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Book Review: Indra’s Net – Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity

Bijoy Misra

“Indra’s Net” – Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity
Book by Rajiv Malhotra
Published by Harper Collins, India, 2014
(xix pp preface + 350 pp)
Review by Bijoy Misra

My faith as “Hindu” is not a part of any competition since Hindu is only a label stamped on me. I belong in the tradition of thinkers who speculated philosophically on the origin of the universe and the role of life in it.  I feel distinct because the faith conforms to the current speculation in Astronomy on the cosmology of our universe.  That I am a small object in the infinite domain of enveloping universes attracts me to the scholars who conceived such thinking several thousand years ago.  That someone in such early time of our civilization could declare that the human being is endowed with a mind that has infinite potential to imagine, plan and organize has puzzled me.  I learned Sanskrit to explore the puzzle and while I was on the path, I encountered Rajiv Malhotra at a Conference in Harvard University in 2001.

Those days, Mr. Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation was supporting Sanskrit and Indian studies at various universities and he himself was attracted to the research undertaken on Hinduism by different groups and individuals.  India is a difficult entity to analyze by a westerner.  In the late Eighteenth century, an English jurist happened to discover the affinity of Sanskrit with Greek and Latin through examining cognates.  There was confusion if “barbaric” Indians could ever produce a language like Sanskrit.  Various speculations were set up stating that Europeans must have invaded India.  Scholars made elaborate rules to connect how words would distort through migration in distance.  Nobody speculated if a piece of sound has any meaning.  We still do not know the answer except we have become aware of the Indian speculation that sound might carry the murmur of the early universe.  The meaning lies hidden in sound!

The massive cosmology of Indian thinking did transform into multiple deities, spirits and divinities through poets’ imagination over time.  A culture based on respecting diversity has grown with idols in every home. Multitudes of temples, shrines and holy places abound in every village, town and city.  Islamic invaders called the culture “Infidel.”  They tried to destroy as many places of worship as they could; the culture survived because of its root in cosmology.  Christian missionaries had little clue to tackle this massive canvas.  They invented various English words to create local definitions.  Huge translation projects tried to find “God” in Indian literature.  Indian God smears itself in all objects in the universes and lives internally in each object.  It contains all objects and holds a lot more to unravel.  It is beyond human comprehension.  “Indra’s Net” is a metaphorical phrase coined to represent this theology three thousand years ago.   Indian God has no translation. It is experienced. “It” simply exists.   
The cosmology is scientific since it provides a framework to understand why objects exist.  It declares that all objects are transient except the framework.  The framework is time independent. The objects may disappear and reappear; they may recycle.  As the modern Hubble universe has no center, India’s cosmological universe has no origin.  It centers in each of us.  There is no reference point.  All prominent physicists have admired this speculation since it helps to apply closure to the theory of creation.  With the advance of our sensing technology, we are verifying more and more of intricacies of the speculation. We are adopting them in our theories of medicine, health, mental science and the physics of life. 

The Indian cosmological design rests on the observation that our mind is our principal sensor.  We can know more and succeed in anything if we apply our mind.  Mind is internal and we can only “see” it if we restrain ourselves from everything else.  Our success of life is how much we “see”.  Two schools can emerge.  One school may advise that we believe in what others “saw” and accept those.  Another school can say to “see” is one’s right as a human being and one must “see” through one’s own experience.  We call the firs school as Shankara’s Advaita School and the second Patanjali’s Yoga School.  The book “Indra’s Net” engages the reader to understand the nuanced details of these two schools of thoughts; how these thoughts integrate to create an Indian faith framework.

Because they found it beyond the river Sindhu, Islamic scholars coined the label “Hindu” to this colorful belief system.  European scholars tried to box it in various ways to find an organization and tried to create various theological speculations to train the missionaries to convert the “heathens” from this “jungle” of belief systems. With the spread of English, these new literature became the staple of the “educated” middle class in India.  Human pettiness, social conflicts and economic opportunism became the symbol of the practice of Hinduism.  The lofty metaphysics got lost in the translation.  Some people think the diversion was due to deliberate misrepresentation.  I have thought that it was more due to ignorance.  The factual history of India for the colonial period needs critical compilation.  Strands of the colonialism still proliferate as scholarship in some circles.  Rajiv Malhotra revolts against this discoloring of “Hindu” faith.  He tries to account the process as observed in the second half of the twentieth century.

My interest in the book rose through its treatment of Swami Vivekananda whom I admired when I was in High School, and whose birth centenary was a major event in my youth.  A young college student was attracted to a mystic priest who influenced him in analyzing the cosmological Indra’s net.  Empowered by Shankara’s prolific writings and influenced by the techniques of yoga, he saw SriKrishna’s Gita as the tool to navigate the net.  Following SriKrishna he abhorred idling and asked people to march to “salvation.”  In the colonial India, “salvation” could be the freedom from foreign rule.  Indians credit Swami Vivekananda to have sown the early seeds of nationalism culminating in India’s freedom.  Spiritual culmination needed awakening of human will and he helped create a band of volunteers to work among the poor, the distressed and the “left outs” in the economic power struggle.  This path of pursuing spirituality through service is a part of original concepts of SriKrishna prompting me to coauthor a book on the topic.   SriKrishna says paths can be many but four are dominant.  All merge in creating a wholesome spiritual life.

That some western scholars would coin a phrase “neo-Hinduism” for the Swami Vivekananda’s model of spiritual development was unknown to me.  It appears that the scholars connected Vivekananda’s tour of the west in the last decade of nineteenth century as his learning experience. The book takes pains to show that service to neighbors and community is an old Indian concept. Indian scriptures are dense, strong and intricate.  The reading itself needs meditative energy.  My personal experience and interaction with many scholars have led me to believe that mastery in Sanskrit does take a fair length of time.  People interpret words by looking up in dictionaries.  Indian scriptures are not self-contained books and the Sanskrit words can take different meanings in different context.  Shankara knew this in 8th century, and emphasized internalization and repeated analysis as the necessary attributes of a student.  In the west, we certainly have paucity of time and teachers.   In the pressure to go with the norm of publication, people do make arbitrary assumptions.  The lack of sophistication in such method of analysis offends Rajiv Malhotra deeply.  I would have ignored had I been India.  I get concerned because the new literature does become the reading material for my own children and grandchildren, who would have little access to good traditional resources.     

Through meticulous research and massive referencing, Rajiv Malhotra exposes the problem in viewing Hinduism in some quarters of western scholarship.  He goes on to provide evidence of “digestion” where a western enterprise can utilize an Indian concept or invention without an acknowledgment of its source.  No Indian has patented the old techniques of yoga, breathing, body exercises, herbal remedies or nutrition.  There is no ownership by a school or a center or a State.  The open architecture helps sprout ideas but allows an idea to be stolen easily.  It is probably not the fault of the new engineer.  His/her source lies with the translations and interpretations by the nineteenth century scholars.  The magisterial personalities of Yajnavalkya, Panini, Valmiki, Bhartrhari, Shankara are absent from the modern discourse. Kalidasa is called “Shakespeare of India;” none says Shakespeare as “Kalidasa of the West” though Kalidasa preceded Shakespeare by more than a thousand years!     

Rajiv Malhotra coins the phrase “Open architecture” in order to define the Hindu system that can easily appear chaotic to an outsider.  I like the system as a principle, because it throws away all regimentation creating rules suitable to the local groups.  Birds go one way, elephants go another way, they are each important in Indra’s net.  I disagree with Mr. Malhotra that there would be any threat to the majesty of the net though some local fabrications might occur.  What I am concerned is that Indians have failed to produce scholars to help expose the intricacies of chaos engineering to the new youth. Indian diaspora abroad needs education on its roots.  Colonization exploits and  there is not much point in pointing fingers at the colonizers.  It is like the current Muslim in India.  They were converted from their old faith at the risk of their life.  Nobody should blame them for the oppression of Hindu society under the Islamic rule.  They also belong in the cosmological net.

I enjoyed reading the book “Indra’s Net” and would recommend to all open-minded people in every faith.  It has particular significance for people like me who wish to practice their Hindu faith in the open society of the United States.  The future of Hindu faith is not in building temples for the deities but in exposing the splendor of Indian metaphysics that has cosmological, neurological, linguistic and intellectual rigor to help develop wholesomeness in human life. India knew the evolution of man before Darwin observed it. We must not throw away a Sanskrit mantra because it is difficult to pronounce! We practice mantra with rigor to help control our breathing In order to gain health.  We must not ignore the effect of sun, moon, air, water and the nourishment in our local life under some pretext, or for convenience.  That every action of ours including our thought and speech has an effect on the entire net is the beauty of Hindu faith.  This awareness is our only useful knowledge “vidya”.

It is worth mentioning that the organization of the book and the style of presentation made the book interesting for me.  The book has two sections with two opposing camps of ideas.  This style of writing developed in India to document philosophical discourses conducted on complex topics.  The scholars presented the opposing arguments first stating them as “purvapaksha” (earlier side) and then proceeded to present the counter arguments as “uttarapaksha” (response side).  In both these segments, Mr. Malhotra enhances clarity through multiple tables and sketches as in a classroom tutorial.  He cites people with their detailed work demonstrating his own academic capacity of absorbing conflicting ideas and understanding their significance.  He has been a champion of individual signature of faith and ideas as he exhibited in his earlier book “Being Different.”  He demonstrates his knack of respecting individuality with clarity of reference.  I enjoyed his masterly analysis enjoining Nagarjuna of Buddhism, Haribhadra of Jainism and Shankara of the Advaita School.  It is a good show of scholarship.
I congratulate Mr. Malhotra to have written the book.  Though it starts with the premise of criticizing the models of Hinduism developed in some schools in the west, it exposes the reader on the development of Hindu thought.  It presents the works of the magnificent personalities who have helped nurture the thought through debates, analysis and self-exploration. All serious readers must engage Mr. Malhotra in debates on serious factual issues raised in the book.  I recommend the book for a good and thorough reading.   

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