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Let’s talk to the Book (Religious reform) – Ramesh Venkataraman

Source : Indian Express

Ramanuja and Martin Luther underline how religion evolves by debating with scriptures, not by being beholden to them.

This year marks the 1,000th birth anniversary of Ramanuja, the great Vaishnava theologian who reinvented and revitalised Hinduism, and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s triggering of the Protestant Reformation which fundamentally reshaped Christianity. Both events are a salutary reminder in these troubled times of how religions can evolve and reform.

Ramanuja is most often hailed for his philosophic articulation of “qualified monism” or visishtadvaita. But it is as a visionary religious leader and organiser that Ramanuja truly made his mark. When he became head of the Srirangam Mutt, Ramanuja inherited a theological tradition that had championed the Pancaratra Agamas — a set of scriptures composed outside the dominant Vedic and Brahmanic mainstream — as equally the product of divine revelation as the Vedas themselves. The Agamas, unlike the sacrifice-oriented Vedas, sanctioned image worship and inclusive temple-based rituals that women and lower caste believers, and not just Brahmin males, could participate in.

It was Ramanuja’s brilliance that gave practical effect to this theological innovation. He organised the daily pujas and annual festival cycle at the Srirangam Ranganatha temple in line with Agamic norms, thereby broadening the temple’s constituency to include rising peasant castes and women. He also made room for the emotive Tamil hymns of the Alvars in the otherwise austere Sanskrit temple liturgy. Eventually, under his leadership, these reforms took hold at other Vaishnavite temple complexes such as Tirupati and Melkote that had sprung up across South India over the preceding centuries.

Ramanuja, thus, profoundly reinvented Hinduism in response to societal conditions of the 11th century (albeit his inclusiveness did not extend to the “untouchable” community). Over time, the transformation he initiated was carried across India by the so-called “bhakti movements”. Ultimately, Ramanuja’s Agamic revolution, placing popular and dramatic temple rituals and emotional image adoration at the centre of worship and widening participation beyond Brahmin males, became mainstream to Hinduism displacing older practices rooted in the Vedic tradition.

In 1517, 500 years after Ramanuja, Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, sparked the Reformation by posting “95 Theses” on a church door in Wittenberg, questioning portions of the Christian Church’s doctrine and specific corrupt practices — notably papal indulgences, a sort of whitewash of sins that were hawked by the Vatican for a hefty fee. Luther’s challenge set in train a seismic reshaping of Christianity and ultimately laid the foundation for the modern West. At the heart of the Lutheran revolution was the idea that Christians should themselves read the Bible, vernacular translations of which were beginning to roll off Gutenberg’s newly-invented printing presses, rather than have it presented to them by their priests.

But as soon as more and more people started to read the Bible, it became obvious that much of what is in the New and Old Testaments is ambiguous, impractical, and often contradictory — the Bible, like most scripture, does not speak with a single voice. To take one example cited by the philosopher Anthony Appiah, the same St. Paul who says women should cover their heads in church and men shouldn’t, also told the Galatians: “There is neither male nor female: For ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Protestant communities springing up across northern Europe chose to grapple with these scriptural conundrums themselves in self-study sessions rather than take their cues from the Church in Rome. They decided, in Appiah’s words, “which passages to read into and which to read past,” to shape their faith for their day and age.

Eventually, in the wake of the Reformation, good Christians could see that other sincere, committed Christians around them — be they traditional Catholics or members of one of the new Protestant sects from Calvinists and Anabaptists to Puritans and Presbyterians — came to believe in very different things. This ultimately infused (more than a century of brutal conflict later!) a more tolerant and sceptical spirit across Europe that gave birth to the liberal, secular, and humanist values of the 18th century Enlightenment.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this history when we are faced with shrill arguments that Muslims are immutable to change — whether on how they treat women or other religions. The argument goes as follows: Committed Muslims must take their beliefs directly from the Quran. For example, the Quran clearly says women are inferior to men in passages such as Surah (4:34): “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other.” Therefore, Muslim societies are bound to continue to treat men as superior to women. Indeed, this sort of scriptural determinism is mobilised by both sides — outsiders looking to indict Islam and insiders defending practices they favour.

But scriptures in other faiths also put down women — be it the Dharmashastras, the Torah, or the Bible — often in harsher terms than in the Quran. “Women have one eternal duty in this world,” says Bhishma in the Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata, “dependence upon and obedient service to their husbands.” Thankfully, however, religious beliefs do not repose in sacred texts. Much of scripture is written in language that is poetical, metaphorical, or simply obscure. Much of it consists of narratives or fictional parables. Scripture, therefore, requires interpretation.

While fundamentalists of all stripes persist in trying to turn the clock back to what they regard as original, divinely-ordained doctrine, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu communities have been able to evolve their creeds by interpreting their scriptural dictums for the world they live in. No one would have predicted if they simply read the Manusmriti that we would have sudra archakas (shudra priests) in Hindu temples or inferred from the Torah or the King James Bible that there would be women and gay rabbis and Anglican bishops.

Islam is no different. There are very few verses in the Quran which actually lay down law. Quranic verses — like most scripture — are vague and quite general. They have to be read along with other sources such as the sayings and doings of the Prophet to determine the rules for specific situations. Islam has a hoary tradition of schools of jurisprudence that have devised sophisticated theoretical frameworks to come up with the law governing the behaviour of Muslims. But these schools diverge in their views which is why there is a great range of social practice — whether on polygamy, women being veiled, serving liquor in public places, or tolerance of other faiths — between Turkey and Morocco and Saudi Arabia, all avowedly Muslim countries.

This is why the Supreme Court case on triple talaq, on which the Quran typically offers no clear-cut direction, is so important for India’s Muslims. Whatever be the court’s final judgement, and despite the political calculus that lies behind the Sangh Parivar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support for abolishing triple talaq, the hearings have provided an unprecedented forum for the Indian Muslim community — ranging from petitioner Shayara Bano to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — to have a vibrant public debate on whether this practice should prevail in this day and age.

What Ramanuja and Luther underline for us is that it is precisely this sort of reasoned debate amongst fellow believers, in dialogue with but not beholden to their scriptures, that has allowed religious communities throughout history to reform themselves — for the better.

The Lord’s kindness

Source : http://www.thehindu.com/society/faith/the-lords-kindness/article18572297.ece

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna talks of three yogas that lead to moksha — karma, bhakti and jnana. But the Gopikas did not observe any of these paths, and yet were liberated. That is because of their intense love for Lord Krishna. The Lord did not take into account their lack of jnana, but was impressed by their attachment to Him, said M.A. Venkatakrishnan in a discourse. The Lord is kindly disposed towards everyone. But we are so undeserving of His kindness that despite His efforts to reach out to us, we still remain unliberated.

In His abode, the Supreme One is waited on by all those who have attained liberation and yet the Lord is unhappy, because there are many more on this earth who haven’t yet been liberated. So He searches out people to whom He can grant liberation under one pretext or another. If someone utters His name in one of the towns where a temple of His is located, He takes that as worship of Him and looks favourably upon that person. Or if someone accidentally does some good to a devotee, that too begins to count in his favour.

Suppose a devotee is out on the road and there is an unbeliever walking beside him. The unbeliever is armed with a stout stick. Suppose a man who had planned to waylay the devotee is frightened, supposing that the non-believer is there to protect the devotee, then the non believer gets a merit simply by having saved the devotee, albeit unintentionally!

Suppose you rub gold to test its quality and decide to gather the resulting gold dust. It will take you a long time to get some substantial gold from the accumulated dust.

In the same way, the Lord patiently gathers points in our favour to ultimately liberate us, like a man who collects gold dust.

KNOWLEDGE – The Legacy

ऋभु वशिष्ठ (Ribhu Vashishtha)

The legacy called KNOWLEDGE

Recently, I saw the Hollywood movie “Lucy”. Although the main focus of the movie is on the “ten percent of brain” myth, a closer evaluation will reveal its foundation on Acharya Shankar’s philosophy. I liked the central tenet of the movie which is that you have knowledge, all of us have knowledge and that we need to pass it on so that the future generation can build on it and in turn pass it on! I recommend this movie to you if you are interested in deep philosophical questions like the origination of the universe, the purpose of existence, etc.

Our worldview is a product of the knowledge left behind by our ancestors. I believe that there should be no restrictions on propagation of beliefs, faiths, religions, sciences, philosophy or any other domain of knowledge because the present scenario of the world around us is a…

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Hallmarks of true devotion

Source: The Hindu (http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/religion/hallmarks-of-true-devotion/article7593336.ece)

Scriptures and the Puranas describe many forms of worship or upasanas, practices and prayers that help to foster bhakti. The most vital aspect in bhakti is the absolute humility with which a jivatma approaches the Supreme Lord. This is stressed unequivocally by Kapila in his teaching, pointed out Swami Paramasukananda in a lecture.

This bhava comes with the knowledge that all one’s material and physical possessions in this life, and even one’s faculties of thought, word and action, one’s relations in this world, etc, are all given by God. The truth that none can own any of these as his own frees one from the delusion of I and Mine. The all knowing God looks for the offering of the immortal self within each jivatma, an offering that transcends the material and ostentation in the worship. Even a leaf, flower, fruit or a drop of water is acceptable to the Lord if only the jivatma truly loves Him for His sake and desires to belong to Him at all times is what Krishna asserts.

Worship done with the sense of ego, that is, any offering made with the feeling that I am giving this to God, cannot be true bhakti. Likewise worship done in the name of religion or any God with a sense of dogma is also not acceptable to God and true bhakti does not endorse enmity, prejudice or violence in any form. Worship performed with elaborate austerities and ostentation fails if the spirit of friendliness, compassion, consideration and respect is lacking. Kapila condemns this as wasted effort that goes against dharma and is equal to pouring ghee on the burnt ashes. A person, who dishonours people around him and lacks the broadmindedness to accept the abiding self of the Lord in all beings, is not eligible for doing puja.

KNOWLEDGE – The Legacy

The legacy called KNOWLEDGE

Recently, I saw the Hollywood movie “Lucy”. Although the main focus of the movie is on the “ten percent of brain” myth, a closer evaluation will reveal its foundation on Acharya Shankar’s philosophy. I liked the central tenet of the movie which is that you have knowledge, all of us have knowledge and that we need to pass it on so that the future generation can build on it and in turn pass it on! I recommend this movie to you if you are interested in deep philosophical questions like the origination of the universe, the purpose of existence, etc.

Our worldview is a product of the knowledge left behind by our ancestors. I believe that there should be no restrictions on propagation of beliefs, faiths, religions, sciences, philosophy or any other domain of knowledge because the present scenario of the world around us is a result of the accumulation of all past knowledge.

Knowledge is liberation. Knowledge is the way towards ultimate freedom. Knowledge is a responsibility.

We need to keep on developing/progressing as a human race both materially and spiritually because that is the only way towards the Infinite/God/Almighty. If you believe in reincarnation, then propagating knowledge further will not only help others but help you as well because then you will receive this knowledge and build on it, you will build on it in successive lives till you attain the ultimate truth i.e. God. Who knows what you know today was propagated by you yourself in your past life.  All knowledge is a step towards the Infinite (God), all creatures striving for eternal happiness or pleasure are in reality striving towards attainment of God. All life is directed towards the One whether consciously or unconsciously. The great Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo affirms the fact that sooner or later we will arrive at the divine destination, we can choose to expedite it through our knowledge.

Every field of knowledge has its domain. For science, it is the material domain. For religion, it is the transcendental domain. So we must not impose restrictions on any religion. Everyone has a right to their views. We cannot force our views on others. Even Gautama Buddha stated this fact to his disciple. He said you must not become hostile towards anyone just because his/her views do not match yours. If you were in his/her position, if you would have lived his/her life, even you would have believed what you are now opposing. You can only debate and propagate your views but NOT force them on anyone. The use of force doesn’t expand faith, it reduces faith. Some religious extremist groups force others to convert to their faith, “Convert or die.” But faith is a choice of the heart that can’t be forced. Though force may compel some to mouth a faith-pledge, that doesn’t constitute the change of heart at the heart of true faith. Brute force reduces faith from a matter of the heart to a matter of the lips. That fanatics celebrate as religious victories converting others to such reduced faith shows that they grossly overrate the externals of their faith. Might they have never known the essence of faith: its security and sweetness? Might they be masking their inner emptiness by outer aggressiveness? Sadly, all traditions have been guilty, to greater or lesser degrees, of such superficiality. Those who resort to force to convert simply expose their intellectual and experiential bankruptcy. There are both positive and negative stages in every religion. Every religion either goes through a process of reformation and realigns itself according to the contemporary times or perishes. Intolerance and extremism towards religions is no solution for a perfect world. An open, liberal and tolerant approach needs to be adopted. No matter what you believe in, you should share your views with the world because your thinking, your philosophy, your mindset is not entirely your own. It is a gift left behind by our ancestors.

Frankly, I am no great philosopher or academician but all I am saying is that if there is one thing I am sure of out of all the ontological, teleological, metaphysical questions that remain unanswered even to this day, it is that passing on your knowledge: your science, your faith, your beliefs, your practices, your opinions, your biography, etc. is the only tangible way towards the ultimate knowledge/truth.

There should be no restriction on any kind of knowledge no matter how contradictory to the popularly accepted views. The strongest example that I can cite to validate this view of mine is that before the Renaissance set in Europe, all scientific theories and discoveries were regarded heresies, and now you can yourself observe the distance we have covered riding on science and technology. The Church did not believe in either the earth revolving around the sun or the earth being spherical. That is now past. What is today will also become past. Our life is a simple blip/blink in the vast annals of evolutionary history. We can choose to immortalize our being by working towards the upliftment of society.

It is rightly said in Indian philosophy that the first step towards knowledge is to acknowledge the fact that you don’t have knowledge. What you may know may be entirely wrong, also it may be entirely correct or it may be partially correct. You must have an open mind at all times. You must be open to learn new things, new knowledge. Learning is the step towards knowledge and knowledge is the step towards liberation.

Like all philosophies, I am fully aware that there will be criticisms of this philosophy of mine and I welcome it with open arms for that is again also the step towards knowledge and evolution! I am fully aware that my views may change over time but the central theme of this post i.e. sharing of knowledge is something I am a firm believer of and it is an unchangeable infallible truth in this changeable impermanent momentary world.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is one family”)

-Ancient Indian Sanskrit Proverb

To attain knowledge a man must read ten thousand books and travel ten thousand miles.

-Ancient Chinese Proverb

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“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

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-Ribhu V.

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