To the Editor
Wall Street Journal
In the Eastern Edition of today's (1-25-06) issue of WSJ, Mr. Daniel Golden has published an important article: Defending the Faith: New Battle Ground in Textbook Wars; Religion in History; Hindu, Islamic, Jewish Groups Fault Portrayals of Events and Often Win Changes. In this article, Mr. Daniel Golden refers to his phone conversation with me and briefly describes my views on the current dispute in California regarding depiction of Hinduism. In abbreviating my views, his statements are likely to misinform the reader as to exactly what my views are, and hence it is appropriate to briefly state my views in my own words.
I wish Mr. Golden had given me an opportunity to see the copy of his article before it was published. I may have been able to help him phrase my views with better clarity. In any case, the following is a gist of what I told Mr. Golden in our phone conversation. I am interested in a non-ideological matter-of-fact representation of Hindu history. On inequalities of caste and the status of women, all one needs to do is to read the Laws of Manu in all its details. Is caste part of the traditional Hinduism? The Purusasukta hymn giving origins of four castes from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of the cosmic primordial being is as Vedic as it gets, and is repeated by Manu and other subsequent religious/legal authorities. As for polytheism/monotheism debate, there are sufficient studies of 19th century India that [show that] Indian religious reformers (e.g. Brahmo Samaj of Bengal, Arya Samaj of Punjab, Prarthana Samaj of Pune etc.) were directly responding to critiques of Hinduism in their environment and highlighting some aspect of the old tradition such as meditation on Brahman, "primordial underlying universal reality," above all the contemporary diverse practices that have continued unabated to this day.
The Hindu reformers of the colonial period projected all the religious and social reforms they were seeking back into ancient Vedic past, and that allowed them to claim that what they were proposing was not something new, but merely a return to a purer past, by discarding the unwelcome accretions of the medieval period. All social/religious dimensions such as caste, child marriage, burning of the widows, unequal treatment of women, etc. were deemed as having arisen in post-Vedic medieval times, and were claimed not to be part of true/original/ancient Hinduism of the Vedas. The Vedas were deemed to provide a form of modernity more modern than the contemporary modernity provided by the colonial rulers and missionaries. Every issue like caste, untouchability, child-marriage, was debated hotly in the 19th century and early 20th century India, where both the reformers and their orthodox opponents were making claims of going back to the purer past.
Such is the complex history of these debates, and reforms, many of which fortunately were incorporated into the modern Hindu Code Bill, giving shape to modern Hindu society. My own grand-mother was married at the age of 9 which was the norm in those days in India. The Hindu monogamy of the present day India is not a continuation of some classical tradition, but has been brought about only by relatively modern legislations, rather than the pre-modern tradition that clearly sanctioned polygamy. Such modern reforms, many now incorporated in modern Hindu laws (the Hindu Code Bill) passed by the Indian parliament, are drastic changes from the prior norms, and cannot be imagined to have been effective all through the history of that tradition. Otherwise there would have been no need for reform movements. I am glad that I was born in a post-social-reform Hinduism, but that does not make these reforms part of the pre-reform classical and ancient Hindu history.
And in the Madhva Vaisnava family of Deshpandes in southern Maharashtra where my grand-father grew up, the name of god Shiva was banned from the house, because they were worshippers of Vishnu. In the Madhva Vaishnava dialect of Marathi in our house, they would not use the common Marathi verb "shiv" to sew clothes, but found alternative words. Even while scrubbing floors, the Madhva Vaishnava women of my family many generations ago used to scrub floors with vertical motions of hand, rather than sideways, because that [=the sidewise movement] resembled the Shaiva marks on the forehead. Such was the Shaiva/Vaishnava divide, part of daily experience even within my own family a few generations ago.
"Sages speak of one truth in various ways" is just one single statement of the ancient Vedic text of the Rigveda that stands besides the thousands of Vedic hymns and ritual sacrificial practices where making specific offerings to different specific gods is specifically required. There has been a wide gap between the philosophical unity of Brahman proposed by the Upanisads, and the diversity of actual religious practice of worshiping many different gods and goddesses. The typical phrases in most rituals, after worshipping various gods and goddesses is "sarvebhyo devebhyo namo namaH" (salutations to all gods) in plural. The term "monotheism" is inappropriate to describe the beliefs in one Brahman as the principle that underlies all reality, and creates and incorporates all gods without rejecting them, along with everything else.
The best term for this form of "Brahman=Everything-ism" is perhaps monism (advaita), rather than monotheism (eka-isvara-vada). That is why the 9th century philosopher Sankara, a proponent of this kind of monism, rejects the possibility of devotion of [=to] god in the ultimate state of Brahman-realization. No devotion is possible, when there is only one entity in real existence. Even then only Advaitins ever subscribed to this sort of monism. More Hindu traditions opposed it, including the celebrated Hindu traditions of Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, and Mimamsa, not to mention the Dvaita Vedanta, or the worshippers of many gods and goddesses. Plurality is the core of Hindu religious life of the masses, with only a rare philosopher claiming that all gods are in reality only different names of the same truth.
If I had to write my own views in my own words, this is how I would write them. [These are my personal views and not those of the institution to which I belong.]
Madhav M. Deshpande
Professor of Sanskrit and Linguistics
University of Michigan