to the God of Health and sometimes saved his children from epidemics and disease. But more often than not, his prayers weren’t answered properly. There was in fact, he later discovered, no direct relationship between what he had prayed for and what he had got in return. In other words, religion had been born but many of man’s questions remained unanswered. So after all, nature doesn’t believe in the ‘give-and-take’ relationship and if that is the case, what is the way to please it? Are there if I am not wrong, some other laws that govern it? Are these laws totally behind my reach? Can I try to find them out? These were his questions.

This was the point where man started stepping into the hitherto uncharted territory of ‘science’. Most religious leaders of the pre-Christ era were people who had dabbled in science as well. If I am not wrong, people like Pythagoras were not only great scientists of their era but also powerful men of religion who had occupied positions in the government as well. For more than ten centuries, science and religion had a close working relationship with one another and the reason for that was very simple- both of them had a single purpose- to understand nature and conquer it.

That’s where Russell’s definition of philosophy falls into- science makes verifiable, concrete theorizations of what is called natural phenomena while religion tries to manipulate it by performing rituals and pleasing it. In other words, science tries to engage with nature on equal terms whatever that might mean while religion is just content to bow before it. But both of them want only one thing in the end- they just want to tame nature.

You are a man of strong scientific temperament but you also trust your instincts deeply. In other words, your understanding of science many a time shall team up with your instinct and you might end up divining something that others cannot immediately understand. Or there might not be enough devices and scientific equipment that might help you verify your instinctual findings. And that’s where you end up as someone who is called a ‘philosopher’. Philosophy relies more on instinct than on scientific evidence and its often absurd to dismiss it for its subjectivity. After all, most landmark scientific theories of today, like the theory of combustion were once merely instincts that lay inside the heads of scientists for decades and only a combination of further technological advancement and the passage of time had the ability to prove them and induct these once-mystical assumptions into the pages of the later-day scientific canon.

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This Universe is made up of matter first. There was once a time when the Universe was at complete rest. It had three properties- the positive, the negative and the neutral and all three of them were in complete harmony with one another. And then at one point, the harmony broke. And that’s where the Universe had a beginning. These three properties or forces started battling against one another with a defined goal in mind- they all wanted to go back to where they all came from- the beginning where they co-existed in absolute harmony. But the harmony since then has never been within their reach and the disruptions that these three forces had created were responsible for everything that we see on this Universe today. With every passing day, these disruptions only seem to keep growing and it appears that there is going to be no end to all of this.

What I have written above is a very reductive simplification of the philosophy called Sankhya, the first school of Hindu thought. The positive force is called Sattva, the negative called Thamo, the neutral is called Rajo. If these three forces come close to what our modern scientific theories refer to as protons, neutrons and electrons, try hard not to be surprised. The Sankhya philosophy was born in India even before the birth of Jesus Christ. Recently I read a book that written by scientist Carlo Rovelli who had defined the concept of flow of time as nothing but the increase of natural entropy or disturbance. Rovelli says that the Universe right from its beginnings had been a place where its entropy had kept increasing with every passing day and modern physicists so far have had nothing to say that might deny or controvert Rovelli’s findings.

But Sankhya doesn’t stop at that. It keeps asking questions. So we have an idea that these three forces keep confronting each other keeping the Universe up and running, alright. But why did the Universe get created at first? This question even if it seems so simple today is something that has never failed to confuse modern scientists including Hawking. Sankhya after going through a lot of trouble to explain the purpose decides to stop at a point. It says there might be a force that might have created a Universe and names it Purush (Bramham). Please keep in mind that by referring to the idea of Purush, Sankhya doesn’t directly ask its readers to believe in the idea of a Creator. It only thinks aloud of the possibility very similar to what our modern scientists often try to do.

In addition, Sankhya also gives directions to its readers about how to try to reach and understand the idea of Purush. It says one must try to understand himself first by identifying the three belligerent forces inside him, the Sattva, the Damo and the Rajo and bring them into harmony. Only after he does that, he might come close to the possibility of understanding Purush. Sankhya also emphasizes on one other important point- that man has a very limited number of senses as a result of which understanding something as phenomenal as Purush might not be so easy, after all.

And that’s precisely where the second school of Hindu philosophy takes its place- Yoga. It agrees with everything that Sankhya had envisioned and gives us ways and means to attain that final goal- the Purush. It gives us a set of instructions to follow which include diet, exercising, personal discipline and moral restraint that might help us to bring all the three forces inside us into harmony. Jeyamohan mentions that early temples that sprang up all over India were built with only this purpose- they gave images and deities for us to focus our minds onto and only by focusing all our energies on a single thing, we might in turn be able to bring all our senses into submission. Once that is accomplished, the mind shall not have anything else to do but to focus onto and start observing itself. Once we start observing ourselves, Yoga says that we will be able to catch a glimpse of that wonderful idea, the Purush. If you may have learnt a bit about modern-day meditation techniques, you might know that these ideas come close to what is called ‘mindfulness’ which is described as the first step towards mastering your own mind.

The third school of philosophy called Vaishesika has a title that is self-explanatory- all things in this Universe are structurally and functionally made up of elementseach of which possess a special character- Vishesh means special. This school even goes onto refer to the idea of Atoms, a concept that modern science took centuries to arrive at.

The fourth school of Hindu philosophy called Nyaya to an extent only aids what was defined earlier. It gives methods, standards and parameters based on which ideas about the Universe were to be constructed and modelled. It tells its readers on how to make use of our senses to discern and know about something new, to compare and distinguish it from some other idea as to give this new idea its own special characteristics, to explain this to others and make them understand from different points of view and establish the new idea with incontrovertible evidence.

The fifth school called Mimamsa was the first one to introduce the idea of God or Gods and it derives a lot from the Atharvana Veda which expounds heavily on rituals and offerings. Mimamsa needless to say is the philosophy today’s consumerist Hinduism makes full use of and priests and religious institutions have had a great role in perpetuating the hegemony of it. This school in fact contradicts a lot of what the other schools had to say and in fact has single-handedly been responsible for converting Hinduism into some form of fundamentalism. This school doesn’t believe in the concept of discussions or interaction of ideas and asks its readers to blindly believe in whatever the Vedas and Smritis had to say.

The sixth school called Vedanta works on the concept of Advaita, the absence of duality. To understand this, one needs to remind himself of Dvaita- the duality of Universe and the Purush propounded by the Sankhya philosophy. Sankhya emphasized on this duality that the person who wanted to know the Universe and the Universe itself were two different things but Vedanta completely denies this. It says that both the entities are one and the same and by knowing the Universe, man only tries to know himself better. The phrases ‘Aham Brahmasmi’(I am the Universe) and ‘Thatwamsi’ (I am you) are all derived from this school of thought.

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Jeyamohan in a lot of his essays keeps emphasizing on one point- the philosophy of Hinduism is much more advanced than whatever has been written in the West. Among the six aforementioned schools of Hinduism, only Mimamsa is the one that goes against today’s science and asks us to believe in the presence of God. The remaining are all as mentioned earlier, meditations on the idea behind the Universe, its science and its curious workings. The old temples of today I reiterate were constructed centuries ago, solely for the purpose of helping the visitor to engage in meditation as to acquire mastery over himself that might help him towards the noble mission of understanding the Universe. Jeyamohan laments about how today’s temples have been desecrated by the installation of fans, air-conditioners and toilets inside, by the introduction of crammed queue systems to enable thousands of worshippers to witness the deity at the same time and how the very idea of philosophical religion has been defiled at the altar of profit. It needs no reminding to the reader that these latter-day systems of consumerist or organized religion have single-handedly been responsible for the emergence of blind hatred to religion and tradition espoused today by the Communists and the rationalists.

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Much of what I have written here is borrowed heavily from Jeyamohan’s mind-blowing book Hindu Gnana Marabin Aaru Tharisanangal (Six Visions of the Hindu Knowledge Tradition) and his numerous essays on religion and spirituality. And there is a reason why I chose this subject. As a Marxist it is quite easy and fashionable to hate whatever that is traditional and old. But the place where a Marxist works is something that has a history, a distinct culture and a singular tradition all of which are underpinned by a philosophical school of thought, no matter how weak or strong that underpinning is. And to change a society as I have mentioned in my previous essay, it is critical that he knows and understands its history really well. And the process of knowingin turn helps one to empathize with it and its background in all its complexity. And without that empathy for the society, one cannot have respect for it. One might be surprised by the fact that much of what Jeyamohan has written on Hindu Philosophy has been sourced and influenced by Marxisthistoriographers and intellectuals like D.D.Kosambi, D.P. Chattopadhyay, K. Damodaran and E.M.S.Namboodiripad.

The Hindu religion thanks to its aforementioned foundations of multi-dimensional philosophical thought has for all these years tried hard to refrain from becoming what its competitors from the West have sometimes turned into- a more or less ossified model of thinking that demands unflinching trust on its Holy books from its believers. The Hindu religion Jeyamohan reiterates has only very rarely worked on the basis of a single sacred text and any attempt in the future to refashion itself on those lines would amount to nothing less than a betrayal of it. Even the much derided caste system must be understood only on the basis of the economic conditions that prevailed in India over the centuries and some of Hinduism’s texts like Mimamsa and Manu Smriti can only be blamed  for ‘sanctioning’ the system and not for introducing it into the society as it is generally believed to be. Hinduism’s strength has always been its ability to assimilate alien cultural practices and beliefs including atheism and agnosticism and only because of that, in all the four corners of India, the religion has continued to survive and flourish in all its variety and color and of course, mind-boggling philosophical complexity.

**https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2020/07/17/readers-write-in-223-you-and-me-are-stars-wait-what/