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     ALL RIVERS FLOW INTO THE OCEAN                                                              By

                                                  Shanti Karuna

 

 

 

 

            Several years ago an Indian journal requested a number of prominent Hindus to answer a simple question – "Why are you a Hindu?”. Those who replied included politicians, writers, scientists, intellectuals, professors and film stars.
            What they had to say provided an interesting insight into contemporary Hinduism, which is perhaps the oldest living religion, with over 550 million followers in India alone, apart from several millions more in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and in the West Indies.
            The overwhelming majority of those who took part in the survey, made it clear that they were Hindus, not merely by accident of birth, but by conviction, and that they considered Hinduism a dynamic religion which remained relevant in all ages. Even the then Chief Minister of the State of Kerala – an active member of the Communist Party of India – said that though he was not a believing Hindu, he continued to observe Hindu customs and participate in Hindu festivals.
            Among those interviewed was Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, an internationally-reputed scientist. His research work had helped realize the Green Revolution in India, which led to the doubling of its food production in less than 25 years. This scientist, who won the Magsaysay Award in 1961, said: “Birth determined my religious classification – but intellectual conviction later made me happy over the appropriateness of the accident”.
            In the West, there is today growing interest in Indian philosophy and religion, be it in the Hare Krishna Movement, transcendental meditation or in Yoga. Are these merely passing fads for a generation looking for something novel, or do they signify a new awareness of an ancient philosophy that has certain permanent and universal values?
            To some outsiders, Hinduism is synonymous with strange rituals, a complex pantheon of gods, fatalism and an esoteric philosophy, ill-suited for people outside the country of its origin, much less for the modern world. The essential spirit of Hinduism must however be distinguished from its external trappings.
            Hinduism is different from most other religions, in that it is not based on any single holy book or on any one prophet. There are, therefore, no dogmas or creeds which have to be accepted to be a Hindu.
            It is at one level a philosophy that has been continuously evolving in response to the challenges of new ideas and new situations, and, in the process, has produced a succession of holy men and philosophers, each one providing his own distinctive interpretation of life and its correlation to the divinity. It is for this reason that Mahatma Gandhi once defined Hinduism as “a search for truth”.


           
Hinduism is, therefore, a flexible religion that can be adapted to changing circumstances. This resilience is one of the major attractions of Hinduism, and a source of its strength and durability. It has certainly provided a mould for a rich diversity of philosophies, catering to different levels of spirituality and intellectual development.
            Right from the very dawn of the evolution of Hinduism there has been this open-mindedness to new ideas and religions. The 4000-year old Vedas have a significant prayer: “Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides”.
            External currents of philosophy and spirituality have entered India at many stages in its history. These include Judaism and Christianity, which came to Indian in the first century A.D.; Zoroastrianism in the seventh century, Islam in the eighth century, and finally the impact of the west from the sixteenth century onwards. Hinduism did not succumb to the onslaught of these new religions and ideas. On the contrary, it emerged, in a sense, enriched by this contact.
            In this interaction, Hinduism was helped by its concept of truth being one, but with different facets, and the acceptance of the concept of religions being different paths to approach the ultimate truth. This has been picturesquely described in the Upanishads which declare that cows of different colours yield the same white milk. More recently, the Indian sage, Swami Vivekananda, said: “All religions are rivers moving towards the one ocean known as Truth”.
            With this background, it is easier to understand how religions from across the seas were able to establish themselves in India, co-exist harmoniously with other religions, and in fact, flourish down the ages. Likewise, it explains the birth, in India itself, of three major world religions – Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
            People of all these different religions have live in harmony for centuries thanks to this catholicity of the spirit of Hinduism. It is this attitude of tolerance and understanding that continues to infuse the people of India today when it is seeking to modernize itself through the application of science and technology.
            In this process, when traditional values are constantly under strain, it is comforting to be able to draw sustenance from a religion and philosophy that has endured some four millennia – not as an ideal or abstraction, but as a way of life for millions.
            It is also a way of life whose philosophy of tolerance has been embodied in the concept of secularism in India today. Secularism does not connote irreligion or materialism, but rather that there is no State religion, and that all religions are equal before the law.
            Such a catholicity of outlook helps not only to keep at bay the forces of narrow-minded fundamentalism, but to make a positive contribution towards understanding between people of different faiths, and a deeper spiritual life through cross-fertilisation of ideas and experiences.
            If faith in such a philosophy can remain – as the Bhagavad Gita says – “steady like a lamp in a windless place”, it could well make for greater emotional integration in India, and prove a model for a world that has yet to realize that religions are but different paths to the one ultimate reality.

  (Excerpted from INDIA DIGEST No. 3 - Nov. - Dec. 1987)

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