A Defence of Hindu ‘Ritualism’ and ‘Superstition’
There is a double standard when it comes to Hinduism, a propensity to single it out for ridicule and castigation. We must keep alive Hindu rites in their traditional form, without compromise, without mutilating them out of shame or political correctness.
“Religion without philosophy runs into superstition;
philosophy without religion becomes dry atheism.”
— Swami Vivekananda
As a Hindu-American, it baffles me how our most sacred traditions and practices are disparaged in practically racist terms in India, the homeland of Hinduism. Most of these attacks are couched in terms of being secular or scientific, but at heart they are really just Hinduphobic and reveal a deep-rooted shame of being non-white, non-Western and somehow primitive—what Rajiv Malhotra has aptly described as ‘difference anxiety’ in his book Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism.[i]
There is a double standard when it comes to Hinduism, a propensity to single it out for ridicule and castigation, perhaps because it is the last major extant chthonic (indigenous) religious / spiritual tradition alive.
During my trip to India these past two weeks, I was shocked by the scandal and furore over HRD Minister Smriti Irani simply visiting an astrologer on her personal time with her husband for purely personal purposes. Somehow this has become a headline story, and she has been attacked for her ‘superstition’, for not promoting a scientific temperament, for, as the Times of India put it, sparking debate as to whether a government minister “should be promoting scientific thinking or superstition.”[ii] Congress Party spokesperson Archana Sharma disparaged Irani for “visiting an astrologer to know about the future” and for misleading Indian youth by giving more importance to destiny instead of labour.[iii]
These attacks betray a gross misunderstanding of what real jyotisha/ Vedic astrology is. Vedic astrologers do not just use charts and planetary positions to make predictions; they use their powers of meditation and intuition to perceive certain patterns and trends and forces that act upon an individual based on their karma, as reflected in their birth chart, and intuit how they interact with forces operating in the larger cosmos at the current time. It is about probabilities and trends and currents that pull our lives and psyches in certain ways—it is not about fatalistic proclamations or specific predictions of what will happen when.
All of our Vedangas recognize the supremacy of purushartha (individual effort through the exercise of free will) to counteract what is written in our stars, for better or worse. Even what was written in our stars was not written by some capricious creator. What is written in our stars is the recording of the karmic fruits of our own actions and exercise of free will in the past, which are then divined through astrology and other such practices.
It is well-known by those who are proficient in astrology and palmistry that the lines on our palms change as our destiny changes through the exertion of our free will. Genuine astrologers are not fatalistic—they are life counsellors who recommend therapies, meditations, pujas, the use of gem / colour / yoga therapies to counteract negative forces and to chart our course through the various currents we face in life due to past karma. In other words, when used properly, astrology is another tool for therapy rather than a fatalistic foretelling of fixed events in the future.
Leaving aside for a moment the merits of astrology as a practice, why is it that only Hindu practices and traditions are targeted for censure and ridicule? How is what Smriti Irani did more superstitious or unscientific than a Muslim kneeling to pray to a black stone in Mecca or a Catholic imbibing bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ?
Is a Christian attending Bible study accused of promoting creationism? Is a Christian who believes in the Immaculate Conception subject to the same scorn of being anti-scientific? Would the media dare make the same allegations against them? No, it is only Hinduism that is so attacked, just as it is only Hinduism that is specifically targeted through anti-superstition laws in India, just as it is only Hindu temples that are ‘managed’ (i.e., looted) by the ‘secular’ Indian government.
Another glaring example of this same anti-Hindu bigotry came to the forefront recently. In the past few weeks, there was an outpouring of condemnation over a religious mass animal sacrifice in Nepal in honour of a Hindu Devi.
Let us put this into some context. This event happens once every five years. In 2009, the last time this sacrifice was held, 200,000 animals and birds were sacrificed. This ‘slaughter’ has drawn media scrutiny from Washington Post and other such newspapers and has been universally condemned as an unwarranted massacre of innocent animals. Yet, during Eid and during the Hajj, millions upon millions of animals are slaughtered each year by Muslims. Where are the crocodile tears of the media then? Where are the tears for the millions of animals slaughtered daily for our consumption, through eating and wearing animal products?
Many Hindus are vegetarian and ethically abstain from using any animal products at all, while the rest of the world, especially the West, gorges itself on meat, destroying our environment in the process—after all, the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined.[iv]
Why are non-vegetarians exempt from criticism, but a handful of Hindus who follow their indigenous customs of worship (again, in this case, once every five years) are globally condemned for killing an infinitesimal fraction of the number of animals slaughtered by others on a routine basis? Why is it okay to slaughter animals for payt puja (to satisfy our stomachs) but not for Devi puja?
I am a strict vegetarian and do not even like the touch of leather against my skin, but I accept that there are legitimate traditions within Hinduism that have the practice of animal sacrifice. In such sacrifices, the animal is not being killed for gluttony—the animal is honoured; the prayer is made that the animal receive moksha or a better life in its next rebirth; and the act is dedicated to the Divine. This is not some bloodthirsty Tantric rite.
Actually, true Tantrics have a much more refined compassion than we do. As recounted in the Aghora series by Dr Robert Svoboda, the renowned aghori (follower of a particular tradition of Tantra) Vimalananda once said that every time he cut a vegetable for cooking, he would apologize to it first. That is the level of sensitivity in a true Tantric, who understands the karmic responsibility of holding the life of another living thing in your hands and to take that life, that the karmic price of that must be borne by the one who performs the sacrifice, who must be of sufficient tapobala (spiritual strength) and purity to sanctify the sacrifice and deliver the object of sacrifice to a more auspicious future.
It may well be that, left to their own devices and on their own time, these traditions will change from within to abolish the performance of animal sacrifice in the belief that it is no longer appropriate in the current societal circumstances. This has already happened in most of the temples of India, except for a few tantric Shakti temples: there are no sacrifices of any living things, period—representative images made of flour and dough are used as religiously sanctioned substitutes.
However, such reforms cannot be imposed externally, as there are very subtle issues of karma associated with these practices and their interruption. It takes a rishi / acharya of immense subtlety of wisdom and tapobala to be able to determine what is appropriate according to deshakala (place and time) and what changes should be made when in a way that is most appropriate for societal and cosmic order, for the benefit of all sentient beings.
What is most worrisome here is the insidious push to whitewash certain core elements of Hindu practice and belief. The impulse to do away with these traditions is not at heart as noble a sentiment as it appears—this is ultimately not about animal rights or other such compassionate cause, otherwise, there would not be this double standard that singles out Hinduism.
No, this tide of condemnation and protest really stems from Hinduphobia, from wanting to expunge from Hinduism that which makes it different, that which makes it ‘primitive’ or politically incorrect. This is a dangerous trend that must be checked. The traditions of Tantra, the worship of the Divine in ugra (fierce and bloodthirsty) forms cannot be expunged in order to make us quasi-Christian. Hinduism cannot collapse into mere Vaishnavism (I say this as a practicing Vaishnava) or morph into disguised Buddhism (I say this as one who has taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).
In recent times, in West Bengal, the pratimas (idols) of Ma Durga used for worship during Durga Puja have been changing in form. More and more people are requesting the construction of ‘peaceful’ idols of Ma Durga, sans weapons, which are to be replaced with pretty things like flowers and jewels. This is nothing more than desecration, a type of emasculation (efemination?) of the Divine. The ugra forms of Devi are divine and auspicious and project a ‘terrible beauty’.
If one does not see that beauty, the fault is in the eyes of the beholder. The inability to see the sublime beauty in a fierce Ma Kali, in a sword-wielding Ma Durga, shows how limited and petty we have become, how impure and immature our own vision. Ma Durga is not Ma Durga without Her lion / tiger vahana, without Her deadly weapons that vanquish our foes, external and internal. To render Her otherwise is to mutilate and desecrate Her, an act of violence akin to when the Mughals came and chopped off the heads and arms of our deities in temples all over India.
This reform movement is part of a larger push by many Hindus nowadays crusading to abolish ‘ritualism’ within Hinduism. Everywhere I go for Hindu gatherings and conferences nowadays, the constant refrain is that we must move away from mere ‘ritualism.’ I actually find the word ‘ritualism’ abhorrent, because no genuinely practicing Hindu engages in ritualism, which is merely going through the motions, empty symbolism devoid of inner feeling and intent.
True Hindu worship through rites is something wholly different—when abhishekha is offered, we are really bathing the Divine; when we offer prasad, we are truly feeding our deities. Even if the bhavana (feeling) is not there in the initial stages, it comes over time so long as the sincere intent is there. This is not ‘ritualism,’ this is practice, practice of communion with the Divine, practice of our Upanishadic philosophy and the tenets of Vedanta through the actions of our body, speech and mind. These are the paths which transform a mere intellectual appreciation of Vedanta into inner realization. For this reason, we must keep alive the rites of Hinduism in their traditional form, without compromise, without mutilating them out of shame or political correctness.
One cannot arbitrarily change the form of worship and the form that is worshipped. The images of our devatas are not figments of human imagination—they have been revealed to our rishis and carry the tapasya of thousands of years of worship, generation after generation from our ancestors to our parents to us. Each and every detail of how our devatas are depicted pursuant to the Agamas has deep philosophical import—from the direction that Ganesha’s trunk is turned, to the placement of Devi’s feet, to each and every weapon and other item held in Her hands.
Even if we do not understand the philosophical import, merely through having darshana of the forms of the Divine as prescribed by the Agamas, through worship of the forms according to the rites prescribed by our rishis and acharyas, the devatas come to life—with proper worship, they are no longer just stone or ink on paper; they are alive and real and tangible. This is what is known as ‘prana pratisthapana’ or the invoking of life in a vigraha. This is a time-tested process that has come down to us through the ages, through the wisdom and meditative revelations of our rishis, and it is not to be lightly tampered with.
For the sake of political correctness, if we arbitrarily change the forms of our devatas and the rites through which they are worshipped, we may ruin the successful formulas for worship passed down by our ancestors and rob ourselves of our spiritual heritage.
When will we stop being ashamed of ourselves? When will we stop so desperately trying to ape the white civilization of the West? There is no use simply blaming the seculars and anti-Hindu forces. The fundamental problem is within us as Hindus who are ashamed of the essence of who we are, of the threads of ‘caste’, ‘ritualism’ and ‘superstition’ that are woven deep into our collective psyche as a civilization.
What, after all, does it mean to be superstitious? Etymologically, the word ‘superstition’ means to ‘stand over’. Maybe it means a recognition of those forces that stand over us, of that which is inexplicable yet still real, that which is magic only because we do not yet have the tools to understand the underlying science behind the magic. As Swami Vivekananda once explained about psychic powers, “These facts [about psychic powers], the Hindus being analytically minded, took up and investigated. And they came to certain remarkable conclusions; that is, they made a science of it. They found out that all these, though extraordinary, are also natural; there is nothing supernatural. They are under laws just the same as any other physical phenomenon. It is not a freak of nature that a man is born with such powers. They can be systematically studied, practiced and acquired. This science they call the science of Raja Yoga.”[v]
Hinduism does not mandate dogma. It does not require blind belief; followed properly, it does not engender blind superstition. Adi Sankara Bhagavadpada has said, “A hundred srutis (Vedic texts) may declare that fire is cold or that it is dark; still they possess no authority in the matter. If sruti should at all declare that fire is cold or that it is dark, we would still suppose that it intends quite a different meaning from the apparent one; for, its authority cannot otherwise be maintained; we should in no way attach to sruti a meaning which is opposed to other authorities or to its own declaration.”[vi]
Truth is to be determined by ascertaining whether it is consistent with sruti (the revealed shastras), yukti (reason) and anubhava (direct experience). This approach enables a healthy blend of rationality and that which is in the realm of the apparently supernatural. This admits of the possibilities revealed through astrology, of the play between human and Divine, of cosmic leela without falling into the traps of irrationalism and blind superstition.
In order to have anubhava, one must have an open mind. With an open mind, one can see that we live in a world of leela, of magic and mystery (or, more precisely, what appears to be magic because we have not yet awakened the senses to perceive the underlying science behind the mystery).
Hindus, more than any other people in the world, have inhabited this world of magic, and have been sometimes more at home in this world than in the mundane world. Hindus have throughout the ages been the pioneers discovering many of the mysteries of these magical realms, more than any other civilization in the history of the world, and have made sciences out of them; Hindus have brought back the riches of those realms and shared them unselfishly with the world at large.
What a travesty it would be if we were to give up the riches of this heritage out of some silly shame, some desire to reduce ourselves to the level of the gross and material and merely physical, just to fit in, just to be like everyone else. Let us have some humility before the majestic leela of Iswara and acknowledge that there are some mysteries and magic that our senses and scientific instruments are yet too immature to discern; let us embrace our heritage and traditions with the gratitude for all they have bestowed upon us as a civilization; let us maintain the practices and spiritual sciences that benefit us individually and collectively; let us work to preserve the diversity and heterogeneity of practices and beliefs within the family of Hindu traditions, including those we may not personally like; let us remember the cautionary words of Hamlet to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(References made available in the next page)
[ii] Bhanu Pratap Singh, “You will become country’s President one day, predicts Smriti Irani’s astrologer,” Times of India, November 24, 2014, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/You-will-become-countrys-President-one-day-predicts-Smriti-Iranis-astrologer/articleshow/45261419.cms.
[iv] Damian Carrington, “Eating less meat essential to curb climate change, says report,” The Guardian, December 2, 2014.
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