A Start-Up, But This One Is For The Soul

Hindol Sengupta

Dec 31, 2015, 11:46 PM | Updated Feb 10, 2016, 05:18 PM IST

Hinduism teaches that your prayers are truly directed, in a sense, not to an externality, but to yourself. Excerpts from Hindol Sengupta’s pathbreaking book, Being Hindu.

One of the last things I received as a nudge towards finishing this book was the American philosopher Alan Watts The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. The friend who gave this to me thought Watts’ book ought to be one of the last things I read on the subject before I finish BeingHindu.

Watts’ writing draws from a variety of Eastern sources of engaging with the divine, from Hinduism to Buddhism and Jainism, but this particular book is extremely dedicated to applying the Vedanta in the world that the writer saw around him.

In it, Watts takes the very basic idea of the Vedanta and constructs a way of life that could be led on that basis. What is that idea? That idea is that there is no difference between you, or me, and the rest of the world that we see around us. At the very fundamental level there is unity, not difference.

Everything that we do ought to raise us to a greater awareness of this unity. As Seamus Heaney wrote,

“Here on earth my labours were stepping stones to upper air/ Lives that suffer and come right/ Are backlit by immortal light.”

But almost everything we do actually does not. I wrote this book because I have lived my entire adult life in India, where the question of faith seems to consistently creep into our public and private existence. It has been deeply present in our political lives and certainly unavoidable in our social lives. But I could not, in my readings, find a contemporary record of going through the many pulls and pressures, the everyday friction of considering God.

Our education system—though it is always called a system, is perhaps better described as our education anarchy—seemed certainly inadequate to deal with a question that raises its head at the most inadequate moments.

There were gods and goddesses at home and prayers and hymns at school. The festivals and holidays were full of them. Names of the Almighty were whispered when one was unwell, was being tucked into bed, and when people arrived or left home—a small prayer to wish them safe travel. There was no place where a bit of religion did not turn up. When one was thrilled or when something was achieved, one was told to give thanks in His name. “Jao thakur ke pronam kore esho,” (Go say a prayer of thanks to God) my mother would say. One would dutifully take off the rubber slippers one wore at home, scrape the feet on the coir mat outside the little puja ghar at one corner of the house and say a little prayer. The words of that prayer are what I always mutter even today,

Thakur, bhakti dao, subuddhi dao Tomate moti dao, gyan dao.

(God, please give me devotion, [good] intelligence, set my mind on you, grant me wisdom)

In this prayer, I later realized, lay hidden the deepest desires and anxieties of my parents and also their most overwhelming humility and simplicity, for what were they teaching me to ask for? This was not a prayer that could be found in any book or sermon or hymn. This was the invention of my parents. This came straight from the most reticent recesses of their simple hearts.

It took me years to understand this, but the dominant theme in the life of my parents was fear. They were the children of the Partition. Their parents had left what is now Bangladesh and everything they owned there, fleeing to India. The stories they heard as children were in equal measure redolent of a fertile past and merciless slaughter.

My parents had the instinct of loss hardwired in them. They did not remember the sights, nor recall the smells, but they had been told stories. Those stories told them that the world was not to be trusted, and one never entirely let the guard down.

It also taught them another thing. My grandmother used to tell me, “All you really have lies inside your head.” In summer afternoons when I lay in bed listening to her stories from her village in Bangladesh, about the big fishes in the ponds, the meals cooked every day to feed at least one hundred people and endless rice fields wherever you looked, I wondered what that meant. How can all that we have be in our head? Did I not have the house we lived in? The clothes? What about my mother’s brass utensils? My father’s old wrist watch? Our new clothes bought every Durga Puja?

One day, while saying the little prayer my parents taught to me, I finally understood what my grandmother meant. It was all hidden in that prayer. What did my parents ask me to pray for? Devotion, intelligence and also wisdom. Curiously, for people who had only heard stories all their lives from their parents about how much they had lost during Partition, their plea was not for material well-being, nor for a roof over their head or food to eat, but a sound mind. All you have, they understood, lies in your head.

But in the years when I began to, on rote, repeat this prayer, no one explained to me what it really meant and why it was of use to me. No one told me what do to with this thing called God. What did we have to do with religion? What could we?

We stumbled upon God, as we had stumbled upon so many other things. Where was the book or the person who would tell us, as Alan Watts realized that “true humour is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself”. But where was that self whose knowledge we needed to gain? Who would or could guide us to that soul? We had no answers.

In his book, Alan Watts addresses what he sees as the fundamental disconnect that many Christians feel from the idea of God as explained by that faith, and he explains that it has to do with the monochromatic image of God as the father figure. “Our Father, who are in heaven”—it all begins from that image, says Watts. This reflects in the lives of ordinary people too, he says, where children see the male parent as someone who goes away each day to earn money that is then spent at home.

“The younger members of our society have for some time been in growing rebellion against paternal authority and the paternal state. For one reason, the home in an industrial society is chiefly a dormitory, and the father does not work there, with the result that wife and children have no part in his vocation. He is just a character who brings in money, and after working hours he is supposed to forget about his job and gave fun,” wrote Watts.

“All this is further aggravated by the fact that parents no longer educate their own children. Thus the child does not grow up with understanding of or enthusiasm for his father’s work.”

When I read this, I wondered two things. First, it dawned upon me that I had had no insight or education into the profession that my father spent all his life in—that of a railway civil engineer. I was proud that he had helped build India’s first metro or tube railway networks in two cities—Calcutta and Delhi—but I knew nothing else about his work. What did he do very day when he went to work? What were his dreams and aspirations? The truth is I did not know, and even today, do not know as much I should. What did this lack of knowledge really mean? It meant that for me my father, and my mother remained access points to material and emotional succour. I knew little about them, and what I did seemed disturbingly transactional. This also made me think of my understanding of God and myself. Who was I a supplicant to?

What kind of transactions was I trying to effect with God? Why was I encouraged, like so many millions of my co-religionists, to quickly barter some blessings from God every time there was trouble?

How many Hindus really know why they pray? What do the mantras mean, and why do they mouth them? No one taught us to understand that the act of prayer is really inward, not outward, and that in the act of seeking all you can ever hope to receive is the understanding of that which lies within you.

We grow up believing that to pray is to reach out to the external, that which lies outside of us. All the while, in reality, we are seeking something that lies within us. Our relationship with God, we are led to believe when we grow older, is irrational hocus pocus. It is not just embarrassingly naïve but condemnably stupid to be discussing matters like faith. The opium of the masses is not for us, for we are, presumably, not the masses.

Our ideologies are external, as also our notions of home. The first buds of civilization are ever so often dismissed as maudlin, regressively sentimental and precociously brushed away as “conditioning”.

But the idea of God, like the idea of home, never quite goes away. Especially if you have grown up with that idea popping up everywhere, from calendar art to holiday feasts. This is why understanding how you or I feel about it, how we negotiate it, how we address it and what it means to us is so important.

The cultural historian Peter Gay in his ambitious study of modernism described it as “far easier to exemplify than describe”. The reason why we need or seek this ephemeral idea called God is also that—far easier to exemplify than describe. The more I thought about this, the more I understood that this journey of understanding God, which is also one’s real self, opens to us our most complicated needs. For instance, our need to be vulnerable.

What is prayer if not a lesson in the profound power of vulnerability? Prayer teaches us that to be vulnerable is to be human, even alive.

But the idea that one prays for external sustenance is not the basis of the sanatan dharma. Wonderfully, if you contemplate this, Hinduism teaches that your prayers are truly directed, in a sense, to yourself.

You are praying to yourself. That kind of blows your mind to begin with, and then there is a trickle of recognition that this is curiously liberating. It brings a new perspective to what has been thought of as primitive. You start to recognize that the power of prayer, for instance, is a process of addressing long- neglected parts of your psyche. It is the process of truth telling, to yourself. I was once asked if Hinduism had its own version of the confessional chamber, where a priest calmly listens to your admission of guilt and frailty. I pondered on that and came to the conclusion that sanatana dharma did in fact have a sense of disgorging the truths from the soul, with one difference—the confession here is to oneself. The speaker and the listener is you.

So, I felt that understanding how we relate to God is far from futile. Understanding how you relate to the idea which you turn to, sometimes perhaps almost embarassingly in your most helpless moments, can hardly be useless. In fact, it is entirely seminal in our individual journeys. It is only through this travel that we come to appreciate that there isn’t one individual journey; it is the manifestation of the larger path the universe takes.

Alan Watts described the Vedanta’s view on this as the third way.

Apart from both the “sacred individual—the unique personal ego, separate from both nature and God” (essentially the extreme capitalist view of man) and the (Communist view) of man as “the cog in the industrial-collectivist machine, or the mere ‘hand’” (as the factory worker is often called), the third way is what the Vedanta prescribes and Watts describes as, the human being “seen …as one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself—as an incarnation of the self, of the godhead, or whatever one may choose to call it.”

The realization of this is the step-by-step process of understanding the idea of God and the process of prayer.

Why do we fail to appreciate this? Perhaps because we are been led to believe that searching for anything that even remotely talks about God is somehow old-fashioned, if not barbaric.

The beauty of Hinduism is that sanatana dharma and its principles are so fundamental universal, and so personal, that the question of them being dated does not arise. How can your search for yourself become regressive?

To debate what constitutes a “good Hindu” is futile and dangerously veers towards the old “good Muslim/bad Muslim” trap. It is infinitely better to chart out acceptable ideologies in our times. For instance, discrimination on the basis of birth is unacceptable, no matter which ritual, faith or priest says so.

Finally, it is the ethics of the ideology and not the subjective ethics of the applicant that ought to determine the trajectory of a religion.

Therefore, the idea worth promoting is that any Hindu seeking to understand his faith ought to turn to its core, its philosophies and not its penances. It is on the generosity of Hinduism that a true Hindu identity can be built.

It is, in short, tougher than ever perhaps to be God, but only if you see God as a distant, mythical entity. Otherwise, you would have to argue that it has never been tougher to be you, isn’t it?

In the age of start-ups, wherein every aspect of human life is, once again, being reimagined, and we are being told that everything will be “disrupted”, there is now an urgent need to build a new kind of start-up.

Why do we need such a start-up? What are we trying to disrupt? What, to be honest, ought to be disrupted? Maybe our sense of self? It is worth thinking about, is it not, where we draw our sense of self from? And how can we renegotiate the lines that give us an identity?

A start-up that will enable us to see that the pursuit of happiness is always bound to fail if there is a pursuit. Happiness, like God-realization, comes from within, but as always, we have externalized something to be pursued. But what if a new start-up, a new disruptive way of thinking about our lives could tell us that anything we imagine to be outside us that we need to find, hunt down, conquer, possess, own, capture, putbehind lock and key, well, that thing then, is unlikely to make us happy?

It is like that image so many of us were so enamoured by when we were young—that of a naked Howard Roark standing on a cliff and laughing, the ultimate Ayn Rand vision of a world and nature, conquered by the sheer will of man.

Read the following paragraphs carefully. Most likely you have read them before. But perhaps I could convince you to relook at them. Try and re-analyse with me their message and its worldview.

“Howard Roark laughed.
 He stood naked at the edge of a cliff… The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff… His face was like a law of nature—a thing one could not question, alter or implore. It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth… He looked at the granite. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.”

It is a tantalizingly addictive image, isn’t it? There is something about the idea of man being in supreme control of his will. But this kind of control is the antithesis of the supreme divine power of man that Vivekananda spoke about.


Read the words carefully. Through it all flows the notion of the supremacy of man on all his surveys, the sense that it all exists to be conquered by man, while man stands aloof and arrogant from it all, confident of his hegemony, his ultimate victory in a conflict to dominate and subjugate all that he surveys.

Every description that Ayn Rand lined up for her hero was drained of what she saw as weak-kneed sentimentality. Roark is gaunt-cheeked, his eyes are cold and his mouth and veneer contemptuous. One sees what Rand was aiming at. A refugee from the excesses of Communism, she was painting the heroic individual against the tyranny of the masses, the superego versus the cog in the wheel; and in each, the superego wins.

But the world of the Vedantin recognizes the futility of both these approaches. And it is because these are the choices that the world mostly throws at us that we need a sense of our relationship with ourselves, with a mystery that goes deep into our subconscious.

Ours is a world that serves sermons in playbooks for children and in self-help books for adults. The book we need though ought to do neither. It merely needs to push us to use that sense of rational morality that Gandhi preached, of which he said,

“I have no hesitation in rejecting scriptural authority of a doubtful character… Indeed I would reject all scriptural authority if it is in conflict with sober reason or the dictates of the heart. Authority sustains and ennobles the weak when it is the hand-work of reason, but it degrades them when it supplants reason sanctified by the still small voice within.”

We need a new kind of start-up that helps us answer the questions within because no matter how many questions we address without, unless the ones within are answered, there cannot be peace. These answers do not need to be discovered. That is perhaps the happiest situation. We already know that they exist. We know where to find them, and we know that they lie in the collective conscious of humankind. What we have not yet managed is a seamless, everyday way for everyone to access the answers, or even start on the process of accessing the answers.

How do you begin? By understanding that if you are going to stand naked on a cliff, enjoy the view and remember that it is all part of you.

Hindol Sengupta is Editor-at-Large, Fortune India.

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