India Report: Religion and Social Reform

Will the parrot of Maṇḍana Miśra have some influence over events? – photo by Couleur from Pexels

Readers will by now be familiar with the dramatic developments at one of our most elite institutions, which culminated in an unprecedented act of violence involving two of India’s most distinguished scholars.  The altercation between Kumārila and Dharmapāla at Nalanda University has attracted much attention, and has somehow led to the unfolding media spectacle of Kumārila’s current self-immolation.

It is unfortunate that it is just in the midst of such turmoil that an energetic young philosopher and social reformer has arrived from the South.  It is understood that this philosopher is on a mission to overturn the established doctrines of Kumārila, here as well as across the country, and has arrived here in order to engage in debate.  The new philosopher’s arrival here has not been free from controversy, with some conservative voices claiming that he is undermining the established order.  Indeed, one conspiracy theory has it that he is surreptitiously promoting Buddhist doctrines in the guise of reforming Hinduism.

Certainly, through his establishment of various monastic orders across the country, he is bringing a somewhat stronger institutional character to the Hindu religion.  Further, through his many devotional compositions, he is placing a focus on devotional worship.  On the other hand, as a student of Gauḍapāda, and a scholar of the Upaniṣads, his theological orientation is towards the spiritual realisation of a wholly ineffable and non-conceptual conception of the divine.  In any case, his theology and philosophy contrast strongly with the ritualism of Kumārila’s recent works, which are supporting wider dissemination of our Vedic ritual traditions.

In the view of this publication, the disagreements that this new philosopher has with Kumārila raise important questions about the nature of the divine and its proper invocation in diverse religious traditions.  Traditional ritual conceptions of the divine provide a clear understanding of how divinities can be brought into manifestation in specific places and through specific procedures as potent energies and forces.  Indeed, rituals, rites and habitual socio-cultural traditions can give form, meaning and purpose to our lives, and are unlikely to become outdated any time soon.

On the other hand, the Upaniṣadic idea of an abstract divine that is identical with one’s own inmost essence and with reality itself places the divine at once in a wholly transcendental realm yet simultaneously at the very core of the existence of each living being.  Wider dissemination of this idea that we all equally are the divine can perhaps support more inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development.

The outcome of the meeting with Kumārila is eagerly awaited, although it is rather difficult to imagine Kumārila entering into any meaningful kind of debate under his present reduced condition.  Some commentators have speculated that the task of taking on Śaṅkara in debate could instead be taken on by Kumārila’s fomer pupil, Maṇḍana Miśra.  However, as Maṇḍana Miśra is currently in mourning after the recent death of his father, the situation remains unclear.

Events are being livestreamed from the scene – video embedded from YouTube

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