While reading through your answers, some instances from Mahabharata flashed in my mind. Krishna’s biological mother asks why he couldn’t save his siblings born before him. To this Krishna gives the karmic reason that she, in her previous birth as mother of Indra ordered him to slay the foetus in his stepmom. I am sure you know that story better than all of us. Similarly there are many other occasions where such karmic reasons are stated. It seems that only some great souls can comprehend these reasons in a karmic way. So the other way of evaluating the reasons for our present scenario comes from knowledge of this physical world.
Among all the religions in terms of achieving a better way/standard of living, the worldly physical needs and life is well taken care by following principles in sanatana dharma. Next to the spiritual path, when one is failing in this aspect continuously, the problem should be in the way of approach.
Hinduism gives four ways to attain mukti, of which bhakti marg is the easiest and most suitable for commoners. Christianity says there is only one way. This is similar to bhakti marg. But the real problem is that if one is in bhakti marg, his faith can be easily converted into superstition. In these days it is common to find frauds who manipulate even faith. So there is a trap in following bhakti marg. That is the reason one should always have consciousness and focus on the means of enriching our spiritual and physical ways of living – as far as these two aspects are met, no matter what religion one follows it will turn out to be the same.
As I said before, Karma theory is the one the best Indian solution to all psychological issues that one would face considering all the inconsistencies and discrepancies in life. At the same time it also paved the way for ‘fatalism’ which helps one to escape from accepting personal moral responsibilities for all her failures in life.
Not only Karma, but almost every doctrinal aspect of Hinduism has two edges: one ontological and another practical. While the ontological addresses the intellectual needs, the practical side addresses to the mundane realities. And a common Hindu will easily switch sides not minding about the contradiction when it serves her purpose.
Take for example of my own mother. When I try to do something to address the needs of others (physical, social, material, psychological or spiritual), she will rebuke me by saying, “You mind your own business. Have you taken birth to change everybody’s life? They suffer as per their karma and you cannot change what is written on their forehead.” [This is fatalism not karma]. It will make sense only if I share what she says in Tamil which is difficult to translate in English. But I can try that in Hindi: kya tum dusarom ko sudharnekeliye janma liye ho. Tum apana kaam deko. Jo unke maata par lika hai usike anusar hoga aur apane apane karmeke anusar ve kaatenge.
To such people in response I say, “Yes we cannot change their Karma and re-write what is written on their forehead. But if we don’t do our part, then it will affect our karma and we will face the consequence of it. If others suffer because of their karma, then it is written on our forehead that we should step in and help them.”
One time in North India when a debate came about Karma and fate, I said as a joke, “When the verdict time came to convict a criminal who murdered another person, the judge asked whether the criminal had anything to say before he pronounced the judgement. The murderer said, ‘I am innocent and it was written on the forehead of the person that I should kill him. It is also part of my past karma that I now killed him. So I am innocent and you cannot punish me.’ After hearing this, the prudent judge with a smile said, ‘I completely agree with you. But it is written on my forehead that I should be your judge today and it is also written in your past karma that case should come to me. So I give the judgement as per the karma and fate and you will be hanged to death.’”
You rightly said that, “Even some great souls cannot comprehend the reasons in karmic way.” It is like asking the question which came first, the bird or the egg? And however we try to use all of our reasoning to present our respective view, Karma along with fatalism will always remain evasive. However it serves both our psychological and practical purposes.
But here the Muktivedic God-centered doctrine helps me to accept my moral responsibility without giving any kind of excuse.
At the same time I want to insist that we Hindus know how to address the needs of others in every crisis. When we step into other’s life to help them, we never think on those ontological terms; our only concern is ‘humanitarian needs’. When it comes to philanthropy we have our own unique way to do it. And then when we try to analyse and explain to others then we become too theoretical and divorced from practical realities. This we inherited from past philosophical traditions separating paramartika (transcendental) from vyavakarika (practical).
Regarding your claim that “Sanatana dharma is one of the best if not the best guide in terms of achieving better way/standard of living,” this is our elitist apologetic when it comes to defending our RELIGION when comparing with other religions. There is nothing wrong in it and I do the same. But this should not blind our eyes to see the other side of the coin which deprives millions of people who are considered as Hindus (by us) to guide or provide a better/standard of living.
I have a question. What are the principles of sanatana dharma that will guide in terms of achieving better way/standard of living for all, particularly worldly physical need in life? There are still millions of the depressed people who have to have a legitimate fight to have a normal human life to survive. Of course this question cannot be addressed purely based on a religious or spiritual solution as lots of politics are involved. It is too simplistic to say there are some absolute so-called sanatana dharma principles which will assure a better and standard of living if one follows them strictly. Thankfully, common Hindus never have any such principles and they live their life guided by their respective family and community tradition.
My point is this: When we become apologists to defend sanatana dharma, we need to use it with a pinch of salt. Because, as I said before, we have two sides of the coin. One is ontological in which we can present some rationalistic solution for all human problems in Hinduism. But in reality we failed to address problems in real life in which millions of people suffered in the past and continue to suffer at present.
For example you say that “bhakti is the easiest and most suitable for commoners.” Then you compare it with Christianity which claims ‘exclusivism’, and you say that the same bhakti is used to create superstition among the same common people.
First of all we should acknowledge that the four ways for mukti is a post-oriental construction by our own and others based on our exegesis on some of our scriptures, like Gita. So I don’t want to go in detail as it will take too much space for me to present my view on this subject which is not important here.
But when you compare bhakti with Christianity, which claims ‘exclusivism’, this is only half true. In fact it is the theology rather than bhakti which claims exclusivism. A common Hindu bhakta has no problem in accepting so many gods and following so many faiths and paths simultaneously. But exclusivism is the basic tenet of almost every philosophy/theology.
For example a staunch Sri Vaishnava won’t accept Shaiva’s claims. The same is the case with a staunch (veera) Shaiva. Almost all the Vedanta promotes some kind of exclusivism. Vedanta outright rejected Purvamimamsa and Purvamimsa refuse to accept Vedanta’s claim of the exclusive claim of ‘knowledge’ as the only means for enlightenment. And strict followers of these philosophies as well as sampradays have exclusive claims. Of course the presence of alternative views or theologies or deities are never denied. But they will remain subordinate to their own views and god(s).
Whereas a common bhakta not knowing all these exclusivims happily accommodates all kinds of philosophies and faiths that will take care of her physical, psychological and spiritual needs.
In other words, our Hinduism is strictly based on hierarchy on every level. It will accommodate the exclusive claims of each view allowing others to remain subordinate to it.
And this hierarchy is not limited to philosophy. Even on the social level we also have the same. Caste is the best example. Varna set a strong hierarchy and it is difficult but not impossible to shift one’s position. For example a Kshatriya can make vertical mobility and become Brahmana, etc. But this privilege is not given beyond the twice born (Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaisya). Here too this is only in theory and not pan Indian.
Though caste is different from varna and can be shifted and new ones can be created, yet here too, thanks to our post-Independence modern India where we accepted western notion of laws, (Constitution) theory and practice get confused. For example, if a Brahmana woman marries a Shudara man, the child born to them is technically becomes a chandala, thereby an outcaste (so SC) as per the traditional dharmasastra rules. But can he claim SC status to get reservation based on our Constitutional right? He might claim OBC status, but never a SC. But our hierarchy puts him as an outcaste and practice allows him to remain an OBC whereas in the society he can choose his own category—provided if it is approved by his community.
The reason for me to share all these technical and practical details is that when it comes to define anything about our sanathana dharma, nothing is white or black. And while in our apologetic we try to define our principles in objective elitist terms, reality has a different side.
Regarding the claim that Christianity like Bhakti claims ‘exclusivim’ I differ here also. Like Hinduism Christianity also is a ‘parliament of different faiths’ and like respective sampradayas of Hinduism, each faiths claims its own exclusivism. Catholics won’t accept a Protestant version of mukti and religion and within Protestantism one denomination won’t accept the other as the correct version of Christianity or upholds correct doctrine.
Though one of the basic tenants of Christianity is that mukti is possible only through Grace and not by karma, yet there is enough evidence within Muktiveda which upholds the importance of karma. For example read these verses: continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (Phil 2:11)
And If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved— even though only as one escaping through the flames. (I Cor. Chap. 3)
Of course we all should be careful when we quote or interpret any verse from any scripture to understand the context of them and not read our own interpretation on them.
Regarding your story from Mahabharata, we should understand that when we read such a big epic, it speaks many voices in many views. It is difficult to arrive at any particular conclusion based on the philosophy of an epic like Mahabharata which is encyclopaedic in nature. Whatever anyone wants to say about anything, they have inserted it in the form of a story in Mabharata when it was compiled in the long run. The same is the case with most of the scriptures with every other faith, though I cannot say the same about Islam as I have never read the Quran.
Finally, I find it difficult to accept your statement, ‘as far as these two aspects are met no matter what religion one follows it will turn out to be the same.’
According to my understanding no religion helps common people to have both physical and spiritual needs met. As I have observed, people’s approach to religion is more for their psychological needs than physical or spiritual. Of course when we try to explain and understand their needs in another language, here English, we have no other option but to use these terms. But religion neither helps in physical needs or spiritual needs. Particularly in the post-modern scenario religion serves the purpose of giving some identity rather than addressing the real issues of people for which people have their own methods to address—at least in India.
This response is not to counter is not a rebuttal or apologetic in nature. I agree with you on several issues. But my only point is that when we try to define or explain anything related to religious phenomena particularly like that of Hinduism, it is too complex to define anything. That is why my definition of Hinduism is: multicentred pluralistic inclusivism. I won’t hesitate to add ‘relativistic’ also to it.
Regarding Christianity, particularly Indian Christianity, it is better even not to talk about them. They are the most confused socio-religious community in India, which is a kind of hybrid product of west and Indian. Living in a dharmic civilization (to borrow from Chaturvedi Badrinath) they try to follow an organized western religion. Finally crushed between rock and hard place they become a confused desi—a hybrid variety, remaining as Indian every way at the same time trying to follow a westernized organized religion called Christianity.