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What Kind of a god will condemn a heathen child to eternal Hell?

Author: Swami Agnivesh
Publication: Communalism Combat
Date: September 1997

Spelling out the Hindu view of a multi-religious society is certainly not an easy task because within Hinduism there are innumerable paths, philosophies, sects, systems—some of them highly sectarian. Of them, some are open and tolerant, some highly philosophical, while others are plainly fanatical. Dharma meaning eternal righteousness, rule of law, ethical conduct etc., flows from the lofty ideal and principles set in the Vedas. Hinduism has no founder or prophet but there are common grounds which most Hindus can accept. One of them is that the purpose of religion is to take the individual through a gradual process to a higher and higher, or deeper and deeper awareness, ending finally in liberation of the soul from all bondage.

Religion should also create the necessary environment to support such a lofty pursuit. We Hindus believe that the Creator is in everything there is and Her/His divinity is the innermost core of every man and woman. Through the illusionary veil of ignorance about the self and our attachment to ego we are unable to realise our oneness with God. Innumerable paths have been developed by our sages and yogis, but they can be generally divided into four major groups:

Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion;
Karma Yoa, the path of selfless service;
Jnana Yoga, the path of inquiring reflection; and,
Raj Yoga, the royal path of meditation.

Each one of these specific ways to God has countless subdivisions, cross-sections and syntheses. Regrettably, not one individual follows any one of the yogas in its purest form. All paths will lead—as the Bhagavad-Gita, the most popular and revered scripture among Hindus says—eventually to the realisation of God.

We have been enjoined that by ceaseless introspection, each of us should discern which is the path which is best suited to us at that moment or in that stage of development. The responsibility is placed on each of us to discern our swadharma. The task of the guru or teacher is to lead us to discern that swadharma. To facilitate this approach to the Divine Self within man, our ancient seers introduced the concept of Varna Ashram Dharma. Varna, derived from the root Vri—to choose. Varna, generally gives each individual his/her place in society, with corresponding rights and duties. Varna cannot be passed onto the children. Our scriptures are clear that by our nature and by our specific activity or profession we belonged to a given varna. The yardstick for judging ones varna is guna (abilities), karma (action) and swabhava (aptitude). In the scriptures it says: At birth we are all shudras but by our action and qualification we become twice born.

Life was also divided into four major stages under the ashram system: the first part of one’s life is to be devoted to study; the second to be lived as a house-holder, having a family, enjoying wealth and all the material and psychological properties (dharma, artha, kaama); the third stage is meant for retirement and reflection; and the fourth is to be lived in complete renunciation from all worldly desires and attachments, living a life of spiritual practice and service to God and humanity. The much maligned Varna Ashram Dharma is a revolutionary concept of socio-spiritual engineering. While the caste system is based on birth which breeds inequality and immobility, varna (derived from Vri, to choose) negates any status, social or economic, based on birth. In fact, it militates against the very institution of private property and private ownership of means of production.

At the same time it discounts Staticism. Its a beautiful concept but unfortunately has fallen into the hands of people who have given to it a bad name. It is very difficult though not impossible, to retrieve and resurrect it. Everything in Hinduism, be it the question of how to rule the country or that of the Tantric sexual union, has ultimately only one final aim that: God or self-realisation.

Hindus look at everything in terms of involution and evolution, an eternal coming and going represented by the Trinity or formed, Soul and God—Traitavada. Hinduism contains the widest spectrum of religious thoughts and practices, from the most primitive idol worship and sacrifices to the highest and the most profound techniques of meditation. Hindus are normally guided by a teacher whose sole duty is to lead the seeker to the divine God within him. Since we believe that all humans are on different evolutionary levels of spiritual awareness, we also accept the fact that there are different teachings, paths, techniques, methods to reach the final goal.

As we believe in an evolutionary process of the soul (which is supposed to be identical with God), we move from lower to higher in a cycle of numerous lives, taking birth according to our karma, or the sum total of our previous acts and deeds. In each life, we draw closer and closer to God to reach final liberation, which can be experienced, according to our sages, here and now, in this very life. In the close proximity of the individual soul (Atman) with the Universal Soul (Paramataman), we finally realize that we have always been with God, though having fallen to the illusion of separateness due to clinging to our ego and illusionary individuality. Hindu scriptures say there is nothing but Brahman—God—who is all-pervasive, all-embracing and all-containing. The total surrender to this Ultimate Reality and living ones own swadharma (given duties without the sense of I am the doer) is the highest purpose of life.

All religions, rooted in Hindustan, be it Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism and a multitude of smaller sects, believe in the Law of karma. This law has been distorted and even perverted to justify social, economic and gender disparity/discrimination. The law of karma means that the soul or the individual reincarnates on this earth till it finally dissolves in Moksha—liberation. All spiritual schools coming out of the Indian soil believe that each individual must work out his own salvation, by continuous spiritual, mental and physical purification till the grace of God is manifest.

For a Hindu it is unthinkable that there is only one true Saviour or one last Prophet and that whosoever does not believe in his message or gospel will be condemned to eternal hell-fire. For us, the Grace of God is always present and we find it incomprehensible and philosophically unacceptable that an all-loving and all-powerful God condemns His own creation, His own children into an eternal abyss. We believe that God, the Self within us, seeks itself, or in classical Vedantic parlance. The Self seeks itself through the self. A Hindu can accept the idea that there are innumerable paths and ways to God. He has no problems whatsoever in accepting different names for the Ultimate Reality, be it called Brahman, Allah, Tao, Jehovah or whatever, since he knows that the Ultimate is beyond name and forms. With such a religious outlook, it is transparently clear why a Hindu has no difficulty in entering into a dialogue with other religions so long as they drop their exclusiveness. For us, there is no exclusiveness in any system since each one only represents a part and never the whole, which contains all. With such an all-embracing view it is easy to see why Hinduism has no missionary command.

As we can see from this short but necessary introduction, there are fundamental differences between prophetic religions and religions having their roots on Indian soil. We are facing a situation where some religions on one side have a missionary command and a moral obligation rescuing others from the world of Satan, and on the other side with religious systems which believe in pluralism and a multitude of approaches to God. In the East, religion is an inner process of Yoga and no book or holy revelation is taken as absolutely authoritative and above ones inner most experience.

The scriptures lead beyond scriptures, declare the Upanishads. Though human in origin, an exposition of truth is to be accepted. If otherwise, even what is regarded as divine revelation is to be rejected. Even a young boy’s words are to be accepted if they are words of wisdom; else, reject it like straw even if uttered by Brahma, the Creator, says Vashishta. I have no intention to praise Hinduism in this article, I am fully aware that our shortcomings are too phentiful, particularly on the social level. I will gladly admit that we also have some Hindu fundamentalists who consider Sanatan Dharma as absolutely unique and above other systems of self inquiry and spiritual realisation but this view is no common. The dreadful situation that India finds itself in is mainly due to disinterested and alienated elite, due to a corrupted priest craft and the consequential inferiority complex which is due to a thousands of years of exploitation and suppression.

In recent times, Hinduism has never had a real chance to reform itself and bring out the timeless universal ideals because the slightest genuine spiritual movement among the Hindus is immediately being branded by the minority communities as Hindu-chauvinism, Hindu backlash or fundamentalism. We are basically victims of our own tolerant philosophical outlook. On what base can there ever be a Hindu fundamentalism since no scripture is absolutely authoritative for all Hindus, not even the Vedas since the highest realisation is always considered above scriptural knowledge? Too innumerable are our teachings, methods, techniques, etc. to create any monotheistic belief system on it.

Ignoring these differences does not bring us any closer together. The Hindu masses are becoming increasingly aware that their pagan outlook is a challenge to proselytizing faiths, particularly Islam and Christianity, who have a moral obligation by their founders to go out into the world and convert the heathen nations. This awareness is being misused by many Hindu religious leaders through their easy access to the mass media to create enmity between the different religious communities. But let us look at the thesis: The ‘Hindu view of a multi-religious society’, a little more closely. We could—as is very popular now a days—talk about the many things we have in common with each other. But I believe that it is high time that we also take a closer look at the things which separate us from each other and have been the cause of millions of deaths, unimaginable pain and suffering for humanity. By only talking about the positive aspects of our faiths, we are negating the negative side but whose shadow continuously looms in our unconscious.

As we know from psychology, anything that is negated and suppressed can be the cause of suffering and ill-health. In the same way, by not facing the negative, the shady, the contradictory and destructive aspects of our faith, by doing only goody-goody talk, we create a psychological situation where it only needs the right demagogic spark to periodically create situations in India which remind us of the Nazi era, or the more recent ‘ethnic cleansing’ in what was formerly Yugoslavia.

Generally speaking, as stated earlier, a Hindu has no problem living next to someone who believes in an altogether different God. He has absolutely no objections to whatever forms of worship he/she practices as long as it is within accepted norms of constitutional and humanistic environment. One of the proofs of this is the fact that the Syrian Christians have had small flourishing communities in Hindustan for more than 1500 years. The Jews have lived with us for even longer without having been persecuted. The Parsis, the previous Zoroastrians from Persia, have been here for centuries. More generally, we have had a great influx of Bahais from Iran who constructed the outstanding and already world-renowned Bahai Temple in Delhi.

To emphasize my point further, at the time of partition, there were about 10 per cent Hindus living in present day Pakistan. They have now dwindled to a negligible number. In east Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh, Hindus who formed 25 per cent of the population in 1947 have now been reduced to about 10 per cent. During the same period, the Muslim population in Hindustan has doubled in actual number while in percentage terms, it has slightly increased in relation to the overall population. Admittedly, there have been also many communal clashes in India between Hindus and Muslims. We must also remember the sad incidents of Sikh and Hindu violence in recent times. But these clashes are mainly being created by political goons for personal gains or party alignments.

The recent rise of Hindu fundamentalism is to a great extent a reaction to national and international Muslim fundamentalism. In a country with such poverty and social injustice where more than half of the population cannot read nor write, it is easy for the Muslim and Hindu masses to fall prey to fanatical clerical and political demagogues. Many communal riots in India have been instigated by such corrupt interest groups. But all educated heathens are fully conscious, they know that Islam divides the world into good and bad, Dar-ul-Islam (the house of Islam) and Dar-ul-harab (the house of war or enemy country) and that it is the religious duty for every Muslim to see that the whole world eventually bows to Allah. Islamic injunctions like: Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah; Make a holy war: are not very conducive for a dialogue.

It is of no use trying to project some esoteric meaning into such obvious commands particularly since they can be backed up by other ones. Unfortunately, every fanatical mullah talks in these words. Comforting phrases like: You have your religion, I have mine (Koran, Surah Al-An-Am, Verse 108) mean little to Hindu and Buddhist ears as we have seen the loss of Hindu influence from Iran to Indonesia to proselytizing Islam. Such comforting sayings don’t convince us anymore. History is its own proof since the basic tenet of this faith is to conquer and subdue the whole world in the name of Allah. The handful of Quranic sayings like the one quoted above are from the earlier Meccan period of the Prophet. But for 1400 years, Islam and Islamic persons have taken as their guides the much harsher revelations of the Medina period.

We Hindus have our reservations against proselytising faiths. We are well aware that not one ancient pagan culture was able to survive among Sematic creeds. We are sacred when we look at the problems the Coptic Christians and other Christians have in Egypt, Sudan and Turkey. We know about the fate of the Bahais in Iraq, the Ahmediyas in Pakistan and the Chakma Buddhists in Bangladesh.

The Christians are instructed by Jesus: Go into the world and preach the Gospel to all creatures. He who believes and is baptised will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16, 15–16). How does this statement sound to non-Christians? How would the Christian world react if 2,49,000 (the number of Christian missionaries in 1986, according to the Mission Handbook) Hindu missionaries were to be busy saving souls in the Western world? In 1983/84 North Americans (USA & Canada) supported 67,000 overseas personnel. American Protestant missionaries working in India have already created 22,000 local churches. What would Catholics who enjoy special state privileges in countries such as Switzerland, Bavaria and Ireland say if Hindus and Buddhists would come and set up large scale missionary stations in their midst?

What would the Islamic world say if billions of petro-dollars are poured into their countries to establish Hindu schools and to build innumerable temples. How would our Muslim sisters and brothers react if the Hindu minority were to ask for a Hindu personal law in Islamic countries just as the Muslims have in secular India?

It is the prevalent view of most Hindu thinkers, including Mahatma Gandhi, who was known for his religious tolerance, that a true pluralist seeking a dialogue, would demand that Christianity and Islam liquidate their missionary apparatus. In the Bible it says: Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known Thee, and upon the Kingdom that have not called upon thy name (Ps: 83, 16–17); or, He shall judge among the heathen. He shall fill their places with dead bodies; He shall wound the heads over many countries (Ps: 110, 5–6). Can there ever be a true dialogue if such scriptural sayings are taken as the infallible command and word of God? How can we ever accept to live in peace if we were to honestly follow the injunction: Oh ye who believe, take not Jews and Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who has taken them for friends is (one) of them; Lo Allah guideth not wrong doing folk (Koran 5:5:51); or, If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine (about Christ), receive him not into your house, neither greet him; For he that greets him is partaker of his evil deeds (John 2: 9–11).

What scriptures and law books some of our Brahamins and Pandits in Hindustan have been fabricating in the name of gods and goddesses and for their own self-glorification can be equally embarrassing for any Hindu thinker. For example: Manu Says: Stree Shudro Na adhiyatam (Women and low caste born have no right to education). Shouldn’t we professional script commentators and exponens of religion do some reflecting and soul-searching and delve deep in reflective stance ourselves? Have we ever asked ourselves what we do to our lay people in the name of God and religion? What kind of a God condemns an unbaptised child to eternal hellfire? What kind of a God wants women in 45 degrees Celsius and 80 per cent humidity in a burqa/hijab? What kind of a God sentences a human to a lifelong occupation as a toilet cleaner or bonded labourer? What kind of a God reserves Nirvana only for men and asks women to be quiet in church? What kind of a God wants us to bless canons and weaponry and insists on female circumcision? What kind of God expects a widow to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre? What kind of a God makes millions of women cry at the birth of a female child?

We religious professionals carry a great responsibility to stop rising fundamentalism and obscurantism. It is our ridiculous insistence which claims every scripture to be the absolute authoritative word of God. How many God-given infallible books are being peddled in this world? I belong to the Arya Samaj a reformist Hindu movement, though I was once raised as an orthodox Hindu with all the neverending rituals, idol-worshipping and so-called God-revealed instructions with hundreds of superstitions. I believe that all scriptures contain valuable spiritual instruction, but they also contain questionable statements and these, taken out of context, are very dangerous. I believe we should extract from the scriptures what is morally, ethically and spiritually uplifting and forget all the clerical interpolations which are part of all holy books.

We are aware that there is the one God-given infallible book (for Christians) which is supposed to be authoritative for 1.5 billion believers. It says that Jesus was crucified on the cross to redeem humanity from eternal damnation. But the other God-given, infallible books (for Muslims) say it was not Jesus but someone else who died in his place on the cross. Who speaks the truth? Over 20,000 Christian sects are based on the Bible each claiming to interpret the word of God in the proper way. How can we ever meet on the religious and scriptural level? Can’t we admit that each religion serves as a certain spectrum of religious awareness, some from the kindergarten right up to college level, some only at the level of secondary teaching, but that it could be only at the University level that Jesus, Buddha, Kabir, Rumi, Shankaracharya, Meister Eckhart, Ramana Maharshi and John of the Cross meet each other?

A true dialogue can only happen if we are willing to give up the notion that we alone exclusively possess the idea, the only truth meant for all humanity here and now, and forever. It requires giving up the idea of me being right and you being right and you being wrong or misled. Any type of fanatical soul-saving and missionary activity is a form of imperialism and disrespect to fellow human beings of another religious persuasion. Using violence for such a purpose is the ultimate religious perversity. I am not even remotely suggesting that we should not be proud and convinced about our own faith. But creating and supporting a whole industry to save others from eternal hellfire (which they don’t believe in anyway) is in no way conducive to an inter-religious dialogue.

Why do we divide the world into believers and non-believers? If there is only one God, one Absolute, how is it possible that anyone of us worships the wrong God, if he sincerely surrenders to his Creator? It is our duty to create the necessary environment for the lay people to move from the lower instincts with their corresponding ideologies and rituals to higher and higher levels of spiritual awareness up to the fullest human potential. There is plenty of room for religious expression possible as long as we are breaking the walls of clerical prisons which have caused so much pain to humanity. A truth-seeker should never suffer from social and cultural pressure. In a more and more pluralistic world it has to be the State—totally neutral and secular—which must guarantee the freedom of religion and conscience. There cannot be a Muslim or Hindu declaration of human rights. Human rights are universal and they have to be constitutionally backed by a secular legislative body.

It is one of the foremost challenges for religious dignitaries from Hans Kung to the Dalai Lama to insist on these rights in unmistakable language. Or else, this clerical sweet-talk is of no use, particularly for minorities and people who have decided to follow their own convictions. If it is the cornerstone of our belief that we want real religious freedom, peace and tolerance among us, then it is our duty to raise our voice against any Ayatollah who sentences apostates to death for their beliefs.

It is our obligation to condemn Islamic courts, which forcefully separate couples against their will. It is our responsibility to put the Hindu priest in his place who preaches untouchability and widow-burning. We are not doing our Muslim sisters and brothers any favour, or those belonging to some other minority community, by closing our eyes to their situation and being silent about their suffering. It is us who have to give up century old privileges which are guaranteed through state alignments and protections. It is high time we refuse to be party to any political or religious system which thrives on exclusivism. The thousand year history of inquisitions and witch-hunting, the holocaust in Europe and the more recent 70-year-long political exclusivism in the erstwhile Soviet Union should be enough warning for all of us.

Pluralism, on the other hand, is not an unmixed blessing. It has its own pros and cons. But on the balance, like democracy, it is better than other systems which are buried beneath intolerant theocracies. (After the demise of Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it is the Theocracy of the Market which is threatening to sacrifice all human values at the alter of greed and profit). In the realm of religion, we need to go beyond cosmetic dialogues. We need to encourage and promote the freedom to doubt, to debate and to dissent. The pursuit of truth should be directed beyond the spoken or written truth or scriptural truths. Experiential truth should be equated with what is considered to be the divine truth. Our task is to create that climate whereby each individual soul can experience this divine. Liberation theology must mean, and include, liberation from theology.

In the specific situation of my country, I would like to see that religious leaders of various faiths and denomination identify specific tools of spirituality in their respective religions, such as truth, compassion, justice, equality etc. and address the problem of poverty and socio-economic disparity squarely. They need to pool all their resources—moral and material—and work together with a deep sense of commitment to fight castesism, communalism, alcoholism, consumerism, gender inequality and child slavery.

In this way, they would not only help massive empowerment of lay people in their struggle for liberation but also bring out the very positive and the most profound resources in their own traditions. This will also prepare the young to evolve and sustain an alternative paradigm of development— development with social justice. It will also usher in an era of greater people-to-people friendship between countries of South Asia which will end militarism and the arms race in the subcontinent. I would like to conclude with a saying of the most famous of our religious leaders, Siddhartha Gautam, the Buddha: Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in doctrines because they have been handed down to you through generations; do not believe in anything because it is followed blindly by many; do not believe because some old sage makes a statement; do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Have deliberation and analyse, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of one and all accept it and live up to it.

- (The Writer is chairman, Bandhua Mukti Morcha)

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