Reforming Hindu Traditions
Dr. Sunil Deepak, 28 October 2019
Last year, I had spent a few days in Rishikesh where a chance meeting with a Swami ji had given me a different perspective about reforms in Hinduism. Today while reading about the Diwali related pollution, I remembered that meeting.
Yesterday for the Diwali night, in many big cities of India, there were calls for not bursting crackers to avoid worsening the environmental pollution. There were also some persons who complained that Hinduism has become a target of this kind of campaigns which ignore the less-desirable practices linked with other religions. This post is about a discussion with a Swami ji from Rishikesh about bringing reforms in Hinduism.
Rishikesh is the last mountain town where the river Ganges passes before reaching the plains in Haridwar. I had been to Rishikesh a few times as a child. My most memorable visit was in early 1968 with my maternal uncle. At that time, Beatles had just visited the ashram of the Guru Mahesh Yogi and this had brought international spotlight on this obscure town. Therefore, we had also gone to visit Mahesh Yogi and I remember him as a man with white hair and white beard, with an endearing smile, sitting on a cot wearing a spotless white dhoti. He had explained to us the principles of transcendental meditation, by drawing an arrow going deep inside the head, on a paper. During that visit, I had seen from a distance, one of the Beatles, Ringo Starr, and the actress Mia Farrow.
Last year when I went to Rishikesh, I had vague memories of those old journeys. I went to look for the old ashram of Mahesh Yogi but it was closed and covered with overgrown vegetation. This part of Rishikesh has now many new ashrams and there is a new huge white statue of Shiva built in the middle of the river.
As the river Ganges comes down, the old town of Rishikesh is located along its left bank, near the area of Triveni Ghat. All the ashrams and yoga centres of Rishikesh are located to the north of the old town, along the opposite side of the river. There are two pedestrian bridges in northern part of Rishikesh to cross the river - Ram Jhula bridge and Laxman Jhula bridge. Most foreigners and better-off Indians prefer staying in northern Rishikesh along the right bank, while ordinary pilgrims prefer staying in the old city near Triveni Ghat on the left bank.
I was staying near Triveni Ghat and spent a great deal of time sitting along the river bank, with my feet in the ice-cold river waters, talking to old men and women who had come here on pilgrimage from different parts of India. I had heard that the river in Rishikesh was dirty and polluted but actually I found it to be quite clean (even in Haridwar it was clean) and persons were not throwing anything in the river. Every afternoon, underneath the trees of Triveni Ghat, persons gathered in small groups and discussed. These discussions were usually very down-to-earth and mixed an earthy humour and occasional obscenity with the spirituality.
In the evenings I went to the Ganga-aarti held on the riverbank. This practice has been started a few years ago and every evening brings a lot of persons to visit this part of the city. It was nice to hear the priests exhort the visitors to treat the river Ganga mai (mother Ganges) with respect and help to keep it clean. Perhaps that was the reason, the river was so clean?
Meeting the Swami
The Swami ji was much younger to me, probably around 40 years and was clean shaven. He wore the kesariya cloth of renunciation and seemed well educated. I met him near Bharat temple, which is one of the oldest and most beautiful temples in Rishikesh. He was from West Bengal and I talked to him about my experience of living in Assam. I was curious to ask him what had brought him to the path of renunciation, but felt a bit embarassed, it seemed like a very personal question to ask to an occasional acquaintance.
We started talking about Upanishads and I explained to him my fascination with Katho-upanishad, which tells the story of Nachiketa's visit to Yama, the God of death and their discussions about the meanings of life and death. He was very knowledgable and recited different shlokas from that book, explaining his understanding of it.
Then he asked me if I had been to the Ganga-aarti? During this aarti a group of young Brahmins do a choreographed dancing prayer holding metal lamp-stands full of burning lamps, which has a great visual impact. I explained to him that for me, the teachings of Upanishads held the real meaning of Hinduism and I did not have much faith in rituals like aarti. I had found aesthetic pleasure in the choreography of the burning lamps and prayers sung by the faithful, but not any spiritual connection to it.
My comments about the aarti provoked a discussion during which Swami ji explained to me his understanding of Hinduism. He said, Hinduism is like Ganges, a river made of a lot of different streams. There is the spiritual stream with an abstract view of God, and this stream finds a value in the sacred books of Veda and Upanishad. There are many other streams. Like the Vaishnav stream of belief which is practiced in Assam by the followers of Shrimanta Shankar Dev, which focuses on Bhagwat Puran and does not have any idols. However, according to him the biggest stream of Hinduism is that of simple persons who believe in the different Gods, in the different avatars of Vishnu and in the stories of Ramayan and Mahabharat. For them, the stories of Ram, Krishen and Shiva are the bedrock of their faith, these are felt as true in a material sense.
Swami ji felt that many of the present problems of Hinduism were caused by the disconnect between persons believing in different streams of the religion. Most of the highly educated Hindus among the thinkers, writers, academics and other influential groups are like me, who appreciate the higher teachings of Gita, Veda and Upanishad but do not have the simple faith of common persons in their Gods.
"Persons like you, you dominate the society and what you say is taken up by TV and newspapers. You do not believe in Gods and Goddesses but you give your advice on what should be done about Hinduism. How to celebrate our festivals, where to make our temple, how big should be the statue, how to reform our traditions, you know everything and you want to take all the decisions for all the Hindus. The simple people for whom Ram, Sita, Krishna and Shiva are real, their opinions are considered as inferior and unimportant. This is creating problems in our society because they are the majority but they do not have a voice and people like you are a minority but you have a big influence", he said.
My point was that if a festival like Diwali creates pollution because of crackers or if we use Plaster of Paris statues covered with chemical paints at Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja and after the festivals, throw them into rivers & create pollution, then something has to be done. Why can't we find another way to celebrate these festivals without feeling that others are persecuting us? Our religions need to change with the changed reality of the world.
He said that reforms must come from within, they can't be imposed by others. According to him we need persons like Mahatma Gandhi, or Guru who understand the bigger picture and who share the faith of common Hindu - they can bring a change from the grassroots. He also felt that prime minister Modi was promoting such a change in terms of cleanliness and sanitation. It will be slow change, but it will be a lasting change, he had concluded.
The words of that Swami ji have remained with me and I have reflected on them. I can see that I have a certain intellectual way of being a Hindu, I do not really believe in temple-rituals or Gods. I like visiting temples, just like I like visiting churches, museums and art exhibitions, for an aesthetic pleasure.
There is a lot about Hinduism in India, as it is lived by millions of persons, which I don't really understand - from Kanwariyas who walk for hundreds of kilometres to collect water from Ganges for their temples, to the pilgrims who spend weeks on the road for festivals like Ambubashi or Kumbha Mela - I understand all of it in an intellectual way but I can't understand the simple faith which moves these people.
The question is how can we promote a grass-root change in them? According to the Swami, the reformist movement has to come from them, and from their gurus and other persons in whom they have faith. These can't be forced by laws. In a way I understand this point, I had written about it in relation to the Sabarimala judgement. But I am not convinced about the role of persons like me, who believe in Hindu spirituality but do not have the simple faith, don't we have any role in promoting reforms?
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