Hinduism is usually regarded as an in egalitarian religion. This book examines such a description of Hinduism from the six perspectives of etiological, social, legal, economic, gender and soteriological egalitarianism and suggests that when egalitarianism is defined more rigorously, and Hinduism examined more comprehensively, then the struggle for equality is an clearly discernible within Hinduism as elsewhere.
About the Author
Formerly of the IAS, Arvind Sharma is currently the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and has published over fifty books and five hundred papers. His recent books include: Hinduism and Human Rights and Modern Hindu Thought: An Introduction. He is currently engaged in promoting the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions.
The discussion of the nature of egalitarianism in Hinduism cannot be divorced from the nature of Hinduism itself as a religious tradition. From the egalitarian perspective then, which aspect of its multifaceted nature may be identified as having a crucial bearing on the issue on hand?
How Hinduism perceives itself is of crucial relevance in this context. One-way of determining how Hinduism perceives itself may be gleaned by the way it describes itself, namely, as sanatana dharma.
This word is understood within the tradition itself in three distinct, if related, senses and each sense turns on the particular understanding the term sanatana is understood comes close to the sense in which the word sanatana is understood comes close to the sense in which the word sanatana is understood comes close to the sense conveyed by the word "original" in English. From this semantic perspective the word "mean original religion,' since Indians believe that theirs is a form of religion which existed since the dawn of humanity". One implication of this view is not only that Hinduism has existed since the dawn of humanity, but also that Hinduism was the religion of humanity at the dawn of its history, and other religions arose as reform movements within it, when its influence wanted in different parts of the world. This historically traditional self-understanding as a universal religion in modern times. The following modern definition of Hinduism by Mahatma Gandhi comes surprisingly close to such a traditional understanding:
"My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is the Religion of humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me"
The second sense in which the term sanatana is understood comes close to the sense conveyed by the word "immemorial" in English, and it also ties into another word Hindus use to describe their own religion, namely, vaidika dharma. Another word used to refer to the Vedas is sruti. "As commonly explained, the sruti is tradition which is looked upon as immemorial (sanatana) in its character because its origin cannot be traced to any mortal being". There are in fact two parallel understandings involved here, but so close as to be virtually indistinguishable. One pertains to the fact that Hinduism as a religion has no single founder and the other to the fact that the foundational scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, according to the now normative understanding, have no author - human or divine. This idea is conveyed by the word apauruseya as applied to them. Thus both the tradition as a whole, as well as the scripture to which it is closely allied, disown any particular starting point. And if there was any such point then it presumably now lies dissolved in the mist of antiquity, hence its immemorial character.
A third sense in which the word sanatana is understood is conveyed by the English word 'eternal'. In this sense "sanatana-dharma means eternal religion and is expressive of the truth that religion as such knows no age". The use of the word sanatana in this sense of eternal has sometimes led to some confusion on the part of both Hindus and non-Hindus but one is saved from it if the two senses of sanatana as (1) original and (2) immemorial are clearly distinguished and a third connotation of the term is confined to the eternal verities which the tradition discloses. These verities can be disclosed or approached severally. The feature of Hinduism "that deserves mention here is its recognition of the validity of all religious paths. As there are any numbers of ways to climb a mountain, say most Hindus, so there are many paths to reunion with the divine".
Although we have taken pains to distinguish among the three semantic strands, which lie braided in the term sanatana dharma and sometimes even tried to distinguish different senses within them in the interest of a clear understanding, it must now be added, in the interest of a comprehensive understanding, that all these connotations are mutually implicative. It is this mutual implication that enables us to identify an aspect of the nature of Hinduism, which has a direct bearing on our discussion of egalitarianism within it, namely, its plural character. If Hinduism regards itself as the original religion which was once global, which is also continuous and which looks upon itself as universal spatially, temporally and conceptually, then it is like a garden, a perfumed garden to be sure, but one in constant danger of being strangled by its own different kind of religion from what the common acceptation of the term tends to signify.
Wherein precisely does this difference lie? The difference lies in the fact that it presents us with a different concept of a religious community. In the more usual case the beliefs and practices of a religion come first and the religious community grows around them, out of a sense of commitment to them. The beliefs and practices come first and the community follows. In the Hindu case, however, the community comes first, which considers itself "Hindu" and the beliefs and practices of this community then are characterized as Hinduism.
We may thus speak of two kinds of religions, one in which the religious community forms around a nucleus of commonly accepted beliefs and practices and another in which the religious community comes first and its religion -its beliefs and practices - constitute an expression on the togetherness of the community. There two types of religions may be referred to as respectively "associational" and a "communal" religion, however, is likely to make it move more naturally in the direction of equity rather than equality.
These points need to be elucidated. By focusing on diversity in the context of communal religion one is non is not denying the fact that internal religious diversity characteristic all the major religious traditions; one is rather asserting the fact that such diversity plays a different role as a feature of the communal type of religion. Similarly, by distinguishing between equity and equality one is not implying that they are in opposition - in fact, equality man well be one way of securing equity, as in the case of equality before law. But that very law administers different punishments for different crimes - which serves to illustrate the fact that considerations of equity are vital to considerations of equality. The point pertains then to the direction in which a religion may be disposed to move, consistently will its nature as the type as religion it represents. It is only by untying the knots of a tradition that one comes to know the ropes.
One more point and we are done. Existing scholarship in the field ahs asserted that Hinduism might well represent the ideal type of a religion characterized by hierarchy. While it is true that hierarchy is no identical with inequality, it cannot be denied that in the realm of moral imagination and even as a matter of historical fact, inequality is perceived as uncomfortably close to hierarchy. If we do not have guilt by association here there is certainly the suspicion of bad company. Such then is the formidable context in which this book is set - and people thought Indology cannot be exciting.
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