The most ancient religion in the world unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam, just grew on its own, based not on any prophet, priest or king, but on dharma?that which upholds?and hence was for a long time known as Sanatana Dharma, that which has kept a people together from ancient times. Dharma provided for a stable society because it was acceptable as a way to lead a meaningful life. Dharma was not something imposed: its validity was self-evident. Sri Aurobindo, that great savant, described Hinduism as ?Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion, which has been perfected by countless rishis and avatars to uplift humanity.?
Though Manu, in his own way, attempted to systematise Hinduism, the strength of Sanatana Dharma was its flexibility; it grew with the times, constantly adjusting itself to changing circumstances which, one suspects, in why no other religion has been able to crush it, despite heavy attempts by alien forces, notably Islam and Christianity.
As S.K. Kulkarni notes in his excellent study of the triumphs and tribulations that Hinduism has undergone in course of time, the survival of any civilisation depends on two major factors: the first is whether its basic philosophy is sound in all aspects and the second is whether that philosophy has given its people the moral and spiritual strength to sustain and push forward against all odds. On both counts Hinduism comes through as the ultimate winner despite over five thousand years of internal dissidence and external attacks. How did Hinduism manage to survive and grow?
Kulkarni divides his study of Hinduism into five parts: Origin and Evolution, Casteism and Untouchability, Idol Worship, Religious Conversions and Secularism. In regard to Evolution, attention has to be paid to the birth and subsequent growth of Jainism and Buddhism which, in their way, gave fresh meaning to dharma. Kulkarni reminds us that Jainism represents a continuation of the Vedic stream from which Buddha also sprang. But even more significant is his statement that regardless of controversial or debatable points on the relation between Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, one thing is certain: all three were born and evolved of the fertile spiritual soil of India and share a common bond. There is really no need to fight over whether Jainism and Buddhism are merely a form of protestant Hinduism or are independent philosophic entities.
According to AL Basham, whom Kulkarni quotes, the average Hindu during the medieval period looked on Buddha as the ninth of Vishnu'sten incarnations, Buddhism itself losing its individuality to become ?a special and rather unorthodox Hindus sect, which like many others, did not survive?. As Kulkarni puts it, ?in the ultimate analysis, it is the people'sperception that matters.? Kulkarni may not be aware of it but Gauri Vishwanathan, writing in the Blackwell Companion to Hinduism refers to a statement by Dr. BR Ambedkar to the effect that untounchability was a result of the refusal of Buddhists to reconvert to Hinduism and has nothing to do with their social inequality, an interesting evaluation that calls for further elucidation.
Kulkarni'sown assessment is that ?untouchability is like a disease which is difficult though not impossible to cure?. Kulkarni quotes Swami Vivekananda whom he described as ?an orthodox Hindu? as saying that untouchability is a ?superstitious accretion?, that it is not Hinduism, nor is it mentioned in any of Hinduism'ssacred texts and is ?a form of mental disease?! The chapter on Idol Worship is a short but excellent study of how it came about, considering, as Kulkarni holds, that ?there is no religious compulsion to practice idol worship nor is such practice essential to be a true Hindu?. It is a point well made. There have been critics of idol worship from among Hindus themselves, considering that according to Hinduism, God is nirguna and niraakaara.
So, Kulkarni argues, since the objective for the Hindus is to realise God, He can be addressed in no form at all or in any form one chooses, an idol being nothing more than an ideal personified. Kulkarni points out that the Vedas make no mention of idol worship while also making it clear that identification of God with many Gods does not make him manifold since He remains One. For those who make fun of idol worship, a reading of this chapter may be enlightening.
Kulkarni neatly sums up the essence of idol worship. The idol, only personified the devotee'sIshta (concept) and helped him to concentrate. What is important is that Hindus enjoy full freedom in the matter of belief and non-belief in idol worship. Idol worship is but only a step towards ultimate realisation. The chapter on Religious Conversion lays bare the atrocities committed by Muslim and Christian zealots or missionaries down the centuries. Practically all the more vicious atrocities, especially those committed by the Portuguese, are documented. Muslim atrocities, brutal in the extreme, have been recorded by Muslim historians themselves.
Starting with Mohammad of Ghazni and right up to the reign of Aurangzeb, it is a gory story of mass murder, mass conversion and demolition of temples, all of them not the figment of anyone'simagination but recorded proudly by contemporary Muslim writers. Of all the Muslim barbarians who invaded India, Timur was perhaps the worst of the lot. There were many reasons for conversions and Kulkarni does not lay all the blame on Muslim zealots. But that does not mitigate or can one excuse the animosity shown by Islamic rulers towards Hindu infidels or kafirs. British missionaries did not take recourse to killing Hindus or destroying temples.
The British strategy, during the time of the East India Company was two-fold: one, to project the superiority of the British race and the other to magnify the shortcomings of Hinduism to debase it. Kulkarni tells the story as it is, without sitting on judgement on tormentors of Hinduism which provides the text its credibility.
The book must be recommended reading for our sophisticated liberals who are ever ready to forget history, in defence of secularism, a subject, incidentally, to which Kulkarni devotes a fiery chapter. His suggestion to minorities is that they should join the mainstream and shed their misconception of Hinduism to become equal partners in making India developed, modern and prosperous. Our liberals fed on Marxist opium surely will benefit by a perusal of this objective study of Hinduism as it has emerged over the centuries.
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