How Modern Views Influenced My Understanding of Hindu Religious Writings
By M. Thillainathan
During the COVID-19 lockdown period, I was in Sydney. To while away the time usefully, I started reading “The Bhagavad Gita – A Walkthrough for Westerners” by Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse Hindu scripture. The author specialised in Applied Psychology and for a time was a visiting lecturer at Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in India. For about 14 years, he had spent half of each year in India. Reviewers of the book have stated that this work is easy to understand and inspiring, not only for the Western mind but for anyone who wants to be introduced to the principles in Bhagavad Gita without becoming confused. Reading this book jolted me to write this note about my pursuit of understanding Hindu religious texts.
India is a vast country and over a long period of history, people there had developed wide-ranging religious philosophies and rituals, which the Europeans imprudently summed up and named as Hindu religion. For a long time, Sanskrit dominated as a link language for the different religious groups. While ancient Hindu texts were mostly written in Sanskrit language, only a few remaining communities speak it now. The Tamil language, on the other hand, is also one of the oldest languages in the world. Today it is still the spoken language in south India and the northeast parts of Sri Lanka. One can still find a rich collection of Tamil literary works that were written a long time back.
It was through the 400-year European colonial period that began in 1550 when the cultural and religious fabric of the Indian people was eroded and weakened gradually. During the 150 years of British colonial rule, the education system was changed to create a brown English-educated middle class that was immersed in western cultural values to help the colonial monocrat with their administration and revenue collection purposes. This Macaulay system of education evolved to such an extent that the professionals like lawyers, doctors, and engineers formed an elite class and became alienated from the society of the native people. This was the situation the country found itself in as it sought independence from Britain in 1948.
I was a Sri Lankan born in 1941 and therefore was caught in the midst of a significant transition period, which greatly influenced my life. I received my secondary education at an American Mission school with access to a good library. I liked reading books on extensive topics in Tamil and English languages. I pursued Engineering studies at the University of Ceylon as well as the University of Tokyo and became interested in Technology and Economic Development. I came from an orthodox Hindu family background. My elder brothers had some proficiency in Sanskrit and Carnatic Music. However, when my turn came to attend school, these classes were stopped to make way for a job-oriented English education.
Part of my attention turned towards religious life when I returned to Sri Lanka in 1986 at the age of 45, after earning some money in the Middle East. I was residing in the city of Jaffna, with close proximity to the renowned Nallur temple. The religious atmosphere was rich in the city. I was inspired to read religious books but found it difficult. I went for a few classes in Saiva Siddhantha and found them boring. I also attended religious functions at some institutions for their Bajan music and popular lectures but I couldn’t endorse some of their concepts as I found them contradictory to my way of social life and professional career.
Those were also the days of civil war in Jaffna. My religious interest was put on hold as I took up an active role in social work and collecting information on the economic, political, and social development of our country. I had the opportunity to visit my sons in Singapore and Australia, which broadened my views on development. When the civil war ended with one side winning forcefully, I participated in some reconstruction activities. But my mind was still not at ease.
Back to my starting point of this note of reading Bhagavad Gita by Jack Hawley. He has made some observations about reading and understanding a Hindu scripture such as Bhagavad Gita that is especially applicable to a western reader. The summary is this:
- Translations of Bhagavad Gita are mostly written by scholars for scholars. They are important but difficult to understand.
- As some important details are missing, you will require background knowledge to understand the text.
- Some of the ideas are so new or so different from western culture that they can be missed or worse, dismissed.
- Some Sanskrit words have multiple meanings and some concepts may not appear fashionable to us now. Be more patient with unfamiliar usage of familiar words.
- Be as receptive as you possibly can and try to suspend or postpone hasty judgements.
- Read heedfully and be prepared to take contemplative breaks along the way. Let what you have read sink in.
The above advisory observations have cleared some of my personal difficulties in reading and understanding Hindu religious texts.
What I have learned is I have to do a comparative search and select a text to match my maturity. Also, I must improve my language skill to improve the understanding of the text.
Words have different meanings and meanings sometimes vary with time and locations. We must know the exact meanings that were current at the time the ancient texts were written. I must learn to be patient, have a calm mind, and respect others’ views.
I am also reminded of how I shouldn’t alienate myself from my society as a western-educated professional and should try my best to participate in the religious traditions in my surroundings. This will enable me to obtain the real meaning of what is written in the books.
It was through delving into the Hindu religious texts that I come to realise how after decades of working in industries built upon science and technology, I still possess a superficial knowledge of these two vast, ever-evolving subjects. I have witnessed the rapid development in technology and its effects on countries and societies. Now I am all the more curious about the history of science and technology, and how their evolutions played out in different parts of the world. Sure enough, during the 400 years of the colonial period, science and technology were dormant in many Asian countries whereas it accelerated in the west, spurring industrial revolution which led to a flourishing of trading activities. I would like to trace the progress of science and technology within my country, and even around Asia. It would be interesting to discover how countries in this region have caught up with the west in terms of their applications of technology.
Science and technology might sometimes be resisted because they are seen as the root of certain evil, but we should remember that science and technology have also helped solve many problems that mankind faces.
Compared to my youth, when it was not as convenient to connect with people given the lack of technology, digital communication has advanced so much now that it has provided many ways to bring people together. In terms of religion, more can be done to foster closer ties within various communities, and technology might just be the tool to help with that. I like how an app such as Namaha is able to provide Hindus with a platform where devotees can easily participate in rituals that honour their faith, and even come together to delve deeper into their religious practice.
In this fast-changing world, every country has its own predicaments. We cannot simply blame science and technology for that. What we must do, from the leaders to enterprises, all the way to the common people, is to try our best to leverage science and technology suitably to resolve issues, especially with regard to material needs, physical health, and general wellbeing. As for religion, we must use that to train our minds, to live ethically and morally, so that everybody can coexist together harmoniously.
About the Author: Mr. M Thillainathan is a retired Civil Engineer in Sri Lanka who resides in Jaffna, and travels between Jaffna, Singapore, and Sydney. He is active in social development and a member of various Institutions and Ground Up initiatives, focusing on Appropriate Technology Services.