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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | April 2005  

 

 

 

 

 

            Practical Idealism



        Swami Satyaswarupananda

 

 

 


     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.' (1)


     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)


     The 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)


     The 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 life.


     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.


     By 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.


     Genuine 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.


     This 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)

 


     What Do We Actually Practice?

 

 


     Vasudha 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, she wrote:


     Several 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, 'anthropological stuff.'


     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,' he said.


     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 incredulously.


     '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)


     This 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:


     We 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)


     In 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.

 

 


     Is the Ideal Practicable?

 

 


     Vasudha 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.


     This 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.


     The 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)


     Srimat 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.


     Mahatma 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.


     To 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.

 

 

 


     References


     1. Vyasa's commentary on Yoga Sutras, 2.30.
     2. Sinclair Stevenson, The Heart of Jainism (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984), 206-7.
     3. Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion (Hollywood: Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1944), 105-6.
     4. Manu Samhita, 4.5.
     5. Ibid., 10.84.
     6. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.302.
     7. Vasudha Narayanan, 'Diglossic Hinduism: Liberation and Lentils' in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, December 2000, 761-2.
     8. A Cultural History of India, ed. A L Basham (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1975), 82.
     9. CW, 1.6.
     10. CW 1.72.
     11. The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, 5 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1988), 2. x-xi.
     12. Ibid., 245-6.

 

 


 

       





International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015


 

 

 

 

 

 


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