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The Indic tradition is catholic
By Sandhya Jain, October 2000


The Vatican's reiteration, in the wake of the recent UN Summit of World Religious Leaders, that its real agenda is to convert every person in the world to the Roman Catholic variant of Christianity, is a sharp reminder of the divergence between the world-views of Western and Eastern civilisations.

On the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church has retracted from the summit's basic premise that all religions are equal and entitled to the right to exist in peace and dignity. On the other, its adherents in India are aggressively hawking the fallacious notion that their constitutional right to practice their faith without let or hindrance is tantamount to a carte blanche to press ahead with conversions. They are pretending that the Hindu community's resistance to conversions is an infringement of their right to practice and propagate their faith.

What is truly disturbing in this scenario is that, notwithstanding the unfortunate tension this position has generated across the country, a number of intellectuals and political leaders have adopted a stand at variance with the sensitivities of the majority community. It is true that in esoteric matters, it is exceedingly difficult to decide which side is right. Nevertheless, a comprehensive elucidation of the Hindu position on both religion and religious freedom, could enable discerning citizens and scholars to appreciate that the community, too, has a case. A legitimate one at that.

India has existed for several millennia; it is rooted in history and enshrined and encompassed by a civilisational ethos based on the attainment of Consciousness (self-realisation). India s ancient religion, Hinduism, is not a codified creed in the manner of other world religions. Properly known as the Sanatan Dharma or the Eternal Tradition, it is simultaneously a religion and a living civilisation or way of life, and is inspired by the ideal of universal welfare of all beings, both human and other creatures. Dharma is natural (cosmic) law. As Hinduism, it takes on a formal structure, creed and ritual; yet it is never the captive of absolutism. The sanatan dharma recognises even the atheist as morally valid, and does not deny him space in the religious-spiritual spectrum. This is because sanatan dharma is all-embracing: it is righteousness, duty, and the eternal law that is not fixed (in time or space) but eternally renews itself in response to changing times and provides for as many paths to salvation as there are individual souls who seek it.

Dharma demands that all faiths be treated with respect and courtesy, as they are all attempts to attain Godhead. Its quintessential argument is that each soul must chart its own evolutionary course, and that it is not given to any human agency to arbitrate a final truth for all mankind. Hindus do believe that the Vedas are the revealed truth that was heard by the Vedic rishis (Sruti). But that is no reason that they should be imposed upon the world by human regents who claim to be sole prophets of the only true revelation. This is the reason why, despite the belief in One Supreme Being, non-monotheism has been the hallmark of all Indic religions. Our polity and innate secularism has flowed naturally from these values; it is not for nothing that Aristotle observed that the Hindus were the only people to have successfully made dharma the basis of their public life (Politics).

Being a living civilisation, Hinduism is by definition multi-dimensional, multi-layered. It is inherently distrustful of the one-dimensional approach towards religion, and does not perceive other faiths as alien, threatening or unacceptable.

This natural respect for all faiths has traditionally made India the perfect nurturer of all. When the small Parsi community fled Persia, they were not only offered protection by local Indian rulers, but invited to build a Fire Temple for their worship and rituals, so that they could observe and preserve their unique culture. This courtesy was extended to the Dalai Lama and his followers when they arrived in India some decades ago, and India now has a very substantial Tibetan refugee population. More recently, when the Bahai community fled persecution in Iran, India again upheld dharma. The Bahai s world-famous Lotus Temple in New Delhi bears eloquent testimony to the grandeur of India s universalist vision and its embodiment in the flowering of a foreign religion. Christian and Muslim communities established themselves in India hundreds of years ago, as did the Jews.

Indian political culture has been similarly sensitive to the need to accommodate all groups. When the wounds of Partition were still fresh and refugees were pouring in from both borders, the very first Cabinet of independent India included Maulana Azad and Dr BR Ambedkar. Christians were represented through Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and John Mathai. One has only to consider that despite the formidable power of American Jewry, the United States has taken more than 200 years to have a Jewish running-mate for President, in order to appreciate that this is not a small achievement.

What is noteworthy is that because the sanatan dharma permeates the whole culture, India is comfortable with the idea of co-existence with ethnic, racial and religious groups that do not desire assimilation to its unique civilisational-cultural ethos, but desire political space while maintaining a distinct identity on the plea of preserving their special culture. This is something that the West is only just beginning to learn under pressure from immigrant groups of different racial and religious composition.

The spirit of the sanatan dharma is to respect identity, but avoid fixing rigid lines of division. As Prof Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, McGill University, argued before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the notion that one can belong to only one religion at a time, and that one s dominant identity derives from such affiliation, is an entirely Western concept. Perceptions are markedly different among Eastern peoples. For instance, in contemporary Japan, the 1985 census showed that 95 per cent of the population declared itself as Shinto, while 76 per cent of the same population simultaneously declared itself as Buddhist.

Hindu tradition similarly permits multiple religious participation and affiliation. The Indic religions Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are not perceived as mutually exclusive, and freely overlap across the country. If Indian census-takers did not persist with the colonial fallacy that citizens declare adherence to only one religion, Indian religious statistics could well resemble the Japanese. The merit of this argument can be seen from the experience of the Bombay Census Superintendent in 1911, who felt harassed by the `inextricable combination of multiple practices, beliefs, and even self-definitions' among the 35,000-strong community of Hindu-Muhammadans in Gujarat. Pulled up sharply by Census Commissioner EA Gait, he was ordered to locate the persons concerned to one or other as best as he could.

The Indian reality was thus falsified to conform to a notion that belonging to a religion implies exclusive adherence to it. The lived experience of Indians, however, has been different. Most Indians are probably unaware that ordinary Muslims in the countryside functioned within the orbit of the Hindu worldview upto the eighteenth century, when Shah Waliullah, followed by Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi in the nineteenth century, launched the project of purging Indian Islam of its Hindu elements. Indian Christians also lived quite non-aggressively, until the perceived political fortunes of an individual co-religionist, coupled with resurgent evangelism emanating from both the Vatican and Protestant missionary groups, provoked them to up the ante.


Copyright 2001 - All Rights Reserved.

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