April 2008

Vol 7 - No. 10
























Spirituality | April 2008



“Spiritual hunger is common to all; but tastes differ.  There are different forms of God to suit all tastes.” - Swami Yogaswarupananda, of the Divine Life Society, a Vedanta-based foundation in Rishikesh.

Each religion, by the help of more or less myth which it takes more or less seriously, proposes some method of fortifying the human soul and enabling it to make its peace with its destiny.   -George Santayana

For free information on Hinduism and Hinduism Resources, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, several translations of ancient  Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian and spiritual scriptures, history of Hinduism and related religions, articles on spiritualism, symbolism, saints and gurus of India, temples, self development, health and self help articles, web resources,  and much more, click here.

Time spent laughing is time spent with the Gods. - Japanese Proverb  

  Transforming Development - Hindu Perspective  
Part  I I I

  BY Chander Khanna

Some Lessons from the Hindu Perspective Related to Development 

   For Reference Notes


In keeping with the theme of the Conference, I have selected four areas where the Hindu Faith provides an insight into the causes of extreme poverty and offers practical solutions from the Spiritual perspective.      


1. Hindu Perspective on Reducing Inter-Religious Conflicts – often the source of untold misery creating the most    marginalised and disenfranchised people in our midst.


Despite the genius of the common man throughout the ages to live harmoniously with people of different faiths, it has been very easy for the demagogues to inflame, from time to time, the passions and fury in the name of Religion. In the brief span of our existence, what havoc we have created in the name of our faiths, our belief systems. From Jihads, Crusades, to the Inquisitions. The irrational claimant of the Biblical land, the fanaticism of the Hindutwa crusader, the relentless Fatwas against anyone questioning the interpretations of this or that doctrine. The killing fields of Cambodia, the Gulags, the ethnic cleansing of the Third Reich, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Biafara. The suicide bomber blowing up innocents in the skyscrapers, air, land and on the high seas. It matters little whether the supremacy of one’s own doctrine is dreamed up by the uncivilized Taliban in the caves of Afghanistan or by the civilized SS Gestapo eating with forks and knives while listening to Bach. The list goes on and on. At least it’s democratic. It transcends all cultures in all eras.


These are examples of people being inflamed by passion rather than by reason. How easy it is to make people forget basic plurality of their identities in favour of one dominant identity - my faith, my belief system, whether dogmatically Muslim, Hindu or Christian. According to some, Religions would have done a better job had they accepted human authorship, at least for the historical part. To the Hindu mind to accept something as the last word, the last prophet, is one of the greatest blunders of the rational mind.


Fortunately, the converse is also true for the vast majority of ordinary people of faith, when left alone, do live in harmony.  


At the UN Peace Summit in 2000 which adopted the Millennium Development Goals, a very senior monk of the Indian Swami Order, Swami Veda Bharati 37, made an offering “Unifying Streams in Religion” in which he traces hundreds of examples of harmonious and unifying streams that have also existed and continue to exist amongst people of all faiths. Copies of this booklet, which is being used as a starting point in conducting further research in documenting and cataloguing religious harmony, are available at the front desk.


Swami Veda gives a beautiful description of the ancient Hindu concept of Sarva Tantra Siddhanta. 38 Epistemological approach to harmony - which goes beyond mere acceptance or tolerance of other view points or belief systems. As explained by Swami Veda, there are three approaches to acquiring knowledge: i) the dogmatic path taken by the fundamentalists who view their particular belief systems as Perfect Squares, ii) the more egalitarian approach is to view all belief systems as squares nestled within each other, each satisfying the attributes of a perfect square except that my square is of course the outer one. This is an approach taken by most of us in this room. The third path, the enlightened approach, is to think in terms of triangles within the Square, with each triangle having its own internal logic and consistency, each pointing to the same one Centre. 


When Mahatma Gandhi was approached by a grief stricken Hindu family whose only son was killed by rioting Muslims at the height of the carnage created by the Partition of India, Gandhiji’s handed them an orphaned Muslim boy with the plea that the child be raised as a Muslim – the faith into which he was born, not as a Hindu.


Wouldn’t it be nice to see that starting with Gandhiji’s birthday, October  2nd,  being celebrated as International Day of Non-Violence, if Missionaries of all faiths involved in development work were to comfort those in need in the faith they - the recipients of the aid - were born into and not in the faith of the donor.


 2. Ascribing Altruistic Motives to Aid – A Paradigm Shift away from Self-Interest in attaining Prosperity


In answer to the question - Where do I come from? Where do I have to go? How do I go there? Creation - Destiny - Quest, the Gita discusses three approaches.


For some it is through the path of Devotion, complete surrender. For others it is deep Contemplation. For the Man of action not content with praying in public places of worship and not quite ready for a life of quiet contemplation, Gita offers a unique solution – to connect with divinity through Altruistic Action by doing one’s duty as an offering without entitlement to the reward of one’s actions. 39 Expectation of success yes – but not the entitlement to a personal reward. It’s a very original thought which can be better understood by the following metaphor.


A surgeon performs surgeries. He or she is not elated when the surgeries are successful. Conversely, if the patients die the surgeon is not despondent but carries on. He or she is not indifferent to the fate of the patient, far from it; they keep abreast of the latest in saving lives. But they are detached from the success or failure in the execution of their duty – akin to accepting the element of grace in the final outcome of their actions.


The philosophy of self-less action (Nishkama Karma) links with the design itself of creation as partnering with the Deity for the faithful.  


This is a complete denial of the economics of Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations in which he declares that self-interest alone creates prosperity. While this view may well have served the conditions prevalent just before the Industrial Revolution, abuses inevitably set in and the pendulum has swung too far. We all know the disastrous side-effects of pure self-interest. Naomi Klein in her recent book The Shock Doctrine 40 painstakingly documents abuses of self-interest in post Tsunami / Katrina relief efforts and the excitement of global business opportunities in the aftermath of surgically carried out shock and awe in Iraq. 


According to the Gita it is not in the true nature of Man to act with self-interest for pitiable are those who are motivated by desire for personal gain from the fruits of the action.  


3. Secular Angst – being Secular or being Religious is not mutually exclusive


There is a totally unnecessary disconnect between Secular governments, Secular civil societies, Secular funding agencies and Secular donor policies on the one hand, and “non-secular” Religion on the other. What a monumental waste of energy in the context of development. 


In the Hindu context it is the very deeply religious who are the most secular. 


In Europe, a somewhat narrow definition of Secularism as a corollary to the separation of State and Religion was, until now, a historical necessity. However, as European societies become increasingly pluralistic, the definition of Secularism may need some fine-tuning. Something to learn from the meaning of Secularism as understood in the Hindu perspective which goes back thousands of years – neutrality as opposed to outright prohibition against religious engagement. 


Secularism in modern India is intended to be strictly neutral in all matters of faith with symmetry in the State’s treatment of multiple religious practices. However, as noted by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen 41 the framers of the Indian Constitutions wisely set forth an initial ameliorating phase, to correct historical social inequities like the Hindu dominated cast system.  


Finally, it’s a mistake to think that as societies become more “civilised” there is less dependence on religion or that its influence correspondingly declines. According to Hindu thought it would be ideal for the two to move in tandem but civilisations, including all scientific discoveries, by themselves are not at odds with Religion. According to Amartya Sen, Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations is a misnomer, there being no such thing as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu civilisation – clash of cultures perhaps. Civilisation vs. culture - former being materialistic, the latter dealing with Spirituality - civilisations mark the progress of breaking open a coconut with a rock to a more civilised way of eating the fruit from a can opened with an electric can-opener and serving the fruit on fine bone china. To many Colonial rulers, Mahatma Gandhi was an uncivilised Fakir because he walked around half naked wearing pieces of cloth which were not even tailored.  


Societies, a group of people, can be at the bottom of the material ladder but be very advanced spiritually. Conversely, a society can be very highly civilised but low on the scale of humanistic values - the aberration of the SS Nazis listening to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven eating with silver cutlery and drinking the finest wines, yet capable of unspeakable inhumanity.


4. Redefining Development - an alternative understanding of Development as it relates to the extreme poor – the primary theme of this Conference.


Having made the commitment to engage Faith Based Organisations in development, the challenge faced by the Donor Agencies including institutions like the World Bank is not just who to deal with but how to contextualise the engagement – and this will have to be an ongoing process not just limited to the MDG targets. 


Clearly it is not intended to channel development funds through organised religious institutions most of whom are already involved in development work, some purely altruistic, others motivated by the desire to attract more adherents to the faith, and still others because of affiliation with this or that political ideology.

Hinduism, being more a way of life, presents a slightly different challenge. As discussed in my introductory remarks, the total freedom in connecting with Divinity, does not lend itself to an institutionalized central hierarchy. Almost every Hindu house has a special place, even a tiny altar, set aside for worship with the members of the family often serving as their own lay priest. The visits to any of the estimated 2.5 Million places of worship are more to mark anniversaries or are in celebration of religiously inspires festive events.  


The absence of a centralised priestly hierarchy also presents opportunities for transformation as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, though a barrister by training, appealed the most to his countrymen as a man of religion. 


In economic terms, the most cost effective way to harness the moral energy of the Hindu faith communities is by mobilising the collective influence of the opinion makers who are from within the international development community, who speak the language of economics and finance, who work amongst the very poor and who are at the same time deeply spiritual.


Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen 42 sends a very profound and powerful message on freedom linked Social Development. Others like Dr. Kamala Chowdhry 43 Co-chair of the World Bank's Advisory Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development as well as eminent scientist-cum activist Dr. Vandana Shiva 44 echo similar thoughts. There are former International civil servants like Dr. M. S. Swaminathan 45, credited with bringing the Green Revolution to the farmers of India and pioneers like Dr. M. L. Dewan 46 who embraced Sustainable Development long before the others and who have devoted their entire adult lives working selflessly amongst the disadvantaged in achieving integrated development.  


As thinkers, activists, doers speaking the language of the official development agencies and also possessing very deep ecumenical spiritual underpinning, it is opinion makers like these who are potential catalysts of change in engaging the Hindu faith communities.


Part  I  I I


To be concluded...


[Chander Khanna is the organizer of the Ontario Branch of the Himalayan Yoga Meditation Society, and one of the most active members of the Toronto interfaith community. The article is based on a Keynote Address presented at International Conference – Soesterberg, Netherlands, October 15-17, 2007. He can be reached at 416-590-9645 or ckhanna1@msn.com.]

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