Confronting Superstition & Rationality
It is time that our gurus and sages refresh our secondary scriptures
BY BHAGAWANDAS LATHI
Religion is often deemed irrational, while science is thought to be rational, because it can verify and reproduce results. Abrahamic religions do rely on irrational faith, but not Hinduism, which, like science, includes verifiability and reproducibility.
Hindu sacred literature is classified either as shruti (that which is heard) or smriti (that which is remembered). Vedas (wisdom) and Agamas (descent of truth) are the shruti, the unchangeable, timeless and universal truths based on the mystics’ experiences of ultimate reality in transcendental states of consciousness. Shruti, derived from such mystical experience, is considered authoritative only for supra-sensory (atindriya) truths. These are truths beyond our senses and reason, such as the nature of Ultimate Reality, God, soul, world, liberation and the means for liberation.
Shruti is not considered authority in the intra-sensuous domain, that is, matters within the range of reason, senses and perception where science is the authority. Shruti cannot controvert or contradict facts of empirical or rational experience. Shankara, in his commentary on Bhagavad Gita (ch18-vs67), states that even though a hundred shruti texts may declare that fire is cold or dark, they have no authority in the matter, unless it has some other implied meaning.
Hinduism’s secondary scriptures, called smriti, derive from human insights and experience. Written by learned sages and seers, they preserve the course of culture and tradition about the right human conduct, legal and moral codes, proper goals of life, interpersonal relationships, duties and obligations of rulers, and of various professions and individuals, etc. Its literature consists of epics (itihasa), mythology (puranas), law books (dharmasutras, e.g. Manusmriti) and works dealing with household ceremonies, the disciplines and techniques of theater and dance, music, song and pageantry, yoga and sadhana, metaphysics and ethics, art, sciences and astrology.
Smriti scriptures, unlike shruti, are subject to revision with respect to changes in time, place, customs, traditions and new knowledge. Unlike shruti, smritis can sometimes advocate force in order to safeguard dharma, the social order and justice. A ruler’s duty (dharma) is to safeguard people, the nation; and justice may involve violence against criminals or aggressive foreign powers. It is in this context the Bhagavad Gita, which is a smriti, has to be understood.
In Hinduism Today’s April/May/June, 2017, issue readers Sai Ravi Kiran and Himanshu Vyas have asked pertinent questions regarding what is proper religion and what is superstition. Such issues confuse many Hindus, but do have clear-cut, satisfactory answers. These questions squarely fall in the domain of smriti, since they belong to the area of culture and tradition. Here, good sense, ethics and practicability should be our guide. Too many old traditions eventually become superstitions because they fail to change with time.
Coincidentally, Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati in the same issue says: “Any religion can be compared to the attic of an old home. Unless the attic is regularly cleaned, it gathers dust and cobwebs and eventually becomes unusable. Similarly, if a religion cannot be updated or cleaned from time to time it loses its usefulness and cannot relate anymore to changed times and people.” Swami clearly implies updating smriti, as seen from his last sentence referring to “changed times and people.” Hinduism has neglected its attic cleaning for centuries because it had been enslaved by alien cultures. Today there is no such excuse. Unfortunately, Hindu monasteries have lost much of the public support they had in old days. Yet, they must collaborate to meet this challenge, perhaps by forming a council of gurus.
The truths of shruti flow from mystical experiences. Even though they are supra-sensuous (transcending reason and the senses), they are verifiable through experience by any person willing to follow the hard discipline needed to realize transcendental states of consciousness. Timeless truths of shruti have been experienced and proclaimed by mystics from all times, all religions, and all parts of the world, as attested in the anthology of mystical writings compiled by Aldous Huxley. Shruti truths are verifiable and repeatable. Smriti scriptures, dealing with worldly topics, customs and traditions, are subject to change based on new knowledge. Thus, Hindu scriptures do not conflict with science and technology, but enhance and complement them in the sphere of the supra-sensuous domain beyond the purview of science. They give science balance and purpose.
The late Prof. Frits Staal (1930-2012), a Sanskrit scholar, wrote: “A common Western prejudice has it that the West is rational and the East is irrational. It would be no exaggeration to say that in the realm of religion the situation is the exact opposite. In general, the East is rational; the West irrational.” The scriptures of Abrahamic faiths make no distinction between supra-sensuous and intra-sensuous domains. All are combined in one book which is then claimed as the “word of God,” from which not a single word can be changed ever, even if it contradicts observed facts, reason or new knowledge. History is replete with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands who did not accept the irrational views embodied in these books.
Hinduism is not imprisoned in the iron cage of irrational and unverifiable dogmas and revelations of dead prophets. It is as fresh and timely as one wants it to be. But this requires refreshing smriti. This must be undertaken with urgency by respectable Hindu gurus, using good sense, ethics and practicability as their guide.