The current post is an adaptation of a post I wrote in December 2012 on Rajiv Malhotra’s discussion forum. The context was the following video of a NRI Hindu youth conference, presided over by Rajiv Malhotra, in which a Brahma Kumari representative, when asked about the relevance of a Hindu religious identity, given that we are all ‘children of God,’ offered the typical neo-Hindu, neo-Vedanta answer of the human identity being that of a soul whose religion is peace.

Summary of the issue

Watch the video for the full discussion (from 18.15), of which I provide here a summary:

The issue raised by a questioner was that Hindu identity is important at the surface level but one should not be too stuck up on it. Just as all (gold) ornaments are ultimate gold, as Hinduism itself teaches, when one goes deeper, the Hindu identity becomes irrelevant.

Rajiv’s answer was that the oneness taught in Advaita is true at a certain level of consciousness, at which there would be no duality, no clash between gods and demons, etc. But we are not at that level. In the world in which we live, there is difference between dharma and adharma, there is karma (action and accountability) and duality, even if it is all mithya and māyā in an ultimate sense. It is typical of Indians that when it comes to their individual welfare they are very conscious of their self-identity. They want the best deal for themselves. But when they are asked to defend the dharma, they raise issues about the ultimate reality of identity. Therefore, Rajiv concluded, if you want to advocate a dharma without identity, then you should first give up your personal identity (possessions, etc.) and become a sannyāsin.

Rajiv was corrected here by another member of the panel that the interrogator was not belittling the importance of the Hindu identity but stating that we cannot push it too far and need to realize that we are all ultimately ‘children of God.’

At this point the Brahma Kumari lady stepped in and said that the true identity crisis is about the ‘I’. When one says that ‘I am Hindu’ or ‘I am Muslim’ or ‘I am Christian,’ and so on, the ‘I’ refers in reality to the soul and its dharma is peace. But when this identity is occluded by body consciousness i.e. one thinks of the ‘I’ as the body rather than the soul, then all religions begin. Everybody i.e. people of all religions want peace.

Rajiv countered this by stating that in Hindu thought there is adhyātma which teaches you to deconstruct the self, give up all worldly identities, etc. But there is also the laukika – the social world. Dharma is both. You are an adhyātmika person in a laukika world and so you also have to live according to the time, place and context. While the inner quest may be to become free of all identities, there is also a role to play in the outer world.

The inner quest is about the discovery of the capital ‘I’ but there is also the lowercase ‘i’ which is the identity in the socio-political world. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the latter and not the former, about which a lot of discussions were already taking place. There is adhyātmavidyā which you should practise in private and laukikavidyā for living in the world as a Hindu.

There is much to be said about this whole issue and I will write more in other posts to elaborate on matters that I have briefly touched here. What follows is my reflection on the foregoing discussion which I posted in December 2012. While Rajiv had connected the problem of modern Hindu spiritualism, indifferent to a socio-political identity rooted in the mundane world, with contemporary gurus, I have traced its genealogy to Vivekananda.

My Post

This debate is interesting because it gets at the core of what is called neo-Hinduism. I am also alluding here to the recent post where Rajiv mentioned that the attacks on Being Different by Rambachan and so on, parallel the attacks on Vivekananda. I approach this issue with mixed feelings for while I do support Rajiv’s cause, I think Vivekananda as the architect of neo-Hinduism is at least partially responsible for the confusion caused by the ‘guru movements’. Let me explain how.

(1) I think the BK lady articulated what has now become the grand narrative of modern Hinduism. Its origin lies in the so-called Schopenhauerian ethic which has influenced many Vedantic scholars, including Vivekananda. In the ‘Philosophy of the Upaniṣads,’ Paul Deussen, one of Schopenhauer’s disciples, remarks along these lines:

The Bible teaches that we must love our neighbour. But why should we? Because, the Upaniṣads say, your neighbour is your own self.

He thus saw the Upaniṣads as complementing the Bible. What impressed Deussen about the Upaniṣads is that unlike the Bible which explains all moral commands as God’s will, they offered a philosophy for social ethic.

(2) This has now become also the position of Vedanta. The Christian critique of Vedanta is that it is too selfish in that one strives for one’s own self-realization and does not care about the world. Intellectuals such as Vivekananda used the Schopenhauerian ethic to address this problem. To be Brahman means to realise that everything including oneself is Brahman and thus to serve the world as Brahman. From the former realisation proceeds the latter action. This has unfortunately become the modern self-understanding of Hinduism. To be a Hindu means, ironically, to know that one is not in fact a Hindu but an individual soul and through this self-realisation serve the world as a manifestation of the universal soul since the individual and universal soul are one.

(3) Based on my reading of Vivekananda’s speeches, I think that he not only endorsed but was probably one of the authors of this narrative. Furthermore, he (or his followers) have wrongly claimed this view to be that of Śaṅkara (see The Limits of Scripture: Vivekananda’s Reinterpretation of the Vedas by Anantanand Rambachan) which I have attempted to differentiate below. I do realise that many people on this forum have the utmost reverence for Vivekananda and so I would like to clarify that my intention is neither to give offence nor to show disrespect. Neither is my distinction between Vivekananda and Śaṅkara’s ideas based on the same reason as Rambachan’s, who takes issue with Vivekananda’s privileging of mystical experience over scriptural authority. I don’t think even Rambachan would disagree with this narrative as such, only he would like it to be based rationally on scripture than on one’s own mystical experience.

(4) I completely agree with and appreciate Rajiv’s attempt to formulate a distinctive laukika Hindu identity instead of this warm and fuzzy spiritualism that dominates Hindu thought today. In this endeavour it would be useful to understand how Śaṅkara’s views differ from Vivekananda’s. In the Adhyāsa-bhāṣya, which is the introduction to his Brahmasūtra-bhāṣya, Śaṅkara has distinguished between pramāṇa-prameya-vyavahāra which is the pre-reflective fight-or-flight kind of responses common to all living creatures including humans, and a reflective, identity-based śāstriya-vyavahāra which is specific to humans. The identities under consideration in Śaṅkara’s time were the four varṇas and āśramas. Today the identity for which we have to establish a śāstriya-vyavahāra is Hindu.

(5) Of course, Śaṅkara was categorical that jñāna is superior to karma and mokṣa is realised only through jñāna. Śāstriya-vyavahāra, based as it is on worldly identities, is also a form of avidyā but that does not mean, as Arjuna finds out in the Gītā, that everyone is eligible for jñāna. Every living being automatically undertakes the path of karma but only a privileged few can tread the path of jñāna.

Śaṅkara explains in his Gītā-bhāṣya that the pravṛtti-dharma assigned to varṇas and āśramas is relatively inferior and meant for worldly and heavenly prosperity only, but when it is selflessly performed, it leads to sattva-śuddhi. This sattvaśuddhi makes one eligible for nivṛtti-dharma, i.e., the path of jñāna leading to mokṣa. This serial ordering of pravṛtti and nivṛtti is relevant even today, only the pravṛtti-dharma that addressed varṇa and āśrama identities in the traditional world needs reinterpretation and readjustment to address a Hindu identity for the modern world [since it is the Hindu identity which dominates our consciousness today than membership of a varṇa and āśrama].

(6) Contrary to Śaṅkara’s view, Vivekananda and contemporary Hindu intellectuals, including the BK lady, see nivṛtti as the basis for an ethical pravṛtti. This is following the Christian model where the will of God is seen as the basis of worldly ethics. All that the modern Hindus did was to replace God’s will with nivṛtti and claimed, following Deussen and such-like, that it is a more appropriate basis for morality and therefore superior to Western religions. But this has only Christianised us and made us more susceptible to digestion.

In Śaṅkara’s model this order is reversed. Pravṛtti has its basis in the śāstras and not in nivṛtti. In our case that means we must first have a śāstric, i.e., a worldly understanding of a Hindu identity that is reflective and scholarly, and selflessly profess this meaning in everyday life. This way we attain sattva-śuddhi and then, and only then, do we become eligible to make the idealistic claim that Hindu identity is only another form of ignorance and move beyond it to realise ourselves as the soul or whatever else.

(7) Just as colonialism encouraged certain interpretations of varṇa/jāti, so did it encourage an understanding of religion as selfless service to humanity based on a non-denominational, divine self-realisation, and a corresponding disregard towards the intellectual interpretation of tradition. Vivekananda was as much a victim of this shift for he dismissed, as did Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the argumentative aspect of Vedānta as ‘intellectual gymnastics.’ Such thinking has caused great harm to the tradition and has produced the current crop of anti-intellectual gurus and mātās.

But there is nothing hypocritical about them performing the activities Rajiv mentions. When you take their model of religion into consideration, as explained above, it makes perfect sense. So my answer to Rajiv’s question [which I assume now he has made at some point in the video] regarding the current confusion among Hindus, ‘where did this come from, and who is accountable for this?’ would be not the gurus but this anti-intellectual paradigm that they follow. But it is a paradigm that has been endorsed and promoted not just by ordinary gurus but by the who’s who of our tradition. So it is going to be a real uphill struggle fighting against it. We can take comfort, however, in that we have allies in our past.

Rajiv’s comment on my post

First I agree with Ashay that SV co-founded modern Hinduism, which its critics call neo-Hinduism. This had many good and bad things in it. Sameness was one of its curses that we live with today. This was due to SV and others having difference anxiety from below. But it also did many good things – unifying various diverse schools, modernizing it in line with new science and other developments, which is not anything wrong and our tradition calls for this evolution.

There has been at least a dozen such “new” movements in our history, including several within Vedanta itself. Please Note: Being Different (BD) unifies dharmas without also including Abrahamic religions in the same fold. This is where the pioneers failed last time around. In unifying Hinduism, the arguments became too generic and could not differentiate other religions. If you get this point, you will appreciate why the BD project is so challenging to do and why BD can make a big difference if it is understood: How to show unity of dharma in a manner such that it shows difference with Abrahamic faiths?

But there is a second truth that I am concerned about. Rambachan is a member of a school of social constructivism that is basically undermining Hinduism in total. Not Rambachan himself is not rejecting Hinduism in total, but those who use the arguments and base established by this school end up claiming that: Hinduism = Hindu Nationalism = Fascism = Exploitation of minorities, dalits, etc. I am in the middle of writing a short book arguing against this school that was started by western Indologists and now is very popular amongst many Indians. These two truths correspond to two camps and we must fight both.