Bhakti Hinduism versus Sanatana Dharma

Around the turn of the last millennium, the Sanatana Dharma found itself under threat, and not for the first time. The previous threats had been dealt with cleverly and skilfully, with the most masterful stroke having been the co-option of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Jainism had been similarly dealt with and reduced to margins of the subcontinent.

The new threat, however, was of a different kind. Unlike the philosophy-heavy religions of the subcontinent, the Abrahamic religions were much simplified in their message. Having been stripped off concepts such as rebirth and multiple gods, they had a simple message, based on the concept of an Armageddon. They also came with a handy “with us or against us” message, with evangelists of these faiths not hesitating from putting to sword people who refused to obey them.

Not to be outdone by faiths that were significantly more simplistic, religious leaders of the day figured that the only response was to simplify their own religion, and thus was born what has now come to be known as the “Bhakti movement”. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the Bhakti movement as not one movement but a collection of a large number of independent movements all of which were in a similar direction.

So how did the Bhakti saints counter the monotheistic simple Abrahamic religions? They each chose a single God from among the pantheon, and professed worship towards this particular God. Tulasidas chose Rama, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose Krishna and so forth. More importantly, the divine aspect of Gods who were hitherto human avatars (such as Rama and Krishna) was amplified, and the more “human” grey areas of the epics and scriptures were played down. In retelling of the epics from this time onward, Ramayana became a story of the “ideal king” Rama. Mahabharata was cast as the story of Krishna, rather than that of a battle between cousins over property. The Bhagavad Gita part of the Mahabharata, which receives scant importance in the earlier texts (source: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta) got played up.

In the space of a few centuries, as the Bhakti movement (decentralized, still – remember) took shape across different parts of the country, the very nature of the religion underwent a massive change. Gone was the worship of the general pantheon, its place now taken up by worship towards a single God/Goddess. The latter would even be interpreted as a particular idol of a particular God/Goddess, as now the Venkataramana of Tirupati was now supposed to have a lot more “mahime” than the idol of the same deity at say Devagiri in Banashankari, Bangalore. Out went the philosophical underpinnings of a religious education. In came a list of dos and don’ts. Debate was replaced by obeisance towards the guru.

The Bhakti period had been immediately preceded by a period of immense development of Hindu philosophy, by the likes of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya. The importance of that was suddenly lost, as the devotion to a particular God took precedence over understanding of a philosophy. I’m supposed to be a Smartha, and am from a priestly family (my greatgrandfather was a priest). None of my religious education, however (mostly received from grandfather and uncles) consisted of anything of Shankara’s Advaitha philosophy – the foundation of the Smartha sect.

Behind my house in Jayanagar is this hall called Shankara Krupa (set up, incidentally, by my grand-uncle), which plays host to lectures of a religious nature every evening. During the day the hall is let out for other functions, typically of a religious nature, and I’ve hosted and attended several events there. There is a podium on stage, from where the speakers deliver their lectures every evening. And on the podium is a large sign, in bold letters in both English and Kannada. “Please do not disturb the lectures by asking questions or engaging in debate”.

This signboard at a place called “Shankara Krupa” sums up where the Bhakti movement has taken the great Sanatana Dharma.


I had written this as a note on facebook a long time back, in an introduction to another of my blogposts. It went largely unnoticed – I claim it is because it made way too many people uncomfortable. For posterity’s sake, I thought it needs to go somewhere more permanent – like this blog, so reprising it here. 

One of the several post-death rituals in the Sanatana Dharma is called “sapinDikaraNa” – in which the “pinda” (departed soul) of the deceased is “tied” to the pindas of their ancestors. This is apparently done to make sure that the pinda doesn’t end up as a free radical and come back to haunt its descendants.

I don’t know why I’m thinking about this today, but the way they “connect” the pindas is quite funny. They just tell the gotra and given name of the deceased, and then the given names of the deceased’s father, father’s father and father’s father’s father (for women it is mother-in-law, mother-in-law’s mother-in-law and mother-in-law’s mother-in-law’s mother-in-law).

I think this is a rather poor addressing system, and not one designed for today’s populations. Maybe back in the days when this was invented, not more than one person belonging to a particular gotra had the same name. So this system of addressing worked (like in villages and small towns, houses don’t have door numbers – the postman knows everyone by name). Why is it that the system hasn’t been changed even though there are possibly thousands of people with the same given names and gotras?

If religion truly ever worked, its working would have broken down through the ages when its addressing system became obsolete. Why then, do so many people still “religiously” believe in it?

It’s all pinda wonly, I must say.

History and Mythology

Yesterday, on yet another reasonably routine visit to the Shankara MaTha in Shankarpuram (where else?), I happened to notice this series of illustrations which sought to tell the story of Adi Shankaracharya’s life. The story starts out with Hinduism being in trouble in the 8th and 9th century AD, which leads to a bunch of Gods and Angels to lead a delegation to Shiva asking him to “do something” about it.

Since I was in the rather calm precincts of the temple, I prevented myself from laughing loudly, but this whole idea of mixing mythology with history intrigued me. The story got even more interesting later, since there was a panel that depicted Shankaracharya getting lessons from Veda Vyasa (the author of the Mahabharata, for the uninitiated). “Was he still alive in the 9th century”, the wife thought aloud politely. I made some random comments about not remembering if he was one of the Chiranjeevis.

A long time back, maybe when I was in school, my grandmother had wanted to see this movie on Shirdi Sai Baba (*ing Shashikumar). There again, there was a mixture of history and mythology, with one of the Gods (Shiva, I think) planting himself in some mango lady’s womb (not sure of the accuracy of this, close to 20 years since I watched it). In that case, however, it being a part of a popular movie, I thought there was enough poetic license to do that. But as part of the panels inside a temple, which is supposed to give out the authentic story? I’m not sure providing entertainment is a stated objective of that temple.

Now I begin to wonder how devout some of the devout could be, if they could actually believe that in the 9th century AD, there was a delegation of Gods who appealed to Shiva to rescue the religion! There are also other implications of this. One, that the Gods closely watch over what was happening on earth (well, I guess the omniscient model of God does permit this). Two, the admission that there might be religions apart from the Sanatana Dharma – which is something that is not made in any of our ancient texts. The Vedas, Upanishads and other texts were all written in India so long ago that no other organized religion existed back then. If you look at the myths, you will observe that all characters are religious, and they all worship parts or the whole of the Hindu pantheon.

My guess is that the series of illustrations in the Shankara MaTha and the associated commentary are the results of the efforts of some particularly over-zealous “devotee”, and the rest of the managing committee hasn’t had the heart or mind to call out this absurdity and get rid of the ambiguous illustrations. Or maybe the entire maTha has lost it, and actually believes that there was a delegation of gods only 1100 years back.

Abou Ben Adhem

I’m a big fan of Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase). I don’t particularly consider myself religious but I like his philosophy (as described in the poem) about being a lover of fellow-men (no pun intended) being superior to a lover of god. I get extremely irritated by people who cause inconvenience to others by way of their religious acts.

Recently I happed to read this excellent (in my opinion) article in Open by Manu Joseph (Udupa, who referred the article to me, thinks it was written in my style. I would take that as a major compliment (to me, of course). It’s been ages since I’ve made arguments like those). The article is about Islam and cricket betting but Joseph makes some important points about religion itself. To quote my favourite part of the essay,

A religious person, having done his pilgrimage, having done his prayers and fasts, has no further motivation to be good in a way that is more useful to the rest of humanity.

I think on similar lines every time I’m invited for some pooja-cum-lunch where the lunch gets delayed beyond reasonable time because the hosts (who are also doing the pooja) are taking too long with the pooja; giving too much attention to God at the cost of the felllow-men and women who they have invited. There are several such examples you come across in daily life.

Thinking more about it, I wonder if this statement (from Joseph’s article) actually applies to a religion such as Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma, to be technically correct), given it’s Karma concept. The beauty of the Karma concept is that you accumulate points in God’s books (all well tabulated by the excellent Chitragupta) by being nice to your fellow men.

Now, with the Karma concept being around, and the efficient Chitragupta watching you, I’m not sure you need to “relax” and stop bothering to be nice just because you’ve said your prayers and generally been nice to God.

In this context, it surprises me further that supposedly deeply religious Hindus are nice to god at the cost of being nice to fellow men and women. Probably they just do some “religious things” blindly without really understanding what they are doing; mug up their prayers without understanding them properly. I think there’s a black swan risk in what they are doing!

In other news, during the Ganesha pooje today I tried my best to put my limited knowledge of Sanskrit to good use and actually understand the mantras that were being chanted while I was going through the motions. I’ll probably write in detail about that in another post.

Godmen and religion

The motivation for this post comes from this news item I read in today’s paper about Pramod Muthalik’s meeting with Paramahamsa Nithyananda. The item claimed that Muthalik told Nithyananda that the sex-video scam was driven by “a Christian lobby” and assured Nithyananda of the Sri Ram Sene’s full support.

I read something similar in this excellent article in the Caravan about the Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. Somewhere in the article it is mentioned that someone from the Sai Baba camp mentioned to another person from the camp that there were “red flags” about Vishal Arora (author of this wonderful article) because he is Christian.

What irritates me the most about these self-professed Godmen is that they try to portray themselves as representatives of the Sanatana Dharma, and what is worse, you have Hindu organizations supporting and rallying behind them (I remember some BJP ministers also mention that the Nithyananda sting organization was an “attack on Hinduism”). I think the acceptance and active backing for such loonies will ultimately hurt the credibility of the Hindutva movement

I fail to understand why the BJP and other Hindu Conservative organizations had to come out in support of godmen such as Nithyananda, and attach disgrace to their own names. I think it would be so much better for these mainstream conservative voices to denounce these loonies as destroying the fair name of Hindutva, and to condemn their activities.

Apart from further alienating the centrist liberals, this support of loony controversial godmen costs the Hindutva brigade the support of another important constituency – the followers of other (equally, or more, loony) godmen who don’t get along with the controversial godman who is in trouble (usually followers of different godmen are mutually exclusive, and followers of a particular godmen tend to hate followers of other competing godmen – it’s something like football club loyalties).

Or could it be that by “bailing out” the godman who is in trouble, the mainstream right-wing organizations are sending out a message to other godmen and their followers that they will stand by them in case of any trouble? I don’t really know, but the BJP and other right-wing organizations have lost some of my respect because of their support for loony controversial godmen.

If you have any ideas as to why these organizations are behaving this way, let me know.