Three Myths about Hinduism

Peace and tolerance

by Jayaram V

The construction of Hinduism

Today, we have many myths about Hinduism. Some of them are positive and some negative. In this essay we will confine our discussion to just three well known ones that are currently associated with Hinduism. They are stated below.

  1. Hinduism is a tolerant religion and Hindus are tolerant people.
  2. Hindus prefer vegetarian food.
  3. Hinduism is a nonviolent religion, and Hindus are nonviolent and peace loving people.

There are many educated and good intending Hindus who hold these views and believe them to be true. There is some truth in them, but they are not entirely true. History is the proof that human beings can create beautiful myths and incorporate them into their racial memory. They can invent an idea and then find enough evidence to uphold it. When evidence is lacking they can bring their beliefs into play and confuse them for facts. Alternatively, if necessary, they can oppose the same ideas with contrary evidence.

Imagination played a great role in the progress of our civilization. Our inventive nature arises mostly from our ability to imagine and weave false narratives seamlessly into the fabric of our memories. We have a wonderful ability to embellish our experiences and perceptions with imagination, exaggeration and even fantasy. We can create wonderful illusions, destroying or distorting truths, in which heroes may become villains, untruth may become truth, and vice versa. People show these attitudes not only in speculative subjects like philosophy and metaphysics but also even in science. There are as many scientific hoaxes in human history as there are in religions, if not more. Human history is largely a history of made up heroes, false prophets, and distorted narratives. It represents but a minute and insignificant portion of what might have actually happened. It is not the history of the masses, but the history of selected classes, themes, events and people who forced their way into our collective memory.

In truth, Hinduism is neither exclusively peace loving and tolerant nor exclusively violent and intolerant. The truth lies somewhere in between. In Hindu community, you all find kinds of people, as anywhere else. You have both religious and irreligious people. You will find morally righteous ones, and highly corrupt and evil ones. You will find Hindus who want to transcend religious divisions, and some who are so angry that they want to show no compassion to anyone who is opposed to the tradition. They even attack good natured Hindus who disagree with them. None of these categories truly represent Hinduism or the community. In Hinduism itself you can find striking contradictions. The Bhagavadgita is a spiritual discourse about duty and liberation which was delivered in the middle of a battlefield. If Hindu asceticism is all about cultivating virtues such as non-violence and truthfulness, most of the deities who are worshipped in Hinduism, including the female deities, act more like guardians of the world. They carry weapons and do not hesitate to destroy evil people even if they are their devotees. While celibacy is an important virtue for students and ascetics alike, in tantric rituals sexual intercourse is used for spiritual practice.

Tolerance

Hinduism is an inclusive religion, and compared to dogmatic religions it is much more open, tolerant and less aggressive. However, it is not true that Hindus always practice religious tolerance. Before the advent of Islam into India, Hinduism coexisted with Jainism and Buddhism for a long time. Literary evidence suggests that their relationship was not entirely without animosity and intolerance. Hinduism suffered from many internal conflicts due to the intolerance of one class of people against another. For example, the Shaivas were as opposed to Vaishnavas and Shaktas as they were opposed to Buddhists and Jains. The priestly class showed even greater intolerance towards the lower castes, whom they equated with cattle. It was perhaps the worst case of intolerance in human history because the Brahmanas were not even inclined to allow the lower castes to touch their shadows, much less visit their homes or share their food

Hinduism earned the reputation of being a tolerant and all inclusive religion only in recent times, due to the teachings of its spiritual masters and their increasing emphasis upon the practice of yoga and spirituality. The development was not by accident but due to an increasing awareness of its deeper values and the need for a change in the direction of Hinduism so that it can thrive in a world of plurality and diversity. For devout Hindus, who are spiritually inclined, tolerance is an expression of its central theme, which is absolute and total liberation of the beings from all conditioning, enslavement and attachments. The idea of liberation implies total and absolute freedom from all external authority. It also means freedom from likes and dislikes and emotions such as anger, fear and intolerance. Since God does not control anyone's destiny, each has to work for his or her liberation by cultivating purity and practicing virtue. Therefore, in deference to the teachings of the scriptures, the more educated and serious practitioners of Hinduism exemplify harmony and religious amity and do not harbor any resentment or negativity in their minds towards other communities.

Vegetarianism

There is no exaggeration in saying that Hindus' preference for vegetarian food is rather exaggerated in the west. It is not clear how this idea gained ground. It is also probably due to the teachings of the spiritual gurus like Swami Vivekananda, Mahesh Yogi and others who became popular in the USA and Europe and who encouraged eating of sattvic food for spiritual transformation and cleansing of the mind and body. There is no evidence that historically Hindus preferred only vegetarian food. It was true only in case of certain classes of people who were traditionally prohibited from eating meat and indulging in violence. Since the earliest times, non-vegetarian food was allowed in Hinduism and most people ate meat. There are references to meat eating even in the Upanishads. In some tantric rituals, meat is offered to the deities as an offering, and later consumed. The Hindu law books allowed eating of certain types of meat.

Even now, a majority of Hindus eat meat regularly. They may voluntarily abstain from it either completely or partially for any reason, but tradition does not restrict them or censure them if they do not. The restriction applied mainly to beef eating which was completely prohibited. Unlike in the USA, meat is very expensive in India. Hence, poor people simply cannot afford to buy and eat meat, but if they have money they will buy it. Meat is sold publicly in open markets, and served in numerous restaurants all over the country. As in case of tolerance, vegetarianism is also a recent development among the general public. It is fast catching up even among those castes that were traditionally allowed to eat meat, mainly due to the increasing influence of yoga, spirituality, religious awareness, and love for animals.

Nonviolence

There is also little evidence to suggest that the Hindu kings practiced nonviolence, or lacked ambition and drive to fight due to their preference for nonviolence, or were dragged into wars against their will. Most of the wars they fought were initiated by them to settle scores or extend their rule. So compelling was their ambition that some of them even crossed the seas and established kingdoms in the far east. Indian kings led large campaigns that lasted for months and years, and marched thousands of miles in extreme conditions to establish their sway. Chandragupta Maurya, Bimbisara, Ashoka, Pushyamitra Sunga, Chandra Gupta, Harshavardhana, Pulakesi, Rajaraja Chola, Srikrishna Devaraya, and Shivaji were great warriors, and second to none in their military strategy, valor, or leadership in the history of the world. They were deeply religious and even peace loving, but were practical enough to wage wars for their political ends.

Hinduism emerged through many phases and challenges in its long history of nearly 7000 years which spanned over 500-600 generations. In those millenniums it witnessed numerous wars. While the scholars and monks indulged in debates, discussions and exploration of existential truths, kings and warriors indulged in most gruesome wars and violence, and showed little remorse towards their enemies. Those who study Indian history know that some of the bloodiest battles in the history of mankind were fought on Indian soil and the Indian warriors personified valor and courage in the face of imminent death. The Hindu armies marched into the battlefields like death squads, unafraid of death and unwilling to surrender. Alexander had a bloody taste of that. So did many who tried to invade the country. Even the Buddha was unable to completely prevent wars and bloodshed during his time. The British were able to rule India because of the valor and loyalty of Indian soldiers only. Non-violence as a virtue and moral principle in public life gained ground during India's struggle for independence, largely due to the campaign started by Mahatma Gandhi. Although he used non-violence most non-traditionally for political ends, people understood its importance because non-violence was considered the highest virtue in the ascetic and spiritual practices of Hinduism. Spiritually, it is regarded as the virtue of virtues. The idea has a great appeal to most educated Hindus. As people increasingly turn to spirituality and yoga, it is bound to gain further acceptance. As of now, it is practiced only in a limited sense by common people. Most villages in India are ridden with faction violence between rival gangs. Until we see a radical change in society and people's attitude towards violence, we cannot claim that nonviolence is a way of life among presentday Hindus.

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