The Childishness of So-Called Rationalists Like KS Bhagavan

These people are stuck with the idea that religious texts have to be accepted or rejected in toto. Why is that? Why can’t you take stuff which you think is good, and leave out the rest? Why act as if it’s take-all or leave-all? Why act like children?

There seems to be something wrong with those who call themselves rationalists in Tamil Nadu and their friends in Karnataka. Today, I was shocked to read what Prof KS Bhagavan and others had to say during a meeting organized on Periyar’s birthday celebration in Bengaluru (Udayavani, 19 Sept 2015).

In short, they seem to equate rationalism with rejecting everything Hindu.

If you’ve read The Pyramid of Corruption or some of my articles on Hinduism, you know that I am myself a critic of how Hinduism handles society – the caste system in particular. But that doesn’t mean I hate everything Hindu. For example, I have always considered the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, etc., as the leading lights of human life. Even that doesn’t mean I take everything they say literally. I always put them to my own tests – both spiritual and worldly – before accepting or rejecting them.

In fact, I shouldn’t say “accepting or rejecting them” because true learners don’t simply accept or reject anything in its entirety. If you’re open to learning, everything and everyone has something to teach. Therefore, I should only say “accepting or rejecting what you read in them”.

I’m stressing on this because this is exactly where, I think, the so-called rationalists are going totally wrong. By making statements such as “Rama wasn’t born to his father, so don’t worship Rama” (attributed to KS Bhagavan by the Kannada daily Udayavani), these people are making a mockery of their own religion: atheism.

A good atheist would never make such a statement. He’d question who Rama is, why he should be called God, who God is, and so on and so forth, and if he can’t reconcile the data using the scientific method, he’d walk away saying it’s all nonsense.

But this is not what these so-called rationalists are doing. They’ve reduced atheism to hatred of everything Hindu – a hatred they’re willing to spread by making stupid statements like the one above. Why is it stupid? Because it makes no difference who Rama was born to, or even whether he was born at all.

I’m reminded of the Kannada hymn “Neenyaako ninna hangyaako” in which Purandara Dasa sings, so beautifully, that the name of the Lord suffices for the devotee; the Lord himself is redundant. None of this, of course, makes sense to people who don’t understand or who haven’t experienced first-hand the psychological power of chanting.

The living Guru of all atheists, Richard Dawkins, doesn’t go about asking people to stop following Jesus because he was supposedly born to a virgin. He asks them not to follow because the whole theory about God as put forth in the Bible doesn’t fit together according to Dawkins. I’m saying ‘as put forth in the Bible’ on purpose, because it’s completely different in the Upanishads, the Gita, etc.

I asked Richard Dawkins once on twitter what he thinks of the concept of God in these texts, and he had no answer. It ended up bolstering my feeling that what they call as atheism is nothing but the denial of the Christian and Islamic idea of God.

The God of the Upanishads and the Gita cannot be denied. That’s because that which you’d have to deny is everything, including the denier and the act of denial. I wrote about this in an article titled The Irrelevance of Atheism for the Upanishadist.

By the way, I don’t think Rama is worth worshipping either, but that’s for a completely different reason: there’s nothing to learn from him and I can’t imagine worshipping someone I can’t learn from. If you haven’t realized, there’s no such thing called Rama’s teaching. Unless, of course, you include in that term the teaching given to Rama in various places including the Ramayana itself and the Yogavasishtha.

Krishna I do consider worth worshipping (which is another big word, by the way), and that’s again because he’s a great teacher. He’s the teacher (not the taught) in that great text, the Bhagavadgita. I don’t mean to say Krishna was an actual person – it doesn’t matter. What matters is his teaching. Nor do I mean that I accept everything Krishna says – even this doesn’t matter. Does he teach stuff which is worth learning? Yes, yes, yes, much more than anyone else from my point of view, and so I find him worthy of worship.

Coming back to KS Bhagavan & Co, the problem with them, in summary, is that they’re stuck with the idea that religious texts have to be accepted or rejected in toto. Why is that? Why can’t you take stuff which you think is good, and leave out the rest? Why act as if it’s take-all or leave-all? Why act like children?

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.

How Hindutva kills Hinduism

I.

In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4, the sage Yājñavalkya decides to retire to the forest after dividing his property between Maitreyī and Kātayāni, his two consorts. Maitreyī then gets into a discussion with Yājñavalkya on whether the property would keep her happy forever. She asks:

yan nu ma iyaṃ bhagoḥ sarvā pṛthivī vittena pūrṇā syāt kathaṃ tenāmṛtā syām iti.

“Would I become immortal if all the wealth of the world were to become mine?” Yājñavalkya has to make a clear choice between artha and moksha here, and this is what he says in response: no.

neti hovāca yājñavalkyaḥ. yathaivopakaraṇavatāṃ jīvitaṃ tathaiva te jīvitaṃ syāt. amṛtatvasya tu nāśāsti vitteneti.

“No, your life would be like that of those who have rich possessions. There is no hope of immortality through wealth.” And then the Upanishad goes on with Yājñavalkya revealing, upon request, one after the other spiritual truth to Maitreyī.

This short episode should clarify beyond doubt that the true focus in this, as in every, Upanishad is moksha, not arthaamṛtatva, not vitta. If it weren’t for this focus on deliverance or salvation, the Upanishads would have lost meaning long ago, as many of the other parts of the Vedas have.

Noise can make us forget that the Upanishads, not other texts, are central to Hinduism. But in reality, one cannot claim to uphold Hinduism but let go of Upanishadic messages. It is impossible to uphold some other text or portion thereof, if it contradicts the message of the Upanishads, and claim to uphold Hinduism.

II.

Why am I writing this? This is to set the record straight after reading an article titled ‘The Desirability of Artha’ by Bibek Debroy. I would perhaps not have bothered if it were from someone else, but for such a prominent public intellectual to let go of the centrality of the Upanishads in advocating for Hinduism illustrates that the intellectual disaster that has struck India’s right-wing elite is of a greater magnitude than I had imagined.

In an article which sets out to establish the desirability of artha, which desirability is, of course, not questionable, Debroy makes the point that the superiority of moksha in Hindu scriptures is ‘superficial’. This is an unpardonable mistake. There is no question of comparing artha to moksha in the core of Hinduism; the latter wins hands down, and explicitly.

After having made this seminal mistake, Debroy’s article gets entangled in a mess of absurdities.

Take, for example, the idea that the Varna system represents ‘nothing but economic specialization’ if we were to consider it ‘without defending its subsequent hereditary aspects’. This is like saying cyanide represents harmless matter if we were to consider it without defending its poisonous character.

Debroy also claims to give the original meaning of Brahmacharya. According to him, it need not necessarily involve celibacy. No doubt one can achieve moksha even while being a gruhastha, but that does not mean you go and preach sexual intercourse to the Brahmachari.

Continuing, Debroy argues that Hinduism is quite concerned about wealth creation (one could argue it’s always transformation); the impression that it isn’t concerned comes, according to Debroy, from a selective and biased reading of Hindu texts. Well, one can argue without end about which texts are part of Hinduism and which aren’t, but there is no doubt that the Upanishads are. There is also no doubt that they are central to the religion; any selective reading must involve them in order to remain meaningfully Hindu. In such a situation, to bring the limited scope of a couple of parvas from the Mahabharata as proof that ‘Hinduism’ cares for wealth-creation – so much that moksha loses its supreme position among the purusharthas – is to give up the core of Hinduism and wallow in superficiality.

Debroy even pushes his economic agenda into the mouth of the scripture. According to him, because public works were driven by individuals, not kings, we must take it as an acknowledgment by scripture that there should be little State involvement in public works today, too. I am not opposed to the proposition itself, but the farce of deriving it from the Mahabharata.

And what is that reference to the Buddha doing in the last paragraph of the article? The claim is that the vaishyas supported Buddha. So what? That makes moksha‘s superiority superficial as claimed? Or is it that we should welcome the author’s economics as ancient and absolute truths which supported the Buddha? Or is it a way to draw to his brand of western economics those who are concerned about the economic state of the Dalits?

Why is this intellectual disaster happening? Why are the self-appointed protectors of Hinduism themselves defaming Hindu scriptures (Debroy is apparently translating the Mahabharata and it is said to be a seminal work in Indology)? Why are the Hindutvavadis defending the indefensible exterior of the religion and discarding the perfect core, i.e., the Upanishads? Why do they not even hesitate to deny supreme importance to moksha to argue for their brand of artha?

The reason is that they try to approach Hinduism through the politico-economic lens. What appears through it is the monster created by the British and worshipped by Indian nationalists – the Indian Nation. This monster is their God. In singing its praise and positioning themselves as its high-priests, they do not seem to understand that they are destroying the impeccable spiritual core of Hinduism.

How not to sell the Vedas

‘Pride is the fuel,’ says Amish Tripathi, ‘that will help us build our nation’ (Vedic learning is no one’s preserve, everyone’s pride, Times of India, 21 Sept 2014). And what does any right-thinking status-quo-ist do when such is the assumption and a nation is given? He looks for an object of pride and hard-sells it. Tripathi sells the Vedas, asserting that all Indians must take pride in them. Why exactly should we do that? He cannot possibly say ‘because we have to build our nation’ – the object of pride must have independent validity – so he goes on to argue that it’s because ‘all groups in the subcontinent today have descended from the ancient Vedic people.’

What exactly do the geneticists say? In a 2013 study titled Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Priya Moorjani et. al. argue that most Indian groups descend from a mixture of so-called Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI, which Tripathi mentions). Notably, the authors describe these groups as ‘genetically divergent populations’. The first group is ‘related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians and Europeans’ and the second is ‘not closely related to groups outside the subcontinent.’ In other words, there is no walking away from the possibility of the Ancestral South Indians having played hosts to the Ancestral North Indians before intermingling began (from 1,900 to 4,200 years ago according to the same paper).

Tripathi must not have seen much nation-building fuel in mentioning this genetic divergence. He goes on only to say that ‘these groups have inhabited the subcontinent for at least 6,000 years, if not more, heavily intermingling in the ancient past’ (I don’t even want to get into the usual blaming of Germans and Britishers for divide-and-rule). Well, inhabit they could have, but as one group? No. Groups that intermingle ‘heavily’ or otherwise must have been isolated from one another before the intermingling began: it’s commonsense. Moorjani suspects – yes, that word – that ‘the two groups lived side-by-side for centuries without intermarrying’ prior to 4,200 years ago. Tripathi doesn’t want us to read all this in history – glossing over any sort of plurality is the way to go.

Also, Tripathi should be more worried about the shift away from any sort of mingling in the last 1,900 years. According to Moorjani, mixture ‘even between closely related groups became rare because of a shift to endogamy’ – i.e., the caste-system arose – which the Vedic heritage we all must take pride in didn’t do much to discourage. This finds no mention in his article quite possibly because it isn’t good enough fuel, the pontification in the beginning paragraph of his essay notwithstanding.

Even less nation-building fuel there is in seeking the reasons for India’s linguistic diversity. While the novelist can cast his characters such that his prejudice ‘holds true across religions, languages, castes and even national boundaries’, the fact remains that Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages are quite distinct from each other. The Europeans didn’t invent them; they discovered them. This crucial fact, too, finds no mention in Tripathi’s article.

I haven’t seen a study directly linking this North-South linguistic difference with the genetic difference between ANI and ASI, but commonsense suggests that a link must exist. What sort of commonsense? Just this: that the ancestors of people who speak unrelated languages today must not have intermingled – at least not significantly. No such commonsense is visible in Tripathi’s article. In fact, linguistics, where differences are crystal clear, is very bad nation-building fuel for BJP/RSS types in general. It fuels a completely different kind of nation – one which they hate to imagine. So let’s ensure that objective guides research and findings.

Even if, for argument’s sake, one could successfully trace every Indian to some sort of Rashtriya Adam and Eve – one just needs sufficient pride – it doesn’t follow that we must consider everything the couple did with pride. Some of the greatest sons of India have rebelled against the Vedas. The Buddha in the North and Basavanna in the South are but two examples. No number of opinion pieces convinced them to take pride in the Vedas, let alone those that could have stemmed from political agendas. In fact, this whole idea that we ought to respect that which has been handed down to us from history is irrational and an affront to India’s overall spiritual heritage, though certainly part of Vedic heritage. There, you begin and end with pride – at least of late.

All said and done, there is no doubt in my mind that the Upanishads – which are considered part of the Vedas – are the greatest treasure trove of spiritual wisdom in the world, surpassing that of all other religions. Those who wish to sell them need only to place them before the reader in his or her own language; they cannot but attract the spiritually inclined. One doesn’t need to prove, hopelessly, that the Jilebi was a delicacy eaten by ancient Indians everywhere eons ago in order to attract people who might eat it today. Bring a hot, fresh and tasty one if you have what it takes to prepare it, and mouths will water. What a hopeless exercise it is to bring one’s political biases to the argument that we should study the Vedas! The more the Vedas and Upanishads are considered nation-building fuel, the more shall they become the objects of hate, for the very nature of nation-building is to impose one worldview and cut off other shades of opinion.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 23-09-2014