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The manacles of monotheism
By Sandhya Jain, June 2000


The recent controversy over the RSS conducting training camps in Punjab has brought the issue of the nation's defining ethos to the fore once again. As was only to be expected, the vociferous proponents of the so-called 'composite culture' (an euphemism for the cultural supremacy of Islam) observed a deafening silence in support of Sikhism's pathological links with Hinduism, and the anti-Hindu chorus emanating from some sections of the state's religio-political hierarchy was loud enough to cause concern to discerning citizens.

Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has made a valiant attempt to put Sikh, or rather Akali, particularism in a national framework. But even apart from his legitimate concern with his own political survival, Mr. Badal is intellectually ill equipped to grapple with the fundamental and multi-faceted civilizational issues thrown up by the debate. Indeed, the reported reluctance of some tribal communities to identify themselves as 'Hindu' in the forthcoming census is also relevant in this context.

The genesis of the present conflict lies in the horrible negation of the unique Hindu civilization (sannatan dharma) at independence, when Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru reversed the freedom struggle's unwritten consensus that the Hindu ethos would be the emerging modern nation's foundational ethos. Nehru subverted the Hindu political consciousness assiduously crafted by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, and Sardar Patel, and substituted the soulless communist ideology for India's rich spiritual traditions. He de-legitimized the country's striving to reclaim her ancient heritage and, on the pretext of promoting a 'scientific temper,' sought to create a new nation divorced from her civilizational moorings in the resultant spiritual vacuum. The false propaganda that Hinduism is only one among the many religions of India, unworthy of special treatment, followed as a natural corollary, along with the thesis that the distinct dharmas that arose from her belly were 'revolts' against Hinduism, and hence separate, opposed.

The hallmark of Marxism is monotheism, and the Hindu spirit, badly bruised from a thousand year encounter with Islam, was ill-prepared for the new menace unleashed by Mahatma Gandhi's anointed heir. The trouble with Marxism is that, although conceived by a Jew, it is essentially a Gentile faith, with all the failings of the Gentile versions of monotheism, and none of the virtues of the original Jewish monotheism. Nehru's Marxist monotheism made it possible for the other monotheistic faiths to assault the Hindu tradition by claiming the right to convert adherents of a 'false' faith, and demanding that resisting Hindus practice 'tolerance.' I do not blame either Gandhi or Patel for failing to adequately comprehend how Nehru was emasculating India. They were both ideologically illiterate, and remained untouched by any ideological fashion sweeping Britain during their respective stints at the Inner Temple.

As such, it is quite understandable that they should have mistaken the Stalin-style interventionist state structure erected by Nehru as simply a 'wrong' economic policy, when the reality was both deeply ideological and highly political. Indeed, it was Nehru's great fortune that none of his critics ever fully realized exactly what was going wrong in India. That is why the opposition to his rule could not be convincingly articulated, and even stalwarts like C. Rajagopalachari and J.B. Kripalani looked like churlish dropouts when they parted company with him.

I have, through letters on this column, often been accused of trying to impose a Hindu dominion in the name of the nation's foundational ethos. Nothing could be further from the truth, though I concede that this perception may be partly due to a failure to adequately define the essential genius of the sannatan dharma in terms that can be understood by those who fear its rise to pre-eminence.

The sannatan dharma does not describe itself in the seductive certitudes of monotheistic faiths, and in fact cloaks itself in enigmatic parables. Yet if we look for one distinct quality, it is that none of the religions born in India has been monotheistic in nature. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, even the myriad tribal cults adorning the land, all lay less emphasis on forms than on the promotion of self-realization and consciousness. Indeed, it is my thesis that India's unique spiritual genius emphatically rejects monotheism.

Hinduism is a subtle, complex, multi-dimensional spiritual cosmos. Although it spawned a great and powerful religion with profound philosophies and daring intellectual constructs, it never ceased to be a 'way of life.' It never wholly identified with the religious forms it gave birth to (Shaivism, Vaishnavism, et al), nor was it subsumed by them. This is how it remains a living civilization: the individual seeker is accommodated theoretically and actually. Even today a seeker may reject the world of man and the world of formal religion, and pursue a solitary salvation on the banks of the Ganges or in the Himalayan mists. None may chastise him for deviance (for there is none), nor catechize him about the path to take (for there are as many paths as there are seekers).

I may be wrong, but available evidence suggests that India experimented with monotheism under Emperor Ashoka who made Buddhism the state religion and even called a council to codify the basic tenets of the dharma and exclude beliefs held to be 'heretical'. Zimmer has recorded dissenting views of monks at the codification. It is worth pondering if the monotheist cast given by Ashoka was the reason for Buddhism's decline in India, and the ungenerous, uncompassionate, uncompromising nature of the faith in Sri Lanka, where it migrated via the emperor's good offices.

Judaism, the original monotheism, has little in common with the Gentile-Christian variant. The Jewish covenant was with a God who was personal and exclusive to His people. From Moses to Jesus, through centuries of persecution culminating in the holocaust, this singular belief has sustained Jewish piety. Yet this crucial limitation was emphatically rejected by Christians who claimed a mandate to wreck mayhem on the world in order to bring it the 'light'. Notwithstanding the rupture of the Catholic Church into a plethora of sects and denominations, the monotheistic conviction in the superiority of its 'truth' has promoted unmitigated hostility to other faiths, particularly non-monotheistic creeds. Islam followed this hallowed tradition of forcing the 'true' path on kafirs.

The irony is that modern religious scholarship on Christianity and Islam is inexorably establishing that these faiths, supposedly based on a complete revelation to one prophet, are actually syncretic traditions. That is, the religious forms and theology were crafted onto a supposedly 'core' revelation. And since the first interpretation and codification began at least a century after the death of the founder, there is endless scope for disagreement about what was actually said, let alone what it truly meant.

The history of monotheistic faiths is witness to the truth that no single interpretation of 'truth,' howsoever profound, suffices for all mankind, for all eternity. But history also reveals that the search for spiritual bondage (through monotheistic certitudes) can be as intoxicating as the search for spiritual freedom (through self-realization). Ultimately, the faithful must charter their own course. Sikh religious scholars, intellectuals and free thinkers will be giving thought to the issue in the coming days. They would do well to accept that notwithstanding the perceived compulsions of Punjab politics, the corpus of religious literature that comprises the faith is undeniably syncretic. As such, Sikhism can only enrich itself by maintaining a lifeline with the civilizational genius that has spawned its unique expression.  



Copyright 2001 - All Rights Reserved.

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