Review by Kuldip Dhiman
Philosophical Foundations of Hinduism by A. Ramamurty. D. K. Printworld, New Delhi. Pages 216. Rs 360.
IF you wish to make a Hindu uncomfortable, ask him these questions: What is Hinduism? Who is your God? What book do you believe in? Who is your equivalent of the Pope? Most Hindus would be ill at ease and might not know what to say. Yes, I am a Hindu, but how do I define it, the person might admit. And what God, what book, and what Pope? I never thought of such matters before. Never felt the need to.
Uneasy with such questions, many scholars in the past 100 years or so have tried to define Hinduism within the theological framework of Semitic religious traditions, especially the Christian tradition. This approach is entirely erroneous, as it does not do justice either to the Semitic tradition or to Hinduism.
"All attempts at understanding and defining Hinduism are modern," asserts Prof A Ramamurty, the author of "Philosophical Foundations of Hinduism", who is presently UGC Emeritus Fellow, Philosophy Department, the University of Hyderabad. He is a serious scholar who has authored "Advaitic Mysticism of Sankara", "The Central Philosophy of the Rgveda" and "Advaita: A Conceptual Analysis".
Elaborating further, he says: "However, there are several traditional works dealing with what is essential to various sects of Hinduism like Vaisnavism and Saivism, the major forms of Hindu religious life and worship. But Hinduism cannot be defined or characterised in terms of anyone or all of them, even though they are basically Hindu."
If Hinduism has to be defined or understood at all, it should be done by taking into account its sruti and smriti traditions. One thing that is universally accepted by all Hindus is that the sruti is revealed, and has the ultimate authority in religious or spiritual matters. The main purpose of the smriti tradition, on the other hand, is to adapt the Vedic wisdom or revelation to the changing religious needs and demands of the people keeping in view the heterogeneous character of Hindu society.
Broadly speaking, all texts such as the Vedas, which were composed before the invention of writing belong to the sruti tradition, and the ones such as the puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, which were composed after writing was invented, belong to smriti. The smriti addresses itself to the task of adapting the Vedic wisdom or revelation to meet the religious needs of all sections of Indian society, especially the religious needs of those who are denied direct access to the Vedas.
The object of puranic literature is to reconcile and harmonise the popular or smriti form of Hinduism with the sruti tradition. But although they are integral part of Hinduism, the sruti and smriti traditions are not always in agreement, in fact they go against each other at times.
Most modern Hindu thinkers believe that the sruti tradition represents real Hinduism. Profs. Ramamurty thinks this belief is mistaken. If we wish to present a true picture of Hinduism, we must take the smriti tradition into account as it is in reality the basis of Hinduism as believed in and practised by almost all Hindus.
What are the other differences between the two? While sruti is more philosophical in its approach, the smriti is more theological. While the intellectual or rational way of understanding of the former is more impersonal, abstract and detached, the emotional approach of the latter is more personal. "While one is dharma-centred," asserts the writer, "the other is faith-centred." While one is impersonal, the other is personal. However, the contribution of both is significant to the growth and development of Hinduism.
Therefore, any attempt to understand and determine the nature and meaning of Hinduism in terms of any one stream or tradition or to identify it with any one of them will not help us in comprehending the nature and meaning of Hinduism. Both are an integral part of Hinduism. And both represent Hinduism. While Purva Mimamsa and the dharma form of religious life represents one tradition, the bhagavata-dharma or devotional form of religious life represents the other."
One curious aspect of these two schools, however, is that although they are different in many ways, their world-view of Hinduism is the same. Whenever Hinduism has faced a challenge and tried to meet the challenge, smriti has always relied on sruti world-view.
Now which of the two traditions is more relevant to Hinduism? The author believes that in its authority and validity smriti is traditionally regarded as inferior or secondary to sruti, and it has to conform to sruti if it is to have any authority and validity. "And if smriti simply teaches what is there in the sruti, then it cannot serve any meaningful purpose except to present the teaching or wisdom of sruti in a manner of language which is easy and intelligible to all. This is the traditional view or understanding of the importance and role of smriti in the development of Hinduism. But most of the religious ideas, beliefs and doctrines as well as the religious practices which are basic to smriti form of religious life are not compatible with sruti. We cannot find in sruti any support and justification for what is essential to smriti tradition. Therefore, the major concern of smriti is not just to present the wisdom of Sruti in a popular form so that all can have access to it, but to systematically present and justify the religious belief and doctrines of different sects which developed themselves independently of sruti."
Another reason for the emergence of smriti is that in order to be a religious Hindu, you don't necessarily have to follow theological commandments to the letter. "Doctrinal and theological differences are not therefore suppressed in favour of an official theology or creed. Supreme importance is placed on the inward experience of devotion and piety rather than on the correctness of religious beliefs and doctrine."