Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Monday, December 27, 2004

'Secularism', Colonial Hegemony and Hindu 'Fanaticism'

by Arjun Bhagat

Consider the following examples of double standards against India and its heritage:

  • In the late '80s and early '90s, Japan was crushing the United States in business and trade. We saw a plethora of 'voluntary' quotas being applied to articles as disparate as automobiles, steel and electronics in trade between the two countries.

  • Today, with competitive advantage guaranteeing the complete annihilation of the Western world's textile industry, there are similar 'voluntary' restrictions on textile exports from developing countries such as India, Thailand, Mauritius etc. Steel dumping charges by the United States are being used as coercive tools to limit the supply of competitive product from countries as diverse as Brazil, South Korea, India and Russia.

  • When ISKON – a relative anomaly within the fold of Hinduism, in that it actively proselytized and converted – started to successfully propagate and grow rapidly in the '70s, it quickly got labeled as a 'cult'. In the West, it was vilified, discredited and attacked at virtually all levels; the State, legal, popular media (print, TV, movies) and at the level of ordinary individual discourse.

  • Even today, many Western European countries have 'state' churches. What this means is that the state officially supports that particular church, legally, monetarily and politically. (A telling factoid; when a Belgian or a German begins to work and earn, there is an AUTOMATIC tax deduction from his paycheck that is money collected for the State Church.) Interestingly, these are also the countries that are quickest to label 'different' religious organizations as cults, especially if they are A) fundamentally alien to Christian thoughts and values and B) aggressive proselytizers. Witness the treatment being meted out to the “Church of Scientology” in Germany for example.

  • In most Islamic countries, where their religion is so fundamental to their very existence, proselytizing by – and sometimes, even the practice of – other faiths is banned, and can lead to severe retribution.

  • Whenever there has been a large, relatively sudden – and therefore socially traumatic – inflow of 'foreigners' into a particular society, there has, almost invariably, been a strong backlash. Witness again, the Turks entry into Germany, the 'Pakis' entry into England, the Irish into Boston, the Italian into the New York area, or the Indian into New Jersey.

What all these examples illustrate is a very fundamental truth of human – and therefore societal – nature. If human beings feel that their way of life is truly being threatened, NO MATTER WHAT THE RULES AND LAWS STATE – they will react strongly to get rid of that perceived threat. Yet, when Hindus in India – a group that has been awfully maligned, their traditions and spiritual practices denigrated, their objects of devotion heaped scorn upon – resist what they see as an Abrahamic onslaught of proselytization, they are branded as xenophobic fanatics.

Now, if one were to use the above observation to explain the phenomenon of 'Hindu fanaticism' as defined and articulated by the Indian and Western media, one would get some – but only a partial – understanding of the issue. Because there is a far more profound explanation for this phenomenon. To understand the true significance of the issue, one needs to look at not just 'Hindu fanaticism' but equally, the vitriolic attacks Hindutvaadis face at the hands of the media, both the Indian secular as well as the Western.

Why, in a world where proselytizing is banned by virtually every Islamic country, where Hindus have been virtually 'cleansed' out of Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Kashmir valley, are Hindutvaadis singularly such a key target of the world press? Why, in a world where the Pope – the official head of the largest Christian denomination of the world – talks about “harvesting Indian souls” is it that there is such a concerted effort by the popular media worldwide to demonize aggressive Hindus – and only Hindus – as 'fundamentalists'?

That the effort by the media to taint the emerging 'vocal' and 'public' Hindu as a fanatic is a concerted one hits one smack in the face every time one reads anything on this issue. By the choice of words (Gujarat 'pogroms'), by the selective focus on victims (Dalits, Muslims, missionaries, but never a Kashmiri pandit or Hindu worshipper); by the number and prominence of articles focused on 'Hindu fanaticism' (front page news) versus 'other fanaticism' ('40 pilgrims gunned down” blurb half way down on page 26 of your local newspaper).

It is only when we understand that the creators, definers and propagators of the 'rabid Hindu fanatic' image worldwide – the secular intelligentsia and media – is but the other face of the same coin, will we understand the true dimension of the battle being waged.

For a battle it is. A battle at the most fundamental level of man's worldview on human rights and religious freedom. IN ITS ESSENCE, THE BATTLE IS BETWEEN THE RELATIVE MORALITY VERSUS IMMORALITY ASSOCIATED WITH RELIGIOUS CONVERSIONS. On one side, we have the Abrahamic juggernaut, draped in a pristine white secular garb, using as its awesome cudgel the worldwide media; on the other, we have the dharmic perspective that various indigenous movements claim to represent, but that are savvy neither in the projection of image in worldwide media nor savvy enough to compete in the academic marketplace where scholarship is bought and sold under the garb of endowments and other means of power projection.

It is a skewed playing field. The winner is pre-determined.

No wonder then, what should have been a true intellectual battle of two moral – but completely incompatible – worldviews has become a rout. Leave alone those that have grown up in Abrahamic cultures, even the average open minded Indian intellectual, though having grown up in a dharmic culture, sees the battle as between the secular good versus evil Hindu fanaticism.

A good way to contextualize this battle is to look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[iv] which was first adopted by the U.N in 1948 and is to this day a standard bearer of what should constitute genuine humanistic principles. Though the document covers virtually every facet of individual and societal space – economic, cultural, religious, physical, intellectual and political – for purposes of this discussion, we will focus on only a few sentences:

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. …

Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The Christian worldview, with its predilection to proselytize and convert others into its fold has chosen to focus on only one element amongst all those present in the three articles listed above; namely the freedom to change one's religion or belief and made that the cornerstone of their 'religious freedom index'. In other words, those cultures and societies that allow active proselytizing and conversion are considered more 'religiously tolerant' and open societies.

With their fundamental belief in the absolute uniqueness of Christ as compared to the rest of us mortals and sinners, and thus the path to salvation, a BELIEVING Christian has NO CHOICE but to consider all other spiritual paths and religions as being confused at best and minions of the devil at worst. This worldview creates a proselytizing juggernaut that can be broken down into three different tiers.

1. The most 'benign' group of Christians would be the 'modern, enlightened' group. People in this group would probably never even consider directly proselytizing to a 'non-believer' themselves. However, by virtue of their numbers and wealth, they are a big source of funds, and hence the engine that empowers the next two groups.

2. The second group consists of the 'legitimate' proselytizers. Using funds received from the first group, these people use standard business practices in order to increase Christianity's market share. That is their overriding goal and singular focus. Towards that end, they carry out fund-raisers, competitor analysis, marketing and advertising, create incentive schemes, build hierarchical organizations, look at return on investment etc. In this category, you can lump all of the mainstream missionaries – Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical – and churches. From the Pope down to the local Indian missionary working in a Tripura or a Kerala, they use words like 'planting' (ministries/churches) and 'harvesting' (Souls). The more forthright ones are openly religious while some of the more insidious ones pose as secular humanists. However, their agenda of bringing more souls into the Christian fold is clear and focused.

3. The last group, consisting of Christian fundamentalists see the whole believer / non-believer schism in far starker terms. Their language is liberally sprinkled with words such as pagan, devil worshippers, idolaters etc. Interestingly, if their language were used in terms of differentiating peoples or races rather than religion, it would clearly qualify as hate speech, with potential societal, political as well as legal censure!

Looking at what both group 2 and 3 say, do and preach, and juxtaposing that against the very humanist principles outlined in the above three articles from the Charter of Human Rights, it is clear that they are in violation of both the spirit as well as the letter of all three articles, when dealing with 'pagans' such as us Hindus. Yet, they carry the halo of religious enlightenment within the world's 'secular' media.

To summarize: The western-secular – and therefore dominant – worldview would have us believe that the most enlightened form of religious tolerance and freedom a society can create is one where everyone is freely available for conversion. How this conversion occurs, what methods are used (assuming it does not entail coercion; subterfuge and inducements are acceptable) or the consequences to the culture and society are all of little consequence.

On the positive side, their worldview allows for the least restraint on free speech, and the theoretical benefits that accrue from allowing contesting ideas to battle each other in the marketplace of the individual's mind. However, such an advantage can only be had if ALL the competing players are interested and willing players in an arena where aggression and subterfuge is rewarded, and the law of the jungle which favors the strong is considered moral and just.

However, there is an opposing dharmic worldview, which, in its essence is far more pluralistic, non-dogmatic and accepting of different points of view. The spiritual traditions of Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Hinduism see little good or morality in uprooting people from their own traditions and culture and replanting them in to an alien one. For, when all the different paths lead to the same spiritual goal, what possible purpose can be served by severing somebody from his or her own roots?

The essence of this dharmic perspective is probably best captured in the Bhagavad Gita, 4:24 – 4:32. Here Lord Krishna in essence explains to Arjuna that though there are many different methodologies as well as objects of worship (only some of which are listed) they all lead to the same goal of enlightenment.

As in so many other instances, this dharmic principle of religious enlightenment is taken to its loftiest heights by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. “I came to the conclusion long ago ... that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and that whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu ... But our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”[viii]

Here then, is the dharmic perspective on what constitutes a religiously enlightened society. Compare that to the Christian perspective. Now, lay them both side by side with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and decide for yourself which of the two worldviews occupies the higher moral, spiritual and dharmic plane.

An important point to make is the distinction between A) accepting the teachings of Jesus, and B) converting to Christianity. A does not require leaving one's tradition by birth, especially since Hinduism does not forbid respect for Jesus as Avatar or guru or as a great rishi. Hence, one could be a proud Hindu who also respects and believes in the teachings of Jesus. However, B calls for “conversion away from” one's tradition. It means that one's ancestors were wrong, one's neighbors and relatives who are unconverted are condemned and inferior. B is divisive and exclusive. The problem from Hinduism's perspective is not accepting Jesus' teachings but the demand that there can be only one true religion, that this religion must require the abandonment of all other faiths. In Japan, in a survey about people's faiths, over 75% of the population listed having more than one religion at the same time, Buddhism and Shinto-ism being the most common combination. There are many Hindu-Sikhs, many Hindu-Buddhists, many Hindu-Sufis. In fact, Hinduism itself could be thought of as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Tantra, Shakta (Goddess) and other traditions, and that many Hindus have multiple traditions that they are involved in simultaneously. The Abrahamic problem is the demand of one-religion only. This is anti-freedom because it reduces the freedom of a person to explore many spiritual paths and to combine them.

Over the last two hundred years, the U.S. has done an outstanding job of leading the world in the area of racism and race relations. It has led the world from an era when espousing theories of races being at different stages of evolution was considered legitimate and acceptable[ix] to a point where any kind of denigration of a particular race invites swift opprobrium and retribution. For this, humanity in general, but 'minorities' such as ourselves in particular should be grateful to the Americans. I do believe the world would have been a far more hostile place if the center of gravity had remained in Europe, or shifted to Japan for instance.

However, what we see today is a 'religionism' not that different from the racism of fifty years ago. For obvious reasons, this is not a battle that we can expect America, steeped in its Judeo-Christian culture, to fight. This is a battle that India, the cradle as well as the last remaining significant bastion of dharmic civilization in the world, needs to fight. It is India's opportunity to do for the world in religion what America did for races. As a society which has a dharmic based majority, it needs to work on creating laws and codes of conduct that are enlightened but disallows the denigration of others' religions and spiritual traditions. It needs to use the UN charter as the basis for creating its legal framework. To do this effectively, it needs to take the moral and intellectual high ground, which is its rightful place.

If freedom of speech no longer provides protection to racial hate mongers in the U.S.; if in that bastion of economic freedom that is America, a private landlord can go to jail for discriminating against potential tenants based on race, why is it so difficult for India to create a dharmic based set of laws that ban 'religionism'? For, if India can get it right, I foresee such an enlightened perspective on religious freedom spreading rapidly across the Far East, from Thailand to Japan. After all, these cultures still have the dharmic DNA embedded in their cultural genes.

There is no reason why, fifty years hence, the current denigration of other religions by Christians (or Muslims for that matter) is not frowned upon by the world the way denigrating other races is frowned upon today. The question is, do the torchbearers of dharma in India have the intellectual prowess and media skills required to succeed? For humanity's sake, I fervently hope so.


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At 7/01/2005 10:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It could be argued that the media refers to aggressive hindus as fundamentalists because, instead of engaging with the missionaries at an intellectual level concerning the merits of hinduism, they tend to resort to violence against these missionaries.

At 9/29/2006 02:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent Article. One of the best blogs in recent times.


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