Bhakti Hinduism versus Sanatana Dharma

Around the turn of the last millennium, the Sanatana Dharma found itself under threat, and not for the first time. The previous threats had been dealt with cleverly and skilfully, with the most masterful stroke having been the co-option of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Jainism had been similarly dealt with and reduced to margins of the subcontinent.

The new threat, however, was of a different kind. Unlike the philosophy-heavy religions of the subcontinent, the Abrahamic religions were much simplified in their message. Having been stripped off concepts such as rebirth and multiple gods, they had a simple message, based on the concept of an Armageddon. They also came with a handy “with us or against us” message, with evangelists of these faiths not hesitating from putting to sword people who refused to obey them.

Not to be outdone by faiths that were significantly more simplistic, religious leaders of the day figured that the only response was to simplify their own religion, and thus was born what has now come to be known as the “Bhakti movement”. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the Bhakti movement as not one movement but a collection of a large number of independent movements all of which were in a similar direction.

So how did the Bhakti saints counter the monotheistic simple Abrahamic religions? They each chose a single God from among the pantheon, and professed worship towards this particular God. Tulasidas chose Rama, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose Krishna and so forth. More importantly, the divine aspect of Gods who were hitherto human avatars (such as Rama and Krishna) was amplified, and the more “human” grey areas of the epics and scriptures were played down. In retelling of the epics from this time onward, Ramayana became a story of the “ideal king” Rama. Mahabharata was cast as the story of Krishna, rather than that of a battle between cousins over property. The Bhagavad Gita part of the Mahabharata, which receives scant importance in the earlier texts (source: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta) got played up.

In the space of a few centuries, as the Bhakti movement (decentralized, still – remember) took shape across different parts of the country, the very nature of the religion underwent a massive change. Gone was the worship of the general pantheon, its place now taken up by worship towards a single God/Goddess. The latter would even be interpreted as a particular idol of a particular God/Goddess, as now the Venkataramana of Tirupati was now supposed to have a lot more “mahime” than the idol of the same deity at say Devagiri in Banashankari, Bangalore. Out went the philosophical underpinnings of a religious education. In came a list of dos and don’ts. Debate was replaced by obeisance towards the guru.

The Bhakti period had been immediately preceded by a period of immense development of Hindu philosophy, by the likes of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya. The importance of that was suddenly lost, as the devotion to a particular God took precedence over understanding of a philosophy. I’m supposed to be a Smartha, and am from a priestly family (my greatgrandfather was a priest). None of my religious education, however (mostly received from grandfather and uncles) consisted of anything of Shankara’s Advaitha philosophy – the foundation of the Smartha sect.

Behind my house in Jayanagar is this hall called Shankara Krupa (set up, incidentally, by my grand-uncle), which plays host to lectures of a religious nature every evening. During the day the hall is let out for other functions, typically of a religious nature, and I’ve hosted and attended several events there. There is a podium on stage, from where the speakers deliver their lectures every evening. And on the podium is a large sign, in bold letters in both English and Kannada. “Please do not disturb the lectures by asking questions or engaging in debate”.

This signboard at a place called “Shankara Krupa” sums up where the Bhakti movement has taken the great Sanatana Dharma.

The stigma about mental illness

It saddens me deeply every time I see someone rubbish mental illnesses as a fad, and as a wall behind which the mentally weak strive to hide. Having myself being affected negatively by delayed diagnosis and treatment thanks to prevailing orthodoxies, and having seen the kind of lift timely recognition and therapy can provide, it is frustrating to know that most of the world still attaches a stigma to any kind of mental illness.

Earlier today, someone I know reasonably well complained that she’s feeling way too depressed nowadays, and that she needs to seek a counselor. Knowing her, I know that this is a deeply informed decision, but before I can throw in my support, her mother interjects saying “all this therapy and counselling is bullshit. Just move in back with us and you’ll be fine”. I had half a mind to interject with “your similar stupid judgments not so long ago drastically delayed someone’s recovery, I know. So I don’t think your daughter should listen to you”. But not feeling particularly combative, I kept my opinion to myself.

Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to do my bit, though, to help clear the stigma of mental illness. I was talking to some aunts today and told them, “Look, there’s nothing wrong in being clinically depressed. It’s just unlucky. It’s like having diabetes”. They nodded, and seemed to understand. Perhaps using analogies like this one, where people can evaluate mental illness on par with an illness that they understand well, help.

The problem with mental illness, though, is that too few possible evangelists are “out” (while reading homosexual literature, I see several parallels between the difficulties faced by the sexually queer and the mentally ill). So many possible evangelists are involved in professions that sees “mental strength” as a necessary trait that they are afraid of jeopardizing their careers by “coming out”. The only solution, as I heard in an interview a couple of months back, is for this to be a gradual process. People with mental illness “coming out” is now a trickle, but if we sustain that trickle, perhaps it will become a flood sooner rather than later, and that might help erase the stigmas associated with this class of illnesses.

A couple of months back, I happened to listen to cricketer Iain O’Brien’s interview with The Cricket Couch, where he talked about his depression, and about why he “came out”. It was a truly inspirational talk, and there he mentioned about the trickle turning into a flood theme. He talked about Marcus Trescothick, who probably led the way among cricketers with mental illnesses “coming out”, and the effect that had on mentally ill sportspersons. He mentioned that his own coming out was a step in sustaining that trickle.

A month back, I read Trescothick’s autobiography, “Coming Back to Me“. That is again a story very simply written and well-told, and hopefully that helps educate the larger population about mental illness, and about the fact that it can strike just about anyone. In fact, Tresco makes an interesting point there that mental illness is more likely to affect the mentally stronger people, for being mentally strong, they try to fight against the tide that inhabits their mind, unaware of its presence, and in the process sink deeper into the illness. We surely need more such evangelists.

So today, on no particular occasion, I have decided to do my bit for mental illness evangelism, to make my little contribution to what is currently now a trickle and will hopefully turn into a flood. I suffer from more than one illness that gets categorized under the class of “mental illness”. For over six months now, I’ve been on anti-depressants, trying to combat my anxiety and depression. I also suffer from this condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) , but don’t take any medication for it.

For a while I was suffering from “second degree stigma”, and hence not “outed” myself, though in general I keep my affairs public. Because I’ve known that mental illness has stigma attached to it, I was afraid that outing myself might harm me both personally and professionally. However, I realize that by not sharing my story of incredible transformation in the past six months, I was doing a great disservice to the class of mental illness patients in general by not contributing to the trickle. Having convinced myself that I can work (for the first time in over six years I completed a couple of projects recently), and that I can work well despite my illness, I think it makes no sense holding this back any more. I thank Marcus Trescothick, Iain O’Brien, Freddie Flintoff, Lou Vincent et al for showing the way, and I think it’s my duty to join the band.

My psychiatrist informs me that I must have had ADHD for, like, forever, but lack of knowledge of the condition in India meant I was never diagnosed. Back in 2002, my parents took me to a psychiatrist because they thought I wasn’t performing up to my potential at IIT. I got administered the Rorschach Test and some questionnaires and was put on a mild dosage of sleeping pills, which I soon stopped taking without much impact. In hindsight, my ADHD should have been diagnosed then, and perhaps that might have helped me make better career choices than quitting four jobs in a bit over five years’ time.

As the more perceptive of you might have already figured out by now, this “coming out” means that I’ll probably be writing more about mental illness on this blog. I know it might make some of you uncomfortable, but it is indeed part of my effort to make people more comfortable with dealing with mental illness, and to try and erase the stigma attached to the class of illnesses. If you are a sufferer, too, I encourage you to come out, and join this trickle. And help turn it into a flood.