“…aggressive religions – they tend to overrun the Earth. Hinduism on the other hand is passive, and therein lies its danger.” (Sri Aurobindo, 1926)
Throughout life it has often appeared to me that Hindus were passive. I don’t mean passive in terms of being non-violent (though that may also be the case), but passive in terms of collective activism on behalf of community and religion, and also in how seriously they took religious matters generally. Hindus would appear less motivated to exert themselves for “group causes” compared with the other religious groups I saw around me. Of course there have been exceptions, but by and large this perception has held true.
Having studied modern history a fair bit, as well as having an interest in contemporary politics & religion, it is clear that my perception about the lack of activism amongst Hindus is shared by many other observers.
Having reflected on the matter, I am now able to venture explanations as to why this is the case. I wish to point out at this stage that I am not describing the lack of activism amongst Hindus as a “problem” in itself. A more mature view to take is seeing it as having both negative and positive aspects. On one hand it is not desirable to have a bunch of people being being vocal and exertive about complex issues before having really understood the issues in the first place, which is often the case with activist groups of other faiths. On the other hand, as a negative, the lack of the activist instinct amongst Hindus leads to the community being taken for granted, and also results in a lack of group presence in many spheres of life, such as scholarship and politics. There is also less general motivation in personal life to embark upon the spiritual journey.
Hinduism knows no “other”
Human psychology is such that mobilising groups of people for work, activism or struggle (of any kind) is far easier to conduct when there is a real or perceived enemy, or threat. It is hard to rally people who have their own lives and responsibilities, without an “other” to rally against.
Philosophically and in the deep spiritual experiences to which it hopes to guide its folowers Hinduism knows no “enemy” or “other”. We are all part of the same Supreme Being, and in our innermost nature are divine. There is no “other” to strive against, just our sense of separateness and lower nature. This is very different to religious perspectives which see humanity divided into believers and non-believers.
There is also no sense of panic; we are not going to suffer eternal hell if we don’t do this or that. There is not just one life, and we will all find our way eventually, no matter how off the road we go. Such a teaching brings about a sense of ease compared to the teaching of eternal heaven and hell, for example of the Abrahamic ideologies.
So we have a religion that doesn’t try to get us to do things by playing mind games with us about heaven and hell and what not. It should be noted that these “mind games” may actually be useful to certain people who may otherwise do nothing in their lives to develop themselves. It enables certain people to take the first step to improve their lives and bring their lower nature under control. But ultimately, such absolute do’s and dont’s can never represent the whole truth; it is problematic when people take a religious outlook that they found useful and presume that everyone needs desperately to take up the same outlook.
Most Hindus know that it is silly to try and enforce a religious viewpoint – because all viewpoints are at best only working hypotheses until we achieve direct perception through inward practice. We tend to respect the rights of others to be wrong about something, because within our traditions, conduct is more material than mere belief. This may appear to some followers of other religions as a weakness or lack of conviction, but really it isn’t.
One form of Hindu activism which I have occasionally witnessed occurs when a particular Hindu community faces threats or opression – some members of the community rise up and do something – which is not surprising since Hinduism does traditionally have teachings to fight injustice. To stick to a simple example – overwhelmingly Hindu majority India rallied behind freedom fighters to bring about Indian Independence against a visible oppressor. In more recent times we see groups of Hindus occasionally struggling against various cultural or physical threats. This sort of reaction is human nature, and will have often have its exceses and abberations, although it should be appreciated that it is sometimes justifiable.
But an activism based on reaction is never going to be fully in tune with Hindu ethos, and therefore doesn’t tend to sustain itself for long.
A positive ground for Hindu activism
While it is true that Hindus should be more active in both our personal and collective lives, a more positive and continuous grounds need to be found for the activism compared with “reactionism”. The great sage Sri Aurobindo described Hinduism’s passivism as a danger. What did he mean by this? I feel that what he meant is that the beautiful philosophical and spiritual viewpoints of Hinduism run the risk of ceasing to be a living presence in the world if Hindus do not try and live it or defend it.
A more enlightened and sustainable basis for Hindu activism is akin to being active on behalf of freedom in matters of religion.
To be given such a freedom and choice as we do should not be taken as an excuse to do nothing. If we see the truth that any one of a thousand religious practices or observances may help a particular individual in the goal of bringing our negative instincts under control, it is a great thing compared with a skewed viewpoint that the few observances taught to us are better than everybody elses. But if those who inherit broadmindedness do nothing in our own lives to embody its values, and do not take a stand against aggressive narrow points of view when they seek to exert themselves as the “only path”, we will be doing a disservice to the gift of such an open and spiritually liberal heritage.
As the largest and most open tradition in matters of religion, Hindus should take pride in representing a tradition which has the power to unify those that are not intrinsically averse to unification.