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REFLECTIONS ON NAVYADHARMA

Professor V. V. Raman


Diversity in the Hindu World

The torch of the Hindu tradition has been carried forward over the centuries by rishis, acharyas, gurus, philosophers, texts, groups, organizations, and more. They have guided, preached, taught, reflected, formulated, modified, reformed and served the tradition in a variety of ways. The Hindu religion has never been monolithic, never followed by its countless adherents in the same way(s) all through its long history. The Hindu world has included ascetics and temple-goers, devotional singers and rigid practitioners of rituals, as well as atheists and agnostics,. Some Hindus have been among the most spiritually inclined people, and some Hindus have also made fun of pundits and pujaris, rejected the infallibility of the Vedas, and propounded materialism and hedonism. Hindus have been liberal and conservative, broad-minded and narrow, most tolerant and fanatical also. The religion we call Hinduism is more accommodating of such diversity within its fold than any other system in human history. One of the reasons why all this has been possible is because the religion never had an institutionalized framework, and it never chose a leader who was invested with the authority to speak for one and all. The founding sages of the Hindu world realized that when it comes to spiritual truths, it is a matter of self-discovery rather than doctrinal pronouncements.

This is not to say that the religion is a free for all with no rules or regulations. Rather, it has a great many sects and sub-sects, often initiated by a revered personage such as a rishi, AchArya, guru, swAmiji, or bAbA, each interpreting the ancient visions in his or her own way. Practicing Hindus may follow one or more of these spiritual masters, past or living, or they might accept none of them, and simply have their own house-hold deity (ishTadevata) or mode of worship.

Commonalty in the Hindu World

Even in the context of such freedom, there are certain doctrinal beliefs to which most Hindus subscribe, certain divine representations which most Hindus revere, and certain ritualistic customs which most Hindus practice. Among the major doctrinal beliefs of Hinduism is the law of karma and the associated thesis of reincarnation, by which every consequential action will bear fruit sooner or later, in this or in a future life. The divine representations of the Hindu world include GaNeSa, BrahmA and Sarasvati, Siva and PArvati, VishNu and Lakshmi. Traditional Hindu practices include visitation to places of pilgrimage, observance of periodic fasts and festivals, separation by birth-based caste, spiritual initiation for certain castes, and the like.

The caste-framework has provoked much criticism all through the ages. As a social institution, class stratification is certainly not unique to the Hindu world. In practically all classical cultures there have been class divisions, often determined by birth. Even the rigid confinement to a caste and lack of mobility has its parallels elsewhere. But what is unique and (to the modern mind) unacceptable is that the system denies, or used to deny, the right to enter temples or to hear the sacred scriptures to certain members of the Hindu family. Fortunately, these rights have been given to one and all Hindus by the laws that have come into force in modern India. More importantly, a great many enlightened Hindus, both lay and religious, have rejected the dehumanizing elements in the caste system (which is social rather than religious), and many Hindu groups and organizations have been working hard for more than a century to eradicate these.

Aside from it moral abhorrence, an unfortunate consequences of the marginalization of the lower castes is that many of them have been lured to other religions where, in principle, all are treated with equal dignity.

New Perspectives

Another feature of the Hindu world is that there can be different perspectives on doctrines and tradition. This has been so all through the long and rich history of the Hinduism. Indeed, this is the cause for different schools of thought, different sects, and different darSanas. It would be naïve to think we can all convince one another and live in perfect doctrinal harmony. Perhaps that would even be boring.

While we must feel free to state what we think on these weighty issues, we should also listen with respect and sensitivity to what others have to say. Ultimately, everyone should be guided by the inner light of one's own conscience.

It is not enough to repeat the time-honored interpretations of old wisdom on every issue so as to preserve every utterance in the writings of our ancestors. The challenge to Hindus today is that we need to look for new ways of looking at ancient insights, and also search for new avenues, explore new ideas, unspoken in the world of history because the context was not there. It is very likely that Vedic sages would recommend such a course.

It is neither necessary nor relevant to be defensive about every Sloka and mantra, every purANic episode and ShAstric injunction. If we find something unacceptable in a sacred book, it is better to ignore it than to defend it with contrived reasoning or pseudo-scientific sophistry. To say that we can understand the inner truths of certain untenable aphorisms in ancient writings only when we attain brahma-jñAna may not be persuasive to some who wish to think on their own.

In every culture where reflective men and women have discourse, tension has always existed between the new (navya) and old (purANa) modes, and this will continue for as long as there is freedom of _expression. The upholders of the purANa-perspectives serve to preserve whatever is best and perennial in the tradition. The activists of the navya-mode help it grow in newer contexts that arise from the emerging forces of history. As long as neither one overpowers or silences the other, the culture will not stagnate. When we adopt a truly navya mode, we honor and serve our tradition, not disrespect it.

The navya approach, as I see it, is simply this: There are pearls of wisdom in the SAstras, which we must preserve and make relevant in the modern world. But there is also much that needs to be modified, if not discarded. More importantly, many changes have occurred in human history and society, in scientific knowledge and global values over the ages. We need to take these into account in the appraisal and adoption of our religious framework. Or else, we will be doomed to uncreative stagnation.

We may never be able to convince all Hindus that not everything in the SAstras is God given. But some Hindus choose to incorporate appropriate changes in a system that could still be Hindu in the best sense of the term. If we decry every call for reform and every new perspective as arising from Eurocentric indoctrination, we will be driving away independent thinkers from our fold, and enlightened Hindu children may move away from their heritage. They may not all become Christian or Muslim, but they may lose respect or attachment for their own heritage.

NAVYADHARMI

From these considerations I would describe a navya-shastric Hindu or NavyadharmI in the following terms:

1. All who are born of Hindu parents and/or subscribe to the universality of humanity have the right to be called NavyadharmIs.

2. NavyadharmIs respect the beliefs and practices of all Hindu sects and subsects, but they do not share those aspects of the tradition which deny people rights on the basis of caste and gender.

3. NavyadharmIs respect all religious paths as valid modes for spiritual fulfillment as long as these don't consciously hurt or harm other such paths.

4. NavyadharmIs recognize that human beings are born with different talents and tendencies which each must nurture and develop according to one's inborn inclinations.

5. In particular, some are given to intellectual pursuits (jñana mArga), some to actions (karma mArga), and some to modes wherein feelings play a much stronger role (bhaktimArga).

6. NavyadharmIs do not judge fellow humans, and certainly not their fellow Hindus, nor discriminate against them on the basis of caste or creed, but on what they do and how they treat others.

7. NavyadharmIs believe that the doors of Hindu temples must be open to people of all castes and faiths as along as reverence is shown to the sanctum of the temple.

8. NavyadharmIs wish to see all Hindus - men and women of all castes - to be given spiritual initiation at an appropriate age. The initiation will include introduction to certain values and doctrines deriving from Hindu sages, through mantras which will be uttered in Sanskrit, or in any other language, including English.

9. NavyadharmIs will celebrate DivAli (DIpAvaLi), the Festival of Lights, giving it any interpretation of their choice, always symbolizing the triumph of Light over Darkness, of Good over Evil, of Knowledge over Ignorance, of Justice over Injustice.

10. NavyadharmIs believe that every human being is a spark of the same Brahman -the spiritual undercurrent of the Cosmos- and that one of the goals of life is the recognition and internalization of this truth.

Concluding Thoughts

The world is in a flux such as seldom before in human history. India and Hinduism are also at a turning point in their history. A powerful movement has begun to re-discover the treasures of India's past: its culture and history and religion, which have all experienced major impacts over the ages as a result of external forces, intrusions, and influences. Most of these impacts have been hurtful, but there have also been some unintended benefits.

It is time to set the record straight, to correct the misrepresentations of Hindu culture and civilization, and to reaffirm Indian cultural identity. In the process it is important not to be obsessed too much with the past, and to recognize that in the newly emerging seamless world, we cannot afford to be too separate. India may be grateful to her scientists and technologists who, though basing themselves on Western Science and Technology, are transforming her from an ancient agrarian society into a modern industrialized nation.

Likewise, major changes are also occurring in the religious sphere. Here too we need new visions and perspectives, which must be formulated without abandoning the sturdy and time-tested roots of the past. When this task is completed by the efforts and commitment of the countless children of Indic heritage, both within India and beyond her shores, there will emerge a renewed and reinvigorated civilization which will be brighter than what she has ever been before. In this new phase, the best of the past would have merged with the best of the present.

Those dedicated to Navayshastra are striving to make their contributions towards the goal, and I wish them every success.


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