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Pankaj Jain, Ph.D. Headshot

Hinduism and Modernity

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We are living in a modern society today. At least, we prefer to believe that we are! We shun anything non-modern or so called orthodox. We would like to stay in touch with the contemporary rather than the traditional, be it home furniture or our way of thinking or our way of dressing or the way we perceive spirituality. If we are modern, we practice Yoga or meditation or at least claim to do so but reject any traditional custom or ritual, which does not fit in with our accepted definition of modernity.

In this essay, let us explore what exactly is modernity and how does it affect our way of thinking. Does modernity achieve what it sets out to do? And how do Hindu culture and traditions fit into this. Where does Hindu tradition stop and modern values begin? The main argument presented here is that the so-called modern values were already imbibed in the Hindu culture.

What Is Modernity?

Modernity can be defined as connecting to the new and the contemporary, rejecting the old. According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: the word modern was first recorded in 1585 in the sense 'of present or recent times'. In Latin, modernus is derived from modo, meaning 'just now'. The English word modern was not originally concerned with anything that could later be considered old-fashioned. Obviously, modernity often is used to reject old-fashioned ideas and traditions. In the cultural and social contexts, modernity is also interlinked with the values of equality, freedom, feminism and democracy. It is generally assumed that the modernity in 19th and 20th century unleashed the power of scientific and industrial progress, which led to social equality, freedom of downtrodden sections of the society, freedom to women. Democracy is also thought to be a modern concept of governance as against monarchs of ancient times. Modernity is also thought of as increasing the role of rationality in the public sphere and reducing the role of religion. Let us take these modern values one by one and explore them more.

Modern Values

Social Equality: One of the popular assumptions is that modernity provided equal status to downtrodden sections of the masses. Before the advent of modernity, people in the weaker sections of the society were controlled and oppressed by the landlords and the religious leaders. With modernity, all the sections of the society have equal rights. However, according to Professor Arvind Sharma, equality before law did exist in ancient India, especially in the sphere of criminal law. The Pali texts clearly allude to it, and the Nibandhas -- legal digests of the twelfth century onwards -- specifically eliminate unequal punishments. King Ashoka also tried to enforce it. The Nepala-Mahatmya (13.46) of the Skanhapurana also seems to recommend such egalitarianism. Moreover, even today in the 21st century, global spiritual movement Swadhyaya rooted in Hindu cultural values has devised many innovative experiments and projects to ensure social equality in thousands of Indian villages. One of the novel Swadhyaya concepts is Amrutalayam, meaning house of immortality. This is similar to a village temple but its priests come from different castes of the village and every evening the entire village gathers here as a social, economical, and spiritual family. Just a small example to show how social equality can be achieved by Hindu cultural values.

Democracy: Another popular assumption is that modernity gave rise to democracy, ending centuries of autocracy, and therefore governments for the masses, of the masses and by the masses were installed in many parts of the world. This gave tremendous power to the masses in choosing their own rulers and removing the ones they didn't like in the elections. But, contrary to this assumption, India in ancient times did have its own form of democracy and republics.

The inscriptions on the walls of the Sundaravarada temple in Uttiramerur near Kanchipuram show how democracy was practiced 1000 years ago. History Professor Steve Muhlberger at Nipissing University has painstakingly shown several evidences of republic forms of government in ancient India. And, according to Professor Arvind Sharma, republicanism was as prominent a form of government as monarchy in the sixth century B.C.E. in India.

It is true that the Magadha empire rose at the expense of such republics, but when Alexander invaded India in the fourth century B.C.E., he had to fight against as many republics as kingdoms on his way to Punjab. Panini, the famous grammarian assigned to the fourth century B.C.E., if not earlier, attests to Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra republics and Alexander had to defeat both a Brahmana and a Shudra republic in the course of his conquest. Republicanism, in the form of the operation of guild-laws, common law, regional practices, etc. survived throughout, countenanced by the kings. The Rajatarangini, a historical narrative of Kashmir, informs us of cases in which the king's decisions were blocked and even reversed by the king's council. Rudradaman (c.150 C.E.) had to spend money from his privy purse to carry out repairs at Lake Sudarshana in Saurashtra because his council would not let him use public funds for the purpose. In addition, it is also often believed that modernity ended centuries of theocracy. But, at least within the Hindu culture, theocracy was shunned millennia ago when Brahmans and Kshatriyas were assigned separate roles as religious and political leaders. We don't have a single incidence from Indian political history where a religious leader was made the king or vice versa.

Feminism: In the modern society, women are seen more liberated with their earning capacities and their role as career women rather than housewives or homemakers. It is believed that majority of Indian women committed sati in ancient times and widow-remarriage was not allowed. How far is this true? Most of the literature on the subject creates the impression of a general ban on widow-remarriage in Hinduism. According to the 1901 census, however, only 10 percent of the Hindu communities observed it. Professor Veena Oldenburg powerfully challenges even the usual portrayal of women being killed for dowry, which is linked with Hindu culture. The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue was particularly hard on women. From being co-partners in pre-colonial landholding arrangement, they found themselves denied all access to economic resources, turning them into dependents. In the event, they faced marital problems, and they were left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.

It is true that Indian society always has been a patriarchic society with males being the head of the family, but so is the case with all the other cultures -- eastern or western. But, it is the Hindu culture that has the concept of Devi, goddess, which treats females also as divinely as the male gods, or Devas. Devi exists in various forms and powers. Lakshami is worshipped as the power of wealth. Shakti or Durga is worshipped as the power to be invoked in war. Saraswati is worshipped as the power of knowledge. Even the power of illusion is given a female identity in the form of Maya. Also, South Asian countries have accepted women as the head of their states in the form of presidents or prime ministers. There are other dozens of social and religious female leaders in India.

Women who were given the sole responsibility to run a home are now being over-loaded to earn money also. In the modern world of judging everything by financial and materialistic rewards, are we reducing our mothers and wives also into moneymaking machines? And is that the only criteria for their freedom?

Science/Technology and Rationality: Modernity has negated the role of philosophical thinking and glorified reason-based thinking. Modernity also launched the era of science and technology with thousands of new inventions and discoveries about the outer world and the human body.

This popular notion is already challenged by the scholarly work of Joseph Needham, which highlights the ancient Chinese contribution in science and technology. Similarly, many Arabic scientific concepts are now accepted. Within India, we know that Indians knew many scientific notions in the fields of Astronomy, Medicine, Mathematics, Metallurgy, Maritime, and Linguistics hundreds of years ago. There is a huge set of evidence about traditional knowledge systems as late as 18th century just before the advent of the British.

It is true that modern science has added tremendous inventions for human society but to claim that tradition or culture was non-scientific will again be misleading.

Environment protection: It is a popular notion that modernity also led to the awareness about environment protection and animal rights. However, it is also true that modernity has reduced the natural resources due to exploitation by human beings. Whereas Hindu culture has the reverential concepts to worship natural powers and animals, modernity, while ridiculing such notions, claims to champion the cause of ecology. It is sad that the cultural values to regard the rivers as mothers, land as mother, cow as mother and trees as divine are ridiculed or rejected today in the name of modernity. Didn't these notions already combine eco-friendliness with popular culture?