The Culture Of Conservatism

The dust-up over Mr. Muthalik’s acceptance into the BJP is fresh grist for the mills of the culture-and-politics debate. With the BJP poised to make a comeback, the talk raging in club and canteen alike, is expectedly getting heated and will likely stay that way until May’s answer to this Umm al-electoral Maarik. After which, interest might wane but is unlikely to disappear for the argumentation has at long last found firm ground and is here to stay. That’s because there is a larger something at the nub of it. Something that transcends politics. And that is the right to own and express cultural identity by Hindu Indians without being dubbed fascist or fundamentalist.

In everyday parlance, culture wars pit conservatives and liberals against each other on either side of a fence. Often, that is a doubly reinforced electric fence with poison tipped spikes for backup. Seriousness aside; try transposing common understanding of these terms to the Indian context and the cognitive dissonance becomes obvious when, suddenly, Left, Right, their Wings, Conservatives, Progressives, etc., all morph into un-unravelable skeins of woolly definition. The terms translate this way here: Indian Left is the motley bunch of usual culprits; Indian Right is Right Wing loony; Indian Liberals only get their rosettes if they belong to the upper echelons of one (just one) political party and/or circumnavigate the concentric whorls of the literary sphere and, Indian Conservatives are the indescribable NOTA group. Leaving aside ‘Left’ and ‘Liberal’ which play somewhat true to righteous type; it is ‘Right’, ‘Right-Wing’ and ‘Conservative’ that consistently enmesh to belie definition.

Conservatives and Liberals split fundamentally on economics and culture. In recent years the field of Political Physiology has ensured that the divide gets more evolved company. Biology too now finds its place alongside culture and economics as a credible separator of political preference. There are defined psychological and biological explanations for behavioral differences (twin studies ascribe as much as 40% to DNA) between the two and it is possible that evolution might have selected for that variance to exist. While the arguments over economics have had their fair share of the Sun; considered debate on culture is near absent. What stands in its stead is the noise of outrage. Over freedom of speech, Khaps, marriage and family values, moral policing and patriarchy.

The more traditional socio-religious conservatism has two broad divisions – cultural conservatism and social conservatism; Right and Right-Wing respectively. While there are overlapping areas of interest;  in the Indian context the distinctions are more defined than the overlap which typically, is generalized and overplayed. The two preeminent issues that social conservatism in India is pre-occupied with are: freedom of expression (often demonstrated as aggressive protest over published word or art) and moral policing or vigilantism. Ugly demonstrations of muscle power are indeed more media worthy than critical thinking but, that is not the only reason social conservatism finds pre-eminence in the debate. It is also, artfully deployed as a whipping boy to muzzle conservative thought and voice. More egregious than this however, is the canard that secularism reposes safe only in the cocooned custody of Left and/or Liberal. This unfounded argument of calculated convenience is used to daub the entire mass on the other side of the fence as fascist and communal. It is more than a worrying possibility that the rise in social conservatism is a reactionary response to the relentless ridicule of Hindu customs, belief and thought.

Matters get more interesting when contemplating conservatism from a cultural context. As the term implies, culture and traditional orders of life and living inform the ideology to a great extent and, it is therefore a natural next step to ask: what is the culture in question that is in play here. In the modern context; cultural and religious identity might not be directly interchangeable. Yet, religion is a major feeder of cultural identity and group culture is often rooted in religious affiliation even if individuals are at personal liberty to transcend these definitions. Being thus identified as a prime driver of identity; the principles of Hinduism merit scrutiny. Attempts to do so have immediately raised the clamour that the sum of creeds that rest under the classified banner of Hinduism can’t be corralled similarly under the ideological. Such pronouncements are not just self-indulgent celebrations of ignorance (the subject of texts is addressed, here); they raise suspicion of ulterior motive because of the stubborn refusal to educate and engage. Here verily is a case fit for the dictum: Suppressio veri; suggestio falsi.

There is a commonly held belief that monotheistic religions that have a single codex to follow are more ‘religions’ than those that are not. This is only one perspective (a human one at that) and not a supernatural decree or diktat for how or what a religion is. Yet, that this narrow view spread and took root is hardly surprising given that it is both studied and propagated as such. The most celebratory characteristic of Hinduism is its immense and extraordinary diversity that is yet tethered firmly to a nodal commonality. Features of Hinduism that I describe here-under are not interpretations but direct transmissions of learning from texts of Hinduism and which any practitioner or seer will attest to.

  • Hinduism does not see man as separate and apart from nature and his surroundings. An equal respect for all manner of life-forms whether elemental or complex; human or animal is reiterated in every text.
  • It is not dogmatic and does not seek to be organized into a fixed creed.
  • The two fundamental and distinctive features of Hinduism are Dharma and tolerance. Dharma can be variously construed as duty, law or morality. It is best understood when described as, ‘the law that governs the conduct of man’.
  • Rather than insisting on a credo to experience God and living; Hinduism through its numerous texts directs the seeker to realize the supremacy of the Self over all else. Such thought has an immense capacity for the tolerant acceptance of all belief; even the belief of doubt. It neither preaches violent defence of its principles and/or faith nor, equally, does it believe in asserting its supremacy over other creeds as the sole and only path to Divinity. Rather than occupy itself with converting others to its point of view; it has ever been absorbed with – in the words of the great philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – ‘an eternal quest of the mind’.

With this understanding, Hindu cultural conservatism starts to morph, Maya-like, into a Liberal Humanism and the reasons for the confusion with terms becomes clear. From an evolutionary perspective, political liberalism is the new kid on the block; but it has stayed long enough to find itself a permanent seat at the political table. In a scenario where some of our political beliefs might be chromosomally entrenched; the obvious path forward is to embrace diversity rather than attempt to change it – a common characteristic that Hindu cultural conservatives share with liberals.

Hinduism preaches a conservatism for the Self and/or micro-group and a detached liberalism for the community at large. Cultural conservatives in the Hindu context are concerned with preserving this ethic and philosophy of living. As for the economics, for a country like India that has 840 million living under two dollars a day, it is naïve to envisage a development that does not include the active participation of government. Cultural conservatism would ensure the coexistence of the practiced principle of responsibility alongside the morality of a right.

Culture is a living breathing organism that directly influences and moulds the lives of millions. It is not a curio to be exhibited behind glass panes, in galleries, that seems to say: “Look and admire. But don’t touch; don’t feel; don’t practice or participate. I am not you anymore; I am the other”. Finally and perhaps most pertinent of all, culture and cognition feed into and off each other in a virtuous cycle. The effort to divide and isolate us from our own culture has predictably boomeranged and we are now faced with the problem of an unthinking and exploitable social conservatism that has found its voice on the streets.


This is a hymn from the concluding SUktham of the RigVeda which, according to the Paramacharya of Kanchi, – one of the greatest seers of Hinduism in recent times – is the prime dictum for all Hindus and one that should have greater significance than the national anthem of any country:

“May mankind be of one mind; May it have a common goal; May all hearts be united in love. And with the mind and the goal being one may all of us live in happiness”

It can be read in Sanskrit, here: “Sangacchadhvam Samvadadhvam..

Post – PostScript:

This recitation of the hymn was shared with me by Many thanks to them for the share.



Hinduism’s Canon

It is often said of Hinduism that, unlike the Abrahamic religions, it is not a religion of the book; that it does not have a cornerstone scripture to serve as congregator. More than being completely erroneous, this is an uninformed canard that implicitly suggests, Hinduism’s true place is more in line with Paganism than with any religion or creed.

Books are not just the foundational bricks of Theology; they are also essential for congealing communities of belief. The unifying force of a book is integral to the survival and propagation of organized religion. Additionally and apart from that self-serving purpose; scripture illustrates the philosophy and thought of the religion which in turn, serves as a bulwark for cultural belief and evolution.

That texts are important to religion is thus established. However, the notion that ritual use of a single book by all practitioners, is a necessary determinant of established religion is one that must be countered. Hinduism does not have only one text; it has a whole canon comprising fourteen texts. But, the way in which these texts are used, in and by the faith, is very different from other religions.

Hinduism is as much a creed of learning as it is of the Divine. Learning and the advancement of the intellect is deeply intertwined with the practice; deep enough to not be seen as distinct from it. ‘Pramana’ or, the ‘means to knowledge’ has three core elements – perception, inference and textual knowledge or Shabdha.

The Hindu Canon is considered to be just one of the ways of realization (of self and divine). It falls under the category of Shabdha. In Sanskrit; these texts are called Shastras or the Chaturdasha Vidya (Chaturdasha – fourteen; Vidya – learning). There are an additional four that are more akin to subject specializations; but these too are sometimes included raising the number of primary texts to eighteen. All eighteen are extant. Crowning these texts are the Vedas – the prime scripture of Hinduism.

The texts are individually distinct in both content and scope and consequently, do not share the same degree of importance. At the same time, however, they also don’t submit to being categorized into a traditional hierarchy of greatest to least. On the contrary, the onus of intellectual hierarchy is on the learner/ practitioner of the faith. Hinduism’s texts recognize the spiritual and intellectual stage of development of the individual and cater to that hierarchy of personal evolution in the reader, the seeker or, believer.

Like learning, Bhakthi or belief, is also understood as subjective experience and is treated accordingly. The philosophy of – to each is given a unique place and purpose and to each too, the responsibility to serve it well – is exemplified by the collected works in the Canon. Irrespective of the stage at which a text has unique appeal; not one of these texts ever becomes irrelevant. Just as cliches acquire new meaning when revisited with personal experience; similarly, each text when revisited enhances the reader with new shades and depth of meaning.

To most English readers of Hinduism the classification of these texts can be baffling. In my own experience (admittedly limited), most books do not classify or detail the texts in a simple format that facilitates both understanding and recall. This perhaps is a contributory factor for the in-vogue misrepresentations.

From reading collated across numerous sources an easily comprehensible classification is detailed below that should put paid to the myth of the absent book. It is common to divide the Chaturdasha Vidya into Shruthi and Smrithi. Shruthi (literally, that which is heard) are the older texts learnt by the oral tradition and do not have a known author. Smrithi (that which is memorized and lived by) are auxiliary texts to the Shruthi. They are explanatory decoders of the Shruthi and, unlike them, have identifiable human authors. Many learned authorities differ from this dichotomous division in that, it implies a difference between the two. In reality, the Smrithis are best described as one of many auxiliary texts that contain extensions, additions and commentaries of the Shruthi.

A more felicitous way to classify the texts and their subjects is in the manner of the branching of the tree – main trunk, limbs and branches. The Prime Scripture: Four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, AtharvanA, SAma) Each Veda has further divisions based on structure and function. Structurally, there are three sections – SamhitA, BrAhmanA and the AranyakA. Functionally, two – the KarmakAndA and JnanakAndA. The Samhita and the BrAhmanA together comprise the KarmakAndA. These sections concern themselves with recitations, work and worship rituals. The AranyakA along with the Upanishads are intellectual and philosophical expositions of the KarmakAndA. The text and its divisions have been likened metaphorically to a fruit bearing tree. Wherein the trunk is the Vedas; the forked limbs – the KarmakAndA and the JnanakAndA; the branches – the Samhita; leaves – the BrAhmanAs, flowers – the AranyakAs and finally the fruit of the entire endeavour – the Upanishads. Auxiliary subjects: The primary division called AngAs; the secondary, called UpAngAs. The six AngAs:

  • 1. Shiksha – Phonetics
  • 2. VyAkarana – Grammar
  • 3. Chandas – Prosody
  • 4. NirUktA – Etymology
  • 5. JyotishA – Cosmology and science
  • 6. KalpA – Application manuals

The four UpAngAs

  • 1. MImAmsA – Is an exegesis of the Vedas. It’s also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA. MimAmsA has two divisions along the lines of the Kandas of the Vedas – the Purva-mImAmsA and the Uttara-MimAmsA. The two differ from each other and from Vedanta on the role and nature of Ishvara – God.
  • 2. NyAyA – Logic or reasoning. Is also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA
  • 3. PurAnAs – Eighteen in number. The collected chronicles and legends of history that are used to elaborate the philosophy and the teachings of the Vedas. The PurAnAs are some of the most important texts of Hinduism; both that they are beloved and are in more common use by the multitude than the other texts.
  • 3a. ItihAsA – The Epics: RAmAyanA and MahAbhArathA. The importance of these two to the Hindu Canon is so great that they have often been called the Fifth Veda
  • 4. DharmashAstrAs – are the SmrithIs. They are auxiliary texts that serve as explanatory reference, manuals and commentaries on the Shruthi. In this respect; they are very similar to KalpA and are an extension of it. Law, the conduct of rituals, personal conduct are elaborated in detail here.

Unlike the Abrahamic books, the Hindu canon does not assert an eternal and insurmountable distinction between God and man. The purpose of these texts is not directed at cementing the influence of the creed but at the intellectual and spiritual growth of the individual. When and if approached in the prescribed method of learning, the seeker is gradually steered away from belief, ritual and materialism to seek and realize the divinity within. The religion, thus, actively promotes a movement from the religious to the philosophical.

Hindu Philosophy is not an esoteric external rumination but an active process (incorporated in daily living) of contemplation, realization and renunciation. In socio-political terms, the religion steers the growth and/or shift of the individual from the practice of duties as conservative householder to those of a progressive intellectual. Once the structure for belief and thought is mastered, the believer is set free to explore his learning in pastures of his own creation, even if, that exercise leads him to denounce the very faith. There are no condemnations here of heretics, apostates and agnostics. Even the denial of faith is approached as its mere converse and is respected and welcomed as a contributory advancement of thought.

Viewed through the lens of time, it is fairly reasonable to assume that a single book of God might struggle to withstand the test of humankind’s insatiable quest for the unknown. That, it continues to thrive as the oldest living religion, perhaps suggests that the multiplicity of Hinduism’s texts is a theological example of successful evolutionary survival.