Punya Bhumi and the Bleak Landscape of One god-ism
by Vijaya Rajiva on 03 May 2012 40 Comments

Hindus do not need extremists or the past history of violence and conquest to realise that the dogmatic monotheistic faiths (Islam and Christianity) are not for them. They have to only look at the performances of persons like Dr. Zakir Naik, the Islamic scholar who discussed religion with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his mangling of the Veda and cherry picking of quotes therein, and references to Pandit Nehru and Encyclopedia Britannica (since when did these two become authorities on Hindu dharma?) to see what can be expected from a monotheistic interpretation of Hindu tradition. Most of his pronouncements bordered on the ludicrous and could be dismissed, except that an uninformed audience could be taken in by this soap box orator.

Zakir Naik brings to mind the American racist David Duke who used to say India was a great country because of the Aryan achievements in every discipline from science and mathematics to astronomy, architecture, art, music etc., but India degenerated when it mixed with the aboriginal peoples of the subcontinent!

Zakir Naik likewise cherry picks a few lines here and there to prove that the Vedas were once part of an exclusive club of religionists (like himself!),believed in the ONE true god (of his imagination), and that things turned sour when images were introduced, and hence Hindus and Hinduism degenerated!.

Yet he is not the only one on the bleak landscape of monotheism who has perversely misinterpreted the depth and range of Vedic Polytheism and its link with Vedic Monism. We have seen learned Indologists and scholars such as Max Mueller speculating freely whether the ONE god was not always present in the minds of ‘pagan’ worshippers and whether this subsequently gave way to the worship of many gods! To them, this was degeneration, sin!

This line of thinking – that pagans first believed in one god – differs from that of Positivists such as Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who theorised that the worship of many deities eventually gave way to a single Cause, and thence the rise of scientific enquiry. His line of enquiry went thus: In Theology: polytheism and paganism to monotheism, 2. Then to the metaphysical First Cause, 3. Then to the scientific study of phenomena, especially that of society.

The fact that Positivism no longer prevails in contemporary Western philosophy is informative. Even the last of the great Logical Positivists such as Sir Karl Popper (who died a few years ago) had abandoned their strict positivism: that philosophy is the handmaiden of science. It should not concern itself with unknown entities. Today, such new thinking as string theory, chaos theory, etc., are indicative of the fact that simplistic views cannot explain the universe.

The gods and goddesses (devas and devatas) of the four Vedas are intimately linked not only to the Vedic worshippers, but reappear in consecrated form in the Agama Shastras where the deity is consecrated in a temple. Although the Vedic Hindus performed their yajnas under the open sky after erecting altars, some form of temple is mentioned in the Atharva Veda itself. Hence, from the Vedas to the Agamas, there is a line of continuity in worship which constitutes the Hindu tradition. This is an unbroken tradition that reaffirms the richness and diversity of the four Vedas.

Contrary to the myths propagated by Western scholars and the one god-ists, the richness of contemporary Hinduism is integrally related to the Vedas. Recently, a Catholic scholar in debate with a Hindu writer hinted that the Rishi tradition is open to interpretations other than that provided by the Smritis, read Hindus. (This was Dr. Francis Xavier Clooney, Jesuit Professor of Divinity, Harvard University, USA). Hence, it is not only Islamists like Zakir Naik who undertake fishing expeditions in the Vedas.

At this juncture, a clarification concerning the word Hindu is relevant and needs to be kept firmly in mind. The word derives from the river Sindhu mentioned any number of times in the Rig Veda itself, starting with Book 1. We do not need Dr. Naik’s disinformation that the word Hindu is of Arabic origin. It is well known the Persians when they interacted with Hindu civilisation could not pronounce the syllable ‘s’ and converted it into ‘h’ and hence Hindu. The rest is history, with the colonial British using the Greek version, Indus, because they traced the legitimacy of their colonial predations from Alexander.

Today, every Hindu knows that the once famous Indus Valley Civilisation is now properly designated by scholars as the Sindhu Sarasvati Civilisation, owing to the proliferation of human habitations along the route of the famous Sarasvati and discovery of the river itself by scientists more than two decades ago. The Sarasvati is the much revered mother, river, and goddess of the Rig Veda (ambitame, naditame, devitame; RV II.41.16). Modern scholars also prefer the original nomenclature of Sindhu to the anglicised Indus.

The list of howlers in Dr. Naik’s speech (which the writer recently viewed) is appalling enough; even worse is the prospect of the ONE god-ism that pervades the monotheistic faith in general, of which Naik is a vociferous proponent. The uninformed might assume from his account that only the few quotes he uses to make the Veda fit his bleak landscape comprise the whole picture. The present writer has pointed out previously that the description of the Infinite Divine, as found in Hindu Monism, is quite at variance with the narrow contradictory version of a ONE true god of monotheism. It is a contradiction in terms to speak of the number ONE in connection with the Infinite.

The Infinite Divine is Satchidananda (Sat, Chit, Ananda, that which Exists, is Conscious and is Blissful) and the Gods and Goddesses of the four Vedas are real existents, they are the manifestations of the Infinite Divine. The Vedic seers knew this and so does the aam admi. The celebration of these divine presences is freely expressed in the Rig Veda and as well the other three, the Sama (which sings of them) the Yajur (which details the rituals offered up to the deities) and the Atharva Veda. 

The exact rituals of the yajnas are described in detail in the prose commentaries, the Brahmanas (interestingly, Zakir Naik skips this work!). It is also revealing that he omits all mention of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the longest and densest of the Upanishads, which comes as the end of the Shatapatha Brahmana, and one which extols the yajnas, the gods and goddesses and the manifestations of their divine nature. It also goes into great detail about the significance of Agni (Fire) and the other deities, which Naik dismisses as ‘worship of the elements,’ and yes, Max Mueller also dismisses as the worship of the ‘elements’ common to paganism.

There is good reason for this omission. While he can cherry pick lines from the Rig Veda and the Upanishads and take them out of context to endorse the Islamic version of the one god, it is impossible for monotheists to circumvent the yajnas and their delineation in the Brahmanas. Indeed, Naik omits also the great Mahavakyas of the Upanishads, which clearly cannot be fitted into his scheme of a ONE true god. In what sense can Tat Tvam Asi (That Thou Art), Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman) be fitted into the procrustean bed of one god-ism?

The Kanchi Acharya’s memorable words concerning the gods and goddesses of the Rig Veda and the rituals conducted for them cannot be repeated too often:

" . . . . a yajna is making an oblation to a deity in the fire with the chanting of mantras. In a sense the mantras themselves constitute the form of the deities invoked. In another sense, the mantras, like the materials placed in the fire, are the sustenance of the celestials invoked” (Hindu Dharma: The Vedas).

To sum up: Murti puja, temples, the gods and goddesses of the Rig Veda are integral to the Punya Bhumi (sacred earth). Dr. Naik and the one god-ists of all denominations can fulminate against them, but they will not go away. The one god-ists are welcome to stay in this sacred land and pray to their own gods, but it is futile for them to try to change the Hindu landscape.

Dr. Naik had said that while he had no problems with the name Vishnu, Muslims do not like it when this god is depicted with four arms and is shown reclining on a serpent etc. That is too bad. No Hindu ever tells him whom he should worship and how and where. At any rate, Vishnu will always be Vishnu and Brihadisvara will always remain the lord of dance, both the cosmic universal dance and the human mortal dance form (Bharata Natyam etc). And Sarasvati will always be depicted as patroness of the arts and learning, Lakshmi of grace and abundance, and Durga of might and power!

Hindu gods and goddesses cannot be wished away. The temples can no longer be invaded by barbarians; the murtis will continue to be consecrated, installed in temples and worshipped by millions of Hindus!

As well known journalist M.J. Akbar once said: In the entire world, in India alone have Muslims enjoyed uninterrupted democracy for more than sixty years (see his blog). And that is as it should be.

Dr. Naik should be grateful to the Punya Bhumi, grateful that the gods and goddesses exist, grateful that the temples with their consecrated deities exist, and that the celebratory, joyful and generous nature of Hinduism owes to the existence of Satchidananda as worshipped by Hindus in various forms and manifestations and images.

The writer is a political philosopher who taught at a Canadian university
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