Contradictions in Popular Hinduism

If Hinduism is to distinguish itself from other religions (or, more aptly, just religions) then it has to be critical of itself. Hinduism as it is popularly practiced and interpreted fails this. The reasons are many – its marriage to politics, its hot and cold relationship with social stratification systems, its pride and short-temperedness. These things, items in Hinduism’s proverbial suitcase, as George Clooney’s character from Up In the Air might put it, must be relieved, because their weight causes contradictions that diminish and obscure Hinduism’s more important qualities.

Let’s start with a tangible example, one of the lesser mentioned of pop Hinduism’s inconsistencies: the undecided opinion towards animals. Many vegetarians who are Hindu avoid meat because of a professed respect for the animal, its life, its dignity, and its well-being. When the same individuals gather to discuss how to behave, however, exploring the dynamics of karma and the paths our souls take through different life forms, they agree that all measures must be taken to avoid being born as anything but human, the apex species, the alternative to which is brought about by sinful action. If all life is equal, and if we respect animals in service to that, then why do we cling so tightly to the human form? Bounding forth from this, what are the things we do and avoid doing in order to sustain our tenure as humans?

Image Credit: MC Escher

This leads us to the issue of God’s preferred vacation spots: Is he omnipresent and omnipotent and omniscient? On paper, yes. But we still build temples in our towns and puja (prayer) rooms in our homes and still take pilgrimages and still believe that the destinations of some of these pilgrimages are the physical abodes of certain dieties. We still give certain ideas more moral credit than others, citing allegiance with the Divine, even though this “Divine” has been identified as omniscient – occupying all thoughts (not your “thou shalt not” more than his 4th pillar or dharmashastra (Hindu law code), or any permutation thereof) with equal consistency. It’s my estimation that the cause for these errors, as well as, more generally, Hinduism’s inclusion in the cohort of religions, is its acknowledgement of God. Hinduism doesn’t need God, point blank. Once there is a personified God, a gendered God (I’m going to call him “It” henceforth), there is also an emoting God, an excitable and irritable God. I’m not saying that God doesn’t care if you wear sandals with prints of Ganesh on them, or if you use Saraswati in burger advertisements, if you spit on an idol, or think lustfully or vengefully. I’m saying It isn’t even in the realm of caring. If omniscience / presence / potence is Its first quality, impersonality is Its second. Any of the above traditional breaches, as well as ones less specific to Hinduism, like murder, theft, etc. are no worse absolutely than are their righteous complements (like charity or chastity) good absolutely. To say so would be rather like saying “gravity prefers” or “heat insists”. There is no alternative to their effects, no will that needs to be applied in order to produce those effects, and thus, no opinion that would need to found or animate that will. It simply doesn’t – cannot – care whether you are here or there or near this or that thing or take this or that action. If you are still having trouble with this, observe the further contradiction of the whole universe of space and time being replete with It, but some places and things and ideas (the good ones) being more replete than others. Replete, of course, means full. Once you have a God that is a static set of governing physical principles but morally impartial and unflinchingly so, then you might as well call Him science.

A final exploration: in a conversation I had with a very kind and patient swamiji (spiritual master)from Chinmaya Mission (a religious foundation) , I asked him, essentially, how the universe works. He conveyed that existence simply is, and that there isn’t a moral or emotional valence than can be ascribed to it; i.e. nothing can be more replete with God than another. But why then, I asked, does the Mission do charity for the poor or hungry? If suffering can’t be bad, then deliverance from that suffering can’t be good. The same conflict persisted in my mind when he said that a woman anguishing through a crumbling marriage and perhaps even an abusive husband ought to be left alone to brave her circumstances with her dharma (divine mission)in mind, rather than inspire an intervention on our part. I might understand the sentiment, especially as it could relate to the emotional health of the children, or perhaps to the end of eventually healing the husband, but how is this situation different in kind from giving charity? Does the wife need deliverance any less than the hungry family? Does the father of the hungry family not have a dharma to make ends meet on his own, like the battered wife supposedly does?

I’m not against charity, and I’m not against rescuing battered women, or rainbows or sparkles. But if we’re going to do anything, let it not be for fear or for reverence to the oxymoronic formulation: a preferential God. We do good things because they make us happy and that’s all that we really need to justify ourselves — no contradictions. There are differences in what people find conducive to happiness. That’s fine, or more properly, affirmative of the evolutionary model. We fight for what we believe if we really believe it, and if enough other people believe as we do then we’ll have demonstrated natural selection, maybe the way democracy did a few times this century, and the way socialism might the next. Things that seem intuitively bad (like theft or unprovoked murder) are bad because they’ve been selected out of the population. Don’t forget that in 1776 even the smartest men on the planet found nothing wrong in slave ownership.
Hinduism, stripped of those value judgments, is the statement: If the universe’s complexity is infinite, then our place in it is infinitely small (however big they are, 1/? and 1,000,000/? both equal zero). This statement is left in George Clooney’s proverbial suitcase after everything else has been removed, because it cannot be disputed by science. Is proper Hinduism then equal to science? No. Hinduism is an attitude towards science. Science exists, and Hinduism is the acknowledgement of that existence. Where we go from there can be neither good nor bad, and should not, for the sake of Hinduism’s consistency, be viewed through the false alembic of a preferential Superpower.