Feb 23, 2008

Hindu. Who? Part 1

By Blokes aka Meenakshi

Religious conversions make interesting news and the secular media in India and the world-wide media interested in India enjoy this topic the most. When I was growing up in India, studying in English medium schools, my world view was different from the worldview I was exposed to, through the learning of Tamizh and Samskritam.

It was later, when I did my Masters in French Literature, that it finally dawned on me how our worldview is determined to a large extent by the very language we speak. The great linguist of our times, Chomsky makes this the very basis of his linguistical theory. We perceive this world through the lens of our language. The classic example given is the number of words in the Icelandic tongue to denote snow and ice while in Tamizh, we have one common word that means all kinds of precipitation, forms of water from snow to mist!

I revisited the languages I was forced to learn at school (Tamizh, Hindi, Samskritam) with the above information and went back to read some books written on the subject of Ancient India and Hinduism in English, Tamizh and Samskritam. What I learned was astounding.

In Samskritam, the Prathama Purusha (or primary person) is actually what we call the Third Person in English. The Madhyama Purusha (or middle person) is the Second Person and Uttama Purusha (Elevated person) is the First Person in English. I remember my Samskritam teacher telling us why this order was thus: She said that when we first observe the world, we see "The Other" first and ourselves last. It takes much courage to see ourselves and therefore needs maturity. Hence Uttama for the English's First Person. Therein lies one of the clues towards what happened with 200 plus years of English language learning in India.

I then went back a little further to see what resulted with the Islamic invasions of India from the 10th century CE. What impact did Farsi and Arabic have on Indian languages and Indian texts? Many scholarly texts in Samskritam come to light from this period in, of all places, Kashmir. From the touch and feel of these detailed treaties on Agama shastra (dealing with details on rituals) and Tantra (Mysticism) it made me wonder again. Some of the lyrical ballads and romantic stories of kings (like Lalitaaditya) belong to this period. Kamban retells the Ramayana in Tamizh around the same time. Nambi Aandar Nambi consolidates the Saivite verses of Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavasagar. A few Charyapadas, poetic verses in a precursor language of Bengali, Assamese and Oriya belonging to this time have been found in a Nepali Museum. Kannada offers a rich range of works that include poetry and treaties. Nanayya, honored as the Aadi Kavi (First Poet) in Telugu, begins to retell the Mahabharatha in this period. What about the rest of India? Where are the texts in other languages?

Two centuries later, we see Amir Khusro, a feted poet with the Khilji patronage. He certainly appears to have assimilated the Vedic principle of "Who am I?" and proceeds to nourish the philosophy of the Sufi. This is the golden Bhakti Period of India. Sant Dnyaneshwar writes a 9000 verse Dnyaneshwari, a commentary on The Bhagavat Gita. From Kabir, Namdev to Mirabai, Soordas and Tulsidas, this period is rife with new materials in many languages across the sub continent.

Prior to the advent of Islam was the widespread acceptance and practice of Buddhism and Jainism across the sub continent including the highly endemic South. Researching literary texts, yet another problem surfaces. Timelines.

Prior to the British and their Gregorian calendar, the Mohammedan calendar was accepted throughout the Muslim ruled parts of the sub continent. However, earlier biographies of saints, kings and scholars are placed in time by the ancient vedic calendar of Yuga count. Every dynasty and saint is being squeezed into a post Christian era time frame and that does not make any sense in the development of language, philosophy, culture and dynasty as we see it in an integrated fashion.

According to Vaishnava tradition, Aandal, the author of the Thiruppavai is said to have been born on Kali Yuga year 98, Adi (Ashata month, July-August), Shukla Chathurthi, Tuesday under the Puram star in SRIVILLPUTHUR in the Pandiya dynasty but according to modern historians, it is "sometime" in the 8th century. Likewise, with the date of Adi Shankara. According to Shankara Maths (Dwaraka, Puri and Kanchi) he was born at Kaladi on the fifth day (Panchami) of the bright fortnight (Shuklapaksha) of the Vaisaka month (April-May) of the cyclic year Nandana - Kali 2593 corresponding to 509 B.C. while modern historians believe his time to be "mid-late" 8th Century CE.

Thus, we are left with a fuzzy "idea" of a timeline that does not fit in many dynasties and names. It appears as though some of these kings ruled for a few years and yet, we have "foreign" eyewitness accounts that say that they witnessed benign rule and that people were happy and prosperous. This makes absolutely no sense. People were writing on rocks and copperplates. There was no fax and email. In such a world, how can we assimilate changed rulership so quickly and be prosperous? It took three centuries to get a Telugu translation of the Mahabharatha with three poets working on it with royal patronage! And we speak of saints and rulers zipping through time according to "modern historians". I am yet to know who these "modern historians" are, by name!

Let us go back to the Jain and Buddhist texts now to see where the dichotomy was with this "ghost" religion called Hinduism. Of the 24 Thirthankaras enumerated, the 1st, Adinath or Rishabha finds mention in the Bhagavatham as an Avatar of the Lord and according to Jain traditions, is said to have brought agriculture to his people. In the Bhagavatham, Balarama with his plough is said to have introduced agriculture to his people. Either way, there is no timeline to even take a guess as to when this Thirthankara lived. Here again the timeline problem. (If "modern historians" worked with the premise that the Hindu calendar had some veracity, many a timelines and dynasties and human history can be brought to light. The field of anthropology will be of greater help than archeology for this effort.)

While the reading of the Jain texts clearly shows us the greatness of the path of austerity, nowhere is there a "hatred" for Hinduism (no evidence of this word in any form in any Jain, Buddhist or "Hindu" texts themselves) or "Sanathan Dharma". Some social and religious practices that arise over a period of time have been denounced, as they should be in all free societies. Seers and saints have consistently pointed out the divergence of common man from the righteous path and the methodology used to bring them back have been varied. So again, where is all this pro "Hindu" and anti "Hindu" talk coming from?

Personally, I think this is the greatest myth perpetrated by the British in the English media by forms of books and erudite, research papers that finds continuance to this day. It is a lot easier to fight battles against "ghosts" as these are based on fear and imagination than actualities. The sad part is nobody knows what anyone is fighting for or against anymore! Thiruvalluvar says in one of his Thirukkurals, "Yepporul yaar yaar vaai ketpinum Apporul meiporul kaanbadarivu": The wise have the ability to discern the Truth from all its many apparitions.

More on Hindu. Who? in Part 2

PS: Couldn't find a single book, written by an Indian author (many by Western authors available. I wonder how the Jews will respond to a Hindu writing canonical treaties on The Kabalah or The Torah, let alone a Muslim or Christian letting an Infidel or Kafir on commenting on the Koran or Bible) on Amazon that had a picture of the cover. Reason: All were published in India by non-Western publishing houses. This can be taken up as a project with partnerships with the Adyar Library, Asiatic Society Library and others.

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