Monday, August 06, 2007

Dayananda Saraswati, and Hindu 'fundamentalism'   posted by Razib @ 8/06/2007 12:51:00 PM

I've been reading about Hinduism recently, a few textbook introductions + some of the canonical scriptures. Mostly this is in the interest of trying to place it within a greater framework of my understanding of how cultures evolve and relate to one another. One of the books I'm going through deals with seminal early thinkers in Hindu nationalism (or proto-nationalism). Of these is Dayananda Saraswati, a Gujarati Brahmin who founded the reformist Hindu sect Arya Samaj. I have long known of the general ideas of Saraswati, but it is different seeing quotations where he elaborates upon his beliefs. The radical, almost "Salafist" character of his thoughts, jumps out at you.

I have posted before about how some religious people, usually the more systematically inclined, have a tendency of reducing the whole universe to a collection of phenomena which can be explained by their religious texts. Saraswati illustrates this, he seems to prefigure modern Hindutva thinkers in reinterpreting the sacred Hindu texts so as to show how they anticipate and describe the whole world. For example, he points to just where in the Hindu canon Europe and the New World are described. Naturally they had to be there, the Vedas are perfect and timeless descriptions of the universe. I could not but help recall the exact same tendency of Christians in terms of mapping real geography to Biblical geography. Additionally, though Saraswati is contemptuous of Islam and Christianity and views Vedic Hinduism as the One True Religion, it is jarring to see him take some pleasure in the iconoclasm of Muslims as they engaged in cultural assault on a massive scale, destroying idols and temple complexes. This reminded me much of many fundamentalists who seem to exhibit more animus toward their notional co-religionists than the enemy far away. The Salafist "reformers" in Saudi Arabia were responsible for the destruction of much of Arabia's older religious architecture (dating from the Caliphate down to the Ottoman period) during the 18th century, exemplified by their attack upon the tomb of the prophet Muhammad. Saraswati's minimalist and notionally reconstructionist (that is, back to first principles) world view will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in Christian or Muslim fundamentalism. For example, on the one hand he discards post-Vedic Hinduism, the use of images, polytheism (incarnation), philosophical monism, and so on. And yet he also promotes radical planks based on his reading of the Vedas. He accepts the utility of caste and the submission of the lower orders to the higher (a duopoly of Brahmin and Kshatriya dominance aided by economically productive Vaishyas served by humble Sudras). But, he rejects that this hierarchy is one of birth, rather, Saraswati promotes a nobility of attainment and accepts that as some rise from their station of origin others shall fall. It is clearly simply a reinstatement of the Platonic system, the people of gold shall rule over the lower orders. Additionally, Saraswati notes positively the European custom of individuals choosing their own spouses, which was something that really jumped out at me knowing the normative traditions within South Asia. But in my own family it turns out that the religious fundamentalists are also the ones most open to these sorts of modes so long as they can be justified and affixed within their understanding of the religious order. In other words, custom & tradition are secondary in relation to revealed axioms.

Dayananda Saraswati lived during the 19th century, the heyday of British rule. He did not speak a Western language, so his reading of the Koran and Bible were in translations. Therefore, I am struck by the question: what proportion of the ideas that he elaborates upon are 'native' and what proportion 'foreign'? A definitive answer is difficult and ultimately impossible, we can't do a phylogenetic analysis using a coalescent model here. But it does strike me as interesting that a whole host of reformist movements arose in various world religions during the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Salafism in Arabia, the Deobandi movement in South Asia, the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka (where a substantial portion of nominal Christians converted to Buddhism), muscular Christianity and later fundamentalism in the West. One the one hand one could assert that minimalist fundamentalist (for lack of a better word) is a natural outcome of diffusion from the center of European culture. That is, the success of Europe and its Christian religion resulted in conscious (Brahmo Samaj) and unconscious (Arya Samaj) imitators throughout the world. Another argument could be that given particular parameters concomitant with the rise of the modern world and the transition from the mass society to the middle class one the "higher religions" which arose in mass societies characterized by a pyramid shaped stratification will naturally be canalized toward specific convergent evolutionary paths. A form of cultural selection, so to speak. For example, mass literacy and wealth outside of the rentier classes and castes might almost always lead to a reinterpretation of texts and customs which had been the dictatorial preserve of aristocratic elites. Finally, one could also hold that both factors noted above are at play, though there are particular natural developmental pathways elicited by the same parameters, the magnitude of the directional movement might be shaped by emulation and precedent from one particular source. The Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka for example was aided in large part by Westerners from Christian backgrounds who defected toward non-Christian religious traditions. The Theosophical Society played a large role in promoting Indian nationalism and was even associated with Saraswati's Arya Samaj for a period. These sorts of questions can only be answered by someone with a larger database than I currently have, but I don't think that they are intractable given enough time and full access to theoretical tools.

Note: Many ideas are common throughout all "higher" cultures. For example, philosophical monism & and dualism existed in both the West and India at different periods, though in the West the latter was victorious, while in India the former was. Similarly, the atheist critiques of the Carvaka school in relation to many aspects of Hinduism can be found in Islam and Christianity, though obviously they would add one God to the universe.