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Culture War Roundup for the week of July 17, 2023

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Nolan's Oppenheimer released this weekend, and I wanted to use this opportunity to both post an excellent paper about Bhagavad Gita's influence on the man and a short introduction to Hinduism to illustrate just how different it is from Abrahamic religions.

Hinduism is an umbrella term for a group of philosophical schools which is practised by people living east of the Indus River (the word Hindu is derived from the root word Sindhu, which was the Sanskrit name for the river). What is commonly understood as Hinduism in the west today (and India to a large extent) is the most popular school, called Advaita Vedanta (a monist philosophy that champions polytheism whose metaphysical view is panpsychist). Unlike Abrahamic religions, it is very difficult to define who a Hindu is, as the schools itself have very varied philosophies. In all, there are 10 major schools of philosophies, consisting of varied views from hedonistic atheism to monotheistic theism, with both dualist and monist views (there is also btw dualistic non-dualism). To quote the Supreme Court of India-

Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more.

The diversity in schools and inherent intentional contradictions even in a singular school makes it difficult to distil an understanding to a western audience makes it difficult to explain Hinduism to someone who isn't brought up in the culture. So I will focus on explaining the concepts of Dharma, Samsara, Karma and Moksha, which are mostly (always an exception) common to the different philosophical schools.

  1. Dharma - Ask any modern Hindu on what does Dharma mean, and you would almost always get the answer as religion, despite this word only recently taken on that meaning and despite being far removed from the real meaning. The fact that describing its actual meaning is also difficult because it is so tied to the culture hasn't contributed in correcting this error in the mind of modern Hindu. Dharma is tied to an inherent cosmological order called Rta, and is the behaviour that is in accordance with it. It has been translated as duty, law, virtue or an obligation towards the world, and though they come close, I feel none of them describe the essence of it. A better way to understand is "what is right" on an individual and contextual level. What that means is there is no universally prescribed set of behaviours for a person to be Dharmic. A person's Dharma depends on a wide variety of factors depending on but not limited to their personality, their background, the stage of life (ashram) they are in and can be in active conflict with another person's Dharma. The principle texts even are full of contradictions regarding it. For example, Mahabharata, the epic poem of which Bhagavad Gita is a part of, is littered with multiple characters arguing "Ahimsa parmo dharma" or "non-violence is the highest dharma" despite the Mahabharata being a story about war. Even the main antagonist of the Mahabharata, Dhuryodhana, routinely uses what the characters exclaim as Dharmic to do acts which are Adharmic (opposite of Dharma).

  2. Samsara - Literally meaning the world, it is philosophically used to describe the wandering aimless journey of the soul (Atman) through cycles of birth and death, multiple lives as multiple beings through the universe. Tied very closely to the theory of Karma (more on that later), the samsara is the fundamental condition of living beings who experience pleasure, pain, joy, sadness tied to the material world. The conditions a person gets born in and the things a person experiences varies in different life, but the one thing that is certain is suffering (will cover this point more in the next section).

  3. Karma - Commonly Karma is thought to mean as "what goes around, comes around", though it literally means "action". It's the theory of Karma that means your good deeds have good effects, and bad deeds have bad effects. If you do a good Karma you accumulate merit or Punya, conversely bad Karma begets you demerit or Paap. Mind you, Karma also takes in account the intention behind the action rather than the action itself. During multiple lifetimes, your Punya and Paap either gets you appropriate circumstances or you go to Swarga (heaven) or Narka (Hell). The heaven and hell in Hinduism differs from Abrahamic religions' concept of it in two ways. First there is no required belief you need to hold to get into there, even if you believe in a flying spaghetti monster if you live a Dharmic life you get into Swarga and even the fervent believers living an Adharmic life will get into hell. Second, it is not eternal, eventually your accumulated Paap or Punya will get exhausted, and you return to Samsara and the cycle of reincarnation again. This cycle of reincarnation is the real jail, you take birth, you suffer, you find momentary joy, suffer some more, again and again and again. Maybe in some birth you finally get Dharma, you do good deeds, and that reflects in your current or the other life, but take another birth and all the understanding is lost, and you start with scratch again. Samsara is eternally changing and living in Samsara means you will get attached, maybe to pleasures, maybe to people or to life. It is certain that things will end, or you would lose them and that will cause you suffering.

  4. Moksha - If you are destined to suffer why accumulate good Karma in the first place, doesn't it seem all too pointless to just continue again and again. Hence, the highest goal in Hinduism isn't to accumulate good deeds, but to escape this cycle of reincarnation or attain Moksha. What the nature of it is and how to achieve it varies from school to school. Moksha is often equated to enlightenment and nirvana. In one school, it is described as a cessation of desire (Buddhism) in another removal of Ahamkara(a false ego created by oneself) or yet understanding your being. In Bhagavad Gita, the path to attain Moksha is said to lie in the 4 Yogas namely, Karma Yoga (acting without any attachment to the result of your actions), Jnana Yoga (pronounced as gyan meaning knowledge, it means understanding the nature of reality through knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (surrendering your ego and self to a deity) and Raja Yoga (introspection and understanding oneself using meditation).

This a very incomplete and limited explanation of the concepts which are vast and have a diverse set of views between different sects of Hinduism, so take that with a grain of salt.

PS- I have used a lot of words from Sanskrit and a lot of these words aren't pronounced as they are spelt(in many of them the a is silent) in latin script, so here's a list of how you would pronounce some of these words- Gita - Geet Advaita - Advait Vedanta - Vedant Swarga - Swarg Narka - Narka Karma - Karm Yoga - Yog Rta - Tr Samsara - Sansaar Moksha - Moksh Ahamkara - Ahankar(n is silent)

Do you know of any resources that make the history of Hinduism legible to a westerner? I got curious reading about Indo-European languages and then Indo-European religion. The parallels between Germanic mythology and early Vedic religion are fascinating. But the early Vedic religion has clearly been transformed and subsumed. (No cattle sacrifices in modern Hinduism!) I am curious what the different proto-Hinduisms were and how they met and fought and syncretized.

Books I've read on the history of Indo-European religion (admittedly years ago) were light on the Indo-Iranian branch.

This topic is part of a very contentious and visceral cultural war here in India with a lot of parties having vested interest in each interpretation. The whole subject is quite political. Academic Indology is extremely dominated by left leaning ideologues both in West and in India. Indology would either comprise of a postmodernist analysis of caste based power dynamics or a marxist histographical (again very anti-brahmanical) view of history which surprisingly is very pro-islamic. For example, Aryan Invasion Theory (proposed by the brilliant but very euro centric Indologist Max Weber) was defended very vigorously both through gate keeping and politicisation of any attenpt to challenge it, despite overwhelming evidence regarding a very gradual introduction of what is thought to be proto-hindu tribes Y chromosome in India(over 1000 years).

The Indic Right isn't much better as they subscribe to Out of India theory despite bery little arguments in support of it, though not many take them seriously. Currently the accepted view is Aryan Migration theory.

The fact that much of the archaelogical evidence that could have helped has been destroyed in over 500 years of Islamic invasion of India.

I'm not sure what the difference between Aryan Invasion Theory and Aryan Migration Theory is supposed to be. The genetic evidence matches pretty closely what we see in historical events that are universally considered invasions e.g. the Spanish conquest of the New World, which in terms of demographic impact took nearly 400 years to conclude during a time with much more advanced military technology and social organization than possessed by Bronze Age tribal peoples.