Hinduism, among all major religions, is perhaps the most amenable to rationality and atheism.
In fact, among all major religions, it also seems to be the most congenial to new ideas and new ways of life. Even to those ideas that seem to go against its basic grain and violate its basic premise.
In a sense, we can say that of all the religions in currency today, Hinduism is the most philosophical and cerebral one. Mainly because it is open to discussions and debates and also because it gives you the freedom and leeway to differ and part ways from it and choose a different path.
I believe this quality springs from its polytheistic nature and the rich tradition of Shashtrarth (religious debates) that India has always had. Being polytheistic, Hinduism does not put a final seal on number of gods, sages, gurus, scholars and pundits that you can have. You can add to the available pantheon and subtract from it as you desire and as many times as you require. You can also devise your own method of connecting with the god. It is the most customizable religion that you can accept at will and reject at will.
Not being a believer in the existence of a super natural power, that has supposedly created and then controls this universe, I don’t believe in some of the basic premises of Hinduism and its scriptures as far as the existence of god and the concepts of birth cycle and Aatma-Parmatma is concerned.
I don’t believe that there is a creator who has a grand design behind every event in this world. And I don’t believe that there is an after-life. Or that ‘Atma’ exists even after the body has perished or that it can take birth in the form of another organism or that there is a great ‘Param-Atma’ that it would ultimately merge into.
I don’t believe in these beliefs because there is no evidence to prove these beliefs and because these beliefs cannot be proven scientifically, or empirically. I believe all these beliefs were an attempt to seek answers to questions relating to the working of this universe. With time, we have got better answers. So, these beliefs, which were actually attempted answers to questions relating to working of this universe, have been disproven and it is now time to discard them.
However, I am awe-struck with the freedom that Hinduism allows its followers to think, say and profess what they believe is the right way of life or about the facts that they encounter. I am left in awe by the ease with which a Hindu can convert to any new idea, religion or ways of life. And by the ease with which he can junk an idea and then re-adopt it. No other existing major religion allows its followers so much thought-freedom.
However, there are some areas where Hinduism needs to improve and it is the responsibility of its followers to see that their religion is reformed and attuned to the changing times and needs. As someone who believes in science and rationality, I want Hindu values of respecting new ideas and other ways of life to get propagated as much as possible. Because if you are a Hindu, you are already a quarter of an atheist and are perhaps half-way to being a rationalist.
So, here are a few qualities that I would like to see in a Hindu. In all Hindus, so to say.
1. Hindu is someone who never burns a book, never demands a ban on a movie!
It does not matter how pernicious a book is. If you are a Hindu, you are not supposed to be offended so much by it that you feel the urge to actually burn it. Hindus are never known for book-burning. They should never be known as book-burners. Never burn a book and never demand that a movie be banned!
A book, with printed words on pieces of paper, can cause no harm, if you only intend to read that and not smash that on your head. If you are really offended too much by a book, write a better book to counter it. If you are not in a position to write a better book, ask someone who can do it. If you feel someone has painted your religion in a bad light, request some scholarly person from your community to put the record straight. If we feel Wendy Doniger has not been just to your religion or community, ask an Arun Shourie to put the record straight. Or at most move the courts to seek justice! The matter, however, should end here.
The increasing intolerance to new ideas and thoughts, which some call as militancy in Hinduism, and which may very well have been a result of imitating the followers of other religions, is something which leaves me disappointed. I am pained when I see crowds of people behaving in a certain manner which I don’t believe signifies the best of Hinduism.
For example, I am deeply pained when I see pictures of Hindus demanding a ban on a book or a movie. It is my personal belief that Hinduism does not warrant any such militant opposition to a book or a movie or a speech. It is philosophical and cerebral enough to stand up to any scrutiny. So demanding a ban, on a book, movie or a video, is very un-Hindu-like and one should not do it.
2. Hindu is one who has junked casteism
Casteism has done Hinduism a lot of harm. We need to junk it at the first opportunity. Of all the criticisms that have been leveled against Hinduism, this one relating to casteism, that this is a religion that differentiates among different segments of its own followers and that it is unfair to a vast section of people, is perhaps the most substantial, real and true one. There are some who feel that today’s casteism has its origin in the varna system described in Vedas.
There are others who feel that Vedas had prescribed this system for earmarking professions and that caste was not supposed to be inherited and that caste system is a medieval phenomenon. Whatever be the origins, everyone accepts that it is bad for Hinduism and its followers. So, trash it immediately! So, next time don’t ever try to remember or mention someone’s caste. And encourage inter-caste marriages as much as you can. Will you feel proud if someone in your community has to do a Sati in these times? No, because we have already got rid of the scourge of Sati. And we have been trying hard to get the scourge of casteism off our back. Let us do everything to finish this job.
3. Hindu is someone who respects women
This may sound like a cliche. But any community that does not respect its women and does not allow the women folk equal freedom and full equality in all respects is bound to suppurate on the margins of history. Going by the scriptures and mythologies, Hindus do not discriminate between the powers that goddesses and gods can have. In fact, in Hinduism, goddesses are more powerful that gods and are usually held in higher esteem. Hinduism is not supposed to be unfair and unjust to women.
The facts on the ground, however, are not very pleasing. How it has happened is immaterial, but negative changes have take place in our social behaviour. Hindu girls do face discrimination at every level. They do have to face a lot of injustices. For me, one can qualify to be a Hindu if and and only if he respects women, their individuality, their freedom and their freedom of choice to be what they want to be and to live the way they want to live. We don’t have to be condescending toward them. We should just allow them to be what they want to be and respect them as equal individuals.
4. Hindu is someone who has doubts and asks questions, looks within
If you are a Hindu, you are not supposed to be a dumb follower of a book written thousands of years back or every word spoken by a saint or a messiah who was born thousands of years back. You should not take any prescription in any book to be the final one. You are supposed to try to seek and experience truth and reality for yourself. And that can be done only if you keep asking questions, if you keep seeking ‘the truth’, the most updated one that is, the most current one. The most latest version of ‘truth’ that is.
For me the ideal Hindu is one who starts with the biggest of all questions for any religious person – does my god exist? What journey your quest takes you through will depend on how you choose to travel. Remember only one thing – this quest within oneself, this encounter with your inner self is what comprises the core of Hinduism and is very akin to the process of self-introspection prescribed in other Dharmic religions too including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
5. A Hindu leaves two individuals alone
If there are two individuals spending their time in privacy, in whatsoever manner they like, please leave them alone. It is not your business to control someone else’s life or to poke your own nose in every window. We should allow others their freedom. We should not try to define moral lines for others. There are legal lines that law has already defined. We do not have to add our own moral lines to them. So, if you are a Hindu, you should not try to do moral policing for others. It would be best if we guard our own moral world.
6. A Hindu does not treat word of scriptures as sacred and therefore unchangeable
There are many good things in Hindu scriptures. But there are also several things which have become outdated and out of sync with modernity. We need to ignore those portions of our scriptures. We have to leave those portions out as those are not relevant in modern times. A Hindu will have no hesitation in doing so.
Arun Shourie writes, “Nor is it necessary to defend every syllable in every scripture. So much in our scriptures is priceless, so much embodies insights which are as profound as they are unique, so much reflects such deep insights into the mind, into nature, into life itself that in sum the scriptures are a sublime heritage. Equally, some of what is contained in them is bound to be dated – it naturally reflects the knowledge that was available at the time when the texts were written. Surely, clinging to every word in every text as if it were a matter of honour is unnecessary.”
7. A Hindu will be happy and positive
This may sound like a line from Deepak Chopra. But it is important not to nurse too many complaints against the world at large. Several unwanted events have occurred in the past. We should take lessons from them. But now we have to look to a new future too. We can build a good future for ourselves only if we don’t have too many grudges in our hearts.
In Hinduism, a man is not treated as a sinner. Life is not a long wait to the final judgement either. Instead, in Hinduism, life is something that has to be enjoyed and used purposefully. Life should have personal rectitude, truthfulness and joy (sat-chit-anand).
So, let us pardon History for its injustices against us! And let us apologize to History for the excesses that we have committed against it. We cannot undo what is past. We can only begin a new chapter. And the best way is to start with a new, unsullied page.