I am an atheist and I am broadly free from religion beliefs. I celebrate festivals, I indulge in idolatry and I follow many religious traditions. Yet, I do not believe in any higher power or God. Most certainly I do not believe in God as defined by most scriptures Hindu or non-Hindu.
I am working on a long term project which requires me to do a fair amount of reading of scriptures mostly Mahabharata. One question that often arises among the religious minded people is whether these epics (Mahabharata/Ramayana etc.) are imaginary or real. The confusion is increased because the texts themselves categorize them as “Itihasa” which is the typical term used in most indian language to mean “History”.
In my family most people believed them to be literally true. Most people I met seemed to believe that all those magical things happened literally and our ancestors had access to some kind technology that was forgotten over time.
This is remarkable in two ways. If you consider Christianity, the Church is extremely clear that there is no salvation outside of Church, that the belief in bible has to be unquestionable and the faithful must believe in every single word of the book. This also means that all faithful Christians must believe in immaculate conception, a jealous, all powerful God and just one single God. They have to believe that the Universe was created in 7 days. Some faithful Christians in Goa were kind enough to mail me their books which narrated how earth is only 10,000 years old and how Dinosaurs were actually just 3-4 thousand years old.
I am pretty sure for a reasonable Christian mind these beliefs are not acceptable as a result the attendance in Church is falling year on year in most Christian societies. Church is forced to concede more and more ground to Science each passing day. A lot of European nations for example are no more “faithful” Christians though on paper they might be.
Now, coming back to Hindu beliefs, I wonder if Hindus are expected to interpret scriptures in any certain way to be Hindu. The answer is clearly no. Almost every saint including Sankara to Dnyaneshwar provided their on critic of scriptures and their own meanings which redefined our outlook to Hindu scriptures and these were accepted by society very easily.
What this essentially means is that our own interpretation of the scriptures have changes over period of time pretty often. When I speak to people who claim that the Mahabharata or Ramayana are “real”. They often resort to words like “our ancestors had those secret technologies”. I have rarely seen even the most hardcore fundamentalist Hindu ever say “its Gods work we should never question it”.
This is a dichotomy in my opinion. One part is where these people feel compelled to say that the scriptures are real. Second part is where they deny the magical aspect of it. If you argue with them enough they often resort to a claim that the interpretation of scriptures is to be taken metaphorically. For example when you prove that it is impossible to have 10 heads (as of Ravana) physiologically, they claim that he was well versed in 10 books or capable of having 10 different perspectives on any issue at the same time. Even though this conflicts with their original assertion that Epics are Itihasa. (If 10 heads of Ravana could be a metaphor so can be everything else.)
Such Hindu beliefs have become a subject of ridicule among Muslims and Christians. For example, Zakir Naik a Islamic zealot recently questioned how can Lord Shiva be called a God if he could not recognize his own son and beheaded him ? Right wing Hindus immediately go on defensive over such questions by coming up with wishy washy theories that the beheading was metaphorical or that he knew but despite of that he wanted to show off his power etc. None of these explanation sound reasonable.
I think a lot of religion Hindus see Christianity and Islam as successful because the kind of political points these religions have scored in short term and try to compete with them on similar terms. These Hindus willingly walk into the trap that has killed the core of these monotheist religions.
Hindus have thus inflicted Victorian values on themselves. I see Hindu seers like Ramdev Baba calling “Homosexuality” a disease curable by Yoga. I see Hindu leaders proclaiming that Alcohol must be banned. I see Hindu leaders actively supporting Islamic and Christian causes against Homosexuality and Sexuality in general.
This is not just idiotic but suicidal for Hinduism. It is like giving away your most potent weapon. Christianity and Islam tend to bring religion into everything. For example for historical reasons Church has certain views on who can have sex with whom in what way. Church’s control on sexuality and choice of partner has more to do with power politics in Europe in ancient time than anything about morality.
Criminalization of homosexuality, associating individual freedom of sexuality/clothing with morality were evolved over period of time in Christian Europe and reached its zenith during the victorian era. Looks like Indian colony has mastered it better than the modern England.
When we hear pro-Hindu leaders saying that wearing mini skirt or bikini is against our culture, or is immoral and hence it should be banned essentially are being more of fundamentalist Christians rather than Hindu.
Hinduism does not have anything to say about how women should chose their clothing or mating partners or intoxication.