I have known Nithin Sridhar for many years. We did not limit the acquaintance to online interactions via social networking sites and emails where we ran into each other in 2006. We speak over the phone off and on and, more importantly, I met with him and his then newly wedded wife in a hotel of Delhi at a crucial juncture of his life. While his deliberations on theology had come across as a fixation to me in the initial days, from which I used to try to extricate him in the last decade, he has, over the years, turned his single-point focus in writing to a near-expertise in the subject. Since the preface of his book, Musings on Hinduism, speaks of his formative years as an atheistic high school boy, an observation about the atheists of the previous generation will be in order here.
During the rise and establishment of rationality in the late medieval period of Europe, which influenced India most remarkably in Bengal, believers were made to look like a hopeless, uneducated lot. For, those who were atheists had first studied religion and then discarded it with logic whereas the teeming millions of the faithful were into the ritualistic practices more as a matter of habit inculcated in the course of their upbringing. In debates between the two, the latter found that they had taken a lot that had been passed down from generations for granted rather than putting the beliefs through rigorous scrutiny. Frederick Coplestone, in a debate with Bertrand Russell, personified this limitation most famously in the modern era. The atheists but failed the next test.
The primary assumption of atheists is that God can be disproved, equipped with nothing more than arguments. ‘If you cannot make me see what you claim to see, you are either bluffing or hallucinating!’ That is the core of agnosticism. On the one hand, they did not care to find out whether they were the right receptacles for enlightenment; on the other, few sages were left in this world who additionally had the gift of the gab to convince the fence-sitters. Sridhar represents the 1990s’ generation of Hindus in India that witnessed a social phenomenon: the culture of satsang (literally, “in the company of truth”) where those who knew more addressed thousands of those who knew less under massive makeshift tents erected inside compounds of temples or corporation grounds. Being from the south of Vindhyas, the likes of Sridhar had an additional advantage. Less affected by Islamic invasions, Hinduism had retained much of its institutional structures. The gurus were more rooted; many temples still sufficed as centres of education and the diksha (spiritual training) was thorough. Thus, they benefited from the sannidhya (proximity) of no less than the Shankaracharyas; in the author’s case, he was Sri Bharati Tirtha Swami of Sringeri.
Yet, that would not be enough. As said above, to get the perspective right, you must be a supatra (the right recipient). As Sridhar says in the preface of Musings on Hinduism, “My journey from being an atheist, who rejected Hinduism, to being a practising Hindu, who embraces all aspects of this huge banyan tree, has been a journey of self-discovery and spiritual contentment…” Ergo, Sridhar’s generation told the Western atheists — a Hindu nastika is not an atheist — that the extent to which the subject of divinity could be handled with verbosity ended where the inward journey began. Of course, God is outward as much, but the realisation of Him happens within, and the attainment happens where the internals and the externals fuse and unite. Sridhar cites Shankaracharya’s interpretation of Srimadbhagavadgita thus: “A person, while performing rituals, may lose interest in the fruit of that Karma. This is because our sages have structured our rituals in such a way that they are at the same time rituals and philosophical exercises.” It is at this stage of the argument that an atheist abandons the debate, never having spared himself the time or inclination to test himself. Having compared the mere sight of rituals in India with their dismissal by atheistic gurus of the West, they do not know what Indian philosophy is supposed to be tested. From Plato to René Descartes and from Aristotle to Russell, none did a sadhana in an aspect other than thoughts and, therefore, none could deal with the sublime experience.
Once a genuine seeker accepts this limitation, questions of a different nature surface in his mind. More so if the inquiry is not whether there is a sky daddy but whether a sky daddy should be the definition of God. More so if the investigator is an Advaita Vedantin who sees the aatman (soul) as the Brahman (supreme metaphysical reality); in the worst case scenario, the aatman has the potential but is unaware of it. To drive home this point, Sridhar quotes extensively from the scriptures.
Musings on Hinduism is an excellent manual to get the fundamentals right. There is absolutely no factual inaccuracy insofar as citations go. Followers of Mimāmsa may, however, prefer more of karma kānda that concentrate on rituals. Hermeneutics would, anyway, warrant a voluminous tome. The translations of Sanskrit verses are lucid and, notably, shorn of the bombast which has spoiled many a book on spirituality. A traveller on the path of God or a yogi will undergo inexplicable emotions while going through certain descriptions of the exalted being. But then, those are the sages speaking.
Quotation is an aspect of Sridhar’s style that he must increasingly reduce. One notices in all his articles on theology that he quotes books and people so much that few words are spared to share or assert his own belief. He cites Shankaracharya, for example, in 22 different places in the book while never telling us what happened when he tried walking the road shown by the proponent of Advaita. Since we are talking experience, the reader would like to know what Nithin Sridhar has experienced. In fact, that would justify the word “musings” in the title of the book (which, the publisher cautions, should not make the reader presume the author has exercised the choice of “unfettered freedom”). Let’s take a specific example. Citing Adi Shankara, the author says, “न मे द्वेष रागौ न मे लोभ मोहौ मदो नैव मे नैव मात्सर्य भाव: न धर्मो न चार्थो न कामो ना मोक्ष: चिदानन्द रूप: शिवोऽहम् शिवॊऽहम् ॥” So, once the author tried to be Shiva (auspicious) — he says in the preface that he has embraced this way of living — by ridding himself of dwesha (ill-will), rāga (passion), lobha (greed), moha (attachment), mada (delusion of grandeur), could he attain the state that even dharma, kāma (desire), artha (material) and moksha (salvation) became meaningless to him? It is appreciated that we all can only try to reach Him but can only be on the path, falling far short of the destination, but accounts of the path must be told.
Nithin Sridhar, the young lad, had to have a title to his credit. The civil engineer from Mysore is so passionate about journalism that he has deserted the profession for which he was trained. The dedication to his dharma must next translate to a book of anecdotes. In a country impoverished by socialism and a world drained out by capitalism, the narrative of the detached holds the key to happiness.