The Westernization of Hinduism and its Alienating Consequences

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” -Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

“Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  -Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Kali. Image Source.

An old painting of Kali in Kalighat painting style. This is a blend of traditional Bengali folk styles, and European painting. An in-between version of this scene, not as sexualized as ancient depictions, but not as tame as modern ones either.  Image Source.

Westernized or Anglicized Hinduism describes the religious system which is adhered to by most Hindus living in the United States and Britain, as well as by those in the modern Hindu urban elite, middle class, and urban working class. Essentially, any Hindu population which has experienced the impact of a modern education system for a few generations now subscribes to a Westernized variant of the belief system.

Initially I was planning on titling this piece “The Anglicization of Hinduism,” as that is what the bulk of this article pertains to, but that would entail a slight misnomer. This is because aside from morphing under British pressure, the most ancient substratum belief of the Hindu philosophical tree– namely Tantra– has been under a far longer lasting, but less severe morphing due to the influence of Vedic Brahminical tradition which arose in the Western part of the Indian subcontinent. Then, in the British period orthodox Vedic Brahmins eagerly collaborated with the colonial regime. Using it as their vehicle, both the Brahminical and Victorian worldviews, began to permeate the Hindu cultural landscape in unison.

Thus, Hinduism has been “westernized” in two senses: Recent, and rapid influence from Britain, and ancient, gradual influence from Western India. Anglicization and Sanskritization.

Basic Characteristics of Westernized Hinduism in Hindu terms: Modern, Westernized Hinduism is essentially a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, though ISKON (a dualist sect), the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Gandhian Hinduism, and indeed nearly every major Hindu religious movement since 1800 can be characterized as Westernized Hinduism, Anglicized Hinduism, or Neo-Hinduism. It is normally highly monistic, and places an emphasis on Bhakti and/or Karma Yoga. Tantra, especially left-hand path Tantra is conspicuously absent. Most Neo-Hindus see Hinduism both as a specific religion, and also as a meta-religious framework, which encompasses all religions. The most popular text in this branch of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita.  More on all of this later.

Formation of Westernized Hinduism: That covers the Hindu lineage, but there is of course a Western lineage as well. it is also the product of a violent and rapid change in the Indian social order– namely the advent of British colonialism, and eventually modern capitalism. The British Raj accorded a privileged role to Christian values and Western concepts. Starting in about 1858, when the British East India Company was forced to transfer power to the British monarchy, the British began to more actively inject their civilizational model into the subcontinent. The imposition of British political institutions and laws on Indian society, the state the support of British missionaries, the state encouragement of convent education and other forms of British education, and the selection of conservative, orthodox Brahmins for use in writing and interpreting what became “Anglo-Hindu law,” and the uniform application of that law to all of Hindu society, are all examples of this sudden change in traditional Hindu society.

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Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response

9780226734941

Purchasable on Amazon

(Skip the first 4 paragraphs if you don’t care about the book, and just want the general narrative of how Bengali culturalism evolved and declined)

For those who are tempted to pick up this book as a primer on Bengali cultureput the book down. This is really a book not on culture, but culuralism, that is to say the social and political ideology that encompasses most of the Bengal Renaissance.

Without reservations I applaud Andrew Sartori for making good on his promise to deliver a explanation of the rise of Bengali culturalism and related thought systems such as Bengali classical liberalism, and to a lesser degree, early Bengali Hindu nationalism, Bengali Muslim nationalism, and Bengali Marxism. His analysis is grounded in the particular local intellectual and economic changes taking place in Bengal. He does not place a disproportionate weight on formal chains of intellectual influence, nor does he fall into the vulgar Marxist trap of economic determinism. Kudos!

However, in the first two chapters of the book, he lays out (in excruciatingly jargon laden and difficult to read prose) several other promises, which are either unelaborated and/or left unproven. I’ll zero in on one illustrative example, which he phrases as a sort of thesis for the whole book: Sartori claims to show that Bengali culturalism is rooted in a fundamental “misrecognition” of the structures of global capitalist society.

This perplexes me, as the main thrust of his work seems to imply the opposite. He broadly argues that culturalism was in essence, a rational permutation of Bengali liberalism, in response to the altered conditions of capitalism in Bengal after the collapse of the native bourgeois class. How could such a natural ideological evolution rest on fundamentally misrecognizing the surrounding economic structures? The following is his basic narrative, with my own interpretive spin put on it of course:

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The Yoga of Arjuna’s Despondency

Continuing in my trend of alternative takes on Hindu texts…
“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.” -(Chap 1 Verse 46)

“Arjuna that chastiser of enemies said: I shall not fight O Krishna, and became silent.” (Chap 2 verse 9)

"Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief."

“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.”

But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

At the start of the Bhagvad Gita Arjuna is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand he is reluctant to enter into a war which is likely to cost the lives of most of his family, friends, respected elders, along with at least 4 million of his own citizens. On the other hand he also has moral duties as a warrior, and as a righteous person. According to the traditional interpretation the dilemma is resolved when Arjunas objections are defeated by the Divine Krishna’s appeals to selfless dedication to duty, (and the revelation of his Universal Form and the mystic wisdom that comes with it).

Seen in another light, this is the story of a rational, nonviolent man who gets persuaded, and frightened into obeying the whims of a mystical and powerful supernatural entity— Krishna. As a result of listening to Krishna’s advice he goes to war resulting in millions of deaths including almost his entire family. Most tragically, Arjuna loses his beloved 15 year old son Abhimanyu, who he loved deeply. Arjuna’s eventual victory is pyrrhic. He gains a kingdom he didn’t want all that badly, and loses many human relationships which he valued highly. He gives up a higher value in favor of a lower value– a fruitless sacrifice. As such, in the later chapters of the Mahabharata there is very little celebration of the victory at Kurukshetra. Instead sorrow and despair dominate the psyches of Arjuna and all the Pandava brothers.

This interpretation makes chapter 1 of the Gita the most noteworthy (Chapters 2 and 3 also contain some gems, but Arjuna’s defiance tends to fizzle out as the text goes on). Most readers go into this chapter under the preconception that Arjuna is wrong. It is read mostly as a preface to Krishna’s later statements. I implore readers to take this chapter seriously, because in fact the objections which Arjuna raises here are never adequately addressed by Krishna.

Arjuna, while he still retains his nonviolent instincts presents his argument against going to war. Despite being overwhelmed by grief and distress he repeatedly states that the kingdom, divine reward, or happiness which would result from winning the battle are simply not worth the resulting deaths:

“O Krishna, of what value are kingdoms? What value is living for happiness if they for whom our kingdom, material pleasure, and happiness is desired: preceptors, fatherly elders, sons; and grandfatherly elders, maternal uncles, fathers in law, grandsons, brothers in law, and relatives are all present on this battle field ready to give up their kingdoms and very lives? O Krishna even if they want to take my life I do not wish to take their lives. O Krishna what to speak for the sake of the earth, even for the rulership of the three worlds; in exchange for slaying the sons of Dhrtarastra what happiness will be derived by us?” (Chap 1 verses 32-35)

“How by slaying our own kinsmen will we be happy?” (Chap 1 verse 36)

“Alas how strange it is that we have resolved to commit great sin. Just because of greed for royal luxuries we are prepared to slay our own kinsmen.” (Chap 1 verse 44)

“It is better to live in this world by begging, without slaying our great and elevated superiors; otherwise by slaying our superiors the wealth and pleasurable things we are bound to enjoy will be tainted by blood.” (Chap 2 verse 5)

“Even if the sons of Dhrtarastra armed with weapons in hand slay me unarmed and unresisting on the battlefield that would be considered better for me.” (Chap 1 verse 45)

Arjuna seems relatively rational here. He engages in cost benefit analysis. He shows his preference for nonviolence over power, and family over material greed.

Krishna counters this with a blind appeal to duty but why should Arjuna adhere to his martial duty if there will be no perceptible gains to any party? According to Krishna doing one’s duty is inherently moral irrespective of the consequences so long as it is done with dedication to God. The idea that detachment from consequences is ideal becomes a persistent theme in the Gita. To be sure, selfless or detached action is useful in many avenues of life. But should we really ignore consequences when millions of lives are at stake?

Eventually Krishna reveals his Universal Form to Arjuna. In Chapter 11 verse 23 Arjuna says “O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”. After this frightening episode, Krishna’s suggestions become more forceful and sometimes take on the form of commands.

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

In the end, Arjuna succumbs to Krishna’s advice and fights. His teacher Drona, his son Abhimanyu, his grandfather Bhishma, his brother Karna, and innumerable others all die. After the battle, Arjuna repeatedly expresses remorse about his actions, and why wouldn’t he? Prior to the battle he made his preference for familial bonds over winning a kingdom perfectly clear. Yet, he followed Krishna’s advice to the letter for which he paid a heavy price.

How have so many thousands of years passed with nobody noticing that in this instance, Krishna gave profoundly poor advice? From a rights theorist perspective, Arjuna made the wrong choice because although he killed plenty of guilty people, innocents (i.e. draftees) also died. From a utilitarian perspective he made the wrong choice because he caused an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering and pain. From a rational egoist perspective he made the wrong choice because the decision did not serve his interests or advance his goals. Indeed, the only perspective from which Arjuna made the right choice is that of Bhagavad Gita devotionalist-duty ethics, whereby doing one’s duty as a devotional practice without thought for one’s own desires or the consequences of one’s actions overrides all other concerns.

The Gita can be read as the story of a peaceful rational man, reluctant to send 4 million men many of whom he loved to their deaths. However, this man lets his mind slip and allows himself to be persuaded and intimidated by a powerful and non-rational superhuman being. We should follow the path of Arjuna’s despondency and reject those who try to persuade us into committing acts of violence with irrational appeals to “duty” or “God”. When faced with evil consequences, we should take our reluctance seriously lest we end up like Arjuna, largely alone due to our own foolishness and in possession of a kingdom we never truly desired.

Follow up for those who think I’ve “missed the point.”

For those of you who say “but wait! The war was necessary and justified because Duryodhana was evil!”, please read the following in which I defend Duryodhana.