I post sometimes on a Hindu forum online, and one recent question raised there asked members – particularly Hindu converts – to share false assumptions about India, Hindus, and Hinduism that they’d held when first starting on their path. The original poster explained that knowing about common misconceptions might help guide others away from making the same mistakes. It was an excellent point, and I’ve decided to give excerpts from my own reply here.
In my first post, I wrote about my early (mistaken) beliefs, based on a pretty scanty, scattered knowledge of Hinduism.
“Regarding texts, I thought that the two main ‘holy books’ to Hindus were the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gītā, and somehow I had it in my head that they consisted of ‘poetic/magical stuff’ and ‘peaceful moral precept stuff,’ respectively. I also assumed that they both guided how Hindus lived today.
“So I looked at Gītā, expecting to find something similar to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius…and instead there was this battlefield and a guy getting ready to kill a whole bunch of other guys and why on earth was God telling him to go ahead and do it, wait, WHAT?
“And I looked at Rig Veda, and not only did I not recognise most of the names, but I expected to find straightforward relevance to modern living, and instead there was all of this rambling about soma and cows and demons and more cows and…hold up, dog intestines, wait, WHAT?
“(I also assumed that Sanskrit was pretty straightforward to translate, and that there wouldn’t be much variation in the phrasing since there’d been, like, thousands of years to figure it all out. I mean, we know what it’s all about by now, right?)”
A member replied, suggesting that it would be interesting if I described what I had learned since, about the two texts, and how my views had changed. Here is (most of) my reply:
“Gītā has proven a continuous challenge to me. It showed me just how simplistic and black-and-white my thinking can be – how bewitchingly simple (and inaccurate) the idea is that peace is always good, aggressive action always bad, for instance. In learning about it, I had to squish my ego down, and keep reminding myself, “Okay, I seriously doubt that I’m going to catch anything that billions of Hindus over thousands of years have somehow overlooked. ‘But war is bad, everybody! Don’t you know that?’ No. There’s something here I’m missing, so I need to read with an open mind.
“Its setting and its message, on a literal level, repelled me at first, but I had to slow down, read it more deeply and understand it as a lesson, without suspecting some crazy command to murder people. It now seems to me that the very revelation of the ultimate peace, surrender and trust in God, on the cusp of a tremendous and terrible battle, is a startling, stunning way to make every person think. To apply these lessons by simple comparison, because if Arjuna may listen and trust in God when commanded to do what seems unpardonable, in a situation that seems impossible, then what problem can God not guide me through? What troubles could I possibly face that would not be helped by surrendering the self to the Self?
“When I feel egotistical I think of Gītā. I am a more humble and wondering person when I do. I was correct to originally think of it as a moral guide for all, but incorrect to think that one action or one moral would apply to all people in all situations, or that pithy, meditative aphorisms were the only way to teach.
“Regarding Rig Veda, despite my jests about ramblings, I always felt in the presence of ‘poetic/magical’ material when reading it, even in stuffy British translation. Even in the intestinal verses I was awed by it. But at first, I thought it was to be read maybe on two levels: literally and metaphorically. Literally, it sometimes made sense and sometimes didn’t. On a higher level, it meant…something very, very important, which I couldn’t always understand but desperately wanted to.
“As I continued reading and learning, and understood that Veda was to be read at several levels for different meanings, I came to feel that the greatest knowledge of Rig Veda was that of sacrifice…and that living one’s life, not as a cog in a great indifferent wheel but as a proper and vital part of a continually evolving, re-creating, sacrificial universe, was most definitely knowledge relevant to modern living, to eternal living, to any sort of meaningful living. And this idea of yajña has profoundly transformed my thoughts about what is worth doing with this lifetime.
“Frawley (Vāmadeva) writes in Wisdom of the Ancient Seers these perfect words: ‘This destruction of the destroyer is the deceiving of the deceiver, the putting to sleep of the power of sleep. It is the ignorance which is to be ignored. Indra is the magic knowledge which is the knowledge of all things as magic. When all things are revealed as deception, there is no one left who can be deceived.’ He writes of Indra – yet also, I think, of Rig Veda‘s essence as well. Magic verse, revealing magic truth. There is nothing I’d rather read.”
What I did not write there, is that it is Ṛgveda and my Vedic iṣṭa-deva who have wrought the most profound transformations upon my psyche, and that the ṚV is the text I love most in the world – not the Gītā, as nearly every Hindu would answer. It is this Vedic idea of yajña which stirs me to profound reflection of the in-breath offered to out-breath, moment dying every moment, life sacrificed to death, death fed into life. And who else is the sacrifice’s performer, fuel, fire, offering, essence, and fruit, except the Beloved that is the spark, flame, and ash of all desire?
Perhaps it is merely presentation, names, and other external factors that bring Ṛgveda closer to my heart. After all, Gītā is meant to be the Vedas’ pure essence – so in a way, I’m talking about two different copies of the same text, and preferring one to the other seems pretty absurd!
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