Spiritual Freedom and the Sacred Geography of Bharata

The concept of Purusharthas is one of the most singular and unique contributions to world culture,  civilisation and human living. This is perhaps one of the best models for both a personal code of conduct for leading one’s life and an exploration of the much-touted western notion of individual freedom in its most profound sense.

The True Freedom

Individual freedom in the truest sense of the word is spiritual freedom. If you can’t choose your Gods, your way of worship, and whether you even want to believe in what is known as God or no, it is worth little having any other freedom. Without spiritual freedom, all other freedoms are meaningless.

In the context of Indian philosophy, spirituality–more fundamentally, philosophy–involves an examination of the nature of relationship between the individual, the material world and the Supreme Being (whatever name we want to give it). The six schools of Hindu philosophy examine this relationship in their own ways. Indeed, the existence of these six schools is the best and long-standing evidence of the expression of spiritual freedom. However, all these schools also recognise the fact that the individual, based on his/her nature and temperament, is free to lead a life of his/her choosing. It is because of this that there is no scope for totalitarianism in Indian culture. It is also because of this that there is no concept of Prophethood in Indian culture. By definition, Prophethood proscribes individual freedom.

The four Purusharthas (or the Fourfold Objects): Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha are not rules but guidelines, which help an individual lead a virtuous, meaningful and fulfilling life. It is merely a framework which helps an individual to lead a life according to his/her temperament—for example, one person can perform a certain duty while another can relinquish that same duty.

This freedom is what made Hinduism highly decentralised and allowed it to survive centuries of barbaric Muslim onslaught. It is the lack of this decentralisation that made Buddhism a sitting duck for Islamic invaders, who wiped it out of India. This freedom is also what made Hinduism a highly responsive and adaptive religion. It has met unique challenges at different points in history by quickly adapting itself so that the core, the essence remained the same but its expressions were modified. For example, when Aurangzeb banned the external practice of Hinduism—temples, rituals, prayers, etc, the concept of worshipping within closed doors came into widespread prominence.

Indeed, it is this absolute spiritual freedom that has enabled the flowering and development of hundreds of sects, and schools—Shaiva, Shakta, Ganapatha, Tantra, Yoga, Shakti Vishishtadvaita, etc. On a related note, one can recall an incident concerning the Naga Sadhus, which used to be well-known at one point in time. Back in the period of the colonial British Government, some officers found it appalling that Naga Sadhus would go around naked and indulge in what they perceived as unhygienic and barbaric acts. And so, they passed an order banning Naga Sadhus much like how today the Most Virtuous, the Most Wise and the Supremely Honourable SC is busy passing verdicts banning and tampering with only Hindu practices and customs. In those days, the ban caused a revolt from the Naga Sadhus who said their freedom to worship was being impinged upon. After much back and forth, a representative of the Naga Sadhus met the concerned British official and presented his case. He said the Naga Sadhus would agree to all conditions of the British provided they also did what the Sadhus did. The British official said yes. And so the Sadhu defecated in front of the British official and ate his own shit, and said, “Now you do this as well, and we will gladly obey your orders.” The British learnt their lesson and left the Naga Sadhus alone.

However, the supreme tragedy of contemporary Bharata is that “independent” India’s judiciary seems far more skilled at oppressing Hindus and is more hard-hearted than India’s colonial masters.

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However, to Indians, the sight of Naga Sadhus isn’t shocking, bizarre or disgusting. The same applies to say the Aghoris or the Tantriks or the hundreds of other sects and sub-sects and paths that have their own unique internal spiritual practices.

This conception of Purusharthas is so ingrained in the Indian civilisational consciousness that it has become a part of our lives whether we realise it actively or no: an immense respect for education and learning, the various rituals associated at different stages in one’s life, raising children and paying for their marriage even, the joint family system (which is almost dead now), looking after parents in their old age, going to pilgrimages in (typically) old age, etc. All of these form part of Samskaras. When we realise how these are intricately woven with Purusharthas we are speechless with the sheer genius of the countless minds that crafted the Sanatana civilisation and way of life.

The Sacred Geography

These are some of the main points that show the core and the essence and the uniqueness of the Hindu philosophy, spirituality, etc. Perhaps only Indians of all of world’s cultures have the ability to perceive the sacred in everything. It must be emphasised that there’s a very fine difference between the word “sacred” and “God” in the Western sense.

This also fits in with what the earlier note about how India has elevated even its physical geography into an expression of high philosophy, spirituality and piety. You can conceive the Indian geography any which way, and you can find a beautiful, spiritual explanation for it. If you conceive it as Devi, you have the 51 Shakti Peethas; if you conceive it as Shiva, you have the 12 Jyotir Lingas; if you conceive it as the human body, you have the four granthis (that correspond to Kanyakumari, Vindhyas, Himalayas and the Kailas Manasa Sarovar); if you conceive it as water, you can realise any one of the seven Sacred Rivers in a drop of water in the palm of your hand. If you conceive it as a tree, the image of the Akshaya Vata Vriksha at Gaya comes to your mind instantly; if you conceive it as a mountain, you have the Himalayas and the Vindhyas or the Meru.

Behind all of this is the idea of providing a spiritual dimension to the physical and geographic features of the landmass called India. This is the reason India has so many pilgrimage spots both renowned and obscure. And almost all of these spots are covered in the Hindu almanac or Panchangam.

Sahasrabahu Temple

What applies to the physical geography applies to almost every other facet. Be it art, music, dance, sculpture, temples, painting, drama, poetry, and literature.

And these in turn are derived from the high philosophy of Vedanta or Universal Oneness, or non-discrimination. When we note the simple fact that fear is the root of discrimination, we also realise another fundamental difference. Abrahamic cultures and religions are premised on an assumption that Otherness is both absolute and unchangeable through human efforts. This prohibits free philosophical and spiritual inquiry in these religions. They preach that the only solution to mankind’s problems lies in a total dependence on the political machinery, that because feelings of superiority and inferiority are eternal, social reform is both an illusion and impossible and so on.

And then we also had some thinkers and intellectuals who approached social equality exclusively in economic terms and concluded that the history of mankind indicates only class conflict and nothing else—Marxism is the biggest example for this. When this was taken to its extreme, logical end, it resulted in wars, famine, and other destructive episodes worldwide. From this perspective, religion and culture are seductive subjects of mere academic study and endless intellectual speculation. In summary, any faith or system that preaches Soullessness cannot bring about peace to the world or to the individual.

This is where Vedanta offers a practical solution to this problem of Otherness.

And it is the various, practical applications of Vedanta that made India the greatest civilisation in the world. It is the various cultural manifestations of Vedanta that made India flourish amidst its extraordinary diversity and helped it attain excellence in almost all spheres of human endeavour. It is Vedanta that gave Hinduism its fabled but incorrect label of “tolerance.” It is incorrect because “tolerance” has negative connotations. Vedanta provides a framework to assimilate and accommodate new and diverse forms of worship, beliefs, paths, and so on. It could do this because it had the equipment to critically analyse these faiths. That equipment was Dharma. Indeed, it was Dharma that blunted the edge of violent and mercenary faiths like Islam in India.

Now, to the contemporary mind, there is some difficulty in comprehending such cultural facets, etc purely from a Vedantic standpoint because it is trained in a certain fashion, and shaped by certain modes of thinking. People from even two generations ago faced no such problem simply because they intuitively accepted that they were part of a timeless and long-standing tradition of dharma, and that it was in turn their dharma to perpetuate it. However, for good or for bad, we have been shaped largely by the Western mode of training our mind, which to a great extent hinders an accurate understanding of Hinduism and concepts like dharma. The other reason is adopting a piecemeal approach or viewing only specific aspects of Hinduism in isolation. This simply does not work because almost everything in Hinduism is interconnected.

To illustrate this, let me take the random example of temple sculpture. Apart from its aesthetic beauty and adherence to the rules of temple building, we have a complex array of sculptures and deities which seem to be placed there randomly. However, there’s an underlying unity and order to it. To fathom this, one needs to know our epics, Puranas, the various Gods and Demigods, symbolism, our conceptions of say, time and sex…the list is endless. Yet another reason is that Hinduism is a living tradition and the only way to accurately understand a living tradition is to…well, live it.

Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.