Has Vedanta Eclipsed the Diversity of Hinduism - An Opinion by Kathirasan.
What is the ONE WORD that has become synonymous to Hinduism?
Yes, you guessed it right. It is Vedanta.
In my 20 years of Seva in the Hindu community locally and studying the development of Hinduism across the world, one thing appeared very clear to me. And that is the over exposure to the teachings of Advaita Vedanta and its allied school, Yoga. Swami Vivekananda defined Advaita Vedanta as:
“According to the Advaita philosophy, there is only one thing real in the universe, which it calls Brahman; everything else is unreal, manifested and manufactured out of Brahman by the power of Maya. To reach back to that Brahman is our goal.“
Advaita Vedanta was popularised by Swami Vivekananda a hundred years ago. Swamiji’s thunderous speech at the Chicago’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 not only inspired westerners but also brought pride and esteem to many Hindus in India and the diaspora. In fact, I started my volunteer work with local Hindu communities after reading his entire work published in 8 volumes. It inspired my whole being. So much that I could not resist the urge to be a contributor to society.
His works and subsequently that of many Swamijis of the Advaita Vedanta tradition brought pride and esteem to Hindus in India and the diaspora since the early 1900s (including myself). This led to the perception of Advaita Vedanta and Yoga as the default philosophy of Hinduism. I personally feel that the ‘Advaita Vedanta cum Yoga = Hinduism’ equation is not for the good of Hindus and Hinduism.
So what is the problem as I see it?
The biggest problem as I see it is the danger of expensing with the diversity of Hinduism which is its strength and uniqueness. The Rg Veda states;
ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti - truth is one, sages call it by many names
The above mantra is probably the earliest idea of Hindu pluralism. However, it appears that we have focused too much on the ONE without paying attention to the ‘MANY NAMES’. A research by Prem Pahlajrai found that hinduism had as many as 18 knowledge traditions and the number wasn’t exhaustive. Briefly they are:
- the four Vedas,
- the six Vedangas,
- four “additional limbs,” upangas: mimamsa, nyaya, purana, smrti
- additional Vedas, upavedas:
- ayurveda, the science of medicine
- dhanurveda, the science of warfare,
- gandharvaveda, the science of arts and performances
- sthapatyaveda, the science of architecture
- arthashastra - science of leadership and polity.
The above list does not even include the soteriological traditions of the Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Kaumara, Vedanta etc. Strangely, most Hindu discourses do not present the above knowledge traditions.
Hinduism to me is like a huge banyan tree with its roots entrenched in the knowledge contained in the Vedas and Agamas. Its trunk is Dharma. And the branches are the various knowledge and soteriological traditions practiced and emergent from its root and trunk.
Elaine Fisher argued that the religious pluralism of Hinduism was very different from the religious pluralism of the western world. This is an astute observation which I totally agree. While there has been enough talk and countless discourses about the unity of all religions, there has not been enough discussions about the pluralism within Hinduism and how it should be protected. A Hindu family can be made up of a Vaishnava father, a Shaiva son, a Shakta mother and an enterprising daughter seeking wealth (artha) through Dharma. Such a permutation is only possible in Hinduism. Despite the difference in each member’s religious affiliations and goals, the family is still Hindu.
However, we are perhaps in a danger of losing this strength of diversity and pluralism by propagating one philosophy at the expense of others. In fact I believe that Hinduism survived through many thousands of years and withstood challenges because of its diversity. You can saw off one branch of this huge banyan tree, but there are many others in this tree too.
If we continue to present Advaita Vedanta and Yoga alone at the expense of every other tradition, then we are at the risk of allowing the other traditions to become extinct or become irrelevant. I am also suspicious if Hindu institutions look at Advaita Vedanta as a low hanging fruit to gather an audience at the ever declining attendance in Hindu associations. At least that seems to be the case with a lot of local Hindu organisations in Singapore and I am very sure in other parts of the world too.
The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 2 (1907)
Doxographies - Why six darsanas? Which six? by Prem Pahlajrai (2004)
Hindu Pluralism by Elaine M. Fisher (2017)
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Hindu Hub.