Hinduism, harmony and proselytization
The Indian High Commission in Canberra celebrated harmony day late last year. Along with the representatives of other faiths, I was invited to give a talk on Hinduism
I put forward the proposition that Hinduism is about freedom of choice in faith or worship. It doesn’t impose its world-view on others – not a proselytizing religion – this naturally brings harmony which is inseparable, inherent and the very essence of Hinduism. It is operationalised by emphasizing on core values such as ahimsa (non-violence) towards all beings.
In the post-talk informal discussion, following questions were posed to me: Is Hinduism not axing itself by not proselytizing? Is proselytization the root cause of disharmony? What are the core principles or values of Hinduism? Is Hinduism relevant for modern time as it has existed since antiquity? Isn’t the caste system discriminatory? Why do Hindus worship idols? Is it not a polytheistic religion?
I examine these questions below.
Overview of Hinduism
According to the Pew Research Centre (PRC, 2017), Hinduism was the fourth largest religion in the world in 2010 in terms of population (1.03 billion or 15% of world population). Christianity with 2.2 billion (31%) and Islam with 1.6 billion (23%) were the top two religions. The unaffiliated (includes atheist) accounted for 1.13 billion (16%). Buddhism holds the fifth rank with a population of 788 million (7%). Christianity and Islam were established about 2,000 years and 1,500 years ago respectively. Buddhism dates to roughly 500 BCE while Hinduism from prehistoric times roughly 5,500 BCE (Violatti, 2013).
Hinduism’s vast literature consists of the Shrutis, Smritis, Darshana and Tantra. It’s framework is derived from the Shrutis consisting of the four Vedas and over one hundred Upanishads (philosophical portion of Vedas). These were in place since about 4,000 BCE (Dasgupta, 1922). The Smritis consist of law books (eg. Manu Smriti), Puranas (stories and parables, eg. Srimad Bhagwat) and the epics Mahabharat and Ramayana, consist of ethical and moral teachings and mythology, six philosophical systems (Shad Darsan) and finally, the vast Tantric (technique of spreading knowledge) literature with 64 prominent texts. Obviously, it will take a life time to read this, for example, the Skanda Purana alone contains 88,100 slokas (stanzas) and there are 18 such Puranas with varying stanza sizes! The Bhagvad Gita (written around 400 BCE to 200 BCE) synthesizes the vast literature. Many missionaries and colonial rulers misinterpreted or outright downgraded it to serve their objectives (Arnett, 2014). In the process, humanity was deprived of this golden treasure that could help build harmony in the present confused world. This article aims to display the gems.
Nature, core principles and values of Hinduism
Hinduism presents an open architecture. The Rig Veda begins with an invocation in Sanskrit ‘’Ano bhadrah kratavo yantu viswatah” (let noble thoughts come to us from everywhere in the universe). Hindu scriptures are not commandments but dialogues, discussions and philosophical debates. They typically follow a logical sequence (Bernard, 1947) such as the poorva paksha (prior claim), khandan (refutation thereof), uttar paksha (new claim), pramana (supporting evidence for new claim) and anuman (conclusion or inference drawn). ‘The systematic and argumentative character of Indian philosophy comes as a surprise to readers’ (Cooper, 2003:14). The Hindu tradition is open to new ideas and scientific thought and Hinduism is akin to humanism (AHA, 2017)’. Hindu rebels such as the materialist Charavak or Buddha or Mahavira could profess their views without getting killed. Hinduism has no concept of an imaginary male God, giving message to a certain person, at a certain place and at a certain time yet applicable to all persons, at all places and at all time. Hinduism encourages rational inquiry instead of holding people captive to a faith or ideology. Hinduism is not a fossilised religion. ‘In its long history, it has undergone many changes rapidly adopting to modern times’ (Klostermaier, 2010:5). Such open architecture promotes harmony.
Secular tradition is ingrained, inherent and inseparable from Hinduism – a way of life rather than a religion. A religion has a founder, a holy order or book, ceremonies, dogma about a creator and regimentation of adherents. None of these exists in Hinduism. Some of the Hindu philosophical systems are flatly atheistic… and in others God is only an ‘impersonal cosmic principle’ (Cooper, 2003:14). ‘Because of the importance it gives to the values ingrained in all religions, it is – along with Buddhism – often referred to as the most secular religion in the world’ (AHA, 2017). It is called Manav Dharma (Religion for entire humanity) or Sanatan Dharma (Eternal Religion). (Bhaskaranand, 1994). The Upanishads present a ‘phenomenology of consciousness’ (Deutsch, 1997:30). Hinduism shifts focus from picking difference to identifying similarities and thereby promotes harmony. It proclaims that the universal consciousness resides in all beings (Ishavasyam eedam sarvam). “The Ultimate Truth or Knowledge” means the realisation that outer appearances are deceptive, and all living beings are interconnected.
The central aim of Hinduism is realisation of the divinity within and the outcome it produces is eternal peace and harmony. In Chandogya Upanishad, Svetaketu asks his father ‘What is that by knowing which all can be known?’ The father replies ‘By knowing yourself’. ‘You are that’ divinity Svetketu (Max Muller, 2014:183). We are all children of the divine how can we be sinners, asks a Hindu. Hinduism exhorts a human to focus on the divinity within as well as outside emphasizing that the Ultimate Reality, is one but can be worshipped according to one’s choice – either ‘with form (saguna)’ or ‘without form (nirguna)’. The freedom of choice promotes harmony. Hinduism is heterogeneous – an accumulation of diverse traditions (AHA, 2017), so everyone has a place in it. Hindus worship the Sun, the Moon, the rivers, the trees, and the animals (including a snake!) because Hindus believe that the divine permeates everything. The Hindu ethics of ahimsa (non-violence and respect for life) prevents a Hindu from causing harm to any creature (BBC, n.d.)
Since antiquity, Hinduism asserted Vasudha eva kutumbakam or the whole world is one big family. DNA evidence recently found that all of us have a common mother and she was African. Hinduism is a ‘Federation of Faiths – a Universal Religion’ (Mukhyanand, 2000). Centuries ago, Hindu kings welcomed Christians, Muslims, Parsi, Jews and others to establish their places of worship in India. Minorities have held/continue to hold prominent public offices including President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Military Chiefs in a Hindu majority India. Does any other country in the world matches such inclusiveness? What makes this possible? It’s the Hindu ethos.
Proselytization and Hinduism
Hinduism is not obsessed with increasing its share in the market for world religions. ‘Hinduism’s appeal is universal and individualistic – to the ’inner spiritual man’ and not to the ‘outside social man’ (Mukhyanand, 2000:21). The non-proselytizing nature of Hinduism avoids conflict and promotes harmony. Never ever in its 5,000-year-old history, Hinduism waged religious crusades to impose its world view on others. When all are children of the Divine to whom are you converting asks a Hindu?
Instead, Hinduism asserts that there are multiple paths to the divinity and one can choose her/his own. It cuts at the root, the competitive spirit among various faiths which breeds one upmanship and the desire to increase membership of its own commune. Hinduism follows the ‘live and let live’ or the ‘I am OK, you are OK’ approach and helps build harmony which proselytization inherently tends to sap. Hinduism aims to seek unity among diversity. Towards that end, the Yoga philosophy of the great sage Patanjali emphasizes ‘union’ or ‘togetherness’ and suggests the technique to achieve it. The world observes International Yoga Day to affirm these values. Yoga provides ‘the opportunity to relinquish hostility and irritability’ to bring harmony.
Hinduism is not an organised religion. There is no structure or no regimentation whatsoever. Hindus have no organised hierarchical clergy institution vested to be the mouth piece for all Hindus (Anandan, 2000). The philosophical work is available for anyone to read, follow, criticise or discard as one pleases signifying a full democracy in the matter of faith. Hindus have no issues with what world view others hold. Hindus merely expect that others should not impose their world view on them. Consequently, when proselytizers repeatedly attack or denigrate the faith of Hindus, the otherwise peace-loving Hindu loses cool. The ensuing resistance creates tension.
Religious violence is rising the world over. Pew Research found that ‘social hostility such as attacks on minority faiths or pressure to conform to certain norms was strong in one-third of the 198 countries and territories surveyed in 2012, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (Heneghan, 2014). Cole (2013) finds that religious violence killed over 100 million people in twentieth century but interestingly cites only one example where Hindus were the aggressors. The incidence resulted in three deaths and 17 injured. The culprits have been sentenced to life imprisonment.
How far is such violence triggered by proselytization? We don’t have empirical data. Brandt (2014) calls proselytization as cultural genocide. It is ‘a kind of structural or systemic violence (Galtung, 1969). Proselytization leading to violence or legal disputes has been reported across the world, for example, in our region in Japan and Indonesia. Religious conversion leading to violence and relevant law in the Indian context have been reviewed by Indian parliamentarian Panda (2014). Kolluru (2012) details how religious conversion is a form of emotional or spiritual violence.
Hinduism nips in the bud inter-religious conflict likely to stem from conversion- whether forced or with some allurement. Hindu sages could foresee since antiquity the ill-effects thereof and abstained from it while encouraging rational thinking and gave the choice to individual to choose her/his own path. Hinduism is not about ‘tolerance’ of others (which carries with it a sense of superiority), it is about universal brotherhood.
Some proselytizers have often cited the caste system in Hinduism (a societal classification by birth), to attack it. While this is an altogether separate topic, and many have written about it, suffice it to state that philosophically, it was a merit-based division of labour. The Bhagvad Gita, specifically mentions that the four categories (varnas) are strictly related to inherent qualities (guna or values) and deeds (karma) of a human being. There are many other scriptural references that specifically mention the merit or aptitude-based and not birth-based caste system, for example, the Skanda Purana mentions that everyone is born a low caste (meaning raw or coarse) and after sanskaras (training) attains higher caste. This scaffolding is like the present education system. People with qualities such as integrity, scholarship, truthfulness were put in the highest category or caste (Brahmin). Those who showed leadership qualities, excellence in warfare were to be Kings (Kshatriyas) and so on. It seems somewhere down its 7,500 years history, the system got corrupted or probably, those who acquired power played a diabolical game of retaining power through a birth-based social system in defiance of the true spirit of the scriptures. The birth-based caste system is a perversion of the four-fold ‘varna system’ (Knapp). There are innumerable instances since antiquity of people born in low caste having risen to prominence that is kings or revered sages. In modern times, prominent intellectuals and political leaders with low caste background include the present President and Prime Minister of India. The Indian constitution was drafted by Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a Columbia university trained lawyer from low caste background.
Does conversion to other faiths help obliterate caste? Surprisingly not. A survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in India found that caste practices continue even after conversion to Islam or Christianity (Tharoor, n.d.). The caste system is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that conversion helps little to erase it altogether. Hindu organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are making concerted efforts to eradicate caste and inequalities through its Samajik Samarasata Manch (Social Cohesion Group). Many prominent leaders from upper caste too have made significant efforts, for example, M. K. Gandhi and V. D. Savarkar. For centuries, Hindu monks have persuaded people to look beyond birth-based caste to Hinduism’s core which is humanism. Though the caste system has been outlawed in India, it has become a political tool which is exploited by all political parties. Interestingly, everything is not wrong with the caste system. Sihag (2013:317) found that ‘caste has played an important role in the consolidation of business and entrepreneurship in India’. As per CSO of the Indian Government, 50% of all enterprises (55% for rural) in India in 2005 were owned by the lower castes.
Hinduism often gets questioned about idol worship. It is the most misunderstood concept in the West. The actual Sanskrit word is murti. The appropriate word for it is ‘embodiment’ or ‘manifestation’ and not ‘idol’. Various deities are created to represent various qualities of the divine ‘to make God seem more real and approachable’ (Arnett, 2014:19) . Many women worship Lord Krishna in the form of a baby, for example, with the objective to achieve oneness ultimately with the divine. Arnett (2014) notes Hinduism is not polytheistic but a monotheistic religion where God is beyond time, space and without physical form. In Yogic practices, the practitioner starts with the focus on the gross idol and gradually shifts it to the Ultimate Reality (Dasgupta, 1922).
The distinguishing features of Hinduism are respect for all beings, not obsessed with increasing its share in the world religious market, no force in ways of worship, central focus on creating harmony by non-proselytizing, emphasis on ‘unite and progress’ and not ‘divide and rule’, and the concept of entire humanity as one family. It is an atheistic paradigm. Its sole focus in on making a human a better specimen of a human by underlining all the time Know Thy Self. It has no concept of an imaginary God ruling from somewhere in the heaven but instead encourages humanity to use rationality to seek the divine. It is the most secular religious tradition. Humanism could be just another name for Hinduism. Unfortunately, traditions that are obsessed with imposing their world view on others have maligned Hinduism without considering the central ethos thereof probably because they considered it a competitor religion.
The more than 7,500 old and hence time-tested Hinduism shows the world how to deal with the problem of violence and lead humanity to peace and tranquillity if only its central message is discerned out of the voluminous scriptural literature and deliberate misinformation campaigns from market share driven religions. An Upanishadic prayer Sarve bhavantu sukhinah means ‘May all be happy; May all be healthy; May all enjoy prosperity; May none suffer any misery. Om Peace Peace Peace. By praying for all living beings – not just for a narrow community – ocean hearted Hinduism promotes universal harmony.
The world’s greatest apostle of peace in modern time, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “I am a Hindu because it is Hinduism which makes the world worth living (Low, 2013:146).”
 Dasgupta, S. (1922) A history of Indian Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, London.
 Bernard, T. (1947) Hindu Philosophy, The Philosophical Library, New York.
 Cooper, D. (2003) World Philosophies: An historical introduction, Blackwell Publishing, USA.
 Klostermaier, K. (2010) A survey of Hinduism, SUNY Press, Canada.
 Bhaskaranand, S. (1994) The essentials of Hinduism, The Vedanta Society of Western Washington. USA.
 Deutsch, E. (1997) Introduction to World Philosophies, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
 Max Muller, M. (2014). The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy, Forgotten Books, London, p.53.
 Callaghan, C. (2005) ‘The state of origin’, The Australian, July, 30, pp. 26-30.
 Mukhyanand, Swamy (2000) Hinduism: The Eternal Dharma, Centre for reshaping our world view, Kolkata, India.
 Galtung, J. “Violence, Peace and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167-91
 Sihag, B. (2013). ‘India Growth: Caste as social capital’, in Vinod, H.D (ed) The Handbook of Hindu Economics and Business, Tenafly, NJ.
 [CSO] Central Statistical Organisation, (2005) Economic Census 2005, Table2.5, Central Statistical Organisation, New Delhi.
 Arnett, R. (2014) India Unveiled: Spirit, Tradition and People, Atman Press, USA.
 Ibid Ch. 15 the Pancaratra p. 31.
 Low, P. (2013) Leading successfully in Asia, Springer, New York.