Don't Teach Religion to India

The colonial hangover is not yet over. The previously colonised races are still living in the shadows of a dream-world of subjugation that never was, a patronage of the all-powerful, all-knowing colonisers that never existed, and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ when everything was so smooth and easy, when everything had been taken care of by the all-merciful, all-compassionate colonisers, who had to ‘sacrifice’ so much to make themselves home in their colonies like India, where they were confronted with whatever their white bodies had never experienced before: dirt, poverty, illiteracy, a medley of confusion, so on and so forth.


The colonised, in this case, the Indians, are living with the same image of themselves as the colonisers painted for them and maintained till seventy-two years ago. After they left, sincere and faithful Indians have taken up the baton and continue to worship this image of an intellectually, culturally, spiritually, and economically depraved nation. The strange part of this phenomenon is that even the millennials, for whom colonisation means nothing but a few pages of their history-books, carry this image, rather cherish it.


Being emotionally and ideologically enamoured and in reality, being cowed down by the seemingly magical powers of the white colonisers, has caused serious damage in the past and is continuing to fragment and severely break the Indian national identity.


The point of the present discussion, however, is the damage that this psyche has caused to the field of religion in India, both in theory and practice. 


Right from the beginning of the eighteenth century, some Western scholars started studying Indian religions. Among these scholars were two main groups. One group was trying to learn from the ancient Indian wisdom contained in texts in different languages, primarily Sanskrit, but also Pali, and many other vernaculars. They unearthed manuscripts, made critical editions incorporating various versions of a text, transcribed and translated these texts, and did many other activities to start a tradition of Indology in non-Indian languages like German and English. The other group, on the other hand, did many of the works that the first group did but with the ulterior motive of proving to the world that Indian religions were basically pagan, inhuman, and savage belief-systems and that the world was better off without them.


India does not need Western religious preachers but Western benefactors.


Gradually, scholars from either groups understood that there was a great audience for all that they had to tell, if not outside India, then inside India, where even if there have been intermittent crises of resources, population has never been a resource in short supply! So, some of these scholars took to a completely devoted religious life, many of them turned monks and nuns and lured Indians into following them, which was only natural given the penchant of an average Indian to drool over the white skin.


But, is not all of this well in the spirit of the Vedas that knowledge, spiritual and secular, should be open to all and received from all. Yes, of course, this is in the Vedic spirit. Only if what happened was limited to this. Sadly, that is not the case.


The Western mind, particularly the American mind, is exceptional in organising and managing, as observed by Swami Vivekananda. Thus, when the Western mind started dabbling with Indian religious ideas, they made great academic disciplines and well-managed ashramas out of them. However, Swamiji also said that the ideal of India was renunciation and service. If any person, Western or Eastern, takes to Indian religions and understands them in theory and in practice, through renunciation and service, they will be imbibing the spirit of these religions, as did Swamiji’s Western disciples. However, the majority of Western minds have taken up Indian religious ideas, because they think that Indians are not worth these ideas, that they can better manage and propagate these ideas.


This has led to a quite strange situation, where Westerners claim that Hinduism is not a religion proper, that yoga was never Hindu or Indian, that all that India could claim as Indian are some savage races, who always need enlightenment from the West. And of course, many Indians have started parroting these ideas, because the white person is always right!


So, the Western mind now wants to teach religion to India! It started centuries ago with hordes of Christian missionaries coming to India to preach the gospel of salvation. Some of them though, had the wisdom to quickly realise that in India lived thousands of Christs, who were silent to the world. In his deliberations at the World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893, Swamiji told the West that India did not need Western religious preachers but Western teachers, who could give her lessons on managing society and earning livelihoods, and also that India needed benefactors, who could give her wealth. 125 years hence, not much has changed in kind, though appearances might show changes in degree.


India has had a lineage of rishis that continues till today. The Western academia is now questioning the unidimensional thought systems of the West and is looking out for more inclusivism and broadness. At this juncture, is it wise to bash down millennia-old Indian faith-traditions based on some wisdom and perspectives that are only a few centuries old and have never seen application beyond a limited geography, where also they are starting to cause strife and disturbance?


Instead, the Western mind would do better to sit at the feet of the thousands of living masters, learn their wisdom, both in theory and practice, and become one with India, and then, if they have understood one Indian tradition, just try to preserve it for posterity in non-Indian languages with the help of the organisational and technological skills that the Western mind naturally possesses. But, no word against India or Indian religions!


While it is true that Indian religions are divided into numerous sects and sub-sects and while it would be almost impossible for these factions to come to an agreement about any aspect of religious thought, all of them are Indian and all of them are striving hard to live the ideals they profess. Their focus is never on the empirical or the temporal, they are not bothered about the world or time.


All of these spiritual aspirants are focussed on attaining the Divine, which each of them understands in a different manner. Contrast them with the average Western mind that hardly sees anything beyond the temporal and empirical even in places practising the spiritual. It makes businesses out of ashramas, organisations out of sects, and academic departments out of shastras. But, are not Indians also doing all of these? Yes, they are and to that extent all those Indians are primarily Western in their mindset.


The need of the hour for India and Indian religious traditions is a rock-solid tradition of the practice of both religious thought and austerities. 


India needs all-renouncing Indians, who would care for nothing but the Divine, both the immanent and transcendent, the indwelling and the omnipresent, the individual and the cosmic. India needs such Indians who can not only expound the Brahma Sutra but also experience at will, the Brahman this text talks about.


Author is Editor Prabuddha Bharata.


To read all articles by the Author

Also read ‘Key Ideas in Swami Vivekananda’s Addresses at the World Parliament of Religions, 1893

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To subscribe

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