Modern Responses
to Traditional Hinduism
 

A Brahmin Woman
Revenge Herself
Lalitambika Antarjanam was born in 1909 in the Kottarakara district of southern Kerala of literary parents who both wrote poetry. ... Lalitambika’s short story “Revenge Herself,” published in the Malayalam journal Mathrubhumi in 1938 and here translated by Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, is based on an actual event. ... In “Revenge Herself,” Lalitambika describes the lifestyle of Tatri, a young Nambudiri woman in the late nineteenth century. ... Tatri, like other Nambudiri women, was brought up to believe that her husband would be her pratyaksha deivam, visible god; her pati devata, husband god. A good woman was a pati vrata, her husband’s devotee. Lalitambika’s novel Agnisakshi also refers to Parasurama, one of the ten incarnations of the Lord Vishnu, who according to legend threw his axe into the sea and raised a piece of land that later came to be known as Kerala. (The Life of Hinduism, 218-9)
 
To begin with, she was as innocent as any one of you. she too once made karuka garlands. She too prayed like you, raptly clasping her black string. She fasted on all auspicious days. She was innocent, she had neither looked upon a man nor spoken with him. Grandmothers used to uphold Tatri as a model of propriety to all the young girls who come of age. ...
 
So I began my marriage with no worries. I soon found he was a man with aggressive sexual needs. I learnt in time to meet those demands, to please him in his taste for sex with the same attention and care that I gave to his taste for food. After all, one’s husband is considered the pratyaksha deivam, the “seen” God. And it was to please that God that I learnt the art of the prostitute. If it were not for that, dear sister, I too — like so many women of our community — would have remained a mere wife, a neglected and ignored wife. ... I too would have suffered in silence like all those other Nambudiri women except for what happened unexpectedly. One night he came home with a new wife. They were to sleep that night in the very bedroom I had shared with him. I could bring myself to serve food to this woman, but to be actually asked to prepare their nupital bed! Yes, I had chanted the ‘Seelavati charitrram’ again and again. ... But an Antarjanam is a human being too. ... I cursed her aloud. In my grief and outrage, I called her a whore. In that instant I saw him turn into a devil. He flung my words back at me: ‘I know perfectly well she is a whore — I love her for what she is. If you could be like her, I might like you better.’ (The Life of Hinduism, 222-3)
On a certain night a new courtesan appeared on the festival grounds and temple precincts. She was beautiful and witty. Her modest attracted men even more than her beauty. Princes, courtiers, and Nambudiris, all sought her company. At first she kept them all at arm’s length, saying she was a married woman with a husband who was still alive. She withheld a crucial detail about herself, however — the community to which she belonged. They brushed aside her pleas to be left alone. They argued that in Kerala, the land of Parasurama, a woman was allowed as many husbands as the chose. The only women who were outside this rule were the Nambudiris. The rest, they said, were free to enjoy their pleasure. Oh, these men who seem so honorable, so saintly! Men who expect unquestioning faithfulness from their own wives, but who are quite willing to ruin another’s!
 
As an Antarjanam I was brought to trial for defilement, and under threat of losing caste. It was a trial that shook the whole of Kerala. As it got under way, they were all terrified — yes, princes and Nambudiris too — that their names would be spoken by the prostitute. Then some went into hiding. Others frantically made offerings to the gods. ... In the end, for all the submerged rage of all Nambudiri women, only sixty-five men were brought to trial. Those sixty-five were indicted. That was my revenge. Was it my revenge alone? (The Life of Hinduism, 226)
 
By this time, I too was stirred, my voice shook as I spoke. “You must excuse me. But I have to say that for most of us, what you choose to describe as the sacrifice of Tatri was nothing more and nothing less than the trial of a prostitute. True, it created a storm, but it did not point to a clear direction for us. The end cannot justify the means, sister. Of course, I applaud your courage and your pride, but I have to denounce the path you took.
       “But, all the same, we as Nambudiris can never forget Tatri. From your world of darkness and silence you hurled a random firecracker as a warning and a challenge. Nevertheless it ignited a torch for us in our generation, and there will be greater fires in times to come. Your revenge will be forgiven because of those radiant future fires.”
(The Life of Hinduism, 227)
 
Gender Equality
Amid the movements launched during the colonial period of Hinduism, efforts to reform the inequality between men and women were initiated. Among these one may list: legally outlawing sati (1829), permitting widows to remarry (1856), prohibiting child marriage (1929), and granting women the right to file for divorce (1955) and to have full property ownership rights (1956).
 
 
In 1961, legislation was passed to forbid the practice of dowry in India. A daughter, when married, was expected to provide her husband’s family with a dowry — namely, gifts or a sum of money. Despite numerous positive portrayals of women in Hindu literature in the past, the birth of a daughter is thus viewed by many as a financial burden. Unfortunately, the practice has been such a long-standing custom that the law forbidding dowry is routinely ignored. The practice has also led to abuses, in which wives have sometimes been murdered if their families did not come through with their promised dowry. In 2010 in India, over 8000 such deaths were reported nationally. Furthermore, because a son is deemed essential for the continuation of the lineage, and is also crucial for the performance of his parents’ death rites, the birth of only daughters is often met with dismay. The preceding factors have contributed to the practice of selective abortion of female fetuses and the infanticide of baby girls. (IH, 336-7)

 
Hinduism and Ecology
The world-negating themes in Hinduism, which emphasize the transcendence of worldly existence, might suggest a disdain for the natural world. However, Hindu tradition has numerous themes that nurture ecological awareness and reverence for the creation. The earliest strata of Hindu religious literature, the Vedic Samhitas, intone hymns of praise and wonder to divine forces of nature, such as Agni (Fire), and Prthivi (Earth). The entire cosmos is envisioned in organic terms, as the Golden Egg (Hiranyagarbha), or as a Cosmic person (Purusa). In such myths as the goddess Sati’s dismemberment, in which her body parts fall to the earth, we note an unequivocal message that the entire world is the manifest body of the Goddess, and should thus be treated with respect. ...
 

 
However, it would be naive to assume that all Hindus actually adhere to these values rigorously. The discourses of progress, economic success, and modernization, as well as the simple imperative to survive, can be far more compelling. India, by virtue of its expanding population (currently over one billion) and its burgeoning middle-class with greater affluence than ever before, will soon face unprecedented challenges in demands for energy to fuel automobiles, industry, and consumer needs. Increases in land, water, and air pollution are inevitable. Indiscriminate logging of old-growth forests promotes soil erosion and flooding, and hydroelectric projects through dam construction threaten natural forest and farmlands and the homes of India’s indigenous tribal inhabitants (adivasi). ... The aforementioned ecological values intrinsic in Hinduism could play vital roles in mobilizing segments of the population in the direction of environmentally sustainable development that is not detrimental to planetary ecosystems. (IH, 333-5)

Hinduism for the West
The case studies that follow offer a few salient examples of particular modes in which aspects of Hinduism have made inroads into the West. (IH, 349)

Swami Vivekananda
The Vedanta Society

In 1893, the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in tandem with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, attracted a number of influential figures. Among these were Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society and Swami Vivekananda. Educated as a lawyer and a member of the Brahmo Samaj, Narendranath Dutta (1863-1902) eventually turned to the teachings of the unconventional Hindu saint, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and became his most celebrated disciple. After Ramakrishna’s death, Dutta took up official renunciation and eventually assumed the name Swami Vivekananda. ... Invited to speak in various venues in the United States and England after the Chicago gathering, Swami Vivekananda then returned to India, formed the Ramakrishna Order [a.k.a. the Vedanta Society], and dispatched teachers to the West. Vivekananda’s visit to the West is regarded as a pivotal moment in the West’s burgeoning interest in Hinduism. ...
 
 
The influence of the Vedanta Society in the West was so great in the twentieth century that it is not unusual to still find introductory texts on Hinduism portraying “Hindu religion/philosophy” essentially as radical non-dualist Vedanta in the tradition of Sankara. A quote from the Rg Veda (1.164.46) that runs, “Ekam sad; vipra bahudha vadani” (Truth is one; sages all call it variously) conveys their inclusive, tolerant spirit. The Vedanta Society exemplifies the transmission of those facets of Hinduism that have intellectual appeal, and which meld well with Western rationalism and Christian monotheism. (IH, 350)

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Transcendental Meditation

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was born in central India, and obtained a university degree in physics. Having served for many years under one of the leaders of a Sankara monastery in North India, he began his own organization which came to be known as the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. TM took the West by story in the early 1970s after attracting such high profile disciples as members of The Beatles, a popular music band. The organization claims to have taught its technique to over five million people and now runs a variety of educational centers.
 
 
Transcendental Meditation consists of mantra repetition, which is to be performed in two 20-minute sessions daily. TM is presented very clearly as not a religion, lifestyle, or philosophy, but a simple technique that reduces stress and enhances mental tranquility, and as a result brings with it other health and even economic benefits. It has supported scientific research into the physical and psychological benefits derived from the practice of its technique. It would not be an exaggeration to acknowledge that the Transcendental Meditation movement was a major contributor to the general acceptance in the West of meditation as an effective means of stress reduction, and similar techniques are now routinely prescribed by medical professionals. TM exemplifies the promulgation of a technique derived from ancient yogic practices, but divorced from its religious and soteriological contexts. ... In doing so, the TM method has not been perceived as much of a threat to Western religious traditions, and it is now rare to hear accusations of “brainwashing” and so on, which were commonplace during the years of its introduction to the West. (IH, 351)
T. Krishnamacharya
Hatha Yoga

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1988), although mostly unknown, has been one of the most influential patriarchs of yoga practice in the West. ... Although all the schools spawned by Krishnamacharya’s teachings purport to integrate all of the Eight Limbs (astangha) presented in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and other yoga treatises, the schools primarily emphasize posture and breath work, at least in the initial stages.
 
 
Yoga has entered the mainstream in the West and is widely practiced as a form of physical fitness exercise responding to Western preoccupations with longevity and quality of life. As in the case of Transcendental Meditation, the liberative purposes of yoga, as expressed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, are downplayed or completely ignored. Because of the differing objectives, it might be more appropriate to label the configurations of the Western practices as yogic techniques, rather than the darsana of Yoga, per se. (IH, 355-6)
A Diasporic Hindu Creed
The Life of Hinduism, 249-53

God: The One in Many

Sanatana Dharma

The “Personalized Religion”

Karma

Caste System

The Five Manifestations of the One

Icons

Divine Incarnations

Love of All Life: Nonviolence

Contributions to the World