Hindu Vivek Kendra
A Pluralistic Hinduism

Before we address the issues concerned, there is a need to appreciate that there is a difference in which religion is looked at in the Hindu and Christian viewpoint. For a Hindu, religion is not a mere ritual, but a philosophy of life. We know that Hinduism does not have a book, a prophet, or a centralised hierarchy. The correct description of Hinduism is Sanatan Dharma. While Sanatan has an English equivalent, meaning eternal, translating Dharma as religion is not proper. Dharma encompasses religion. Confusion prevails when Dharma is equated with religion.

Hinduism has a religious connotation in the Western sense, as well as a philosophical connotation in the Eastern sense. Hinduism believes in pluralism - that is there are multiple paths to salvation and one chooses the path that one thinks is valid for oneself. This is the hallmark of its tolerance. Its ethos is expressed in the shloka Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudda Vadanti, which is best translated as follows: "There is an eternal Truth, but there are many ways to achieve it." While a Hindu may vigorously argue about the merit of his/her way to achieve the Truth, he/she will accept that another person may have a different way which is better situated to that individual. Hindus consider that the belief that one is in sole possession of the Truth is an impediment to enlightenment. It is even regarded as being arrogant.

Christianity believes in exclusivism. It says that Christ in the only Son of God, and was sent to this world to lead the people to Him. Upon the death of Christ, this task was given to the Church set up in the name of Christ. The present inheritors of Christ are the Popes, the Cardinals, the Bishops, the priests, etc. Furthermore, Christianity believes that Christ has commanded his followers that it is their duty to convert others to their system. Many have interpreted this command to imply that one could use physical violence as a means to achieve the objective.

Christianity divides the world into believers and non-believers, with the former going to heaven, and the latter to that place where one is eternally barbecued! Moreover, the believers do not go to heaven on their own merit, but only on the intervention of Christ. It is the priests in the parish who is supposed to have a line to Christ. The request for forgiveness of any sin that is committed by a Christian is to be conveyed through the priest. Under the circumstances, the priest has a tremendous amount of influence over the laity, since he is supposed to intercede between man and god.

Shri S Radhakrishnan, one of the famous philosophers of this century, said:

Christian theology becomes relevant only for those who share or accept a particular kind of spiritual experience, and these are tempted to dismiss other experiences as illusory and other scriptures as imperfect. Hinduism has not betrayed into this situation on account of its adherence to fact.... When the Hindu found that different people aimed at and achieved God-realisation in different ways, he generously recognised them all and justified their place in the course of history. (The Hindu View of Life, Harper Collins, Delhi 1973, p 16.)

The pluralistic philosophy of Hinduism has enabled it to absorb and nurture various diverse systems of beliefs. Many have evolved from this land, to address a particular situation that developed. In other cases, one or more individual put forward a set of propositions which is supposed to elevate the person to a higher spiritual plane. All these philosophies worked within the milieu of the cultural Hinduism, and never tiled to denigrate the people and their philosophy.

Hinduism has the unique history of not persecuting the Jews and permitting the Zoroastrians to maintain their own religion, when both the groups had to flee their original lands due to religious persecution. Swami Vivekanand has captured the essence of this record when he said:

Three religions now stand in the world which have come down to us from time prehistoric - Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. They all received tremendous shocks, and all of them prove by their survival their internal strength. But while Judaism failed to absorb Christianity and was driven out of its place of birth by its all-conquering daughter, and a handful of Parsees is all that remains to tell the tale of their grand religion, sect after sect arose in India and seemed to shake the religion of the Vedas to its very foundations, but like the waters of the sea-shore in a tremendous earthquake it receded only for a while, only to return in an all-absorbing flood, a thousand times more vigorous, and when the tumult of the rush was over, these sects were all sucked in, absorbed and assimilated into the immense body of the mother faith. (Paper on Hinduism, World Parliament of Religions, September 19, 1893.)

Hinduism is a dynamic philosophy, ever reforming ever progressing. It has attracted thinking people in all times. Even those with very little Hindu background have been attracted to the philosophy. Many who started their study of Hinduism with an intention of damning it have come to be amongst its greatest admirers. Hinduism encourages people to think for themselves, and so has developed a scientific temperament. According to Prof Klaus Klostermaier, a teacher of comparative religions at a university in Canada, this is what has attracted many thinking people. He says:

Hinduism will spread not so much through the gurus and swamis, who attract certain number of people looking for a new commitment and a quasi-monastic life-style, but it will spread mainly through the work of intellectuals and writers, who have found certain Hindu ideas convincing and who identify them with their personal beliefs. A fair number of leading physicists and biologists have found parallels between modem science and Hindu ideas. An increasing number of creative scientists will come from a Hindu background and will consciously and unconsciously blend their scientific and their religious ideas. All of us may be already much more Hindu than we think. (A Survey of Hinduism, p 414. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Delhi.)

It is not the intention of the Hindutvavadis to project that everything in Hinduism is perfect, and that there are no bad practices. However, these are issues internal to Hinduism, and it is a tradition of the philosophy to make the necessary reforms. This has made Hinduism resiliant and is today the oldest surviving civilisation in the world. Such reforms are effective when they come from within. External forces can at best be a catalyst. Often, the motive of the external input could be suspect. Abbe Dubois, a French Roman Catholic missionary operating in India in the early 1800s, wrote:

"On their arrival in (India, the missionaries) continue to look at (Indians) with European eyes, and European prejudices, and to act accordingly; but finding themselves disappointed in all their attempts to make an impression upon them on the score of religion or otherwise, they, in their fiery zeal, or rather in their despair, avenge themselves by lavishing every kind of abuse and insult not only on their religion, but also on their institutions, both public and private, sacred and profane." (Letters on the State of Christianity in India, Asian Educational Services, Delhi, 1995, pp 148-9.)

Hindu history has streams of examples of people who have done yeoman service to reduce the evils that have crept in all ages. Yet, many evils do remain. But these have nothing to do with the philosophy of Hinduism. Other reasons have contributed to it. The fact that Hinduism is the oldest surviving civilisation must wake up the detractors to its essential greatness that has been attested by many modem thinkers. Shri Arnold Toynbee said:

"Today we are still living in this transitional chapter of world's history but it is already becoming clear that the chapter which had a western beginning, will have an Indian ending, if it is not to end in self destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way - Emperor Asoka's and Mahatma Gandhi's principal of non-violence and Sri Ramakrishna's testimony of religions." (Foreword to 'India's contribution to world thought and culture', 1970.)

In a pluralistic Hinduism, religious minorities need not have any fear. At the same time, there has to be responsibility of these other religions to respect the Hindu civilisation, and not to provoke it. Hindus have resisted the attacks that have been mounted not only on the land, but also the culture. Hindu tolerance should not be confused with cowardice, lack of self-confidence, or weakness of faith. The Jews have been grateful to the Hindus for the exemplary way they were treated in this land.

The so-called Cochin Jews of what today is the Indian state of Kerala and the Bene Israel of Maharashtra are remarkable and specially worthy of note because, unlike Jews in the most other parts of the world, they were allowed to live in peace and harmony in India for many centuries.... Of particular interest to students of Jewish history, there is not only the impressive fact that Indian Jews were never victimised by anti-Semitism but also that there existed for centuries on the Indian soil in Kerala the rare phenomenon of a privileged, highly honoured, respected and largely autonomous Jewish community, and of the Bene Israel whose origins might conceivably go back to the lost tribes of Israel. ("India's Bene Israel", Shirley Berry Isenberg.)

The Zoroastrians had to flee their homeland due to religious persecution. They landed on the West Coast of India, in what is now the state of Gujarat. The Hindu King of Sanjan, Jadi Rana, allowed them to settle in his land provided they accepted the following five conditions

  1. The Parsees' high priest would have to explain their religion to the King.

  2. The Parsees would have to give up their native Persian language and take on the language of India.

  3. The women should exchange their traditional Persian garb with the customary dress of the country.

  4. The men should lay down their weapons.

  5. The Parsees should hold their wedding processions only in the dark.

    (The Parsees in India, Eckehard Kulke, Vikas Publishing, Delhi, 1979, p 28.)

The objective of these conditions is that the Parsees would be socially and culturally assimilated with the rest of the people, even while being completely free to maintain and practice their own religion. Shri Kulke goes on to say, "Five years after their settlement in Sanjan, the Parsees built at this site their first fire temple (Atash-Behram) on Indian soil, which was to shelter from then on their holy fire rescued from Iran. With this, the Parsees had a new religious centre which contributed to their close attachment to their newly chosen homeland." The holy place of pilgrimage for the Parsees is in a Hindu land, and not in Iran.

The Christians who came here in 4th century from Syria due to religious persecution from their co-religionists, were also the recipients of the tolerance of the Hindus. Shri E.R.Hambye said,

Being a minority in a closed milieu and not always well-trained and instructed, it is remarkable that (the Syrian Christians) kept the faith together with their social status. (The Syrian Christians in India, Clergy Monthly, vol 16, nr 10, 1952, p 386.)

This was possible because the Syrian Christians reciprocated the kindness shown to them by the Hindus. Shri Duncan B Forrester said,

The Syrian Christians, like the Jews of Cochin and the Bene Israel of Bombay, survived and indeed flourished because they accepted the social system within which they found themselves and observed its norms. (Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India, London, Curzon Press, 1979, p 100.)

Shri S Radhakrishnan said,

The famous Kottayam plates of Sthanuravi (ninth century AD) and the Cochin plates of Vijayaragadeva bear eloquent testimony to the fact that the Hindu kings not only tolerated Christianity but granted special concessions to the professors of that faith. (The Hindu View of life, Harper Collins, Delhi 1973, p 41.)

On the other hand, Christianity has not accepted other religions within its midst except on its own terms. In the aftermath of the Satanic Verses controversy, Shri Clifford Longley, who advises Prince Charles of the United Kingdom on Islam, said, "The very presence of Muslims in Britain can only he on terms which are acceptable to the majority." He also said, "Every other religious minority in Britain has eventually found that the only way of securing its position is by compromise." (The Times, London, July 8, 1989.)

Prof. Imtiaz Ahmad, of Jawharlal Nehru University, explains the way minorities should be accommodative. He says,

While members of all the minority groups must have a collective right to preserve and practice their own culture and religion, they must also acquaint themselves with and show respect to the culture and traditions of the majority..... Group rights cannot prejudice the enjoyment by all persons of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. Group rights cannot also be used to engage in racial or ethnic discrimination or incitement to hatred of other groups. Nor can group rights be used to challenge the sovereign equality, territorial integrity and political independence of States. (Limit to group claims, The Hindu, Nov 27, 1996.)

The Hindus have more than adequately established that they will bend over backwards to accommodate reasonable requests of other religions. The Hindus are justly proud of this record, which cannot by matched by another other surviving religions or philosophies. In contrast, the record of Christianity in this respect is dismal, to say the least. Even when compromises were offered, it is only recently that Christians accepted non-Christians amongst their midst.

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