The “Soul” in Hinduism: An alternative view of life and freedom

In this reflective article, I am putting in dialogue the modern scientific discourses of life and freedom on earth with the ancient discourses of life and freedom in Hindu Vedic sciences. In so doing, I show that the global hegemonic discourses of life and freedom originating in modern sciences and as derived from the European Enlightenment reason, the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man or the works of Copernicus and Galileo, physics, chemistry, biology and so on have yet to replace the Hindu sciences and its theory of divine creation. The aim here is to show how even as the narratives of human evolution shifted in modern times to what Nietzsche would call “mechanistic force”, the Hindus continue to believe in the supernatural force that humans have a “soul” (atma) and practice their notions of “freedom” in terms of liberation of the “soul”.

Introduction and the context

In places like Nepal, where I come from, the discourses of “development” or “modernity” (Nepali terms are bikas or adhunikaran) fuel the dominant imagery of historical progress and the ultimate end of man in the world. As imparted through educational institutions, these modern discourses make the entire people in the world to believe not in “soul” but in their physical existence or the body as the only truth. This care of the body (devoid of a soul) in terms of pleasure and happiness it derives from material accumulation in a world devoid of heaven and hell have been overtly used by development specialists and social scientists that interested me to put in dialogue with the discourses of “soul” in Hindu sciences.

Meat eating and the idea of ‘development’ in Nepal

Following a recent research findings from Oxford University that “we must change what we eat to solve-climate crisis-shows-research“, (see https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2020-11-06), I found myself reflecting back on the global discourses of food and diets in Nepal which contest the local practices of “soul” thinking. One of the key problems in Nepal as shown by a 1991 World Bank report was dietary practice: “Locals subsist on barely rice and lentils gruel and almost never eat meat”. One of the aims of the reform in education is to alter that practice by introducing meat technology. Building Block No. 8 is an eight-room Meat Pilot Plant at a university campus in Dharan, eastern Nepal, which became the focus of this fieldwork. Under the rules of “autonomy”, the campus opened a state-of-the-art butchery technology as part of the research and development of meat technology. The knowledge why this is necessary is to increase the daily consumption of meat to ‘up’ the country’s status of being “developed” and to recognize the Nepalese as ‘normal’ human beings on par with the Europeans. The “meat technology” launched under the B.Tech and M.Tech programmes was the most interesting of all the observations.

What is baffling is- why the Nepalese must eat meat on a daily basis where they lived without it for centuries ? Two teachers who teach meat technology, when contacted, offered the view that Nepal is the third largest consumer of meat in South Asia after Afghanistan and Pakistan. They believed that Nepal must rank the biggest meat consumer in South Asia and gradually reach Western levels of meat eating in order to be properly ranked as “developed”. One of the teachers bemoaned that the country had yet to adopt a culture of raising and breeding animals for meat. He was pained at finding the people in Nepal, who according to Nanda Shrestha, “consumed some meat on one of the very few times during the year”. This was seen as a sign of weakness unbecoming of the modern society. A range of development literatures and scholarly works informed by the modernist ideas of liberation and freedom from the European horizon of progress have come to influence the ruling elites’ aspirations for meat-eating introduced in Nepal as a solution to the alleged problems of archaic superstition.

Human development, freedom and consumer goods

The modern narratives of freedom of life or its end in the world appear in the dominant global discourses of “human development” in terms of fulfilling man’s hunger for consumer goods such as new hybrids of chickens, goats, pigs and cows; availability of chemical fertilizers, water supply, gas, petrol, diesel, roads, hospitals, dams, schools, electricity and medicines and such other material goods required for the care of the physical body. Accumulation of these materials seem to evoke a sense of ultimate ‘freedom’ and meaning of life on earth. Education and development policies are overwhelmingly concerned with how best to accumulate these materials to live happy and free in the world and which aspires to become more rational human knowledge in the world. The practices of freedom in terms of liberation of the “soul” is however conceived as being mythical, primitive or lacking in scientific knowledge.

In this piece, I discuss how such systematic reductions of the alternative practices of freedom come alive despite the global hegemonic discourses of body materiality. With all its inherent tensions, in the following sections, I introduce one such alternative view on life and freedom in the world which might help us address modern problems such as climate change, disease and violence. First, I start with what I discovered in Nepal during a fieldwork sponsored by the Department of People and Technology, Roskilde University. This is a snapshot of the small part of the fieldwork as part of my PhD project and not the entire picture of the thesis.

Nepal- ‘Ama was worried her children and grandchildren will not go to heaven after consuming meat’.

During fieldwork, in one of the households in Kathmandu, we met Ama (mother) who was visibly angry with her children and grandchildren for violating the rules of purity and sanctity of her home, which was handed down from her grandparents. She was unhappy because her children and grandchildren started cooking and eating meat on a daily basis. But in her 80s, frail and weak, like a broken doll, she was unable to enforce the orderliness of the house now invaded by her modernized children and grandchildren. Schooled in Kathmandu and India’s modern cities of Bangalore and Delhi, they would not believe in “soul” or “gods”. “This world is slipping out of my hand. Let them do whatever they like after I die,” she said. She thought the new cultural items her children and grandchildren now consume would not liberate their souls. She was a vegetarian who wore swathes of clothes around her body, crowned in a traditional veil, put vermilion on her forehead, offered water to the sun god and Tūlsī each morning, and murmured the names of gods all day – a discipline that her children and grandchildren had failed to appreciate. They were waiting for her departure from the world one day when they would assemble in their own space in the kitchen and living room to cook meat or organize a drink party when they would have realised their full sense of freedom.

During that fieldwork, the discourses about “soul” came alive and I couldn’t  ignore it: A salvation-oriented path to freedom, which Ama followed, vis a vis the modern and materialistic one fuelled by the concern for bodily pleasure and happiness in the world followed by her children. Thus, as Arjun Appadurai writes, “the torn loyalties of families that have members of varying groups within the same household” came alive and true. The fieldwork discovered broadly two contested social territories in Nepal and India challenging modernity as a singular world view. The one represented by Ama was governed by a vibrant practice of “soul” in Hinduism and a different conception of happiness from that pursued by modern materialism of living only in the world to one of securing freedom in the next world. When the actors talked about the difficulties of implementing modern education reform as sponsored by the World Bank in the field of practice (the focus of the study), they frequently referred to this tussle as if the two cannot exist together.

Sadhus/jogis, enjoying some down time

An encounter with a Jogi-‘driving devils out of the home’

Quite by chance, I stumbled upon Nepal’s oldest job: “driving devils out of the home”. I was interviewing a Maoist actor, who took the view that traditional values and institutions in Nepal and India were on decline with the development of modern sciences, when I stumbled upon a vibrant Hindu social custom. A jogi performing phērī ritual (a practice of roaming around households at midnight blowing a conch and driving out evil spirits from the surroundings). The first night in Kathmandu, when I arrived for my fieldwork, such a jogi came in at midnight blowing his conch and chanting ancient Hindu mantras. The next morning Kathmandu residents offered a dan (gift) to the jogi for warding off evil spirits they believe become active in the night. Here was a salvation-oriented form of truth and power which the Hindus believed in for years.

Jogis are the disciples of Gorakhnath, a Hindu saint, who lived in 11th century Nepal and India. The saint authorized the Jogis to protect the people from evil spirits believed to be active in the midnight of the lunar Nepali and Indian calendar. One of the oldest professions in Nepal, this form of practice was still legitimate for some people but excluded from the modern education and knowledge system. The next morning, I asked Sabitri didi (sister, in Nepali), how despite being modern, the Kathmandu residents continue to believe in such primitive practices. She narrated the story of how her neighbour inscribed the images of gods and goddesses on his compound wall so as to stop the local passers-by from peeing on the wall. Where a fifty-year-old modern education had failed to stop the practice, the images of gods and goddess worked effectively to stop the practice. This was not the focus of my study; it helped me reflect on the plurality of our world and multiple social arrangements of our time which I thought is important for the Western scholarship to have a better understanding of the diversities that shape us today and the multiple geographies of time, space, histories and culture that make this world.

An auspicious day to die

Tarul/yams sold in Nepalese market

After the Jogi, there came a most auspicious day to die on earth between January–February throughout Nepal and northern India. In January, Nepalese and Indian Hindus observed that day as māghē saṅkrānti by taking ritual baths in the “holy” rivers, eating only tarul and ladoo (pure food) to bring to mind god Vishnu, who is regarded by the Hindus as the supreme soul and the creator of the matter, the universe, the world, man, insects, plants etc. Vishnu is believed to have nine earthly incarnations or avatars, including Ram, Krishna and Buddha. Some would even regard Jesus Christ as an avatar of Vishnu. The present avatar is believed to be of Kali, a female god, which symbolises the present time, what many Hindus call kaliyug [age of the kali] marked by a fury of god such as manifested in the climate change. The locals reason that this happens as more people left the path of dharma (“righteousness”) or simplicity and calm which they argue characterised the previous era. Below the trinity, the Hindus believe there are 33 trillion other lesser gods, which include the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and the stars. This came to light when I took part in a ritual bath during a field trip to Nepal and India. If someone died on that day, they were considered “lucky” to get the liberation of their soul to heaven. Even if they didn’t die, a “holy” dip in water was believed to purge their souls of the sins or contamination. I also visited the holly site Vrindavan, the birthplace of god Krishna (one of the incarnations of Vishnu). The devotees worshipped the sun god as a symbol of power at rivers by dipping themselves in “holy” waters and offering waters to the Sun God. The devotees believed that to die on a day between January and February would be auspicious for the “soul” to attain its eternity, a permanent salvation.

Local discourses of “life” and “soul”

Pashupatinath (Shiva) temple, Nepal

What interested me in particular during a fieldwork in Nepal was my encounter with a sadhu (Hindu sage) who was giving a sermon on the dead body on funeral pyre at the famous temple of Pashupatinath. I was visiting Kathmandu for a fieldwork as part of my doctoral project in Denmark. It was February 24, 2013. A dead body shrouded in an orange colour lay on the river bed next to the Pashupatinath shrine with its feet half dipped in the “holy” water of Bagmati river. The corpse gleamed as it caught the full moon light from the cloudless sky. It was 7 pm. Next to the river, a band performed aarti (celestial offering). Two people washed the feet of the corpse and mounted it gently on the funeral pyre made out of a pile of wood. Pashupatinath Temple is a sacred place of Hindu worship, and a place for burial. Thousands of sadhus who have abandoned their worldly attachments come here during the Śivarātri festival, marked to worship Lord Śivā, one of the three godheads in Hinduism associated with the powers of reproduction and dissolution. The most memorable event that evening was attending a prayer congregation with my relatives and neighbours. During the fieldwork, I immersed myself in local Hindu cultural and religious activities. My role as a new ethnographer was to gain an experience of how my respondents think and live their lives before interpreting their stories. This was required for the knowledge of the social world is an activity we do [together]. What attracted me was that the sadhu who was telling the story of life and death through the metaphorical description of the human body as “a drop of water on a yam leaf” and the “soul” as the only real, authentic, permanent and indestructible force and the only truth (satya) about humans.

Someone in the group questioned him, “What would happen to the atma (soul) once it leaves the body after death?” The sadhu replied that the human life is a karkalako pani (drop of water collected on a yam leaf). The mortal body, like that water drop, highly unstable and temporary, is subject to death and disappearance. “Look! it is turning into ashes, leaving no traces behind.” He argued that the formless soul that escapes from body is the only satya (truth), which is eternal. He persuaded us to believe that this is the nature of reality in Hinduism. This form of truth rested on a belief in karma and which came alive in the field work challenging the global metanarratives of modern human praxis.

Liberation of the “soul”, in sum, is what the Hindus describe their “freedom” is about. Here was a serious question concerning the “soul” that didn’t rest on the assumptions of capitalism or the materiality of things or substance. Here was a concern beyond the temporality of the physical world. Sadly, however, there is no discussion in Western literature about this alternative view of life and freedom.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

In my desperate search for more comparative literatures on Western and Eastern philosophies, I ended up reading Radhakrishnan’s 1974 lecture series delivered at the Oxford University wherein he ascribed the modern Western conception of “happiness” or “freedom” -of being in the world – as originating in the Greeks and not Hinduism. Radhakrishnan attributes the Western conception of freedom and happiness to Solon and approved by Herodotus in this lecture where a happy and free man is described as: “A whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children and comely to look upon. If in addition to all these he ends his life well, he is of a truth the man of whom thou art in search, the man who may rightly be termed happy.” This contrasted with the Hindu philosophy of life and death I encountered during a summer holiday in the US.

A Bhagavat Puran in the US

Bhagwat Puran

On another occasion, I was on a summer holiday in the United States when I happened to listen to the biggest Hindu epic Bhagavat Puran to make sense of the embodied morality and spiritual destiny in Hinduism. This Epic is believed to have been composed around 9th or 10th century CE and still to this day, there continues a practice in the form of a week-long storytelling from the text in The Bhagavat Purana. The place visited was Colchester, Vermont, USA, where I had one more opportunity to learn Hinduism and its beliefs in the “soul”. The Puran was held in my relative’s house to liberate the “souls” of their dead ancestors believed to be roaming around the world in the form of spirits unable to liberate themselves. Four priests including their head Swamijee coordinated and conducted the week-long rites to liberate those souls. Swamijee and his aides recited the Sanskrit shlokas from The Bhagavad Puran with their meanings translated from Sanskrit to Nepali, while others listened to the stories amid singings and hand-clapping. The priests claimed citing verses from the Sanskrit texts locating the practice to the time of Ram who was believed to be born in “Tretayuga”. The time when Krishna was born was described as “dwaparyuga”, and the present as “kaliyuga” (there is no English translation or equivalent of these periods). The former two periods were described as the most progressive, advanced and ideally happy, where the people were believed to have lived in an ideally happiness. The latter, or the present was described as the fury of God. Thus, came alive an alternative account of historical progress.

Two weeks later, after a two-hour drive from Boston, we arrived at a relative’s home in Springfield. The door was adorned with a ‘Welcome’ banner. The wall of the sitting room was decorated with images of Hindu gods and goddesses of amazing varieties. On one of the posters on the wall, a huge cobra spread its fangs. Next to it was a statue of a dancing Shiva. On its right was Kali and left was Buddha. Grandma sat on a chair in front of the Cobra breathing through the aid of a pipe that was fastened to her nose. She murmured gods’ names all the time. She had just returned from the hospital after treating her asthma. She barely spoke a word in English or pronounce the names ‘George Washington’ or ‘Donald Trump’ but her grand-son, 10, did fluently in American ascent. She was attending a citizenship class to belong to America. Their household was a complex admixture of Nepali and English languages. The household had two televisions, each perpetually showing the epic battle of the Mahabharata and an American action-packed movie respectively. The adults in the household watched the epic but the younger generation watched the action-packed romantic English movie. The youth in the household who attended college didn’t believe in gods or epic battles but watched Madonna and Rambo to derive their sense of pleasure and happiness. They built their bodies to imitate their own protagonists in the screens. That encounter opened somewhat, but not all, what Samuel Huntington would prefer “a world divided into several civilizations with often irreconcilable worldviews.” Thus, a globalized world in the heart of America consisting of “fluid and negotiable ethnic identities” came alive (paraphrasing Arjun Appadurai).

Those who view globalization as a real object or a historical progress from a murkier beginning must be puzzled here. It was also not true that the globalization or modernity would bring about a ruin in peripheral nation’s religion, culture, language and history under the hegemonic control of the powerful ones. The Bhagavat Puran in the heart of America defied that claim. It was difficult to pin down with certainty what I saw or experienced was modernity or a globalized world. There were diversities of meanings and practices of “freedom” which defied the singular description of the present as “modern”. The Bhagavat Puran in the heart of America didn’t confirm to the rhetoric of globalisation as a global homogenizing process or a democratizing and modernizing phenomenon nor proved to be a “cross-cultural consumption” or “deterritorialization”. It neither appeared to be a “Westernization” project. Far from undermining cultural integrity of other cultures, far from being repressive, exploitative, or harmful, it allowed some people in some places and time the freedom to enact their own ancient social arrangements. Thus, a culturally diverse world composed of many different realities came alive.

Indian story teller

In Colchester, what was more interesting was the storyteller who read the Hindu Epic battle from the dais and commanded the devotees or listeners that their mind be possessed by only one object – God! Previous anthropologists in Nepal and India have disregarded these epics and story-tellings as “fatalistic”, “thoughtless”, and “unimaginative”.

Dor Bahadur Bista, Nepali thinker and author

Highly celebrated Nepalese anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista, for example, criticizes Hindu Sanskritic, Puranic texts as the source of underdevelopment in Nepal. He argues that Nepal will not develop because such texts directly destroy “any seed of personal initiative” and therefore “any entrepreneurial interest and future-oriented activity”. How is it that here in the heart of America, his advices have gone into deaf ears? This finding puzzled me and I couldn’t possibly ignore to include here as a discussion. What is more, many people of Nepal and India have found those Vedic discourses on “soul” and its technologies of mindfulness so meaningful that they are becoming a new social movement in the world which might offer some solutions to the problems invented by modernist emancipatory knowledge of life and living on earth.

(Any comments and discussions on this piece are welcome in this blog or in personalised message to nitya.n.timsina@gmail.com as long as they are within the acceptable limits).

Nitya Nanda Timsina

Department of People and Technology, Roskilde University

nitya.n.timsina@gmail.com

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