On modern religion
By Nanda Chandran, on the PhilOfHi list, 24 feb 1998
I'd written this article for an Indian list, but later thought I could post it on the PHILOFHI list too, as I'm felt, one can draw parallels to these ideas in his/her own environment, in Europe, in America or other parts of the world, wherever they may be:
Some time back I'd read an article on the rediff - on the net - about the Ayyappan temple in Kerala, and in that article the author made a statement that it was Buddhism and modern day Hinduism, and not Upanishadic Brahminism, that are the true religions of India and it's pride. That set me to thinking and the more I think about it the more I disagree! The much touted cliche that Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion, will quite explain my point.
What is 'way of life?' It's the way we live - our basic morals, our clothing, our food, the way we keep our home, our marriage, the way we raise our children, the way we live together with our kith and kin, our festivals, our ceremonies, the way the society functions etc. If one cares to observe, rules and regulations exist or influence us in each of these situations. For example, take the typical Hindu marriage, which generally spans 2-3 days with it's rituals and ceremonies. The Hindu marriage rituals are based on the Rama-Sita marriage, explained in the Ramayana. For building homes, there exists the 'Vastu' shastra, which people generally adhere to. The eating habits, again for certain sections of the society, is based on laws and rules laid down in the scriptures. Our morals and philosophy of life, are based on our scriptures, the ithihasas (epics), the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha and the Puranas. The sari or the dhothi have existed from time immemorial. Our festivals are mostly based on our religious myths - the Deepavali or the Dashara. The way the society functions has also been influenced by the morals and the way of living expounded in the epics, the Puranas or the smritis, like the Bhagavat Gita or the Manusmriti. Even our traditional music and dance is devotional in nature. For it's the way we live - the Hindu way of life.
But Religion is a totally different cup of tea! The word 'religion' is derived from the Latin root 'religio', which means 'to link.' Link what, to what? The Upanishads, which are part of the oldest set of scriptures known to man, the Vedas, is in many ways also the most modern - with as much priority given to science and reason, as to tradition. It presents an age when man, not bound by any doctrines or dogmas or pre-existing rules, had the courage and vision to pursue and unravel the secrets of the universe and his relation with respect to it. Mind you, it's not just idle philosophizing, but a desperate and passionate search for the Truth, the meaning to life. So where would he start? Not at some temple, not by trying to understand some complex school of thought, not by trying to see some mythical God - for all these didn't exist then. The basis of man's search was himself! For that's what he was searching for - what's the purpose of his life? Who created him?
In trying to understand himself, man realized that the true 'him' was not the body, nor the five senses or it's aggregate, nor the ego, nor the mind - but something within, which was so elusive, that he had to concentrate and try hard to maintain connection with it - to link with it. He also realized that that entity, which we call the "Atman" and the West calls the "Soul", was totally free from the suffering and joy which the world experiences and that while all phenomenon in the world is transient in nature, this was the only entity that was permanent and thus immortal. Further analyzing brought the knowledge that this entity was the same in all living things and matter and finally that this entity was also the Creator. Hence the immortal saying in the Chandogya Upanishad, where Sage Uddlaka winds up the exposition to his son Svetaketu on questions about the Creator, "Tat tvam asi" or "that thou art" - You are the Creator or Brahman, referring the Soul within. But as befits human infirmity, these revelations were interpreted differently by different people, each claiming the supremacy of his own school, thus spawning the six orthodox or astika schools of Hindu philosophy - Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Purva Miimamsa and Uttra Miimamsa (also known as Vedanta). But again as long as there was striving, whatever the path, it wasn't all too bad.
The Katha Upanishad states, "When all the desires in the heart fall away, the mortal becomes immortal and attains Brahman even here" and to state it in a nut shell, man has to be in total control of his body, his ego, his mind, his senses, with an exceptional sense of morality, to realize the Soul within. These teachings, profound though they may be, appeals to a very small minority of any populace and even amongst this small number, very few can persevere to implement it in their lives. The Brahmins as a community tried to preserve the teachings and live a life conducive to spiritual progress. As Shankara and his paramaguru Gaudapada (It may be that Gaudapada was himself a Buddhist as the identity of the person he's saluting in his Mandukyakarika is in question? Buddha or Lord Narayana? That's the reason Vedantic teachers of other schools accuse Advaitam as pracanna Buddham or Buddhism in disguise.), in the beginning of all their texts explicitly state the requisite qualifications of the reader - pure of mind, with full control of the senses, devoid of ego - for Truth is a double edged sword and if one doesn't have the mental maturity for it, it will destroy him. This is the reason Buddha, who sought to preach to all people irrespective of caste, gave high priority to expounding morality, rather than abstract philosophical musings, whatever their value maybe. For if a man reaches the high moral level set by the Eight Fold Path and reaches Nirvana - the annihilation of the senses, Moksha would automatically follow. Thus the reason for Buddha's silence about God and his high stress on morality, for the Buddha considered the law of Dharma as God and insight into it as Enlightment.
Buddhism too followed the path of Sanatana Dharma. After the Compassionate One's death, various schools, each claiming to teach his original teachings, sprung up. The Theravada (founded by Brahmin convert, Buddhaghosa) and the Mahayana being the foremost amongst them. Nagarjuna, the peerless logician, founded the Madhyamika school inside Mahayana itself, preaching the concept of emptiness or shunyata. But none of them strayed too far from the core teachings of their original master - high morality. But again this is the reason for the downfall of Buddhism in India! The Madhyamika concept of shunyata promoted an atheist atmosphere in the country and this is when Adi Shankara, India's greatest philosopher, appeared on the horizon. Adi Shankara is wrongly accused of destroying Buddhism in India. All he did was address the Buddhist in their philosophical points and rejuvenate Sanatana Dharma through Advaitam. Even the great Kumarilla Bhatta of the Purva Miimaamsaa school and Udhayana of the Nyaaya school, who went out of the way to attack Buddhism, can't be given full credit (Legend has it that Kumarilla Bhatta converted to Buddhism to learn Bouddha philosophy and after learning it, defeated his own Bouddha guru with Vedic philosophy, who committed suicide! As is the dharma of a sishya who caused the death of his guru, Kumarilla too followed suit!). While Hinduism pervaded all aspects of life, Buddhism with only it's highly moral teachings towards Nirvana couldn't sustain the initial enthusiastic response. It's said that even early Buddhists, though they embraced the Compassionate One's teachings, still practiced the normal Hindu way of life. For even the most sincere Buddhist, would feel it his duty to marry off his daughter and would hence revert to Hindu marriage customs. A final outcropping of Buddhism called Vajrayana, incorporating totally alien concepts like magic, ritualism, sex and sacrifice, surfaced, representing the final decay of a once great religion. Buddhism died a natural death in the country of it's origin, it's departure hastened by invading Moslem hordes.
Buddhism and Upanishadic Brahminism are both religions in it's true sense. But while the former is dead, the latter still survives - the reason being it's esoteric nature. No, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the club should be exclusive in a discriminating way, but that it is only for the discerning. For example, Appaiya Dikshitar, a great Tamil Brahmin saint, declared a few centuries back that he would teach the Vedas to anybody who was willing to undergo the rigours of the years of training. If people were so willing, there should be a lot of non-Brahmin Vedic teachers around, no? But are there? For the temperament of an average human doesn't naturally veer towards religion sincerely, but only for personal ends, false reasons etc - the reason being human infirmity. So what we call modern Hinduism, is not actually a religion, but a 'way of life'.