Reading Huston Smith’s The World Religions piqued in me an interest in Hinduism, particularly the bits about there being more than one path to God, all of which are of equal validity (as they all lead to God, which is the ultimate destination to which we all are striving). The notion of exclusivity is something I’ve always loathed in Christianity, for two reasons.
First, Christian exclusivity makes no logical sense. If the only way to God is through Christ, what of all the people who lived before Christ, or of those who lived after his birth, death and resurrection, and died without ever knowing of him? Did God really mean to condemn them all to hell—to eternal separation from Him? No God worthy of the name would so arbitrarily exclude so many people from his grace.
Second, I don’t like how Christianity’s exclusive path to salvation is used for social demarcation, creating an ‘in’ group of believers versus an ‘out’ group of non-believers. Seeking God is perhaps the most universal of human attributes, as necessary to life as food and air. And just as there is no exclusive means of acquiring the calories to live, there is no exclusive path to God. Claiming exclusivity is an act of selfishness, a perversion of the seeking-God impulse to the service of another near-universal human attribute–the socio-political impulse to power. I wish Christ had never said that the only path to the Father is through the Son. Its context is too easy for today’s Christians, almost of whom are not of Jewish heritage, to forget. I think he intended by his proclamation to mean that seeking God did not require prostration to the Jewish Temple–to the Pharisees (except him) who included or excluded people from God according to their legalistic whims. Jesus was speaking to Jews, espousing a new, more-expansive means to individual salvation. I think he meant to include, rather than exclude, other ways of seeking God than just those specifically allowed and arbitrated by the Temple Judaism of his day.
What I found in Hinduism is that Smith had greatly simplified the Hindu catechism to make things accessible to people without much understanding of what Hinduism was, or how it arose, or particularly, of how it was practiced (the latter Smith admitted wasn’t his purpose—he was intent on conveying the core beliefs and rituals for all the religions he covered, which meant explicating the founder’s ideology for all the religions except Hinduism, Judaism and animism, which haven’t any founder). Hinduism is anything but amenable to simplicity.
Michaels acknowledges as much in the first paragraph of his first chapter:
As a matter of fact, Hinduism is not a homogenous religion at all, but is rather a potpourri of religions, doctrines and attitudes toward life, rites and cults, moral and social norms. For every claim, the reader should be aware “that the opposite could, more or less justifiably, be asserted.” Thus images chosen to represent Hinduism are similar: an impenetrable jungle, an all-absorbent sponge, a net ensnaring everything, an upside-down banyan tree with countless roots growing from the branches to the earth.
I prefer to imagine Hinduism as a variegated patch of briars and brambles that because of the tropical climate knows only continual growth, each extant tendril of Hindu belief having its roots firmly in Indian soil, seeking its place in the sun through continual twisting and turning and weaving through a thicket of like-kind and foreign-species competitors. Understanding Hinduism requires following each tendril in the thicket down its vine to its origins in the earth, paying careful attention along the way to follow the path of other tendrils that branched from the vine and to note the paths of contiguous vines. Completing that, perhaps not possible in a human lifetime, then the individual vines and tendrils would need be reconstituted to show how they all relate one to the other, and what their attributes amount to in aggregate. In short, Hinduism is a complicated mess. Or, it is for the Western mind, that so desperately seeks to glean order from chaos; to conquer, or at least contain, through categorization.
Michaels asserts that what bedevils the Western, monotheistic mind so is that Hinduism hasn’t one founder, or one religion, or one holy book, or one doctrine, or one religious symbol (his italics). Polytheistic Hinduism is just as valid as monotheistic Hinduism. The religion is practiced in four different ways (elucidated by Smith in World Religions)—ritualistically, spiritually, devotionally and heroically–with no particular method favored over another (except, obviously, by its devotees).
As Michaels puts it, “One might almost say that religious postmodernism is realized in India: Anything goes.”
Note that he didn’t say “in Hinduism”, rather, “In India”. And for good reason. There are roughly a billion Hindus worldwide. Almost all of them are Indian or Nepalese or Bangladeshi. In other words, Hindu sprouted from the soil, like the brambles of my example, on the Indian subcontinent, along with the peoples of the continent. It grew as they grew. It is a geographically-localized phenomenon, like the lemurs of Madagascar, or the song of the Australian Aborigines, except that it did not enjoy complete isolation along its way to subcontinental proliferation. Michaels could have named his book something along the lines of “Indian Culture: Past and Present” and given quite as accurate a description of its contents as the title he chose.
Michaels searches for some cohesive force that binds the many-faceted practices, gods, rituals and beliefs of Hinduism into one holistic religion. He seeks to explain how Hinduism has managed to survive the onslaught of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and even Buddhism (which was founded in India, and garnered state-sanction for a time—Emperor Ashoka of the third century BC converted and adopted Buddhism as the state religion–before moving over the Himalayas to East and Southeast Asia, leaving a mostly-undisturbed Hinduism in its wake).
Michaels identifies this uniting force as the identificatory habitus. I’m still a bit squishy, like I am about Hinduism itself, on what he means. He claims the habitus is not focused on the traditional attributes of the Hindu religion and culture, like caste or ritual, but is on the extended family, that “as a descent group has been much more resistant to modern influences than the norms of hierarchy and purity.” By ‘descent’, he doesn’t mean only “biological or natural origin” (but is there a difference between the two, or is this just an academician being verbose, as many are wont to be?). He also means fictive origin, based on “soteriological identifications or substitutions that have to do with salvation.” (Soteriological means having to do with salvation, so this too seems unnecessarily verbose in its redundancy). Michael’s identificatory habitus seems at first glance to be splitting academic hairs—a quest to say something original–to stand out as someone more than just another in a long line of German Indologists. I never quite got what he meant by the phrase, but I am not a German Indologist, the apparent target audience for the book. Still, I was left pondering if the phrase really operates to extend understanding among Indologists, or just operates to extend Mr. Michaels’ career.
Putting aside all the academic jargon and jingoism, the question that this identificatory habitus attempts to answer is what binds Hinduism—what makes it one? How can its multiplicities be made singular such that the concept “Hindu” might be understood? Is there a unifying catechism obscured by the panoply of beliefs, gods and rituals? Do Hindus agree on the two fundamental questions religion tries to answer—where we come from and where we are going? I say that there is no way to know. Go back to my example of the patch of briars and brambles. The thicket of tangled, twisting vines make knowing or understanding the cohesive force binding them (or lack thereof) quite difficult to ascertain. But maybe the obscurity that the chaos of the thicket provides is the cohesive (and protective) force. Maybe Hinduism has been immune to monotheistic and Buddhist onslaught all these many years because there is no way to cut it out at the roots, because the tangled mess of its vines so adequately conceals them. The identificatory habitus may simply be that there are no identifications and no habits with which to conclusively explain Hinduism’s survival and proliferation. Maybe, like the roots, the answer is in the dirt from which it springs, and nothing more can or should be said about it.
But Michaels mainly disregards the dirt—the environment in which they arose. The subcontinent is one of the cradles of civilization, but one that arose in a tropical/subtropical environment that had not the discipline of winter to cull from the thicket of beliefs and practices those that were only marginally viable. Living creatures, and Hindu’s tendrils, had only to survive the variations in precipitation that came with the equatorial monsoon climate to which they were subject. The temperate West had to develop beliefs and rituals to overcompensate during its verdant summers for the bitter, deadly cold of its winters. The thicket of its beliefs was annually culled by the crucible of its winters.
As Michaels says, “India, it seems, really is different.” But how? To explain biological phenomenon, one must first understand the environments in which they arose. And yes, mankind’s god-seeking ways are biological phenomena. No self-respecting mammalian biologist would try to explain a giraffe without explaining the trees on the African savannah its long neck is adapted to reach. India is different because so too is the subcontinent. Unique cultural and religious practices arise to solve the same survival and existential questions all mankind faces, but they do so in the context of their particular environments, which ironically sounds a good deal like identificatory habitus, if the words are taken at face value.
Imagine trying to explain the physical differences between a fat, squat, pale Inuit and a tall, lean, dark East African without considering environmental factors. It can’t be done. Neither could differences in their cultures, of which religion is always a part, be explained without accounting for the vast differences in the environments in which each arose.
But environmental, i.e., climatic, factors are verboten among academics trying to tease out the nature of human nature. Among human cultural biologists—e.g., sociologists and economists and historians– it is not permissible to cite environmental influences as giving rise to cultural attributes; the environment can’t be determinative, so it must be ignored. But that unique thicket of briars and brambles that is Hinduism could not have grown in the arid deserts of Southwest Asia that produced Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That rocky, barren island kingdom of Great Britain had two hundred and more years to assimilate and syncretize Hinduism but it and Hinduism remain largely unaffected by the contact.
Hinduism is a creature of the time and space in which it gained purchase and grew. It may well be that so much has happened during its long history on the subcontinent that gaining a full understanding is impossible, but that doesn’t mean the religion/culture doesn’t reflect the logic of the environment in which it arose. It’s tragic, in a way, that we humans so hubristically consider ourselves something above and apart from the vicissitudes of the environments in which we exist that we fail at the one task that we so desperately seek to accomplish—to understand who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Perhaps we see that no other animals are capable of such questions, so we conclude that we must not be like them. But we are wrong.
Michaels relates three anecdotes showing how Indian culture is different: 1) Upon seeing the massive Volkswagen car factory in Wolfsburg, the response of an Indian visitor was, “I think that car factories are the same the world over.”; 2) India has won almost no medals in Olympic competition, explained by an Indian friend stating, “For us, it doesn’t count if someone is the best or not!”; 3) A Nepali, when questioned whether he was Hindu or Buddhist, answered, “Yes.” Indeed, attitudes such as these only make sense, as Michaels asserts, in the context of a familial-based descent. Think of the reunion of an extended American family, one of those few that still exist after the hundred-year campaign of federal and state governments to supplant the family as the primary social organization (the only I personally know of are black families in the South—their status as a subordinate caste seeming to provide the necessary cohesion). No matter how successful any individual member becomes, he/she still is just a brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, cousin, grandparent. In the main, secular success doesn’t change status within the family, at least not for those few hours the family periodically gathers to meet. If the family had never been supplanted by the state—apparently the case in the Indian subcontinent—there would be no impulse to marvel at the productive capacities of state-sanctioned capitalists, or the athletic exploits of individuals that bring glory to the nation. And there would be room to explore alternative faiths, because the religion of one’s birth would always be one’s religion. An Indian Hindu may become a Christian or Buddhist, but he will ever and always be Hindu.
Which brings up the question—who exactly is Hindu? Michaels explains that the British census takers considered anyone who wasn’t expressly Muslim or Christian as Hindu, which probably yields an underestimation, because Hindus can also be those things. The Wikipedia entry counts about a billion worldwide, the vast majority being in India and Nepal. Is it possible to convert to Hinduism? Can a Hindu convert to another religion? There is some controversy, but it seems implausible. Can one convert to another family from the one in which they are born? Although in the West it is pretended, through the marriage and adoption regime, that families are temporary, voluntary associations, such is not the case in India among Hindus. One is born to a family whose origins and social and eternal significance is carefully managed through the rituals and beliefs of…Hinduism. A Western hippie may come under the spell of some Indian guru, internalizing and accepting into his heart the (a?) Hindu way of life and thinking, but he will never really be Hindu because he wasn’t born to it.
I would say Michaels is a quite competent Indologist, and thereby expositor of Hinduism, but I’ve really nothing through which I might compare him. Hinduism reflects what can only be an encyclopedic knowledge of Hinduism’s history, beliefs, rituals and practices. At only 344 pages (excluding notes), it packs a whole lot of knowledge into quite a small package. The book is reasonably well-written. Michaels won’t win any prizes for his prose, but he wrote the book in German. Everything loses a bit in translation. Except towards the end, where he gets bogged down explaining Hindu salvation theology, the book should be accessible to most non-academicians, though Michaels’ academic style of prose might be off-putting to some (as it was to me at times).
A book about Hinduism is necessarily also a book about Indian culture, and more than anything, that’s what Hindusm felt like while reading it. Thus far, everything I know of India has been provided by Western observers. It might be useful to see what an Indian would observe of their culture and religion. But it might be hard for one tangled in that thicket of briars and brambles to gain an objective perspective. I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, This is Water, in which an old fish asks two young fish as they’re swimming by, “How’s the water?” One of the young fishes looks to the other bewildered, saying, “What the hell is water?” An Indian asked to explain his religion whilst immersed in it might well answer, “What the hell is Hinduism?”