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Plea to return to Asia's identity

Plea to return to Asia's identity

Author: M. S. N. Menon
Publication: The Tribune
Date: May 10, 2002
URL: http://www.tribuneindia.com/2002/20020510/edit.htm#6

Tolerance and diversity, we are told, are the two distinguishing features of the Asian identity. Who said this? Two eminent ladies of Asia - Ms Kumaratunga and Ms Soekarnoputri. And yet there is no tolerance to be found anywhere in South Asia.

How is one to explain this? There is only one explanation: while the religions born in South Asia are founded on tolerance and diversity, the semitic religions, which are new entrants in the region, are not founded on tolerance. They are against diversity, against pluralism.

The Pope proclaimed from the soil of India that the Vatican's mission in the 21st century is to "plant the Cross in Asia". In other words, to convert Asia into Christianity. The Muslim fundamentalists say that their unfinished business is to conquer the rest of the World for Islam. They even go further: they say that they can achieve their spiritual goals only in an Islamised society. There is no scope here for co-existence. Can Hinduism agree to disappear? It cannot. It has a distinct mission in the world - to spread tolerance.

In the Vatican declaration "Dominus Jesus", the Pope exhorts Catholic theologians to "baptize all nations". It says: "God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth". But the "truth" is with the Church only.

The document is particularly hostile to the concept of religious pluralism. It states that its aim is to "rule out in a radical way" the thinking that "one religion is as good as another." Islam considers other religions as "false".

Maulana Maududi, a fundamentalist exponent of Islam, concentrates his ire on secularism as the main adversary of Islam because it "banishes religion from public life". Secularism creates its own values in violation of the values of Islam, he says. When Muslims swear by secularism in India, how are we to interpret it?

The Hindus belong to a different tradition. Their tolerance is rounded on a very long tradition. In the "Nasadiya Sukta" of the Rig Veda, the most sacred scripture of the Hindus, the rishi-poet says:

"He from whom this creation arose,

Whether he made it or did not make it,

The highest seer in the heaven,

He knows - or does even he not know?"

Well, he has doubts about even God's knowledge of the final truth: So it was natural for him to set out on an eternal quest to explore the ultimate truth.

This is blasphemy to the Semitic faiths. For them, the truth is already revealed by God. There is no cause for further enquiry. Man's role is merely to live a repetitive existence till he is called up for final judgement. But the quest of the Hindu makes his life more meaningful.

What is more, the quest of the Hindu led to freedom - freedom of his mind and freedom of his senses. These led to the diversity of his achievements, and contributed to the richness of India's civilisation. Remember, Socrates was forced to drink the hemlock; the Inquisition burnt the Christian apostates at the stake and Islam beheaded its dissenters. Which explains why the Christian and Islamic civilisations are so poor in content.

Having set out on his quest, the Hindu discovered some final truths. For example: "Ekam sad viprah bahuda vadanti" (Truth is one, the learned describe it variously.)

After this, he had no cause to be dogmatic, or claim infallibility. India chose to remain tolerant of differences.

Freedom of the mind created the world of thought - the world of religions and philosophies - and freedom of the senses gave us our music and dance, painting and sculpture, arts and architecture - in short, the sights, sounds and smells of our civilisation.

If India's diversity is without parallel, it is because India had always been free to think. No other civilisation can make similar claims.

Freedom led to diversity and diversity to the richness of the civilisation and richness led to tolerance. In short, the Hindu way of life was born. It was characterised by an eternal quest for truth. It produced freedom and diversity. Above all, tolerance.

A religion can be tolerant of other religions only if it tolerates diversity within itself. This is true of Christianity today, not of Islam, which excommunicates any group for the slightest deviation.

The Hindu never fell to the error of imagining, as the West does, that he has the ultimate truth and that no further enquiry was required. Says Dr S. Radhakrishnan, "The Aryan did not possess the pride of the fanatic that his was the true religion."

India has never been afraid of knowledge. The "Gyana marga" is one of the ways to salvation among the Hindus. No such liberty exists in the Semitic faiths.

This spirit of accommodation and tolerance led to concepts like universal brotherhood. In one of his Rock Edicts, Emperor Ashoka says: "There is no higher service than the welfare of the whole world".

Although an ardent Buddhist missionary, Ashoka never insisted that the world should first embrace Buddhism. Nor did he divide the world into a Christian and pagan world, into a Dar-ul-Islam and Dar-ul-Harb. For him, there were no enemy lands. All were his brothers.

There are many Hindus in India who want to follow the Semitic path. There are Muslims who still believe in the two-nation theory. And there are Christians who believe that salvation is possible only through Jesus Christ. It is obvious that these people do not reflect the tolerant and accommodative spirit of India, they do not accept its diversity. In short, they do not know how to live in a multi-cultural society.

One led to many and many led to one - this is the cycle of evolution and involution according to Hindu philosophy. Diversity is rooted in India's basic concepts.

India abhors dogmatism. It is comfortable with speculation and transcendence. Thus, there can be different forms, but only one substance; different roads, but only one goal. It is this simple acceptance of diversity which has guided India's outlook. And this explains its theory of "Sarvadharma Samabhava". Do Christians and Muslims subscribe to this theory? Once they do so, South Asia will be different. We will be back with our Asian identity.

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