The Westernization of Hinduism and its alienating consequences

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” -Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

“Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  -Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Kali. Image Source.

An old painting of Kali in Kalighat painting style. This is a blend of traditional Bengali folk styles, and European painting. An in-between version of this scene, not as sexualized as ancient depictions, but not as tame as modern ones either.  Image Source.

Westernized or Anglicized Hinduism describes the religious system which is adhered to by most Hindus living in the United States and Britain, as well as by those in the modern Hindu urban elite, middle class, and urban working class. Essentially, any Hindu population which has experienced the impact of a modern education system for a few generations now subscribes to a Westernized variant of the belief system.

Initially I was planning on titling this piece “The Anglicization of Hinduism,” as that is what the bulk of this article pertains to, but that would entail a slight misnomer. This is because aside from morphing under British pressure, the most ancient substratum belief of the Hindu philosophical tree– namely Tantra– has been under a far longer lasting, but less severe morphing due to the influence of Vedic Brahminical tradition which arose in the Western part of the Indian subcontinent. Then, in the British period orthodox Vedic Brahmins eagerly collaborated with the colonial regime. Using it as their vehicle, both the Brahminical and Victorian worldviews, began to permeate the Hindu cultural landscape in unison.

Thus, Hinduism has been “westernized” in two senses: Recent, and rapid influence from Britain, and ancient, gradual influence from Western India. Anglicization and Sanskritization.

Basic Characteristics of Westernized Hinduism in Hindu terms: Modern, Westernized Hinduism is essentially a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, though ISKON (a dualist sect), the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Gandhian Hinduism, and indeed nearly every major Hindu religious movement since 1800 can be characterized as Westernized Hinduism, Anglicized Hinduism, or Neo-Hinduism. It is normally highly monistic, and places an emphasis on Bhakti and/or Karma Yoga. Tantra, especially left-hand path Tantra is conspicuously absent. Most Neo-Hindus see Hinduism both as a specific religion, and also as a meta-religious framework, which encompasses all religions. The most popular text in this branch of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita.  More on all of this later.

Formation of Westernized Hinduism: That covers the Hindu lineage, but there is of course a Western lineage as well. it is also the product of a violent and rapid change in the Indian social order– namely the advent of British colonialism, and eventually modern capitalism. The British Raj accorded a privileged role to Christian values and Western concepts. Starting in about 1858, when the British East India Company was forced to transfer power to the British monarchy, the British began to more actively inject their civilizational model into the subcontinent. The imposition of British political institutions and laws on Indian society, the state the support of British missionaries, the state encouragement of convent education and other forms of British education, and the selection of conservative, orthodox Brahmins for use in writing and interpreting what became “Anglo-Hindu law,” and the uniform application of that law to all of Hindu society, are all examples of this sudden change in traditional Hindu society.

By the early 1900s, huge numbers of Indian elites were being educated either in Britain, or in British schools located in India. This was part of an intentional plan on the part of British rulers, most explicitly formulated in Lord Macaulay’s often repeated quote in his “Minute on Education:”

“I feel with them that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

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Though convent schools have lost some of their once stellar reputation, they are still superior to Indian government schools and are widely popular. Image source

To the degree that such indoctrination was possible, is exactly what occurred in India. British values by and large were adopted by the new Indian elite, and even those who sought to “recover” their heritage did so after having been through Christian and British education. It is these thinkers, people like Ram Mohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore and indeed many of the Tagore family (though arguably not including Rabindranath Tagore), Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Dayananda Saraswati, and the like, who consciously or unconsciously adopted English values and integrated Western and Hindu concepts. Different different thinkers represent this trend to different degrees, (with in my opinion Sri Aurbindo representing the lower extreme and Jawaharal Nehru representing the highest extreme) but it is difficult to find a Hindu thinker of this period with major national or international influence who was not steeped in British ideas.

In this group you’ll find those who critique common Hindu social customs, particularly caste. This itself is not unique, as Hindu leaders had done it for centuries prior to the British. But at this point, they began to talk about Hinduism as being “scientific,” and criticize folk Hindu practices as “superstitious” or “backwards,” all buzzwords adopted from British education and missionary texts. See if the following quote from Roy’s introduction to “The Moonduk Opunishud” (Mundak Upanishad) doesn’t sound like a Hindu who has borrowed some ideas, or at least some language from British missionaries:

“The public will, I hope, be assured that nothing but the natural inclination of the ignorant towards the worship of objects resembling their own nature, and to the external forms of rites palpable to their grosser senses, joined to the self-interested motives of their pretended guides, has rendered the generality of the Hindoo community (in defiance of their sacred books) devoted to idol-worship, the source of prejudice and superstition, and of the total destruction of moral principle, as countenancing criminal intercourse, suicide, female murder, and human sacrifice. Should my labours prove in any degree the means of diminishing the extent of those evils, I shall ever deem myself most amply rewarded.” (English Works of Rammohan Roy, Volume 1, Page 28.)

In the coming years, Roy’s intellectual heirs would elevate the Bhagavad Gita to the level of scriptural authority held by the Vedas and Upanishads (Shruti texts) where it remains today, despite it belonging to a class of texts with traditionally lower grade of authority (Smriti texts). Some scholars (for example Prem Saran in Tantra: Hedonism in Indian Culture, and Agehananda Bharati in “The Hindu Renaissance and its Apologetic Patterns”) attribute this increase in stature to the “Pizza effect” in which the Western world takes interest of a product of Eastern culture, which then consequently gets popular in the East. It should be remembered that the Bhagavad Gita was one of the first Hindu texts to be translated into English, and was more popular in the West than other works of Hindu scripture. Indeed, Gandhi read it in England in English originally. (Very recent trends, counter to the original Westernization trend can also be attributed to the Pizza effect. The popularity of the Western interpretations of Tantra and Yoga in India are some such examples.)

These are some of the personalities I've mentioned.

These are some of the personalities I’ve mentioned in no particular order. From top left to bottom right: Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Mohandas Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.

The eventual belief system which this Hindu Renaissance converged upon has been put, somewhat discourteously, by Agehananda Bharati as follows:

“A radical statement of the tenets of the Renaissance would be: In nuce– India has forgotten her marvelous past; this past contained not only material and cultural wealth, it also offered a complete solution of all problems of the individual and of society. There is nothing-material, spiritual, or cultural-which ancient India has not brought forth. All this was lost, partly through the apathy of her people, partly through hostile conquest from outside. India was the home of perfect men-men who owned wealth and renounced it for the quest of wisdom and purity. The modern world-the West, that is, has usurped the things India has lost. India has to go to the West to learn its techniques . . . though these techniques were borrowed they echo of what had long been lost in India. In matters of the spirit, India has retained its superiority-the West has failed, it has misused its powers. India now can and should have both the worlds: She can learn the tricks of the West, but she must live the teachings of perfection as only her ancients knew it. Hence, the man who lives and preaches these truths in a new language, must be sought out and honored. What is the gist of those total-solution yielding teachings? It is all contained in the Vedas and in the Gita, it is all in the words of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Sivananda, etc.: All religions are one, and the theological differences, the varying concepts of God are unimportant; yet, of all these concepts, the Indian concept is the noblest and the most profound; it is the most “scientific,” it is universal. Society is corrupt: The Indian social system is bad, because misinterpretations and willful manipulations of the ancient lore have made India a slave to its divisive tendencies-the true teachings of India deny divisions, deny caste by birth, and teach that one must live in the world and yet seek the truth which is hidden beneath the modern Indian’s diffidence. To this final quest everything is of secondary importance-yet, because karma-yoga is the call of the day, Indians must cast off their slothfulness and achieve the divine through active social engagement. ” (Agehananda Bharati in The Hindu Renaissance and its Apologetic Patterns)

Of course this should not be meant to imply that Westernized Hinduism is a British creation, a foreign ideology, or any such extreme statement of revisionism. Obviously these men had deeply studied their tradition and made every effort to remain loyal to it while adopting the ideas from the West which they considered true or useful. Hindu thinkers frequently engage in syncretism with opposing or foreign ideas. The fact that the mainstream variant of Hinduism has changed does not mean that it is no longer Hinduism, as some radical traditionalists claim. The fact that these thinkers are Anglicized, does not mean that they don’t have profound insights into aspects of traditional Hinduism as well. But if we are aware of their biases and influences then we can, for instance take what they say on sexuality with a grain of salt. More on that later.

Westernized Hinduism and Alienation: The adoption of these values and perspectives by the Indian elite, and integration of Western and Hindu concepts during the Bengal renaissance, and the broader Hindu renaissance has led to a widening of the already divergent sets of values in Hindu society (particularly between elites and commoners) which has created greater social greater distance between Westernized and non-Westernized Hindus. It creates a sense among Westernized Hindus that they are somehow out of place in their traditional society. Traditional Hindu society seems to lack coherence or logical sense, as the set of symbols, moral presumptions, and concepts, which it is structured within, are not part and parcel of their mindset. They often times seem to feel ashamed of their culture. For some normally on the political left, this often leads to them rejecting Hinduism altogether and embracing a secular or socialist ideology. For those on the right, this embarrassment takes the form of historical revisionism to reinterpret Hinduism’s past as having been less sexual, more scientific, more egalitarian, less violent etc. to fit into their Westernized system of values. For those who remain in the sphere of traditional Hinduism, the result is a feeling of despair or loss, as their version of the tradition is consistently eroded by the unstoppable spread of the new, seemingly alien and therefore confusing, elite version of Hinduism.

Depictions of Kali. Notice how difficult it is to find a contemporary devotional print depicting Kali and Shiva having sex, and how easy it is to find a historical painting of it, even though both sets of images are supposed to be depicting the same scene in Hindu mythology. The top ones are obviously more Tantric and traditional, and the bottom ones are more influenced by Western moral standards, and would be sold to Neo-Hindus.

Depictions of Kali. The top ones are more Tantric and traditional, and the bottom ones are more influenced by Western moral standards, and are the sort which would be commercially available in modern India. Notice how difficult it is to find a contemporary devotional print depicting Kali and Shiva having sex, and how easy it is to find a historical painting of it, even though both sets of images are supposed to be depicting the same scene in Hindu mythology.

One Note About Economic Factors: This shift in ideas has been coupled with a change in institutional and economic realities. The (good) king is no longer the embodiment of Dharma on earth. The functions of caste groups have been consistently diminishing, reducing the prestige and power of Brahmins, and reducing the costs of inter-jati (caste) cooperation and contact. The rise of capitalism has created new social groups, which compete with the traditional family and the caste groups for loyalty. All of this renders the old religiously sanctioned social order obsolete, and necessitates change in the structure of religious thought. Sociologist Robert Nisbet has this to say about the Indian case:

“The present position of caste in India is a striking case in point. During the last twenty-five or more centuries various efforts have been made by political and religious leaders to abolish or weaken this powerful association through techniques of force, political decree, or religious persuasion. Whether carried out by ancient religious prophets or by modern Christian missionaries, the majority of such efforts have been designed to change the religious and moral meaning of caste in the minds of its followers. But such efforts generally have been fruitless. Even attempts to confer the untouchables to Christianity, to wean them away from the caste system of which they have been so horribly the victims, has been for the most part without success. The conversion of many millions to the Muslim creed led only to the creation of new castes.

But at the present time in widening areas of India there is a conspicuous weakening of the whole caste system, among the prosperous as well as the poverty-stricken. Why, after many centuries of tenacious persistence, has the massive system of caste suddenly begun to dissolve in many areas of India?

The answer comes from the fact of the increasing dislocation of caste function— in law, charity, authority, education, and economic production. The creation of civil courts for adjudication of disputes traditionally handled by caste panchayats; the growing assumption by the State and by many private agencies of mutual-aid activities formerly resident in the caste or subcaste; the rising popularity of the idea that the proper structure of education is the formal school or university, organized in Western terms and the intrusion of the new systems of constraint and function in the factory and trade union– all of these represent new and competing values, and they represent, more significantly, new systems of function and allegiance.

When the major institutional functions have disappeared from a local village government or from a subcaste, the conditions are laid for the decline of the individual’s allegiance to the older forms of organization. Failing to find any institutional substance in the old unities of social life, he is prone to withdraw, consciously or unconsciously, his loyalty to them. They no longer represent the prime moral experiences of his life. He finds himself, mentally, looking in new directions.” (Nisbet, The Problem of Community)

In Hindu terms, this is most reflected in modern interpretations of Dharma, which emphasize its individualistic properties and deemphasize its association with actual existing political institutions. As Nisbet implies, this is a result of the rise of capitalism, and would have occurred with or without British intervention, but it is nevertheless worth mentioning as this change is also incorporated in the modern, Westernized iteration of Hinduism.

The transition to capitalism has forced the reformulation of the concept of "dharma" to one less wedded to subcaste and panchayat. Image Source

The transition to capitalism has forced the reformulation of the concept of “dharma” to one less wedded to subcaste and panchayat. Image Source

This is not to say that the rise of Westernized Hinduism has had a purely disintegrating effect on Hindu society. Neo-Hindu religion has formed the focal point for much community building in the North American American Hindu population where old familial, ethnic, and subcaste bonds have lost much of their old world relevancy, which dovetails nicely with the more emphatic universalism of Neo-Hinduism. On the subcontinent the new religious system isn’t as explicitly central, as the “identity seeking emigrant” effect doesn’t cause them to increase their levels of piety. Nevertheless, as a community signifier it is often paired with new community building centered around corporate, union, political or other community groups, which have more recently emerged. New metropolitan areas like Gurgaon are good examples of this. Here, thousands of young professionals who have drastically reduced their caste (jati), village, or traditional family bonds, have created other types of bonds, which more resemble those of the urban west. In this sense, the new form of Hinduism, which is better adapted to individual freedom, egalitarianism, and a questioning attitude towards state power and traditional morality, has caused integration, not alienation amongst the Hindu middle class. Still, it intensifies alienation in Hindu society as a whole.

Tantra: 

One might ask: What exactly makes traditional Hinduism so substantially different from Westernized Hinduism? What is the substratum of traditional Hinduism, which manifests in historic Indian civilization?

I suspect that the majority of the observed tension, contradiction, internal dispute, and internal distinctions within the Hindu tradition stem from the sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile rivalry between what we now call Tantra, and Vedanta. In traditional Hinduism both play significant, perhaps equal roles. In Neo-Hinduism, Tantra has more or less been excised.

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This is a chart of mental states which I pulled from page 18 of Sudhir Kakar‘s book: The Inner World, A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. On the left are the more “active,” mental states. This is where you find hallucinations an ecstatic experiences. On the right you’ll find more “tranquil” mental states. This is where peaceful meditative trances are found. In traditional Hinduism, at absolute peak experience the two types of experiences are supposed to merge into one– the experience of Samadhi wherein one feels both highly ecstatic and extremely tranquil. If one persists in this state in a more or less permanent way, one is said to have achieved Moksha, or spiritual liberation (according to Tantra). Speaking in broad terms, Tantra is on the left and Vedanta is on the right. Within Tantra, the left and right-hand-paths are conveniently located on their respective sides of the chart. The problem for Vedanta is that by making the left side of the chart less accessable, they’ve closed off half of the path to spiritual experience and achievement of Moksha. Not everyone is naturally inclined to the right-hand-path. Should they be condemned to Samsara? And even those who are could probably benefit from coming at divine realization from multiple technical angles.

In Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s magnum opus on Lokayata he seems to imply that the first and most successful opponent of original Tantra (which at one point most likely nearly synonymous with materialist Lokayata) was Brahminical Vedic religion. Of course both derived from prehistoric “magic” and therefore had enough similar elements to borrow and blend with one another. The beauty and complexity of traditional Hinduism, and its incorporation of polar opposites— hedonism and asceticism, religious ecstasy and diligent academic study, violence and pacifism, the physical and the abstract– is largely due to the interplay between these two “movements” within Hinduism. Though Tantra had yielded much ground to Vedanta since the advent of Vedic Civilization, it was still prolific at a popular level by the colonial period.

Tantra must have been a shock to the Victorian sensibilities of the British as it was one of the first forms of Hinduism they encountered after setting up their capital in Bengal, the ancient heartland of Tantra. It clashed entirely with their conception of what a religion should be, insofar as it did not shy away from harsh polyphonus aesthetics, depictions of gore and destruction which appeared “demonic” to Christian eyes, and granted a religious function to drug usage, hedonistic enjoyment, and sexual pleasure.

Now is a good point as any to note that the sexuality and hedonism of Tantra does not entail the daily consumption of powerful drugs, nor the “free love” or movement sometimes associated with Western Neo-Tantra. Tantric sexual and ecstatic practices were done in specific ritual contexts intended to maximize the spiritual potential of these acts. While Tantra influenced societies do seem to exhibit more tolerance towards sexuality and hedonism, the “no holds barred” approach is limited to ritual contexts, and is not meant to be performed by all practitioners. However, this distinction was not, and is still not particularly important to the initial British observers of Tantric practices. Their negative response was predictable, and no doubt amplified by the fact that their primary local Hindu contacts were orthodox Vedic Brahmins.

These “right-hand-path” Brahmins not only had a constrained sexual morality oddly similar to that of the British, but also had been waging an intellectual battle against Tantrikas for centuries, not only for theological and aesthetic reasons but also because popular variants of Tantra tended to de-emphasize or even ritually violate caste, and had no use for Brahmin priests in their rituals. Francis Buchanan, a British civil servant in the 1800s (before intense Anglicization would have set in) reports that his Brahmin contacts in Bihar reported that one fourth of the population’s religion was “unworthy of the note of any sage.” He was referring to the more “base” forms of Tantric worship of Shakti deities which occurred on in culturally marginalized groups, and his statement illustrates both the sheer numerical popularity of Tantra during the period, and the trivializing demeanor with which it was treated by orthodox Brahmins. (in total, Buchanan found 40% of this Bihari “Hindu heartland” was Shakti or Tantric, with a mere 10% being Vaishnavite, and another 10% being Saivite, the remainder being Kabirpanthis, Syncretic Muslims, Sikhs or other minority sects.) (White, 5)

Image Source

Ardhanarishvara, a bisexual/androgynous composite deity which is half Shiva and half Shakti. Tantrism consists of the belief that the universe is real, in contrast to the Vedantic belief that the universe is an illusion. In Tantra the universe is the universe is composed of two divine principles, Shiva (male, abstract, active, soul) and Shakti (female, concrete, passive, physical). The universe comes about when these two merge. Merging the two, either through ritualized sex, or meditative practices can unlock the latent spiritual energy (kundalini) which resides in the cerebro-spinal region of every human. Image Source

Some members of the Hindu and Bengal Renaissance, notably Ramakrishna participated in Tantra, but is unclear to what extent. Ramakrishna was largely outside the Anglicization trend in his early years, though his legacy is entirely in the hands of the Anglicized followers of Vivekananda. In any case, the current Ramakrishna mission denies that he participated in any sexual rites, and his version of it seems to be very “right handed” and denying of the more ecstatic elements. (Saran, 54-55) His hagiographies read as so to give the impression that he “purified” Tantra, i.e. made it more “right handed,” more Vedic, and not coincidentally, more amenable to British norms. The other possible example we have of a Hindu Renaisance figure friendly to Tantra is Ram Mohan Roy, though he didn’t write about it in detail, and was exceptional insofar as he was intellectually active when British influences had just started to be felt.

Now consider an extreme case of the opposite end of the spectrum: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. He calls Tantra “one of the ugliest and (most) fearsome vestiges of the middle ages.” (Saran, 52) This view is very similar to that of the fervently Christian orientalist scholar and promoter of wide scale conversion, Sir Monier Monier-Williams who speaks of Tantra as violent, licentious, and a product of Hinduism’s“ worst stage of medieval development.“ (Monier-Williams, 123) Remember, this is the same Bankim Chattopadhyay who coined the famous nationalist slogan “Vande Mataram” (Hail the Mother[land]) and created the new Hindu deity called Bharat Mata.

Both Chattopadhyay and Monier-Williams words are fairly representative of elite intellectual opinions of Tantra, both in the Bengali and British communities of the era. (Saran, 60). Thus, the Westernization or Anglicization of Hinduism has this additional element to it: The strengthening of the Brahminical Vedic wing, and the concomitant reduction of the role of Tantra, particularly its left-hand-path variants within Hinduism.

As a counterexample, Consider one of the few locations in India where Tantra remains fully embodied in the local version of Hinduism at all levels: Assam; the densely forested frontier where effective British rule and Anglicization were slow to penetrate. Here, even in modern times professed Muslims fall into trances in which they are visited by the goddess (Saran, 66) Folk festivities involving dancing, loud music, drinking, and perhaps other non-puritanical acts are still popular (Saran 65-68). They also celebrate menstruation, both when a girl has her first period, and also when the goddess is in menstruation, in contrast to orthodox Brhaminical prohibitions on such celebrations (Saran 72-73). In sum, the spiritual function of the natural human body, and of pleasure is still central to Assemese Hinduism, though it is being eroded by the spread of Neo-Hindu “official” theology and culture.

I feel as though this should be enough to convince you of the phenomenon I am referring to. If not, here are some specific examples of how the alienation of Westernized Hinduism manifests today:

Specific Instances of Cultural Alienation

Conceptualization of illness and mental illness: The indigenous Indian concept of medicine and health, and even the language used to describe it is rooted in a theory of mind-body unity. Without proper training, Westernized Indian doctors might be confused by phrases such as “my heart does not feel like it,” or “my liver isn’t doing its work.” (Kakar, 33). Physical ailments are linked to mental phenomenon and visa versa. Western medicine has now discovered that certain physical symptoms do present themselves as a result of mental health issues. I don’t know if this has been studied, but I suspect that an ingrained acceptance of mind-body unity might make traditional Hindus more perceptive to those links than Westernized populations who consider their bodies to be property, or mere vehicles for the brain. In Hindi the word for heath- svastha is a combination of sva (self) and astha (stable) implying an imbalance in the totality of the mind/body system. Interestingly, the English word “health” has a similar etymology, which leads me to wonder if mind-body unity existed in ancient Germanic peoples, but has since been displaced by Christian notions of mind-body duality.

Critics of psychiatry over the last century have commonly observed that madness is a highly socially determined phenomenon. In traditional Hindu society, it is frequently associated with mystic power or spiritual insight (Saran, 82-83). At least some of those currently imprisoned on the basis of their “erratic” behavior, schizophrenia, or other hallucinatory mental conditions, would in traditional Hindu society be respected as mystics with an uncanny connection to the divine. Similarly, hedonistic and ecstatic acts are seen as “mad” through the western lens, and therefore people are more reticent to indulge in them and quicker to condemn those who do.

 

Art: Bluntly defined, the difference between Western and Indian art is that the former obsesses over form, and the latter obsesses over spirit.

An elaboration would require a book of its own. Sri Aurbindo has written a number of truly excellent essays on Indian aesthetics and art in his volume The Renaissance in India. Hindu art is based on the principles of rasa, which could be translated as “essence,” and not on compositional arrangement, form. The point is to induce a certain spiritual state in the viewer, not to produce objectively well rendered art. It isn’t even necessarily meant to be observed with full attention. Classical Indian music is intended to induce one of a number of relaxed, meditative states. It doesn’t normally consist of a rising and falling pattern, or of a prominent pattern, which the listener is intended to follow consciously. Harmony rules the musical genre.

Rabindranath Tagore, as 'Baul' in Phalguni, 1916, by Abanindranath Tagore, from the Sahitya Akademi Centenary Volume

Abanindranath Tagore‘s painting of his brother Rabindranath Tagore as a “Baul.” This is a modern painting style which I think retains the aesthetic properties of traditional Indian art. Abanindranath’s Bengal School of art blends Indian folk art with Japanese and Chinese painting tools and techniques. Japanese aesthetics closely resemble Hindu aesthetics in many ways. Image Source.

In Hindu architecture and folk paintings from many regions, there is an attempt like in Islamic architecture to convey the monistic all encompassing nature of the divine. What makes the Hindu concept different is that monism is always expressed through an incredible diversity of densely clustered, infinitely repeating forms rather than the stark, open geometry of a Mosque. It is by being overwhelmed by an unfathomably vast array of stimuli that you see the monistic whole, which encompasses all of them. This is the aesthetic expression of the Hindu view of the universe. It is difficult to find it in many Westernized Hindu art, architecture, or interior design, which have adopted “sophisticated,” clean, European aesthetics, in which paradigm Hindu aesthetics is cluttered, outdated, and gaudy.

The Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu is a great example of the architectural aesthetic just described.

The Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu is a great example of the architectural aesthetic just described.

 

The Treatment of Pleasure (Drugs): Tantra is in large part an effort to appropriate Kama (pleasure and desire in every possible sense of the word) in the service of liberation. It is the opposite of the Jain, Buddhist and Vedantic impulse to sacrifice and renounce. The Tantric does not want not to give up this world for liberation’s sake, but to enjoy it with the goal of spiritual liberation in mind.

The idea that hedonism has no spiritual component has taken deep root in modern India. Whereas in colonial Britain Bhang (marijuana) was consumed on an incredibly large scale (and not only by religious mendicants as is sometimes mistakenly thought) it is now frowned upon. Admittedly, it is still far more tolerated and easy to acquire than in the West, but consumption by “upstanding” Neo-Hindus seems mostly limited to the celebration of Holi, the one day when Hindu culture still lends its moral sanction to engage in hedonism.

The rise in popularity of other much more dangerous drugs in India, and the intense bloodshed in Goa, Himachal, and Bengal which has accompanied the extension of the global War on Drugs to India may make the abandonment of Bhang the single most destructive consequence of Anglicization.

Shiva grinding bhang (marijuana.) Image Source.

Shiva grinding bhang (marijuana.) Image Source.

 

The Treatment of Sexual Pleasure 1: Hussain and Doniger: Drawn generously from both Brahminical and Hindu and British influences, the following quote from Swami Sivananda Saraswati  is a fairly representative Neo-Hindu take on sex:

“The world is nothing but sex and ego. Ego is the chief thing. It is the basis. The sex is hanging of the ego [sic]. Man-master of his destiny-has lost his divine glory and has become a slave, a tool in the hands of sex and ego, on account of ignorance…passion is reigning supreme in all parts of the world. The minds of people are filled with sexual thoughts. The world is all sexy. The whole world is under a tremendous sexual intoxication. …the sexual energy must be transmuted into spiritual energy or Ojas Sakti by the practice of Japa, prayer, meditation, study of religious books, Pranayam, Asana etc. Then only the sexual desire will be annihilated…Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  (Swami Sivananda Saraswati, as quoted in “The Hindu Renaissance and its Apologetic Patterns”, 286)

In some cases, the alienation is so severe that Westernized Hindus will attempt to foist their sexual standards on others by force. You may recall the insanity in the 1080s surrounding M.F. Hussain, an Indian painter who dared to occasionally depict Hindu figures nude. The insanity still persists online. Hindu nationalists invoked India’s version of blasphemy laws to silence Hussein. They accused him of trying to degrade and shame India and Hindus by sexualizing their goddesses, no doubt because of his Islamic background. Compare the pictures for yourself to some traditional Hindu depictions (i.e. ancient and untouched by Westernization, as opposed to the Raja Ravi Varma‘s English style paintings which Neo-Hindus use to compare the two) and see if Hussain, or his Hindu critics are more alienated from traditional Hinduism:

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Top are Hussain’s paintings, and bottom are ancient sculptures of the same deity. From left to right, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Bharat Mata. The last image has no ancient analogue because it was created in Bengal Renaissance. I think that Hussain could have gotten away with this if it wasn’t for the last image. The rest have all been depicted nude a thousand times before. Bharatmata is supposed to be a deification of Mother India though, and as such she plays an exclusively maternal, not an erotic role. However those who interpret this painting as “sexy” are missing the point. The painting’s title is “Rape of India.” Mother India is presented as defiled and abandoned. It is a critique of the violence which has wreaked havoc on Indian society since independence. It is actually a very sad painting, and one which expresses serious respect and mourning for India and its Hindu culture.

A more recent case was Dinanath Batra’s 2011 case against Penguin India, which eventually led to them pulling Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History off store shelves. Among his objections were that the cover depicted “Lord Krishna…sitting on buttocks of a naked woman surrounded by other naked women…in a vulgar, base perverse manner to outrage religious feelings of Hindus,” and that the book emphasized: “only those texts which portray linga as erect male sexual organ.” Below is Doniger’s cover image.

Image Source

Image from Doniger’s book cover

The cover image appears to be a fairly benign, though indeed somewhat erotic depiction of Krishna and the playful gopis. It doesn’t even come close to erotic Tantric imagery. This is just run of the mill traditional Bhakti (loving, devotional worship). It is entirely canonical.

As for the lingam, well, if Doniger does indeed exclude mention of its non-phallic symbolism it is to her discredit. But having read pages and pages and pages and pages and pages of convoluted and ahistorical justifications for the claim that the Shiv Lingam isn’t a phallic symbol at all I somewhat expect Mr. Batra of exaggeration. The level of denial and willful ignorance of their own tradition which is necessary to deny the place of sexual pleasure in the Hindu tradition is truly impressive.

As a side point, I have written criticism of Doniger and her Freudian colleagues in the past. There are legitimate criticisms to make of her, but it becomes impossible to do so when my (distant) co-religionists insist on making spurious and foolish accusations which reflect poorly on the rest of us.

 

The Treatment of Sexual Pleasure 2: General Attitudes:

Anthropological accounts of Dalit and Sudra communities still report much higher degrees of social comfort surrounding sexual relationships. See Kancha Ilaiah’s book: Why I am not a Hindu. His book is a useful account of the beliefs of one particular Sudra community, though he has an explicitly anti-Hindu message, and his work contains plenty of falsehoods and bigotry towards Hindu religion and upper caste culture. The fact that lower caste groups are bastions of one of the most traditional (i.e. un-Anglicized, and indeed un-Sanskritized) forms Hindu religion culture and society despite what Ilaiah might claim is evident from the affinities between Dalit religion, Tantra, and Lokayata which Ilaiah unwittingly draws in his own book. This is probably a slightly controversial claim, so I’ll use Ilaiah’s words to substantiate it:

“Thus there are common village Dalitbahujan Gods and Goddesses and caste-specific Gods and Goddesses. Of course, for us the spirit exists, the atma (soul) exists, dead people come back to re-live in our own surroundings in the form of ghosts if they have not been fed well while they were alive. But there is no swarga (heaven) and there is no naraka (hell). All the dead live together somewhere in the skies. This consciousness has not yet taken the shape of an organized religion. The Dalitbahujan spirit in its essence is a non-Hindu spirit because the Hindu patriarchal Gods do not exist among us at all.

We knew nothing of Brahma, Vishnu or Eswara until we entered school. When we first heard about these figures they were as strange to us as Allah or Jehova or Jesus were. Even the name of Buddha, about whom we later learnt of as a mobilizer of Dalitbahujans against brahminical ritualism, was not known to us…

Even a Brahmin family might talk about Pochamma, Maisamma or Ellamma, but not with the same respect as they would about Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswara. For them Pochamma and Maisamma are ‘Sudra’ Goddesses and supposed to be powerful but in bad, negative ways.” (Ilaiah, 7-8)

This sounds like a good approximation of the earliest forms of Tantra, or the later forms of Lokayata as described by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. Anyway, the point is to observe how these Sudras treat sex:

“Sexual behaviour and mores are also taught as part of family and peer group life. A girl listens to older women talking to each other in groups about ‘disciplined’ women and ‘indisciplined’ women; their sexual life-styles, their relations with husbands and others. A father does not hesitate to talk in front of his children about his approach to life or his relations with other women… If any Dalitbahujan woman has a relationship with a man who is not her husband, the relationship does not remain a secret. The entire waada discusses it….Male children learn about women and about sex in the company of their friends, in the cattle-rearing grounds or sheep-feeding fields. All kind of sexual trials take place in the fields. The ‘bad’ and ‘good’ of life are learnt at quite an early stage. Each one of these practices are discussed in terms of its morality and immorality. But this morality and immorality is not based on a divine order or divine edict. It is discussed in terms of the harmony of the families.” (Ilaiah, 5)

However, Ilaiah also notes that “Dalit- bahujan married couples can never enjoy a sexual life that is anywhere like the Hindu enjoyment as it is narrated by the Hindu kama pandit, Vatsyayana.” because their sexuality is largely utilitarian, given their poverty and agrarian lifestyle in which high rates of reproduction are necessary. Nevertheless, it is still clearly far more moderate than the upper caste, Westernized Hindu. Sex is not celebrated as we see in Tantra, but is accepted as a normal and unremarkable part of life.

I’ve come across the accusation in numerous books and journal articles that Gandhi once gave his blessings to a band of Hindu puritans who were planning on defacing the lascivious and shameful walls of Khajuraho temple. I won’t repeat the accusation with certainty here, as the original source still eludes me, but it is almost more significant that such a virulenty anti-sexual comment is so easily believed. Indeed, it isn’t hard to find similar comments on Neo-Hindu websites. Khajuraho was almost certainly a Tantric construction, and yet inspires nervousness and embarrassment amongst the Victorian Hindus of today. However Bharati reports that most rural Indians have no similar compunctions surrounding Khajuraho, as they see sex through the standard Tantric paradigm; as a natural part of the divine order (Saran, 11).

 

Misc: There is no logical place to stop in this kind of listing without writing a book. Just to acknowledge a few more specific cases which I have less information on:

Violence:  Westernized Hindus seem very uncomfortable with the role of violence in Hinduism. They feel the need to reinterpret the Bhagavad Gita as a pacifist text, and get upset at the idea that it actually does encourage war in the defense of Dharma. The Rig-Vedic concept of Virya, or active, warrior virtue has been almost completely lost, except insofar as it encourages semen retention (this dovetails well with the Westernized notion of chastity.) The violent traits of Kali and Shiva are denuded. I’ve had several Neo-Hindus become angry with me personally for simply observing that Rudra is called “Chief of the Dacoits” (p.3) in the Yajur Veda.

View of Social Institutions: I didn’t want to touch this one because it is too dependent on economic history. Hindus view social institutions as embodiments of Dharma. A good king is dharma incarnate. Social institutions, rather than individual leaders embody dharma, which leads to Hindus being very hesitant to be revolutionary. If a political system isn’t working properly, the problem cannot be with the incentives or structure of the system. It must be because the leaders or members are adharmic. (Kakar, 40-41). I suspect that Westernization is breaking up this concept of dharma imbued social institutions, particularly caste. Not just Hindu political forms, but caste is also being heavily eroded by the emergence of Indian capitalism. I suspect that dharma is being reformulated in much more egalitarian, individualistic terms which resemble Western morality in conceptual structure, though not in content.

Hinduism already has a vehicle for this: Svadharma. Svadharma means one’s own dharma. Historically this has meant one’s dharma changes according to one’s gender, profession, social rank, caste. The result is a sort of moral relativism, where it is wrong for a priest performing austerities to kill even in self defense, but good for a soldier to do so even as a form of aggression. As such, svadharma ends up philosophically sanctioning social conformity and a reliance on tradition as a basis for action. Interestingly, as a result of the notion that good and bad are really different for people in different circumstances, Hindus seem to be more tolerant of aberrant behavior in others because of their separate but in some sense equal (not in the western sense) place in society. (Kakar, 37-40 psych) I suspect that this concept too is undergoing a change to a more individualist, more egalitarian in the western sense version of moral relativism. Or, on the other hand, morally absolutist dharma may be emerging in Neo-Hinduism. Further study is required.

I think the general history, and at least some of the effects of Anglicization of Hindu culture should be abundantly clear at this point. No further conclusion is necessary.

 “O KĀLIKĀ, O auspicious Kālikā  with dishevelled hair, from the corners of whose mouth two streams of blood trickle, 3 they who recite another doubled Bīja of Thine composed of Īśa, Vaiśvānara, Vāmanetra, and the lustrous Bindu, destroy all their enemies, and bring under their subjection the three worlds.” –Verse III, Hymn to Kali

Kali. Image Source

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma, a South Indian painter who was trained in European painting style. Image Source

 

Cross posted from the author’s personal blog: Videshi Sutra.

Works Referenced:

Bharati Agehananda.  “The Hindu Renaissance and its Apologetic Patterns”,  The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 29, No. 2 (Feb., 1970), pp. 267-287

Saram, Prem. Tantra: Hedonism in Indian Culture, D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 1998

Kakar, Sudhir. The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India

Ghose, Aurbindo. The Renaissance In India.

Roy, Ram Mohan. The English works of Raja Rammohun Roy. Edited by Jogendra Chunder Ghose (1901)

 Monier-Williams. Monier, Sir, Hinduism (1901)

Ilaiah, Kancha. Why I am Not a Muslim, 2002

Nisbet, Robert. “The Problem of Community”

Sri Rudram, from Yajur Veda 

White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts, 2006

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