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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 8 New Delhi February 8, 2020

Hinduism Respects Diversity

Sunday 9 February 2020

by Sharad Rajimwale

When we notice that an attempt is being made these days by certain dour, orthodox forces, imagining themselves in the role of the exclusive voice of Hindu culture and religion, to enforce a uniform, homogenizing interpretation of it and using it as a clout to browbeat ‘others’, it is natural to feel that a macabre distortion is being introduced somewhere in manufac-turing this line of thinking and peddling it as the soul of Hindu way of life. Not only, one feels, is truth being made subservient to the campaign of promoting preposterous notions and ideologies, but the true essence of the develop-ment of Hindu philosophy as fundamentally a respecter of diversity is being cruelly neglected or overlooked, or just cudgeled into silence. In cluttering together the ritualistic noise, glitter of iconic trinkets, holy cow and holy Ganges feelings, and elevating hoodlums to sainthood as steps towards building a Hindu India, a clamorous crowd of unthinking fanatics and one dimensional ideas is being mobilized to kill the liberal-democratic ways of apprehending realities, as well as the very broad spirit of catholicity that went into shaping Hinduism from the early days.

“Hinduism is wholly free from the strange obsession of the Semitic faiths that acceptance of a particular religious metaphysic is necessary for salvation, and non-acceptance thereof a heinous sin meriting eternal punishment in hell. Here and there outbursts of sectarian fanaticism are found recorded in the literature of the Hindus, which indicate the first efforts of the conflicts of the different groups brought together into one fold; but the main note of Hinduism is one of respect and goodwill for other creeds.”

This observation made by Dr S. Radha-krishnan in his Upton Lectures delivered at Manchester College, Oxford in 1926, and later published in book form as The Hindu Way of Life, seeks to highlight the accommodative character of Hinduism or what Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru preferred to call the “Indian way of life”. One needs only to cast one’s eyes on the developments taking place in the hoary past, the many ways in which multiple events brought with them diverse manifestations of cultural and religious viewpoints, systems of ideas and life, often disharmonious, to see how the life in this sub-continent was already clearing the space for plurality of faiths and belief systems. What keeps us wondering is that these streams co-existed and flourished without much apparent problem. While, for instance, a hedonistic perception that life is a thing to be enjoyed and lived to the full without worrying about soul’s salvation or the life beyond this, grew among certain sections in 600 BC, there also existed very stern orders of the followers of tenets and injunctions of Buddhism with emphasis on self-discipline that ran counter to atheistic materialism. The development of ascetic and mystical doctrines, represented by Buddhism and Jainism, indicates, as B.L. Basham puts it, “a reaction of the warrior clan to the pretensions of Brahmans and to the sterility of the sacrificial cult”. (Basham, 2004) As the history progressed, our society incorporated these and many other philosophies as well as social institutions which grew on them creating a fabric of plurality which became its foundation. This, with the passage of time, also became the main driving force and a dominant viewpoint. It was unavoidable for almost every single faith and belief system to come in contact with other systems and participate in some or other way in its perception of life and man’s relation with it. The exlusivism of other faiths could not gain much ground. However, it cannot be denied that there arose from time to time circumstances of hostile reaction involving attempts to destroy one system of ideas by the other in fits of intolerance. It is not just foreign invaders who can be blamed for destruction on a large scale, but illiberal sections within the society often showed highly belligerent approach in dealing with the growing influence of other sections. Yet essentially, the expansion of broad-minded tolerance as the core understanding and guiding principle was never severely hampered. Today, however, there can be seen new challenges confronting our society. Its heterogeneous character is made to be seen as a warp that needs to be corrected, and syncretism is considered inimical to the orthodox Hindu way of life. This predominantly absolutist ideology sees Hinduism as a homogeneous system that must sanitise its house from time to time against ‘invasion’ of other faiths. Purity being the basic concept of its working, its practitioners deny any kind of adaptation or inclusiveness. We must remember that such conservatism itself offered fertile ground for spawning all forms of social and cultural distortions that through its unchecked growth came to choke the vital sources of spiritual energy in an era that saw an upsurge of reformist movements. Social and national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda waged a relentless war against attempts to deny the liberal character of Hindu perception that tried to narrow it down to a straightjacket system of oppression and regression. In a letter written to Raja Piyari Mohan Mukherjee from New York on November, 1894 Swami Vivekananda argues, “I am thoroughly convinced that no individual or nation can live by holding itself apart from the community of others, and whenever such attempt has been made under false ideas of greatness, policy or holiness—the result has been disastrous to the secluding one. To my mind, the one great cause of the downfall and the degeneration of India was the building of a wall of custom—whose foundation was hatred of others—round the nature and the real aim of which in ancient times was to prevent Hindus from coming in contact with the surrounding Buddhist notions.... We are the object lessons of the violation of that law which our ancestors were the first discoverer and discriminator.

“Give and take is the law, and if India wants to raise herself once more, it is absolutely necessary that she brings out her treasures and throws them broadest among the nations of the earth, and in return be ready to receive others have to give her. Expansion is life, contraction is death. Love is life and hatred is death. We commenced to die the day we began to hate other races, and nothing can prevent our death unless we come back to expansion which is life.”

Love is the keyword in Vivekananda’s philosophy of Hindu thought from which flows the notion of non-violence, another central ideal in the Hindu view of life. Later on, Mahatma Gandhi turned these twin concepts into fundamental tenets of his own philosophy and applied them to solving formidable political problems of his time. He went on ceaselessly writing and lecturing on the importance of cultivating love, tolerance and making non-violent ways of resistance the tools in the general fight against injustice and oppression throughout his life. “India, with its ancient religions, has much to give, and the bond of unity between us can best be fostered by whole-hearted sympathy and appreciation of each other’s form of religion. A greater toleration on this important question would mean a wider charity in our everyday relations, and the existing misunderstandings would be swept away.” (Guha, 2013) This vision emerges from the understanding of Indian culture as comprising several cultures, which, whatever the circumstances of their arrival and development, found a place alongside other pre-existing cultures in this land of infinite diversity.

Resilience and Elasticity

In the very nature of Hindu philosophy there exist resilience and elasticity to accommodate and not the rigidity to reject. Rigidity comes from the position which regards religion as resulting from some kind of revelation beyond which it is heresy to go, as the word of God is considered the final truth. On the other hand, Indian people, a collection of various race types, developed a theosophy which set the adherents on the path of exploration of knowledge as a never ending quest. “The core philosophy of Hinduism is the search for truth, not the specific path taken. A quote from the Vedas that summarizes the Hindu perspective on God is, ‘Truth is one. The wise call it by various names’”. (Internet) It would be pertinent to quote Dr S. Radhakrishnan in this context, “God, the central reality affirmed by all religions, is the continual evolver of the faiths in which men find themselves. Besides, experience proves that attempt at a very rapid progress from one set of rules to a higher one does not lead to advance but abrogation... Hinduism does not believe in bringing about a mechanical uniformity of belief and worship by a forcible elimination of all that is not in agreement with a particular creed. It does not believe in the statutory methods of salvation. Its scheme of salvation is not limited to those who hold a particular view of God’s nature and worship. Such an exclusive absolutism is inconsistent with an all-loving universal God. It is not fair to God or man to assume that one people are the chosen of God, their religion occupies a central place in the religious development of mankind, and that others should borrow from them or suffer spiritual destitution.” (Radhakrishnan, 1949) Dr. Radhakrishnan for the most part elaborates the basic attribute of “wider charity” (Gandhi’s expression) that came to act as the spirit behind its growth, lending it strength to live and let others live which even other polytheistic religions rarely possessed. “Bearing in mind this great truth, Hinduism developed an attitude of comprehensive charity instead of a fanatic faith in an inflexible creed. It accepted the multiplicity of aboriginal gods and other which originated most of them outside the Aryan tradition and justified them all. It brought together into one whole all believers in God. Many sects preferring many different beliefs live within Hindu fold. Heresy-hunting, the favourite game of many religions, is singularly absent in Hinduism.” (Radhakrishnan, 1949)

Vedic philosophy made it clear for itself that “Divination of Godhead, the impulse towards perfection” (Sri Aurobindo, 2005) and a constantly evolving consciousness in humankind trace the path of “God, Light, Freedom, Immortality”. Instead of setting limits to its vision of divinity, it set out to emphasize the paramount importance of transcending the limits of mortal preoccupation which our earthly life burdens us with. This is how Sri Aurobindo presents it in his ethereally transparent style, “To know, possess and be the divine being in an animal and egoistic consciousness, to convert our twilit or obscure physical mentality into the plenary supramental illumination, to build peace and self-existent bliss where there is only a stress on transitory satisfactions besieged by physical pain and emotional suffering, to establish an infinite freedom in a world which presents itself as a group of mechanical necessities, to discover and realize the immortal life in a body subjected to death and constant mutation——this offered to us as the manifestation of God in Matter and the goal of Nature in her terrestrial evolution.” (Sri Aurobindo, 2005) It was an attempt to free the religious consciousness from the mortal limits and provide it a dynamism which abhorred fixed vision of life, nature and cosmos. In meditating upon nature’s enormous and mysterious world its seers were able to perceive the flaws and imperfections in human life (by life they often meant inner spiritual life) that frequently satisfied itself with “utilitarian and unillumined compromise”. The key word in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is Freedom. Having made dynamism its principal tenet, this nascent, rapidly growing Vedic vision laid the foundation of a theology which saw harmony in everything, made a close study of Nature’s systems and drew the conclusion that harmony among humans is the essential pre-requisite for positive growth, “all Nature seeks harmony, life and matter in their own sphere as much as mind in the arrangement of its perceptions.” (Sri Aurobindo, 2005) Perhaps it was this open-minded approach to enriching one’s inner life that made the early Hindu culture tolerant towards other systems of thought and life styles. The Aryans came into contact with the indigenous cultures and accepted changes in their modes of life by incorporating many of the cultural elements of the vanquished people. “Indo-Aryans and Dravidians have merged millennia ago to form the roots of Hinduism and sustain the continuity of Indian historical traditions till the present day”. (Parpola, 2015) This “continuity of traditions” suggests basically inclusive character of that broad faith known as Hinduism and made it more resilient. “Though formal animal sacrifices of the Vedic period gradually disappeared, a new type of bloody sacrifice, almost certainly adopted from the non-Aryan aboriginals, became popular in the Middle Ages. Such rites rarely, if ever, took place in Vaishnavite shrines, but some Saivites and many devotees of Durga adopted the new type of sacrifice. The ritual slaughter of animals was justified by the doctrine that the soul of the victim went straight to heaven, but it was not approved by the best minds of the times...” writes A.L. Basham as one of the several instances of the Aryan culture accommodating various conceptual systems and religious practices from those whom they conquered but could not obliterate. What is notable in this colourful growth of society is that within Hindu fold itself there emerged different sects which wished to evolve independently and identified themselves as separate from others. Four major denominations are Vaishnavism, Saivism, Shaktism, Smartists, based on particular deities at the centre of their traditions; “... they do not deny other concepts of the divine or deity, and often celebrated the other as henotheistic equivalent.” (Internet) This kind of “poly-centrism”, as Julius J. Lipner terms it, makes it a religion of religions, each proliferating independently, unhampered. Dr Pradip Bhattacharya remarks in his review of Lipner’s book, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, “Religious synods laying down dogmas are precluded by the ancient banyan tree model forming a varied network that is micro-cosmically multi-centred yet macrocosmically one with an ever expanding tracery of aerial roots. Not the written word but that which has been ‘seen’, ‘heard’, and ‘spoken’ is considered the authoritative communication.”

Dharma and Religion

It is perhaps because of this multilayered character of Hinduism that the concept of “heresy” didn’t grow and allowed contrary paths of thought and patterns of social life to thrive side by side. To quote Bhattacharya again, “there was no formal device to ostracize people for rejecting a particular dharma”, though untouchability as a restrictive and repressive system was the outgrowth of the dominance of a conservative system and continues to haunt our minds and behaviour even today. Religion has always played central role in shaping up various human activities, from arts, literature, to architecture, social codes, politics, and so on. But dharma in Indian society meant more than just what we understand by ‘religion’, as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru observes in The Discovery of India. “ Dharma is a common thread in the Indic traditions that expands the conventional term ‘religion’ to include ethics, spiritual path, duty, law and cosmic order. In Hinduism, dharma is simultaneously the eternal order that rules the universe and the duty or law that governs one’s life”. (Internet) This rather extended sense of one’s religion sets the stage for an inclusive perception of its role and basic functions. In the words of Pandit Nehru, “It is from the root word dhr which means to hold together; it is the inmost constitution of a thing, the law of its inner being. It is an ethical concept which includes the moral code, righteousness and the whole range of man’s duties and responsibilities. Arya dharma would include all the faiths (Vedic and non-Vedic) that originated in India; it was used by the Buddhists and Jains as well as those who accepted the Vedas. Buddha always called his way to salvation the ‘Aryan Path’”. (Nehru. 1982)

Different scholars and national leaders interpreted the sense of Hinduism or what being a Hindu means in different ways. Democratic minds, at one end like Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, saw in it room for accommodating new markers and features with changing times, selectively rejecting regressive and conservative formations that put impedi-ments to social progress.

Light of Hope

To the western minds, in the early years of the twentieth century, hedged in with the fear of looming wars, instability of political orders and endemic economic depression, Rabindranath Tagore’s cosmogonic wisdom and universalism became the essence of Hindu point of view and appeared to show the way out of the morass. This was perhaps the reason behind Gitanjali’s sudden popularity in the West. It showed them a new glimmer of hope and solution. For the bruised and confused hearts Sri Aurobindo’s rejection of the prevalent sense of Hindu religion that appeared to have got buried under meaningless rites and rituals and sundry paraphernalia of deities, was akin to clearing a path to true liberation that had become clogged with dirt and dross. To him self-realisation is a necessary condition for self improvement. These divergent paths bore different names and identities, yet they comprised many branches of one Hindu philosophy. “The Hindu method of religious reform is essentially democratic. It allows each group to get to the truth through its own tradition by means of discipline of mind and morals. Each group has its own historic tradition, and assimilation of it is the condition of its growth of spirit. Even the savage clings to the superstitions obstinately and faithfully. For him his views are live forces... As the Hindu inquirer cast his eyes over the world, he saw that they were all conditioned by the social structure in which their fellows lived. History has made them what they are, and they cannot be made different all of a sudden... Every community has inalienable rights which others should respect... To despise other people’s gods is to despise them, for they and their gods are adapted to each other. “(Radhakrishnan, 1949)

Though conflicts and clashes have been part of the social history in this country, force did not become central to the methods of “conversion” of “non-believers” to one’s faith, for there existed no such thing as the concept of non-believer and conversion. That left the followers of one creed freedom to move to another or modify their own doctrines without fear of losing their heads “The Hindu method of religious reforms helps to bring about a change not in the name, but in the content. While we are allowed to retain the same name, we are encouraged to deepen its significance... When a new cult is accepted by Hinduism, the name is retained though a refinement of the content is effected.... Hinduism absorbs everything that enters into it, magic or animism, and raises it to a higher level” (Radhakrishnan, 1949) Scholars like Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, and many others point out that many non-Aryan deities and sacraments found their way into Aryan pantheon over a long period of time. Besides, there are materialists of different hues such as Lokayatikas, Kapalikas, rationalists and so on, who are essentially this-worldly and “rejected supernatural ideologies”. (Abigail Turner, Lauck Vernici, 2018) They have been subjected to severe criticism by all those who reject materialism as a serious philosophy, but they form the mosaic that is Hinduism. They kept flourishing and then disintegrated into more schools of thought with a freedom that few challenged.

We need not emphasise here that how on different levels, such as racial composition, enormous linguistic diversity,, stunningly multifarious literally output and artistic wealth India presents a unique example in world history. The arrival of other faiths like Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and the separate growth of Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and so on, further contributed to building of India’s heterogeneous society and strengthened its quality of “comprehensive charity” and capacity to accommodate. This synthesis continues to mark our ways of life and thinking. Any attempt to undo it is too puny and antithetical to India’s syncretic grain to succeed. Unfortunately deliberate attempts are being made in recent times to uphold narrow, constrictive and conservative values in the name of Hindutva revivalism by the ruling elites of the country and an atmosphere of terror and insecurity is being created among minorities, denying the basically broad-minded, catholic life view of Hinduism. Such an attempt and its forcible imposition is not only an insult to the central teachings of Hindu theology but also an outright rejection of the contribution of great thinker-visionaries like Pandit Nehru, Dr. S. Radhakrisnan, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, Rabindra-nath Tagore, and numerous other crusaders for peace and harmony.

When we see Swami Vivekananda’s name being used as a front and embraced with crude pomposity by the Hindutva brigade most of whose energy is spent in spreading communal hatred, abusive tirades and breaking society into embattled communities of different faiths, one thing that comes to the fore most prominently is the gruesome irony of the antithetical viewpoints that the Hindutva prophets and Swami Vivekananda represent. What would the BJP-RSS ideologues say to these ringing words of Swamiji, “ ... if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not fight’, ‘Assimilation and not Destruction’, ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension’”. (From the Concluding Speech in 1893 World Parliament of Religions). While Swamiji was trying to bring out the true essence of Hinduism, the present peddlers of Hindutva extremism are out to destroy that very essence by misrepresenting it as threatened by “other minority faiths” and must therefore take up arms to wipe the enemies off the face of the motherland! Swami Vivekananda’s mission was focused on creating a world-wide following for Hinduism by making it more accommodating and friendly to other belief systems and transforming it into a World Religion. In a letter reportedly sent by Swamiji to Muhammad Sarfaraz Husain of Naini Tal on June 10, 1898, it was written: “We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas nor the Bible nor Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible, and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but varied expressions of the Religion which is Oneness, so that each may choose the faith that suits him best.” (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 6, Epistles 2nd series—https://www.en.m.wikisource.org/wiki) That is why every open discussion, every conference, every seminar is belaboured and disrupted by the storm troopers of Hindutva forces. True Hinduism can barely be tolerated by them who swear by Hindu ethics!


1. Radhakrishnan, Dr. S., The Hindu View of Life, New York, George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1949.

2. Basham, A.L., The Wonder that was India, London, Picador, Macmillan Ltd. 2004.

3. Letters of Swami Vivekananda, Calcutta, Advaita Ashrama, 1995.

4. Guha, Ramachandra, Gandhi Before India, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2013.

5. https://lcps.org

6. Aurobindo, Sri, The Life Divine, Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Trust, 2005.

7. Parpola, Asko, The Roots of Hinduism, The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization, London, Oxford University Press, 2015.

8. https://en.m.wikipedia.org

9. Lipner, Julius J., Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London, Routledge, 2009.

10. Nehru, Jawaharlal, The Discovery of India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1982.

11. https://www.youthkiawaz.com

12. “The Banyan Tree, Not Oak: Polycentric Hinduism” by Dr Pradip Bhattacharya, https://www.boloji.com>articles

13. “What is Dharma’, Embodied Philosophy, 2019, https://www.virdharmma.org.

14. “Lokayat/Carvaka—Indian Materialism” by Abigail Turner, Lauck Vernici https:// www.icp.utim.edu/indmat.

The author is a Professor of English at the Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

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