Who Are We In Bharatvarsha Today / Paulos Mar Gregorios



Who Are We In Bharatvarsha Today


Paulos Mar Gregorios

Dear Friends,

I am especially glad to be with you. For a man of my age (74), few other things are as inspiring as being among a group of intelligent young people. Especially, if they are a set of vibrant, choice, cultured, and creative young people such as I know you to be. Thank you for this opportunity.

I wish today to reflect with you on the question of our identity and self-understanding as so-called Indians. That self-perception always plays a decisive role in our life choices.

I have preferred to use the term Bharatavarsha rather than India for some obvious reasons. First, the names India, Indian, Hindu,Hindustan etc. are not of our own choice. These are names which outsiders have used to refer to us; only recently have we appropriated them for ourselves.

These names originated in the Eastern Mediterranean basin and in West Asia. The Hebrew name “Hindo” or “Hiddo” we observe in the Book of Esther of the Jewish Bible, as the name of one of the 127 provinces or satrapies of the Persian Empire (mi-Hiddo ad Kush or from India to Ethiopia) in the time of Artaxerxes. That did not include most of present day India. The Greeks preferred to speak of “Indos” and used the adjective “Indikes”. All of it, we know are cognates of “Sindhu” the wide ocean or large river and its banks, which conquerors and immigrants coming from the Northwest by land first encountered when coming to our land. That was North-West India, certainly not what we mean by “India” today.

Our words are Jambudvipa and Bharatavarsha. The word “dvipa” did not then mean island, but only “inhabited territory”. The Tibetans still refer to our land as Jambudvipa. Bharatavarsha, owes its name to the legendary King Bharata. As the Vishnupurana(2:3:1) puts it:

Uttaram yat samudrasya – Himadreischaiva dakshinam

Varsham tad Bharatam nama – Bharati yatra santati

We need to keep in mind that most Brahmanical accounts, including the Puranas, originating in the North show but scant awareness of what lies south of the Thousand-peaked vindhyas, the Dakshin-avarta, or Dakshinapatha, including Andhra, Vidarbha,Chola, Chera and Pandyan Kingdoms, the last three collectively called Tamizhaka, or Damiraka in western accounts.

When we speak today of Bharatavarsha, we are making a concession to our Northern brothers and sisters who often thought ofBharatavarsha as identical with the Indo-Gangetic Aryavarta or the Land of the Noble. Part of our identity today is in recreating awareness of the fact that the fundamentals of Indian religion and culture were formed and fostered more in the South than in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

So, for us it is Bharatavarsha, not just Aryavarta, but also Dakshinavarta, equally important and decisive for our identity today.Dakshinavarta, which was later westernized to be Deccan, was the fertile breeding ground of much that moves us today as Indians. Parallel to the Northern Vedas are our South Indian Vedas like Thiruvaymoli which found expression in the Alvars, the Nayanars, and other Saivite, Vaishnavite and other spiritual giants of the South.

Few people are aware that the concept “Hinduism” was a 19th century creation of Western scholarship, in an attempt to club together under one heading the various sampradayas practiced in Bharatavarsha as the Westerners looked at it. Neither “Hinduism’ nor even “Sanatana Dharma” was used by our tradition before the 19th century as a collective name for all the native-born religious practices of India other than Buddha Dharma and Jaina dharma.

Let me speak to you of two Southern documents which show us that Shaivism in Medieval times was not regarded as part of “Hinduism”. The two documents, not so widely known are (a) the eleventh century document Soma-Sambhu Paddhati, also known as Karmakanda-Kramavali; and (b) Acharyahrdayam, (13th/14th century) by Alakiya Manavala Perumal Nayanar, brother of the well known Pillai Lokacharya of the Tenkalai School of the Srivaishnava tradition.

Soma-Sambhu-paddhati is a manual of Saivite rituals applicable to all orthodox sampradayas of Saivism, and actually practiced for centuries. It was first published at Devakkottai in 1931, by K. M. Subramania Sastri, with notes based on the commentary ofAghora Sivacharya. Its main content is sets of rituals for accepting the non-Saivite into the Saivite Community, which is superior to all other religions and sampradayas, including the various sampradayas of Hinduism as we regard them today. Every othersampradaya creates a particular mark in its practitioner, a mark which the manual calls Linga, which not only does not take you toMoksha, but acts as an obstacle. This linga of other sampradayas has to be lifted from its practitioner (the ritual for this is calledLingoddhara) so that he or she can take the true path of Shaivite practice and attain to salvation. All the Saivite Agamas andUpagamas lead to this initiation or diksha into the true Saivite path of perfection and divine grace. It is a very sophisticated doctrine, but the important thing for us is to recognize that this 11th century Saivite Manual does not regard Saivism as a part of Hindu religion as we regard it today, but on the contrary condemns all other sampradayas of what we now know as Hinduism as inferior and incapable of leading to Moksha. It even rejects the cardinal doctrine of Karma as belonging to the world of maya and therefore having no reality. Clearly at least in the eleventh century, there is no such thing as Hinduism, and Saivism does not regard itself as Hindu.

The other document I mentioned was Acaryahrdaya written in Manipravalam Tamil (ie. mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil) in the thirteenth century. The author is Manavala Mamuni, the brother of the well known Pillai Lokacharya of the Tenkalai School.Alakiya Manavala Perumal Nayanar, as his full name is, was also known as Vadikesari. (See Patricia Mumme, The SrivaishnavaTheological Dispute, Manavala Mamuni and Vedanta Desika, Madras New Era Publications, 1988. See also Manavala MamunikalArulicceyta Sakala Suktikalaiyum Konta Srimat Varavara Munintra Krantimalai, Sri Kanchi PirativatipayankaramAnnankarachariyar)

Acaryahrdayam is an open universalistic religious programme which seeks to radically restructure the traditional Srivaishnavamovement and purge it of all Northern or Vedic elements. The frontal attack is on the doctrine of Karma which has come down from the North and is totally rejected as superfluous, along with all Vedic rituals, throwing out the doctrine of Varnasramadharmaas well as the exalted place of Brahma himself.

The central role of Karma is then given to the doctrine of Kainkarya, which is an aspect of the nature of human beings–the inner vocation of every man and woman, to whatever religion he/she belongs, to adore and serve God and realise Moksha and fulfillment by sheer Bhakti. This, according to Manavala Mamuni is true religion and it has nothing to do with the so-called Hindu doctrines and rituals. This is what we see in Nammalvar’s Tiruvaymoli which is a southern Veda, just as authoritative in the South as Rg, Sama, Yajur or Adharva. Even Sri. Ramanuja’s Brahmasutrabhashya was composed on the basis of the Southern Veda ofTiruvaymoli which is a real Sastra superior to the northern Sastras.

I have briefly cited these two Medieval texts to advance the thesis that both Saivism and Vaishnavitism as they later came to be called are not originally part of so-called Hinduism. They were independent Southern religions or spiritualities more than 2000 years old, which the North assimilated into its pantheon, and the so-called Vedas themselves were radically affected by this Southern spirituality of Saivism and Srivaishnavitism.

I shall once again make my point. Our consciousness of our own religious past is almost incorrigibly distorted. Since the 19th century we have created a false image of an amalgam called Hinduism, which never existed before the 19th century. In redrawing the map of Indian spirituality, we will have to look for the basics in South Indian spiritual movements which later spread to the North, got Sanskritised and got adopted into the Vedic-Brahmanic Pantheon of the North.

I will make one more attempt to elaborate this point. It is quite customary, even for the Constitution of India, to regard Buddhism and Jainism (as well as Sikhism) as aspects or versions of Hinduism. The fact of the matter is that India has a wide-ranging spiritual-religious-cultural tradition quite prior to the rise of Brahmanism and the Vedas. Vedic Brahminism was a minority religion /culture which the Brahmins were trying to impose on all the people of India. There was strong resistance on the part of the people to this imposition, and Buddhism and Jainism are the strong and widespread protest against the imposition of Vedic Brahminism by influential people. These two protest religions were reinforced and enriched by the pre-Brahminic tradition of Sramanas. BhagavanSri Buddha himself was referred to by others on the occasion of his Samadhi as “The Great Sramana”

The Sramana tradition in India is primordial, older than the Vedas and Brahminism, at least as old as the Samkhya and Yoga in the North. In fact some of the earlier rshis were not Brahminists or Vedic Hindus. Perhaps the Vedas themselves were created by the Sramanas. What we call the Arsha (Arshabharata) tradition was in fact a creation of pre-Vedic Sramanas. And there is sufficient ground to believe that the Sramanas, a wandering people, were by no means confined to North India. More likely the Sramanamovement itself, which later became the matrix of the large scale conversions to the Buddha Dharma and the Jain monastic-spiritual movements was of South Indian origin, based in the same milieu which created the Bhakti Traditions of what later came to be called Saiva and Vaishnava sampradayas. No understanding of the roots of Indian identity is possible without some understanding of the Sramana tradition.

Another distortion of Indian history is the impression some historians give that most of India’s contacts with the outside were through the North-West Frontier. Few historians devote sufficient space to India’s contacts with North Africa and West Asiathrough maritime trade. And definitely South India played a larger role than North India in seafaring and in trade contacts with Egypt and Syria, with Palestine and Babylonia, as well as Persia, long before the Persian or Achaemenian imperialism extended their empire into India in the days of Cyrus (558-530 BCE) and Darius (522-486 BCE). King Solomon of Palestine and his ally King Hiram of Syria sent Phoenician sailors to trade with India, and their contacts were mostly with the South. The fact that a Jewish community had migrated to Bombay and Kerala as early as the first century should not be forgotten in writing Indian history. The flourishing spice trade was an avenue for many contacts between the Southern Indian peoples and their trade partners in the Middle East. It is no exaggeration to say that South India was receiving massive Mediterranean influence in the Millennium before the Christian Era, as well as in the early part of the Millennium after that. South India became more Cosmopolitan than the North as a result of these contacts which continued into the Muslim period.


There are many educated people in our country who have not even heard about the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, or if they have heard about it, have but a very vague idea of what it was and how it affects questions about Indian identity today. And yet all those of us who have had a modicumn of western education have already come under its influence.

In the words of Owen Barfield (Romanticism Comes of Age, Wesleyan Univ. Press, Middletown, Conn 1966) the European Enlightenment was “a state of mind which descended on intellectual Europe in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries” and which according to Carlyle was one of the deeper causes of the French Revolution. But it was more than just a state of mind. Nor was it confined to the intellectuals alone. It was more of a spiritual fever, with serious social, economic and political consequences, that spread like an epidemic in 17th century Europe. The causes were many. Europe, even in the beginning of the 17th century languishing in poverty and squalor, suddenly found itself getting “nouveau riche”. Mercantile Capitalism was flourishing and was already bringing much of the wealth of Asia, Africa and Latin America into Europe. Add to that the fruits of piracy on the open seas, and the mindless plunder of the colonies by the European imperialist powers, and the new wealth of Europe became unprecedented. This was behind the new intellectual fever that spread in Europe. When we also take into account the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and the fillip it gave to European productivity, we can understand both the collapse of the feudal system and the rise of the new class of bourgeoisie seeking to unseat the feudal lords from the thrones of economic power.

The European Enlightenment was the direct fruit of this economic, political and social upheaval in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps I should mention the great climatological change that came over Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. The Small Ice Age (1300-1700) which lay over Europe like a shroud suddenly receded about this time. As more money came in from the colonies, there were more jobs for people, and therefore they could marry earlier and have more children. Health conditions also improved in Europe around this time. The Bubonic Plague came to an end in the 18th century. Education was a major instrument of the European Enlightenment, though reserved for the bourgeoisie, and not extending to the working class. As the Middle Class became progressively more educated, more healthy and also more wealthy, they became more sanguine, and able to repudiate the authority, not only of the Feudal Lords, but also of the Church and of all inherited tradition.

Let us ask that question: “What is the Enlightenment” to the most prominent Founding Father of the European Enlightenment– Immanuel Kant (1724-) . His answer (Published in the Berlinische Monatsschrift – December 1784) is the most revealing definition of Enlightenment:

“The Enlightenment is the coming out of Man from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the lack of will to serve one’s own understanding without direction from another. This is a self-imposed immaturity; if Reason languishes, it is not for lack of understanding, but only lack of resolve and courage to serve oneself without direction from another.Sapere Aude! Dare to think! Think boldly! Wake up! Take courage, serve your own understanding. This is the motto (Wahlspruch) of the Enlightenment”

In other words, the European Enlightenment was the act of the newly rich, newly healthy, newly educated white humanity ofEurope asserting boldly that it was coming out of its adolescence to the maturity of adulthood. In its adolescence it was dependent on the Church and the Tradition to tell it what to do. Now in its adulthood it needed no religion, no Tradition, nothing outside of its own Reason to tell it what to do. The adult humanity of Europe, especially the educated among them, should live by their own reason and understanding, and throw away the crutches of adolescent dependence.

And in India, the mindset and identity awareness of our educated people have been fundamentally altered by this process and attitude which began in Europe almost three centuries ago. In fact our quest for our Bharatiya identity has come in direct conflict with the European Man’s newfound identity of the 17th and succeeding centuries being sought to be imposed on all humanity as if that identity were universal.

My humble contention is neither the White Man’s identity nor our own identity awareness will be on a secure basis until we have disentangled the identity stains that have got all tangled up in the last three centuries. The West has already started that process through their de-Constructionism and Post-Modernism. We will help them along further if we sort out our own relation to the European Enlightenment.

The western internal critique of the European Enlightenment has been going on for some time. Nietzsche was among the first to call in question the rationalism and historicism of the European Enlightenment, but he was branded a madman by the European Establishment and practically rejected wholesale, though his influence comes to light in almost all the protest movements of the West.

The next important self-criticism of the EE came from the Frankfort School of Social Research, especially in The Dialectics of the Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno. They called the Enlightenment totalitarian, in that it laid out a method of gaining knowledge, and ruled out everything which did not come that way as meaningless.

The Romantic Movement in the West was also a sort of protest against the enthronement of Reason by the Enlightenment. Words like creativity and imagination, being subjective elements were taboo in the early Rationalist approach which was after the ‘objective truth’ in which we know ‘things as they are’. It was Romanticism which legitimised imagination and creativity as inescapable in the search for knowledge.

In more recent times it has been the task of Deconstructionism and Post-Modernism to shatter the remnants of Reason’s exclusive claims on knowledge. There has been a consistent devaluation, not only of propositional truth which modern science was seeking to capture, but also of the written language as little more than squiggles of ink on paper, far removed from the truth. Post-Modernism is also a repudiation of the exclusive dependence of the Modern period on human reason. They would with Nietzsche and Horkheimer hold that the Will and Imagination as well as Creativity are essential aspects of coming to terms with Reality. Post-Modernism is thus post-Enlightenment, post-Marxist, and post Scientistic.

Yet as children of Bharatavarsha in the 20th century we cannot be satisfied with the Post-Modernist approach as adequate to handle the intellectual-spiritual crisis in which the West finds itself. In this brief address I can only hope to indicate the main points on which we differ from the Post-Modernist approach to reality.

With the post-Moderns we can agree that Reality is in fact unpresentable through Discourse and even unconceivable in terms of human conceptuality. Even allusion and metaphor cannot present the Unpresentable. We know that word and thing do not always fully correlate (Michael Foucault, Les Mots etles Choses, Enf Tr The Order of Things Tavistock 1970). The Realm of Language and the Realm of Being remain essentially disparate. The Nouemenal and the Phenomenal do not exactly fit each other. The Signified and the Signifier are not the same.

We cannot however agree that the solution is a kind of libidinal knowledge in which we give free play to subjectivity and will, and be satisfied with what we can achieve that way.

The mistake of cultural Modernity was the breaking away of Substantive Reason from all reference to the Transcendent, and trying to domesticate it within three falsely autonomous regions called Science, Morality and Art.

Here we begin to list a few of our own principal affirmations as people of Bharatavarsha about the nature of Reality.

  1. We hold that Language, Conceptualisation and Proposition are necessary tools for humans to find their way about Reality, but we stoutly deny that these can capture, comprehend or present Reality as it is.
  2. We hold that Manifest Reality, open to our senses, is only one aspect of Reality, is dependent on the Unmanifest, and cannot be fully understood without reference to the Unmanifest. This principle is diametrically opposed to the Secular position that the Manifest is the only aspect of Reality to which we have access and that it can be understood in itself without reference to anything that transcends it. As the Bhagavadgita (ch 8v. 18) expresses the Sankhya view:

Avyaktad vyaktaya sarva: prabhavantyaharagame

Ratryagame praliyante tatraiva avyaktasamjnake

“From the Unmanifest all this Manifest happen forth at the beginning of the (Cosmic) Day

When the (Cosmic) Night comes, to the Same Unmanifest they all dissolve back.”

This is an essential tradition of Bharatavarsha, that the Manifest, by the very fact that it is manifest, cannot be the final truth. For all form, without which there is no manifestation, is finite and therefore temporal, passing. The Manifest, the finite-temporal cannot exist, except by being contingent upon the Transcendent, the Unmanifest. This is the principle which the European Enlightenment has overlooked in trying to assert the finality of human reason and knowledge. Unless we reinstate this basic principle of our civilization we cannot in Bharatavarsha be ourselves. Neither Deconstruction nor the Post-Modern acknowledges this basic principle.

  1. Man/Woman in his/her present state of mind cannot enthrone himself to be the sovereign of the Universe. The European Enlightenment in its great hurry to overthrow the authority of the Feudal Nobility, threw out all authority and all tradition, enthroning the unredeemed human person with his reason as the Lord of the Universe, subject to no higher authority. This is another thing the Bharatiya tradition stoutly denies. This is the third point at which we Bharatiyas have to disabuse ourselves of the mark of the European Enlightenment. What the European Enlightenment has done is to make the conscious mind of ordinary man the absolute instrument of knowledge. The Bharatiya Tradition on the other hand holds that there are two kinds of knowledge– ordinary sense-knowledge, and transcendent knowledge which comes only through overcoming and going beyond ordinary knowledge. It requires a discipline of indriyanigraha, vasanansa, nidhidhyasa all of which do not come within the purview of ordinary knowledge. The European Enlightenment refuses to recognize this category of transcendent knowledge, which requires some dependence on the authority of a guru or some scriptures.

I could cite many other fine points on which the Bharatiya tradition differs from the EE. I have cited three points at which our Indian intellectual culture has unwittingly fallen prey to the mistaken notions of the EE. What we need to do is not merely refuse to accept these canons and norms of the EE. We will need accordingly to revise our understanding and practice of Medicine and Healing first, recognising the role and function of the Transcendent and Unmanifest in both; also devise a new educational system in which the child has the opportunity to be exposed to the depths of the Bharatiya tradition in relation to the understanding of Manifest Reality as contingent upon the Transcendent Unmanifest. We will also need to fundamentally revise our Media systems or systems of gathering and disseminating information, which are now based on a very superficial understanding of what constitutes knowledge. Ultimately our political social and economic institutions themselves will have to be radically revamped. The transition will be from the production and distribution of commodities to the fundamental relations of persons and societies among themselves, on their relation to their true self as well as to the Transcendent Unmanifest. To this end we as Bharatiyas should become well acquainted with our own rich and varied traditions, the Adivasi heritage, the Sankhya and Yoga, the Vedic-Upanishadic, the Buddhist and the Jain, the Saivite and the Vaishnavite, the Bhakti tradition, the Taoist, the Arabic Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Parsee, Sikh and other traditions.
When we have begun to do that we may be able to persuade our western brethren and sisters to turn back from their self-destructive quest for controlling knowledge and draw their attention to their own pre-Enlightenment tradition which is replete with experiences of the Transcendent. This will of course lead to the collapse of White Imperialism and the pernicious effect on humanity of the present Single Global Market economy and related political and social systems. With both the White eye and the non-White eye open, we as humanity may begin to see new and surprising visions.


(Lecture delivered at Madras I.I.T., 1996 June 20)