Hinduism is a rare ‘religion’ that allows its followers to reject the very existence of God. Justice Markandey Katju – a Supreme Court Judge, once remarked “I am an atheist, but if I had to choose my religion, I would have chosen Hinduism. That is because while in other religions there is only one God, in Hinduism there are 330 million gods. So you can choose the god that suits your temperament.”
The right-wing ideologue VD Savarkar – leader of Hindu Mahasabha and intellectual godfather of the ruling BJP was openly atheist. People, often, therefore, question if the word ‘religion’ can even be legitimately applied to Hinduism as the very definition of religion demands the presence of a God, a Book and a list of rituals, practices and rules. Hinduism, in contrast, comes with multiple Gods embodying conflicting moral standards, myriad books with contradictory lessons and inexact rites and rituals that are as diverse as the liking of its followers. Even people who do not believe in God, do not pray or indulge in ritual or read the holy books can comfortably remain in its fold and selectively benefit from its teaching; such is the expanse and accommodative nature of Hinduism.
‘Dharma’ as Hinduism is sometimes called – a term with no Western equivalent – is at best ‘a way of life’ that allows the infinite and contradicting nature of the world to be consistently and reasonably explained within a system of philosophical thought. It is Adi Shankaracharya, who did that job – the best; of explaining Hinduism to a mind that seeks reason, rationality and scientific precision – the mind of a thinking Hindu – unwilling to consider the idea of substituting ‘faith’ for his ‘insight’ and ‘experience’ – simply because he or she happened to be born inside a religion.
A striking aspect of Adi Shankaracharya’s life is that it was tragically short – he died at the young age of 32. To say that he was an exceptional human being would be a gigantic understatement of the work he accomplished in 12 to 15 years of his productive life – not only reviving a defunct religion in the land of its birth but establishing its supremacy against challenger religions like Buddhism and Jainism – almost single handedly. He did not stop at that – he set the stage for a perpetual debate – of uncompromising introspection, inspiring, educating and empowering a class of Hindu priests and preachers and monks, creating centres of learning across the four corners of India and writing prodigious commentaries on the Hindu religious texts – to ensure that it is sustained after his demise. Before he died – he left nothing untouched.
Most Hindus would never realise that but for the work of Adi Shankaracharya nearly fifteen centuries ago, Hinduism would be an extinct religion today and India would most likely be a Buddhist state if not an Islamic or Christian one. He left the intellectual grounding, in later years, for a class of religious leaders like Ramkrishna Paramhansa and Vivekanand to emerge… and argue the relevance of an ancient form of Hinduism in modern times.
I am a great admirer of Buddhism but for those who have explored the philosophical underpinnings of both religions, it is clear that despite its perceived weaknesses such as the existence of caste system and other questionable ritualistic practices, largely social in nature, Hinduism stands out. It is not because it contradicts the practices and beliefs of competing religions but because it finds the intellectual and rational basis to accommodate them.
Some Hindus associate Adi Shankaracharya with a particular school of philosophical thought – the Advaita Vedanta (Dual Monism), but his unparalleled and unprecedented ability to incorporate the idea of God(s) and Ritualistic practice(s) within the concept of Brahman (the metaphysical reality) and its fusion with Atman (the spirit) led to the conciliation of various schools of thought and the origin of a more syncretic, more acceptable and more plural form of Hinduism that we practise today.
As India aspires to establish its economic and social supremacy in the world, it is also eager to put forth its unique faith (the Hindu Dharma) as a way of life for people of other religions to emulate. In that sense even a less rigid and less organised Hinduism can convincingly pose as an alternate to a far more organised religion.
The problem is that Hindus are pitching their religion the wrong way – against a competing God and a Book. The moment Hindus change the narrative of their practice from a religion to a scientifically grounded and well accounted way of life – it would have not only won the case against other religions, but the case against religion itself. This requires the Hindus to go back to their teachers and philosophers – to their meditative methods and understand their unique feats.
In the age of WhatsApp messages, practising a religion is as easy as forwarding pictures of good-looking Gods every morning and going to the Temple on weekends on one hand and attacking the powerless immigrants, polluting the Hindu Poonyabhoomi (the sacred soil – in the eyes of Savarkar) on the other. Practising the teachings of Adi Shankaracharya requires an absolutely different form of intellectual understanding, devotion, consideration and commitment to a higher purpose in life – that existed in Ancient India, but is difficult to find in the materialistic world today.
In the end, Hindus need not compete against other religions; it would be enough if they fought against the harmful interpretations of their own religion. In doing so they would have re-established an alternative to religion and saved the world from the reasons of unnecessary wars and the miseries they inflict.