One summer afternoon, a group of 100 or so middle-aged Hindus gathered in the basement assembly hall of a Toronto temple. They had come from all across Ontario to listen to a renowned swami from India. Some brought their Canadian-born children with them, as the discourse was to be in English. The chairs and a stage with a podium made the gathering look more like a conference than a traditional Hindu prayer meeting.
After a Sanskrit prayer, the holy man extolled the greatness of Hindu philosophy and its universality while the spellbound audience listened in awed silence. Invited to question anything troubling about Hinduism, more than a dozen people, including two teenaged girls in jeans and a middle-aged woman in a sari, jumped to their feet. Within minutes, the peaceful discourse turned into a noisy debate. The swami found himself besieged.
*If our religion is so great, why did upper-caste Hindus mistreat poor Untouchables?
*Why did Krishn have so many girl friends?
*How can we consider Rama an incarnation of God when he banished his innocent wife to the forest?
*Why did Tulsi Das, the author of the great epic Ramayan, condemn women?
*Why did Manu, the ancient Hindu law-giver, say women must be subservient to men from birth to death?
The swami remained unruffled as he answered each question. The meeting ended with a prayer for world peace. Every questioner approached the podium and touched the swami’s feet, a gesture Hindus reserve for honoring elders, teachers and the holy.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The Hindu Canadians who gave the Indian swami such a hard time were neither detractors nor heretics. They were devout Hindus simply exercising the freedom of expression enshrined in ancient scriptures more than 5,000 years ago.
A logical scrutiny, discussion and investigation of beliefs is not only permitted in Hinduism but also encouraged and welcomed. The process is called shanka samadhan, removal of doubts. It is not viewed as weakening faith but as strengthening confidence.
Charvaka, one of the great skeptics of all time, founded a nihilistic school of thought in India around 600 B.C. He denied the existence of God, the authority of Hindu scriptures and repudiated all doctrines. His followers, called Nastikas, asserted there was no life after death, religious ideas were delusions and moral values were mere conventions
Neither Charvaka nor the Nastikas suffered any dire consequences at the hands of the Hindu orthodoxy. In fact, literature on Charvaka’s philosophy is still available.
Freedom of thought and expression were always an important aspect of the Hindu way of life, long before independent India became a parliamentary democracy in 1947. The lawgivers of modern India did not forget the warning of their ancient sages:
“O King! the speech made by the learned ones was not to be suppressed. O powerful king! do not desire to suppress the speech of the learned ones as it cannot be silenced.” [Atharva Veda: 5-18-1]
Hindus zealously guard this liberty. In 1976, when then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended all human rights and imprisoned her political foes, she suffered a humiliating defeat in the next election.
Canadian Hindu youths learning about Hinduism discover their religion, despite its antiquity, is neither dogmatic nor autocratic. They don’t have to accept their faith blindly. It allows them the freedom to question and challenge without fear of reprisal or being accused of blasphemy.
Article By: Ajit Adhopia
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