The Paradox of the Ideal
Ma himsyat sarva bhutani,
hurt no creature, is a central dictum of Sanatana Hindu Dharma,
which considers ahimsa as parama, or supreme, dharma.
According to Bhagavan Vyasa, 'Ahimsa is to abstain from injuring
any being, at any time and in any manner. Truth and other
forms of restraints and observances are based on the spirit
of non-injury. They, being the means of fulfilment of non-injury,
have been recommended in the shastras for establishing ahimsa.'
Ahimsa (panatipata veramani
in Pali) is the first of the five moral precepets, panca-shila,
incumbent upon all Buddhists who have taken the trisharana,
the vows of triple refuge. The pranatipata viramana vrata
of Jaina laymen is also very elaborate: 'I will desist from
destroying all great lives such as Trasa jiva (i.e. lives
of two, three, four and five senses), either knowingly or
intentionally. Е As long as I live I shall not myself kill;
nor cause others to kill; nor will I kill by mind, speech
or body.' (2) The Jaina code of conduct includes prescriptions
(like avoiding eating after sunset) to aid the fulfilment
of the vow of ahimsa.
Pragmatic opinion, however,
tells us that ahimsa in the absolute sense is an impossibility.
In the words of Swami Brahmananda:
You understand its significance
only when you have attained samadhi, when you have reached
enlightenment and have seen God in all creatures. Until
then no amount of talk helps us. Е You may talk of not killing
any creature but can you possibly avoid killing? What would
you eat? Potatoes? Plant that potato underground, it shoots
forth young sprouts. Has the potato no life? Е You must
breathe to live. Yet with every breath you kill millions
of creatures. (3)
proponents of ahimsa are also vigorous promoters of vegetarianism.
But Manu terms agriculture pramrita, pre-eminent in
loss of life, (4) for tilling causes the death of numerous
burrowing creatures. (5)
Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beautiful ethical passages
in the Bible. It is, however, a counsel of perfection, and
few Christians believe in one's ability to be perfect during
an entire lifetime; and so these exhortations are taken as
only ideals to be looked up to. Other interpreters suggest
that Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of heaven being at
hand meant that these precepts were to be obeyed only for
a short time.
St. Francis of Assisi, the poverello
('poor little man'), is one of the most loved and venerated
of Christian saints. He initiated the movement of evangelical
poverty with the rule that prohibited his followers from having
any private possessions. Yet, St Francis had to himself whittle
down this rule, much against his own wishes, to suit other
Franciscans, and after his demise the conventual Franciscans
undertook further revisions of the rule to suit modern community
Islam is the one religious movement
wherein the spiritual and socio-political aspects of the lives
of its followers are considered inextricably linked from the
very beginning; for in Islam the religious community, ummah,
is commissioned by Allah to form a society based on the value
systems divinely ordained in the Quran. Since the revelation
of the Quran was complete with the demise of Muhammad, the
rules of social governance in Islamic societies have also
remained fixed, for unlike secular laws, these rules cannot
be altered to suit one's current needs. To confirm modern
social practices to the ideal of the Quran is a vexed issue
in all modern Islamic societies.
The aforementioned instances
highlight the paradox of the ideal: the ideals of ahimsa,
of moral perfection, of non-possession, and of a divine society
appeal to our hearts, but we are bound to ask the very next
moment - is it practicable?
What is Practicality?
Pragmatic and utilitarian motives
are often assumed to be the basis of our commonsensical, rational
behaviour. Our pragmatic self judges the validity of an idea
or a proposed course of action by asking two questions: (1)
Is it workable? Can we put the idea into practice in our workaday
world? (2) Is it of any use, or, do the ends suit us? Conversely,
if we set our minds on some end we take praticality to lie
in the achievement of that end, by whatever possible expedient.
Getting things done and achieving results, then, is the common
conception of practicality.
It is in the formulation of
our ends that we take into account utilitarian concerns that
judge the validity of goals by the amount of happiness they
are likely to yield. Happiness or pleasure may vary in quality
from gross sensual pleasures to the subtle spiritual ones,
but the quest for ananda, or happiness, is universally acknowledged
by philosophers and psychologists as the prime determinant
of our actions.
summing up these propositions we can conclude that we are
likely to act in ways that are the easiest means to happiness,
or, in more commonplace idiom, that which we like and can
do, is practical. Unfortunately, we run into problems when
we interpret happiness and expedients only in sensual and
material terms. Vedanta points out that both happiness and
will are derivatives of Consciousness, for only conscious
entities possess these attributes. Any effort, therefore,
at pursuit of happiness, without reference to one's inherent
Consciousness, is only likely to end in a travesty of the
same. By the same token, we look for external contrivances
only when we are unaware of our own Self as the perennial
and inexhaustible internal source of power that not only initiates
all our actions, but is also waiting to be tapped.
pragmatism lies in our tapping our own internal source of
power and happiness and in putting these derivatives to efficient
use. Being aware of our own resources is the first step in
this process. Simple awareness of our internal selves can
be profoundly transformative for two reasons: (1) This awareness,
of necessity, focuses our minds, and a focused mind is a spontaneous
conduit of the power and bliss of Atman that are waiting to
be manifested. The empirical efficacy of the techniques of
mindfulness and choiceless awareness are dependent on this
fact. (2) True knowledge is in itself a source of power, for
it is knowledge that is transformed into the will that determines
our actions. Thus if technological advancements are the pragmatic
tests of the validity of scientic knowledge, they must needs
be preceded by the discoveries of pure science.
awareness brings us to the realm of ideas, and the power of
valid ideas and ideals. In making available the Vedantic truth
of the Upanishads to the masses, Swami Vivekananda was banking
on the power of Self-awareness to invigorate and empower them.
'This Atman is first to be heard of,' said Swamiji, echoing
the exhortation of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
Hear day and night that you
are that Soul. Е Let the whole body be full of that one
ideal, 'I am the birthless, the deathless, the blissful,
the omniscient, the omnipotent, ever-glorious Soul.' Е Meditate
upon it, and out of that will come work. 'Out of the fullness
of the heart the mouth speaketh,' and out of the fullness
of the heart the hand worketh also. Action will come. Fill
yourselves with the ideal; whatever you do, think well on
it. All your actions will be magnified, transformed, deified,
by the very power of thought. If matter is powerful, thought
is omnipotent. (6)
Do We Actually Practice?
Narayanan is a Professor of Religion at the University of
Florida. Participating in a debate on valid representations
of Hinduism (the seminar was titled 'Who Speaks for Hinduism?')
in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion,
years ago, when I first came as a graduate student to the
Centre for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University,
a fellow student down the corridor kindly loaned me a few
introductory textbooks on the Hindu tradition. I read them
with considerable interest, and when I returned them, he
asked me what I thought of them. With some hesitation -
this was my first week at Harvard - I replied that none
of them discussed some important features of the tradition.
When asked to expand, I said
the first thing that came to my mind: 'Food,' I said and
continued, 'my grandmother always made the right kind of
lentils for our festivals. The auspicious kind. We make
certain vegetables and lentils for happy and celebratory
holy days and others for the inauspicious ceremonies like
ancestral rites and death rituals. And none of the books
mentioned auspicious and inauspicious times.'
'Oh,' said my new friend,
Disconcerted at having my
grandmother's practice of what I thought of as a religious
life being so dismissed as 'anthropological stuff' and mindful
that this was Harvard, I quickly changed the topic and asked
him what he was studying.
'Religion,' he said briefly
and added, 'the Vedas.'
We were on, or so I thought,
a safe topic. I did know one or two of the hymns that were
an integral part of rituals at home and temples. I could
even recite some of the verses with the right intonation.
So I happily pressed him for details.
'I'm working on Vrtra now,'
My heart sank - I had never
heard of Vrtra before. I did muster up the courage to ask
him about Vrtra - maybe Vrtra was known by some other name.
The student proceeded to tell me the story of Vrtra, the
dragon-monster that held the rain clouds until Indra finally
plunged into its belly and set the rain free.
'That is Hinduism?' I asked
'No,' he replied seriously,
'that is the Rig Veda.'Е
The Hindu tradition, like
many other religions, is complex, and diglossia is rampant.
There are clear distinctions between androcentric Sanskrit
texts and practice. Е None of this was wrong; it was just
that the epic stories, the variations of the stories, the
varieties of devotional activity, the celebrations of festivals,
and the fuss about food seem far more important than doctrine
and philosophy in the practice of Hindu traditions.' (7)
very point had earlier been made by Prof A L Basham, the editor
of A Cultural History of India, when he decided to
add a postscript to Dr Radhakrishnan's essay on Hinduism written
for that book. Basham wrote:
do not intend to disparage the Hinduism of the intellectual
and the mystic, the Hinduism of the kind expounded by Professor
Radhakrishnan. But let us remember the other Hinduism, the
Hinduism of the artist and poet, with its rich mythology
and legend, the Hinduism of the simple man, with its faith,
its ritual, its temples, and its sacred images. Both are
parts of India's heritage, and it is impossible to pronounce
objectively on their relative merits or importance; but
there is little doubt which has the more strongly affected
the majority of the inhabitants of the subcontinent for
more than 2000 years. (8)
his 'Paper on Hinduism' at the 1893 Chicago Parliament of
Religions, Swami Vivekananda had taken a much wider view of
Hinduism than that evoked by Basham: 'From the high flights
of the Vedanta philosophy, Е to the low ideas of idolatry
with its multifarious mythology, the agnosticism of the Buddhists,
and the atheism of the Jains, each and all have a place in
the Hindu's religion.' (9) The life of Sri Ramakrishna and
its portrayal in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna capture
this comprehensive compass of Hinduism. But this diversity
is not confined to Hinduism alone. Swamiji had pointed out
that every religion had three parts: philosophy, mythology,
and ritual. (10) He also observed that 'spiritual giants have
been produced only in those systems of religion where there
is an exuberant growth of rich mythology and ritualism.' (3.44)
Sri Ramakrishna also has, through his own spiritual experiences,
testified to the validity of all these religious forms and
expressions as aids to the goal of God-realization, the ultimate
purpose of all religions.
the Ideal Practicable?
Narayanan is not the first to read a clear-cut dichotomy between
the putative philosophy and praxis of Hinduism, and to suggest
privileging the latter in order to get a true picture of the
ground realities of this religion. Some scholars of religion
working in the West, like Frits Staal and Balagangadhara have
even suggested that the Hindu traditions being praxis oriented
and not belief centred, the word religion has been
wrongly applied to them.
privileging of praxis is understandable, for the maze of 'intricate
mythology' and 'queer and startling psychology' interpenetrating
the myriad forms of Hindu practices are bound to attract greater
attention than 'dry philosophy', from both practitioners and
observers alike. But to overlook the beliefs, faith systems,
and thought processes that underlie these ritual forms is
to mistake the chaff for the grain. In cooking the auspicious
kind of lentils, young Vasudha's grandmother was certainly
moved by specific 'notions' of auspiciousness rather than
the nature or taste of the lentils. Similarly, in meticulously
carrying out ancestral and death rituals she was only acting
out her (and Hinduism's) philosophy of transmigration and
life after death; and the presence of her ancestors was no
less real to her than the lentils she was cooking. What is
remarkable about Hinduism, then, is not the exoticism of its
manifold practices, but the absence of institutional indoctrination
and dogmatic rigidity that has allowed the flowering of a
rich plurality of forms - with allowance for individual choice
- all of which reflect certain fundamental attitudes and modes
of thought and belief.
publication of Sister Nivedita's celebrated work The Web
of Indian Life a hundred years ago had caused a great
stir. A whole host of Eastern and Western newspapers and periodicals
were divided among themselves in either applauding or bitterly
criticizing the work. To The Detroit Free Press
it was an epoch-making work, 'for in it the inner life of
the Indian woman, the life below the surface, the ideals,
the mainsprings of action, the aspirations, hopes and all
the mysticism of the East, and the reality of the Unseen'
had been 'set forth, as has never been done before, by a Western
woman imbued with a spirit of reverent sympathy.' The Church
Times held a diametrically opposite view: 'In The Web
of Indian Life the authoress lets herself go, so to say,
with entire abandon, to give us a couleur de rose picture
of Indian life and thought. Е It is all pure undiluted optimism.
Е It is the suppression of the other side of the picture that
we deprecate in the interest, not only of the truth, but of
the cause of Indian women themselves.' (11) Rabindranath Tagore's
opinion, as set forth in the introduction to the 1918 edition
of the book, is illuminating and instructive:
Because she [Sister Nivedita]
had a comprehensive mind and extraordinary insight of love
she could see the creative ideals at work behind our social
forms and discover our soul that has living connexion with
its past and is marching towards its fulfilment.
But Sister Nivedita, being
an idealist, saw a great deal more than is usually seen
by those foreigners who can only see things, but not truths.
Е The mental sense, by the help of which we feel the spirit
of a people, is like the sense of sight, or of touch - it
is a natural gift. Е Those who have not this vision merely
see events and facts, and not their inner association. Those
who have no ear for music, hear sound, but not the song.
Е Facts can easily be arranged and heaped up into loads
of contradiction; yet men having faith in the reality of
ideals hold firmly that the vision of truth does not depend
upon its dimension, but upon its vitality. And Sister Nivedita
has uttered the vital truths about Indian life. (12)
Swami Gambhiranandaji Maharaj's erudite exposition of 'Vedanta
in Practice', that concludes in this issue, highlights the
pragmatic nature of Vedic instruction. Satyakama, for instance,
is the typical marginal subaltern, being of unknown parentage.
He picks up brahmavidya, not through recitation of the Vedas,
or through explicit vichara, or formal meditation, but simply
through the process of tending to his guru's cows. Truthfulness
and shraddha are clearly more important prerequisites for
brahmavidya than formal instruction about the nature of Brahman.
Similarly, success in Purusha Yajna is dependent solely on
transformation of one's outlook upon life and one's attitude
towards the details of our activities of daily living.
Gandhi's programmes of satyagraha and ahimsa are also telling
examples of the pragmatic power of ideals that are backed
by belief. His concept of trusteeship derived from the Gita
provides a practical method of practicing non-possession,
or aparigraha, even within a consumerist society. His
genius in interpreting important philosophical concepts and
contextualizing them to current needs, as highlighted in Dr
Sumita Roy's essay 'Discourse and Pragmatism: A Gandhian Perspective',
was crucial to the remarkable success of his ideas and efforts.
Similar reinterpretations through ijtihad (individual
opinion), qiyas (analogical reasoning) and ijma
(consenus opinion of scholars) are being evoked to confirm
Islamic society to modern life currents, and regular theological
revisions have helped Christianity remain the major religion
of modern Western society.
ordinary individuals burdened by the cares of daily life,
Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi provides the perfect example of
how high ideals can be actualized through and amidst mundane
chores. This is the theme of Br Ajatachaitanyaji and Sri M
M Barik's article. For one Sarada Devi exemplifying the ideal
of Indian womanhood, there are innumerable other women trying
their best, knowingly or unknowingly, to live up to their
ideals. It is in and through this effort at practical idealism
that Hinduism, or for that matter any religion, finds it sustenance.
Vyasa's commentary on Yoga Sutras, 2.30.
Sinclair Stevenson, The Heart of Jainism (New Delhi:
Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984), 206-7.
Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion (Hollywood:
Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1944), 105-6.
Manu Samhita, 4.5.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.302.
Vasudha Narayanan, 'Diglossic Hinduism: Liberation and Lentils'
in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, December
A Cultural History of India, ed. A L Basham (Delhi:
Oxford University Press, 1975), 82.
The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, 5 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1988), 2. x-xi.