Dogmatic Approach

To understand any concept we have to approach it from a particular point of view. But those who become dogmatic insist that our ‘particular’ point of view is all that concept represents. However, even to present that kind of an idealistic, one-sided view it needs a background to highlight it.

Let me give an illustration. If I want to paint a beautiful orange sunset, if I simply spray orange colour on a paper and give the title ‘sunset’, it will seem like a joke. For me, it may be the sunset, but for others it is nothing but orange paint on paper. So to highlight my concept I need to paint a background (clouds, a setting sun, various shades of orange, etc.), which won’t dominate my theme but are essential to present my concept. Similarly every dogmatic concept needs the support and presence of other concepts to make it sensible.

For example in the common saying ‘mother, father, guru and god’, the focus is to highlight the importance of a mother first. But this is neither a hierarchy nor a gradation or to replace God and give that place to a mother. For example one Tamil text (I think it is Kondrai Vendani) commonly known as Needi nool (ethical/moral text) says, “Mother and Father are the first known god” (அன்னையும் பிதாவும் முன்னறி தெய்வம்) But in the next line it says, “It is good to go to the temple (to worship god)” (ஆலயம் தொழுவது சாலவும் நன்று).

This shows that mother/father does not replace God. Neither this is written to prove that we learn God through mother/father and then through guru. Rather according to the interpretation of bhakti tradition, among the three paths (jnana, karma and bhakti), the first two are very difficult. Though bhakti is the easiest means to attain mukti, bhakti to god is not so easy. For this we need to begin from our bhakti to our mother, father, guru, etc.

In Muktivedic terms, we begin our bhakti with our mother, father, guru whom we can see in order to learn about bhakti to God whom we cannot see. Though we use the word ‘bhakti’ for our love to our parents and guru, it need not mean the same for our devotion to God. For example when we say ‘deshabhakti’ (devotion to our motherland, or nationalism) it does not mean we need to worship our motherland as if a deity, though that kind of deshabhakti was promoted during and after our independence movement.

 

Texts and traditions present an idealistic view about a concept. Those that are written to highlight a particular ideal will focus it but take the service of other concepts to prove the superiority of it. For example, to highlight the importance and ease of bhakti marga, first jnana and karma need to be explained to show how difficulty they are. But those who want to read only a particular concept will highlight it, keeping rest subordinate, secondary, and auxillary.1

 

Those who want to emphasis only bhakti in the Gita cannot deny the presence and importance given to both karma and jnana. But a dogmatic commentator will insist on bhakti alone while at the same time be unable to deny other concepts. But this will be contradicted if we accept (the theory) that Gita is part of Mahabharata (which I strongly believe). The overall idealistic concept of Mahabharata is dharma as Vyasa at the end says:

Raising up my hand,
I declare with all my might:
From dharma follow artha and kama;
Why not, then, practice dharma?
However,
None pays heed to me!
But, be it remembered
That dharma should never be abandoned
To fulfil the demands of kama,
Or, through fear or avarice,
Or, even when one’s life is at the stake;
For,
Dharma is eternal,
While the joys and sorrows of life
Are but fleeting and transitory,
Even as the soul is eternal,
Though the means and instruments it uses
Are but frail and transient.2(Mahabharata, Svarga, 5. 62-63)

But one can hardly see any importance given to bhakti in the Mahabharata, though one can read it in isolated texts. The same is the reality in our approach to understand a concept from the original texts and the commentaries. Particularly those which are written to express their bhakti through poems.

When a poet writes poem, particularly in the bhakti tradition, she is more inspired by her bhakti based on her experience and relationship than with her deity. At that time she won’t consciously think about the philosophical/theological intricacies, as the words will come out naturally and spontaneously with an ecstatic expression. And the poet who takes her doctrine a bit too seriously has to refine and rephrase certain words when, she later edits and compiles her poems. What she wrote in her ecstatic experience will be misunderstood and misinterpreted by certain isolated words and sentence if she fails or forgets to reform them coping with her particular idealistic view.

I have done this several times. But this cannot be done to all poems, as it will destroy the aesthetic and emotional flow of that particular poem. But if any commentator or (rival) critic traces (or digs) out any contradiction in the teaching and (bhakti) text of that poet, the commentator/critic will fail to understand the difference between the ideal (theology/doctrine/concept) and the real (bhakti, emotion, experience, relationship).

The best example for this Vedantadesika, one of the scholarly poetic theologian of the Srivaishnava tradition. Highlighting this point, Hopkins says:

…Desika, in his poetry, theologically tends to side more with his “southern” opponents—at least in the debate on grace and self-effort. Desika the poet will push the emotional limits of self-effort (vyaaja: “pretext”) to “almost zero,” emphasizing the final “helplessness” of the devotee in the act of surrender.3

Of course we cannot apply this theory to all the Hindu scriptures that were written keeping a particular idealistic (philosophical) point of view. As most of the Indian scriptures were written in poetic form, we should differentiate the scriptures written exclusively for theological purpose from ecstatic experience. Most of the sectarian treaties written by the respective acharyas and their followers are the best example,

Understanding any concept and text is a complex issues. Often we forgot that author and audience in our understanding and interpretation.   Particularly in our approach to the religious text, though we can get some message that will address to our particular need, we won’t do full justice both the concept/text and also to our exegesis. For example, ‘…Gandhi had refused to admit that the Gita could possibly contain any overt element of the justification of violence and had insisted that it should be read, not historically but allegorically, for its true message to emerge.’ 4

This is further endorsed by Smith:

…Mahatma Gandhi, declared his love for the Bhagavad Gita, and found inspiration there for his teaching of non-harming, notwithstanding the fact that Krishna’s teaching was precisely that killing does not matter since the body is eternal…..5

This is not limited with the Hindu scriptures. For example, the book of Acts is written by Luke to the Roman elite to convince them that the Jesus movement is not against the Roman’s law and actually needs to be protected by the Roman government like Judaism. It is interesting to note that this book ends abruptly with the imprisonment of Sevanand (Paul). There is nothing wrong if one wants to find any missiological principle or about the story of early church or to get some spiritual message. But if one keeps the author’s intent and audience in mind, she can do justice to any exegesis on any study on Acts.

Such idealism is not limited only with the text. Every area of life that is supported or opposed is done with an idealistic view. One cannot reject it outright saying that it is too idealistic to try to implement strictly and end up in failure. For example, those who opposed all kinds of religious rituals, particularly by the reformers within a sampradaya, finally end up creating another kind of ritual, which becomes dogmatic for their followers. Kabir panth in North and Siddha tradition in South are the best examples for this.

This is true in every area of life. Those who oppose caste finally end up creating another division among the people with some other criteria, like class, statues, etc.

Nothing is wrong with idealism — whether created consciously or evolved naturally. But the success or failure of it depends upon the followers to work out the minute details through their everyday lives. And this is the real test about the genuineness of any ideal. Any dogmatic approach will kill the spirit of the text, author and the audience.

 

Endnotes

1…..Moreover, the literature belonging to any one of these three Sastras {Dharma, Artha and Kama} does not entirely exclude all considerations regarding the other two, but only deals with them secondarily. Thus, though the DharmaSastras, for instance, deal in the main and in (p.12) details with the ways and methods of Dharma, the other two sides of the problem of living concerning Artha and Kama are also touched by them at many places. So it is with the ArthaSastra and the KamaSastra.—Pandharinath H. Prabhu, Hindu Social Organization, Bombay, Popular Prakashan, (1940), Tenth Reprint (1991), 2004, pp. 12-13

2.. ibid., p. 358

Uurdhva-baahur viraumyesha na cha kaschich-chhrunoti me/
Dharmaad arthas cha kaamas cha sa kim-artham na sevyate
Na jaatu kaamaan na bhayaan na lobhaad
Dharmam tyajet jiivitasyaapi hetoh
Nityo dharmah sukhc-dukhe tvanitye
Jiivo nityo hetur asya tvanityah

3.. Steven Paul Hopkins, Singing the Body of God, New York, Oxford, 2002 p. 33. Further:

Ultimately, we see in Desika how philosophical positions and doctrines, when put into poems, are transformed by a master of both genres The medium of the poem offers Desika the philosopher a unique space of interpretation, distinct from his own prose commentaries and independent treatises.(p. 8) …Yet the space of the poem also provides what Desika himself will describe as an “overflowing of ecstatic experience” (anubhava parivaahamaaka), implying that in the poem one may find a certain overflow of “experience” beyond the structures of theology and even poetics.—ibid. pp. 9

4. Eric J. Sharpe, THE UNIVERSAL GITA: Western Images of the Bhagavadgita a bicentenary survey. London, Duckworth, 1985 p.131

5. David Smith, Hinduism and Modernity, Blackwell, Indian edition, 2003. p. 40