The religion of Vedanta, commonly called Hinduism, has been in a deep and
long-lasting decline on several fronts for the past five centuries. Today, the
majority of its temples are poorly maintained or in neglect, even though a few
are hugely popular. Its priests are generally poorly-educated, underpaid,
demoralized, and unequipped to serve a 21st-century audience. Most
practicing Hindus ignore its key message – to seek God within, and whether rich
or poor, primarily pray to their favorite deity to gain advantage in life rather
than to grow spiritually. And while Hinduism remains the religion of a majority
Perhaps most important, Hinduism’s teachings and spiritual message have been stagnant for several hundred years and have not caught on globally despite the attempts of many recent cults and movements. Yoga and a few other elements extracted from Hinduism may be popular worldwide, but the bulk of Hinduism’s vast and contradictory body of scriptures is outmoded and unapproachable; the last serious attempts to reform and modernize it were made over a century ago and were not adopted widely. More recent attempts to revive Hinduism have been bedeviled by sensationalism, obscurantism, politicization, personality cults, and by narrowness of message and appeal.
Yet, as the popularity of other religions, such as Islam and certain fast-growing denominations of Christianity demonstrates, the hunger for religious faith remains as strong as ever today, despite the dominance of our world by media, materialism, science and technology. These fast-growing religions’ predominance is not due to their inherent suitability to the modern world, but rather to the historical accident of having been the religions of colonizing peoples and empires combined with aggressive proselytizing traditions.
We have come a long way in the past three thousand years in our understanding of the universe and of ourselves. But when we look at religion and its practice in the light of what we have learned about ourselves and the universe, the picture is not flattering. History does acknowledge the immense good done by some of the religious institutions we have created, but it also lays bare their often regressive and violent historical legacies. At the same time, science has exposed many religious beliefs as self-contradictory or at odds with the empirical evidence. And the historical and contemporary experience with organized religion shows their organizations and representatives to be vulnerable to all-too human failings, at best preoccupied with preserving themselves rather than making the world a better place, and at worst preaching hatred, violence and intolerance.
Yet I believe, and it seems clear from the world-wide popularity of religious faith, that religious faith is likely to be just as important to the human being of today and in the future as it was to our forbears. It seems to be necessary food for the human soul (if we have a soul). But this leaves the question: Why must we remain stuck with the obscurantist, blood-soaked, anachronistic, profoundly anti-democratic, and almost comical religious traditions and institutions of the past? Why, in other words, should religions not modernize and evolve?
If we were to modify or redesign religious faith in today’s world to fix the obvious flaws of the old religions, create a Religion 2.0, as it were, what features or axioms would we build into it? Common sense and painful historical experience suggest some obvious axioms. First, we are tired of people telling us how to think, so such a religion would give individuals freedom to seek their own subjective truth within the framework of a few key universal principles. Second, the religion could be open to new adherents, but to avoid the possibility of violence and conflict with other religions, it would not negate the truth of other belief systems – it would respect other faiths. Third, it would provide a mechanism to be updated, so that it stays consistent with science, logic and benefits from the progress of human knowledge. Fourth, tyrannical religious leadership is (along with political leadership of the same ilk) a chief bane of human history, so the religion would be organized on democratic principles. Fifth, the religion would incorporate a strong social civic responsibility to the global community of fellow-citizens and inculcate a mentality of service to the less fortunate. Finally, its ideas would be easy to transmit, and designed to be as universal as possible, so that it would be easy to adopt in diverse cultural settings around the world.
This brings us to the core theme of this essay, which is that Hinduism, particularly the core of Vedanta, may be better suited to the educated global citizen of today than most other major religions of today. Why might Hinduism be a reasonable candidate, or at least a good starting point, for a new global religion? Because, at its core[ii], it has many of the ingredients that many modern citizens of the world seek in a solution to their spiritual needs. Unlike most other religions, Hinduism respects, indeed requires its adherents to seek out their own subjective experience of the Divine. It does not claim a monopoly on God, but accepts other religions as alternative paths to the truth, a highly desirable quality if we are to avoid repeating the destructive religious wars of past millennia that persist today. This tolerant aspect is reinforced by the lack of an aggressive proselytizing tradition, and the historical fact that relatively little[iii] blood has been spilled in its name. Its lack of formal leadership structures – the equivalent of a Catholic hierarchy or an Ayatollah - is a plus because organizing it in the future in a democratic format will not disenfranchise existing political power structures. Based on these strengths, is possible to make a strong case that Hinduism deserves to be rescued from its decline.
We have enumerated the desirable aspects of a new Hinduism. To make it truly effective and broadly appealing, however, a lot of undesirable and anachronistic features will have to be eliminated. The majority of practicing Hindus may be unwilling to acknowledge this, but the body of Hinduism is a veritable Aegean stable of accumulated beliefs, speculations, moral prescriptions and proscriptions, legends, myths, and stories, much of it irrelevant, unsuitable, or undesirable. Some sacred cows that probably need to be put to pasture include the unholy entanglement with the reprehensible Hindu caste system, the rewriting of the role of women from the subservient role assigned to them and their recognition as equal partners in religious and secular matters, the replacement (or supplementing) of Sanskrit by modern languages, reworking the philosophy to remove the key undercurrent of fatalism from the teachings, and cleaning out innumerable other anachronistic elements that are inconsistent with what has been learned in the course of the march of human knowledge and scientific discovery in the past couple of millennia. This will not be easy for many Hindus. The first stage is the acknowledgement that some of these major issues are problems (even this acceptance will be a challenge), and the second, even more difficult stage, is their rejection.
An important change in attitude that is required will be the recognition that not just superficial or historical aspects, but even key tenets of traditional Hinduism may need to be discarded. To my mind, a prime candidate for rejection is the idea of reincarnation. Others may disagree, but to me, reincarnation is simply not logically tenable in light of the vastly increased scientific knowledge we now have of ecology, evolution, and biology.
If such bold steps are carried out, one can envision a version of Hinduism that is in tune with the ethos of a majority, or at least a plurality of contemporary global citizens, conforms to our universal humanistic sense of what is right and wrong, is organized on democratic principles, provides the true freedom of a faith that respects the individual and other religious views, and appeals especially to the cosmopolitan and educated urban middle class around the world that is increasingly out of touch with their parents’ traditional religions.
Over a century ago, a number of Hindu reform movements sprang up with aims very similar to those articulated here, such as the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, the Aurobindo Society and the Ramakrishna Mission, founded by great men such as Ram Mohun Roy, Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda. Reading the works of these men, we see that they were far ahead of their times, making highly enlightened attempts to carry the message of Hinduism into the Twentieth Century. Yet while most of these organizations continue to exist today, they failed to capture a large following or to live up to the potential envisioned by their founders. There were a number of reasons for why these movements did not catch on, some general and some specific to the movements themselves.
One lesson from these past attempts, however, is universal: The success of a religion in today’s world is driven by the same parameters that drive the success of any modern organization, whether it’s a corporation, a fast-food franchise, or a non-profit. Success and popularity, defined in worldly terms, depends on an attractive message, targeted advertising, good organization, adaptability to local conditions, ability to change with environmental conditions, and compatibility with contemporary political frameworks. These factors matter at least as much as the appeal of the underlying message of the movement. In other words, anyone wanting to make a success of their new religion would do much better if they are good not just at philosophy, but also at marketing. They would also do well to study the characteristics of disease propagation and the theory of memes.
Still, there is reason to be hopeful that an enlightened version of Hinduism will find its rightful place in the world of the future. Through the actions of a number of like-minded individuals, a grass-roots network can spring up and form the beginnings of a modern-day organization that could succeed where previous such attempts either failed or only achieved limited success in the past. From this point of view, the thoughts in this essay are really a call to action. To this end, I conclude the essay with a manifesto that includes some basic next steps.
It may be appropriate here to say a few words about my own motivation. While I am not an expert on any religion, Hinduism included, my upbringing both as a Hindu (in the South Indian Brahmin tradition) in quite a devout setting, and simultaneously in a modern international urban middle-class ethos, have placed me at the center of the dilemma that this essay attempts to address. Since my childhood, I have been aware of the contradictions inherent in swallowing whole the claims of any religion that draws its authority from immutable and supposedly sacrosanct original sources. Religion stands in stark contrast to the rest of our contemporary existence: we have, as modern humans, scientists, and seekers of truth, learned to change and evolve in our knowledge and beliefs in the face of new information and evidence, except in religious matters.
This contradiction has bothered me all my life, but recently the matter has taken on renewed urgency with the need to explain my beliefs to my own children and to inculcate them with the appropriate values and attitudes towards religion. In thinking about what to say to them, I realize that I am unwilling to sacrifice the evidence of my own eyes and brain on the altar of any religious faith, or to twist today’s reality to conform to the claims of ancient scripture, no matter how seductive the promises of the religion to those who suspend disbelief. Whatever its merits, Hinduism is as culpable in this regard as any major religion.
Why then, one might ask, rather than utter rejecting Hinduism (along with all other religions), should one make an attempt at reconciliation? There are three main reasons to try, one philosophical, one practical, and one personal. The first is philosophical: perhaps uniquely among major religions, Hinduism has features built into its nature and structure that may offer an honest way out of the impasse created by the clash between doctrinal religion and the rest of our body of knowledge. The two main features I refer to are the unfailing emphasis on the inner subjective quest for God (as opposed to an imposition of an idea of God from the outside, e.g., by an authoritarian Church) and the vast diversity of orthodox and heterodox ideas and opinions within the body of Hindu historical scriptures and commentaries. The former, which Hinduism has in common with Buddhism, makes it uniquely appealing to today’s contemporary educated human. The latter diversity, which Buddhism lacks, is a result of Hinduism’s historical tradition of inclusiveness, whereby the absorption of a variety of philosophies over the millennia and the absence of a central authority to prevent heterodox thinking has provided a particularly rich grab-bag of ideas for us to choose from.
The second reason is practical: by rejecting all religions we throw out the baby with the bath-water, by discarding thousands of years of philosophical insights. Why reinvent the wheel? Doing so would condemn us to rediscover the profound “truths” one at a time and piecemeal, as many half-baked pop-psychology and self-help mavens today seem intent on doing. Although I am aware that other major religions, both from the East and the West, have a lot to contribute, Hinduism seems particularly rich in the depth and diversity of its philosophical offerings. Shouldn’t we rather stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, albeit with a critical eye, than start from scratch with a blank slate of skepticism, self-condemned to live within the boundaries of our own limited intellect, imagination, and amateurish philosophies?
The final reason for my attempt is personal. Despite all of the profoundly unsatisfactory and often meaningless (to me) rituals and arbitrary moralizing that I have endured in my lifetime of exposure to modern Hindu practice, something very attractive and appealing nonetheless shines through all of these externalities. The reconciliation of humanity with nature, the emphasis on inner quest, and the questioning, almost child-like musings of the Upanishads have a deep and timeless appeal. What was especially liberating to me was the realization that I could throw off the arbitrary restrictions imposed by my family traditions on what to believe and how to practice the religion, and that I could roam freely over the breadth, depth and scope of Hinduism’s (as well as other religions’) philosophies, writings, and core ideas. In this way, I was able to avoid throwing away the whole rich fabric of Hinduism, which for me is more a way of life than a faith.
In the course of these readings, I realized that a core reason for the difficulty and complexity in Hindu religious commentary arises from a key self-imposed restriction: to stay consistent with everything in the “sacrosanct” core scriptures (Shruti), such as the Vedas and Upanishads. This is difficult to do, to say the least, and leads to very complex and twisted explanations of anything in those scriptures that appears to disagree with the commentator’s ideas, leading to a good deal of verbal sophistry and the Hindu equivalent of trying to count the angels on the head of a pin. Once one gives oneself permission to discard what seems like nonsense or simply not useful and to pick out the useful insights, and to treat the Upanishads, for example, as philosophical explorations of truth rather than as the ultimate spiritual authority, one realizes how approachable and appealing these writings really are. It is this core idea of picking out the best ideas of Hinduism that motivated this essay.
A final word about the organization of the rest of this essay, which is laid out in six sections. The first section charts the decline of Hinduism in terms of its temples and priests, its numbers, its practice, and the stagnation of its philosophy. The next section summarizes the objections to organized religion of thinkers from Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins. These objections, however, must be viewed against the backdrop of continued immense popularity of major religions, pointing to the continued hunger for a spiritual component, however flawed, in human life. The third section tries to reconcile the main objections to current religions, suggesting some desirable characteristics of any “new” religion that would overcome the main limitations of our traditional religions. Section four examines the promise of Hinduism (or a key subset of it) as a candidate to fill the shoes of a faith for the new millennium. Lest this be taken as an unreserved endorsement of Hinduism, section five hastens to list a long series of objections to the specific beliefs, practices and moral teachings of Hinduism that might need to be discarded or changed to make it an acceptable candidate. The final section is a manifesto for action, calling for a grass-roots network that would lay the groundwork for the philosophical questioning, the organizational work, and the popularization of a new faith for the new millenium: “Hinduism 2.0”.
(Watch this space for more installments of Hinduism 2.0!)
End Notes and References
[i] Sanatana Dharma, common epithet for the various strains of Hindu philosophy
[ii] Hinduism’s sister-religion Buddhism, also comes ready-made with many of the same attractive characteristics, but with greater simplicity and without much of the cultural baggage and India-specific paraphernalia that make Hinduism so complex. It has therefore become the darling of many new agers. However, in the author’s view, Buddhism has one major flaw that, in this author’s view, essentially disqualifies it – it has a profoundly negative conception of the ultimate nature of God – indeed it comes close to atheism in that respect.
key word here is “relatively”, since the amount of blood spilled is by no means
negligible, and violence by Hindus in the name of their religion appears
unfortunately to have worsened over the past century, particularly in the wake