Vedic scholars vs mythologists

Here’s why Vedic scholars often disagree with mythologists.

Such disagreements have a long history and they have cropped up all over India’s history. Essentially, it is a philosophy-mythology gap.

Philosophy and mythology are dependent on each other to some extent. Mythology often provides the language in which philosophical ideas are conveyed. Mythologists in every age have used characters of the epics to communicate higher ideas. On the other hand, philosophy goes into the making of myths. It provides the world in which stories take place. Part of the charm of the Mahabharata is that it is so much more than a good vs evil story. It gets its nuance from India’s rich philosophical traditions.

Disagreements between Vedic scholars and mythologists arise whenever the equation becomes a power struggle. It happens when instead of working to power each other, these ideas begin to assert themselves as standalone ways of life.

During India’s freedom struggle, there were many scholars who tried to find a uniting presence around which all Hindus could be rallied.

Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj, did so by rejecting Puranic literature and focusing on what he believed to be the divinity and purity of the Vedas. His views were coloured to some extent by prevailing ideas of racial identity, but he never made a secret of his disdain for Puranic literature. He considered them the reason behind the intellectual decline of India. What he proposed was turning Hinduism into something resembling a monotheistic faith and uniting all Hindus under that banner. His goal of course was to unite India, something he did not think was possible if his co-religionists remained as diverse as they were.

Later, Swami Vivekananda attempted something similar when he built his own philosophy from Vedic roots and what his master Ramakrishna Paramhamsa had taught him. He asked Hindus everywhere to make the Upanishads the central article of their faith.

You must remember that what the Bible is to the Christians, what the Koran is to the Mohammedans, what the Tripitaka is to the Buddhist, what the Zend Avesta is to the Parsees, these Upanishads are to us. These and nothing but these are our scriptures. The Purânas, the Tantras, and all the other books, even the Vyasa-Sutras, are of secondary, tertiary authority, but primary are the Vedas.

And it is not as if no attempts have been made to use mythology as the great unifying influence. We have all heard of Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Ram Rajya and Lokmanya Tilak’s propitiation of Ganesha — lord of the people — for the purposes of instilling a love of India and freedom.

By and large, mythology seems to have worked more. Even in present-day India, mythology is a more potent cultural strain than philosophy is. Even today, there is no dearth of people who will be uncomfortable with the fact that this country is more comfortable with the ever-changing nature of stories than it is with talk of unifying influences.

In India at least, popular religion is one of the forces that keeps people together. And it is not just Hinduism. I am talking about a culture of devotion that pervades faiths and manifests as gods, temples, saints, seers, holy men, cults, street-side worship, and the general tendency to see the sacred everywhere.

Philosophical sophistication, which Vedic thought represents, is less appealing because it takes more effort to absorb. Think about it — it takes more effort to think than it takes to sing. Hence the differences.