Sunday, 12 June 2011

Vedic Astrology: A scientific exploration into the philosophy of Hinduism

Part 3 of 3: Addressing scientific scepticism

Allow me to illustrate this with a simplified example of the effects of the sun and the moon on our lives on earth.

Seasonal changes that occur with the earth’s rotation and position around the sun affect the course of lives of organisms on earth. Plants wither, animals hibernate and migrate. It is no coincidence that during winter seasons, the lack of sunshine affects the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain causing seasonal affective disorder in many; a condition which can significantly hamper or affect life.

The gravitational forces of the moon affect tides, making the environment more habitable to some than others, which subsequently affects the lives of fishermen who live by sea and what they eat. The nutrients that are contained within a particular species of fish, varies from another, therefore what you eat is also dictated by the environment you live in, which in turn affects your constitution, physical built, physiological and psychological well being, health and overall quality of life.

Such are examples of only two of the multitude of floating masses within our solar system, not even the universe. Could we have underestimated the effects of the other planets in solar system on our lives?

I draw an analogy to the above by dropping a pebble into the middle of the pond. As the pebble breaks into the surface of the water, it sends ripples in all directions of the pond. A fish in the pond will surely feel the wave of ripples as it passes through, and its subsequent actions will in a way be dictated by the size and nature of the force of the ripple waves; however it chooses to react to the stimulus. The closer it is to the ripple, the larger its direct effect it has on the course of actions to the fish. But you would be wrong to assume that a fish being further away from the source of the ripple would be any less affected by it. Although the energy from direct force of the ripple itself may have dissipated away, the indirect effects of the force still affect its subsequent actions, thus creating a chain of separate but inter connected sequence of actions, not dissimilar to the chaos theory.

Neutrinos are an example of a particular type of particles that are constantly being transmitted from the universe onto earth, amongst the many others that have been identified and not. Initially thought to be massless, these particles travel at light speed and pass through other particles relatively unaltered due to its seemingly neutral properties. With so little understood about neutrinos, would be unfathomable to think the transmission of the immeasurable masses of neutrinos from the constellations could possible have at least some bearing on the courses of an individual’s life? Where would we even start if we were to attempt to conduct an experiment the effect of neutrinos on an individual’s health or mood? Furthermore, how can we with any confidence disregard the effects of the other particles that potentially remain elusive from the limitations of our scientific knowledge and theories?

Ancient vedic texts describe an inner energy within the human body, not dissimilar to chakra flow. Ayurvedic and ancient Chinese medical texts books describe these chakra pathways to great detail, similar to how the course of the neurovascular bundles run through the body. The dissection of human anatomy has not demonstrated these pathways, yet I believe that these pathways exist, even if they remain invisible to the naked eye or electron microscopes. We may be unable to prove they exist, but it does not dismiss the distinct possibility that they might. Ayurvedic texts describe that illnesses stem from the imbalance of these pathways on bodily systems, and that at birth the effect of the constellations determine the dominance of the various different pathways that flow through the body.

Therefore to me, it is not inconceivable that with the changing positions of the planets and the constellations, there are continual changes in the quantities and nature of particles and thus energies being transmitted onto us. The effects of this are of course immeasurable, but could potentially interact and activate or inhibit the flows of the pathways within all objects animate and inanimate in this world, subsequently altering the course of life as we believe it to be.

I remain sceptical towards Vedic astrology, but equally have not grown blind or ignorant to the remote possibility that it could be true. As a scholar of modern sciences, Vedic astrology defies the logics of the set laws of the sciences I have been taught. Yet I am fortunate enough to recognise the limitations of science as we know it, and not to dismiss even the most improbable of likelihoods. There perhaps exist realms beyond our own, which inevitably sparks the famous debate of whether we are alone in this universe. But let us not allow the arrogance of our limited knowledge in science to dismiss the remote possibility of the fact that we could be wrong, and there may be a far greater use and understanding of Vedic astrology and religion that exceeds our own understanding in the matter.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Vedic Astrology: A scientific exploration into the philosophy of Hinduism (Part 2 of 3)

Part 2 of 3: The principles of vedic astrology

For the sake of simplicity, let us start with exploring horoscopy. Within Vedic astrology, an individual’s horoscope is determined by the constellation which appears at the horizon at the time and place of birth and its relationship to the sun and the other planets (including the moon) within our solar system. The constellation of stars at the horizon channels its energy to the individual and thus is the dominant force in determining the individual’s character and nature, whilst the arrangement of the suns and planets influence the development and evolution of these characteristics and control the element of fortune. As the position of the planets and constellations shift, the nature of the energy that is channelled to the individual subsequently changes and affects the individual’s energy, lustre and even fortune. These changes occur in varying time periods and intervals and alters the nature of the energies projected to the individual and can broadly be categorised as having a positive, negative or neutral effect on the life of the individual at that particular given time.

So for example if an individual decides to act on a particular life decision, such as making a risky career decision; he can prepare meticulously to ensure that he has the best chances of obtaining success, but this will heavily be influenced by the nature of energy channelled onto his career pathway at that particular time period in which he decides to commit his action. If this energy is positive, than combined with his efforts, his actions are likely to be met with success. If the energy is negative, despite his effort his actions may not succeed. If the energy is neutral, the success of his actions will purely depend on his effort alone.

Similarly in marriage, the union of two individuals bring together the energy of both individuals and unites them in a complex relationship. The channelling of the energies from the planets and constellations on both individuals unite, and thus creates numerous and immeasurable probabilities. Still, Vedic astrology predicts the nature of the union of these energies and predicts whether these energies synergise or repel each other, thus creating unions which are favourable, unfavourable or neutral.

Whilst the relationship that the married couple share will depend on the nature of the individuals itself and how much they commit to the relationship, Vedic astrology predicts that a favourable union will generally bring success, fortune, progeny, comfort and good health to the marriage. An unfavourable union will generally cause a marriage to be beset by troubles and grief. This is further compounded by the shift of the planetary positions and constellations with time. So despite a favourable or unfavourable union, the respective energies channelled towards each individual at that particular time will subsequently impact on the relationship and the actions between the two individuals within the marriage at that given time. Therefore even within a favourable union, the relationship of the married couple may undergo a duration of hardship and grief if the unison of energies of the channelled result in a negative energy based on the planetary positions at that given point in time; and thus vice versa.

If not already complicated, allow me to remind you that horoscopy is not the sole factor that influences fate. Vedic literature goes on to explain the effect of previous births, curses, effects of dharma and adharma, karma, birthmarks, and varna on the life of an individual and his fate.

This next brings the argument of what this knowledge achieves; predicting the nature of these forces alone is meaningless if we cannot utilise them to repel the negative forces. One could argue that the knowledge of impeding doom or disaster without the ability to avoid it itself is useless. True to a certain extent, but this knowledge is used by sages, priests and Brahmins to advise and teach their followers on how to avoid them into committing into unfavourable unions or performing significant actions during unfavourable times when negative energies are being projected onto them. If unavoidable, then certain cures and remedies are available through prayer, devotion, offerings and worship of the very Gods that control the energies of these planets and constellations. The cures and remedies vary in strength and potency, but help alleviate or minimise the effects of these negative energies and curses that affect an individual. Equally, the strength of these negative forces and curses vary in some circumstances, some for which there is no available cure or remedy.

Given the importance of astrology and vedic knowledge, Brahmins and priests were naturally revered by all strata of society. Brahmins, respected for their scholarly knowledge and as custodians of dharma were considered the head of the body that encompasses society. The Mahabharata even goes to the extent of explaining how every king needs a household priest learned in these arts if he were to be a successful king, and that the king should be guided by the priest in his actions, and that will allow his kingdom to flourish. Any who disrespects or disregards a true Brahmins advice will only inflict grief onto himself; such was the authority and influence Brahmins held over society in relation to their knowledge in the Vedas and Vedic astronomy and how it was believed to influence the fate of the individuals’ lives.

For scientists and the modern society, this unfortunately means nothing. For all the spirituality and mysticism of the religion, astrology and fate, the lack of evidence or proof to actually connect the dots in a logical sequential manner to demonstrate how these affects the course of life and nature, make it extremely difficult for sceptics to accept this. In an era where the generations of scientists have managed to dissect and unravel some of the mysteries behind the supernatural forces of nature, it has necessitated the need to conduct detailed reproducible experiments to prove any hypotheses or theories. In the case of religion and horoscopy, that may prove impossible, and thus for some easier to reject than to accept.

However the inability to conduct an experiment to prove an idea or hypothesis does not allow us to reject it wholly. Atheists’ arguments centre around the inability of religions to prove the existence of God; instead finding the concepts behind quantum and astrophysics somewhat more believable than God. Nevertheless whilst quantum physics explains the creation and the generation of energy forces within the universe, their theories stands on a balance of series of assumptions, statistical likelihood and unknown variables such as the presence of dark and cold matter, neutrinos and even gauge bosons; most of which has not been discovered or even understood. I am certain the future will provide us with more answers to the many questions behind these great mysteries, but whilst struggling to unveil the nature of some of the minute particles, how convincingly can we actually disprove the existence of God or even dismiss the influence of the rest of the universe onto our lives?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Vedic Astrology: A scientific exploration into the philosophy of Hinduism

Part 1 of 3: An introduction to vedic astrology

The relationship between Hinduism and elements within it that are intertwined with spirituality, astrology and the supernatural makes it a complex religion. It encapsulates itself within its mystical concepts that have become so complex that they even elude some of its staunchest followers.

During times when the seemly random forces of nature had a more than significant bearing on the lives of individuals within society, the role of religion was somewhat clearer. Lacking control or even the understanding behind the forces of nature and the mechanics behind these forces that dictated their lives, people believed in a concept; a vague appreciation of a larger entity that is constantly providing the forces that moves all that is on the earth. As ones lives depended on these forces, it was only natural that then people believed and worshiped these forces. These supernatural forces were believed to have originated from a high power that is God. But an increasingly secular education system adopted by the west that is dominated by science has undermined the influence of religion and is now threatening the integrity of belief systems that has once been at the core of society for thousands of years.

The relationship between science and Hinduism is of a stormy nature. Scientific theories and advancements have dominated most parts of the modern world over the last few centuries, even more so in the last few decades. Society is no longer merely willing to accept, but instead demand scientific explanations and proof to what previously remained beyond the understanding of the human intellect. It would not be far fetched to suggest that we now stand at crossroad between science and religion, and the latter appears to be a less likely appealing path for future generations.

Vedic astrology is one such example of an ancient belief that is being interrogated by modern society that I intend to explore with this essay. For thousands of years, the influence of constellation of stars and the planetary positions have been central to many Hindu societies, and is an important pivot around which crucial life decisions are made amongst Hindus. In fact, some factions of Hindus believe that the fate of an individual is preordained and set in mould; horoscopy thus explains the path that is set ahead of the individual. Others however challenge the notion of a predetermined fate and use Vedic astrology to predict the course of an individual’s life and offer hope and remedies to change the course of fate. The use of astrology in these circumstances are viewed by some as a gift of knowledge from god to alter fate; but for some, it challenges fate and believes the mastery of astrology grants us the ability to choose and carve our own fate.

In a quick glance at horoscopy and astrology, it is almost inconceivable to an educated and academic society on how the planetary positions and their relationship to the constellation of stars millions of light years away could possibly have any bearing on an individual’s life. To even begin to fathom how our respective actions and decisions, is predetermined or even altered by revolving planets and giant gaseous masses makes a mockery of our free will, and in fact our very existence. Surely the course of an individuals life and the consequences of the choices and decisions one make depends more on the environment the individual is in. Surely genetics, societal influences, the environment in which a child is raised in and the immeasurable variables that revolve the transition of an adolescent to adulthood are amongst the obvious factors that directly affect ones lives; not positions of the sun, moon, planets or the stars. If so, what proof or shred of evidence is there to demonstrate this unlikely link between astrology and our lives?

However, I would not hastily dismiss this unlikeliest of connections.

Firstly, allow me to dispel some common myths around Vedic astrology. Indian horoscopy which is so often used interchangeably with the term Vedic astrology implies that it draws its reference from the Vedas. . A consistent theme within the corpus of many Hindu literature imply the importance of astrology and one would repeatedly find reference to a higher source of power originating from beyond the realms of our planet in texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads and even the Mahabharata. However, despite the fact that Vedas themselves although on numerous occasions draws reference and acknowledges the importance of planetary positions, they do not directly prescribe nor state the laws and rules of astrology in any great detail.

So although the Vedas acknowledge the importance of astrology, it was actually ancient vedic texts such as the ‘Vasistha Samhita’ and the ‘Brihat Parashara Hora Sastra’ that explored and prescribed astrology; as ascribed to Sage Vasistha and Sage Parashara respectively. Sage Vasistha, one of the Sapta Rihsis (seven sages) is considered one of the mind born sons of the Lord Bhrama who brought down to earth divine knowledge, and Sage Parashara is his grandson, born of Shakti Muni. Sage Parashara is in turn father to the great Sage Vyasa, the scribe credited to the Vedas, the author of the Mahabharata and grandfather to the Pandavas. The teachings of these revered figures are central to corpus of the vedic literature and hence Hindu religion and vedic astrology.

The ‘Vasistha Samhita’ and ‘Brihat Parashara Hora Sastra’ are often considered to be the bibles of Vedic astrology and within these ancient texts, the rules of astrology are described with great attention to detail, explaining how ones horoscope is determined and how it subsequently affects his or her nature, character, constitution, fortune and even health. It even advises on how to prepare for significant life events such as marriages, approaching war, migrating and other events, as it argues on how the arrangement of the constellations and the positions of the planets channel their positive or negative energies subsequently affecting the outcome these events.

For example for an individual to perform a particular action successfully, it requires a balance of constitution, strength of character and resolve, and finally a fine execution of the action itself. Nevertheless, even if all above were meticulous performed, it does not necessarily guarantee the successfulness of the action itself. For vedic astrology argues that beyond what the individual is capable of controlling in this realm, there remains a superior force that influences the successfulness of his actions. Whilst recognising the importance factors that an individual need to control to increase the chances of obtaining success through his action, the channelling of energy forces from the arrangement of the constellations and planets will affect the chances of success of failure of a particular action performed.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

When East meets West; Misguided Eurasian Ethnocentricity

Part 3 of 3: The White Way

The reality is that the American and European domination of the world has taught most of us to think in one similar way; their own way. Heralding their perceived superiority, they have infiltrated existing local societal systems all across the world and condemned any other way apart from their own. At their own folly and perhaps our own, their belief in the infallibility of democracy and a legal framework in the form of the constitution have condemned all other forms of societal structures.

Hindu laws, Hudud Laws, the customs and practices of certain African tribes, native Indians the ideology of the Chinese and Japanese, communism, facism and socialism have all fell victim under the scrutiny of the western judgement. Numerous literature and documentaries in western media have described in great detail the flaws of these ‘brutal’, ‘primitive’, ‘barbaric’ and unfair and inhumane cultures. These exposés are widely circulated portraying these cultures, ideologies and concepts in a negative light compared to western thought.

The arrogance that reeks from western ethnocentricity perhaps justifiably stems from their greatest strengths; their ability to organize and structure, to impose and convince and finally faith and utmost confidence in their own ability. With a strong sense of self-belief in their methods, their overwhelming faith in their laws, cultures and beliefs compelled them to convince all others, that their ways were superior. Their ability to structure and organize all their thoughts served as a testament to their superiority. And finally when they imposed, most often than not, they succeeded.

Unfortunately, where lay the strengths that I have described in western cultures, therein lay the weaknesses of the non-western cultures. Their lack in structure, authority and self-belief allowed them to succumb to the imposing nature of western cultures.

I have no personal agenda against democracy, western culture or Christianity. Democracy may not be flawless, but perhaps it represents the most widely acceptable political structure we have now. Western culture has introduced many good values to the rest of the world too; speaking out against injustice and liberating those who have been discriminated. Christianity has brought hope and faith to many who in their darkest days were left floundering. Western colonisation of the world has indeed its benefits. But indeed it made the world sway to its tune; and if any is to stray from it, it would be near impossible to escape the prejudice and judgement from all else.

We are decades into the post-colonialism era. But why are we still judged based on western standards? Worse still, not only by the westerners, but by ourselves too.

Values like chastity are forsaken in the name of liberation. Traditional masculine and feminine roles are increasingly challenged by feminism, blurring the divide between male and female; unfortunately portraying the modern women as one not limited by culture or traditions and ultimately less feminine. Duties, responsibilities and roles are forgotten as western youth revolutions challenge the traditional eastern parent-child relationships. Sacred ties and relationships such as marriages now are no more than legislative and civil partnership that last only whilst it works. Prayer and devotion are met with scepticism and western scientific hypotheses, theories and statistics are increasingly used to explain the ways of the world.

Perhaps there is no right or wrong. But this discourse is not about which is right or better, eastern cultures versus western cultures. It merely is about remembering who we are and why we are, instead of aspiring to be someone else we are not.

Cultures and traditions evolve with time, and I am not naïve or ignorant to that. We cannot expect to still live by the traditions of our predecessors from the Vedic era. But nothing should stop us from holding onto the good and positive principles of these cultures and traditions that define us. The evolution of cultures and traditions is not about forgetting older practices, but instead is about learning from other cultures and ingraining their positives into our own lifestyle whilst accepting the technology and modernisation of the world. Unfortunately, the converse is the reality. We see more people adopting this modern foreign culture and trying to implement an eastern flavour to this. At risk of hypocrisy, I admit that even I may perhaps be guilty of this.

So hence the paradox within my discourse; will globalisation blur the lines that divide us culturally until we accept an increasingly popular western culture, or will the remaining few who have resisted westernisation so far continue to resist this new hybrid culture and allow the clashing of cultures to continue?

I warmly embrace globalisation, as the bringing together of people, I believe, helps you understand other cultures, allowing you to dispel myths, prejudices and stereotypes. Or even if it confirms them, it at least affords one the chance of experiencing a different culture and learning how to respect and live with it. However, I for one am not ready to discard religious teachings and traditions that have been passed onto me for centuries, for these are the very things that have defined who I am and provide an explanation to my identity.

Perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place if we all discarded our respective culture and religion and adopted a hybrid one. But I suppose I still would prefer a little more flavour and colour that the various cultures, religion and traditions bring to the world, even if it means a little more drama.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

When East meets West; Misguided Eurasian Ethnocentricity

Part 2 of 3: Post-colonialism sentiments of superiority
The residual effects of post-colonialism still linger on as many former colonies have suffered from westernisation in the form of European ethnocentricity that has quenched previously held traditions, religious beliefs and ultimately culture. Heralded as the harbinger of civilisation, European imperialism gradually built an aura of superiority around European culture by condemning our very own traditional Asian cultures, hence teaching the world to measure and judge against a European based standards; a western yardstick.

This is commonality I find especially amongst the upper class or the upper middle class of our very own Asian cultures. By no fault of their own, their exposure to ‘stylish’ western cultures allows them to indulge in an air of self belief that embracing the values of ‘civilised’ cultures is form of self betterment. After all, the faculty of self improvement comes naturally even to the most primitive men. When combined with curiosity and the faculty of thought, the theory of survival of the fittest subconsciously forces upon men the natural inclination to attempt to distinguish themselves from the pack, to portray themselves as better, improved, attractive or even for simpler reasons such as a testament to their fitness or fertility.

By discarding traditionalistic cultures, many Indians have separated themselves from the traditionalist hordes that make up the majority of the society. By embracing western cultures, they edge closer towards belonging to a group perceived as being elite and superior; unfortunately and unwittingly failing to see that they have just allowed themselves to enter into the submission of foreign influence. Consequently the very features that define the Indian society and culture dissipate away and Indian identity is gradually lost.

The sense of identity is important to all because it explains what we are. It explains why we act or behave in a certain manner. It provides a fresh source of variety in an increasingly monotonous culture that has been emphasised by western education and science; inhibiting the birth of unique individuals from the various cultures. By infiltrating local legal, administrative and religious setups, western colonisers have imposed their own practices upon their colonies.

Bearing western gifts, a coy smile and the promise of a structured civil society for the benefits of the people in lands stricken with civil wars, in exchange for a mere share in administrative powers in local affairs may appear to be a fair trade at first glance. But the manner by which colonisers wrest control of the administrative powers from local leaders were by no means honourable. Many forget the circumstances under which the locals had to agree to the terms set by the western colonisers. With a vast army with far superior array of arsenal looming not far behind, the options were simple; a peaceful transition of power under which locals retain a small portion of position and power, or a transition by force under which locals will be forced to accept whatever scraps are available after the aftermath.

The strategy was brilliant, as although western colonisers gained entry through the threat of force, it provided the illusion that the entry was sanctioned by the local leaders, hence making the so-called joint administration more acceptable to the locals. As the colonisers’ voice grew louder and more frequent, it quenched the voice of the local leaders who became increasingly isolated from their own positions and people. By implementing hybrid laws, the colonisers modified local structures into a system that slowly resembled their own western society.

However, as the locals who held such high regard for their local leaders, they accepted this unfamiliar change purely because the believed that all this change was sanctioned by their own beloved and respected leaders. Unfortunately, many of the local leaders had only the own personal interest at heart, accepting the conditions imposed onto them to purely to safeguard their position The locals believed that their leaders would only have their best interest in heart when accepting these unfamiliar changes; that perhaps they could learn from another culture for their own benefit.. What they did not realise at the time was that western education and law, in many areas contradicted their own views. But instead of offering a moderated platform where these clashing of ideas could be weighed against each other, western ideas were pressed ahead and heralded as better or true at the cost of dispelling and disproving previous culturally dictated thoughts ideas. The more the locals learnt about the west, the more they forgot or unlearnt their own prior knowledge.

Christianity and science condemned religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism and our beliefs; labelling them as delusions, misguided or false. Missionaries targeted areas where the population were most severely affected by suffering often most those living in severe deprivation, lacking structure in society and uneducated. The relief of their physical suffering came hand in hand with spiritual rescue.

After all it is not difficult to dissuade a man to part from beliefs that he has held on to, at a time when all around him is failing. Missionaries could very easily convince these select populations that any other form of worship apart from Christianity is false and blasphemous, hence incurring the wrath of God who has brought upon them this very suffering that they are currently experiencing.

At a time when in places like India, education and religious teaching were exclusive to mostly the higher echelons of society, the lack of faith, belief and structure of religion amongst the poor is not the least surprising. Choosing salvation of a new religion and culture over tradition and a religion one know very little about, is a straightforward choice that any man would make at times of desperation.

Thus in Asia, where tradition, culture and religion closely resembles a meshwork that has been intertwined over the centuries, separating tradition from culture, from religion is quite nearly impossible. Hence the consequence of adopting a new religion as per guided by the missionaries is the abandonment of tradition and culture.

Unfortunately the lack of consistency and structure in many cultures has led to its’ notwithstanding nature in the face of imperialism. Faith and beliefs are only held on to as long as a follower has a reason to adhere to them. The diversity and failing teachings of Hinduism due to the lack of a structured religious authority has left many followers lost or misguided. When Hinduism fails them, or fails to provide followers with answers or reason, it is no surprise when these followers look elsewhere. Similarly with traditions and culture; when we do not invest to preserve our culture and traditions, there is no doubt they will dissipate away and become diluted in the wave of globalisation. When the upper class discard and even worse despise our own culture, and openly embrace a perceived superior culture, it eventually becomes exclusive and draws the lower strata of the society towards it. It is then inevitable that the middle and lower class masses aspire to follow similarly to match and achieve the heights of the upper class to resemble or duplicate their lifestyle.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

When East meets West; Misguided Eurasian Ethnocentricity

Part 1 of 3: Is Hollywood really better than Bollywood?

For a long time I have believed that the blurring of cultural lines and barriers is an inevitable consequence of the giant wave of globalisation that is sweeping across the world. This phenomenon was one that an idealist like me warmly embraced, as I believe the breaking down of borders would bring cultures together hence allowing firsthand encounter which could dispel the myths and prejudices that one might hold against another of a different kind.

Perhaps it was my naivety that I did not account for the possibility that the opposite could happen too, if not even more likely than the former. The coming together of various cultures instead of blending together, I find as history suggests, is more likely to clash and create more barriers between cultures.

Allow me to digress to explore this thought. My friends have long known me for my loud spoken criticisms of the Indian film industries. I have never hid my contempt for what I saw as a lack of quality in the direction, a lack of depth in the plot and above all the dismal portrayal of the majority population of Indians as simpletons, rude and uncivilised, and sometimes best described as brute in the manner the films thrive themselves on glorifying retaliation against wrong with pure physical violence. The loud and crude dialogue and the exaggerated acting, I find especially difficult to endure. And even on the rare occasion you find yourself immersed in the storyline with a thin plot best described in Tolkien’s words, “butter spread over too much bread”, you are suddenly rudely interrupted with a random choreographed dance sequence or an utterly irrelevant comedy scene.

How do I even to begin to compare these productions that barely qualify to be called films to great classics such as ‘The Godfather’, ‘The City of God’, ‘Usual Suspects’ or even next to adventurous epics like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’? Never mind the plots, even adrenaline and pure testosterone driven films crammed with violence and action were extremely ‘watch-able’; ‘Rambo’, ‘Predator’ and ‘Die Hard’ spring to mind. Likewise even soppy romantic, slapstick comedy and musicals were amusing and if not entertaining. I must reluctantly admit that I truly was mesmerised by the beautiful production of ‘Moulin Rogue’, an unusual film which I thought its genre appeared to be contemporary art more than mainstream cinema.

Although I never may have admitted it, I perhaps may have been silently embarrassed how the culture and traditions of Indians have been portrayed so crudely and so shamelessly in these movies, especially when viewed in the same light or beside the stylish American, European, and even those of oriental origin namely the Chinese and Japanese productions, such as ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or the flawless ‘Seven Samurai’.

That is until a particular scene from a largely obscure Tamil film left me pondering and questioning my judgements of culture. The scene, from a movie titled, “Vilai Thirai”, a struggling wannabe director has elaborate ideas of producing a movie to match the ranks of European classics epitomised by a solid and strong characters with tasteful subtlety by performance actors who are able to effortlessly draw viewers into the plot. He stars opposite a struggling wannabe actor who is a direct contrast to director; an actor who believes in not-so-subtle acting, exaggerating every scene to emphasize every emotion to allow his audience to grasp each innate emotion in its raw audacity, and immerse themselves in the fantasy providing them with escapism from reality.

In one particular scene, the director bursts out at the actor questioning his acting abilities, drawing contrast between him and greats such as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. The actor retorts in reply, questioning the director on why was he so preoccupied with European superiority. He asked the director to stop judging him on European standards and reflect on the culture and traditions of the Indians.

He asks, “How can a European (referring to Ben Kingsley) play Gandhi, and not an Indian like me? I have no doubt I could play him better, not only because I understand better what it means to be an Indian but I know what its like. He portrayed Gandhi based on a western interpretation of how Gandhi was like. Can you ever see or even imagine an Indian actor cast to play Winston Churchill? Does it not sound ridiculous? But similarly a European plays Gandhi, and so poorly too, yet the world applauds his acting? It’s ridiculous. Stop judging us on European standards. This is India and its culture, and Indians know what we want in Indian films. If the Indian people want overacting, we give them overacting. Do you think your great European actors could deliver what we do in our films?”

Those may not be the exact words, but basically a summary of the message it carries. Nevertheless his words stung me, because I understood precisely why I have failed to appreciate Bollywood and Kollywood. I thought Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Ghandi was superb. But the yardstick that I used to measure his performance was one that was ingrained into me over the years from popular mainstream media; European media. I learnt to believe what I read, heard or watched from the mass media. Retrospectively, it is only now I realise that I never really had the chance to judge Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the Godfather impartially. Everything I had heard or read about the movie and Brando lead me to believe that it could not get any better, as though films should be modelled after this fine example.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Decline of Hinduism amongst Hindus

The Decline of Hinduism amongst Hindus

Many Hindus believe that we now enter a period in the age of this world that is called ‘Kali Yuga’ or the ‘age of vice’ characterised by the decline of morality amongst men, the inability to separate right from wrong, corruption between relationships between the strata of the society, between friends and family; just to mention a few. Even a sceptic or a non-Hindu would be pressed hard to disagree given the self destructive nature that men have demonstrated in recent times.

For a long time, I struggled to understand this particular concept which I felt somewhat seemed like it represented the hypocrisy of Hinduism. I failed to understand how Hinduism, a religion that is meant to save and guide mankind predicts its own inability to save man from sin. That surely a religion so pure and true, would be able to save its believers from being condemned into a realm of impurities and sin, and through its teachings help them achieve self realisation.

But upon embarking my slow and steady religious journey, I have stumbled across a series of remarkable observations and realisations, and maybe even possibly am beginning to comprehend some of the very core concepts of Hinduism (and other religions). Stark obvious to many, but a fundamental concept that had previously eluded me; for I have learnt, that God and religion may never save every soul that exists, but instead, every soul has the opportunity through God and religion to save itself from self damnation; that bad and evil is not the failure of God or religion, but purely the absence of it.

I risk incurring the wrath of many sceptics and atheist, who will simply point towards the numerous wars, crimes, pain and suffering that has been inflicted by one man onto another in the name of God and religion. However, I can only assure you, that these very men, who used God’s name and religion in vain, have never really understood either, and were purely driven by themselves or others like themselves, who were victims of the failings and misconceptions of religious teachings. It is only lately that I have realised that although I have been born a Hindu, and practised Hinduism all my life, it is only over the last few years I have began to live as a Hindu. This draws me towards the compulsion to explain the decline of Hinduism or more accurately, the lost principles of Hinduism amongst Hindus.

I recently attended a temple function, during which a priest delivered a sermon, teaching the temple crowd about some of the aspects of Hinduism. Thirty minutes into his sermon, I left, slightly disappointed by the narrow teachings of the priest. Alternating between Hindi and English, the priest explained parts of text quoted from the Ramayana, teaching the temple crowd about the value devotion as opposed to temptation, warning against seduced by superficial beauty and encouraged the crowd to learn and acquire knowledge; advising his audience to live proudly and true to the values of an Indian, and rejecting the corruption of the west. Everything the priest delivered, was direct, relevant and most importantly gave good guidance and direction to all those who listened. But his single shortcoming was his failure to understand, that the concepts of Hinduism extended beyond the cultural and traditionalistic limitations of the Indian subcontinent. Simply put, the priest implied that one ought to live the life of a traditional Indian. In fact, implicating western civilisations as the reason of corruption amongst Hindus may even be perceived as a denial of their own inability to withstand the test of globalisation.

Hinduism was born by the side of the Ganges River in the ancient Indian civilisation, and naturally many Indians would have lived and practiced Hinduism to an extent, the terms ‘Indian lifestyle’ or ‘Indian culture’ could perhaps possibly be used interchangeably or perhaps synonymously as Hinduism, at that point in time in history. But the evolution of society, culture and tradition has changed all this. The traditional Indian culture that was largely shaped and influenced by Hinduism may no longer reflect the true teachings of the very religion that shaped it.

Therefore, although the Indian culture and the teachings of Hinduism may be have interchangeably influenced each other to the point the teachings of Hinduism is immersed in the traditional Indian culture and vice versa, a Hindu must learn to demarcate these two areas to be able to appreciate Hinduism in its purest form. This however, may appear to be a task equivalent to seeking the ‘Holy Grail’, purely because unlike other religions, Hinduism, does not draw its religious authority from a single source, but instead relies heavily on the numerous ancient Sanskrit texts that exists in the form of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the ‘smritis’, and even from the epic poems Ramayana and the Mahabharata of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part of. And it is of utmost importance that these texts and scriptures are interpreted in the context in which they were written, hence heavily influenced by the Indian culture and traditions.

Therefore, I understand, and perhaps am able to forgive Hindus who are under the misconception that the traditional Indian culture and lifestyle epitomises the principles of Hinduism. What irks me however is the failure of Hindus to evolve and adapt these very principles to the modern day and ultimately the failure to develop and live by the principles of Hinduism.

As simple example is as follows:
“...Hindus may pray to God in the various forms He has chose to reveal Himself to man. Whether it be through the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu in the form of Rama, or through Lord Krishna the charioteer to Prince Arjuna in the battle of Kurushetra.

…As a Hindu, a child would often be taught to clasp their hands together, in front of these idols, and pray; with prayer being in the form of offering thanks to God for all He has provided us with, apologies for our numerous shortcomings or sins we have committed and finally submitting to God our needs, so He would bless us in all our future endeavours and help us achieve them. We were taught to prepare myself for the rituals, on how to participate and conduct ourselves during these rituals. But very often that was the extent of how much an average Hindu child is taught about the religion…”

Temples, parents or religious classes that teach Hinduism is a rarity, and may be limited to selected religious texts or pure mythology. Hence, when the priests would chant prayers and mantras in Sanskrit and calmly conduct each step of the meticulous and complex rituals, very little of the procedure itself is understood by the Hindus participating in the ritual, but eventually simply learn to accept it. Enduring ignorance in silence, the core teachings are simply lost and masked by our ignorant diligence in performing prayer without understanding it, hence rendering prayer, worship and devotion meaningless. Worse still, is the blatant ignorance that has beset many Hindus, who are dominated by prayer, worship and rituals, forgetting or in some cases never learning about the facets of Hinduism that deal with complex but important concepts such as dharma, karma and conduct.

Outside prayer, worship and devotion, ‘Hinduism’ as it is practiced now fails to prepare Hindus to face the realities of life, due to the neglect of the principles of Hinduism. Adopting a broad generalised view, merely comparing Hinduism to other religions such as Islam and Christianity, it appears to me that Muslims and Christians generally understand and grasp the principles of their respective religions better than Hindus with Hinduism. This in turn allows Muslims and Christians to be better prepared to face the realities in life, such as dealing with significant stressful life events, such as birth and separation, dealing with fortune and misfortune, conduct of relationships between family, relatives and friends, roles and responsibilities and ultimately death.

Hindus, generally less knowledgeable in Hinduism, are often left confused and lost in the face of reality. Thus Hinduism becomes superficial in meaning, as the valuable teachings of the ancient Sanskrit teachings such as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita are gradually being replaced by ritualism and symbolism. Ask any Hindu about his or her purpose in life, and do not be surprised if your question is met with hesitancy or a long winded philosophical answer; clear evidence of the stark lack of knowledge of the religion by its followers.

Religion is meant to guide and lead. It is meant to provide direction, a source to derive strength, faith and hope. Therefore if Hinduism is to serve its purpose as a religion, it needs to be accessible to its believers. It needs to be practical and practicable in this age in time. Instead of clinging on to the ritualism, symbolism, traditionalist mindset that defined Hinduism in the culture of the bygone ages of ancient India, present day Hindus need to understand that globalisation has changed the face of this world.

The culture of ancient India may not necessarily be practicable now, but Hindus must learn that that does not imply Hinduism is impractical. Hinduism should not be confined to India or the Indian lifestyle. It purely means that Hindus must reach back into the depths of the religion to acquire knowledge and learn the principles of Hinduism, to understand how Hinduism can be practised in the present and the future. Although the outlook of future Hindu practise may appear different from ancient practise, the core must remain the same. This evolutionary process which dictates change in practise of Hinduism may be criticised by many traditionalist who may claim that changes in traditional Hindu practice equates to deviance. But I view this evolutionary change as not deviance, but instead an expansion of our knowledge and understanding of the religion and hence brings us closer to God.

My belief is simple, “A man who calls himself a Muslim, who attends the mosque and prays like a Muslim, and acts like a Muslim but who himself does not understand nor live by the principles of Islam is not truly a Muslim. A man who calls himself a Catholic, who attends the church and prays like a Catholic, and acts like a Catholic but who himself does not understand nor live by the principles of Christianity is not a truly a Catholic. Likewise, a man who calls himself a Hindu, who attends the temple and prays like a Hindu, and acts like a Hindu, but who himself does not understand nor live by the principles of Hinduism is not a truly a Hindu.”

I do not pretend to be the epitome of knowledge with regards to Hinduism, nor am I a learned scholar in the religion. Instead, I am a purist, who by chance stumbled across the principles of Hinduism and am currently in pursuit of the knowledge that has gradually been dissipating away from Hindus. From what I have learnt, I believe that the way forward to reverse the decline in the Hindu religion is to pluck the principles of Hinduism from its traditional and cultural landscape, to learn it in its purest form, to subsequently allow it to be re-taught correctly to present day Hindus who wish live by the principles of Hinduism. Perhaps then, even Hindus will understand Hinduism better.