This article of mine was published on The Indian Republic, India’s largest not for profit news portal on 10th June, 2014 over here. Image credit – The Indian Republic.
During the run up to the 2014 General Elections, India witnessed an unprecedented amount of debate between the political left and the right about the ‘idea of India’ and about the place that secularism and pluralism have in India. This debate took place between politicians who used public rallies and speeches as their media of expression, between panelists on television shows, between intellectuals through newspaper editorials and between friends and family members across dinner tables. But the most intense and acrimonious debates were reserved for social media such as Twitter and Facebook, which became fierce battlegrounds over the last six months or so.
The argument that was repeatedly put forth, ad nauseam, by the ‘liberal left’ was that the rise of the “Hindu right” would destroy the secular fabric of India and would ensure the complete and total ‘Hindu-ization’ of India through the systematic persecution of the minorities and the imposition of Hindu ideals on secular India. Much water has flown under the bridge since then.
Let us first understand a few basic facts about Hinduism before we attempt to answer the key questions here –“Is India going to be Hindu-ized? If so, do we have anything to worry about?”
Fact 1: Hinduism is not a religion
Though it is said to be the world’s oldest religion, Hindusim is not really a religion. It is a way of life, originally known as ‘Sanatana Dharma’- a set of beliefs and practices, some of which are over 5,000 years old.
As opposed to most religions that are highly centralized and structured, there is no central organization (e.g. The Catholic Church in the case of traditional Christianity) around which Hinduism runs, no one holy book (e.g. The Koran in the case of Islam or the Bible in the case of Christianity) that lays down all the tenets of the religion and no single founder of the religion (e.g. The Buddha in the case of Buddhism or Jesus Christ in the case of Christianity) who is highly venerated.
There are several schools of thought within Hinduism, not all of which espouse the concept of god. For example, the Charvaka school of thought is atheistic in nature and preaches materialism and philosophical indifference. The Advaita school of thought preaches that the universe is a manifestation of the supreme consciousness and that these two are one and the same (non-dualism).
Fact 2: There is no such thing as ‘conversion’ to Hinduism
Unlike in Abrahamic religions such as Islam or Christianity (with the exception of Judaism), the concept of conversion does not exist in Hinduism. Therefore, like in Judaism, you had to be born a Hindu to be Hindu. Hindu scriptures do not encourage proselytization or even recognize the concept of ‘conversion’ to Hinduism.
Some spiritual masters such as Swami Dayanand Saraswati have, since the 19th century, encouraged those Hindus who converted to other religions by coercion or choice to return to Hinduism. It has, since then, been possible for non-Hindus to follow the practices of Hinduism voluntarily.
When was the last time that you heard of a rampaging Hindu army forcing their vanquished enemies to embrace Hinduism or of a Hindu temple offering money to poor people to convert to Hinduism?
Fact 3: Hindu scriptures do not claim that Hinduism is superior to other religions
Unlike in the case of some religions, the Hindu scriptures do not discriminate between people following different religions. Neither do they claim that Hinduism is superior to other religions.
In fact, the following verse from the Rig Veda sums up Hindu outlook towards other religions, “Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti” or “Truth is one, sages call it by many names”.
Fact 4: Hinduism champions tolerance and pluralism
One of the central tenets of Vedic philosophy stems from the following phrase in the Mahopanishad of the Atharvana Veda that reads, “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam” or “The world is one family”. Vedic scholars consider not only humans but all life forms- including animals and plants as part of one large family.
Fact 5: History shows that Hindu culture is inherently tolerant and pluralistic
Ancient Indian history is proof that Hindus society is inherently tolerant. Perhaps this stems from the emphasis that the Hindu scriptures place on non-violence. The following phrase from the Bhagvad Gita sums up Hindu outlook towards violence of any form – “Ahimsa paramo dharmaha” which means, “Non-violence is the most important of duties.”
Several examples from Indian history show that the Hindus treated followers of other religions with respect and dignity, living side by side with them even when they sometimes came as refugees.
a) The Parsi settlement in India
After the Muslim conquest of Iran and the fall of the Sasanian Empire, the Parsi ancestors (Zorastrians) fled to India for the sake of religious freedom. They came to India and were welcomed by the local ruler and even given a large plot of land to build a place of worship- a fire temple. Their community lived side-by-side with the Hindu population, enjoying the same status as the Hindu-majority. Since they settled down in India, the Parsis have been valued members of Indian society. To this day, some of the biggest business houses in India such as the Tata Group of Companies and the Wadia Group of Companies (Bombay Dyeing etc.) are owned by Parsis.
b) Buddhism in India
Buddhism, as a religion, started in India, a Hindu country. The Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born a Hindu. Buddhism spread in India and as a result, Hindus and Buddhists peacefully co-existed for centuries. Wars between Buddhist kings and Hindu kings were rare. When Buddhism eventually died out in India, it was due to the influence of fundamentalist Muslim emperors (Source: Karmapa Lama’s office)
Were there instances of violence by Hindus?
Of course there are instances of Hindu kings destroying places of worship of other religions and even persecuting people following other religions. However, they are few and far between.
The most important distinction on this point between Hinduism and some other religions is that violence against people of other religions and forcible conversions have absolutely no sanction from Hindu scriptures. There is no ‘moral obligation’ on a Hindu citizen or for that matter a Hindu king to spread Hinduism or proselytize it. If a Hindu king ever forced the spread of Hinduism, it was for extending his sphere of influence rather than for Hinduism as a religion. In any case, such cases were extremely rare.
I believe that there is no need for anyone to worry about the ‘Hindu-ization’ of India since history shows that it is not in Hindu culture to force people to follow Hindu customs or traditions or worship Hindu gods. It is in the DNA of Hinduism to not just tolerate, but embrace diversity and I don’t think that this is about to change anytime soon.