Amal Kiran (born K.D. Sethna, a Parsi-Zoroastrian) was a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. He wrote the following article in response to Dr Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism. This article was approved by Sri Aurobindo and was first published in the Mother India magazine on May 27, 1950. It is worth revisiting in light of the fact that in the popular mind, Hinduism seems to contain nothing other than the caste system, cows and idols.
(Rest of the article in the words of Amal Kiran) : Recently a well-known leader of the scheduled classes, announced his desire to embrace Buddhism because of the lot of the “untouchables” in Hindu society – a lot which seemed to him a pointer to a lack in Hinduism of the sense of human brotherhood. He also declared that if Hinduism bore the caste system for several centuries it had failed “to yield anything substantive”. According to him, Buddhism stands in striking contrast to this religion.
What shall we say to these highly “allergic” criticisms? The institution of untouchability was indeed a stain on the social scheme that had got established in India. But with the advent of the modern age the conscience of the best Hindus has always rebelled against it. As far back as the days of Ram Mohan Roy the progressive movement started and reform organisations like the Brahmo-Samaj and the Arya-Samaj fought untouchability for decades on end. The biggest uproar against it came from a Hindu – Gandhi. And the Indian Constitution which expresses a good deal of the contemporary Hindu mind has abolished untouchability. It is absurd to claim that untouchability is part and parcel of Hinduism. It is certainly no part of those foundational scriptures of the Hindus: the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita. In ancient India the castes were guilds for different crafts and professions, with no odious distinctions or taboos. Later they got rigid. In the days of India’s decline they became more and more obnoxious, particularly by thrusting several millions outside the pale. But even when we condemn the injustice to so many it is well to remember that injustice of this type in general is not something peculiarly associated with Hindu society. Will Durant, the famous American writer on civilisation and culture, pointedly asks: “Does the attitude of a Brahmin to a Pariah differ, except in words, from that of a British lord to a navvy, or a Park Avenue banker to an East Side huckster, or a white man to a negro, or a European to an Asiatic?” What is clear from Durant’s question is that there is a deplorable tendency in human nature towards unjust discrimination. And a social structure with Buddhism as the religious ingredient of it is as likely as a Hindu or a Christian society to become gradually stratified and to develop superiorities and inferiorities. If Buddha preached brotherhood, so did Christ and so did the ancient Hindu seers and saints. In fact the essential oneness of all things, the basic equality of all creatures was never so forcefully declared as by the mystics of Hinduism who saw the Divine everywhere.
The Genuine and the Spurious in Hinduism
In viewing historical India, both past and present, It is necessary to distinguish between the genuine and the spurious in the Hindu religion. Opposed to the fear-infested, delusion darkened hotchpotch that is the masses’ spurious Hinduism, there is the splendid many-sided unity of the genuine one, a grand harmony of a thousand truths. Its fundamental tenet is the old Rig Vedic formula: “The One whom the sages call by many names.” Unity and multiplicity, simplicity and complexity, the supra-cosmic and the cosmic, the universal and the individual – all these are blended together in Hinduism and express themselves in the large number of aspects our country’s culture and social life possess. A million gods revealing and concretising a million facets of the inexhaustible Divine and of the infinite Eternal, a supreme trinity in – unity personalising the creative, preservative arid destructive qualities of the Supra-cosmic putting forth the cosmos and incarnating Himself again and again in the world, an ultimate Mother-force or Shakti bringing out for manifestation the secrets of the one Lord and Master of all existence – this is Hinduism. And it is also Hinduism that man can experience and realise the Divine, become unified with the Infinite, act as a channel of the Eternal, for man is in essence the Supreme and man’s nature can be through Yoga a form of the Supreme’s dynamic. Hinduism recognises three Yogas to suit the three types of men – the intellectual, the emotional, the kinetic – and the Bhagwad Gita combines the three Yogas in a synthesis. What is more, it throws the synthesis open to all without distinction. To realise the One everywhere and see the One in the Many as well as the Many in the One is the goal of the Hindu mystic, the climax of the Hindu religious experience. And Sri Krishna in the Gita declares that even a Chandala, a scavenger, can become a knower of God and stand with the highest.
In the face of such a declaration and doctrine it is difficult to understand how anybody could identify genuine Hinduism with an inflexible as well as tyrannous caste system and the belief in untouchability. Beverley Nichols committed an indeed mountainous “howler” when he said, after talking of reforming Hinduism, that if by reform you knocked the caste system and untouchability out of it you would find that there was nothing left to reform. But regrettably enough some Hindus themselves have made too much of a song about the evil of untouchability. The most well-known of them said: “I would rather that Hinduism perished than untouchability survived.” This amounts to making Hinduism stand or fall by pariahdom. In other words, one would be satisfied even if there were no such spiritual inspiration in the country as breathed and lived in a Vasishtha or a Yajnavalkya, a Chaitanya or a Mirabai, a Tukaram or a Tulsidas, a Ramakrishna or a Vivekananda – provided there were no scheduled classes! One may inquire what sort of life would there be on earth without the rishis, the saints, the mystics, the yogis. Man would be just a higher kind of brute or, rather, a worse kind of brute, since he would have nothing of the innocence of the animals but only their ferocity developed and gilded by a soulless reasoning ingenuity. Admittedly, religion which gives birth to the Beatific Vision in some may also degenerate in others to cruel bigotry and hidebound superstitious caste-ridden orthodoxy: we have to be on guard and strive ever for its pure and clear and luminous manifestation, but to be prepared to throw away its higher reaches merely because it has also lower ones that accommodate things like untouchability is to be victimised by a hysteria of humanism. Humanism is a very worthy sentiment and creed, yet it cannot be balanced against spiritual experience, against God-realisation, against concrete communion with the Eternal. Hinduism stands or falls primarily and essentially by its ability to produce embodiments of such experience, realisation and communion. Although a vast brotherhood, a profound parity as between all classes, is indeed one of its tenets, this brotherhood and parity is a tenet not of mere sociology but of a spirituality which is rooted in the universal Self of selves or the single Lord whose undying sparks are all evolving souls. To be ready to forego this spirituality just because the social structure within which it first flourished and still flourishes has become decadent in many respects and is resistant in many ways to the influence of spirituality – to value more the abolition of untouchability than the existence of the God-knowers and God-lovers who open up for man the possibilities of a further evolution: this is a capital mistake, a loss of right proportion, a blurring of correct perspective, a depreciation of the force that alone can in the long run put a radical rather than a superficial and therefore temporary end to the iniquities that in different shapes are the sad lot of millions not only in India but also abroad and even in countries where Buddhism is practised. It is another form of the heresy that if Hinduism bore the caste system for several centuries it has failed “to yield anything substantive”.
Buddhism and Hinduism
Here we may remind our recent critic that in the very religion he wished to embrace, in Buddhism itself, it is not Buddha’s humanism that is the living core: the heart of his message is Nirvana, the direct experience of an undifferentiated superhuman infinity and permanence beyond all phenomena – an experience, by the way, which is nothing essentially new to ancient Hinduism. “As the taste of water from all the seas is salt,” said Buddha, “so too the taste of all my teachings is Nirvana.” Remove Nirvana from Buddhism and you rob Buddha’s own life of its central significance. Buddha did not come merely to state the equality of human beings: his chief mission was to inculcate and irradiate a spiritual realisation lifting us far beyond humanity and his very emphasis on human equality was born of his mystical perception of the limitless immutable Presence in which earth and life and man can be submerged and the cycles of time transcended. If Buddhism has yielded “anything substantive”, the main proof according to Buddha would lie not in whether it has yielded the savour of a society without the caste-system but in whether it has yielded the taste of Nirvana. The main proof, under different appearances, is exactly the same as in the Hinduism that has been castigated.
However, as we have said, there is a subtle trend among Hindus themselves to exaggerate social values and thus play into the hands of critics of Hinduism. In one sense we may say the trend is towards Buddhism, for Buddhism is more prone than any other religion to be interpreted, in spite of its founder’s aim and teaching, as a secular system. It does away with all metaphysical inquiry and discourages every metaphysical statement. It is a spiritual version of what has become known in the present-day West as Operationalism. According to the Operationalist canon, we stick only to that which can be demonstrated by a series of experimental operations, an employment of laboratory techniques, a manipulation of scientific apparatus. No assertions are to be made about ultimate reality since scientifically we cannot go beyond the evidence of physical instruments that measure phenomena. Similarly in Buddhism a psychological technique is provided: shedding of desire, rejection of the ego-sense, equanimity in face of all beings and happenings, practice of universal compassion, inner meditative detachment from both mental and bodily processes. This technique is spirituality and what it gives is liberation from sorrow and ignorance. The liberation should be described by no positive labels like Brahman, Atman or Ishwara: it can be labelled only in a negative manner as Nirvana which means cessation or absence of the interminable Becoming which is the world. The primal facts to be reckoned with are, in Buddha’s view, world and non-world. The splendours of mystical nomenclature, the sublime entities of spiritual scripture, the metaphysical ultimates of religious hymnody and liturgy are absent and in their place is a super-pragmatism. In reality, of course, Buddha under the Bo Tree or moving amidst his monks or preaching to the populace is enhaloed by a mystical light, fused with a spiritual Ineffable, himself an embodiment of a deathless freedom that is beyond the world. But the formula and method of Buddhahood are severely practical and “operational”. And just one step more after the refusal to commit oneself to any metaphysics, even while being spiritual, is to ignore the implicit metaphysics altogether and concentrate on a self-discipline in altruism serving an ordered society: the spirituality shades off into social ethicism and secular morality and we have merely the ideal s of truthfulness and non-violence, integrity and fraternity. The nameless peace of Nirvana becomes the happiness-giving principles of kindness and concord. Hinduism is hard to divest of its divine mysteries, difficult of secularisation in the modem meaning of the term: emphasis on humanism. It can be made secular only in the sense of a God-realisation countenancing no narrow religiosity and encouraging a turn to this-worldly work: it can never be separated from the superhuman Presence. Certain sections of modern India, unable to break away wholly from that Presence yet wanting increasingly, under the influence of the West, to be secular, have found in Buddhist gestures and symbols a means of striking some kind of balance. They have brought about the adoption of the Dharma Chakra for the national flag and the Lion of Sarnath for the State Seal. This choice is due to a particular turn of the Zeitgeist and not because Buddhism is a religion superior to Hinduism. Our critic is therefore quite off the mark when he uses it to bolster up the religion which he prefers. Also the choice is due rather to a defect in the modem Indian temperament than to any special merit in the Buddhist creed, or to any true appreciation of that creed by this temperament. To overlook Nirvana – Nirvana without which Buddha would have regarded his teaching as worthless – is scarcely to appreciate Buddhism. And a religion which allows with some ease its deepest meaning to be overlooked can certainly not be considered grander or more effective. Ancient India could not permanently embrace Buddhism partly because of this ambiguity, this weakness, arising from a negative approach which has two undesirable effects. First, it frustrates the mind ‘s swabhava to make philosophical formulations and give justifiable patterns for the life-force to follow. Second, it leaves the world without any strong supporting truth of itself in the Ultimate Reality: that Reality becomes more the world’s annulment than its fulfilment and the world naturally acquires a tendency to fall away from thought of it. The glorious personality of Buddha and the great experience he embodied remained stamped on the Indian mind, so much so that he was included in the list of the Avatars and put beside Sri Rama and Sri Krishna, but after a few glowing centuries the religion he had propagated lost its grip and died out.
The Hindu View and Way of Life
The inclusion of Buddha among the Avatars and at the same time the rejection of his religion as unfit for wholesale acceptance are facts that can be taken as clues to special qualities in Hinduism which have escaped completely the mind of the critic but which answer to the Indian soul’s need and against which Buddhism could not stand long. Buddhism could never have taken into its scheme Sri Rama or Sri Krishna. It is, like most other religions, a one-track move towards the Eternal. Hinduism is multitudinous and multifarious, catholic and synthetic, a cosmos of creeds and experiences. It is a gigantic diversity driving, by a secret similarity within each variant, towards the same yet manifold Godhead. Its culture too is myriad-aspected: no line of thought anywhere, no scheme of ethics; no system of worship, no style of art, but finds here its place in the wondrous whole. The wideness and variety that are held together in a loose yet living and interlinked combination by the Hindu view and way of life are responsible for the almost utter lack of religious intolerance we observe in Indian history. Vivekananda was but voicing the Hinduism of the ages when he said that there should be as many religions as there are individuals; and we may add that every one of these religions could be called Hindu! Not that there is in Hinduism a welter of doctrines: there is only a recognition of the infinite possibilities of the omnipotent divine nature and the extreme multiplicity of frail aspiring human nature. All that Hinduism asks is: Can you in any manner realise the Supreme Being who is at once transcendent, universal and individual and whose modes of manifestation are myriad? Without the least violation of its own character it can take the essence of the religion of Buddha to its bosom, even as it can take that of Christianity or Mohammedanism. Each of them can be a note in the complex harmony of its heavenward cry. But neither Buddhism nor Christianity nor Mohammedanism can take Hinduism into itself. They are intent on converting all souls to one type and to confine the illimitable and protean Spirit to a single formula and a solitary revelation. None of them, therefore, can truly satisfy, or gain wholesale acceptance from, the Indian consciousness which wants spiritual life abundant. Life abundant, whether spiritual or secular, cannot exist for long in a one-track scheme.
It is also in the instinctive surge of the genuine Indian consciousness towards a complex harmony that we find the original raison d’etre of the caste system which our critic falls foul of. The caste system has been for centuries a sore on the body of this fair country, but the fact that Hinduism evolved the caste system and that Buddhism is devoid of it is not to the credit of the latter. What, after all, is the basis of the system? It is a recognition of the non-uniformity of human nature rooted in the multi-aspectedness of the Divine’s being and action and an attempt to make the non-uniformity work with the utmost efficiency. Human nature falls into four main functions: the seeking of knowledge , inner and outer, and the giving of form and body to the truths of the universe – the seeking to exercise strength and power and the capacity to attack and defend, to lead and rule – the seeking to produce wealth , promote trade, secure the physical well-being of society the seeking to serve and obey and exercise the capacity to do manual labour. The four functions are crystallised in the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, the Sudra . Of course, no human being is entirely one-functioned and room must be left in any social system for passage from one group to another. But a clear division too is, under certain circumstances, required to stabilise society and promote the intensest development of each function by means of a conducive environment, association and training. In ancient India a rare combination of flexibility with fixity was nearly achieved, but as such a combination is very difficult to maintain a decline took place and when the national life was in danger owing to internal decadence and external invasion the strata or classes or castes grew rigid not only as a result of an ebb in the true spirit of Indian civilisation but also in consequence of conditions threatening Indian society with chaos. The caste system as it lingered on up to now was more or less a harmful and superficial institution, but in its origin as a number of guilds it was a creation of much wisdom and also carried a spiritual colour which at the same time infused the highest values into every stratum and rendered different classes equal in essential status by that infusion . Even the sub-Sudras who took up the most servile labour, the work of scavenging, and who in course of time became the outcasts, the untouchables, had their own dignity and spiritual significance and were never debarred from getting into the higher strata, even into the highest, by showing a capacity at variance with their environment, association and training. Modern conditions do not favour clear divisions and today Hinduism is striving to drop them, especially as they have become a mockery of their old selves, but in the ages when they were laid down they were a really fruitful and “substantive achievement” and even now their essential truth has to be brought into play in a new revolutionary fashion rather than denied, denounced and neglected.
Hinduism, however, does not need for its own justification any kind of defence of the caste system. Were this system a total blunder Hinduism would still not stand condemned. Human nature is such a mélange that a mighty truth and a huge mistake can exist side by side, and the mightier the truth the more danger there can be of misgrowths occurring on levels where a truth is likely to get perverted in proportion to its being vast and rich and multifoliate. Whatever the results, we have to move in the direction of vastness and richness and multifoliateness, for these alone can provide us with the final key to life’s riddle and challenge. These are qualities that not only cope with the tremendous diversity on a basis of unity that is the cosmic play, but also afford lebensraum for new developments, adventurous advances, undreamt-of discoveries. Most religions catch hold of certain aspects of the Divine to suit a particular penchant of the human mind. They may show a remarkable intensity engendered by the stress and the limit under which they work, but immensity gets sacrificed. Hinduism aspires to mingle the immense with the intense and, though the fusion is not always complete and there is a preponderance one way or the other, it succeeds in carrying both in some sort of alliance and in keeping the path open for some future fusion. Not dominantly the logic of the dividing intellect under the Spirit’s inspiration but a spiritually inspired intuitive logic which welcomes divisions only to unify them and which tends secretly towards some novel integral harmony of the utmost unity with the utmost multiplicity – this is the motive power behind the millennial quest of the Absolute which began with the Vedic rishis. Infinite vistas stretch out to be explored, startling possibilities of evolution remain to be compassed – essential Hinduism has its doors flung wide to ever-new surprises of the inexhaustible will of the single yet manifold Being who is the ultimate reality. It is through these doors that the soul of man will pass into a future of supreme fullness.
Amal Kiran (K.D. Sethna)
The Indian Spirit and the World’s Future (2004), pp 77-86