As someone who has lived, moved and breathed in this religion for almost 40 years, I’m often frustrated by the clichés and presumptions with which many Westerners—atheists and non-atheists alike—tend to summarise and dismiss Hinduism -- or rather, as I prefer to call it, the Sanatana Dharma. Ask the average Westerner for a word association, and you’ll get trite answers such as “caste system” and “holy cow” and “millions of four armed gods.” And indeed, the Mahabharata is generously endowed with all of these “typical” Hindu accessories, so that a summary dismissal of the whole vast epic as humbug might be forgiven.
On the other hand…
What about reading it the way a Hindu does? Simply plunging into it as into an exciting fantasy world, taking with you a generous pinch of salt, and willingly checking in your disbelief at the first page, as you would a Harry Potter novel or view a Star Wars movie? A Hindu would never wag a finger at you for your blasphemy; she’d smile and invite you to come closer.
See, in order to understand this book one really needs the mentality of a Hindu. No worries; it’s not catching. To think like a Hindu you need a totally different kind of logic. One tenet of Western rationality is that if A is A it cannot also be B. Logical, right? The Hindu says, not so. A can be A and B as well, and for that matter also C. A thing can be true and untrue at the same time. Yes, the Mahabharata is true – but also, on another level, from a different perspective, it isn't. There was once a great war – but also, there wasn’t. These gods exist – but also they don’t. If you want to believe it is literally true, then you’re welcome; but if you don’t, that's cool too. If you believe it, then it’s obviously because you need to believe it, and that belief is your path; and the only thing that matters, really, is your path: the path of growing ever closer to the inherent goodness and beauty of your own true being, which is divine.
In other words, Hinduism is not one fixed set of beliefs that everyone must adhere to. It is many concepts for many people; from the most concrete faith in millions of gods and goddesses who can and do interact with us humans on a literal level, to the most abstract knowledge that nothing exists. Nothing at all. That this whole physical universe is but an illusion; that the only reality is Consciousness, and we are simply dreams upon that Consciousness. You can find such abstract notions written in ancient Sanskrit texts such as Yoga Vasishta Sara and the Crest Jewel of Discrimination.
This all-embracing attitude that includes every spectrum of human understanding and mentality, from the simple worship of stone idols to the abstract thoughtless Void, is neatly summed up by the following definition of what is a Hindu, formulated by the Supreme Court of India:
"In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. The Hindu is inclined to revere the divine in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and is doctrinally tolerant, leaving others – including both Hindus and non-Hindus – whatever creed and worship practices suit them best. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu, and since the Hindu is disposed to think synthetically and to regard other forms of worship, strange Gods, and divergent doctrines as inadequate rather than wrong or objectionable, he tends to believe that the highest powers complement each other for the well-being of the world and mankind. Few religious ideas are considered to be finally irreconcilable. The core religion does not even depend on the existence or non-existence of God or on whether there is one God or many. Since religious truth is said to transcend all verbal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Hinduism is, then, both a civilisation and conglomerate of religions, with neither a beginning, a founder nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organisation."
That definition might seem too New-Age, too wishy-washy for some. Don’t Hindus know what they believe? Is a Hindu just some sort of any-and-everything-goes hippy with a mind so open it’s like a sponge, more holes than substance, sucking up every hare-brained idea under the sun?
Not at all. Most Hindus will have his or her “path”, which he or she will follow with dedication and sincerity. I, for instance, am an Advaitist, and have been for the last 40 years; it’s one of the most exacting and precise teachings of them all, one that considers Brahman, the spiritual essence underlying all reality, as the only reality; that all gods and the world itself are only aspects of Brahman, appearances within that one reality, consciousness which is one, limitless, impersonal, indefinable, without qualities, eternal, unchanging, inactive; that an ultimate unity exists in the multiplicity of gods, religions, cultures and indeed all life.
At the same time I can read and enjoy and believe and even rewrite the Mahabharata, an epic full of gods and demons and supernatural events and outlandish curses. I can go to a Catholic service on Christmas morning and sing as heartily as any of the faithful. I will visit a Buddhist or a Sikh temple and take part in the ceremonies there – without ever losing touch with my own individual practice.
And I really, really avoid religion discussions with (most) atheists. Because all too often religion, all religion, is dismissed by atheists without any further consideration; as if we are all of the same ilk, all of the same backward frame of mind, all believing in a set of rubbish that needs to be swept out. It's only a matter of time, in any internet discussion on religion, before some atheist scoffingly chimes in with "fairy-in-the-sky" or "flying-spaghetti-monster". It’s an “either you’re an atheist or you’re an illogical idiot believing in Santa Claus in the clouds” mentality that leaves me voiceless. Huffington Post blogger Philip Goldberg spoke up for me (and others like me) back in October 2010 in his call for a “sane spirituality”, repudiating the false atheist stand that there are only two sides in the religious debate: conservative Bible-thumpers and radical anti-religionists. The real voiceless ones belong to neither of those two camps, says Goldberg; and there are a whole lot of them. They are a diverse, unorganized mish-mash of open-minded seekers that tends to approach spirituality in a reasonable, rational and pragmatic manner: they are spiritual but not religious (SBNR). “Many practice methodologies derived from ancient traditions born in India, which we've come to call Hinduism and Buddhism, although very few Western practitioners call themselves Hindus or Buddhists.”
In that group Goldberg includes people with secular world views, who view practices such as meditation as the applied components of a science of consciousness, or simply as ways to enhance well-being. Last but not least, the voiceless include many people who appear to be conventionally religious, in that they attend worship services, celebrate religious holidays and teach their children about their religious heritage, but on their own terms. They don't believe everything that staunch atheists assume they believe, neither do they accept all religious dogma as revealed truth. If they do value scripture, says Goldberg, they do so selectively and read it metaphorically, not as history or as an infallible guide to morality.
“The sanely spiritual," he says, "think logically and accept the testimony of science. Their likely answer to the query 'Do you believe in God?' is, 'It depends on what you mean by that term.' They're wary of the G-word because it's come to be associated with belief in an anthropomorphic father figure in the sky, whereas they're more inclined to postulate a formless, creative power that would not seem out of place in a physics seminar. In short, they are rational, reasonable individuals who regard the spiritual dimension of life as a central feature of human development and pursue it in the spirit of good old American pragmatism. They do what works, placing direct experience and observation over ideology or doctrine. To the degree that they have faith in something, it is the kind of faith that proceeds from evidence and reason, like a scientist's faith in the outcome of an experiment.”
That is exactly my position. And out of that position I was able to re-create one of the most insanely preposterous stories any religion has ever produced; I am able to love and respect and learn from that story because its deepest meaning lies between the words; not in the events described themselves, but in their effect on the reader. And that is why I invite, no, challenge, atheists to read the Mahabharata.
My version, of course: Sons of Gods. Give it a try.
Coming soon: Should Christians Shun the Mahabharata?