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The Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Neo-Hinduism - Stephen Fuchs

Traditional Hinduism derives its origin and basic ideas from the religion of the Aryans, immigrants from Persia in the 15th to 12th centuries B.C. But soon the Aryan religion mixed and mingled with indigenous village cults and religions and thus gained firm roots in the soil of India. From the indigenous village religions, Hinduism received that astounding and surprising resilience and vitality which enabled it to revive after each period of stagnation and decline. Such revivals have occurred repeatedly in Indian history and are evident even in modern time. Thus, Hinduism digested and almost completely assimilated Buddhism and Jainism. It also successfully fought a militant religion like Islam and arrested its forceful, expansive drive. At the present time Hinduism is in the process of assimilating Sikhism and tribal religions, though not without a fierce struggle.

Hinduism Encounters Modern Civilization

But a more formidable catalyst and stimulant of change is modern civilization. It came to India in the wake of the British conquest and brought industrialization, with its twin products of capitalism and socialism, which partly superseded the formerly prevalent Indian feudal system. From the first, Western concepts had a tremendous impact on the Indian view of life.

Encouraged by that response, the British colonizers began to make India over in their image of what a modern, civilized state ought to be, introducing the British system of administration and law, political organization and democratic principles, the press, and, most important, the English language and educational system. With knowledge of the English language, the whole range of Western culture and knowledge was thrown open to the Indians. Through English literature, not only Christian values but also humanistic and purely rationalistic ideas were eagerly absorbed by Indians. The fascinating discoveries and inventions of European science and the methods and instrumentation of technical, scientific research were made available to them.

In the last 50 years, but especially since India attained political independence in 1947, the country has been passing through a mighty phase of progress in practically all fields of national life. At the same time, Marxist principles and values have also widely infiltrated Indian life and thinking and are gaining increasing acceptance by all classes of the Indian population.

Materially, modernization has undoubtedly brought to India great, beneficial amenities in various ways--in communications, transportation, irrigation, electricity, etc. At the same time, however, it has also caused the collapse of the old economic structure. The arrival of better and cheaper industrial goods from English factories meant the destruction of the old handicraft structure of India. The slow industrialization of India could not absorb the great mass of laborers suddenly deprived of employment, and they had to seek work and sustenance as field laborers. That in turn caused a serious disturbance of the agricultural economy and of the caste system on which the whole organization of artisans was built.

Thus, while the old economic and political order was seriously disturbed, ideologically it remained largely intact. For the core of Indian society had not been much infected by those foreign influences. Only the marginal sections of the Indian population--those at the uppermost level and those at the bottom--were ready for change, any change, but not its core--the land-owning farmers and the upper-caste intellectuals in the urban areas. A movement in defense of traditional Hinduism was started in the second half of the 19th century, mainly in Bengal, and developed into what is now called neo-Hinduism. Its common characteristic was and is the glorification of Hindu religion and society in their current forms and a spirited defense of them against hostile criticism from others, foreign or Indian. Even such obvious Hindu abuses as widow burning, female infanticide, child marriage, and untouchability were hotly defended by Hindu leaders like Bankim-chandra Chatterji and B. G. Tilak. Thus, the new and formidable challenge of foreign order led to a revival of Hinduism and, in fact, turned a rather compliant, defensive faith into an aggressive, missionary religion.

Weakening of Political Power and Cultural Influence of Europe

During that rather immature reaction of the Hindus against the new ideas, certain parallel Western developments poured oil onto the fire of zealous Hindu opposition. First, the political and economic power of Europe was shattered by 40 years of world war and revolution. Soon after the end of World War II, Europe lost her political hegemony in the world and the Great Powers of the 19th century either ceased to exist or became dwarfed and overshadowed by the rise of the new world powers--the United States and Soviet Russia. Moreover, the end of the European age of history was not simply due to political and economic decline: it was also the result of loss of faith in the uniqueness of European culture and the claim of East-Asian and other non-European peoples to an equality of cultural status. The ideas of freedom and human rights, of self-rule and nationalism, which Europeans had preached so eloquently in their homelands, now bore unexpected fruit in their colonies.

At that time a proud Hindu nationalism arose and was insistently and widely propagated by word and script, boasting of the achievements of the ancient Indian culture. The belief was spread and firmly held that Hindu India’s ancestors had in fact made the great inventions of the Western civilization. Their great rishis had used planes and instructed their warriors in the use of nuclear weapons: space travel had been their pastime. All those secrets can be found in the Vedas and other holy scriptures of Hinduism, they said. It was and is claimed in all sincerity that the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas give witness to those achievements of the ancients. The Hindus simply had not bothered to make use of those inventions, and they were gradually forgotten. When the English and Germans learned Sanskrit and began to study the Vedas, they read about those inventions and started to manufacture and use them.

With equal zeal Indian historians pointed out that, in the past, Hindu civilization had extended far beyond the present boundaries of India. It had included not only Southeast Asia but extended as far as Indonesia (Bali and Java), the Philippines, and perhaps even South America. Contemporary author Chiman Lal recently published a well-publicized book in which he claimed that the Mayan civilization was Hindu in origin.

While the Hindus now reluctantly admit that they are backward in technical knowledge and skills, they claim to be so because they have concentrated on more spiritual matters and have become great adepts in philosophy and religion. They look down on Western culture as being utterly materialistic and hedonistic, while their own aims and searchings are directed at sublime truths and high ideals. They alone know the secrets of mystic experience and God-realization. They find proof for those claims in the fact that each year thousands of youth make their pilgrimage to India to sit at the feet of religious teachers for the study and practice of Yoga and other esoteric rituals.

Readiness of Westerners to Accept Hindu Claims

Many Westerners respond positively to Hindu claims of spiritual superiority. One of the Hindu doctrines which appeals strongly to them is Vedantic monism. It is a religion without hard demands. It appeals to their pride: No personal God exists who must be obeyed and worshiped, to whom one must submit, and who might punish offenders. For whatever kind of life one leads, at the end there is immersion of the soul in the eternal bliss of the Absolute. That bliss can be attained without the need of divine grace and mercy: Man himself is God, he must only realize and experience it. Such God-realization can be learned by meditation and Yoga practices. Those practices can profitably be combined with, supported and intensified by, modern psychological expertise. Thus, the minds of individuals can be manipulated and brainwashed. In the ashrams of Rajneesh and Muktananda, for example psychiatrists use methods of experimentation which are forbidden in other countries, If Yoga practices do not result in the desired effects, then drugs do. The use of drugs has long been practiced in Hindu cults, and many sadhus keep such drugs with them. The use of sex is another means to attain religious ecstasy and superhuman powers.

That is another ambition of contemporary youth--to become superhuman. Based on the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin and the theory of an evolving cosmos, modern men and women are told that they can evolve into superhumans. The vast, popular science-fiction literature can feed that secret ambition. In addition, many Hindu sadhus claim that through their special training methods they can stimulate unknown potentialities slumbering in human nature to become active and functionary. It is rumored and widely believed in the West that the Hindus know occult practices--for instance, Tantrism or certain magic devices--by which even ordinary human beings can obtain superhuman powers. Many Westerners are attracted by those claims.

Thus, the imaginary expectations and religious yearnings of Western men and women are often directed towards India by vivid promises of fulfillment. A host of self-styled religious leaders and teachers offer the services to those pilgrims. The ancient traditions, combined with impressive and picturesque exotic rites of great antiquity, strongly appeal to Western disciples. To escape the slavery of the machine, or the drudgery of bureaucratic routine, Western youth hope to find mental relief and the ways and means for a happy, fulfilled new life in Hindu religion.

The general economic, social, and political situation in the West contributes to that openness to the Hindu promises. Western people are tired of their slavery to the machine. A machine does not work unless tended properly and serviced constantly. Mechanistic working methods in factories have been elaborated to such a perfection that they often exploit the human worker to his utmost vulnerability. And the evil truth that management often accepts is that the worker is more efficient the more routine-like he works. It is that soulless, robot-like labor that makes him so discontent and disgusted.

Other Westerners are attracted to India because they have attained a high standard of living, much comfort, and pleasure. But inevitably satiation sets in. Religious seekers want change and variety. They hope to find novel pleasures in countries of other climes and cultures. They feel drawn to India where, though admittedly great poverty may exist, legendary wealth and a refined luxury have been reported.

Today Western societies are obsessed by the danger of nuclear war--a very real danger. The permanent fear, the hypocrisy, corruption, and despair of modern life prompt many men and women to escape from all that and go to a country where living is still simple and natural. The general disorientation and surfeit of sensual permissiveness make people yearn for something higher, more sublime, more spiritual. Hindu philosophy and religion claim to show the way to those spiritual heights.

Lack of High Standard in Hindu Teaching

But the tragedy is that the Western seekers of spirituality have no access to the true, genuine teachers of Hindu philosophy and religion, for such teachers do not seek contact with Westerners. Frequently, what the foreign seekers of truth finally get is a poor version of Hindu teachings, a surrogate of the traditional wisdom. Nor would the immature Westerners be able to accept and digest the true values of Hindu philosophy and religion. Most of them are averse to long study and tiresome training. They want quick results. But the sublime truths of any religion cannot be obtained easily and without a long, deep study. Teachers who are willing to instruct the foreign pilgrims in Hindu wisdom through an oversimplified course of training and in condensed form are seemingly available in great numbers. But it is doubtful whether they are qualified for their task.

Neo-Hinduism in Its Present Form

It is that kind of Hinduism we call neo-Hinduism. It differs from traditional Hinduism in several important respects.

First, it is self-defensive, self-assertive, even aggressive and intolerant. It regards Hindu thought and ritual as the highest and most sublime achievement of the human mind, as the surest and shortest way to God-realization. it looks down on other religions and philosophies and considers them to be far inferior to Hinduism.

Second, it is expansive and missionary, eager to carry the Hindu creed into foreign countries. Neo-Hindus feel called to teach all mankind the truth revealed to the ancient rishis and handed on to them in the Vedas and other sacred scriptures. Hindu India has always been missionary, though this is not readily admitted by the Hindus. But the medieval Hindu colonies in Southeast Asia are proof of that missionary élan, and nowadays the non-Hindu minorities in India are invited by various means into the Hindu fold. But it is true that Hindus do not look out for individual converts, for they would be isolated and belong to no caste. Large groups and whole communities, however, which could form new castes and, as such, be incorporated into Hindu society and religion, are eagerly sought out for conversion. Thus, many mass conversions have taken place among the tribal population of India, as the census of India will attest. What will happen to the foreign adherents of the Hare Krishna movement, the Ramakrishna Mission, and other modern sects has still to be seen.

Third, neo-Hinduism is propagated mostly in its Vedantic form, with a more or less strong admixture of Tantrism and the specific doctrines of the individual gurus. Frequently, Western scientific terms are used to explain difficult Vedic passages.

Fourth, neo-Hinduism has a strong political slant and aims to establish a so-called Ram Raj, a state organization founded strictly according to Hindu beliefs and principles. It lacks religious and social tolerance. in that regard neo-Hinduism can truly be called a revivalist movement. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are examples of that, as is Ananda Marga.

Opponents of neo-Hinduism accuse its proponents of being a reactionary and super-conservative movement. It is alleged that, due to neo-Hinduism, India is still counted among the underdeveloped countries, and in fact the adherents of neo-Hinduism are against change, any change. Neo-Hindus claim that it is their zeal for the ancient religion which makes them cling to the old principles and tenets. But they might have other, more selfish motives for their attitude, for they form that part of Hindu society which draws the greatest benefits from the present constellation of landowners and upper-caste intellectuals in India. It is they who dominate the economic, social, and political life of India. it is natural that they decry change, extol the glorious past, and insist that the ancient beliefs and norms of behavior always be upheld. The apostles and minstrels of that type of propaganda are the Babas, Swamis, Yogis, and Acharyas who live on the alms and moral support of the wealthy class of india.

Neo-Hinduism is a great power in India today. Its influence on the whole national life is tremendous, though partly hidden, Its aggressive spirit is infectious. Through insidious propaganda, the illiterate masses may easily be swayed toward hostility against members of other religious, racial, or cultural minorities. Revivalist groups and associations have been inciting the population to violence against nonconformists, or they have pretended that Hindu religion and society were in danger for the purpose of promoting designs of their own. It is also well known that leading personalities in commerce, public utilities, and politics frequently consult religious leaders and act according to their advice. It is even alleged that quite a few members of parliament and ministers never start an important undertaking before they have received the approval of their astrologer, priest, or guru. Thus, such religious leaders exercise an influence which is often irresponsible and may have dire consequences for the future of the whole country.

I have tried to outline the cultural and religious dimensions of neo-Hinduism, to give some reasons for the rise of it, to show why there is such a ready, positive response to neo-Hinduistic movements in Western countries, and to explain the novel and strange phenomenon of such a large-scale pilgrimage of Westerners to India. I have also tried to point out the importance of neo-Hinduism in the present cultural and religious situation in Indian politics. To speculate what will happen in the future is fatuous. We do not know which of the powers will finally prevail--the progressive, liberal ones or the conservative ones. But we must face the situation realistically and not stumble blindly into the future.

Father Fuchs has been in India is a Catholic missionary, for nearly five decades. He is director of the Institute for Cultural Studies in Bombay and the author of ethnological and theological studies.