Why I am Not a Hindu by Dr. Ramendra is the first book in English published by the Bihar Rationalist Society. The author, born in 1957, has been teaching Philosophy at Patna University since 1983. Along with his wife, Dr. Kawaljeet and some friends, he found the Society for Propagating Rationalism and Humanism in Bihar. Dr. Ramendra has written other booklets and articles in Hindi and English, and is editor of the Hindi quarterly Buddhiwadi (The Rationalist).
This book is of topical interest for two reasons: one, the twist being given to the term "Hindu" by politicians and bigots with forked tongues, and two, the recent furor in the country over remarks made by members of the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP regarding Gandhi and his support of the caste system.
Despite earlier historical usage the term Hindu today describes a particular religious group. It cannot be extended to include all non-Hindus in our multi-religious society under the banner of "nationalism". There are many Indians who are not Hindus and who must be recognized as such. Also, as the author points out, there are many Hindus who are not Indians, such as the people of Nepal and a section of the population in Sri Lanka. Nor can Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism be described as "Hindu", as politicians would have us believe.
Gandhi claimed he was a Hindu because he believed in the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, avatars and rebirth. He also believed in the caste system, was not against idol-worship and supported protection of the cow. The author, though born a Hindu, rejects all of these and therefore does not consider himself a Hindu.
The Vedas suffer from the same defects as other "revealed" scriptures. And to insist that something is true only because it is in the Vedas is to fly in the face of reason. There are absurdities as well as gems of wisdom. And the argument that the Vedas were present in the universe even before the appearance of mankind is an absurdity. Absurd too is the explanation of the origin of the four castes as springing from the mouth, hands, thighs and feet of the Creator.
Gandhi watered down his belief in the Vedas by declaring, that he also believed in the Bible, Koran etc. The author doubts if this position is acceptable to orthodox Hindus. In fact, Gandhi's position comes very close to that of rationalists and humanists when he says, "I decline to be bound by any interpretation however learned it may be. 1f it is repugnant to reason and moral sense."
Dr. Ramendra examines the origin of the caste system from the Vedas and Manusmriti, and its endorsement by popular Hindu scriptures like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagvata Gita. Gandhi's attitude towards this structured system of inequality was at best ambivalent. It is specious to support such a system simply because it was originally an admirable piece of social engineering in which each profession knew its place in a hierarchy and society functioned smoothly. The caste system was, and remains. a power base where exclusiveness and privilege of birth ensured the best for the twice-born.
An objective examination of the caste system sweeps away two great myths about Hinduism: one, that it is the most tolerant religion in the world, and two, that it is the most nonviolent.
"The Manusmriti not only outlines a totally undemocratic and unjust social system but also gives divine religious sanction to this man-made institution of chaturvarnya. Some Hindus, including apparently learned 'thinkers' and writers, smugly wax eloquent about Hinduism being the most tolerant and liberal religion of the world."
But no other religion in the world sanctions slavery and untouchability, making both a religious obligation. However, Gandhi saw it as a good system. distorted by time. He described it as "a healthy division of work based on birth," taking into account the "natural tendencies" of human beings to avoid "unworthy competition."
Such an argument leads to many absurdities. In a free and democratic system such as ours, suppose a sweeper were to win election to the President of India: would he then be expected to stand by his broom? Is there privilege and power present in the genes of the upper castes? As the author points out, the caste system is "a closed system of stratification". Upward mobility was discouraged None knew this better than the ones at the bottom of the heap. to whom untouchability and the caste system were two sides of the same coin.
Gandhi not only supported the caste system. he discouraged inter-dining and intermarriage. "Prohibition against intermarriage and inter-dining is essential for the rapid evolution of the soul." Later, he modified these prejudices and even encouraged marriage with untouchables.
All rationalists will endorse the author's stand when he says "I reject varna-vyavastha because it is irrational, unjust and undemocratic, being opposed to the democratic and human values of liberty, equality and fraternity."
Dr. Ramendra then turns his attention to those unverifiable conditions of moksha, rebirth. life after death and heaven or hell all constructed on the belief that every human has a distinct and separate entity called a soul. His conclusion is that "in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. it is reasonable to believe that each of us has got one and only one life."
The Law of Karma turns on the presence of the atma. with each reaping reward (or otherwise) on a basis of past existences. Yet no one recalls those lives nor ever learns just why he is suffering in this life. The concept of Karma suited the priestly caste nicely in persuading the oppressed lower castes that they could earn merit by dutifully accepting their suffering.
Lastly, the author deals with avtarvada wherein god appears in a new avatar whenever mankind is in dire need of divine help. This. to rationalists, is a way of avoiding assuming responsibility for one's own life. Judging by the many avatars that have supposedly appeared on earth, we must concede that they were so flawed in their natures that they hardly merit the reverence paid to them.
Why I am not a Hindu is a book every rationalist should have on his bookshelf. It may be obtained from the Bihar Rationalist Society, 216A, S.K. Puri, Patna 800 001 (Bihar) India Price Rs. 10/- Hard Cover Rs. 15/- Outside India US$ 2/-.
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Last update: November 21. 1996