A country in search of a national identity

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Trailblazer Swami Vivekananda brought up the rearguard of the Bengal Renaissance, a period of extraordinary intellectual ferment, Photo Courtesy : vivekananda.org
Trailblazer Swami  Vivekananda brought up the rearguard of the Bengal Renaissance, a period of extraordinary intellectual ferment, Photo Courtesy : vivekananda.org

It was 1895 in New York City, in one of scientist Nikola Tesla’s two laboratories on Long Island or Sixth Avenue. The Indian man with the piercing eyes and a fearless, wide-open face was dressed in flowing robes in bright ochre.

The man’s eyes glowed with compelling intensity, seeming to radiate from a point somewhere above his head, drawing the air around him closer, condensing the space in the room.

There is no record of Swami Vivekananda’s meeting with Tesla, the Serbian-American genius who beat the great Thomas Edison at his own game during the first heady days of electricity.

But we know that the meeting did happen. We also know what transpired. It is easy enough to imagine the details: there are several accounts of the effect the young Swami’s magnetic personality had on those he encountered.

“Mr Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy. I am to go and see him next week to get mathematical demonstration. (If he is able to do so) Vedantic cosmology will be placed on the surest of foundations,” Vivekananda wrote to a British admirer late in 1895.

The attempt failed because, though Tesla grasped that mass must decrease as speed increased, he thought the one “converted” into the other, instead of both being identical in some unknown way, as different expressions of one reality. It was not until Albert Einstein’s paper on relativity in 1905 that this startling concept found scientific expression.

Scientists are also finding that the observer can affect the state of phenomena simply by the act of observation, bringing up the old subject-object conundrum that was just the starting point of Vedanta, or the Hindu system of non-dual philosophy.

Vedanta’s assertion that the world is maya or “unreal” is based upon this subject-object paradox: The object-world of sense perception, according to its rigorous logic, does not have objective existence apart from the subject who perceives it.

Scholars are in agreement that Vivekananda, who first explained Vedanta to lay audiences in the New World (it was known to European philosophers and influenced German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer), brought up the rearguard of the Bengal Renaissance, a period of extraordinary intellectual ferment that framed the terms of India’s very first encounter with modernity.

It is tempting to regard Independence as the beginning of the second phase of modernity, but this can be misleading: Independence was actually a product of the same intellectual forces unleashed in 19th-century Calcutta.

It is not until the late 1980s and early-’90s, with liberalisation, that the second phase of India’s modernity truly began, setting in motion myriad economic, social and cultural forces still playing out today.

But compared to the first phase, this one is like a leap into the dark with blindfolds, with no cultural markers or national cohesion. It is being driven by nothing but the virile, too-long-dormant longings of an educated middle class, suffused with ability but hampered by bad leadership.

They are leapfrogging developmental milestones with cell phones instead of cumbersome, expensive landlines. Online railway booking has replaced touts and queue lines with living spit on the floor. They are like a hungry man at the food court of a glitzy new mall.

Like during the Renaissance, the current phase of rapid change is being propelled by the middle and upper classes, with the entrepreneurial class playing a much larger role than before. But that is only part of the story: Unlike then, Indian identity today is being violently wrenched from its Hindu roots.

The great reformer Raja Rammohun Roy, who famously fought the barbaric practice of sati during the Bengal Renaissance, reached back into the Upanishads for religious legitimacy.

As the founder of the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, he drew upon the infinite, inexpressible conception of the divine or the Advaitic Brahman, to argue for the need to eliminate exploitative ritual and superstition, thus building a living bridge to the roots of Hinduism.

Today, the intelligentsia vigorously disavows these roots, thus separating itself from the masses at large, perhaps losing an opportunity to harness a common national spirit or purpose. In the era of television evangelism, spiritual gurus, shamans and sundry unsavoury characters readily fill this vacuum. Their teachings sometimes have little basis in Hindu scripture.

The intellectuals’ reflexive distrust of religion is intuitive in the climate of scientific rationalism: a belief in “god” is seen as evidence of ignorance, a blind spot or a shameful secret like a skin disease — to be covered up and nursed in private.

The tide of human affairs in the past century has certainly not helped either. The stream of progressive thought worldwide has steadily moved Left since World War II and the Nazi excesses that caused it. There has been a distrust of nationalism based on ethnic, racial or religious identities as a direct consequence of the Holocaust.

Closer home, the trauma of Partition, when religious riots claimed over a million lives, set the secular leadership against religion, in much the same way as the Crusades did in western Europe long ago.

The sheer barbarity of the violence seems to have overwhelmed public consciousness. It was not until television dramas such as Buniyaad and Tamas, made in the nascent questioning spirit of the late-’80s, that India felt itself sufficiently at a distance to face it.

In the interim, the concept of Hinduness became incredibly warped, superficially tied to one political party that grew out of forces thrown up by the trauma of Partition. The well-intentioned secular mainstream press has, perhaps unwittingly, stoked the frenzy.

Hero worship Calling Swami Vivekananda the central icon of India’s new Hindu nationalist rulers has only ended up pigeonholing the religious icon
Hero worship Calling Swami Vivekananda the central icon of India’s new Hindu nationalist rulers has only ended up pigeonholing the religious icon, Photo: AFP

Writing in The New York Times (24 October) writer Pankaj Mishra quotes Nobel laureate VS Naipaul to denounce the “apocalyptic Hindu terms” of such “19th-century religious revivalists as Swami Vivekananda”. Mishra also calls Vivekananda “the central icon of India’s new Hindu nationalist rulers”.

While this is not an unfamiliar theme post-Independence, and has perhaps done more good than harm by keeping a lid on religious passions after Partition’s brutal legacy, it has little basis in history and none in Hindu thought.

It is also an idea that can be relegated to a traumatic past. At best, it salves the conscience of an elite. And serves to strengthen a political party by ascribing to it the fruits of a long, spiritual and intellectual tradition that is unparalleled anywhere in the world, except in ancient Greece.

In fact, this long intellectual tradition has nourished all points of view: theistic, atheistic, humanist, non-violent, agnostic, materialistic and anything else in between. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, another intellectual from Bengal, so lovingly illustrates in his 2005 book, The Argumentative Indian, discursive abstraction is in the national character.

It needs no special wisdom to understand that being Indian today cannot exclude everything Hindu only because it is Hindu. Not only would such a construction be false, it will also allow reactionary forces to exploit Hinduism for political ends.

In actual fact, Hinduism is as secular as religion can get without becoming irreligious. It is alone among the great religions of the world to not require an implicit or explicit declaration of faith among its “adherents”.

Unlike Judaism, Christianity or Islam, it does not require a “leap of faith”. Instead, it arrives at god through logic and direct, subjective experience. It is, however, more theistic than Buddhism.

As Vivekananda declared during his famous Chicago address, Hinduism “accepts all religions as true”, as being different paths to suit different temperaments and attributes. Hence, “Hindu supremacy” is a logical absurdity.

It is also important to stress that this sentiment of egalitarianism is not inferred or derivative in any way. It is stated again and again in religious texts. Vivekananda’s teacher Ramakrishna himself provided powerful personal validation, claiming to have practised Islam and Christian “sadhana” or “religious effort” and found them “true”.

That religion evokes unmatched passion and is fused to personal identity at a visceral level has long been known, but it is useful to set religious conflict in its original context: between the “People of the Book” or between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three religions share a common cosmology (Genesis) and trace their origins to one man, the patriarch Abraham.

Interestingly, all three are known as “monotheistic” faiths, though they are not as unsparingly monotheistic as Advaita. More, the conflicts between them can be traced back to their differing degrees of monotheistic purity.

Judaism, in which the human conception of Godhead is forbidden, can be seen as similar to the Advaitic notion of Brahman as unknowable, beyond reason and human ability to grasp.

Ironically, Judaism is closer to Islam than to Christianity from the monotheistic viewpoint despite an opposite political alliance in the real world. Music, for example, is forbidden in Islam as a vehicle to describe or commune with the Infinite because of the imperfect human agency it employs.

It is in the same spirit that Jews are forbidden from uttering the name of the Supreme Being. Both Judaism and Islam reject Christianity’s claim of Jesus Christ’s divinity for identical reasons, though both acknowledge his status as a prophet.

But religion’s role in public life, including whether it should have any at all, has always been a fraught one. Only Mahatma Gandhi had the authority and courage to employ it as an instrument in political action. However, the jury is still out on whether he lost control of the narrative.

The tension between the State, religion and secular thought throws up interesting dynamics around the world: at one end is Saudi Arabia where religious involvement extends to an ongoing debate on whether women should be allowed to drive.

Speaking on State television recently, an “Islamic researcher” claimed that women should not be allowed to drive because “menstruation and pregnancy” and “internal psychological factors” made them unable to “cope with pressure”.

At the other end are Europe and, paradoxically, Israel. Europe is so secular that religion is not even part of the mainstream conversation anymore. But a sort of powerless, undifferentiating freedom of expression has allowed radical preaching to go unchallenged. Partly as a result, Europe’s extremist problem is severe and growing.

Israel, however, is caught on the horns of a severe contradiction: As a Jewish State, it is tied to the “historical” homeland of the Jews. At the same time, as a secular State, it does not allow Jewish devotees to pray at the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish Temple.

In between are a number of other States such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Mexico and Indonesia, among others, where religion plays a role, sometimes officially. In Pakistan, the constitution has a “repugnancy clause” that prohibits “un-Islamic” laws from being enacted.

In Turkey, a majority Muslim country and a European Union outlier, there is a schizophrenic quality to national identity, which somewhat resembles India’s. The Turks, who straddle Europe and Asia, want to belong to the West and seek to measure up to European ideals of humanism and freedom. But the tension between the secular intelligentsia and Islamist leadership has sharpened recently with Turkey’s covert support to Islamic State militants.

The one big exception to the western trend to sanitise public life from religion is the US, which closely holds to an identity forged upon “Judeo-Christian values”. The US was also the first in the world to codify the equality of all religions. The US pledge of allegiance is sworn to “one nation under god”. The US Senate has its own chaplain who leads the house in prayer before each session is opened. Occasionally, Senate members invite religious leaders of other faiths to deliver the invocation. And all politicians running for office, even liberal ones, attest to their personal faith.

In his NYT article, Mishra blames a kind of revisionist racial animus among the “fully global Hindu middle class” who, he maintains, feel “frustrated in their demand for higher status from white westerners”.

If so, it is perhaps because they feel entitled to a higher status “despite” their brown skin. After all, America was discovered because Columbus was a bad sailor. Otherwise, history would have been poorer but he would have returned home a rich man.

In many ways, the Indian spirit is closer to the American spirit than to the unimaginative, mercantile British one or the overly ornate Muslim sensibility that conquerors brought. India has always nurtured the individual, a fundamental American value. It also has a talent for abstraction.

The religious goal of life itself, according to the Hindu ideal, is to “realise” god, an intensely individualistic endeavour. Even “service to others” is enjoined by Hinduism only because it aids the individual’s progress.

Besides, ideas have always had a free market in India: the number of sects that flourished here are legion. India has also always welcomed repressed minorities, beginning with the Jews after their temple was demolished. Zoroastrians, Christians, Ismailis and Tibetans have all found refuge.

To lump Hinduism with the BJP is, to use a disagreeable and un-Indian simile, like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And to reduce Vivekananda to a BJP poster-child is like trying to tether an elephant to a matchstick.

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