The Balagangadhara Problem

Prof S.N.Balagangadhara, in The Heathen in his Blindness, says ‘religion is what Christianity, Islam and Judaism are’ and goes on to argue that Hinduism is not a religion. Given this definition of religion, anyone can arrive at this result. I don’t see the point in trying to make it impossible to compare Hinduism with the above religions in any manner whatsoever.

I understand that Hinduism is not a religion according to the above definition, but I reject that definition. Yes, Christians, Muslims, and Jews would, in all likelihood, agree with Balagangadhara’s definition, but that should be no inducement for me or anyone to follow suit. Yes, Balagangadhara’s definition might have been the working definition of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but that doesn’t require us to refuse to redefine it.

I don’t understand why Balagangadhara and his research group seem to find it impossible to come to a definition of ‘religion’ which includes all the above religions. I know that they claim that they don’t even want to try, but I don’t understand why. It’s like claiming that one doesn’t want to try to arrive at homo sapiens as a category.

I offer, as a definition of the word religion, ‘a set of methods for spiritual uplift’, and I think it sits well in all the situations in which the word ‘religion’ has been used. Religions differ with respect to what the method is and what spiritual uplift is, and with respect to the intended and unintended effects on society, but every religion of the world falls under the umbrella of this definition. In short, I don’t think the Balagangadhara problem exists.

Violence by language

The idea of a pan-Indian lingua franca is violent. The question is not which language must be the lingua franca, but why any one language must be. The most common answer is that Indians need a common language to communicate with each other. But what is conveniently forgotten is that any lingua franca expands to become the one and only language that ultimately prevails. As I write this, I myself find it next to impossible (even a major waste of time) to write in two languages.

We are also made to conveniently forget that we need to alienate ourselves from the people closest to us to support an all-India lingua franca. For example, elite Kannadigas who think India needs a common language also necessarily give in to the violent idea that it’s okay for them to divorce themselves from tens of millions of Kannadigas. Let the idiots catch up if they have what it takes, or let them be wiped out by ‘survival of the fittest’ – this is the unstated feeling we have for our own brethren.

Patriotism is the offered justification for this violence, but the real one is simply the insatiable desire to get ahead of others in the race for material resources. Far, far non-violent than this is to have state-level lingua francas. That is, Kannada in Karnataka, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Bengali in Bengal, and so on and so forth. Of course this does not eliminate the violence entirely, but it reduces it by degrees of magnitude. There is no perfection in the material world; the question is whether one is moving towards it or away from it.

An autobiographical note

I am a Dravida Brahmana. I did not choose my caste; it chose me. I use the term Dravida Brahmana to mean ‘a Brahmana whose mother tongue is a Dravidian language’. The term has been historically used to include Marathi or Gujarati speakers also, but I don’t use it in that sense. I attach the modern meaning in linguistics to Dravida.

If we go some fifteen-hundred-odd years ago, it should be possible to find among my ancestors a marriage between a migrant Brahmana from North India and a non-Brahmana woman from South India. I am glad it happened and gave me a chance to be what I am today, although I do not approve of many other things that came to happen in society because of such marriages. We belong to a Brahmana subdivision called Deshastha. The word means ‘one who stays in the country’. The country is very likely north Karnataka or south Maharashtra. But clearly, we haven’t ‘stayed in the country’. Here I am in Mysore.

We Batnis are Kannadigas. I have heard of a few who have matrimonial links with Marathi Brahmanas such as Peshwas, but their percentage is negligible. My father’s name is Batni Raghavendra Rao, and quite a few Batni Something Rao’s are found in Shimoga and Mysore. Batni is supposed to be a place near Sagara, Karnataka. Nobody has found it either on the ground or on the map. Someone suggested to me that it must be a submerged village. I am told that all Batnis belong to the Agastya gotra and I find this to be interesting in many ways. I certainly do belong to this gotra.

We are not just Deshastha Brahmanas but Madhva Deshastha Brahmanas (I think all Batnis are, but I can’t be sure). Someone in my ancestry must have taken Madhvacharya or one of his disciples as his guru. He is not my guru, though I have read and continue to read him. I have also read and continue to read Shankara’s as well as Buddhist and Jain works. Every spiritual text written in India interests me. I think I can take all the great saints of India together as my gurus but not any one of them individually. Whatever I have learned from these saints is due to personal interest; I have no formal training in the scriptures or Sanskrit.

I am yet to come across a living guru of the Brahmanas (often the head of a Mutt) who can fill me with a feeling of respect; they are mostly administrators who don’t write anything worth reading or do anything worth following. I don’t approve of organized religion in the first place – it leads to things like The Pyramid of Corruption. I consider spirituality an individual pursuit and I am an ardent spiritualist.

Some people think I hate Brahmanas. I don’t. The best among them have made extremely important contributions to the knowledge of the world. But I dislike the superstition of the others and their stated or unstated acceptance of The Pyramid of Corruption (not the book but what it’s about). I don’t think all of them choose these evils consciously, though.

There’s a lot of reform work that needs to be done within the Brahmana community. Superstition of all sorts must go – it’s more prevalent than one can imagine in these modern times. It’s not acceptable that most Brahmanas have no clue about the spiritual core of Hinduism – the Upanishads – but stand up to defend the worthless shell: things such as the caste-system and Sanskrit’s exclusive claim to divinity. The less they understand the Upanishads, the more they defend the indefensible.

All this must change, and I have some plans to bring about this change in my own small way. If you are interested or know someone who is, please contact me. For the work I have in mind, you should be a Kannadiga reasonably well-versed in the Upanishads, consider yourself a poet, and be willing to write in Ellara Kannada. Being a Brahmana is neither a qualification nor a disqualification.

I could go on and on, but I just wanted to add this brief autobiographical note to answer a few questions some of my friends have been asking me.