Vedic pluralism – Koenraad Elst

Koenraad ElstOn 16-18 February 2016, the Sanskrit Department of Allahabad University hosted an international conference on the Rg-Vedic verse ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti. I was invited to participate in the opening ceremony, before the serious work began. My talk strikes a lighter note but nonetheless makes a few points, one even fully original and appreciated as such by the audience. – Dr Koenraad Elst

Bhadrajanāḥ, mama nāma Kūnrāḍ Elst asti, aham Pascimadvīpād Beljamdeśād āgatosmi.

Unfortunately, that is about all the spoken Sanskrit I can muster. I only learned the Devabhāśā as a literary language, a storehouse of political and philosophical insights and terminology, but not as a daily medium of communication. For anything more sophisticated, I will have to switch to a language in which I can express my thoughts more comfortably. Isliye, mein abhī Angrezī me bol duṁgā. Kṣamā kījiye.

However, I do have the intention of learning spoken Sanskrit properly after my retirement, so that I have mastered it by the time I die. That way, when I go to heaven, I will be able to converse with Varuṇa, Mitra and the other gods shining brightly up there.

Muslim mother with son dressed as Sri Krishna on JanamashtamiPluralism

We are gathered here to ponder on the Rg-Vedic verse Ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti, “Reality is one, the sages formulate it in many ways”, or, “Truth is one, the sages give it many names.”

We are here in the city of Allahabad, founded in 1575, by Moghul emperor Akbar, who was posthumously turned into the patron saint of Indian secularism. More recently, it became famous as the home-base of first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the theoretician and propagator of “secularism”. The temptation must be palpable to treat this maxim as the cornerstone of this uniquely Indian ideology. Indeed, whenever it is brought up in the public debate nowadays, it is as an argument of authority for secularism. Yet, it voices a rather different idea: pluralism. Let me explain.

In its European countries of origin, secularism (French: laicité) wanted to be a way to contain the Christian Churches, to make and keep the State free from interference by the Church. In the budding United States, the emphasis was slightly different: to keep the Churches free from interference by the State. At any rate, the core idea was separation of Church and State. The most fundamental characteristic of a secular state is the equality of all its citizens before the law, regardless of religion.

In that sense, India is not a secular state at all. Its Constitution mandates quite a bit of State interference in religious laws and institutions, at least those of the Hindus, and formally as well as effectively discriminates against its religious majority.

It does not satisfy the very first criterion of a secular state, viz. the legal equality of all citizens regardless of religion. On the contrary, in family matters, there are different sets of laws for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis. The most famous example is of course that a Muslim man can have four wives, others cannot. The discrimination lies not only in the State’s perpetuation of a consequential inequality, but also in the genesis of that inequality through State intervention, viz. by the abolition of polygamy where it existed in Hindu society versus its deliberate non-abolition among Muslims. One can recognize an incompetent India-watcher by his pompous claim that “India is secular state”. It is not, period.

Fortunately, that is not what our verse is about. It is not about secularism, whether genuine or Nehruvian. It is all about pluralism, not plurality and co-existence of different law systems, but legitimate co-existence of different viewpoints.

Thus, a person may be given a passport name at birth. In intimate circles, he also acquires a house-name. Among his friends he may get a nick-name. When he succeeds in life, he is given a title, or be named after an award he earns. If he is a writer, he may be known by a pen name. In China and other civilizations, he may later receive a posthumous name. Moreover, he may be described as someone’s son, someone’s brother, father, boss, employee, neighbour. But all these names refer to the same person. Many names, one reality. And likewise with Ultimate Reality.

Vasudhaiva KutumbakamQuotations out of context

When I get to hear a famous quotation, I would want to know its context: both the phrases surrounding it and its place in life (German: Sitz im Leben). For famous quotations have a way of, let us say, emancipating themselves from the author’s original intention. They may even come to mean the very opposite.

Thus, having come all the way from the West, I am often reminded here of Rudyard Kipling’s verse: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” It is one of the most famous poems in English but was written in India; Kipling was a native Mumbaikar. However, as it stands here, the verse means just the opposite from what he had in mind, and this becomes clear from the context:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

So, in simple prose: the eastern point and western point of the compass will never meet, alright, but when two people of calibre encounter each other, the accidents of birth are not of much consequence anymore.

Ahiṁsa paramo dharma, “non-violence is the highest ethics/righteousness”, is another quotation cut in half to suit contemporary purposes. In a Gandhian context, it has come to stand for absolute pacifism. But in the original Mahābhārata, it is only half the picture: the other half is dharma hiṁsa tathaiva ca, “and righteous violence”. So, non-violence in some situations, but righteous violence in others. And that happens to be far more realistic.

Suppose you are walking in a quiet forest lane, and suddenly you are set upon by a gang of rapists. Before the worst can happen, a knight in shining armour appears on the scene, beats up the rapists and puts them to flight. Wouldn’t you be grateful for this bit of “righteous violence”? Wouldn’t you at once trade all the Gandhian pieties for this bit of forceful salvation? To be sure, it is still the lesser evil, we have to keep striving for a system in which violence is completely unnecessary. Yet provisionally, in the real world, violence may still be the lesser evil compared to full adharma, unrighteousness.

Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, “the whole world is one family”, is a very oft-quoted verse, and very much taken out of context. It nowadays functions as the creed of Hinduism, at least for public consumption. Hindus often think it has been taken from the Vedas or from the Bhagavad Gītā, but it comes from a fable collection, the Hitopadeśa. And there, its meaning is not that positive.

When a jackal targets a deer for his meal and cleverly wins its trust, a crow gets alerted by the sinister sight of this sudden interloper. However, the jackal protests that suspicion is misplaced: vasudhaiva kutumbakam! The crow has to bow out, but remains vigilant from a distance. When the jackal finally tries to strike, the deer is saved by the crow’s intervention. Moral of the story: only a knave would assert, and a fool believe, that “the whole world is one family”. Fortunately there are still a few clever skeptics who don’t let down their guard, and who see through this unrealistic maxim. I wonder what it says about modern Hindus that they all run away with this saying and even advertise it as the essence of their worldview.

Instead, I stand by another Sanskrit maxim. It is one that can’t be shaken by any possible context, because it is always a reliable guiding principle: Satyameva jayate, “truth verily triumphs”, “truth shall prevail”. This is from the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, and nothing in the context gives a different or contrary message. It has become India’s national motto, and I feel so strongly about it that I have put it on my business card. When it conflicts with more popular phrases, I will drop those others any time.

And now, let us see what this care about the context would mean for the maxim that we have thematized for this conference.

Gods venerate MahalakshmiPolytheism

The oft-quoted part of our mantra (RV 1:164:46) says that: Ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti, and is nowadays read as an affirmation that a single reality underlies seeming plurality But the mantra further says (and then sums up in the quoted part) that they worship this reality as Indra, as Yama, as Mātarīśvan, as Garutman, as Agni and other gods. That is to say: it affirms a form of religion we know as polytheism. According to this verse, it is perfectly alright to picture the divine as a heavenly bird Garutman, or as a fire, Agni, or as any of many other forms.

This bears emphasizing, as during the last two centuries there have been many Hindu “reformers” and “modernists” who contrived to define Hinduism as “monotheistic too”. That is to say, monotheistic like the Christian or Islamic role model. In evaluating a doctrine, most people are guided not by its truth but by its effectiveness as a social passport, as a gateway to status. So, when monotheism became prestigious, many Hindus started saying: Hinduism too is monotheistic. Indeed, this very verse is often given as proof of the Vedas’ “monotheism”. See, the seeming manifoldness of the Vedic gods hides an underlying “one god”, so we are as good as them!

It seems that Hindus—at least the unrooted ones who try to live up to borrowed ideals—are eagerly appropriating words which they do not properly understand, such as “monotheism”; and which they would not consider so desirable it they did understand them. In Bible and Quran, it is said that there is only one god and others are false. Is that what you would want to venerate as the Vedic doctrine? In this verse, however, there is no such thing as a “false god”, on the contrary. In Bible and Quran, there is said to be only one god and no others, but here it is said that he is the same as the others, and that they are all legitimate. After all, the sages use many names, right?

Underlying this polytheism, there is a oneness, a common essence, “one reality” indeed. And yet, the more conformist Hindus who try to live up to the norm set by Christianity or Islam, are wrong to deduce that “Hinduism is also monotheist”. They are “me too” monotheists; at least, if they are monotheists. Like the Ārya Samāj, who translate every one of the Vedic god-names as “God” and thus declare themselves monotheists. Hopefully they simply haven’t realized that monotheism would mean you do not allow pluralism. That is what it has always meant for Christians and Muslims: smash the statues and temples and rituals reminding the people of Jupiter, of Apollo, of Horus, of Ishtar and Marduk. Is that Hinduism? Is that—and I will now use it positively—secularism?

The Vedas would say: “They call it Jupiter, they call it Apollo, they call it Horus, they call it Ishtar, they call it Marduk: the sages call the One Reality by many names.”

Really becoming monotheists would mean for Hindus, rewriting the (say) Hanumān Cālīsā, and inserting into it an injunction: “Hanumān wants you to go and destroy the temples of Śiva! And destroy the statues of Sarasvatī too, and the sculptures of the rest of them. Hanumān alone!” For a monotheist is not someone who worships one god—sticklers for precision in the science of religion would call that a henotheist. A Hindu who worships a chosen deity is not a monotheist but a henotheist. (And usually a serial henotheist at that, sometimes worshipping other gods as well.) A monotheist worships one god to the exclusion of all others: they are deemed false and/or evil.

The Greek word monos does not mean “one”, it means “one alone”. It is not inclusive but exclusive. It is the very opposite of what our Vedic verse expresses. That mantra is not directed against anything, but if at all you want to bring monotheism into the picture, then it is against monotheism.

Vedic RishiDīrghatamas

The verse we are considering, was written by one of the earliest Vedic seers, the rishi Dīrghatamas, in the last one of his 25 hymns, the “Riddle Hymn” (RV 1:164), his name means “long darkness” and this is sometimes explained as referring to blindness. However, he is also known for his astronomical insights (including the first-ever division of the heavenly circles in 360°, on top of that in 12), and it is hard to do astronomy when you’re blind. Rather, “blindness” seems to have been an accepted circumlocution referring to a certain attitude of deep concentration and piercing research. The Greek poet Homer was likewise described as “blind”.

Two very basic ideas pervading Hindu thought first find expression in Dīrghatamas: renunciation and monism. To be sure, these may even be older, it is by no means certain that he invented either of them. But he has the distinction of being the first one to articulate them.

Renunciation is the guiding idea of the verse (RV 1:164:20) where he contrasts two birds in a tree: one eats the berries, the other merely looks on. One man enjoys life, the other merely contemplates. This is the foundation of the entire science of meditation, India’s greatest gift to the world. Numerous later thinkers developed it further and founded their own schools of meditation, but its essence is already encapsulated in this verse.

Monism is what finds expression in the verse under consideration: Ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti. It characterizes what underlies the multiplicity of viewpoints and ways of understanding as a single reality. It is unity in diversity. It is the integration of the many into the one. The belief that a visible plurality masks a deeper oneness was part of the Vedic outlook since the very beginning.

A third idea that may also stem from the Riddle Hymn, and that has strongly marked Hindu tradition throughout, is Dīrghatamas’ notion of the “syllable”, apparently the Oṁ sound. Given the context, with mother cows expressing their tenderness (vatsalya) for their young by lowing at them, and the young lowing back, it looks like the unspoken syllable is another vocalization of moo. But I am confident that this august company of Sanskrit scholars has a loftier explanation. Then again, the Vedic sages must have had a lot more humour than their bookish descendants.

In the West, it is said that the whole tradition of philosophical thought is but a series of footnotes on the Greek philosopher Plato (whom you might know from Urdu sources as Aflatūn). Here, you could say that all Indian thought is but a series of footnotes on Dīrghatamas.

Muhammad & FamilyIslam

Now we come to the point where I should start saying the very thing you have gotten me here for. I came thousands of miles to brook the subject that all Hindus seem to be afraid of. Well, not all Hindus, but at least those who are into inter-religious dialogue. That subject is Islam.

Tomorrow, this conference, this hall, this very table, will feature an inter-religious forum. There will be a Buddhist and some other Dharmics, as if they are the ones with whom problems of coexistence have to be resolved. There will be a representative of Christianity, already a bit touchier. But the real elephant in the room is of course Islam. When it is emphasized before a Hindu audience that ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti, it means effectively: don’t you Hindus dare to harbour suspicions against Islam! Hindus have to suspend their opinions of Islam, but no one dares formulate just what opinions Muslims should suspend regarding Hinduism.

Frankly, I wonder just what they sermonize on these occasions against Muslims to make them more appreciative of Hinduism. Hindus always justify their acts of “Muslim appeasement” by saying: “But we have to live with them!” It seems they never think about its logical counterpart: teach them to live with us. And I wonder what verse from the Quran they intone to propagate an inter-religious understanding among Muslims.

I will not embarrass anyone by asking the question whether such is also the intention behind this conference, and of course I remain perfectly willing to get convinced otherwise. But until then, I believe the Hindu psychology of Muslim appeasement is so strong that even the present organizers have not been able to escape it. Indeed, a Hindu present here in the audience asked me this very morning not to go into the Ayodhya controversy, about which I have published, as there would also be one Muslim present. (I certainly am going to mention Ayodhya, but not the controversy.)

One Muslim among hundreds of Hindus, and already Hindus want to conceal their opinions. Already all those Hindus are ready to bend over backwards to please that one Muslim, without even asking him! This must be an underground society, used to living in hiding. And yet, what for? Are they “Islamophobic”, meaning “afraid” of Islam?

Well, I am not. I don’t think Muslims are a bunch of humourless touch-me-nots who freak out as soon as you mention the rougher edges of pluralism. I will not alter my speech just because one Muslim is present, or many Muslims, or only Muslims. They are our own countrymen, they are fellow human beings born with the same capacities and propensities. A certain conditioning by a certain religious doctrine has formed a surface layer, but deep down they are the same. So, address Muslims not at the level of their indoctrination, but at the deeper level of their general humanity.

I am here to join in this effort and make everybody feel that we are in the same boat together. Since we have already done so much to satisfy Hindu tastes—lighting lamps, garlands, coconuts, a Sarasvatī statue—let us now say certain things that Muslims would feel good about.

People who know my critical work on Moḥammed (Arabic: “The praised one”) would not lend me any credibility if I started praising him. Yet, there is one merit of his that I greatly recommend. As you might know, he was an orphan, brought up by relatives. While they looked after him with one hand, they deprived him of his parental inheritance with the other. And so, Mohammed remained very sensitive to this problem and always emphasized that you should not deprive children of their inheritance. Well, in this respect at least, we should all be followers of Mohammed: don’t lose your rightful inheritance. Don’t let them make you embrace any artificial imposition instead of what is naturally yours. Stay true to your legacy, to your roots.

Otherwise, I may have my second thoughts about Mohammed, but for now, let us focus on Allah. Indeed, I am all for Allah. If there is one thing great about Islam, it is Allah. Nay, he is not merely “great”, he is “greater”.

El / Yahweh Allāh, the Ilāh

Let us analyze the word Allāh, as students of the Devabhāśā would. You may know that deva, “god”, literally means “bright one”. Now, the bright ones living in heaven are of course the stars. And indeed, in Sumerian hieroglyphics, five thousand years ago, the concept of “god” was rendered as a radiant star. This sign was pronounced dingir in Sumerian, and el in Akkadian Semitic. It is the same El that we find, through Hebrew, in Gabriel (“My strength is God”), Uriel (“My light is God”), or Michael (“Who is like God?”).

Now, this El is rendered into a generic substantive (cfr. god > godhead, deus > deity, deva > devatā): Hebrew eloha, Arabic ilāh. In Arabic, then, this generic noun is coupled with the article al to become al-ilāha, “the deity”, “the god par excellence”. This expression is contracted to become a name again: Allāh, “The God”, “God”.

As you all know, Allah is great. And even greater: Allāh akbar, “Allah is greater”. The phrase has gained a bit of a bad name, but in fact it is quite profound. Muslims often use it as a reminder that their plans and designs may ever be so clever, but it is god who has the last word. In those instances, it is a sign of humility. No matter how important a given concern may be, it is always dwarfed by the divine.

The name Allāh acquired the monotheistic meaning of “only god” with the Islamization of Arabia in the 620s. Before that, it had a generic meaning. Thus, it is described how someone kneels down before a statue of the moon-god Hubal and then “prays to allāh”, i.e. “prays to the deity before him”, viz. Hubal. So, the word allāh belongs in the polytheist landscape.

This moon-god Hubal presided over the Ka’ba, the shrine built around a meteor stone fallen from heaven. In a unsculpted stone, Hindus will readily recognize the Śiva liṅgam, the symbol of the moon-carrying god (Candradhāra), the Lord of the Moon (Somanātha), Śiva. Hubal’s or Śiva’s crescent has become the main symbol of Allāh. And like Śiva, “the deity” Hubal comes with a triad of goddesses: in India they are Pārvatī, Durgā and Kālī, in Arabia al-Lāt (al-Ilāhat, “thé goddess”, the sun), al-‘Uzza (“the strong one”, the planet Venus) and al-Manāt (“fate, doom”, the night). Remark how in Arabic, like in German, the word “sun” is conceived as female, the word “moon” as male, which facilitates the personification of the moon as the god Hubal, and of the sun as the goddess al-Lāt.

I don’t know if Hindus and Muslims are all that different, but Indians and Arabs clearly are not. Their religious imaginations have generated very parallel families of gods.

Among Hindus with an excitable fantasy, this has led to the belief that “the Ka’ba used to be a Śiva temple”. This is exaggerated, but through the theme of the moon-god, Śiva does have a link with the Ka’ba. Indian traders visiting Arabia used to worship there, and Arabs used to worship at the Somnāth temple on the Gujarat coast. Later, Mahmud Ghaznavī believed that the Arab goddesses, chased out of Arabia by the Prophet, had found refuge there.

So, it is not at all far-fetched to sing: Īśvar Allāh tere nām, “Īśvara (=Śiva) and Allāh are equally your names”. The Gandhians and Nehruvians have churned out a lot of nonsense, such as the absurdity that “all religions are equally true”; but they are right to repeat this song line. Nor is it weird to go on pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Makkah, just as Hindu pilgrims go to Ayodhyā, to Sabarimala, to mount Kailāś, or indeed, at the time of the Kumbha Melā, to Ilāhābād. The Hajj pilgrimage existed since long before Islam, which has only borrowed it, and it deserves to be perpetuated. (This should not be done through a “Hajj subsidy” though, not at tax-payer’s expense, for that defeats the whole purpose of a pilgrimage, intended as a form of sacrifice.)

In the West, some anti-Muslim crusaders are saying that we should bomb the Ka’ba. On the contrary, we should ensure that it remains unharmed and honoured as a sacred site. Indeed, like Gurū Nānak before us, we should go there ourselves. An armed expedition will do no more good than the Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, which have turned out totally disastrous and counterproductive. What the Muslim world needs is not even more polarization and war. What it needs is a thaw. In a situation of peace and prosperity, the minds can evolve. People can then expand their perspectives and learn about the spirituality that their neighbours have to offer. For starters, they can practise the meditation techniques that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is now offering all over the Middle East. So, as an unapologetic Islam critic, I am nonetheless emphatically wishing the Muslims salām, “peace”.

AkbarThe Dīn-i-Ilāhī

Emperor Akbar, already at age thirteen a ghazī (“raider against the infidels”) reputed to have killed the Hindu emperor Hemu Chandra with his own hands, gradually grew away from Islam. He started his own private and non-dogmatic religion: the Dīn-i-Ilāhī, the “religion of the deities” or the “divine religion”. A Sanskrit translation could be Daivika Dharma. And who could be against that? Not Mitra, the lord of the day-sky, nor Varuṇa, lord of the night-sky. Nor Uśā, lady of the dawn, for that matter. All the 33 Vedic gods smiled when crude monotheism had to make way for this Daivika Dharma, this Dīn-i-Ilāhī.

This step was not without risks, however, since court cleric Aḥmad Sirhindī denounced it as “blasphemy”. After Akbar’s death, it would wither away under the reassertion of orthodoxy. Yet, it was based on a commendable and correct observation: that no religious doctrine can claim a monopoly of the truth. This observation was very close to our maxim Ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti.

In the spirit of this new religion, he called the city he founded Ilāhābād, “city of the deity”, “divine city”. It lay on one of the most sacred places of Hinduism, the saṅgam (confluence) of Gaṅgā and Yamunā. The British interpreted the name wrongly as Allāhābād , with the Arabic article al-. But another explanation is possible, and we will invent it herewith.

Ila DeviThe foremother Ilā

“On the saṅgam is a city / where the girls are so pretty /…”

At least five thousand years before Akbar, this area was the habitat of Ilā, the daughter and eldest child of Manu. He in turn was the founding patriarch of mankind, or at least of a part of it. His daughter, in spite of her primogeniture, had to leave the succession to the throne to her younger brother Ikṣvāku, who stayed in the paternal capital Ayodhyā and founded the Solar Dynasty. Being myself an eldest son but second child, I know how it must have felt: Ikṣvāku always looked up to his elder sister and felt a bit indebted to her.

On her part, Ilā moved out to Pratiṣṭhānapura, next to the virgin land where Akbar was to build his divine city. This is where her son Purūravas founded the Lunar Dynasty.

One descendant of theirs, Nahuśa, moved westwards to the Sarasvatī valley, where one of his own descendants was Yayāti, after whose five sons the “five tribes” were named. Pūru headed the central Paurava tribe. One of his progeny was Bharata, after whom India is still called Bhāratavarṣa. In his clan grew a tradition of composing hymns, and these were collected in the Vedas. Later sources describe Dīrghatamas as his court priest. The Vedic seers rightly glorified their ancestress Ilā, who became a goddess and member of a typical goddess triad: Ilā, Bhāratī and Sarasvatī.

So many cities have already been renamed, and I will presently propose to rename Ilāhābād as well, viz. as, well, Ilāhābād. It can retain its name, that saves us all the renaming on road maps, street signs and letterheads. Only, it would get a new interpretation: “city of Ilā”. So, after her, this city’s name should be re-analyzed as Ilā-h-ābād, “city of Ilā”. Normal rules of phonetic harmony would contract this into Ilābād, but that could also refer to an ābād founded by a man named Ila (short -a). So to make sure that we know a lady is being eternalized in this divine city, we intersperse an h sound, like a sigh of joy, and make it into Ilāhābād.

Hospitable people of Ilāhābād, and especially you, ladies of Ilāhābād, I salute you as carriers of the heritage of the Vedic grandmother Ilā. Without her, no Dīrghatamas would have been there to compose the verse: Ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti. As the Prophet has enjoined: don’t let your rightful inheritance be snatched away from you. Revive Ilā’s memory and continue the work she began: the Vedic civilization, no less. – Koenraad Elst Blog, 19 February 2016

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