Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Belated Reply to Anonymous

"Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Buddhism for the Unenlightened":

Great read on buddhism, I am a Hindu and would like to get your take on that religion (for western folk cuz to me it aint no religion)"

On the theory that ignorance should be no bar to having opinions, I will venture to agree with Anonymous. Hinduism is not a religion in the Western sense of the word. If you believe about five or six things about Jesus, you are a Christian. If you believe about five or six things about Allah you are a Muslim. That is how we define those folks and how they define themselves and their respective religions.

Hinduism is not like that. It is more of a universe of shared assumptions, beliefs, and ways of believing. It is a world-view. To Hindus, the issue is not so much which gods one worships, but the world-view that there are lots of gods and that they create the universe in an immensely complex way that often requires elaborate religious rites and rituals. Hinduism is also an expression of Indian culture. India has been the source of wildly imaginative theologies and mythologies since the time of the repeated Aryan invasions millenia ago. To Americans, flying monkeys are bad childhood dreams from seeing the Wizard of Oz. To Hindus they are the Ramayana, a hugely important Hindu religious document that, to one Westerner at least, made no sense at all.

Hindus do not quarrel between the devotees of Rama and of Vishnu. All gods fit somewhere in the endless and endlessly flexible Hindu pantheon. Official Hinduism sometimes uses this flexibility opportunistically to claim Buddhist shrines as Hindu because Buddha is treated as one of the incarnations of somebody or another, as is Jesus an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods.

Where Hindu tolerance ends is with the denial of all their gods and of their world view. Which is to say there is a large red line dividing Muslims from Hindus. That line has been written in blood, lots of blood, mainly Hindu blood, since the conquest of most of India by the Mughals in the 1400's. Buddhists fared still worse. Buddhists do not believe in a god per se, unpardonable atheism to the Muslims. So the adherents of the Religion of Peace adopted the straightforward strategy of killing them all. The Muslim genocide of a large fraction of the Hindu population and of almost all of the Buddhists of India, thought to have been as much as a quarter of India's population, has been largely forgotten by everyone as being too inconvenient to remember. Even now, the distribution of Buddhists in Asia corresponds to the old borders of the Mughal Empire. Where Muslims ruled, no Buddhist survived.

Even now, the relative tolerance of the two religions can be seen in that, of the two main parts of what had been British India, almost no Hindus were allowed to stay in Muslim Pakistan. Over two hundred million Muslims live in India.

The black mark on Hinduism has been, and remains, the caste system. Though nominally abolished by the Indian constitution at the time of Independence, it is alive and well. And flourishing horribly. It is responsible for the distortions of hundreds of millions of personalities by the reduction of their self-conception to a small handful of the possibilities that human beings can have. For the Untouchables, it goes further, much further. For two hundred million human beings the caste system prescribes permanent servitude and degradation.

The most important human being of the Twentieth Century arguably was Doctor B. H. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a nationalist ally of Gandhi and leader of the Dalits, the polite word for Untouchables. Doctor Ambedkar took the clear-sighted and courageous position that Dalits could never improve their lives and their horrible situation in society so long as they believed in the Hindu religion that inflicts that misery on them. You can't rebel against an oppression you believe that you deserve. Accordingly Doctor Ambedkar began a revival movement to convert the Dalits to Buddhism which has some similar tenets as Hinduism but which includes no notion of caste. Doctor Ambedkar's movement for conversion of the Dalits to Buddhism has had, I understand, mixed success. Still, as the history of the Zionist movement among Jews, and the Civil Rights movement among Blacks in America, have shown, the only effective emancipation for oppressed groups is auto-emancipation.

While there is much to be said for Hinduism as a way of life, to the extent that it supports and even creates the caste system, it is one of the great evils in the world today. Whether there can be Hinduism without caste, is beyond my understanding. But it is clear that there cannot be caste without Hinduism.

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