As per my typical “modern-Hindu” upbringing – I was taught to see all other religions in the best possible light, on par with my own. “All religions are a path to the same God” was an often repeated phrase when talking about religion.
I remember a member of my family speaking in praise of Prophet Mohammed (of Islam) at Eid. On Sunday Hindu cultural classes that I used to attend, we often heard the teachers giving fulsome praise to Jesus.
I did become vaguely aware that there was such thing as religious disagreements and conflicts, but we were told that it is people misunderstanding the true teachings of their religion that has led to conflicts, but properly interpreted, all religions teach love, compassion and peace.
For example, I was told by a respected elder that Islam says that “if you bring one person to Islam, all your sins will be forgiven”, and Muslims have misinterpreted this to mean that they should convert people to Islam; but that the true meaning of this is that if you take one person towards God and away from materialism, then all your sins would be forgiven. Hence Muslims have been wrong in thinking it means converting someone to Islam as a separate religion, but what they really should have practised as per a correct understanding of the tenets of Islam is to help people go towards God in their own religion. Hence I was taught that it is Muslims misinterpreting Islam which is the problem, but Islam itself is pure and great, and essentially the same as Hinduism.
Over the years, a number of incidents took place which led me to question and eventually reject absolutely the “all religions are equal view” of my universalistic Hindu upbringing; I now think that these views are naïve and do not stand up to the scrutiny of logic. I furthermore think that they are an impediment to a pursuit of truth, and they are at least partly responsible for the very poor understanding of Hindu philosophy and spirituality among modern day Hindus.
This account aims to trace the journey of ideas which has led to my gradual but absolute change of viewpoint.
I remember being struck by the contradiction of the “all religions are equal” position at quite an early age. For example I was about 11 when in our Sunday class, we were taught about the Ten Commandments (Christianity), and one of these is against “worshipping idols”. Now obviously, most Hindus do worship various images, and in the past we had been told about the profound symbolism of murthi puja, and why concentrating on a concrete depiction of the divine is a perfect science as per Patanjali’s yoga.
Now it cannot be that both positions are correct – that worshipping images is a valid path and the Biblical position against “idol worship”. But when I questioned this, I was told that the Biblical stricture against idol worship is against empty and superstitious worship, but the Vedic/Hindu was is full of meaning and that Jesus wouldn’t have been against it! This was only a partially convincing argument even at the age of 11, but now it sounds most contrived; an attempt to synthesise two viewpoints which are irrevocably different.
I had similar thoughts when learning about Islam – Mohammed was an idol smasher, but we were still praising him in our Hindu classes as a true messenger of God (ridiculously we were even told to consider him as an Avatar of Vishnu). The medieval Muslim invader Mohammed Ghori who repeatedly smashed the revered Somnath temple was also an idol smasher, but we were told that the latter was a fanatic who was misinterpreting his religion, whereas in actual fact he himself probably was just taking the cue from the founder of Islam.
In Buddhism, I also had a dilemma. We were told that Buddha was an Avatar of Lord Vishnu. But then he thought what appeared to be a Godless path. I thought it difficult to reconcile this.
Experiences of conflict / hostility
Despite the very occasional bit of name calling from Muslim children at school (e.g. monkey and cow worshipper), until about 14 or 15 years of age, I never encountered much to make me question what I had learnt.
It was in “faith assemblies” that some incidents began to occur which through doubt the theory of the “equal validity of all religions”. At high school we used to have faith assemblies twice a week, where students used to separate and have a 15 minute assembly led by other members of their faith on some subject or the other. These were quite interesting and informative. One day, two Muslim students entered our assembly. They initially listened carefully, and then proclaimed “Your ways are wrong”. I vividly remember the 2 -3 minute discussion which followed until they were asked to leave. It was clearly that they thought that Hinduism was a confused free for all, and that they had a different view of religion – that their customs and rules were the sole right path and had a divine origin, and were incomparably superior to those of Hinduism. I too once attended a “Muslim assembly”. I stayed quiet; but I remember an approach which was very much different to the open discussion based ones that we had in Hinduism. The students there were being given an aggressive defence several of their customs, and why these customs are immeasurably better than those of other religions and those of western society, and that is why people all over the world were embracing Islam. And this was an assembly for 11 to 18 year olds!
Then there was a play that was shown to us at school by a visiting Christian drama group about the life of Jesus. At the end there was a question and answer session, in which a lot of people asked questions to the Christian drama group in which they made it clear that they thought that their religion was the sole path to salvation, and did not think of other religions on par with Christianity.
It was around the same time that I saw first-hand various arguments and even fights amongst gangs that nominally carried a religious element – usually Pakistanis versus Indians (mostly Sikh, sometimes Hindu). I could see that these fights were really just gang fights, that only carried an occasional thin religious veneer and didn’t really have much to do with religion – but it did lead me to read into the history of religious conflicts in the Indian subcontinent, and I was shocked by the extent of the persecution which had been inflicted in the name of religion.
However all this time, I did stick to my original position of “all religions are many paths to the same God”. It was when I got to university that I had some encounters which really made me have to reconsider and eventually reject this position.
The first incident occurred in the very first few days, in the “Freshers Fair” itself. I was waylaid by a Christian, who was letting me know about events and activities offered by the Christian Union. I told him that I was a Hindu and quite happy to remain so, but that I still appreciated what they (the Christian Union) were doing.
This really baffled him. His response was “Well if you are a Hindu and believe in Hinduism, how can you say you appreciate us and what we are doing?” I responded that I think that all religions ultimately teach something quite similar, and are indeed valid paths that lead to the same place. He smiled, and said “I am aware that some modern Hindus think that all religions are a path to God, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. We teach something that is different in many important elements, and it cannot be that we all are right.”
He continued, “And anyway, if you think that being a Christian is just as good as being a Hindu, then why be a Hindu. Why not become a Christian?”
I realised there was a certain logic to what he was saying. The common Hindu argument would be that everyone should stick to the religion of their birth, but this was clearly not a good enough argument when there are religious groups which systematically try and spread themselves and ask you to justify your position. I told him that I knew a bit about Christianity, but that from what I had seen, although I could appreciate some of the teachings, there were other parts which I could not agree with, and I felt that Hinduism didn’t have any such limitations. He asked me to expand on this, and for the first time, I had to explain to someone why (perhaps) I thought that the religious system of thought which I followed may be superior. He then said – “Well you see, all religions are not the same, even according to you!”
I realised that in some ways, the Christian fellow I was speaking to – despite his own dogmatism – did indeed have a point. We can’t just say all religions are equal and suspend all analytical thought beyond that. He wanted to know the reasons I felt justified in making such an assertion; and it turned out that the reasons were not very good! I also thought to myself that this person knew his religion very well. I can’t just say he is misinterpreting his religion – when he clearly has studied his religion more than I have. It appeared to me to be an arrogant claim for Hindus to claim to know other people’s religions better than the people who actually practice these religions, without even having made an effort to study these religions first hand.
The next main incident in my journey of thought was a book which I picked up about Islam from the university library. I was going through a phase whereby I wanted to read about many different philosophies and religions, and I happened to pick up a book on Islam, which was called “The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam” by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. I had some close Muslim friends at university (who I still think of as good friends although I haven’t seen them in years), and one of them had read the book and highly recommended it. They were quite impressed that I was learning about Islam from a reputable source.
The book was a real eye opener. What I realised for, once and for all is that if Islam is true, then Hinduism is totally, utterly and irredeemably wrong. The whole concept of religion is Islam was so utterly different to that of Hinduism, and so much more clearly defined and set. Until then, I had understood religion only from the Hindu perspective, which was quite reflective and an inner quest. I also understood other religion in this scheme of things; I thought that other religions would have quite similar viewpoints.
I started to think about the origin of a religion like Islam. I felt that either it was true, as they said, that the Quran is the final revelation, or somebody very unscrupulous had made the religion up as a conquest ideology. I had been taught through Swadhyaya always to reason and think and even reject religious rules if they didn’t make sense in today’s age. On the other hand Islam said that the rules are divine, unchangeable and perfect. Hinduism taught that every person must eventually seek and experience the truth for him or herself. Islam taught that nobody can communicate with God in this lifetime in this world, as the final revelation had been given.
Voice of India
It so happened that I met some individuals (founding members of Hindu Human Rights) who gave me some books by the now deceased Hindu authors, Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel which critiqued Christianity and Islam from a Hindu perspective. They explained how a study of different yogic states of consciousness could be used to explain the limited and dogmatic outlook of religions that make exclusive truth claims, as contrasted with Hinduism which scaled the highest Himalayan heights of the inner life of the spirit.
The interesting things about the viewpoints of these works were that they reversed the position that I had been used to. Rather than teaching us that Islam and Christianity are great, but the followers are not, Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel taught us to view the average Christian or Muslim with friendship and compassion without having to accept their religious claims. This made much more sense; and was a far more humanistic approach.
Ramifications of the “all religions are equal” theory on the Hindu psyche
At a religious discussion several years back, I remember a Hindu who said: “We keep talking about all religions being valid paths, but for a change I want to hear about why my religion is worth following more so than another path.”
His statement touched upon an important point. If you are taught that all religions are ultimately the same and it doesn’t matter which one you follow, most people would have a weaker adherence to follow that religion properly compared with if you are aware of the uniqueness of your traditions.
Also if the “all religions are one” thesis was really true, then Hindus shouldn’t complain at all about conversions of Hindus outside of the Hindu identity! Yet most Hindus would not like it if one of their family members converted to Christianity or Islam. This demonstrates that the all “religions are equal” causes an almost schizophrenic disjointedness in thought and behaviour of Hindus!
Yet I don’t think that it is correct to try and emulate the attitude of religions which make exclusive truth claims; it is certainly not a Hindu view that any group of people can have a monopoly on the truth.
But we should at least critique and teach Hindus to firmly reject and oppose religions which make exclusive truth claims, and show the fallacy of these exclusive truth claims. This would go some of the way in imparting self-confidence amongst Hinduism to oppose the self-righteousness of people who think that their religion is the only way.
Adi Shankara and the culture of debate
I had learnt from an early age about the culture of debate in older Hinduism. There were public debates in India between different philosophical viewpoints, in which one would attempt to prove the superior logic of their own position. Generally, the loser would become the follower of the victor.
So we can see that even within Hinduism itself, it was not believed that all philosophies or paths of yoga were necessarily equal. There was a healthy respect (for the most part) between different paths, but there wasn’t any stricture that one philosophy had to accept others as equal. This reflected the fact that Hindu thinkers of that era were determined at arriving at nothing short of the absolute truth.
The most famous and successful Hindu debater was Adi Shankara, who vanquished all of his opponents in open debate, and re-established the prestige amongst the public of the core philosophy underlying Vedic religion in a then mainly Buddhist India.
Hindus of today do not understand the rich, sharp and diverse intellectual, philosophical and analytical heritage of Hinduism partly because the “all religions are equal” doctrine doesn’t support us to really seek true answers; even within Hinduism we needn’t accept every viewpoint as equal if it doesn’t agree with our reason.
Now – some people (usually modern-day Hindus) say that this rejection of the “equality of religions” is not good for integration and peaceful existence between followers of different religions.
This argument may at first glance seem to make some sense, but if we examine the matter more closely, it doesn’t actually withstand scrutiny.
Hindus have been repeating the slogans of all religions being equal for over a century now. It simply hasn’t prevented conflict (in the form of violence) between Hindus and the followers of other religions. In fact, the typical Hindu position of “Islam is good but Muslims are trouble makers” is perhaps more likely to cause misunderstanding and indiscriminate retaliatory violence born of frustration when violence or terrorism occurs.
We need to learn to see people with the same humanistic spirit, respect the innate divinity of each individual as well as the right for each individual to form their own viewpoint or follow another religious doctrine, even if we feel it is incorrect. Just to disagree with someone’s religious or philosophical viewpoints doesn’t mean you can’t respect and even defend their right to a different opinion, or have respect and friendship for them as a human being.
On the other hand, analysing and scrutinising religion appears to be a tried and tested way to make the followers of the religion shed or re-evaluate their self-righteousness and exclusive truth claims, which leads to religious conflict in the first place. We have the historical example of Christianity which shed some of its self-righteousness or re-interpreted its dogmas only when it was subjected to a rational critique by freethinkers of the West in the light of modern science and logic.
In my own experience, it is often the case that aggressive religious attitudes are cured by scrutinising the person’s own beliefs in the same way that they are doing to others. For example a Hindu friend of mine, who himself had mostly Muslim friends, mentioned to me that his friends often criticised and mocked Hinduism to him, criticising Hinduism’s “many Gods” and calling him names like “cow piss drinker”. I gave my friend an article which provided a critique of certain points of Islam to use as counters next time his friends say these things to him.
He mentioned these points to his friends next time they were mocking Hinduism. Their response was to ask him where he got these facts from, to which he responded by giving them the article. It so happened that they stopped criticising and mocking Hinduism, while remaining his friends, although they were a bit angry to begin with. On the other hand the “all religions are equal pleading” had failed to cure his friends of their aggressive and condescending attitude for a good number of years.
When we say all religions are equal to persons who hold aggressive and exclusive beliefs, it sounds like a form of weakness and begging, and usually keeps the exclusive and irrational truth claim which they base their religious self-righteousness upon away from the only thing that could cure it; a rational critique.