Vision for Society
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The ashrama system developed as a further (and related) means of ordering society, by articulating a vision in which each person passes through a series of stages (ashramas) during their life. At any one time, a person fulfills his or her duty by doing what is appropriate at that time in life. One of the goals of the ashrama system is to resolve this tension between ethical and moral duty and ultimate salvation; it allows one to both act ethically in the world and attend to one's own salvation. The ashrama system, essentially, makes an ethical and moral space for attention to one's personal salvation. What the ashrama system does is create a balance between these two potentially opposing needs. One must first attend to one's ethical and moral duties, passing through the student (brachmacarya) and householder (grihastha) stages. Then, and only then, one can embark on a course of religious study—the forest dweller (vanaprastha) stage—and, eventually, ascetic renunciation of the world (the sannyasa stage).
The nature of what, exactly, constitutes a dharmic society has been a matter of some tension in India, particularly after India gained independence in 1947. The Hindu world has historically been quite able to coexist with other religions: Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and others. Although very ancient Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata describe a Hindu vision of India in which the entire subcontinent is understood as the sacred space of Hinduism, Hindus have mostly tolerated and even cooperated with people of other religions. In modern India, Mahatma Gandhi was a staunch advocate of Indian home rule, and his Satyagraha campaign led the way to ousting the British from India, yet he was not in any sense a Hindu exclusivist. Indeed, Gandhi fundamentally believed in the possibility, and even the necessity, of peaceful coexistence between India's many religions. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other early leaders of independent India promoted a secular India that made room for all religions, not just Hinduism. Certainly this model of society was built on the foundation of dharma, but it was a broad, inclusivist understanding of what is dharmic.
Not all Hindus have held such a view. Gandhi himself was assassinated by an extremist Hindu who radically rejected Gandhi's view. There have been loud and insistent voices advocating an exclusively Hindu India as the only model of a truly dharmic society. Beginning in the 1980s, these voices became particularly forceful with the emergence of powerful political groups—the Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishva Hindu Parishad are two of the most prominent—advocating the purification of India. For them, this would mean essentially removing all foreign elements from what they see as the sacred Hindu homeland. Their understanding of a dharmic society, then, is a purely Hindu one, and the presence of other religions pollutes this vision.
This rather extreme exclusivist view has led to serious tensions and at times horrific violence between Hindus and Muslims in particular. Although this is by no means a majority view within Hinduism, this form of Hindu exclusivism is a powerful social and political force in India, often drowning out the more moderate and more tolerant mainstream voices.
1. How does the caste system help create social order?
2. What does the Rig Veda contribute to the Hindu vision for society?
3. How is religious pluralism viewed within India?