Tag Archives: Gandhi

The Philosophy of the Vedas


When my affinity for India inevitably comes up in numerous conversations, one of the most common quips heard from fellow arrogant, insensitive Americans is, “Don’t order a burger!” It’s routinely followed by chuckles and yuck-yuck in the crowd to stroke the ego of the guy wanting to pretend he’s the first to blurt out such wit. But then the laughter dies down and as everyone shakes their heads at how a culture could shun such fine cuisine, the question arises: Why? Why do they hold cows to be holy?

Hinduism is little examined or understood on much more than a shallow level in the West. The depths generally extend only to the comfort of saying a few “Namastes” and Oms” in yoga classes full of soccer moms and frustrated middle aged women who have little more to do with their time than blog daily about coffee. It all ties in with the misconception that all Hindus are strict vegetarians and go to great lengths to avoid stepping on a bug for fear that it may have been his mother in another life. Most people  would be quite taken aback to learn that in the Vedas, to which Hindu traditions are strongly linked, animal sacrifice was a frequent occurrence but even more surprising, human sacrifices were not unheard of. So where did the contrast come into play? Where did the culture change from one of ritual bloody offerings to one that is associated with a strong version to killing animals?

There are numerous mentions of live sacrifices in ancient Hinduism.  The most valuable one was of course the human sacrifice, the purusha-medha. Whoever commissioned this and paid the Brahmin priests to perform it was said to be as divine as the Prajapati, a name for the Creator. The most common offering was the goat. The following excerpt from the Brahmanas as translated by Klaus Klostermaier explains:  “When the devas had killed a man for their sacrifice, that part of him which was fit to be made an offering went out and entered a horse. Thence the horse became an animal fit to be sacrificed. From the horse it went into the ox, from there into the goat. In the goat it remained for the longest time, therefore the goat is best fitted for sacrifice.”

How this sequence came to be is not explained further but one may assume that it was a bit convenient for the goat to be the sacrifice of choice for they were less expensive and plentiful. Oxen, with their mass would have been a logically impressive choice to think that the larger the animal, the greater the offering, but the value they had in agriculture probably played a part in avoiding killing them. Horse sacrifices were done but they weren’t so common either, for they were held in the highest regard. The ashva-medha could be done for rites of fertility and fortune but the most significant times it was performed were to crown a new king; either one who had just conquered a new region to add to his bounty or upon the death of one and the assumption of power by his son. There are writings of huge events full of offerings that employed hundreds of priests for ceremonies that would have lasted days into months; the sheer volume of animals offered is staggering.  The ashva-medha ceremony was so elaborate and esteemed that as Klostermaier writes, “the Bhagavata Purana can declare that the extermination of the whole of humankind could be atoned for by one…”

In contrast, alongside the texts that detail these sacrifices there are also scripts in which we find an aversion to violence against animals. Chapter 257 of the Vicakhnu Gita, Mahabharata tells of King Vichakhnu having come up on the remains of a bull that had been butchered and in an epiphany was suddenly horrified by the thought as he only then noticed the cries of the other cattle in the quarters.

He said, “May there be good fortune for cows in all parts of the world….Such violence is praised only by men who do not adhere to the proper rules. They are fools, unbelievers, and doubting souls who always remain concealed. The virtuous Manu has asserted that all ritual acts must be free of violence…”

What is trying to be conveyed here is that too many men take the simplistic approach toward trying to please the gods and gain the earthly blessings they desire. This is a verse of admonishment to press them on into more intellectual pursuits, find the deeper meanings of the sacred scriptures and realize that the bloodletting offerings alone are not bestowing the greatest gifts of life that they could have. Basically, they are living as the backward and uninformed, untaught. Manu has moved forward in his thinking and he is saying that, “it is due to desire and attachment that men afflict animals in the space around the altar.” He’s trying to bring the people out of a Dark Ages mentality and that illustrate that there are things you can do to achieve your goals even without all the killing and ritual. He’s encouraging man to look to develop higher intellect, consider the wisdom of the Vedas and find atman, the highest self and rise above the misconception that all blessings are bestowed only through the purging of an animal. This behavior was reflective of pagan civilizations that have come and gone beforehand that believed if they needed redemption, cleansing, forgiveness, and blessings, it could only be gained by someone or something enduring horrific torture. If they would make their spiritual practices more genuine and more on jnana (knowledge), as opposed to such violent forms of yajna, maybe they would come closer to their enlightenment.

This could very well be one of the verses that influenced later Hindu movements and the emphasis on ahimsa, or the concept of committing no violence against any living thing. Buddha was the first prominent party to vehemently embrace and preach nonviolence. He preached his first sermon at Sarnath, just north of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. We know that he renounced his life as a privileged prince and sought solitude, peace and tranquility. Knowing what we do about the civilization one has to wonder what it was that triggered this distaste for the life he was born into. Given that there were none of the car, motorcycle or bus horns blaring and the population nowhere nearly as maddening as it is in present day, what was it that was so chaotic he needed to escape? It may have been all the suffering he was witnessing. The noise and calamity of suffering. The bleating of sheep, cries of goats, moans of cattle living in horrid conditions as beasts of burden and then at the end, led to their butchering and as a royal prince, he would have been privy to these as common occurrences. Maybe underneath it all, the basic motivator of the Buddha was that he held empathy for all living creatures and just couldn’t stand the cries from anymore lengthy rituals. He loved being in the forest where he could just sit and the deer would come up to him, fearless of the docile human. His teachings were poetic, soft and sometimes nearly in playful riddles and codes. He relished in the quiet that an environment of nonviolence afforded him and it must have been a welcome concept to the masses judging by the impact his life had on the community and ages to come.

Jainism was then founded and followed suit with the embracement of non violence, and this in turn had a profound influence on a man named Mahatma Gandhi, undoubtedly the largest modern day proponent of ahimsa.  He redefined the term to include “peaceful resistance” when it came the political unrest and instability seen during the time of Partition when the British were successful in breaking apart Greater India and forming the country of Pakistan. This created a mass exile of many Hindus and Muslims from the only homes they had known for decades. When violence broke out over the issue, he went on a hunger strike to bring it to an end instead of inciting military reaction. When a radical Hindu shot and killed him, blaming him for being too passive on the issue of Partition, the words on Gandhi’s lips weren’t those of anger, revenge or even fear. “Ram, Ram.” A perfect illustration of how he took ahimsa to heart. Chanting the name of his God on his lips as he died so that Ram would whisper the secret to life into his ears on his dying breath. He took to heart and lived the verse in the Mahabharata, “Not harming other beings is certainly recognized as superior to all other forms of dharma.”

So there can be seen quite an evolution and progressive intelligence throughout the Vedas Samhitas and Upanishads that reveal the changes or updates we see from antiquity to present day. The ancient peoples lived by a similar thread that ancient Pagans lived under, meaning, the lore and the divine guidance provided for one lifestyle that we now feel is harsh and barbaric. It was all survival of the fittest. People had their castes, their societal chores, kings and warriors were revered and celebrated with massive offerings and festivals. And then a new wave of human feeling appeared and no longer was it unquestioningly accepted to hear the tortured cries and bellows of the animals whose blood and trauma was meant to bring about goodwill and blessings to those who ordered the knives to their throats.

To the Western world it may be difficult to discern any kind of progress from one age to the next with all the violence within India and strife between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan. For that matter we see a lot of horrific acts committed Hindu against Hindu. But that’s no different from any society. It’s human nature. Those of other faiths may criticize present day Hindus saying, “If you don’t know your Vedas, how can you say you are living by them with a respect?” But is it really any different from the People of the Book who feel a passionate connection to certain verses in the New Testament but tend to dismiss the Old Testament? It’s all the same collection of scriptures they claim to have faith in and while they may go through their days with kindness in their hearts, donations to those in need, and keeping their tempers in check, are they also thinking all the time about the story of Noah and the ark? Jonah and the whale? The episodes with Moses and the burning bush and the baby in the basket?

Not likely. So it’s the same with the Hindu culture and the Vedas. The Vedas are the spine of Hindu tradition and should be respected as such even though many Hindus don’t carry their lessons in the forefront of their minds every day. But visit any Hindu home and you’ll feel the serenity and be the benefactor of their dedication to ahimsa. While not all Hindus are strict vegetarians, the conscientious guest or host will err on the side of caution and not bring any animal based cuisine. If a guest in a Hindu home commits a faux pas, it will probably not be brought to anyone’s attention because to a Hindu, the guest is God. Everyone has the Divine in them and is deserving of service and respect. A simple by–product of ahimsa respect. As one Hindu commits to nonviolence, many he has relationships with follow suit so they do not offend him, their friend who is also divine. The world could learn a lot from Hindus.

A Varanasi shopkeeper respectfully provides a morning chapatti to a cow at his storefront.

Understanding the Hindu Identity


The term “Hindu” is rooted in the Sanskrit texts that refer to the Indus River, as Sindhu. Language barriers that came into play when invading parties presented in the Indian subcontinent lent an evolution to the words and specifically the Arabic language assigned the label al Hind to the “ people of the Indus River area”. The term further evolved into the name Hindustan for the area they deemed the concerned country. Some sources also claim that the British officers in the East India Company assumed that the native people were mispronouncing the name of their own local river by omitting the “H” therefore saying Indoo when what they really meant was Hindoo.

The concept of Hinduism is broadly defined using characteristics of geographical location, ceremonial rituals, spiritual beliefs, and overall cultural traditions. It was originally applied to those born into the region of the Indus River Valley and expanded to what became known as Hindustan which is present day India.  However, as foreign intruders and those seeking commercial relations began to document the culture for the rest of the world, an intricate network of traits were found to be woven together to create the dynamic that defines what is now known to be one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.

Scholars have long taught that the basic criteria for one to be defined as Hindu is that he is born into the culture and accepts the divinity of the ancient Sanskrit Vedas. Other concepts are an adherence to caste rule, the authority of the Brahmin priests, a practice of puja (worship and offerings to deities and other rituals), and belief in the Atman (the eternal self) and reincarnation although this is not a doctrine owned by Hindus alone. A later premise is that of ahimsa, or non-violence which led to the widespread practice of vegetarianism amongst Hindus.  However, it is entirely possible to meet Hindus who do not live in accordance with every one of these. As the traditions have been dated to 3000 B.C. it is inevitable to have evolved in some areas.

For example, although acceptance of the Vedas is one of the most basic tenets, the Vedic texts have proven to be of such expansive volume that even the most illumined holy men are accepted to not have thorough knowledge of them all and this must come as a welcome surprise to the overwhelmed new student.  Most every day Hindus share a respect for the Vedas even if they do not have a personal study or understanding of them.

Another aspect of Hinduism that is open to interpretation is the acceptance of Brahmin authority. This is the caste that was of the educators, priests, and other intellectuals who were looked to for guidance and decision making. Once respected as the only channels through which the sacred texts were passed, they were also the only ones able to perform rituals and sacrifices for the people. They alone were entrusted to pronounce the mantras and chants to the precision required to render the ceremony effective. Over time, their services became increasingly specialized that the cost of arranging these services and the procurement of the materials for sacrifices seems to have had an off putting effect on the faithful. Many Hindus don’t participate in this type of worship and instead ascribe to a more personal manner of worship such as darshan which is “seeing” and being seen by the images of the deities in temple and murti puja, adornments and offerings of flowers and sweets made to the altars of deities. This is known as bhakti, acts of devotion. Still others may not identify with a specific deity and instead follow the road of jnana, or knowledge-seeking, pursuing wisdom through meditation, study and renouncement.

Most of these practices could be performed by anyone. So, can someone not born in India adopt a Hindu lifestyle and literally “convert” into a Hindu? Most born Hindus would probably say no but not to be self righteous or exclusive, for Hindus by nature are very inviting and tolerant. It’s more a matter of semantics. While not possible within these definitions to actually convert into a Hindu, it can be said that a person could easily accept the philosophy and practices of the Hindu traditions. Thinking of it in this way may border on defining it as an ethnicity or race and some Hindus would accept that. Even if not born in the region or descended from those who were, one with respect to Hinduism can say, “I am Hindu,” but what he has done is embraced the Hindu philosophy.

For someone who wishes to claim Hinduism but was born outside of it, probably the strongest obstacle he will face is his initial identity which is based on caste.  But if you’re not born a Hindu, you have no way to identify yourself for you have no caste—it can’t just be chosen. Caste is the identity one is born into. Ironically, going farther back in antiquity we see that caste was more of a choice. People found their talents and strengths and often chose a walk of life or profession that they were suited for. It seems cultural regression to know that as time went on, it became less of a choice and quality of life eroded (at least for the lower castes) into a manner that one has no way of rising above what they were born into. Inter-caste marriage is at best discouraged, at worst punishable by death.

The caste system is divided into four primary classes or varnas, the first three of which are considered “twice born” for they adhere to traditions that allow them to undergo certain sacraments and enjoy a more privileged life. There are further divisions of the 4 castes, subcastes called jatis. The Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), and Vaishyas (merchants and agriculture) are these. Shudras (manual laborers) are the fourth caste and are often mistakenly looped into the lowest jati of all the subcastes, the Dalits or “Untouchables”.

The Brahmins are the priests, teachers, and legal authorities. Those born into this caste would start hearing the sacred texts at early ages and for centuries they were passed down primarily through oral tradition. The most dedicated of the students were able to recite Vedic scripts not only as they were dictated to them but also backwards and sometimes even by omitting every other word. This is what led to the sacraments becoming so specific that it was believed that if one note was chanted off-key or one syllable of a mantra mispronounced during a ceremony, that flaw would render the entire ritual null.

The demand was created for priests of perfection and the costs of affording a Brahmin ceremony became out of reach for the typical Hindu. For a faith that holds end of life renunciation of material wealth in such high regard, it seems that expensive demands from priests for blessings and to restore karma is contradictory.

Nandan Upadhyay of Varanasi described a situation that required consulting with a Brahmin priest. When asked if he kept any pets in his home such as dogs or cats, he explained that one will rarely find a Hindu home with a cat as a pet for they believe that if a cat dies while in their care—regardless of the death having been caused by mistreatment, illness, or accident—an expensive offering of a golden image of a cat must be made to a Brahmin priest. It does not have to be large or even of solid gold; it could be an image etched onto a piece of wood or drawn on paper and then painted in gold leaf, but it did have to be of real gold.  He recalled a day of riding his bicycle through the narrow streets of Benares when a cat darted in front of him. He didn’t have time to brake and avoid it and the back tire hit the cat but as he looked back, he saw it get up and move on although visibly injured. Nandan said he dreaded having to tell his mother because of the expensive offering they would have to come up with if the cat died but if it did, they were to honor their obligations so they started preparations for the offering. He went back to the neighborhood and found the cat’s owner. In the end, the cat had recovered so the need for the offering never materialized and he actually still goes to visit it from time to time.

The Kshatriyas, or the warrior caste, are those destined to serve in the military, become police officers, politicians and local activists. In antiquity they are the leaders of the defense against invading armies. Their history is rich with stories of fierce battles as they fought tirelessly to fend off neighboring kingdoms trying to overtake their region and of devastating defeats as the Mughal rulers pressed on and occupied what was the wealthiest civilization on earth at the time.

The Vaishyas, or merchants, may not be as glorified as the Brahmins or Kshatriyas but they are the pillars of the community. These are the merchants, business owners, the agricultural professionals who run the farms that grow the grain and rice and tend the cattle. Society depends upon them for structure and survival. A culture may be chaotic without religious discipline and military but it could continue. But in a region like India, it is imperative that there be a portion of the population whose purpose is to see that food is farmed and marketed for this is what employs the most and propels the economy.

To a Westerner, the most intriguing aspect of the caste system is that of the lowest caste, the Shudras, for often their treatment is terribly inhumane. They are the laborers who perform the chores and hold not only the lowliest jobs in society, but the poorly paid and most dangerous, especially for the Dalits. They are barred from obtaining educations and in the most orthodox cases forbidden to even hear uttering of any of the sacred texts. It was considered so taboo for the divine words of the Vedas to fall on the ears of a Dalit that if it was suspected it had even occurred by accident or in passing, the usual punishment was to pour molten lead into his ears. A Dalit’s shadow was inauspicious and he could be beaten severely if his passed over an individual of a higher caste. His footprints were considered cursed and many would tuck whisked brooms or palm fronds into the backs of their belts to sweep their footprints from behind them as they walked. The Shudras were the ones with the duty of emptying the night soil from homes, digging latrines, cleaning, and serving. It’s considered inauspicious to touch a corpse but someone has to perform the duties of preparing them for cremation and burial. The Dalits retrieve the body from the home, anoint with oils, wrap in the shrouds, adorn with flowers and place on the pyre. When the cremation is complete, they sweep up the remains and, if in Varanasi, surrender them to the holy Ganges.

To the rest of the world the caste system seems terribly antiquated and a clear violation of human rights but most of India will still defend it and state its value in socio-economics. It’s a widespread misconception that it was officially outlawed a few decades ago although some updating has been attempted. Mahatma Gandhi worked feverishly to improve the conditions for the lower castes, even refusing to refer to them as outcastes, but instead as “Children of God”. The concept of “Untouchable” was abolished and any discriminatory treatment of anyone of that caste is actually illegal, but most will say that progress is slow to be made to truly see tangible changes in how they are treated in society.