2. "Equal respect for all religions"

 

         The only explicitly Indian contribution in the cited BJS/BJP self-declarations is of doubtful value: "positive secularism" defined as "sarva-dharma-samabhava", "equal respect for all religions".  We let the difference with the original European concept of secularism (equal indifference towards all religions, equal independence from all religions) pass, and focus on the problematic meaning of the slogan defining this "positive secularism".  Two meanings are attested: the political meaning apparently given to it in the cited BJP texts, viz. that the state must be equidistant from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and any other religion; and the religious meaning given to it by Mahatma Gandhi and his followers, viz. that a religious person should have equal respect for Hinduism, Islam etc., because all these religions are equally good and satisfying. 

 

         The Gandhians and the travelling neo-Hindu sadhus have spread the notion that Hinduism itself holds all religions in equal esteem, even that it considers all religions to be equally true.  This claim is repeated with enthusiasm in anti-Hindutva polemic by secularists who try to delegitimize Hindu self-defence in the name of some suicidal masochism advertised as "genuine Hinduism".  However, the truth is that this Gandhian slogan is a typical product of the political tangles of the colonial age and of syncretistic Theosophy-influenced neo-Hinduism; it is not an ancient Hindu dictum capturing the true spirit of Hinduism.  Possibly Gandhi meant the slogan to be a trick to domesticate Christianity and Islam into the age-old system of Hindu pluralism: if Hindus treat Islam and Christianity as "equal" to their own cherished traditions, Muslims and Christians will reciprocate this rhetoric and give up their open intention to replace Hinduism with their own beliefs.  The results of Gandhi's policies, viz. Partition and an intensification of Christian missionary subversion, already indicates how wrong-headed the well-intended slogan really is.

 

         Of course, Hindu tradition has always been wholeheartedly pluralistic.  It cherishes a principle of modesty in judgment, aware of the limitations of each human viewpoint.  It respects the urge to seek the truth which alights in every soul.  It recognizes its own attitude when it sees a reverence for the sacred at work in other societies.  It has compassion for the limitations of the human intellect, which in most people never outgrows the conditioning of education and culture (how many people who deride a given doctrine or practice would have arrived at the same judgment if they had been born in a community upholding this doctrine or practice?).  For this reason, Hinduism practises tolerance vis--vis all religious doctrines and practices, even obviously wrong ones, as long as they don't interfere with those of others.  History shows that Hinduism practises equal tolerance towards all sects of Hindu provenance, and towards Zoroastrianism, Judaism and pre-colonial Syrian-Christianity which, at least in India, have always abided by the rules of Hindu pluralism: live and let live.  This tolerance becomes questionable and indicative of a lack of viveka/discrimination when one is dealing with religions which refuse to abide by the rules.

 

         Hinduism applauds diversity and consequently accepts that people of different temperaments, circumstances and levels of understanding develop different viewpoints and different forms to express even the same viewpoint.  In that sense, it has always payed equal respect to shramanas and brahmanas, to jnana and bhakti, etc.  It showed samabhava to all traditions which counted as dharma.  This respect was never due to adharma practices and doctrines such as Christianity and Islam, the religions for whose benefit the slogan is used mostly.  

 

         The fundamental mistake of Indian secularism is that Hinduism is put in the same category as Islam and Christianity.  The definition of "religion" which is implied when we call Islam and Christianity religions, may well not apply to Hinduism, and vice versa.  Islam and Christianity are defined, by believers as well as by informed outsiders, as belief systems; Hinduism is not so defined (except by incompetent outsiders and some of their neo-Hindu imitators who try to cast Hinduism into the mould of Christianity).  Islam's and Christianity's intrinsic irrationality and hostility to independent critical thought warranted secularism as a kind of containment policy.  By contrast, Hinduism recognizes freedom of thought and does not need to be contained by secularism.  The contents of this last sentence, meaning the radical difference in kind of Hinduism and its enemies, can be found in many Hindutva publications (e.g., lamely, "Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life", or apologetically, "Hindus cannot be fundamentalists"), and yet the same Hindutva spokesmen parrot a Gandhian slogan which treats both Hinduism and its enemies as equal members of the set of "religions" or "dharmas".  

 

         Historically, Hindus have quickly recognized Islam and missionary Christianity as mleccha, barbaric predatory religions, not as instances of dharma to which any (not to speak of "equal") respect is due.  Until Swami Dayananda Saraswati, they didn't even consider these religions as worthy of a detailed critique.  Once this critique was finally made, it was quickly proven that Christianity and Islam are not "equally true" with Hinduism, whether with the help of modern rationalist scholarship or from the viewpoint of Hindu spirituality (cfr. infra).

 

         Far from paying equal respect to just any movement whether dharmic or not, Hinduism does not even require equal respect for each of its genuine dharmas.  Toleration does not imply equal respect for the insights and values taught by the sects concerned; it is an application of the true ahimsa spirit, viz. accepting the right of existing entities including ethnic identities and religious traditions to continue their existence.  But this doesn't mean that Hinduism considers all doctrines and practices as of equal value.  Hinduism as a whole gives a place in the sun to all, but it does not want any individual to set aside his criticisms of certain viewpoints or his personal preferences for some and aversion for other religious practices.  It never was anti-logical nor anti-realistic; therefore, it never required people to muzzle both their rational faculty and their temperamental inclinations.  These criticisms and preferences are perfectly normal, and there is no need to suppress them with an enforced "equal respect".  Even within the Hindu fold, there is no question of equality between different traditions and viewpoints. 

         One Hindu philosopher may disagree with another, i.e. consider his own view right and the other's wrong; indeed, debates between different schools of Hindu thought have mostly taken the logically necessary form of demonstrating the truth of one and the consequent untruth of the opposing viewpoint.  Calling one view true and another untrue is not what I would call equal respect, eventhough there may be equal respect for the human beings defending the respective views.  Like a good moderator in a public debate, Hinduism allows both sides their say, but it is not required to believe that both are equally right.  Similarly, though Hindu society has both a class of married priests and a class of celibate renunciates, there have always been people upholding the one institution and arguing against the other, e.g. that full-time monkhood is a parasitic way of life, or conversely, that the great spiritual achievement happens to require full-time dedication and thereby excludes social and family duties.  Hindu tradition as such refuses to be pinned down to one side of the argument, but every Hindu is entitled to choose sides and prefer one dharma over another.

 

         Apart from this subjective inequality of dharmas which Hinduism allows its adherents, there are universal judgments on which the whole society has developed a broad consensus, and which label one practice as right and another as wrong, or at least as inferior.  Thus, a contemporary ritualist who sacrifices flowers and fruits condemns the animal sacrifice practised by his forebears, and still by some shaktic sects, as primitive and unnecessarily cruel.  There was a time when Vedic seers practised animal sacrifice, and though Hindus still hold the Vedic seers in great esteem, the Hindu mainstream has outgrown this bloody practice: there is no equal respect for the old, primitive practice and for the new, more enlightened practice (as is illustrated by the clumsy attempts to prove that the descriptions of Vedic seers sacrificing goats or eating beef, or of the Buddha eating pork, are mere metaphors).  The Vedic seers were Hindus alright, the shaktic priests and sorcerers are Hindus alright, their rituals are part of Sanatana Dharma alright, yet their slaughterhouse dharma is not considered worthy of equal respect with more refined innovations in ritual. 

 

         Similarly, even most meat-eating Hindus agree that vegetarianism is superior, deserving of greater respect.  Another pan-Hindu consensus pertinent to the present discussion is the rejection of the narrow-minded exclusivist sects which refuse to abide by the rules of pluralism.  Before the Hindu mind got confused with sarva-dharma-samabhava, this meant a spontaneous abhorrence of the destructive fanaticism of Christianity and Islam.

 

         Within broad limits, the Hindu tradition as a whole does not pronounce on the existing differences, leaving it to the Hindu people to make a choice between its own variety of options.  Given each individual man's limitations, it is wise not to identify with one man's beliefs and preferences (as Islam does) and give room to different and even opposing positions.  All the same, Sanatana Dharma leaves its adherents entirely free to prefer one option over another, and even to criticize and reject certain options.  So, even within the spectrum of Hindu schools and sects, there is no question of sarva-dharma-samabhava, merely of peaceful co-existence.  The few cases of violent rioting between Shaiva and Vaishnava monks (gleefully played up and magnified in malafide pieces on "the myth of Hindu tolerance") may be considered as trespasses against the spirit of Hinduism, but debates and denunciations of certain views and practices remain entirely within the rules of Hindu pluralism.   

 

         Moreover, the same rational objection against sarva-dharma-samabhava which applies to intra-Hindu debates, applies to the relation between Islam or Christianity and Hinduism, or even to that between Islam and Christianity.  According to Christianity, Jesus was the divine Saviour and Mohammed was nobody; according to Islam, Jesus was just a human prophet and Mohammed was the final prophet.  These doctrines are mutually exclusive and cannot both be right.  They can be equally wrong (actually, they are) and hence deserving of equal skepticism, but it is impossible for both to be right and deserving of equal respect.

 

         The slogan sarva-dharma-samabhava (not to mention the plain buffoonery of the "equal truth of all religions" propagated by Bhagwan Das and the latter-day Ramakrishna Mission) is a cheap but all too transparent way of solving doctrinal contradictions, viz. by dogmatically decreeing that they are non-existent or at least irrelevant.[1]  It is incredibly pretentious, firstly by falsely implying that one knows all religions (how can you pronounce on things which you don't know?), and secondly by overruling the laws of logic, viz. by positing the equivalence of mutually contradictory doctrines.  In practice, it also implies a refusal to hear the representatives of the religions concerned, esp. when they explain why rival doctrines (including the whole spectrum of Hinduism) are unacceptable to them.  Finally, while the slogan is rather harmless when applied to rival schools of Hinduism, it becomes very dangerous when (as mostly) it is applied to viper religions with an explicit programme of annihilating Hinduism.  Hindu activists should think again about this slogan, then drop it. 

 

         Instead, however, they have decided to make things worse: the RSS-affiliated trade-union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, has taken the initiative of founding a Sarva Panth Samadar Manch (Equal Respect for All Sects Front), on 16 April 1994.  The function where this new platform was created, was presided over by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who counts as the Sangh's model Muslim (cfr. infra).  The problem is not that contact is made with Muslims.  Muslims are as good human beings as Hindus on average, and every effort should be made to break through the intrinsic separatism of Islam, which teaches its followers that there are two separate mankinds: the Muslims to whom both bliss in heaven and rulership on earth have been promised, and the unbelievers, doomed to subservience in this world and eternal hellfire in the next.  Indeed, one of the wellsprings of the RSS desire to reach out to the Muslims was the experience of cordial co-operation with Jamaat-i Islami activists during the Emergency, as BMS founder-president Dattopant Thengadi told me.  Soon after coming out of jail in 1977, K. R. Malkani told Sita Ram Goel that he had an opportunity to learn true Islam from the Jamaat-i-Islami co-prisoners. When Goel asked him as to how he could judge the statements of these spokesmen for Islam when he himself had not studied the subject, Malkani dismissed the doubt raised with a disdainful smile.

 

         The problem is that these outreach operations invariably imply flattery of Islam.  The day a unit of any Sangh Parivar organization includes even a single Muslim, its capacity to talk freely about Islam disappears.  Instead of freeing the Muslims from their medieval doctrinal conditioning called Islam, this approach only serves to confirm them in their thralldom to Mohammed and his belief system.  Bringing the alienated Muslims into the national mainstream without loosening their ties to Mohammed was Mahatma Gandhi's full-time occupation, yet he failed dismally.  There is no sign at all that the RSS has a better and more clever approach which could spare it the same humiliating defeat at the hands of unregenerate Islamic separatism.

 

 


 

             [1]  A must reading about this is Harsh Narain: Myth of Composite Culture and Equality of Religions, Voice of India 1991.

 

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