Being one of the few Indians at the last frontier of Fairbanks, Alaska, it was quite natural that I should have been invited to the local high school to make an hour and a half long presentation on Hinduism for a group of 11th graders which I accepted, albeit hesitantly. Having never identified myself with any one particular religion, it was bound to be a herculean task, especially since we didn’t own smartphones and chose not to have an internet service at home. This meant that I needed to pick my own brains and rely on what I had learnt in my social studies classes some two decades ago. 

From its Vedic origins to its pantheonic Puranic manifestations, my objective was to touch upon  the whole gamut of beliefs which constituted Hinduism. Not surprisingly, the students were particularly interested in the caste system: its origins and its devolution. I tried to explain it in the light of the German theorist Lamprecht’s principles of the four stages that a civilization or any human society is subjected to: symbolic, typal, conventional and individualistic respectively (the way Sri Aurobindo has done in his book The Human Cycle). 

We also discussed the four stages of man and its entwinement with the notion of Dharma and Swadharma. Last but not the least, we dwelt on the three main paths which have been chalked out in the scriptures for an individual to evolve as an entity and seek Moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death: the path of Knowledge, of Work, and of Devotion respectively.

Seema Muniz

By conveying this idea of God as both abstract and concrete, from all-pervasive to the one which prophesies everything to be an illusion, from Brahma to Brahmand (the fusion of the One with Many), I attempted to impress upon those young minds that Hinduism was beyond creed, rites and rituals. “Going to the temple, chanting, following rituals do not make an individual more of a Hindu than the one who does none of these, yet follows the dictum of one’s own deeper self,” I told them.  

As I was packing up my notes, an arm from the backbenchers shot up and a voice spoke, “So Ma’am, would it be okay to conclude that theoretically we are all Hindus?” Even though I was taken aback by such an unexpected conclusion, I found myself saying, “I guess so”. 

And that was that.

Fast forward twelve years to the present. From America to India, the heartland of Hinduism, we as a family have made a long journey, physically, emotionally and spiritually. In the two decades we were out galavanting across the globe, India was busy becoming an economic powerhouse and establishing its identity beyond the orbits of yoga and mysticism. Yet, as an Indian abroad, hailing from the land of Sri Yogananda and Gandhiji, I came to represent ‘that’ which had the disillusioned western youth of the sixties flock to the East. The flower children became synonymous with the quest for something beyond materialistic existence and goals. So, there I was, without ever having gone to temples or followed any rites or rituals, discussing the profound freedom that Hinduism endowed an individual with. 

Now, slowly but surely, through the wizardry of social media, people are being roped into a new paradigm of thinking and being, of flaunting the form more than the spirit of Hinduism. Loud music emanating from temples made catchy by adapting to popular Bollywood tunes, big vermilion marks on foreheads, ochre colour clothing worn excessively just to make a point are but a few expressions of its more overt re-emergence which can be observed at a personal level. At a socio-religious level, the portrayal of popular gods like Rama, Krishna and Shiva as overwhelming figures of the Übermensch, their sinews tense with action and ready to strike, is in stark contrast to the traditional renderings. Vanished is the grace and flow indicative of the sempiternal movement and cross-movement of Being and Non-being. Couple this with the popular greetings of belligerent ‘Jai Shree Ram’, (translates as Victory to Lord Rama), which the devout Hindus regularly hurl at each other to sound like war cries, and you get the picture. This is the new face of Hinduism, which in the current scenario  may hamper the contemplation of our spiritual oneness as a nation. Here, crores are being spent to destroy old structures and build new ones, change names of cities and roads associated with Mogul/British era. As though by erasing our historical past, we can reclaim ourselves and re-affirm our Hindu identity, without ever pausing to reflect on what it is to be a Hindu, or, as the new devouts like to call it, a Sanatani, follower of the eternal way.

‘The eternal way’… “So what’s the eternal way, since we’re all Hindus?” Puzzled faces of a high school class that thought they had grasped something. Are they Hindu still? What do I answer? Technically no, because they forgot to be born into a Hindu family?

The flexibility of this eternal way was once its lifeblood, the secret something that made it eternal in the first place, changing with the seasons and the boundaries of the universe. Midas casts his touch…the veins of a nation turn like leaves to gold, hard and beautiful and dead: maybe ready to be recast and rise again.

Seema Muniz, a feature writer with the Times of India group in the nineties, is an avid reader and educationist, who homeschooled her son until tenth grade, while drifting between New York and Alaska with her family. She is also an artist, with a few solo and group shows in Albany, NY, to her credit. 

More Stories by Seema Muniz

Photo courtesy: Artist Karan Acharya’s depiction of Hanuman