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November 1, 1999
The Rediff Interview/ Dr Eric Lott
'Hindu philosophy certainly increased my attitude to nature'
Is it necessary to follow traditions and rituals to understand a philosophy?
Yes, some rituals are necessary. This is what they call the cultic matrix of any tradition. It can be refined, modified, simplified in many different ways. So, many detailed rituals can be dropped without the loss of divinity of life. But somehow there has to be a grounding in that cultic matrix which will improve the imagery, the mythology, the stories and some of the rituals. Usually myths and rituals have always gone together in religious history. Symbolism is important in some ways because symbol provides the power of the tradition.
You said in your lecture that there is a strong connection between Indian culture and nature. Was it after learning the Hindu culture that you got attracted to birds and became an ornithologist?
Hindu philosophy confirmed the view that I had earlier. But it certainly increased my attitude to nature. Once I began looking at the universe as the body of God, I developed this attraction to bird watching.
Here in India, we Hindus feel that Westerners generally find it difficult to understand Hinduism and its philosophies, especially the way we look at life as a whole. Is it true? Recently the British football coach was sacked for his karma theory of life.
I don't know whether you have heard of the New Age movement, which is there in Europe and the United States. Many, particularly students and middle class people, have been deeply influenced by the values that essentially come from the east. They talk using the term karma, a Hindu or Buddhist language, which would have been completely incomprehensible at least 30 years ago. Now it has become common and many of the values that are vaguely eastern in culture like astrological power, belief in the avatars of various personalities and a whole range of Hindu or Buddhist concepts have become a part of this New Age movement. To the extent that all the Christian communities have had their research into the meaning of New Age and have even published documents, some very critical, some recognising it. So, karma is nothing new to the West and is accepted by a large number of people.
In the sporting world, I think the response was hysterical and beyond all reason. It was very strange too. I was there then. He expressed himself crudely, of course. He is a committed religious person and has strong views. But he put this rather crudely. If he had been successful as the manager of the British football team, they would not have had taken notice! It was partly because his stock was running a little low as the manager that they took the opportunity to get rid of him. But it did not look good. I couldn't understand the reaction in the letters to the editor columns of, not the gutter press but The Telegraphand Guardian and the Times. There was extreme rejection of this perception.
Having said that, I think I will have to go back to the idea of being self-critical. This is an area in which the Hindu acharyas need to be self-critical. One of the recent developments in India is the Dalit movement. Those who were previously called Harijans, untouchables and so on, have created for themselves a common identity. To them the idea of karma is anathema. Traditionally it has been said that you are born into a certain condition because of some karma that has been committed in the past. They reject this completely
The Christian church has been deeply influenced by the Dalit movement. It is all a part of the liberation process. Globally in Latin America and now throughout Asia, theologians as well as social activists of various kinds have accepted the basic premises of the liberation movement. It is a kind of the new Marxist movement but it won't necessarily speak the language of Marx. The world has to change, is their point, and there is deep injustice in the structures of things and one way of continuing the structure of inequality and injustice is to believe in the doctrine of karma.
But I think that the burden of the past has to be born corporately. What has been done in the past, karma, certainly affects the way we are now. The wrongs and the rights done in the past bear fruit now. In that sense, what you have sown, you reap. But we need to understand it corporately. We not only have to be critical of the past but repentant for our past too; the way we have treated other communities.
As a Britisher, do you feel repentant of the way the British have treated India?
Yes. As a British person, I feel a strong sense of guilt about the way the British Empire carried on. Our history is burdened with bloodshed and we have to be repentant for that and take action that counters our past. In that sense, it is a karmic process.
But many people say, 'we didn't do it so why punish us'.
We live corporately. That is the reality.
But should you be held responsible for what your forefathers have done?
I may be critical of the Britishness but I am locked into it. You are locked into your Hindu-ness because that is how we are. The 'corporateness' continues through generations, laterally too. The 'corporateness' also means that we must relate to other communities in new ways.
We Hindus believe that we are a tolerant race. But of late, fundamentalism has risen among the Hindus too and they have become intolerant towards other religions, other communities and minorities. As an outsider, do you feel that the Hindus have now become intolerant?
There are two sides to every religious tradition and every religious community. Without any doubt at all, the tolerant dimension is important in the Indian tradition, the Hindu tradition. Basically, Hindus are tolerant. But there is a dark side also. And there always has been a dark side. We cannot hide this.
The dark side is on the rise now, isn't it so?
It has become politicised in a way that is very dangerous indeed. To some extent, I acknowledge it as a reaction to certain perceived threats from both Islam and Christian missionaries. But politicising its exclusiveness is very dangerous indeed.
To say that the secular process in India is a misnomer is not true. To some extent, what the rightist parties are saying about secularism is true. And to some extent, the liberal secular intellectuals have accepted the modernising process a little too easily. They are not as critical to the aspects of modernity and modern technology as they could be. There are many prophets who take the opposite view, people like Rajni Kothari, Ashis Nandy etc are genuine secularists in the sense that they certainly are not exclusivists. They do not exclude the other cultural ways but they are also critical of many aspects of Westernisation, globalisation and so on. That's what we need. People who are critical but openly affirming those aspects that need affirming.
Unfortunately, the other organs contradict what the BJP leaders say. So, there is a dangerous two-facedness here and a basic fundamentalism. The English press in India has quite rightly not only criticised but ridiculed. Unfortunately ridiculing is no good because it is dangerous.
It might have been a different India that you lived in when first came here more than 35 years ago. As a missionary and as a person who has studied Hindu philosophy deeply, how do you react to the burning of Christian missionaries and demolition of religious places?
What the Sankaracharya of Puri said is absolutely true. I am so pleased that he said it and I hope that other important acharyas will speak out too. He said what has been done in the name of Hindutva is in fact betraying Hindutva, the true Hinduness. This is not the way to establish Hindu values. He has spoken out rightly and courageously.
The attacks on missionaries, coming after the nuclear explosions, were a shock to the Western world. The West is completely hypocritical of this, as they still hold piles and piles of nuclear weapons, and that is where the real threat is. After the nuclear explosion, came more fire in the form of the burning of an innocent Australian family. So, you cannot blame those who suddenly feel differently about India. By next year, they may change their opinion!
Do you feel insecure in India now?
You have faith in the ordinary Hindu and his beliefs.
Yes. I realise if I get myself into a political situation where one of these aggressive bodies decide that I am a threat, then my life would be in danger. Otherwise, not. But we have always felt more secure in India than we do in the West. And that probably still holds for 98 per cent of India, at least south India. I do not know north India, as I have spent all my life in south India.
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