Chakra Discussions

A devastating critique of neo-Hinduism

by Ananda das

Posted January 19, 2005

Frank Gaetano Morales has posted a thought-provoking essay, "A Philosophical Critique of Radical Universalism", on www.sulekha.com.

Written from a viewpoint friendly to, but not exactly consonant with, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada's advocacy of personalism over impersonalism, Morales uses the word 'Hinduism' to refer to an organized, though varied, belief system embracing certain unified ideas -- the authority of the Vedas in a broadly defined canon, and a striving for a dharmic life -- as opposed to a merely geographic designation.

Morales says that Hinduism's grip on the imagination of young people born into Hindu families has declined as more and more avowed Hindu teachers professed the theory that all religions are equivalent approaches to the same goal -- a theory he labels radical universalism. Although Srila Prabhupada frequently said that practitioners of Krishna Consciousness should not be considered Hindu, one supposes he might not have protested the use of the term had Indian spiritual leaders over the last two centuries not conceded so much ground to the exclusive-monotheist concerns of conquering Islamic and Christian countries. A knowledge of common features and an ecumenical desire for mutual religious tolerance should not artificially blur the genuine differences among religions, Morales writes.

Since great acharyas springing from the Hindu tradition took pains to distinguish Vedic philosophy from atheism, Buddhism and Jainism, such examples of classical, unapologetic apologetics ought still to inform the Hindu mainstream today, he claims. What happened instead, however, was different, he writes: "Seeing traditional Hinduism through the eyes of their British masters, a pandemic wave of 19th century Anglicized Hindu intellectuals saw it as their solemn duty to 'westernize' and 'modernize' traditional Hinduism to make it more palatable to their new European overlords."

Morales criticises Ram Mohan Roy's Brahmo Samaj movement for his "crypto-Christianity" and the idiosyncratic, self-styled godmen Ramakrishna and Vivekananda for marginalising authentic Vedanta while appearing to exalt it. He does not shrink from espousing a call to arms: "We must free ourselves . . . and re-embrace an authentically classical form of Hinduism that is rooted in the actual scriptures of Hinduism, that has been preserved for thousands of years by the various disciplic successions of legitimate acharyas, and that has stood the test of time."

Radical universalism, Morales writes, is riven by four fallacies, each of which he takes pains to demolish in detail, using excluded-middle arguments that would do a Dvaitin proud. Assuming all religions to be the same, a doctrine espoused by the radical universalists who today lay claim to the mantle of Hindu thought, would lead to the logical fallacy of Hinduism being superior to all other religions whilst being equal to them. Assuming the moral rules of all religions to be the same flies in the face of the observed reality that they are not equivalent, giving rise to the untenable view that "diametrically opposed ethical principles are all valid" and, hence, all ethical systems are negated.

In the third of the fallacies, Morales claims that radical universalism will hollow out Hinduism: "If we say that the ancient teachings and profoundly unique spiritual culture of Hinduism is qualitatively no better or no worse than any other religion, then what is the need for Hinduism itself? . . . The self-abnegating absurdity of a 'Hindu' Radical Universalism reduces Hinduism itself to a theologically empty shell, a purposeless and amorphous religious entity whose only individual contribution to the realm of religious history is to negate its own existence by upholding the teachings of every other religion on earth, while simultaneously denying its own inherent distinctiveness."

In the fourth fallacy, Morales points out that not merely the paths, but the goals, of various religious systems are profoundly different. Unconsciously echoing Srila Prabhupada's argument that one cannot get to Delhi by buying a train ticket to Baroda, he points out that the mayavadi argument that all paths lead to the mountain-top is not as appropriate as boldly declaring that different paths lead up different mountains. The mountains of the Christian, Muslim, Jain and Buddhist cannot be the same as the mountain for the follower of Sanatana Dharma: "Each of these different types of religion has its own categorically unique concept of salvation and of the Absolute toward which they aspire. Each concept is irreconcilable with the others."

While outlining the very serious problems faced by a truly ecumenical movement, beyond arguing for tolerance Morales has not offered much towards a solution of inter-religious conflict. He has, however, exposed very serious flaws in the Wittgensteinian "All philosophies are of equal value" theory. His analysis of the mayavadi mistranslation of the shastric statement ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti, 'God is one, despite sages calling [Him] by various names' (Rg Veda 1.164.46), is devastating: " This verse is not talking about multiple paths for achieving liberation (since it does not even mention 'paths'). It is not talking about the various means of knowing God. Rather, it is a straightforward ontological statement commenting upon the unitive nature of the Absolute, that God is one."

For the Vaisnava who aspires also to be a critical thinker, Morales also illuminates a classic tenet about the need for shastra, guru and sadhu to acquire knowledge, or to determine the validity of some approach towards serving Sri Krishna:

For knowledgeable and traditional followers of Hinduism, such concerns as personal ethical decisions, philosophical judgments and the efficacy of spiritual practices (sadhana) must be in accord with three specific epistemological criteria. These three are: 1) Shastra: The divine scriptural guidance of Hinduism (including the Vedas, Upanisads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, etc.); 2) Acharya: Authentic spiritual preceptors who teach the truths of Hinduism with uncompromising honesty, in accord with an authentic Vedic understanding, and who wholly personify what they teach. Such authentic spiritual preceptors in the past have included such truly great acharyas as Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva; 3) Viveka: One's own inherent capacity for intelligent discernment of truth versus untruth, reality versus illusion. It is only by deriving knowledge of metaphysical, religious and philosophical questions in accordance with these three epistemic mechanisms that we avoid being cheated by either our own internal tendencies toward self-delusion, or by externally sourced false dogmas.

Morales's substitution of viveka for the sadhu in Srila Prabhupada's formulation may be very helpful in ongoing philosophical debate within ISKCON and the broader Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition. It supports the application of reason as an important criterion of devotional practice, and it may strengthen devotees seeking to cultivate such reason that, in so doing, they are not opposing the thoughts and deeds of previous sadhus, but following in their footsteps on the path to becoming sadhus themselves. In one paragraph, he directly commends Srila Prabhupada for not subscribing to the popular notion of radical universalism:

In the present generation we have been blessed with the sagacious guidance of many truly authentic traditionalist Hindu gurus and teachers. These gurus, many of whom represent some of the most ancient lineages (sampradayas) of classical Hinduism . . . included: Swami Chinmayananda, Pujya Swami Dayananda Sarasvati, Shivaya Subramuniya Swami, Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Sri Vamadeva Shastri, Sri Chinna Jeeyar Swami, and Sri Rangapriya Swami, among many others. We need to help facilitate the work of such truly genuine Dharma leaders if we wish to witness the renewal of authentic Hinduism.

Where Morales falls down, in my opinion, is in his seeing a role for political movements such as the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the revivification of authentic dharma, whether one uses the term 'Hindu' or not. We may grant the RSS the right to form political pro-Hindu parties, but India is far healthier as a secular nation than it would be as a Hindu theocracy.

The author concludes his lengthy essay with an exhortation to escape recent tendencies within popular Hinduism to ape the fashions of other faiths:

If we want Hinduism to survive so that it may continue to bring hope, meaning and enlightenment to untold future generations, then the next time our son or daughter asks us what Hinduism is really all about, let us not slavishly repeat to them that "all religions are the same". Let us instead look them in their eyes, and teach them the uniquely precious, the beautifully endearing, and the philosophically profound truths of our tradition. . . truths that have been responsible for keeping Hinduism a vibrantly living religious force for over 5000 years. Let us teach them Sanatana Dharma, the eternal way of Truth.