Could you introduce yourself?
I am Jamnadas Gohil and I’ve been teaching Indian religions and philosophy for many years now. I still teach. I was born as a Hindu; my parents were Hindus, my family is Hindu, but through the years and through my education and also through my teaching experience I have become more convinced as a Hindu. Why? What is so special about being a Hindu? And why would I become a serious Hindu? Because of its freedom. Hinduism gives the freedom to think the way you like. I think that is the greatest gift which Hinduism has given to the people and to the Indian culture as well. You should know that I was not born in India but in Tanzania on the African continent. I had to discover Hinduism in my own way. Thanks to my teaching experience I came to realize that the philosophy, the theology and the freedom which Hinduism gives you is less available in other convictions. We don’t work with dogmas. That’s the freedom which I like. Naturally we have to respect one another, we are all human beings, so the one human being is not superior to the other, although his belief might be, but you shouldn’t use your conviction to dominate people who believe in other systems. That is what we call tolerance which is really part and parcel of Hinduism, uniting most Hindus. Of course there are exceptions, but most Hindus are very tolerant about other belief systems.
This unrestricted freedom gives me really the extra strength to be part of this Hindu tradition in my own way. I am not an orthodox Hindu. I don’t believe in any Hinduistic dogmatic theology as such. I am like a Hindu sculptor. I sculp my Hinduism with my own hands. In that respect, I agree with the great thinker Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti says: you should think as if you don’t know anything. He also says: if no books are available to you, what are you going to do? Because the books have been written by somebody else. So you have to write your own book. Which is what I am doing. I am writing my own Hinduism.
But even if you have the liberty of sculpting your own Hinduism, do you identify within the Hindu tradition rather with one belief system than with another? What would be that system?
That system would be called Shaktism. What is special about Shaktism? You must know that all cultures had at some point in their history a mother goddess. A part of their history was involved in a mother goddess, even in the religions in the Middle East before the advent of Islam. This also applies to Hinduism. Shaktism is an elaboration of that mother goddess culture. All other religions –with exception perhaps in Catholicism and in the Orthodox Church, where you have the Virgin Maria – lost that culture. In Hinduism mother goddess has been completely integrated as a creative power. I like Shaktism above other systems. This system is really ancient. Most religions nowadays are male oriented: “God the Father”. The mother goddess figure has been superseded by male tendencies. I like Shaktism, because it allows you to interpret the mother goddess in your own way. In Shaktism you have two tendencies, two schools of thought. One depicts the mother goddess, or Durga, as Kali, the fearless power that can also be ruthless. And then you have the other, more soothing side. The soothing, sweet side, that is what I like. For example Durga in the form of Amba.
One should realize that all the deities in the Hindu pantheon are entrances to a kind of transcendency. Do you remember that interfaith exhibition in Brussels [God(en): een handleiding / Dieu(x), modes d’emploi, 2006] we visited together where they associated Hinduism with “polytheism”? That was a wrong description of Hinduism. The correct description should be “polymorphism”. This is completely different! To be able to talk about transcendency, you need forms. You can of course also do without forms. For example the Upanishads don’t talk about any forms. They say “Brahman”, the absolute. And Brahman has a neutral gender. It is neither male nor female. In the Upanishads transcendence is described as “sat-cit-ananda” (Being-Consciousness – Bliss). But that is all it is prepared to say. I rather prefer a door through which I can pass. Passing through that door I am going to reach that absolute. The absolute itself doesn’t have any form at all. But the formless one has to be approached through a particular form.
What is your position on reincarnation?
As a Hindu and also in a sense being a part of the Indian culture, I believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation is a part of practically all Indian religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Jainism. There is also a school of thought in Hinduism which believes in Heaven, just like other religions, like Islam or Christianity. That is one possibility. I rather believe that according to my karma, according to my deeds which I have been performing during my past lives and this present life, the next form which I’ll have is unknown to me.
One particular religion or conviction is very specific about this. That is Jainism. Jainism says: a large part of human beings, homo sapiens, would never be released from the cycle of birth and death, what we call samsara. I believe this is true. There are people who are doomed to be reborn eternally. You see, to get released you have to do something. Even as a Hindu, I think most of the Hindus would reincarnate eternally. This is an idea which I got from Jainism and I think that this is very realistic, at least if you believe in the reincarnation theory.
The thing is that in Buddhism and in Jainism they don’t believe in a creative God, the whole responsibility lies on your own shoulders. That means that you have to take your responsibility. So if you want to be released from this eternal cycle, then you have to do something. It is a kind of realism I appreciate in Jainism.
In Hinduism you have the idea of avatar. Who is going to help you out and bring you salvation if you are not capable of doing it yourself? An avatar, that means a deity who descends to Earth. So if you are for example a Krishna believer, Krishna is going to give you salvation. In Jainism that idea doesn’t exist. But you do have something else. I once visited a new temple complex in Mandvi in North Gujarat . It is depicting 72 tirthankaras. Tirthankaras can be considered as role models for the Jain lay people. According to Jainism, in each period of time there are 24 tirthankaras. In the temple in Mandvi, I saw 24 tirthankaras of the past era, 24 of the present era and 24 who are going to come in the next era. They are going to help people and are in that sense comparable to the avatars in Hinduism. So even in Jainism, there is a way out.
Why would interfaith dialogue be important?
As a Hindu I think it is my duty to try to make connections with people of other convictions as well and to convince them that one should tolerate different convictions, whatever they may be. Even a person who is a non-believer should accept the fact that there are people who have their own belief systems.
You see, we are living in a modern world. You can’t escape from any other culture anymore. We are living in a global society. Even what you are writing down now, is going to come up on any computer any time. Anybody can read that. The modern situation is global. It is our duty as human beings to create a relationship of friendship and tolerance with people who think differently and who believe in other belief systems. We ought to do that, it is our human duty to do that. We shouldn’t consider ourselves to be different from other mammals. We are also mammals. But what is the difference between other mammals and ourselves? We call ourselves homo sapiens. So we have to contribute actively to the evolution of human beings. A very good example is given by Aurobindo. He was a mystic of the twentieth century. He died in 1950. He believed in a human being with a supermind. He considered the future human being as a Übermensch, not in the Nietzschean sense but as a human being who would have more consciousness. Consciousness also implies a growing sensivity, having more compassion, more tolerance and also more solidarity with other human beings.
If you are a part of the Indian culture, you are aware that there is no political place on earth that is as multicultural and multireligious as the culture in India. Indians have been living since time immemorial with people of all denominations. On the other hand, the Hindu diaspora which is living out of India, in different parts of the world, in Australia, in New Zealand, in East-Africa, in Canada, in America and elsewhere, is bringing a new imput into Hinduism. It is rejuvenating Hinduism. This is already happening. In my master’s thesis of Indo-Iranistics, I have written about Hinduism in England. When you see how Hinduism developed in the UK, you discover how this new dynamic within the Hindu diaspora has its impact on India itself. It is a fascinating process. Being born outside India, new generations of Hindus think differently by integrating local elements in their tradition. This could be a model of worldwide dialogue. Dialogue means “learning from each other”. Each tradition has got positive and negative points. If we take the positive elements of different cultures, then we can enrich our own culture.
What would be the negative aspects of Hinduism?
One major negative point is this whole idea about different castes. It should be removed anyway because we are all born equal. Nobody is born as an inferior person, so the whole idea should go, and it will go. It’s already happening. But you know, the thing is that people don’t want to change. It is not the weakness of Hinduism, it is the weakness of people themselves. They want to maintain the system and exploit the others. This is also one of the negative points of human beings. We like to exploit other human beings.
Why Axcent? Because the only right place is Axcent (laughs), it is very pluralistic. As I told you, we are living in a global society. By doing what it does, Axcent is a kind of extension of Hinduism (renewed laughter). You see, my Hinduism, when I sculp it, it is almost like… talking to other people, listening to other people from different denominations and learn from them and integrating new ideas… It is something which Hinduism has taught me. Axcent is doing the same thing. The idea of Axcent is not to emphasize the differences, but to look at what is common between different convictions. This is also the idea of Hinduism and that is why I said it is an extension. I believe as a Hindu that we should do this, and Axcent is doing the same thing. I see Axcent as a body which is doing exactly what I would do as a Hindu.
What about economics and Hinduism?
Let me go back to the roots of Hinduism. Hinduism says that any human being, whatever his culture or tradition, has to deal with four sectors of life, the so called Chatur Purusharthas. “Chatur” means four. “Purusharthas” means the goals of life of any human being. One of the goals is artha, and “artha” means economy. “Artha” implies getting dressed, having food, doing business transactions, so everything what we understand under economy is a part of artha. The second is kama. Kama is everything to do with our emotions: love, eroticism, building up relationship between man and man, man and woman, woman and woman, raising a family and all that. The third one is dharma: that is what we call the duties and rights one has. A part of those are ethical or moral. Dharma enriches your life. It is not a conviction, it is a way of thinking, the way you think which you need to go through in this present life. Last but not least, the fourth sector is called moksha or salvation, which means the release from this continuous cycle of death and getting born in a life full of suffering (what we call samsara). Don’t forget that Hinduism is the oldest living conviction on the earth. From the very beginning people – we can call them Hindus – were aware of these four sectors of life. So economy has always been part of human life and it will always be a part of it.
The Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor Chanakya (380 BC-270 BC) was the first economist ever of mankind. He taught economics and political science at a university. In his world-famous treatise Arthashastra he had in mind an Indian society where there would be enough for everyone. Nowadays, the Indian historian Pavan K.Varma is inspired by the same Chanakya in writing his recent book Chanakya’s New Manifesto. This book tries to solve the problems of the Indian community. Parvan takes elements from Chanakya’s book and fit them into the present day context of India. Of course the whole situation in India has changed. There is now a huge middle class that is still getting bigger. That is a good thing. But at the same time, poverty hasn’t gone yet. And corruption has become a major problem in the Indian society.
People who deal with poverty and social justice in India often refer to Gandhi. Gandhi has strongly been criticized by people who considered his vision on economics to be obsolete: underscoring the necessity of a self-sufficient, local and anti-industrial way of organizing economic life on the level of the village, based on craft and agricultur, wouldn’t get modern India very far. What is your position?
I don’t know whether you know that Hinduism has been compared to a banyan-tree. This Indian fig is an evergreen tree. It grows new branches and new leaves and throws away what is not needed. The old branches , the old leaves, they get dried up, they fall down. So this idea means that Hinduism is dynamic. What is useful, what is necessary is maintained. What needs to be changed is replaced by new additions. It is an all-inclusive way of thinking. It discards only those things which it can’t use anymore. It is a very utilitarian way of thinking.
You see, Gandhi was a figure of the twentieth century. His main objective was to get freedom from the British. He succeeded in that. His idea was to develop industry locally and regionally. That was a good idea, but the world has changed. We shouldn’t criticize him now because he was a man of his time. He did what he had to do. But now the things are changed and that is why people like Varma come up with ideas that are more actual.
Let me give you a concrete example. Years ago Coca cola tried to come into India. And India said: no thanks, we have Thums up, our own lemonade. But what happened? The whole Indian policy to import changed. So now everything is available in India. Everything, even coca cola has taken over Thums up. So you can still drink Thums up, under the name Thums up, but you also get Coca cola. So the doors are wide open for the rest of the world to come and invest money in India. This is really a radical change. And that is why the economy is booming at the moment. People get more money, more salary, and the middle class is growing. But the problem remains: most people still want to exploit other people who are needy. People are very creative to exploit other people. And that should be tackled.
At the same time, you can see how more and more people in India are taking matters into their own hands. I have been going to India regularly. During one of my trips with Flemish people, we visited several NGOs, especially in Gujarat. It was an amazing experience. In the state of Gujarat alone there are more than 5000 NGOs trying to tackle social challenges with regard to health, education, women’s empowerment, etc.! People are getting conscious that things that are not going well can be corrected. Instead of waiting for the authorities to do something, local people start up their own NGOs. In south Gujarat I met women who had founded their own NGO… Dalit women, the so-called pariahs of India, who could acquire micro credits and could hold for the first time in their lives a bank account. They had lots of problems with their husbands because they thought: if our wives earn their own living, they wouldn’t be able to be controlled. But the mentalities do change, slowly but surely. The women are now very proud. They now have two incomes. It is happening all over India, not only in Gujarat, even in rural areas: poverty is being tackled by private initiatives.