This Thanksgiving weekend, me and Punam invited some friends over to our home for a festive Thanksgiving meal. They brought over some deliciously creamy mac and cheese and an apple pie; Punam made some indulgently buttery, garlic and scallion mash potatoes and molasses cookies; and I made the one thing I can cook well, involtini di melanzane (eggplant)—which unfortunately ended up being a bit too seedy.
It was a great meal with great, and sometimes quite heated, conversation that lasted through the night while both of our families’ dogs—Baloo and Makani—slept peacefully under the dining table at our feet or snuggled between the cushions on the couch. It was a great night.
Before the meal, throughout the day, however, I couldn’t help but think: What does this holiday mean to me? Of course I learned the standard grade-school story about the holiday growing up. I know why it’s generally celebrated. But sometimes answering the question “Why is X celebrated?” in the abstract doesn’t quite answer the deeper question of “Why do I celebrate X?” and “What’s X’s significance in my life?” The latter questions are more personal and self-reflective ones.
For me, on that day, its significance was that of a somewhat generic festive occasion on which to enjoy a delicious meal with family and friends and have meaningful conversations about things we don’t generally get a chance to talk about in our everyday lives, consisting of quite a bit of tedium. I didn’t think much at all about the answer to the abstract question. And to be frank, the grade-school story didn’t play much of a role—if at all—in how we experienced the occasion. It was experienced primarily as an escape from the demands of everyday life.
But as I often do, I started to think about what the holiday can and should mean to me? How can I imbue the holiday with even more meaning than the current generic festive spirit it already has for me? As an Indian-American—and more specifically a Hindu-American—I started asking myself what aspects of Hindu tradition can be linked with Thanksgiving to make it even more eclectically meaningful to me.
Admittedly, one aspect of the holiday that I should have thought more about but didn’t, was how Indigenous peoples celebrate the occasion and what complicated meaning the occasion has for them. I consider this to be of a personal failing of mine, but the more I recognize it as a personal failing, I hope the more I will come to change this habitual neglect of Indigenous perspectives.
So, while acknowledging this personal failing, how can I, a Hindu-American, enrich the meaning of Thanksgiving by connecting it with Hindu tradition? There is, of course, no singular answer to this question, just as there is no singular Hindu tradition. Nonetheless, I’ll give my own stab at a possible answer and maybe my reflections can serve as a starting point for your own.
At the heart of Thanksgiving seems to be the idea of gratitude, and given that it is at its heart, it’s worth thinking about how the notion of gratitude is understood in Hindu tradition.
While I was growing up in Swadhyaya, the word we often used for ‘gratitude’ was ‘kṛtajñatā.’ The word was loosely translated to something like ‘remembrance of that which has been done.’ The idea, if I remember correctly, was that we should acknowledge and be grateful for all that others, especially God, have done for us. The gratefulness, or expression of thanks, was understood to be an expression of our acknowledgement that the debt—or ṛṇa—we owe to God and others for their kindness can never be repaid. In most cases the best that we can do is acknowledge that debt or ṛṇa, say our thanks, meanwhile doing whatever little we can to repay it.
The corollary to this idea was the claim that God, in particular, did not do all of these things in order to then adopt the role of a predatory debt collector. On the contrary, God did all of this out of selfless benevolence, without any expectation that the debt would be repaid. After all, at best, God would be practically inconsistent if God did so much for us with the expectation that we will repay our debts, while at the same time creating us in such a way that we could never do repay that debt. At worst, God would be quite cruel if God deliberately made sure that humanity was locked into a perpetual condition of slavish indebtedness. The point is, since God is neither cruel nor practically inconsistent, God’s actions must instead be understood to be selflessly benevolent. Interpreted as a kind of virtue theory, we are to take God’s example and likewise strive, insofar as it is in our ability to do so, to be selflessly benevolent.
I’ve always found this idea of kṛtajñatā to be really compelling and meaningful, even when the claims about God are excised—after all I no longer believe in One. The point of being cognizant of our indebtedness to others is not to make our relationships with them transactional. The most important component of the idea of kṛtajñatā is the corollary, even independent of its theistic component. After all, it is not just the selfless benevolence of God that we rely upon, but the selfless benevolence of countless others. We might be cynical about the motivations of others and deny that their benevolence is selfless, but even despite the possible absence of selflessness, I’m convinced that most of the kindness that others show to us is not a calculated transaction. If anything their kindness is mechanically habitual. The point is that even in this cynical form, much of the kindness we’re shown is not accompanied by an expectation of reciprocity. If we’re going to be cynical, we also have to admit that if there is any expectation that we have, it’s that we assume those we show habitual kindness to, regardless of what we do for them, are going to be quite crappy to us in return.
Either way, we remind ourselves of our indebtedness to recognize how dependent we are upon the either habitual or selfless benevolence of others. No matter how cynically we view the kindness of countless others, we cannot possibly repay it. So the point of recognizing our indebtedness is not to make our relationships with others transactional—because it’s impossible to repay our debt of kindness—but rather to inspire and motivate our own contribution of benevolence to the world. The purpose of kṛtajñatā is not to engender a culture of transactional benevolence, but a culture of (at its worst) habitual and (at it best) selfless benevolence.
The first step in generating a culture of selfless benevolence is the recognition of how indebted we are. This is a good segue (which I mistakenly thought was spelled ‘segway’) into a discussion of how our indebtedness is conceptualized in brahmanical Hindu tradition. By this I mean in the the Dharmaśāstra tradition, which is the center of most of my research.
The notion of debt or ṛṇa in brahmanical Hindu tradition is a really fascinating, though clearly problematic one as we will see. The point of discussing this notion of ṛṇa, is not to claim that this is necessarily the way we ought to understand the concept. I’m not interested in defining and essentializing these doctrines on the basis of their traditional historical expression. What I’m interested in is how we can critically reconstruct these traditional Hindu ideas in light of their shortcomings and our current needs. This critical reconstruction is something we all have to do together as a community.
There are two general categories of debts that are recognized in Hindu tradition: contractual debts and congenital debts. Contractual debts are debts that we acquire voluntarily, while congenital debts (kind of like the Christian notion of original sin) are debts that we involuntarily acquire just in virtue of being born. There are three congenital debts that are recognized in Hindu tradition, collectively known as the Triple Debt. Individually, they are the debt we owe to brahmins, the debt we owe to the Gods, and the debt we owe to our deceased ancestors. Sometimes a fourth debt is added, namely a debt to men.
Unlike the Swadhyaya conception of indebtedness that cannot be repaid and inspires selfless benevolence, according to brahmanical tradition, these debts can and should be repaid. The mechanism of repayment is also clearly delineated. The debt to Brahmins is repaid through the study of the Vedas; the debt to the Gods is repaid through sacrifice or yajña; and the debt to our deceased ancestors is repaid through the birth a son. If we include the fourth debt to men, that debt is repaid through hospitality.
All of these debts are interconnected, and the way they’re interconnected becomes clearer when we discuss the doctrine of three debts in conjunction with the five great sacrifices or mahā-yajñas that are to be conducted daily. There are five beneficiaries to these sacrifices: the Gods, Brahman (understood in this context as the Vedas), ancestors, humans, and non-human beings. The sacrifice to the Gods is a daily fire sacrifice; the sacrifice to Brahman is through daily private recitation of the Veda; the sacrifice to the ancestors is done through daily offerings of food and water; the sacrifice to humans is done through hospitality; and finally the sacrifice to non-human beings is done through what’s called a daily bali offering.
The notion of sacrifice in brahmanical Hinduism signifies interdependence. For example, why is it necessary to offer food and water to the ancestors? It’s because their continued existence in heaven (svarga) is dependent upon our sustaining them. Likewise, after our own death, we become dependent upon the offerings of our descendants for our sustenance. Hence, we incur a “debt” once we’re born to have a son that is able to offer this sacrifice once we die. Our ability to offer food and water also depends on the continued existence and reliability of the world in which we live. This world is sustained through sacrifice to the Gods. We thus incur a “debt” once we’re born to the Gods to offer sacrifice so that the Gods sustain the world upon which our continued existence here and in the hereafter depends. The knowledge of how these sacrifices to the Gods are to be performed is found in the Vedas, and the preservation of that knowledge depends upon the continued existence of brahmins. We thus incur a “debt” to brahmins for the sake of the preservation of Brahman, understood in this context as the Veda.
Though the connection between the sacrifices to humans and non-human beings isn’t as clearly connected with the doctrine of triple debts, the sacrifice to humans in the form of hospitality is sometimes included in the doctrine in the form of a debt to men. We can think of there being a fifth debt as well to non-human beings.
Let us, therefore, think of there being a quintuple “debt” to brahmins, Gods, ancestors, men, and non-human beings according to brahmanical Hindu tradition, repaid through various forms “sacrifice” that we acquire congenitally.
Whether these repayments through sacrifice should be called “re”-payments or just payments for future services is an interesting one, especially given that the debts being paid off are conceptualized as congenital, and not “re”-payments for prior services rendered. There is also clearly a transactional character to this traditional conception of debt (ṛṇa) and sacrifice (yajña) that is different in quality from the Swadhyaya notion of kṛtajñatā. The culture promoted by brahmanical Hindu tradition strikes me as one of transactional benevolence, not selfless benevolence. This is also why I often have a problem with the traditional doctrine of karma. It strikes me as likewise promoting a culture of transactional benevolence.
Furthermore, there are some clearly unsavory elements to this brahmanical conception of indebtedness. The fact that the doctrine of the triple debts and the five great sacrifices only applies to the men of the three upper castes demonstrates its traditionally casteist and gendered nature. Furthermore, the extinguishing of one’s debt to the ancestors through the birth of a son is likewise evidence of its traditionally gendered and patriarchal nature. Also, what of our indebtedness to dalit-bahujans? And that question I’ve asked is itself one that fails to include dalit-bahujans among “us.” They’re framed by the question itself as separate from us. But we also cannot thoughtlessly include dalit-bahujans as among “us” and thereby erase and deny their unique struggles.
There are many problematic features of this brahmanical Hindu conception of indebtedness, and much more can be said. It’s important to be aware of these problematic features so that we can reconstruct our tradition not just in ways that simply ignore those problems, but actively respond to, correct, and even compensate for them. Ultimately, as I mentioned before, what I’m interested in is not defining and essentializing these doctrines on the basis of their traditional historical expression. What I’m more interested in is how we can critically reconstruct these traditional Hindu ideas in light of their shortcomings and our current needs. We need to get rid of the casteist and patriarchal elements of this system and replace them with more egalitarian notions of indebtedness that promote culture of selfless benevolence and not mere transactional benevolence.
A tree undoubtedly find its existence rooted in a seed, but the tree as it grows is not the same as the seed. It grows under the influence of the soil and environment into something quite different from its original form. And the seed itself has its own past history. Though the tree may be dependent on the seed, not everything about the tree can be traced back to the seed. Elements of the seed may even be shed. The same is the case for contemporary Hinduism. It may have grown out of the Vedic culture, but neither is everything in brahmanical Hindu tradition traceable back to the Vedas, nor is everything in contemporary Hinduism traceable back to the brahmanical Hindu tradition. contemporary Hinduism is also a product of the soil and environment in which it grew, not just the Veda. The Veda itself has its own prior history. And the future of Hinduism beyond its contemporary form will also be influenced by the soil and environment of our own day and the readjustments we make in light of them.
So what are some of the directions in which we can reconstruct this brahmanical Hindu conception of indebtedness? There’s no one way to do this, and in fact I encourage all of you to try out your own experimental reconstructions. In closing, I’ll share some of my own ideas reinventing it with elements from the Swadhyaya conception of kṛtajñatā and my own naturalistic views.
As I discussed before, what it means to recognize your indebtedness is to recognize how fundamentally dependent your are upon the habitual and selfless benevolence of others not only for your survival, but also for your flourishing. Of course we can talk about our fundamental interdependence upon all in the abstract, but as I’ve often said, the abstract is often uninspiring. For that abstract interdependence to mean something for us, it’s often helpful to break that abstract interconnectedness into discrete units. That isolation of concrete cases of interpersonal dependence is where the notion of debt is helpful. How am I indebted to this particular individual? The more concrete our interdependence is made, the more real it becomes for us; and the more real it becomes for us, the more active the effects of its recognition become in our lives.
This is where the notion of five debts comes into play. It helps us make out interdependence more concrete for us. Of course I do not believe in the existence of Gods or that brahmins are privileged in their role as preservers and protectors of Hindu culture. So my account of the five debts will be somewhat more naturalistic. According to an expanded account of the traditional doctrine of triple debt, we are indebted to five things: brahmins, Gods, ancestors, men, and non-human beings.
For me, my debt to brahmins is my debt to all the cultural influences in my life, whether they’ve influenced the Hindu, Indian, American, etc. elements of my cultural identity. The cultural influences in my life are manifold, and my debt is to all those teachers (not just professional or religious) who have played a part in my diverse enculturation. What is the sacrifice through which I can “repay” this debt? Of course I can never do so, and that is why daily sacrifice which serves as the “repayment” is not to be understood as a transaction, but rather a ritual reminder or one’s indebtedness to these influences. The traditional sacrifice is daily recitation of the Vedas, but given the myriad cultural influences that have shaped my cultural identity, the kind of study that I should do may have to do not just with the reading of traditional texts, but actively reading a little bit each day about all the different cultural influences in my life.
For me, my debt to the Gods is my debt to the many natural forces that I simply cannot identify and are beyond my control that play a role in my survival and flourishing. Given my inability to identify these forces, there is clearly no way that I can repay my debt to these forces. Instead my daily sacrifice, or ritual remembrance, of these forces could be in the form of lighting a flame—a candle or diya.
For me, my debt to the ancestors is my debt to my ancestors, particularly my parents and grandparents for my very existence—and undoubtedly more—in this world. My daily sacrifice, or ritual remembrance, to my parents may be in the form of putting their pictures up in a central place in my home and connecting those pictures with some kind of daily ritual. I’m still not entirely sure what that would look like. After all, this reconstruction is a work in progress.
For me my debt to men is my debt to humanity in general. This includes my extended family, my friends, and all those beyond my kith and kin upon whom I depend. Traditionally the debt to humanity is repaid through hospitality. It is very rare, however, that we have guest over at our home. If this ritual reminder of my indebtedness is to be daily, it must be something I do daily. I still have to think a little harder about what form this ritual reminder will take.
Finally, for me, my debt to non-human beings is precisely that. It’s pretty clear that we depend heavily on a live and thriving ecosystem for our existence, not just the human social world. A ritual reminder of this dependence upon non-human beings can, of course, be in the form of taking care of Baloo, but maybe I can do something more than that to remind myself of the more expansive nature of my dependence upon all the non-human beings that are part of my ecosystem. Again, this is something I have to think more about.
The point of all of this reflection is simple. The reason we engage in “sacrifice” of some sort is not for the sake of being transactional with respect to those to whom we owe a debt. The purpose of daily sacrifice is not repayment, but rather remembrance. It’s a reminder of the many concrete instances of habitual and often selfless benevolence upon which we depend for our existence and flourishing.
It’s true that we, like others, also engage in various forms of transactional, habitual, or selfless benevolence. The point is to use these daily moments of remembrance to transition away from more transactional or habitual forms of benevolence and towards more selfless forms of benevolence. It’s to promote a cultural of selfless benevolence.
You might be wondering, what do these daily sacrifices have to do with Thanksgiving? Well, one way to think about Thanksgiving is as a special occasion upon which to engage in a unique kind of ritual remembrance of our indebtedness and as an occasion for selfless benevolence. It’s a day to invite friends and family over to your home as a kind of ritual remembrance and show them selfless benevolence in the form of hospitality.
We can think of Thanksgiving not as a daily (nitya) sacrifice, but what’s often called an occasional (naimittika) sacrifice. It’s in this way that Thanksgiving can become part of Hindu tradition. It’s one among many occasional sacrifices we conduct in order to ritually remind ourselves of our indebtedness and thereby inspire and motivate us to contribute our own selfless benevolence to the world.
Anyways, that’s it from me. I hope you all have a memorable and meaningful Thanksgiving weekend.