Humility and Hinduism

By contributing writer Gautama Mehta, originally published at KidSpirit Online

Growing up in a Hindu family in New York, I’ve always been taught that I should try my best, but understand that after I’ve done what I personally can, I should leave the rest to God.

Well, not specifically God, but whatever factors there are beyond my control. There is, in my religion, the concept of dharma, or duty: each person has his or her own righteous path to follow, and at different times in your life, your dharma could be being a good student, or parent, or hard worker, and so on.

Hindus are taught to have humility. Ancient Hindu artists were never supposed to sign their names on their work, and temple artists, when creating statues of gods, are always supposed to leave a deliberate imperfection to show that they cannot really represent God.

It’s a religion that decries affectation. It doesn’t presume to be the one and only “true” faith: there is no conversion ceremony. All the Hinduism I have grown up with, has taught me to be free of misconceptions about my personal importance, my own status when viewed against all the other billions in the world. I don’t know how “Hindu” this is, but my mother has always told me that the religion teaches only to do one’s best, and not worry about the outcome. I don’t know what it means for an idea like this to be “Hindu,” as opposed to just a cultural notion that, in my limited experience, follows the faith wherever it goes. Hinduism is like that: Gandhi’s ideals are considered just as Hindu as age-old scriptural doctrines.

In my family (and many others) when a baby turns one, we shave off its hair as a sacrifice to God for the beautiful baby, and also to protect against vanity or conceit. That’s the beauty of traditions like these: we can interpret and re-interpret, internalize and re-internalize, to fit with our culture and ethics. The root, of course, is Hinduism, but Hinduism is evolving, is changing. It’s an intensely personal religion. There is no Hindu Church or centralized authority. Hinduism can mean incredibly right-wing fundamentalists who use it as an excuse for violence, or it can mean my mother, a self-proclaimed atheist who is one of the most devout Hindus I know.

But there’s a contradiction. Culturally, Hindus (or Indians in general) have a lot of pressure to do well, to succeed. Especially immigrant families like mine here in America, which are the ones I know best. In general, immigrant cultures tend to value achievement, because of how hard it is for them to make it in a foreign country where they are poor and discriminated against. Indians in America have done well, though. I see us in Ivy League schools and computer software, in spelling bees and politics. And we’re still stereotyped as the culture that pressures its children into doing better than all the American kids, coaching the kids after school in trigonometry and computer science, and if a kid isn’t valedictorian in every subject then he’s beaten.

Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but the philosophy is still there — the intense competition, the praise given for having one’s name everywhere. In India, kids have an incredibly strict education system, learning everything at a much more advanced rate than I am here in New York, and students are strictly ranked in every aspect. There’s a rigorous Hindu caste system only now falling apart, and still very much present in India’s villages. My mother, a Brahmin (on the top of the ladder) talks about how growing up in India, she was told that she was superior to everyone else, and though she hates it, she still feels that inside her today. Harsh competition is encouraged from an early age in most Indians. So why the discrepancy between the religion and the culture?

Perhaps the discrimination Indians felt everywhere they went instilled in them the sense of having to be the best, and nurtured in them the insecurity that causes the egotism that is so warned against by Hinduism. My father’s family, for example, has spent the last four generations moving across the globe in search of business, everywhere from a rural village in India to Kenya to Calcutta. When my dad was 14, he moved from Bombay to Queens, N.Y., and he describes the move as one of the most influential moments in his life. When he got here, he experienced flagrant racism at his local Catholic high school, in which he was the only minority student, and this has shaped the way he thinks and acts today. But in spite of all the hardships they’ve faced Indian immigrants like my father have kept religion with them, trusting it to guide them, preserving its traditions as best they can. For him, the Bhagavad Gita, probably the religion’s most important text, is the one book he would want on a desert island. But he didn’t discover it through his parents. He found it in an undergraduate course on Hinduism at NYU.

In this way, his Hinduism is like mine: Growing up, he knew the Hinduism that his grandparents told stories about, the Hinduism of gods and demons and many-headed animals. But the other side of Hinduism, its philosophy, is something too personal to tell kids on your lap stories about. I know Hindu mythology partly from my Ammamma (mother’s mother) telling me stories as a kid, and partly from Amar Chitra Katha, a popular Indian comic book series illustrating myths and scripture. But to try and understand the reasons for the inconsistencies I’ve seen in my community, I decided I actually had to read the stuff.

I read through the Bhagavad Gita, expecting to find an archaic, illegible piece of scripture that would make no sense to me. But instead I found lines that illustrated perfectly ideals that still make perfect sense, many centuries later.

Let me give a bit of background on the Gita, as the book is commonly known. It’s a chapter in the epic poem Mahabharata, which is about an ancient war between two sets of brothers. The Gita, Wikipedia tells me, was written between the 5th and 2nd centuries B.C. It’s 700 verses long.

The story of the Gita is a conversation between Arjuna, a good-guy on one side of the war riding a chariot into battle, and Krishna, his charioteer who’s also a god. Arjuna feels guilty about having to kill his cousins who are fighting on the other side, and he expresses these doubts to Krishna, sitting down in the chariot, letting his bow and arrow slip out of his hand. The result is an intense, beautiful dialogue about life, death and reincarnation. But the part that interested me most was when Krishna talked about ego, and “selfless service.”

His initial answer to Arjuna’s questions is that it is his dharma to kill his cousins. It wouldn’t be immoral to kill them, because it is a part of the cycle of life and death that exists for everyone. “For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil,” Krishna counsels. And anyway, even when a body dies, he says, its soul, or Self, lives on, living forever in future and past, in an eternal cycle of karma and reincarnation until it is finally released from karma by defeating ego and materialism and sin. “You were never born; you will never die,” he explains.

The ultimate object of this cycle is to become immortal and “be united with the Lord.” The way to do this is to “renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.'” In another place, he says, “Deluded by identification with the ego, a person thinks, ‘I am the doer.'”

Another theme Krishna stresses is work. “You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work… The ignorant work for their own profit, Arjuna; the wise work for the world.” This, more than anything else, clashes for me with the stress my culture places on rewards and achievement.

When I read all this, I was fascinated by it. It resonated so truly with all the lessons I had been taught were Hinduism. All the principles I was taught came right out of its philosophy. The humility asked for by Krishna is simultaneously present and absent in his followers.

I don’t think that the sense of pride only comes from immigrant cultures like mine. I think it’s present in India too. There is constant religious violence between Hindus and Muslims, another example of the frenzied, insecure need to uphold whatever you have. India, as many Indians will readily brag, was once a huge world power, one of the most advanced cultures on the planet, the discoverer of zero, the creator of our numeral system, the inventor of chess. I have heard these facts so many times I know them and a million others by heart, all talking about “how __ India is,” how India is “the most __ nation in the world.”

But India was colonized by the British, and wherever its people went, they were put down. They were weaker, poorer and darker than everyone else, and that had to leave a mark on them. I don’t know if I’m enough of a historian to attribute it to whatever they must have faced, but it’s easy to imagine how all those factors could contribute to a collective need for self-esteem, that could have resulted in what I experience today.

When he wrote this, Gautama Mehta was 15 years old and on the KidSpirit Editorial Board. His article is reprinted with the permission of KidSpirit Magazine and can be found here. Gautama Mehta lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is into writing, music, art, math and social justice.

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