Of Gods & Bhagwans

The limits of one’s understanding of the world around us are defined by the constraints of the language used. If there is no linguistic element available to understand something, whatever is being observed is, logically speaking, out of human comprehension. The ones observing the event can only know that they are observing an event, but the act of describing what they have observed will objectively be beyond the powers of their comprehension. One such example is the western religious idea of God.

The manner of construction of faith is around an external entity that is beyond human perception is easy to be pseudo-scientific about. It’s easy to legitimize that God is beyond the dimensions of human comprehension & is therefore invisible to our perception. That is not the argument I am making here. This is in a direct rebuttal to the Christian characterization of Hindu idol worship, if that’s even the word to use. As per Matt Fradd, a Christian YouTube channel host, any God that is not the Holy Father is demonic & satanic. The only extension of that thought would be to suggest that Hindus are demon-worshipping sinners. My problem lies in the translation we have appropriated to suggest the equivalence of God with the Sanskrit word “Bhagwan” or “Daiva” or “Deva” or any such words. Not only that, the sanskrit version of “Puja” & “Archana” and other religious practices to show our obeisance is not the same as worship or prayer. As it turns out, one of the key tenets of the religious justification for crusades against what the English language offers us the words to describe as idol-worshipping idiots is centered around this construction of thought.

One has to be careful with translation of words as the meaning can get bungled up if we miss out the history & etymology. God is someone who’s pure & immaculate; nothing wrong can ever be done by God even if it were brutal. This is because God has a plan beyond our comprehension. This God is immune from the idiosyncrasies of humanity. The idea is to have a moral North Star so immaculate that the standard to achieve is quite high for the average human. However, this God exists outside humanity for we are the creation of this magnanimous & ever-watchful benevolent presence. The Indian concept of Bhagwan is anything but a God. The word originates from bhog, meaning a good deed. A bhagwan is anyone who commits a good deed so impactful, their life offers a lesson that can be emulated. If someone offers this example over a long period of time, he or she has offered enough examples to learn from. Bhagwan is not a God in some distant dimension beyond human comprehension. It could be our neighbour who lives a life worth knowing about. This is hardly God-like. Daiva on the other hand is derived from daya, meaning kindness or compassion. This is also a human trait. The idea is that there is good in anyone who commits a good deed. The very fact that there is a distinction between good & bad means that there are ethical norms expected of people to follow. These standards are vague enough to be debated on but solid enough to understand. Such principles have a word in Sanskrit to describe them – Dharma. And like the Austrian economic principles, these dharmic norms apply at the margin. There is no blanket statement with a sweeping declaration. What is good in one situation may be the absolute opposite in the other. The governing factors of every situation decide how one must act. Having a precedent or two helps. These precedents are obtained from those around us.

The fact is that every human has a dharma at every instance that can conflict with the others. If a relative of mine were to be convicted of a crime, should I side with family or the victim of the crime? I have the dharma towards my family but I also have dharma to side with the one to whom an injury was done. Christianity says that one must not steal. But what if something has been stolen from me? If I take back what’s rightfully mine, is it still stealing? I am no expert of Christian liturgy but this is not an easy conflict to address if there is a rule to adhere to. To have absolute moral standards may be good to ensure everyone has the same standard; it is in the implementation that this often devolves to fundamentalism. A great example is the abortion debate in the USA. One could either be in the camp that wants no abortions ever, while the other wants a choice to be given to women. How do we create a proposition that encompasses every situation as writ law while also being inclusive of every nuance of every situation? A moral society that uses a tool as it’s expected to be used would not need laws. I am firmly on the side of the women having a choice with a caveat. It should be the last thing to do & must not be the first thing that one considers. To quote an example; if childbirth could either kill the mother or the baby, I would side with the mother being kept alive so that she can still be a parent & adopt a child. The point is that this is a situation-based decision & not one made with an absolute moral. Absolute morals are the gateway to unfairness in implementation.

The dharmic approach to morals is only out to pick the least worst option among the various choices. In the end, we understand trade-offs that had been made. One strawman argument against Ram is that he banished his wife from the kingdom because someone in his kingdom said something in correspondence to Sita living in another man’s house. This is the character of Ram in the Ramayana. He is someone obsessed with consistency in how he applies his principles – sometimes to a fault. What Ram did with Sita isn’t something to glorify; it is to point out that being excessively principled can sometimes not be a good thing. How does a reader know when to not apply principles? No instructions are laid out. It is for each reader to independently think & analyse. This active contribution back to reading is built-in to the storytelling. However, it must be noted that is the normative expectation that one must question the proceedings to arrive at one’s own independent conclusion.

Bhagavad Gita is not the equivalent to the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai. It is not the song of God. Rather, it’s the song of one bhagwan, Krishna. I will venture as far as saying Hindu philosophy has no gods. It has men & women in its mythology, each of them committing deeds that have helped humanity in finding a new path forward. We don’t pray to such bhagwans. We merely try to remember them & their deeds, while trying to emulate the good they may have done. We admit that there has been some contribution made to the average wisdom of society wherein things that work have been noted to have worked. There is acknowledgement that there is no completion to such wisdom & that new principles must be added. The minute this stops, Hinduism stops being Hindu. It becomes a perverted version of God worship wherein the thought is that there is complete wisdom available. At that stage, the western liturgy is not wrong to deem Hindus as demon-worshippers.

In that sense, the eastern way of remembering the good deeds of those before effectively de-legitimizes God. Bhagwan becomes “a good ancestor” in English. However, the English language offers the opportunity to only imagine messianic figures that deliver humanity from their sins into a kingdom of the Creator. This gap of understanding can create serious problems. The modern day lingua anglica offers incomplete tools to understand the world & its ideas. Sanskrit & English are not constructed the same way as languages; these differences crop up in every facet of life. In my limited understanding, this is what I have been able to observe. Whatever is beyond me, I know not at this point.

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