Debunked

Is Criticism Of Religion And Superstition Hurting Indian Culture?

One of the most common criticisms of our work at Nirmukta is that we are hurting Indian culture because of what we do. I believe this is the exact opposite of the truth, and those who make such arguments (the puritans) are in fact the ones severely limiting the cultural narratives (and ergo, people) of our society.

It doesn’t take a social scientist to see that cultures are vast, overlapping and ever-changing sets of ideas passed down through generations. Culture is especially important to us humans, since we depend on it to shape our societies. Everything from our ways of cooking food to our language and social customs are aspects of culture. Religion, on the other hand, is a unique subset of culture that functions to institutionalize superstition while keeping it separate from other aspects of society, in order to limit the damage that it causes. Quoting from here:

Religion as we understand it today is a modern concept denoting a type of belief system that can in theory be distinguished from Government and culture at large, but in practice is very often not. It is a concept to which we accord undue reverence as a species, a reverence that co-exists with varying degrees of understanding that the factual claims that religious belief systems profess are to be ignored when real decisions about politics or ethics are to be made. In essence, humanity has figured out a system for allowing people to cling on to their superstitions while limiting the damage caused by them.

The culture of India is undoubtedly one of the most complex and diverse of any in the world, containing the ideas, practices and beliefs of thousands of societies past and present, a vast many ideas adopted from visitors arriving from beyond India’s borders and even a few traditions adopted by the Indian diaspora abroad. Indian culture is as much about the great atheistic and anti-Vedic philosophies that emerged out of India’s enlightenment age about 2500 years ago, as it is about the thousands of superstitious beliefs that are practiced today and have been for the past few hundred years.

child-bathes-in-cow-urinecowurine

These two images show us undesirable aspects of Indian Culture that we should challenge and get rid of. These practices are defended by the puritans, often using scripture.

From the Mahabharat:

Bhishma: One should never feel any repugnance for the urine and the dung of the cow.

Vyasa: One should for three days drink the hot urine of the cow.

Vasishtha: By bathing in water mixed with cow-dung, people shall become sanctified.

It is those who accuse us of hurting Indian culture (the puritans) who tend to see Indian culture as a monolithic, un-changing entity, incapable of improvement. ‘Why improve when we’re the greatest culture on earth?‘ seems to be the belief underpinning this outlook. This view is informed primarily by a rabid nationalistic exceptionalism rather than by reason. The Puritans who uphold this view are not necessarily genuinely concerned about Indian culture and the people who follow the traditions and practices of India. Indeed, the prime motivating factor here is arrogant, undeserved pride. Our culture does not belong to any group of people, let alone to those with such primitive and arguably un-patriotic ideas as the puritans. Such folk have no business dictating to other Indians what we can and cannot say about Indian culture.

In a democracy it should be considered a moral responsibility of all citizens to reform aspects of culture that are malignant and harmful to the people and culture of the land. We should work to create moral cultural alternatives to these harmful beliefs and traditions. Without a concerted effort that targets organized superstition, we will never build meaningful alternatives that bring out the best in all Indians.

india_moon_mission

This is Indian Culture too! ISRO Image of Chandrayaan-I, which successfully landed a probe on the moon.

I’ll finish with a few lines from here, where I argue that those Atheists and Freethinkers from India who still subscribe to the Hindu religious identity should question their reasons given the facts about culture and religion.

We can still appreciate and gain immense pleasure from the practices and philosophies that are part of India’s glorious past. These ideas may lie today within the grasp of institutionalized Hinduism, but we cannot allow this tyrannical label to deny us our heritage. Appreciation of Indian art and culture is our right just as much as it is to those who label themselves ‘Hindus’. The rational inclusion of these aspects of our history into our lives can be a fulfilling experience. The fact that we reject the label ‘Hindu’ does not mean that we cannot participate in certain festivals and social rituals that are part of our culture. Ancient myths are fun from a cultural perspective. We can learn to enjoy them for what they are without assigning any factual significance to them. The art, architecture and culture inspired by the ancient Greek and Egyptian myths are just as powerful reminders of human achievement today as they were when those myths were believed as fact.

In abandoning the ‘Hindu’ label, we are keeping India from descending into a cultural black-hole. We are liberating Indian culture from the still sickness of ideology by embracing the freedom of thought that creates a dynamic and progressive society.

About the author

Ajita Kamal

17 Comments

  • I very much like the idea of adding a sense of responsibility to all members of a society to “reform aspects of culture that are malignant and harmful to the people and culture of the land.” Very often people have a tenancy to tolerate harmful practice for tolerances sake.Thank you

  • Too complex are the issues and the ways by which the vested interests of the religious right try to be one up over us! May be I will write about it some time.

  • Not to nitpick … but ISRO didn’t actually “land” a probe on the moon ….. unless you call plowing in at ~2km/s as a landing .. 😛 ..

    Of course all the media was hyping about the tri-color flaring on the moon.

  • Well said Ajitha. I have been debating (rather fruitlessly) with the Hindu nationalists about the idea of India. They discard almost everything from atheism to secularism as “western constructs” not applicable to India.

    The troubling truth is that subscription to this Hindu nationalism is growing by the year. What you are doing is important and admirable in that light.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ashish! There are many people involved here. We cannot do this unless we work together!

      Much of the debate is regarding framing. Religions have always claimed everything in culture that is worth fighting for, and it is time to take these values back!

  • An excellent read as always, Ajita. Completely agree with the entire content of the post.

    It’s really a shame that the vast majority of the people in this country are too busy trying to claw their way out of poverty/up the social ladder/running the rat race to care. All I see you doing is preaching to the choir, but admittedly I don’t see much of what you do! 🙂

    I hope with all my heart that you succeed in what you’re trying to do, and that more and more people listen to and engage in debate with you as time goes on – I’m sure you can open their eyes and teach them new ways of looking at things, as you have done for me in the past.

    • Thanks, JARH. Don’t underestimate the power of preaching to the choir. The “choir” in this case is the very community we are striving to build. Very often it begins with a choir and turns into a congregation of driven activists. And I don’t see it as preaching, so much as exchanging and developing ideas as one would in a secular society.

  • Hi Ajita

    Firstly let me say I am an atheist, I don’t believe either an anthropomorphic or a God of any other premise exists. I don’t believe in any number of things expounded by the faithful. I also like the content you have put. I don’t however agree with this tone, which is reasonably looking like lost intent.
    Secondly you seem to talk more patronizingly about culture than many of the “defenders” you criticise. For instance you seem to bucketing atheism and vedism as two separate entities, which is not necessarily true. Again its a subtle nuance, may not be the place to argue, but my simple point is the vedas are not “holy” books, yes many hindus respect them, few follow them, fewer follow them literally. So you are merely making forced equalizations
    Thirdly: You strongly advocate giving up “practises” like drinking cow urine, whereas you dont make it clear how this is any different from very valid practises such as turmeric as an anti-septic.This makes you just as blind as any other practiser
    Fourth: Why drag in the mahabharata? I mean how does it fit, I can guarantee that 99.99% of the people don’t follow it because its in the Mahabharata. They just want to do it as they always did as their ancestors did etc etc
    I hope this makes sense to you.

    • @Rakesh,

      For instance you seem to bucketing atheism and vedism as two separate entities, which is not necessarily true.

      Of course they are necessarily different given that present day atheism subscribes to metaphysical and methodological naturalism. Are you one of those Sanatana Dogmatists who insist that Vedism is inclusive of everything? Only someone who is ignorant of the underlying philosophies of atheism would say that.

      Again its a subtle nuance, may not be the place to argue, but my simple point is the vedas are not “holy” books, yes many hindus respect them, few follow them, fewer follow them literally. So you are merely making forced equalizations

      The No True Scotsman fallacy. Just because you believe that Vedas are not holy books, it doesn’t magically make others to hold the same belief as you.

      Thirdly: You strongly advocate giving up “practises” like drinking cow urine, whereas you dont make it clear how this is any different from very valid practises such as turmeric as an anti-septic.This makes you just as blind as any other practiser

      There are other formulations which make a far better anti-septic than cow urine (If at all the cow urine does work as advertised). But the reason why cow urine is used as anti-septic is because of a blind belief that cow is holy, an irrational belief. You are setting up a false equivalence between an anti-septic that has anti-septic properties and cow urine as an anti-septic because the cow is holy, and then are drawing a fallacious conclusion that Ajita is just as blind as religious believers.

      Fourth: Why drag in the mahabharata? I mean how does it fit, I can guarantee that 99.99% of the people don’t follow it because its in the Mahabharata. They just want to do it as they always did as their ancestors did etc etc

      Again you commit the No True Scotsman fallacy. Are you saying that people like this, who quote scripture, don’t exist and hence our criticisms aren’t valid? Don’t answer it. It is a rhetorical question.

  • […] definitivas cuentas, el potencial humano para trascender las limitaciones de nuestros orígenes, cualesquiera que estos sean: Son aquellos que nos acusan de herir a la cultura india (los puritanos) quienes tienden a ver la […]

  • Firstly, i would like to say, I’m also an atheist, I don’t have any belief in any supernatural entity whatsoever. I don’t subscribe to any of them. But, as a self-practitioner of Ayurveda, I have several translations of Ayurvedic texts. One of the translation is of Charak Samhita. a section called chikitsa sthaan, have various methods, which are highly uncontemporary to modern medical sciences. You would be amazed, but charak experimented not only with Cow Dung and Cow urine, but feces and urines of various animals such as lioness, horse, elephant, camel, monkey,sheep, goat, pig and various birds such as peacock,hen, pigeon in various diseases, and claim cures for multiple diseases. Its not just the feces, Charak also studied the effects of psychology of people living with certain animals.for eg; Living with lots of horses gives you hardworking attitude, living with domesticated lions makes immeasurably brave. living with cats makes you insecure and sad. Living with crows or dogs makes you clever et al.
    Off course today we are superstitious about Cow-urine as we relate it to religion and religious duty. But, actually these are related to human well-being and wellness. Drinking or applying Cow-urine is superstition only if u relate it to religious sentiments and beliefs, But on a health point of view, its good.
    Now, question comes, why only Cow’s urine are subscribed if all of the feces have some health value according to charak. The reason is Cow is the only animal (not ox/bull) whose consumption of feces & urine is healthy for diseased and healthy alike. Where as urine and feces of other animals and birds need a help of a practitioner;one who knows what should be consumed for what disease condition.

    You claim that Ayurveda is not science. Offcourse, it may not be a science. But, it is a detailed study & observations on the subject and experiments carried out since ages. those were the only Natural ways available to health-practitioners of those times.

    I had observed the health effects of urine and dung of the cow on human skin myself.And i can safely say that, it works.
    As far as medical science is concerned, i guess they didn’t disproved of the ayurvedic practices, though for many these practices are shocking such as drinking urine of a camel or cow.

    Today, cow-urine superstitiously drank at all times, but charak gave loads of conditions at which cow-urine should not be consumed;
    1) when cow is having her menstruation.
    2) when cow has stopped giving milk.
    3) when cow gets old-age. etc
    Similarly, several cautions are advised for fluids of various animals.

    I have a theory that priests must have made the myth of;’cow a mother’ and ‘Cow a residence of multiple gods’, because of the same beneficiary health value of cow. Priests of those times, use their experiments/observations(science?) to make myths and stories, to make common people understand, without explaining them about the reasoning.(they must have saved it for people of their own castes. in time, that practice too have declined, and Priest caste have became preserver of the superstition and dominance)

    Till now , no research has been carried out in the field of endocrinology to treat patients with urine and feces. But, I’m quite sure if medical authorities start experimenting with the ways, the results wouldn’t be negative.

    Anyway, do you know, drinking Your own urine in the morning(Morning only)(condition: for women it should not be menstrauting; for both: u should not be gone to sleep with a depression, anxiety anger or unsatisfied sex) could increase your lifespan.
    For even that claim U must need proof; i don’t have that capital to prove you the treasures of Ayurveda. But, if one has and invest it into experimentation of such nature; It could be proved. Till now, i have experimented it with me and all of it has proved positive.

    • Till now , no research has been carried out in the field of endocrinology to treat patients with urine and feces.

      For a good reason. Urine and feces are fking toxic. That is why you get it out of your body in the first place.

      Seriously, what is with you people? Why this obsession with shit and urine?

    • I continue to be amazed by the obsession Hindus have with cow urine.

      I simply do not understand the motivation behind it. If your Hindu ancestors drank cow urine you should do all you can to hide that information if you are of the kind that mistakenly associates your pride with the actions of your ancestors. But you not only publicize (nothing wrong with that) it but actually are proud of it.

      These Hindus are weird. LOL!

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