Series | Decoding Indian Belief Systems: Circle versus Line

India is currently in a state of huge flux. There is a widening gap between generations, and every five years now looks like a new generation gap. The cause of this gap is not just technology, which is a mere enabler of communicating thought, but also the change in the collective thought of generations which has undergone dramatic shifts in the past few decades.

Born with a traditional faith-based upbringing but educated in contemporary material and Western scientific values, some of us were constantly at odds trying to make sense of the Universe around us. Is there a God? Rather, how many Gods are there in this Universe? If there are God(s), are they the Hindu or the Muslim or the Christian or the Jain or the Parsi one(s)? If God is omnipresent, is he present in the Devil too? If we are children of this God, why do we need to please him or her? That too with absurd traditions like a plate decorated with flowers, burning camphor or incense sticks and circling the plate around the idol of a God? What is the sense of the poojas and the yagnas, except for the yummy prashad we received at the end? Aren’t these rituals just blind superstitions of the past when man was dependent more on nature than technology?

Why do Indians blindly follow spiritual gurus? Why are women not allowed in temples during menstruation? Why is there such a discriminatory caste system in this country? Why do our Gods have multiple hands – sometimes, 4, sometimes 8, sometimes 100? Why do we worship a monkey-face or an elephant-face God? Are Ramayana and Mahabharata adaptations of true stories, or pure myth? Why is sex such a taboo in the land of the Kamasutra or the Khajuraho temple?

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Questions like these filled a mind attracted to science and intrigued by tradition. While some people took the easy path of either rejecting tradition altogether calling it superstition, others took the decision of accepting tradition and faith as it appealed to them. There was a third category too: people who were open to knowing more, but didn’t know where to look for answers.

In this series on the Indian tradition, we try and look at some of these questions to figure out what they were probably intended for, and what they mean today. For sake of convenience, we use the term Indian tradition or philosophy to refer to philosophies which originated in India like Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism. The idea is not to say that traditions which didn’t originate in this country are not Indian; rather it is the contrary – to understand how being Indian in the philosophical sense enables us to widen our worldview to accept all philosophies in our midst.

In this series on Indian tradition, our attempt is not to judge the traditions as right or wrong, good or bad, scientific or unscientific. It is just to highlight the other side of the coin – looking at traditions from the lens through which they were probably created. In the end, one is free to take a call of their liking, but hopefully this series will open us up to understanding why people do what they do. Hopefully, this will help increase empathy in a society which sees newer acts of intolerance every day.

We begin with one of the most crucial differences in the Indian worldview as compared to the West: our understanding of life. While in India, life has traditionally been viewed as an endless circle, in the West it has been seen as a line with a definite starting and ending point. In his TED video, Devdutt Pattanaik, the Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, establishes this significant difference between the Indian and the Western perspectives. This difference is key to our understanding of the philosophy and the multiple ideologies of these worldviews, and their underlying assumptions.

In his TED talk, Devdutt, one of the most knowledgeable speakers on Indian mythology who uses his understanding of ancient stories to solve an organization’s contemporary problems, talks about two myths or stories which have shaped a disproportionate amount of Indian and Western thought. This is the metaphysical perspective on life in the two parts of the world.

In the West, the story goes as this: You live a single life, and after dying you cross a river. After you cross the river, you will be valued on the basis of your achievements on earth and thus you will either go to the ‘Land of the Heroes’ or to the ‘Land of the Commons’. In the East however, the story is slightly different: Once your lifetime on earth is complete, you cross a river and then take a new form and come back to earth for another lifetime. This cyclical process goes on and on for lifetimes.

So, both philosophies give very different answers to the one very basic question surrounding human existence: What is the purpose of life? While one says achieving greatness would make life more meaningful, another says realizing the hollowness of it all, and attainment of freedom from the cycle of birth and death is the ultimate raison d’etre.

Thus, the major difference between the Western and the Eastern thought is on how they view life: as a line or as a circle. Though seemingly it is just a philosophical difference, it is incredible how this single point of difference has shaped the cultures, values, beliefs, traditions, ideologies, and social structures of society in these regions. In this series on Indian belief systems, we will start from this very point of origin and over the next few weeks, try to decode why our systems and beliefs evolved the way they did, and why our culture is distinct (neither superior nor inferior to the West) with its unique identity, and how do we come to terms with the seeming contradictions between our ancient roots and the ways of modern life.

written by – @shreyansmehta

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