Ancient History & Civilisation


Methods of sanctity—Heretics—Toleration—General view of Hindu Religion

Saints seem more abundant in India than elsewhere, so that at last the visitor feels that they are a natural product of the country, like the poppy or the snake. Hindu piety recognized three main avenues to sanctity: Jnanayoga, the Way of Meditation, Karma-yoga, the Way of Action, andBhakti-yoga, the Way of Love. The Brahmans allowed for all three by their rule of the four Ashramas, or stages of sanctity. The young Brahman was to begin as a Brahmachari, vowed to premarital chastity, to piety, study, truthfulness, and loving service of his Guru or teacher. After marriage, which he should not delay beyond his eighteenth year, he was to enter the second stage of Brahmanical life as Grihastha, or householder, and beget sons for the care and worship of himself and his ancestors. In the third stage (now seldom practiced) the aspirant to sanctity retired with his wife to live as a Vanaprastha, or jungle-dweller, accepting hard conditions gladly, and limiting sexual relations to the begetting of children. Finally the Brahman who wished to reach the highest stage might, in his old age, leave even his wife, and become a Sannyasi, or “abandoner” of the world; giving up all property, all money and all ties, he would keep only an antelope skin for his body, a staff for his hand, and a gourd of water for his thirst. He must smear his body with ashes every day, drink the Five Substances frequently, and live entirely by alms. “He must,” says the Brahmanical Rule, “regard all men as equals. He must not be influenced by anything that happens, and must be able to view with perfect equanimity even revolutions that overthrow empires. His one object must be to acquire that measure of wisdom and of spirituality which shall finally reunite him to the Supreme Divinity, from which we are separated by our passions and our material surroundings.”74*

In the midst of all this piety one comes occasionally upon a sceptical voice stridently out of tune with the solemnity of the normal Hindu note. Doubtless when India was wealthy, sceptics were numerous, for humanity doubts its gods most when it prospers, and worships them most when it is miserable. We have noted the Charvakas and other heretics of Buddha’s time. Almost as old is a work called, in the sesquipedalian fashion of the Hindus, Shwasamved y o panishad, which simplifies theology into four propositions: (1) that there is no reincarnation, no god, no heaven, no hell, and no world; (2) that all traditional religious literature is the work of conceited fools; (3) that Nature the originator and Time the destroyer are the rulers of all things, and take no account of virtue or vice in awarding happiness or misery to men; and (4) that people, deluded by flowery speech, cling to gods, temples and priests, when in reality there is no difference between Vishnu and a dog.76 With all the inconsistency of a Bible harboring Ecclesiastes, the Pali canon of Buddhism offers us a remarkable treatise, probably as old as Christianity, called “The Questions of King Milinda,” in which the Buddhist teacher Nagasena is represented as giving very disturbing answers to the religious inquiries made of him by the Greco-Bactrian King Menander, who ruled northern India at the turn of the first century before Christ. Religion, says Nagasena, must not be made a mere way of escape for suffering men; it should be an ascetic search for sanctity and wisdom without presuming a heaven or a god; for in truth, this saint assures us, these do not exist.77 The Mahabharata inveighs against doubters and atheists who, it tells us, deny the reality of souls, and despise immortality; such men, it says, “wander over the whole earth”; and it warns them of their future punishment by the horrible example of a jackal who explains his species by admitting that in a previous incarnation he had been “a rationalist, a critic of the Vedas, . . . a reviler and opposer of priests, . . . an unbeliever, a doubter of all.”78 The Bhagavad-Gita refers to heretics who deny the existence of a god and describe the world as “none other than a House of Lust.”79 The Brahmans themselves were often sceptics, but too completely so to attack the religion of the people. And though the poets of India are as a rule assiduously pious, some of them, like Kabir and Vemana, speak in defense of a very emancipated theism. Vemana, a South Indian poet of the seventeenth century, writes scornfully of ascetic hermits, pilgrimages, and caste:

The solitariness of a dog! the meditations of a crane! the chanting of an ass! the bathing of a frog! . . . How are you the better for smearing your body with ashes? Your thoughts should be set on God alone; for the rest, an ass can wallow in dirt as well as you. . . . The books called Vedas are like courtesans, deluding men, and wholly unfathomable; but the hidden knowledge of God is like an honorable wife. . . . Will the application of white ashes do away with the smell of a wine-pot?—will a cord cast over your neck make you twice-born? . . . Why should we constantly revile the Pariah? Are not his flesh and blood the same as our own? And of what caste is He who pervades the Pariah? . . . He who says, “I know nothing” is the shrewdest of all.80

It is worthy of note that pronouncements of this kind could be made with impunity in a society mentally ruled by a priestly caste. Except for foreign repressions (and perhaps because of alien rulers indifferent to native theologies) India has enjoyed a freedom of thought far greater than that of the medieval Europe to which its civilization corresponds; and the Brahmans have exercised their authority with discrimination and lenience. They relied upon the conservatism of the poor to preserve the orthodox religion, and they were not disappointed. When heresies or strange gods became dangerously popular they tolerated them, and then absorbed them into the capacious caverns of Hindu belief; one god more or less could not make much difference in India. Hence there has been comparatively little sectarian animosity within the Hindu community, though much between Hindus and Moslems; and no blood has been shed for religion in India except by its invaders.81 Intolerance came with Islam and Christianity; the Moslems proposed to buy Paradise with the blood of “infidels,” and the Portuguese, when they captured Goa, introduced the Inquisition into India.82

If we look for common defining elements in this jungle of faiths, we shall find them in the practical unanimity of the Hindus in worshiping both Vishnu and Shiva, in reverencing the Vedas, the Brahmans, and the cow, and in accepting the Mahabharata and theRamayana as no mere literary epics, but as the secondary scriptures of the race.83 It is significant that the deities and dogmas of India today are not those of the Vedas; in a sense Hinduism represents the triumph of aboriginal Dravidic India over the Aryans of the Vedic age. As the result of conquest, spoliation and poverty, India has been injured in body and soul, and has sought refuge from harsh terrestrial defeat in the easy victories of myth and imagination. Despite its elements of nobility, Buddhism, like Stoicism, was a slave philosophy, even if voiced by a prince; it meant that all desire or struggle, even for personal or national freedom, should be abandoned, and that the ideal was a desireless passivity; obviouslv the exhausting heat of India spoke in this rationalization of fatigue. Hinduism continued the weakening of India by binding itself, through the caste system, in permanent servitude to a priesthood; it conceived its gods in unmoral terms, and maintained for centuries brutal customs, like human sacrifice and suttee, which many nations had long since outgrown; it depicted life as inevitably evil, and broke the courage and darkened the spirit of its devotees; it turned all earthly phenomena into illusion, and thereby destroyed the distinction between freedom and slavery, good and evil, corruption and betterment. In the words of a brave Hindu, “Hindu religion . . . has now degenerated into an idol-worship and conventional ritualism, in which the form is regarded as everything, and its substance as nothing.”84 A nation ridden with priests and infested with saints, India awaits with unformulated longing her Renaissance, her Reformation, and her Enlightenment.

We must, however, keep our historical perspective in thinking of India; we too were once in the Middle Ages, and preferred mysticism to science, priestcraft to plutocracy—and may do likewise again. We cannot judge these mystics, for our judgments in the West are usually based upon corporeal experience and material results, which seem irrelevant and superficial to the Hindu saint. What if wealth and power, war and conquest, were only surface illusions, unworthy of a mature mind? What if this science of hypothetical atoms and genes, of whimsical protons and cells, of gases generating Shakespeares and chemicals fusing into Christ, were only one more faith, and one of the strangest, most incredible and most transitory of all? The East, resentful of subjection and poverty, may go in for science and industry at the very time when the children of the West, sick of machines that impoverish them and of sciences that disillusion them, may destroy their cities and their machines in chaotic revolution or war, go back, beaten, weary and starving, to the soil, and forge for themselves another mystic faith to give them courage in the face of hunger, cruelty, injustice and death. There is no humorist like history.

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