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The unity in diversity of Hinduism

Listening to a popular Telugu speaker on Hindu spiritualism on television, I was slightly shaken when he chided those taking sides in the Vaishnava-Shaiva rivalry and went on to suggest that Hindus do not need external enemies when we are so divided between ourselves.

This reminded me of a chance encounter with an elderly, learned person few years ago, whose home could be mistaken for a library if other signs of family life weren’t so apparent. For few moments, we had a discussion about the books – mainly Hindu philosophical works – and he was making a powerful case for his chosen (belonged to Madhva sect) theory of Dvaita philosophy as against others, notably Advaita (my inherited line). He also claimed that whereas Advaita philosophy lulled Hindus into other-worldliness, rendering them susceptible to Islamic invasions, Dvaita philosophy gave rise to the powerful Vijayanagara Empire (more on this part later). While he was pretty strong in his choice of worlds, calling Adi Sankara a crypto-Buddhist, he did all this without betraying even a fleeting sense of personal enmity. And before you fall into erroneous conclusions about him, he is as secular as one can get: a technical consultant of the highest order to government agencies before he retired. He concluded the discussion by admitting that these were specific point of views, and we cannot cast them as gospel-truths; meanwhile, we must do good work(in social welfare sense) and go on with life.

This is the problem with the false equivalence prevalent in contemporary Hindu discourse; where the bloodless Vaishanava-Shaiva conflict involving only ferocious exchange of words is likened to the blood-soaked Hindu-Islam encounters that involved mass-massacres, violent conversions, temple-breaking, city-destruction, slave-taking among others.

The culture of debates

The Aryan Invasion Theory was formulated by British Indologists chiefly to account for the large-scale cultural expansion, which according to the British experience, can happen only through violent “invasions”. To accommodate the fact that the concrete evidence of “invasion” is hard to get despite torturing the data, they have amended it slightly to “Aryan Migration Theory”.  This is just one example of how the surveyor’s prejudice can color his comprehension and concurrently demonstrates one’s inability to grasp something totally alien to one’s thought-process.

In Hindu-dominated regions, the spirit of debate was very-well alive till 15th century and consequently, all Indic traditions including Jainism, Buddhism and hues of the Vedic trio: Advaita, Dvaita and Vishistadvaita were all engaged in debates with each other in the presence of kings. The opponents engaged in a duel of words, sometimes name-calling the opponent with the choicest of words. That however doesn’t automatically imply that they were at each others’ throats. 

Al-Biruni, a scholar commissioned by Mehmood of Ghazni wrote this of 11th century India: "On the whole, there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves; at the utmost they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy."

Adi Sankara in debate with Mandana Misra whose wife
looks on as a judge
As with Vijayanagara Empire, it was initiated by Vidyaranya, a guru with Advaita leanings. And throughout its reign, the empire patronized saints from different sects, notwithstanding the personal choice of the kings in question. With the probable exception of Emperor Ashoka who made Buddhism the state religion, all Hindu kings generally considered religion to be too private and sacred a matter to be enforced by state power.

The very popular story of the debate between Mandana Misra (a veteran scholar of his time) and a young Adi Sankara has the latter requesting Misra’s wife Ubhaya Bharati to be the judge. Later, upon Adi Sankara’s victory, the husband-wife duo readily agreed to become his disciplines. This mature level of debating is unfortunately clubbed with Hindu-Islam or Hindu-Christian bloody encounters of later day, which involved employment of dishonest means, deceit, wanton cruelty and threats of death to convert the other.

The myth of “composite” culture

A “conversion” in pre-Islamic India didn’t entail making any changes in one’s daily lifestyle, one only needed to change his spiritual understanding in esoteric subjects such as moksha, gyana etc. Whereas throughout Islamic encounters, the conversion wasn’t complete without eating beef, such a great taboo in Hindu traditions that one is considered an outcaste the moment it’s consumed. The place where cow is killed is considered impure too, which encouraged Muslim kings to defile temples by killing the cows there.

As late as 1757, Ahmed Shah Durrani of Afgan Empire invaded Punjab and his army defiled the Golden Temple with the blood of cows after crushing the resistance. This is another angle to the cow-sacredness that is systematically derided by leftist media; there is a history of invading armies sealing their victory over kaffir land by forcing the people to eat beef and defiling temples with dead cows (so that Hindus consider it so impure that no efforts to reinstall the temple are made later). Here’s another incident of a sun-temple at Multan (present day Pakistan) which was conquered by Muhammad al-Qasim in 8th century, where he looted the temple and hung cow’s flesh on the main idol as a way of mockery. This article notes: Whenever an ‘infidel king’ marched against Multan and the Muslims found it difficult to offer adequate resistance, they threatened to break the idol or mutilate it, and this, allegedly, made the enemy withdraw.”

Thousands of temples were destroyed, the idols broken and transported to mosques where they were buried under footsteps so that the “true believers of One true God” tread upon them. Al-Biruni records what Mehmood of Ghazni did to the Shiva Linga of Somnath Temple:
The linga he raised was the stone of Somnath,...The image was destroyed by the Prince Mahmud, may God be merciful to him! - AH 416. He ordered the upper part to be broken and the remainder to be transported to his residence, Ghaznin, with all its coverings and trappings of gold, jewels, and embroidered garments. Part of it has been thrown into the hippodrome of the town, together with the Cakrasvamin, an idol of bronze that had been brought from Taneshar. Another part of the idol from Somanath lies before the door of the mosque of Ghaznin, on which people rub their feet to clean them from dirt and wet.”
This was a systematic activity indulged by Muslim kings throughout their reign and as late as 17th century, upon Moghul emperor Aurangzeb’s orders the Viswanatha Temple at Varanasi was destroyed and the Gyanvapi mosque was built adjacently.

This is the nature of Hindu-Islam “debates”; and na├»ve Hindus still parrot the oft-repeated false parallel between intra-Hindu intellectual rivalry and Hindu-Islam blood feud.

Hinduism: An open architecture

Rajiv Malhotra’s “Indra’s Net” notes the veiled attacks on Swami Vivekananda by Anantanand Rambachan, a Hindu-American Scholar who seeks to characterize Vivekananda’s teachings as a breakaway from traditional Hinduism. Rambachan’s makes this deduction using Adi Sankara’s works as the immovable edict with which other Hindu works must necessarily be aligned. Is this scholar, a Hindu scholar at that, really ignorant of the fact that Adi Sankara’s philosophy was criticized by Madhvacharya and Sri Ramanujam among others? That Hindus are allowed to criticize one-another and nobody has the monopoly on truth?

Rajiv Malhotra borrows the IT jargon “open architecture” to explain Hinduism as a work-in-progress with a foundational framework to build upon. It evolves with time and accommodates changes as necessary. Intra-Hindu debate should not be frowned upon; instead it should be looked up as a living testimony of our open-mindedness that fosters a vibrant exchange of ideas. But today, when we are surrounded by hostile forces and have Trojan horses in our midst, it is only sensible that a united spectrum of Hindus emerge to fight them.  

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” - Sun Tzu. It’s been a millennium and the Hindus are yet to grasp the true nature of their enemy. 

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