Hinduism: Religion, Culture or Way of Life?
Some of the recent criticism of our mission here at Nirmukta has come from Hindu apologists admonishing the writers for treating Hinduism as a religion. The often encountered claim is that Hinduism is not a religion in the same sense as the other faiths, because of various reasons that the apologists deem are unique to Hinduism alone. This propaganda has been pursued so vigorously by the apologists that it has become a mantra to be used as a shield against criticism. Millions of educated Hindus are taught these talking points, often ideas derived from some insignificant truism miscast into a vast theory of cultural significance. Such “special pleading” is a mark of all religions, asking to be considered unique and special. To begin, let us first look at some of the general qualities of religions.
The Nature of Religions:
If you ask different people what makes a religion a religion, you’ll get vastly different answers. If all these answers are compiled, it becomes possible that almost every group of people defined by their adherence to certain traditions or beliefs can be classified as a religious group. First there are the older religions. All ancient cultures have traditions that go back into pre-history, and the evolving beliefs and practices have become entwined with each other. Then there are some belief systems that came out of modern socio-political thought- for example communism, nationalism and capitalism- that some people consider as religions. Indeed, there are many qualities that make them similar to traditional religions. There are those religions that were founded in the last few hundred years, like Scientology and Mormonism, often called cults. Some would even say that science, secularism and atheism are religions.
For the purposes of this article I will disregard supernaturalism as a necessary requisite for religious behavior, although it is often an integral part of the more fundamentalist strains of religions.
It seems as though we are already nearing a nihilistic stalemate. Here is where an understanding of religion as a subset of culture can help us. Simply put, religion does not exist as a clearly defined phenomenon, but is an artificial part of the culture to which it belongs. Jonathan Smith writes: “Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization.” This, in my opinion, is the single most important thing to remember when talking about religion.
The reason scholars study religion from an objective perspective is to try to understand these religions without bias. The objective/ scientific perspective in not an Eastern perspective or a Western perspective. It does not follow from any one religion, although all religions may have fragments of the type of reasoning spirit that permeates the scientific process. There is a huge gap between the objective understanding of what constitutes religion and the understanding from within each religion of what it represents. This article is concerned with the objective perspective. I look at religion as an entity in itself, behaving like any other entity that responds to its environment. With this perspective in mind, I look for any personality traits of this entity that may form the inclusive core of what constitutes religion. I submit three propositions which, when taken together, define the essence of these powerful cultural institutions.
1) Religion perpetuates an identity of itself as a group.
2) An authoritarian strain runs through every set of beliefs that can be labeled a religion.
3) Religions submit their believers through volumes of cognitive dissonance.
I wish to make it clear that there are many more popular ways of defining religions. I focus my criticism of the arguments of Hindu apologists who seek special status for Hinduism by narrowing down on the most contested aspects of their religion. If the argument is that I am re-defining religion in a specific way, then bring on your more conventional definition of religion. Hinduism satisfies those conditions more readily.
Let us look at the three aspects of religions that I have isolated for this exercise.
1. Group Identity: I have written previously about how group-centric thinking is a trait of all religions. This is a characteristic of culture itself. When certain beliefs succeed in grouping a subset of the population from others, the survival of those beliefs is directly proportional to the degree to which the believers in that group are prepared to defend the beliefs. This is the parasite-host relationship that Daniel Dennett popularized in his book Breaking the Spell. The more virulent a belief system, the more aggressively will those beliefs be defended by its hosts. From a biological standpoint, the survival of the group symbolizes the ultimate altruistic cause for an organism. Even extreme behaviors such as suicide bombings are acts of ultimate altruistic service to members of the in-group. This is a direct result of moral evolution in social organisms such as primates (read more here). In humans, culture can replace kinship and genetic relatedness when it comes to forming in-group allegiances. This has the potential for much good. However, divisive ideologies make use of these behavioral tendencies in humans to spread themselves, often at great cost to their human hosts. Self-identified groups are a natural aspect of society, but when group identity combines with certain characteristics of religions they become dangerous.
2. Authoritarianism: Religions demand submission to authority figures. To a large extent, humans are creatures that respond to authority. The famous Milgram experiments showed us how decent people can behave like sociopaths when a voice of authority demands that they do so. Our systems of social organization evolved in primitive times in response to tribal conditions, and we react to the same instincts in much the same way today in the era of democratic societies. Idolatry behavior and hero-worship comes naturally to us. Religious beliefs hijack these tendencies within us in order to perpetuate themselves through culture. This is the simple way in which religions remove dissent from within while ensuring blind group-centric action.
3. Ability to Increase Cognitive Dissonance: Although group identity itself and the authoritarian hierarchy that holds it together are integral parts of a religion, there is a grey area where the beliefs of every religion overlap with the surrounding beliefs of the culture of which it is a part. This is unavoidable, especially in modern times where the cultural information available to each person is more and varied than in the past. Some beliefs of the group may be incompatible with the culture they are a part of. In order to reconcile the contradictions in belief, conflicting explanations, rules and guidelines are built into the religious literature over time. The most successful of these religions have believers of every possible stripe, justifying every possible intuition that they have, as part of the teachings of their religion.
Cognitive dissonance is a mental phenomenon in which conflicting beliefs held by individuals cause a subconscious discomfort in these individuals. Religions succeed by inducing cognitive dissonance in their believers. The resolution of this cognitive dissonance is through what is known as ‘confirmation-bias’, where the individuals ignore inconvenient contradictions in order to side with their pre-conceived biases. This allows for the believers to hold onto to conflicting beliefs, without noticing their own lapses in logic. Religions contain teachings that can be cherry-picked to pacify all kinds of people irrespective of their moral intuitions. Since religion is a group-level belief system, the cognitive dissonance it induces and the ensuring confirmation-bias of its believers can also be observed at the group-level. When one’s cultural and moral beliefs lean to the political left, for example, one will find the appropriate justification from within the scriptures/teachings. If one leans the other way, the same religion can provide a moral justification for those opposing beliefs. Thus we see some Muslims claiming that Islam is a religion of peace while other Muslims blow up innocent people. You can have Hindus claiming how tolerant their religion is while other Hindus are hacking missionaries to death. You can have Christians who are pacifist because they believe that is what Jesus would do, while other Christians are sanctioning the deaths of thousands of innocent people in another country because they believe that Jesus is coming again. In each of these cases, the individuals involved are familiar with the opposite point-of-view held by others of their faith. But they choose to ignore that perspective because it is inconvenient. This kind of cognitive dissonance imposed on individual believers, resolving the believers into multiple camps promoting contradictory convictions, is how successful religions compete with each other for dominance in numbers.
I wish to assert that these three qualities of religion are among the most relevant to the issue of criticizing religion objectively. The majority of the criticism (or at least, the ones that are removed of any slander or abuse) can be addressed using one or more of the above three points.
Hinduism Through an Objective Lens:
Imagine if Christianity had not spread to ancient Greece, and if all the Gods of the ancient Grecian myths were lumped into one (fictional) religion, Mythos, because the rest of Europe considered the beliefs of the Greeks too different from their own religion of Christianity. Now imagine if sometime in the 18th century, the Grecians took all the great philosophy from Parmenides to Pyrrho to Plato and incorporated all of it within the Mythos religion (despite the fact that these philosophers would have probably abhorred being associated with the superstitious beliefs of their time). All the philosophies from these ancient Greeks were compiled into one large group and differentiated from the rest of Europe. Epicurus, the great materialist of Greece who had no use for the afterlife or the soul is now a philosopher in the Mythos religion. All Greek atheists from Thales in 100 BC through Diagoras in the 5th century AD, to the later period where Mythos became one unified religion are all now considered part of the great Mythos religion. These materialists, the intellectuals declare, represent the atheist tradition within Mythos.
Now, consider that Mythos follows the three traits of religions we have identified:
- Mythos is a self-identified group. It is vigorously defended by its adherents.
- The leaders of Mythos are worshiped when they materialize objects using sleight-of-hand, and these same con-men have the power to have even politicians kissing their feet.
- The tenets of Mythos can encompass any belief one possesses, including the belief that Mythos is not a group and that the leaders of Mythos are not authoritarian.
I am, of course, constructing this hypothetical religion in order to demonstrate to Hindus what Hinduism looks like from the outside, looking in. Mythos, this fictional analog of modern Hinduism, can satisfy all the three qualities that I have identified in the section above. I will now proceed to apply these three traits to Hinduism itself to demonstrate its status as a religion. However, instead of focusing on Hinduism alone, I will compare it to Christianity and Islam in order to show how when it comes to these three essential properties of religion, they all share these common identifiable traits.
1. Hinduism and Group-identity: I have often been amazed at the irony when Hindus exhibit a strong group-identity (first clue that it is a religion) while defending Hinduism by saying that it is not a religion! No one should be surprised by this fact that Hindus tend to be protective of their group. Competition between religions leads to radicalization of the individual religions. I have addressed the aggressive self-perpetuation of competing ideologies in India. In modern times, this has increased a xenophobic fear among Indians that their beliefs are going to be replaced. Despite my focus on Hinduism in this article, it is the spread of Islam and Christianity that is the greatest threat to secularization in India, because as more people become educated about the global success of Christianity and Islam the result is an increased group-centric mentality and radicalization among Hindus. Hinduism would probably not exist if it wasn’t for Islam and Christianity. At least, not the way we know it now, as one religion. The Hindu identity is in part a reaction to the collective out-group status assigned to the practices that were different from Islam and Christianity. There was already, of course, much similarity in the practices, considering geographical proximity between the people, common evolutionary origins of both the people as well as the ideas, and constant exchange of ideas in ancient India.
Although I understand why group-identify evolved to such strength in Hinduism, the truth is that such group-centric thinking characterizes the religion today. Hindus act in much the same way as Christians or Muslims when it comes to vociferously defending their group. Everything that was part of the Indian tradition before the “polluting” faiths of Christianity and Islam entered India is claimed as belonging to the self-identified group, the Hindu identity. Hindus argue for hours on end that Hinduism is tolerant and multi-dimensional, but they still wish for it to be identified by a name and classified among the “worlds great religions”. Hindu children are indoctrinated, in much the same way as Christian and Muslim children, about the virtues of their faith, so that they will grow up differentiating their group from the others. Hindus argue for a different academic approach to Hinduism’s pantheistic traditions, while considering a young Krishna devotee who knows nothing of pantheistic philosophy as more of a Hindu than a true pantheist who is born into a Jewish or atheist family but rejects labels. Indeed, the only affliction one needs to suffer from is the desire to label oneself a Hindu. If you possesses this desire, then you are part of the Hindu group. But one thing is for sure – it IS a self-identified group of the kind that religion requires.
2. Hinduism and Authority: There is another defense that’s popular with the “Hinduism is not a religion” crowd. It goes like this: “Islam and Christianity have authoritarian leaders whose word is considered within the community as God’s word. Hinduism has no such authority figures”. There are two types of misunderstanding here- (1) about the nature of authority, and (2), about the level of diversity found in religions other than one’s own.
Most Hindus (perhaps subconsciously) view Christianity and Islam as monolithic entities with a single chain of command leading all the way to the top. This helps them to validate their belief that authoritarianism exists in those religions and not in Hinduism. The truth is far from it. Modern Christianity is actually much less authoritarian than even Hinduism, in certain aspects. Several structures of past authoritarian control remain, but these are no different from those of Hinduism. In Christianity and Islam, just as in Hinduism, it is the extremists who are easily provoked by religious leaders into attacking members of other religious groups. In both Christianity and Islam, as in every culture, the socio-political beliefs of individuals are the determining factor when it comes to the personal degree to which they accept the authority of their religious leaders. There is no doubt that in these current times Islam takes the prize for religious aggression promoted using strict authoritarian behavior, but the power of aggressive Hindu leaders to exert authoritarian control over their followers is undeniable. India is split today because of powerful Hindu and Muslim leaders who hold sway over their groups. The people are goaded by these leaders into attacking any perceived threat to their respective religions.
Hindu authoritarian figures are a leading cause of insecurity among young people living in the cities, exercising their rights under the constitution. Millions of gullible Hindus “pay their respects” to authoritarian con-artists like Sai Baba and Baba Ramdev. Hindu authoritarianism leads masses of gullible people across the country to follow thousands of con-men and charlatans in the villages, roadsides, temples, small towns and big cities, the ashrams, tourist spots, at marriages and in office buildings, in the jungles and on the internet; anywhere they can capitalize on the ignorance of the superstitious. The poor and the rich, the professionals and the politicians alike are swindled by simple tricks that a skeptical child could figure out in a minute. Such is the authoritarian nature of religions that grown men leave their faculties behind as they blindly follow their leaders like sheep.
3. Hinduism and Cognitive Dissonance: The cognitive dissonance and subsequent confirmation-bias promoted by the modern Hindu institution is evident in the attempts by some apologists to disagree with the above two characteristics of religion by pointing to some truths of Hinduism while ignoring others. These apologists demonstrate their confirmation-bias by not mentally registering the inconsistencies in their beliefs. This leads them to look at the evidence from a tainted perspective and subconsciously ignore unfavorable information. I will not be surprised if we have comments to this article doing this very thing. This is the third trait of Hinduism that makes it more like a religion.
Hinduism is right up there with Christianity and Islam, in the level of cognitive dissonance it induces on its followers. This subconscious deception is aided by the language of false tolerance. This is the most common argument from Hindus, that you can believe in pretty much anything and still be a Hindu. Well, then why have a label at all? It is indeed a varied religion, with many sects and practices. There are few central principles and one could remain a Hindu and not believe in any of these principles. Indeed, you could be an atheist and still surrender to the label of ‘Hindu’ (Similar to Judaism). Why? Because everything works in Hinduism.
Believe that Hinduism must be tolerant? No problem. Believe that we must kill all Muslims? Hey, check out what this guy did to his enemies in the book. Believe that uninhibited sex is immoral? Read these parts of the book. Believe that sex is a healthy/spiritual pursuit? Just look at the sculptures, will you? Believe that money is a cause of suffering? Why of course. Believe that money is God? Where is the money Goddess when you need her? Believe there is no dogma in Hinduism? Sure, Hinduism is an open and varied religion. Believe that Hindus must not eat beef, or drink alcohol, or marry “outside the community” or ….. you get the idea…? Of course you can’t, are you nuts?
Hindus often use scientific ideas to validate their religion, often forgetting that outside of one or two coincidental facts the majority of Hindu beliefs contradict our modern scientific understanding of reality. For example, Hindus point to Carl Sagan’s words about the relatively accurate time-line in the Hindu conception of the cosmos (unfortunately Hinduism’s human time-line is all wrong). However, the fact that Hinduism coincidentally got one truth claim correct does not legitimize it being designated a scientific or rational religion, in view of the hundreds of superstitions that also comprise it. Selective memory causes confirmation bias preventing Hindu apologists from identifying this error. Selective “cherry-picking” also helps ignore that Carl Sagan was opposed to all religions (see end of article). Contradictory beliefs can easily reconciled by “cherry-picking” from the “teachings” and ignoring the inconvenient parts. If the use of metaphor is allowed, practically any argument can be supported in Hinduism.This is the epitome of institutionalized cognitive dissonance.
The Diversity Argument:
There is a propensity among some Hindus to claim that Hinduism is diverse, as opposed to the monotheistic faiths, and therefore it is not a religion in the same sense as the others. There is some truth to this in scale, because Hinduism was put together differently, but the claim arises because of a poor understanding of the facts regarding other faiths. Off the bat, it is obvious that while Hinduism has been losing its diversity over the centuries, because of its more diverse origins, Christianity and Islam have been steadily increasing in diversity (because they had relatively narrow origins). But let’s get into some specifics here. Christianity is much more diverse than Hindus typically understand it to be. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are 33,820 denominations of Christianity in the world. The members of each sect may either consider the teachings of the others as patently false or may have compatibilist views. In either case, their functioning as social individuals can be vastly different depending on the sect. Through South and North America, Africa, Asia and Europe, there are flavors of Christianity that contain various local beliefs that the most well-known Churches in the US, England and the Vatican would consider as heretical. In Islam, again there are numerous sects, although not quite as many as in Christianity. The number seems to be between 50 and 100. Members of these Islamic sects may also either consider their beliefs to be the only true Islam, or have compatibilist views. The authoritarian rules of each of these sects hold sway within the sects and often do not apply outside of them.
The argument that Hinduism is unique because of its diversity fails to hold strong on scrutiny. As with Mythos, this supposed diversity within Hinduism derives from a multitude of historical ideas cobbled together into a religion by the revisionist tales of powerful men. There is no doubt that Indian philosophy contained much diversity in its heyday. This was before the modern institutionalism of Hinduism had taken place. From PositiveAtheism.org:
Much of the evidence for how India’s ancient logicians and scientists developed their theories lies buried in polemical texts that are not normally thought of as scientific texts. While some of the treatises on mathematics, logic, grammar, and medicine have survived as such – many philosophical texts enunciating a rational and scientific world view can only be constructed from extended references found in philosophical texts and commentaries by Buddhist and Jain monks or Hindu scholars (usually Brahmins).
Although these documents are usually considered to lie within the domain of religious studies, it should be pointed out that many of these are in the form of extended polemics that are quite unlike the holy books of Christianity or Islam. These texts attempt to debate the value of the real-world versus the spiritual-world. They attempt to counter the theories of the atheists and other skeptics. But in their attempts to prove the primacy of a mystical soul or “Atman” – they often go to great lengths in describing competing rationalist and worldly philosophies rooted in a more realistic and more scientific perception of the world….
….Similiarly, there is other evidence that suggests that amongst the intellectuals of ancient India, atheism and skepticism must have been very powerful currents that required repeated and vigorous attempts at persuasion and change. Nevertheless, over centuries, the intellectual discords between the believers and non-believers became more and more muted. The advocates of mystic idealism prevailed over the skeptics, so that eventually, (at the popular level) each of these philosophies functioned as traditional religions with their pantheon of gods and goddesses enticing and lulling most into an intellectual stupor.
Thus a diverse philosophical tradition has been transformed into an ideological religion, mostly because of external pressures caused by the spread of the Abrahamic religions. Hindu theologians still debate complex philosophical ideas, just as the Christian and Muslim scholars do. But the kind of inquiry that characterized Indian philosophy during India’s rationalist period (1000 BCE to 400AD) occurs not in the religious schools but in secular philosophy classes and scientific conferences. The ancient religious scholars incorporated the arguments of the ancient skeptics and rationalists into their books because they intended to debate and disprove them. Modern Hinduism incorporates these great philosophers into their portals because that is the best way to defend the label of Hinduism against criticism from modern rationalists. In all of this, there is no reason to believe that India’s greatest ancient philosophers and scientists would have ever restricted their ideas to a particular religion. The great atheists and materialists whom Hindus claims are part of the Hindu tradition would have, in all likelihood, abhorred such irrelevant and torturous boundaries. Those ancient philosophers belong to the rationalist human tradition, not to the confines of the Hindu religious tradition.
Religion, Culture or Way of Life?:
If you look through the apologetic arguments presented by the scholars of multiple religions, you’ll see that much of the same arguments are used by each one of these religions to claim superiority. The most common among these arguments are the “Way-of-Life” arguments. The claim made is that the particular religion being defended is in reality a great civilization, a culture that surpasses every other that has ever existed… a WAY OF LIFE! At the time of writing this article, googling Islam “way of life” retrieves 1,570,000 hits. Christianity “way of life” gets me 3,840,000 search results. Hinduism “way of life” retrieves 766,000 hits. The internet is filled with people belonging to particular religious groups claiming theirs to be not just a religion, but a way of life. The truth is, every religion is a way of life. Every religion is a culture. Islam, Christianity and Hinduism all have left their mark on civilization. They have all stolen from civilization.
As a side note, Science “way of life” retrieves 6,140,000 search results.
I am not presenting any of this as evidence that Hinduism is not a way of life, just as evidence that all people think the same way about their own belief systems. There is no special status that Hinduism or Christianity or Islam deserves. They are all religions, acting in their own self-interest, perpetuating themselves at any cost. Next time you hear the argument that Hinduism is not an organized religion, or that it cannot be criticized using the “Western methods” you will know it is complete B.S. Hinduism is very much an organized religion, and I have demonstrated that the methods used are objective, scientific and equally critical of any system of beliefs that makes specific truth claims about reality.
The Essence of Being Indian:
The country of my birth, the land that I love, the people whom I cherish and the traditions that make me proud- all these things that make me who I am are being taken away from me because of a word. A word that is used to compartmentalize my past from my possibilities; my culture from my identity. I cannot agree with that. I do not subscribe to this artificial construct, but to a real one- a construct born of a culture that truly represents the best of our past.
How limiting to restrict the story of my past to 3,500 years, a brief moment in time! The current scientific evidence narrows down the colonization of India to ~70,000 years ago. In fact, the arrival of “modern humans”- Homo sapiens, may have led to the extinction of Homo heidelbergensis that had already colonized India, similar to the takeover of Europe by humans who displaced Homo neanderthalis.
There have existed a great many cultural and political events in the history of humans in India, most of which are not in our history books. Consider this:
Petraglia and James’ report presents evidence of creativity and culture in India starting about 45,000 years ago. Sophisticated stone blades arrive first, along with rudimentary stone architecture.
Beads, red ochre paint, ostrich shell jewelry, and perhaps even shrines to long-lost gods-the hallmarks of an early symbolic culture-appear by 28,500 years ago.
My ancestors made jewelery 28,000 years ago!
The true greatness of a culture will always be its openness to change. Such a culture is malleable and will survive where anything more rigid fails to adapt. Such a culture is free of the xenophobic behavior that institutionalized religion breeds.
Religion is like the heavy old rug in the room. The religious apologist may want the room cleaned as much as the free-thinker, but feels that the rug itself needs to be protected. So, hammering away at the metaphor, the religious apologist sweeps the dirt under the rug, intentionally or not. Religions breed a “no-questioning-allowed” spirit, to ensure their own survival. This spirit is repressive, preventing the natural evolutionary process by which bad ideas are excised and good ones imported into a culture. It is not an act of patriotism to defend every single aspect of one’s culture, by placing them all under the banner of religious protection. Sometimes it is patriotic to take the rug out and give it a good scrubbing, for the greater good of the culture. Sometimes it is patriotic to look for outside inspiration towards changing one’s perspectives. Taking responsibility for falsehoods perpetuated on the people in the name of religion and making a big deal out of superstitions that are keeping us a backward nation, are patriotic acts. Anyone who truly cares about a culture does not see a need to “protect” that culture from the influence of competing cultures, but rather sees a way to strengthen that culture by mutually co-operating with the others, sharing ideas and traditions. Thinking that cultures need to be protected from mutual sharing of ideas shows a lack of understanding on how cultures evolve.
Last month Raghavan Iyer who wrote “660 Curries” was on National Public Radio, and a great number of Americans got schooled on the diversity of the curries that can be found in India. I was awash in joy as Iyer explained to NPR’s American audience that the yellowish brown stuff in the jar marked “Curry Powder” has little to do with any curry you’d find in an Indian home. I am proud of the marvelous aromas, nuanced flavors and varied ingredients and cooking styles that mark the wonder of Indian curries. I find nothing wrong in promoting curry. Gau Mutra , that’s another story. Blind nationalism, like religion, tends to make people defend such backward and unhygienic superstitions as fact. The practice of drinking and bathing in cow urine is an embarrassment to India. Religion prevents people from seeing this ugly fact. Reason leads people to make their culture better and more integrated in the world community. Religion leads people to defend not just the good but also the bad qualities of a culture, ultimately harming the people.
I disagree with those who wish India to remain in this moment of stagnant conservatism that it finds itself in. I long for an India where the truly great cultural aspects of the land belong to everyone, not just to those who label themselves Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs etc. I long to celebrate the tens of thousands of nude sculptures and paintings that are the heritage of my ancestors; to read the myths of our forefathers in the light of our modern understanding of reality; to read Amar Chitra Katha and Pandava Tales to my kids as the fantastic mythological yarns that they are; to study and help translate the works of great poets and scholars from our past so that others can know them; to celebrate the coming of spring, during Pongal, and the festival of lights, Diwali, without having to subscribe to the religious beliefs that go with these cultural events (I’m happy to say that most Indians don’t care if you are not Hindu and still wish to celebrate Diwali); to care for the millions of poor and disenfranchised in the country by appealing to our common history and not by using ideology as a tool; to see our place in the world as it really is- a diverse and creative people who inhabit a chunk of land that slammed into Asia about 50 million years ago.
Let us rid our house of that dirty rug that has been allowing superstition, bigotry, hate, and inequality to fester, destroying the things that really count as the achievements of our predecessors.