Open Essay

Why Should a Hindu Be Good?

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and the author, most recently, of Why I am a Hindu
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Divinity of the soul and politics of the body

HINDUS ARE CONSIDERED prone to believing in assorted signs and soothsayers; our fondness for astrology, for instance, is widely observed. It is true that a Hindu without a horoscope is like an American without a credit card, and is subject to many of the same disabilities. I even have two horoscopes: one cast for me soon after my birth in London by an expatriate Indian doctor there, another by the family astrologer at the village in Kerala. They didn’t match, and to this day, it seems, I have been pursuing two mutually incompatible fates, in the worlds of public service and authorship.

Still, is it fair to saddle Hinduism with the burden of being responsible for its astrologers, many of whom are undoubtedly charlatans? Or should the belief of certain Hindus in astrology be seen as an emanation of Indian society rather than of the Hindu faith? And then what about ‘Hindu fatalism’—does not our belief in destiny, in karma and predestination, make us inured to our lot in life and accepting of Fate, rather than seeking to change it?

There is an old story, from our ancient Puranas, the kind of story Hindus have often told to illustrate larger points about themselves.

A man—the quintessential Hindu, one might say—is pursued by a tiger. He runs fast, but his panting heart tells him he cannot run much longer or faster. He spots a tree. Relief! He accelerates and gets to it in one last despairing stride. He climbs the tree. The tiger snarls beneath him, but he feels he has at least escaped its snapping jaws. But no—what’s this? The branch on which he is sitting is weak, and bends dangerously. That is not all; wood-mice are gnawing away it. Before long, they will eat through it and the branch will snap and fall.

The man realises this, sees the tiger below him waiting for him to tumble into its grasp. But as the branch bends, it sags over a well. Aha! Escape? Our hero looks hopefully into the well. Perhaps he can swim! But the well is dry. Worse, there are poisonous snakes writhing and hissing on its bed, waiting for prey.

What is our hero to do? As the branch bends lower, he perceives a solitary blade of grass growing on the wall of the well. On the tip of the blade of grass gleams a drop of honey.

What action does our Puranic man, the archetypal Indian, take in this situation?

He bends with the branch, and licks up the honey.

This story is at least 2,000 years old, but it could be told today. It speaks of what the Orientalists saw as Hindu fatalism, a tendency for us to be resigned to our lot and to accept the world as it is ordained to be. The story speaks of our self- absorption in the face of impossible circumstances, and our willingness to make the best we possibly can out of those impossible circumstances.

That is the Hindu answer to the insuperable difficulty. One does not fight against that which one cannot overcome, but seeks instead to find the best way, for oneself, to live with it. In many ways, it explains what Westerners have tended to see as Hindu fatalism, and VS Naipaul referred to as a tendency for ‘non-doing’.

And yet, this is a very partial understanding of Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita in fact asks Hindus to raise themselves by the self; that is, to use whatever elements Fate has dealt them— the circumstances of their birth, their location, their access to wealth, the opportunities for education and so on—as best they can to move towards self-realisation. The fact that circumstances are what they are does not deny the Hindu the freedom of will to seek to change them. The position of the planets at the time of a Hindu’s birth may have determined some of his possibilities, charting good phases and bad ones in his life, but then it is up to him to make what he can of them. It is wrong to suggest that everything is willed by Fate for the quiescent Hindu, that his destiny is decreed. The Hindu works with God to fulfil his potential. God is not just above and beyond us; to the Hindu, He is also within us. He struggles with us, suffers with us, strives with us. To that degree, the Hindu knows he makes his own fate, in partnership with God.

EARLY IN MY United Nations career, my first boss, a lay preacher in his native Denmark, asked me a pointed question: ‘Why should a Hindu be good?’ Not, I replied, in order to go to heaven or avoid hell; most Hindus do not believe in the existence of either. If heaven is a place where a soul should sprout white wings and sing the praises of God, it must be rather a boring place, hardly worth aspiring to, and God must be a rather insecure Being. And as for hell, the very notion of hell is incompatible with Hindu cosmology, since it suggests there is a place where God is not, and that, to the Hindu, is impossible to conceive, for God is everywhere or He would not be God.

If Hinduism is, indeed, a manava dharma, an ethical code applicable to the whole of humanity, then it is legitimate for a non-Hindu to ask why indeed should a Hindu be good?

First of all, because he is bound by the moral obligation to fulfil his dharma, the right action his religion enjoins upon him to always undertake.

The Hindu is taught that there are six principal obstacles to the performance of dharma: two are Purusharthas gone wrong, kama as lust rather than desire, and lobha as greed and avarice for material possessions (beyond artha which is the legitimate acquisition of wealth and worldly goods for a worthy life). Four other vices are personal failings that are within an individual’s capacity to prevent: krodha (hatred), mada (vanity), matsarya (envy) and moha (delusion arising from ignorance or infatuation). These six obstacles are prevented and overcome through the practice of seven essential virtues laid down from the time of Adi Shankara: ahimsa (non-violence), satyam (truth), shivam (piety), sundaram (the cultivation of beauty), vairagyam (detachment), pavitram (purity) and swabhavam (self-control). The rejection of those vices and the practice of these virtues are essential for a Hindu to lead a good life.

My boss was a worldly-wise man; he wanted a more pragmatic reason for why a Hindu should be good. If it was not the promise of a better life in the next world, or a desire to avoid eternal damnation in Hell, what was a Hindu’s incentive? I explained that whereas in Christianity the body has a soul, in Hinduism the soul has a body. In other words, we are emanations of a universal soul, the atman, which does not die; it discards its temporal form, the body, from time to time. Since the purpose of the soul is ultimately to reach moksha , to attain union with Brahman and stop the endless cycle of birth and rebirth in various bodies, the incentive for a Hindu to be good lay in the desire to progress towards this goal. An amoral Hindu, one who lived in adharma, would be in disharmony with the world and be set back in his soul’s striving for moksha.

I am not sure he was satisfied with my answer. There was, however, a catch in what I was propounding. If the soul is permanent and the body is not, it makes sense that the soul sheds bodies and keeps returning to earth until it has attained moksha; from this flows the doctrine of punarjanmam (reincarnation), the idea that one will be reborn until one has attained that level of self-realisation.

The idea of reincarnation, emerging from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, is basic to Hinduism. If in other faiths the individual is a body which has its own soul, in Hinduism the individual is a soul which happens to be in temporary possession of a certain body; the immortal soul occupies a mortal corpus, which it discards at the end of its physical life, only to re-emerge in another form, until it accomplishes true self- realisation and moksha, and merges with Brahman. This cycle of birth, death and rebirth is known as Samsara, and it is a belief that addresses one of the central challenges facing every believer in God—if God is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-compassionate and merciful, why does He permit so much suffering, pain, inequality and inequity to bedevil his creations? The Hindu answer is that such suffering is the result of man’s own actions in a previous life; our present circumstances are caused or enabled by our past deeds and misdeeds, action and inaction. The soul continues from life-cycle to life-cycle, hopping from body to body as a caterpillar climbs onto a blade of grass and jumps to a new one (the metaphor is Upanishadic, not my own).

I always considered this deeply unfair: why should a human being, conscious only of himself in his present life, have to suffer for wrongs he does not recollect and misdeeds he has no memory of having committed in previous lives of which he is unaware? Still, I had to accept it was a more coherent explanation than the contradictory ones offered by other faiths, which struggled to reconcile the world’s injustices with their theological belief in a merciful God. If you thought of God as, for instance, an old man in a white beard looking down benevolently at you from the heavens, listening to your prayers and interceding when He saw fit, then it was difficult to accept that His benevolence stopped short of your well-being despite your prayers, or that He was indifferent to the cruelty and suffering assailing His creatures. If you stopped thinking of God that way, however, but saw God in everyone and everything, in the bad and the good, in the unfair as well as the just, as an impersonal cosmic force that just is, then you can come to terms with the world’s tragedies as well as its joys.

The idea of reincarnation is related to that of karma, or action— the accumulated actions of your life. So the very circumstances of your birth—the home, the place, the nation and the opportunities into which you are born—are determined by your soul’s actions in its previous incarnation. The time and circumstances of your death, too, are beyond human agency; when you have finished enjoying the benefits earned from (and paying for the misdeeds committed in) your previous life, your time on earth ends and your soul discards your body, to enter another. This is known as prarabdha karma. Then there are your characteristics, tendencies and aptitudes, themselves emerging from the accumulated learnings of your previous lives; this is called sanchita karma and can be changed by your efforts, education and conduct in your present life. Finally, there is agami karma, those of our actions which will pave the way for our future (reborn) life. Our evil words or deeds in the present life will mar our soul’s prospects in the next, whereas good deeds, right actions and the fulfilment of our dharma without regard to reward, will ensure our rebirth at a higher stage of the progress towards moksha.

To some this suggests another, somewhat simplistic, answer to the question ‘Why should a Hindu be good?’ Be good so that you are reborn in a better situation in your next life than in the present one; if you are good, you may reappear as a king or a sage, whereas if you are bad, you might come back as an invalid or a mosquito. (Or as Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, put it: ‘As a Hindu, if you are a good economist in this life, you come back in the next as a physicist. If you are a bad economist in this life, you come back in the next as a sociologist.’) Jokes apart, your prarabdha karma is established by what your soul has experienced in its previous foray in a human body: your incentive to be good is to improve its chances of a better time in its next innings.

I was never comfortable with this idea, since it seemed to me to have been devised somewhat self-servingly by upper castes to ensure social peace. Do not rebel if you are born poor or ‘untouchable’, the doctrine seemed to imply, since it’s merely your soul paying for the sins of your past life; and do not blame us for leading a much better life than you, since we are merely reaping the benefits of our past good deeds.

Behave, conform, accept your lot and serve your betters, the doctrine seemed to suggest, and you will enjoy the rewards next time around. As a philosophy to reconcile people with their lot, and that would help maintain social peace, such a belief-system was of inestimable value. (It also justified human suffering in terms that no other religion’s theology could match). But I found it ethically dubious—and so, no doubt unfairly, looked askance at the idea of reincarnation itself.

I was wrong to do so, since the socio-political rationale was irrelevant to the Hindu sages who had advanced the theory of punarjanmam. They were less concerned about issues of socio-political conformism than I was; the rishis’ interest lay in the soul’s unsteady and imperfect progress towards self-realisation and merger with the cosmos. Their doctrine was about the divine soul, not the social circumstances of the body it happened to occupy.