Sunday January 21, 2018

Upholding Hindu Cremation: Lets stay true to our tradition

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Hindu Cremation. Photo: Wikipedia
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Here is an article by Sanjay Adhikari wherein he gives a call for upholding Hindu traditional way of life and traditional practices like Cremation. The article was originally published in The Kathmandu Post

“Sanskrit is an orthodox subject of feudalist Brahmans” is what I remember from my memory of class two. The school I studied in trusted these words and dropped Sanskrit as a subject. These words left a great mark on my mind. I thought wearing a coat, a pair of pants, speaking in English, and using a fork and spoon would make me modern. I hallucinated that I was modern, but this hallucination ended during my A-levels, when I found out that 14 universities in Germany were teaching Sanskrit for developing the modern mind. What we threw away, calling a feudal orthodox subject, was a tool for modernity and development for them.

A few weeks ago, the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) introduced electric cremation as a symbol of modernity and development. PADT claims there is no difference between the traditional cremation process and the modern electric cremation process from a Dharma perspective, and that it is more beneficial economically and environmentally. Is the modern PADT modern enough to analyze the value of the traditional cremation process from a sociological perspective?

Any action has both costs and benefits, but the benefits should exceed the costs. If we look at the benefits of the PADT electric cremation process, then yes, it is a great step for environmental conservation. As claimed by PADT, nearly 300 kg wood is needed to cremate a body on a pyre which will be conserved once the electric cremation process is brought into practice. It seems by their statement that electric cremation is a great achievement for environment conservation. But to critically analyze the situation, will those trees that were used for burning be conserved for fresh oxygen, or will they be used for something else entirely? Say to make luxury furniture? If the trees will be conserved and the resources are not allocated somewhere else for luxury, it is a great step for change as future generations will enjoy a greener Nepal.

Likewise, a lot of environmental activists believe that the remaining wood after the pyre burns out is a cause of pollution in the Bagmati river, and that electric cremation will decrease the pollution. Again critically analyzing, is the wood remaining after traditional cremation polluting the Bagmati river or the sewage from houses around? Let us also consider this as an advantage of electric cremation that water pollution will decrease in general. Similarly, PADT claims, cremating a body on a pyre cost around Rs 7,000, but cremating a body in electric crematorium is much cheaper, around Rs 3,000. They are also providing free cremation to economically challenged people. The economic benefit people will be getting from electric cremation and a step towards environmental conservation is appreciable if we see superficially what PADT is trying to show.

PADT is only seeing what it wants to see in order to prove itself correct, but they are not seeing it from the sociological perspective. Malinowski, a sociologist, anthropologist and ethnographer in his work Argonauts of the Western Pacific writes about the practice of Kula ring exchange. By studying his work, Kula ring exchange can be defined as a practice done by tribes of Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea, which spans 18 island communities where participants travel hundreds of miles by canoe in order to exchange Kula valuables consisting of red shell-disc necklaces (veigun or soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction), and white shell armbands (mwali) that are traded in the southern direction (circling counter-clockwise). If the opening gift is an armshell, then the closing gift must be a necklace and vice versa.  The exchange of Kula valuables is also accompanied by the trade of other items known as gimwali (barter).  Malisnowski critically argues, “Why would men risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets?” His question gives birth to an analysis that the Kula ring seems to be a simple traditional process for the people of the tribes, but in reality, it has a huge social significance—it welds together a considerable number of tribes. It won’t be debatable to say from his work that a traditional function of a tribe is as complex, rational and practical as of modern society practices in order to bind their people into one community. Every society is unique and functions differently to bring people into the common consciousness.

By the same token, the tradition of cremation is seen as just burning the dead by PADT like the tribal people of Papua New Guinea with regard to the Kula ring are simply engaging in it as a practice but not as a tool of social unity.

For most people, every practice of ours is barbarian, irrational and has no value. We need to come out of an inferior complex and leave this mentality, or else we will fall for the same trap of individualism. By disregarding our traditions and way of society, we will fall in the trap of the west creating a society of individualism. Let’s stop individualism before every social institution gets fragmented and we create a fragmented society of an individual.

Adhikari is currently a student at Kathmandu School of Law.

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Western intellectuals’ overwhelming love for Sanskrit literature

Many famous scholars and scientists learnt Sanskrit or studied Sanskrit literature to strengthen their intellectual prowess and acknowledged the need to develop the Sanskrit language.

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Sean O’Callaghan, a westerner, is seen doing a play
Sean O’Callaghan, a westerner, is seen doing a play "Battlefield" in Sanskrit in the western world. VOA

-By Salil Gewali

 It is for the astounding richness of the Sanskrit language a renowned linguist Sir William Jones first translated Kalidasa’s Shakuntala from the original Sanskrit into English in 1789. This stirred the minds and hearts of the top European intellectuals that include Johann Goethe, Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schiller, August Schlegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, et al. Very impressed by the language and its philosophical plot the father of the German literature (J. Goethe) learnt Sanskrit on his own. And, he plunged into this ancient play Shakuntala for the whole thirty years. He even wrote an insightful poem eulogizing this play. Again, George Forster translated this Kalidas’s work into German in 1791. In a span of some decades sprouted 46 translations into fourteen European languages.  On the other hand, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkin in 1784 and Upanishads by Anquetil Duperron in 1801 opened up unprecedented vistas for the philosophical regeneration hitherto unknown in the European literature. The doctrines of Vedanta such as ‘Oneness of the universe’, interdependence and interconnection of all entities and all particles seemed very plausible to the philosophically rational psyche of the western scholars.

Robert O. Johann was a western scholar.
Robert O. Johann was a western scholar. wikipedia

Again, one of the fathers of Modern linguistic Franz Bopp and a great philosopher Friedrich Schlegel, both from Germany, laid the revolutionary foundation of the comparative linguistic by freely borrowing from Panini’s “Ashtadhyayi ” which was later further developed by the language giants like Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Noam Chomsky. Panini, who was an enlightened sage of 4th BC India, was the first to systematically put down the comprehensive Grammar of Sanskrit language. This treatise consists of about 3959 sutras which can handle the nuances and intricacies of any languages in the universe, empirically and anatomically.

Having been too bewitched by the Sanskrit language a most renowned American linguist Leonard Bloomfield exclaims — “It was in India, however, that there arose a body of knowledge which was destined to revolutionize European ideas about language. Panini Grammar taught Europeans to analyze speech forms; when one compared the constituent parts, the resemblances, which hitherto had been vaguely recognized, could be set forth with certainty and precision.”  Yes, here at home we prefer to call Sanskrit a dead language, and instead, with enthusiasm and hubris choose to learn German.

Erwin Wilhelm Müller, a western scholar who acknowledged Sanskrit.
Erwin Wilhelm Müller, a western scholar who acknowledged Sanskrit. wikipedia

There are countless western scholars and scientists who have overwhelmingly acknowledged the exceptional richness of Sanskrit language wherein they saw an immense scope in the development of any area of studies. Voltaire, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, TS Eliot, Neils Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer, Mark Twain, Car Jung, J. D. Salinger and others learnt Sanskrit or studied Sanskrit literature to strengthen their intellectual prowess.

John Archibald Wheeler –a famous modern physicist who first coined Black Hole and Warm Hole and occupied the chair that had previously been held by Albert Einstein, enthuses –‘One has the feeling that the thinkers of the East (INDIA) knew it all, and if we could only translate their answers into our language we would have the answers to all our questions.’  With the same vigor bursts out another physicist Erwin Schrodinger, known as the father of Quantum Mechanics — “Some blood transfusion from INDIA to the West is a must to save Western science from spiritual anemia.”

Here are my few earnest questions — had all these rational thinkers, scientists, writers — whose theories, whose principles, whose literature, whose formulae and equations we study in schools and colleges and thus claim ourselves as academically qualified, gone crazy to heap high praise on Sanskrit and its literary treasure troves?  How can we claim to be INDIAN when we joyfully belittle and undermine our own heritage?  What is it that makes us to see only flaws in our Mother even without ever making a bit of genuine effort to know and realize her uncanny virtues?

François-Marie Arouet is a French writer who was also known as Voltaire.
François-Marie Arouet is a French writer who was also known as Voltaire. wikipedia

I don’t think we have ever seen any country in the world that its citizens speak ill of their heritage, their tradition and values — however archaic, rustic and crude they may be. Why does it touch our raw nerves when someone appreciates the values and culture of the native land? Sanskrit and the myriad scriptures produced in this grand language is as resplendent as the Sun ball over our head. Can you ignore the Sun? I don’t think François Voltaire was a big fool to announce with vehemence about 300 years ago  —- ‘Everything has come down to us from the bank of GANGA’ , ‘The first Greeks traveled to India to instruct themselves’, ‘India, whom whole Earth needs, who needs no one, must by that very fact the most civilized land’.  Should it not call for a dispassionate introspection and thus our self-correction and reawakening?

Salil Gewali is a well-known writer and author of ‘Great minds on India’. Twitter @SGewali.