Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dharmic digressions—a little bit of everything

Dharmic digressions—a little bit of everything 
by Pankaj Kumar

The main goal of HASC conference is to promote pluralism, tolerance, social justice (gender/race/class equality), and community service/seva. This journey made me ponder how my Vedanta philosophy and its subsequent interpretations contribute to the same. Hence, I have tried to address such topics as tolerance, role of women, caste and seva from vedic prism.This note intends to illustrate some of the interesting aspects of vedic philosophy, emphasizing its relevance in the modern world. Hermeneutics as propounded by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey is to be invoked to understand the essence of vedic literature, wherein not only the literal grammatical meaning but also the holistic context is taken into account.

Namaste/ Namaskār—utmost form of respect for others

All religions unequivocally put others before themselves when it comes to greeting strangers. Be it the Christian greeting of "May the peace of the Lord be upon you” or the Jewish greeting of "Shalom Alekum (peace be with you)" or the Islamic greeting of “Assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you)," peace wins hands down.
Sanatana dharma has its own uniqueness in that it greets others as if they were parts/representatives of the Almighty. The followers greet with Namaste/ Namaskār. Namaste is composed of Namah, a Sanskrit verb meaning “to bow” and te, meaning “you.” Namaskār literally means "I bow to your form/shape", which in turn may be  interpreted as “I bow to the spirit/consciousness/divinity within you.” This is why when one greets by saying namaste he/she bows slightly.
Another illustration of this respect for others is the  case when one's foot accidentally touches another person's leg. In such cases, the “offending” person touches another person’s leg with finger tips of his/her right hand, and then using the same hand touches his/her own forehead and/or chest.
Varna/Caste System—division of labor or discrimination?
Originally, the varna system was based on individual’s merit and aptitude. Bhagavada Gita says, "Of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas, as also the Sudras, O Arjuna, and the duties are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature." “We were all Brahmins or all Sudras” –mentions Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. According to Apastamba Dharmasutra, every human being is Sudra by birth. It is by education that one becomes Dvija (literally means “one who is born twice”, a synonym for Brahmin).
Varna had nothing to do with birth and lineage. Members of the same family had different varnas as evidenced in the Rig Veda (IX, 112) which says: "A poet I am, my father a physician,/ And my mother is a grinder of corn,/ Diverse in means, but all wishing wealth,/ Equally we strive for cattle.'' Chandogya Upanisad talks about Satyakama Jabala, who though unable to give his father's name, was yet initiated into spiritual life. Aitareya, son of a sudra woman, authored Aitareya Upanisad. Välmiki, a hunter was considered brahmin after he penned Ramayana. Ved Vyäsa, a brähmin sage and the author of Mahabharata, was son of Satyavati, a fisher woman. Much later, Chandragupta Maurya, from the Muria tribe, became emperor of Magadha. Such venerated saints as Sura Dasa, Kabir and Tukaram belonged to the lowest strata of the society. Dr. Radhakrishnan aptly points to the inner cohesion of different varnas despite the divisions.
Tolerance—Freedom of expression
Tolerance is deeply ingrained in Sanatana Dharma. “Truth is one; the wise call it by many names,” proclaim the Vedas, thus acknowledging the difference of opinion on any given subject. Rig Veda says that good thoughts come to us from all sides, exhorting us to have an open mind. Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekananda suggested, “As many minds so many paths to God”.  
Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, the “Global Village” concept is mentioned in Panchatantra. To summarize, toleration is the homage which the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the Infinite (Dr. Radhakrishnan).
Women in vedic culture

"Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata (Where women are honored, God resides).”--Manusmriti 3.56. Sanatana Dharma venerates womanhood as source of learning (Goddess Saraswati), wealth (Goddess Laxmi) and power (Goddess Durga). Infact, shakti, the only word for power in Sanskrit, is feminine. There is no masculine word for the same.

Education: Several hymns of Rig veda are attributed to as many as 30 female saints (rishikās) such as Apala (the daughter of Atri), Ghosa (the daughter of Kaksivant), Paulomi, Vac (daughter of Ambhrna), Shashwati, Sri, Laksha ,Rathir Bharadwaja ,Lopamudra, Romasha,Sarama Devasuni, Yami Vaivasvathi and Indrani ( the wife of Indra) and many others. The Upanishads mention  women philosophers such as Gargi and Maitreyi.

Women scholars indulged with their male contemporaries in scholary debates. Sulabha, a female authority on Vedas entered into vedic arguments with King Janaka. Vacaknavi, a female philosopher debated with her male counterpart Yajnavalkya. Much later, Manadan Mishra’s wife, given her superior knowledge moderated the theosophical debate between Shankaracharya and him. Scholar Panini  mentions the names of several noteworthy women scholars of the past such as Kathi, Kalapi, and Bahvici, providing evidence that women used to teach.

Military: Queen Vishpala is mentioned in the Rig Veda. She is said to have lost her leg during a battle, and was given a prosthetic leg of iron so that she could return to fight. Additionally, Ramayana talks about how queen Kaikeyi helped King Dashrath in the battlefield. Megasthenes (5th  century B.C.) writes about heavily armed female warriors guarding the palace of emperor Chandragupta.

Marriage: Women enjoyed remarkable freedom in marriage affairs through "swayamvara" wherein they chose their soul mates from among a group of eligible suitors. Marriages of Sita and Draupadi are cases in point. Occasionally, social gathering called Samanas were organized to help young boys and girls meet each other. Moreover, a woman, if she chose, could marry in older age. Gosha, a well known female sage, married late.
None of the ceremonies after marriage could be performed without the presence of the wife (Rig veda 5.102). Women chanted mantras along with their husbands during rituals (Grihya Sutras).
Furthermore, marriage was not compulsory in the vedic period. Shrutavati, daughter of Rishi Bhardwaj and Shrimati, daughter of Rishi Shandilya remained bachelor throughout her life.
Seva—Corporate/human social responsibility
The word seva originated from sev, a sanskrit verb meaning “to attend." More and more prestigious universities such as Harvard and Wharton have taken up creation of social value by businesses, but I want to give credit to some of the immortal universities of mankind who knew the concept of corporate/human social responsibility long ago. Since the lines are succinct and self-explanatory, I will directly quote them from scriptures.
Christianity: In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35); Giving sets us free, while hoarding entraps us (James 5:2); Giving changes the lives of others (John 3:16). Giving brings blessing back to us (Luke 6:38); Giving allows us to store up treasures in Heaven rather than here on the earth (Matthew 19:21).
Judaism: "Tzedakah" derives from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is considered an act of justice, righteousness and the performance of a duty. The Talmud details various level of charity ranging from the least recommended “Giving begrudgingly” to highly recommend “Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant.”
Islam: In Islam, “Sadaqat al tatawwu” means voluntary alms-giving. “Sadaqat” literally means ‘righteousness’ and is derived from the root word Sadaqa, which means “to speak the truth”. Alms-giving is called Sadaqat to indicate the veracity (sidk) of the giver’s religious belief and looses religious merit when the act is other than voluntary. (Akham al-Quran, 2/946-7)

Sanatana Dharma: The name of God in itself symbolizes the twofold “virtuous” implication, - of always giving out help and never accepting help. (Rig Veda: II, 28, 9 - Varuna Sukta);"Everyone is only a trustee or custodian for the wealth lying with oneself (from God); he cannot enjoy all of it". (The Upanishads: Ishavasya Upanishad, 1); Not by great deeds nor by great progeny but just by a single virtue, namely relinquishing all possessions one acquires immortality (Maha Narayana Upanishad IV, 12); The Divinities rejoice in that when somebody's happiness owes to another's sacrifice given voluntarily (Maha Narayana Upanishad IV, 78).

To summarize, it may be too extreme to say that “Religion is as helpful as throwing a drowning man both ends of a rope.” Dharma tries to catalyze the self, atman, from dormancy to consciousness. When seen through logical prism, it calls for generic inclusiveness and equality.

(Recommended Nice reads: Dr. S. Radhakrishnan-The Principal Upanishads; Will Durant - Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage; Stephen Knapp- Women in Vedic Culture; R. C. Dutt - The Civilization of India and works of Thoreau, the American thinker and Arnold Toynbee, the British historian )

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