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Interfaith Ahimsa: A New Toolbox for Responsible Engagement

Interfaith Ahimsa A New Toolbox for Responsible Engagement

The interfaith movement is an attempt to create dialogue and harmony among various religions. It is especially active and well-funded in Western countries. Though its intentions are noble, my contention is that this movement really sits on quicksand because it is based on political correctness and over-simplifications. Its narrative is fictional, highlighting humanity’s shared political and economic interests and emphasizing religious similarities. It ignores the deep rooted differences that cause interfaith conflict in the first place, making the movement a comfort zone where the regulars can feel good. A well-known cast of characters dominate many conferences and this coterie of prophets of ‘world peace’ frames the conversation to perpetuate their roles.

One of the reasons for the lack of creativity is that the interfaith arena has been shaped by representatives of the Abrahamic religions. Hence the terms of reference are rooted in Abrahamic religions and/or of Western Universalism. The dharmic faiths have entered as late and passive partners, playing an unequal role in establishing the frameworks and guidelines in the arena [1].

The Hindu response to their tradition’s marginalization has usually been an escapist one. A copout employed by many Hindus is what I call the ‘sameness syndrome’ – the superficial claim that there are no differences of serious consequence among faiths and that differences that do surface are mere misunderstandings that can be easily sorted out (through more interfaith meetings), and that substantive differences are best avoided rather than confronted in the interest of harmony. This stance is often used to avoid having to understand one’s own tenets and the other traditions’ tenets in greater detail. It enables one to remain in the cozy comfort zone of naive political correctness and intellectual laziness.

As a result, Hindus at interfaith meetings often end up misrepresenting Hinduism’s positions, selling out their community’s interests, confusing Hindu youth and indirectly facilitating the digestion of Hinduism into Judeo-Christianity and Western Universalism and/or the conversion of Hindus to other faiths.[2] Many unqualified representatives of Hinduism hide below the radar of having to take a stand based on the distinctiveness of their faith. They prefer to enjoy the limelight of being a spokesperson without the risk of being considered ‘controversial’.

Another kind of Hindu reaction is the kneejerk rejection of any kind of interfaith exchange. However, it is impractical to run away from interfaith exchanges because they arise informally too - at work, with friends, in schools, in official policies and so forth. Even if it were possible to remain in a cocoon, Hindus would be abandoning any influence over how they are depicted. The resulting vacuum could be filled by others with agendas that might be inimical to Hinduism. Hindus complain of being misrepresented in their absence, but have not proactively made the investments to forestall this outcome.

Then there are the mouse-clicking Hindu activists who wait for solutions to fall from the sky and look to ‘others’ for leadership, while remaining opinionated and ill-equipped to advocate and lead.

The underlying reason for the collective incompetency of Hindus in interfaith relations is not just timidity but also an inadequate knowledge of Hindu knowledge systems. Without the latter, they remain ill-equipped and unable to creatively approach interfaith relations from their own Dharmic foundations.

This is unfortunate because Hinduism has vast resources to bring to the table – resources that are particularly vital for our times. The internal pluralism within Hinduism has been widely acclaimed by scholars and contrasted with the closed nature of many other faiths. I use the phrase “open architecture” to describe it and have discussed this extensively in my book Indra’s Net. Even as they sometimes laud Hinduism’s openness, scholars of world religions have failed to study the reason for this internal pluralism. This pluralism did not just happen by chance. Hinduism’s internal pluralism results from its deeply rooted metaphysics.

It is imperative that we retrieve these tenets of Hinduism’s internal pluralism or its “open architecture” and put them on the interfaith table as a model for developing a new structure for interfaith dialogue. Indeed, Hinduism may be said to be uniquely positioned to clarify, establish and support a positive architecture for world faiths in their encounters with one another.

This article proposes a meta-structure or framework for interfaith relations, such that:

  • The positioning of dharmic traditions will not be by someone else’s rules.
  • Hindus will be able to propose to world religions their strong philosophical and theological basis for respecting difference among faiths.
  • All faiths will meet on a level playing field.

It is not expected that representatives from other faiths would readily accept all of my ideas. That would be difficult given the compromises they would have to make and the long, hardened stances that would be challenged. The goal in this article is not so ambitious. I merely wish to start a new kind of interfaith conversation by introducing some key dharmic ideas, with the hope that gradually some of the robust stalemates might loosen up. I present a new set of tools that can be added to the interfaith toolbox.

Part I: The Nature of ‘Truth’ and the Origins of Conflict

To begin with, there are underlying philosophical issues in interfaith dialogues that have not been addressed in the study of religious conflicts. Religious differences and tensions start because people hold different notions about ‘religious truth’.  These divergences are not easily resolved. It is important to first understand the very nature and origins of such different ideas of truth.

The diagram below categorizes three different kinds of truths:

Absolute Truth: that which is ultimate and cannot be falsified or superseded.

Public Consensus: agreement on a proposition that need not be absolutely true, but that most people at a given time are willing to accept. Such a consensus can be robust and long-term or tentative and fragile.

Truth-Claims: truths or claims that cannot be empirically established to everyone’s satisfaction and nor can one achieve consensus across diverse faiths. Examples of such claims include doctrines as: original sin, reincarnation, heaven and hell, the ‘second coming’ of Christ, ‘rapture,’ avatara, etc.

Each of these will be discussed below.

Is there an ‘Absolute Truth’ we can all agree upon?

Every faith has certain tenets it insists are absolutely true. But can interfaith harmony be attained based on agreement on such absolute truths? Many of the assertions about absolute truth concern other-worldly matters such as ‘Heaven’ or an ‘afterlife’, and proving such a worldview to the satisfaction of everyone is not feasible at least presently. Such competing claims of absolute religious truth remain beyond the scope of empirical verifiability by enough persons across the cultural spectrum.

Furthermore, the existence or non-existence of any such truth, and whether knowledge of it is attainable by humans even in principle, is itself debatable. Most philosophical systems agree that the ‘ordinary’ human state does not access this ultimate state of knowing. Our minds are limited and conditioned; hence whatever we know is not the ultimate truth.[3]

Even among those who regard knowledge of this ultimate truth as attainable by human beings, in whole or part, there are serious differences regarding its nature. Even within Vedanta there are multiple views on the nature of ultimate reality and its relationship to human beings. Likewise, the Abrahamic religions have multiple notions on the nature of God, Heaven/Hell, man’s relationship to these, and so forth. The bottom line is that there are many rival claims about absolute truth and reality. The predominant view among serious theologians in almost all major faiths is that absolute truth/reality is unknowable by the ordinary human mind.

Hence we cannot expect to resolve interfaith controversies by appealing to any given notion of absolute truth.

When does ‘Public Consensus’ work as the Common Ground?

By public consensus I refer to a set of ideas that most people accept, regardless of their ideology. A public consensus represents the equilibrium of diverse ideas. It is a tentative agreement -- just because we all agree now does not mean that we will continue to agree in the future. The nature of such a consensus varies according to the discipline. I shall explain this next.

An idea or claim that is widely accepted can be properly characterized as a postulate. In the realm of natural sciences, a hypothesis becomes accepted as a postulate to the extent that it can be verified by tests that are independent, repeatable and empirical. For example, Isaac Newton proposed a gravitational constant and a force of gravity to explain certain physical phenomena. Anyone could empirically validate his claims. Newton's theory was a hypothesis that progressively came to be accepted as a postulate and hence as part of our general consensus on the natural world.

But any prevailing consensus may also be rejected at a later point because of new knowledge. Newtonian physics is no longer considered completely valid, because of Einstein’s work. However, Newtonian physics is not rendered completely obsolete simply because a better theory has been established. Newton’s laws are indispensable for mundane applications. Most mechanical engineering that is done today – for cars, aircraft, bridges, high rise buildings, etc. – finds Newtonian physics sufficient and practical. Hence a consensus can also be in the context of its usage.

Further, there are competing postulates of general relativity and quantum gravitation that seek to replace Newtonian laws and there is data to support each of these postulates to some degree.[4] So far, neither of these postulates has acquired enough repeatable, universal and incontrovertible empirical validation to become accepted as the consensus. Some scientists do hold one or the other of these explanations for gravity to represent their notion of ‘truth’. Yet, neither one has being falsified. Most physicists recognize that there isn't enough information to make a conclusive pronouncement either way.

Multiple theories, including incompatible ones, can also fit the same data, which means that science does not declare its latest theory as final and absolute. Rather than being a weakness this is a strength that enables science to remain a dynamic rather than a static body of alleged ‘absolute’ or dogmatic knowledge.

The key point here is that because neither postulate has been falsified, it is legitimate for someone to hold either one of them. This is an example of how society deals with postulates that haven't met the standards of repeatable, objective and incontrovertible empirical validation. There is no pressure on physicists to be politically correct in refuting another theory. Nor can any respectable physicist hide behind the veneer of ‘God’s protection’ or some kind of privilege to exempt his theories from close scrutiny by others. There is no finality of scientific knowledge nor such a thing as scientific blasphemy in refuting a certain arrived at consensus.

In the realm of social norms and ethics there is a similar dynamism in what is acceptable across cultures. Here, the test of objective empirical data is replaced by validation through social experience. The idea of ‘do unto others as you would expect others to do unto you’ (regarded as a golden rule of behavior in numerous cultures) is an ethical postulate that is now an almost universally accepted norm. It is followed because societies over the centuries have experienced the benefits of adhering to it. Any ‘truth’ in the ethical sphere is better understood as a consensus that society has reached for practical reasons. This consensus is dynamic and always subject to re-negotiation.

At the same time, though consensuses are reached on certain kinds of human rights, there are vast areas of human rights where people do not have any consensus, even though the ideas of one civilization might dominate due to its sheer power.

The Problem of ‘Religious Truth’

No public consensus is possible among religions on their core dogmas. At the same time these dogmas are often non-negotiable and without them a given religion may cease to exist. Hence, religious authorities cannot be expected to let such differences fade away.

Religious claims that cannot reach public consensus are better referred to as ‘truth-claims’ no matter how important they are to their adherents. A truth-claim is a postulate that a faith asserts regardless of whether or not it can meet any standard of universally acceptable validation.

For example, the Nicene Creed is a statement of truth-claims accepted as the core tenets by all the mainstream denominations of Christianity. Islam’s central truth-claim is that the Qur’an is the literal, perfect and final word of God. From such foundational assumptions emerge many other derivative truth-claims.

One of the more serious and irreconcilable mutual contradictions between Christian and Muslim truth-claims concerns Jesus. While both Christianity and Islam revere Jesus as a prophet, Christians insist that he is the only son of God. Muslims, in keeping with claims in the Qur’an, insist that Jesus was human and not divine. His resurrection after his crucifixion is at the heart of conflicting truth-claims. Christians hold that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Indeed the resurrection of Jesus is the act by which all human beings can free themselves of sin. It is an absolute act: there was no such act before, nor could there be any such act again which could enable humans to rid themselves of sin. Resurrection is therefore a necessary condition for the validity of the Christian dogma that Jesus died to save us from original sin. Resurrection is also regarded as proof of Jesus’ divinity. On the other hand, Muslims argue that Jesus was not even crucified, and that the claim of resurrection contradicts the deepest metaphysics of Islam.

Notice that the point of contention here is not what the ultimate nature of reality is, nor the ethical teachings of Jesus, but rather the historical and theological truth-claims involved in the account of his death. None of these can be verified empirically or tested in any universally acceptable manner. This is where many differences and conflicts arise. Religious adherents are very deeply invested in their respective truth-claims at this level.

People within a faith accept such truth-claims based on several kinds of criteria, usually involving one or more of the following:

  1. The claim may meet with standards of limited verification to the satisfaction of the faith’s adherents (such as yogic postulates of higher states of consciousness that have been claimed repeatedly by many persons over the centuries and hence in a sense empirically verified, though the claim of empiricism here is contested).[5]
  2. The claim may represent a belief mandated by a religion's institutional authorities, even though it is inherently non-verifiable in the earthly realm of human experience (such as the claims advanced in the Nicene Creed in Christianity.)
  3. The claim may be based on interpreting ancient texts using the rules of argument accepted by a given system, as in many schools of Hinduism as well as in many branches of Christianity and Islam.

Clearly, many truth-claims vital to a given faith are unacceptable to other faiths. Furthermore, there is no universal or standard set of criteria that all faiths accept to evaluate such claims. The question becomes: How can different individuals and groups holding truth-claims that are often disparate or contradictory and stem from different sets of criteria, still manage to co-exist peacefully and with dignity? I shall focus on this point in Part II.

To complete my model of the nature of religious truth and conflict, I shall differentiate between private and public truth-claims of a faith.

Differentiating Private and Public Beliefs

The table below classifies different claims that can be asserted by an individual or group. It helps us examine whether a particular kind of postulate generates conflict.

 

(1)

Privately Applicable

(2)

Publicly Applicable

A) Postulate where consensus exists across religions, cultures, etc. Does not cause  conflict Does not cause conflict
B) Postulate where no consensus exists by the very nature of the truth-  claim. Does not cause  conflict  Causes conflict if it impinges on non-  believers

The two rows differentiate whether an item is broadly accepted or not. Row A refers to postulates that have achieved widespread public consensus, either through empirical verification or through a high degree of pragmatic benefit felt across cultures. Row B refers to truth-claims that are inherently non-verifiable beyond a limited group, and where consensus does not exist. Indeed, one faith’s truth-claims might even undermine another’s truth-claims.

The two columns differentiate between private and public truth-claims. Column 1 has postulates that are private to a given group, because they concern only those who practice that faith. Such postulates may include prescriptions on how to worship, or rules of conduct with one another inside the group, but do not impinge upon the lives of anyone outside that faith. In contrast, Column 2 refers to postulates that are predicated as applicable to every human being, without limitation to voluntary adherents of the faith in question. Examples include injunctions against infidels, mandates to convert others or destroy their so-called ‘idols’ etc.[6]

The cells of the table indicate whether conflict follows from a certain category of postulates. It should be apparent that conflict does not result from the beliefs or practices that an individual or group may adhere to in private.[7] Nor does it result from postulates that have become publicly accepted by social consensus across cultures.

In the case of B1, an outsider to the religion in question may disagree with that religion's position, but purely on an intellectual level with no harm caused to either side. A critique from an external perspective does not by itself infringe upon the right of a religion’s adherents to live its truth-claims. Hence, one need not succumb here to the trap of sameness, i.e. to accept all postulates as equally valid. As long as one accepts that certain postulates of both faiths are truth-claims, empirically unverifiable and non-consensual, one may reject another religion’s claims. This rejection has no causal effect on the practitioners of the claim and it merely articulates an intellectual position.

While this 2 x 2 grid is an over simplification, it is a starting point to shift the interfaith conversation in a different direction. Down the road there will undoubtedly be additional and will be more complex issues to resolve.[8]

When Truth-Claims become Dangerous: The Nature of Interfaith Conflict

The box with the heavy boundary (B2) represents the area of conflict and will be the focus of discussion henceforth. Certain religions demand adherence to truth-claims which implicitly or explicitly undermine other belief systems. Such truth claims arise from adherence to a history centric exclusivism combined with belief in a divine mandate to proselytize. Tension among faiths are exacerbated if their truth-claim includes mandates to convert non-adherents (often classified as infidels or heathens), either for the purported benefit of those others, or because the very existence of their faith causes a problem for one’s own faith.

One truth-claim that has caused much interfaith havoc worldwide is the Islamic belief that Allah wants all Muslims to see humanity divided into two nations – dar-ul-islam and dar-ul-harb – the Nation of Islam and the Nation of the Enemy, respectively. This truth-claim reinforces a grand narrative compelling all people to join the former and defeat the latter.

Another example is the Christian Zionist claim that the return of Jesus is possible only if the Kingdom of Israel is restored to its original state. This ‘original state’ would include restoring the Temple of Solomon, where today stands an important mosque. This site is believed to be the place from where the prophet Mohammad ascended to Heaven.

Hindus have been ridiculed for many practices that Abrahamic religions cannot accept, including: the use of images in worship, the making of a personal choice of ishta-devata (‘my deity’) among the multiple deities, a view of the feminine as divine, the acceptance of the principle of reincarnation and of karma theory, to name a few. I have no problems if others cite their arguments against such practices, but such evaluations cannot be adjudications of Hindu practices. Purva-paksha (described later) should not be seen as an act of adjudication of another’s faith and should certainly not be denigrating.

Part II: A New Toolbox for Harmony despite Irreconcilable Differences

Ahimsa as the basis for Mutual Respect

It is clear that many serious differences among religions cannot be eliminated without compromise from one side or the other. Hence, there cannot be an honest win-win for both sides by arguing the ‘true’ theology. Rather, we must seek a different approach to harmony that is not premised on metaphysical consensus.

My approach is based on ahimsa (non-harming) towards others as the common principle: We must not harm one another. From this foundational principle, it follows that we must respect another party’s truth-claims as reasonable for that person so long as they do not espouse himsa (harm) towards non-believers. Ahimsa is a principle of maximum freedom of faiths because they do not have to agree with each other; they just have to not cause harm. A commitment to ahimsa leaves a lot of room to freely choose truth-claims. It is theologically less restricting than the common approaches in interfaith.[9]

Most people usually teach ahimsa strictly as a principle of ethics at the individual level. But I am extending it to apply to the collective level, i.e. one group adopting such a posture towards other groups, faiths and institutions. I have referred to this as the principle of mutual respect.

At a given time not every person will accept such a premise and the consensus of one generation may fall apart and be superseded by something else in the future. Yet, this provides us at least a starting point to filter out certain extreme kinds of truth-claims.

This principle is not a consensus about 'truth' but about social responsibility. It is like saying that all web sites have the right to free speech except they don’t have the right to intentionally spread viruses to destroy others. Mutual respect is the basic threshold for a presence on the Internet. Those who violate this norm should be removed for the safety of the community. It is the same reciprocity that nations expect from each other in matters of global security and terrorism. Mutual respect compels us to live and let live, to practice one’s faith in such a way that one self-regulates one’s conduct towards others according to ahimsa. This is also applicable at the level of discourse when we write about or study each other.

It is the social responsibility of any individual or group making a particular choice, to ensure that their choice does not infringe upon social norms of peaceful coexistence with other members of society who make a different choice. By way of analogy: A cigarette smoker has a social responsibility not to smoke in areas designated as non-smoking (because that would be a public activity affecting others) but he has a right to smoke in a designated smoking area (equivalent to private activity). This is how mutual respect works in a society.

This principle arises from the very core of Hinduism and it could be useful to adopt in the global field of religious engagement. It can be the basis for making ground rules under which different faiths can co-exist in the public square. Mutual respect is, essentially, a certain kind of posture towards all those individuals or groups that are outside of one’s faith. It consists of the following elements:

  • There is no call to alter whatever one wishes to believe privately or within a community of fellow adherents.
  • There is no prevention of the discussion or advocacy of these beliefs to others.
  • However, it excludes asserting one’s truth-claims upon those outside one's faith as if these wereabsolute truths. It also excludes the use threatening language (“you will go to Hell”) or speaking of sanctions (“the wrath of God”) whether spiritual or material, upon those who are not compliant. Above all, it excludes any imposition of one’s beliefs upon outsiders through coercion, implicit or explicit.
  • There is to be respect for a given belief if and only if it is in compliance with these principles.

Mutual respect as I’ve written in the past sharply contrast with the popularly advocated posture of ‘tolerance’ towards others. Tolerance merely serves as a facade, a politically correct mask for doctrines that assert the absolute, final and universal truth of one’s own dogmas even when this directly undermines others. Mere tolerance is insufficient to maintain social harmony, because it protects an undercurrent of religious supremacy which is always subject to exploitation by its leaders. Tolerance without mutual respect amounts to sheer hypocrisy. By insisting on mutual respect, one removes the mask and compels a re-examination.

Mutual respect entails not simply the passive acknowledgement of difference and the reduction of violence; it also requires an active commitment to understand, protect and defend the rights of practitioners of religious traditions that are very different from one’s own, provided that they comply with the principles of mutual respect listed above.

Mutual Respect is an important prerequisite for interfaith dialogue, because a dialogue can proceed on an equal footing only when each group fully accepts that there is room for truth-claims other than one’s own in areas where adequate verification is not plausible.

Purva Paksha and Mutual Respect

A question that is frequently asked of me is whether sharp critiques of a faith by outsiders is a violation of mutual respect. In other words, are we required to remain silent on what we think of other faiths when we disagree with them? I will now explain that when we carry our purva paksha(honest analysis of another faith) then it is consistent with ahimsa.

My use of purva paksha is an adaptation from the Indian systems of logic and debate (nyaya andtarka) where it is required that one should first master the viewpoint of the other. But most Hindu teachers are woefully ignorant of other faiths. They either say that all regions teach the same thing, or else go the opposite extreme and condemn them based on uninformed opinions. My purva paksha of the other party and his purva paksha of my positions are legitimate methods of assessment from our respective lenses.

But we must acknowledge that what we are doing is purva paksha, and not try to assert that our view represents the absolute reality or even some kind of public consensus.

In other words, I have every right to say that according to karma-reincarnation theory embedded in my siddhanta, the Nicene Creed cannot be valid; and that according to the rishis’ teachings of satchitananda as the nature of the self, Mohammad cannot be accepted as the final prophet.[10] My siddhanta rejects claims like Original Sin, Moses parting the sea, Jesus having virgin birth, and Muhammad receiving the literal word of God through the Angel Gabriel. By the same token, the claim of Karna's and Pandavas' virgin birth in Mahabharata and that the river Yamuna parted when Vasudeva carried the newborn Krishna to Nandha's palace cannot be asserted by me as absolutes. These are examples of important messages for Hindus, but they do not have the same place in Hinduism as the above core tenets of Christianity/Islam. Because practicing Hindus may interpret them metaphorically, these stories are not binding on Hindus, and certainly they are not required to be imposed upon others.

This means that I do not demand that the other party must give up its truth-claims and I merely point out the irreconcilable differences between the respective sets of axioms. At the same time, I accept that his axioms lead him to reject my truth-claims. Given this posture, comparative religion and the freedom to criticize each other do not violate ahimsa.

Mutuality: Those who disrespect others do not deserve our respect

Another issue often raised is whether mutual respect is too loose and would permit the spread of dangerous views. Here it is important to note that mutual respect is a two-way street. The ‘mutual’ clause is critical. It is not unconditional respect for any and every viewpoint. If mutual respect isn’t offered to others, then surely one shouldn’t be entitled to receive it either. Mutual respect precludes the need to respect those with exclusivist public claims because by disrespecting others they lose the right to be respected. This is what distinguishes mutual respect from the sort of moral relativism that would also respect Bin Laden, Hitler, or any such source of dangerous ideology. Such dangerous ideologies violate the clause of mutuality, and hence do not command our respect.

Once there is a critical mass of thinkers advocating mutual respect, we should mobilize them to change the public laws governing religious freedom and make compliance with mutual respect a new public consensus. This can pave the way for legislating against abusive activities that violate mutual respect. This process requires training a large number of thinkers and public speakers who are well grounded in the ideas presented here.

The Importance of Containing Exclusivity  

Most denominations of institutionalized and organized Christianity (and to an even greater extent Islam) exhibit tolerance at best. Christians and Muslims who regard themselves as liberal and open-minded should be challenged to introspect on this issue, not only among their less open minded peers, but privately as well, for they are often merely tolerant in a way that masks a deep rooted exclusivism and falls short of mutual respect. We must do purva-paksha and be prepared to expose the hypocrisy when a posture of tolerance violates mutual respect.

If the exclusivity claim of a given religion is held as absolute with no room to acknowledge its own relative status and its own dependence on unproven axioms, and furthermore, if such absolute exclusivity is mandated to be projected through denigration of other religions and attempts to convert others, then the religion is dangerous and must be rejected vehemently.

But if an exclusivity claim is understood as being merely the believers’ private truth-claims that are neither absolute nor binding on all humanity then it is possible for the person holding such views to have mutual respect for others. Such interpretations of the Abrahamic religions are harmless and in compliance with ahimsa provided the believers do not try to impose them on others. Exclusivist beliefs that are applicable only to a given faith’s own practitioners do not contravene the norms of showing respect to persons outside that faith. But this is a very delicate balance and it is easy for such a privately exclusivist person to slip into himsa (harm) towards others.

History Centrism and Exclusivity

Religious claims of absolute history tend to be conflict ridden because while a lot of one’s identity can be invested in them, such claims can be very unreliable. Historical accounts even at a mundane level frequently lack public consensus because of our limited abilities to perceive, interpret and record historical accounts, and the difficulty in separating the emotions, beliefs and vested interests of the observer/scribe. It is even more challenging to reach universal consensus on historical events that happened a long time ago. As BEING DIFFERENT explains, the entire structure and substance of the Abrahamic religions is built upon claims of unique historical events that are not reproducible even in theory and are clearly unscientific in character.

The exclusivism built on history centrism tends to be non-pliable and frequently gets turned into a discourse of violence.

Why the Myth of Sameness is a Violation

Another controversy I have instigated and wish to address here concerns my critique of Hindu teachers claiming the sameness of all religions, or equivalence of all paths, or the sameness of all religious goals, etc. The advocacy of sameness does violate mutual respect when it involves distorting the truth-claims of another's faith.

As an example of this, consider when a Hindu teaches that Islam sees Mohammad as an avatar just like Krishna, or that Krishna was a prophet just like Mohammad: Both these sameness arguments are in blatant violation of Islamic tenets, even when made with good intentions. The former argument violates the Islamic doctrine that Allah never enters the cosmos in any form; hence there cannot be any avatar whatsoever. The latter argument violates the Qur’an’s list of legitimate prophets, from which Krishna is absent.

However, such a reinterpretation is not causing harm to Islam if it is not presented as what Islam believes, but rather as what a particular (ignorant) Hindu wants to think of Mohammad. Hence, he should not teach this to Muslims, nor would they welcome him doing so. Such ideas harm Hinduism by distorting its tenets.

Another example would be when a Christian teaches that Hinduism’s satchitananda is the same thing as Christ Consciousness, or that avidya is the result of Original Sin, or that the Bible is the fifth Veda, or that non-Christians will go to Hell. More broadly, much of inculturation is based on a deceptive strategy that distorts the truth-claims of other faiths in order to co-opt them, thus violating mutual respect.

Sometimes, when sameness is preached by distorting one’s own faith and not the other’s (a predicament common among Hindus) it violates a different principle, namely, the principle of authenticity. For example, to make Krishna fit into Islam’s constraints, Krishna would have to be stripped of being avarata or prophet. Such nonsensical teachings proliferate, rendering Hinduism vulnerable to digestion. This is a case of self-harm. Whenever a Hindu distorts dharma to make it look like Christianity, Islam or ‘all religions’, he is not guilty of violating the principle of mutual respect but of quackery. This facilitates the digestion of dharma into Western Universalism or Islam.

Negotiate at the level of Individuals and Sub-groups

I have been referring to Christianity, etc. as though such groups are homogeneous. This is merely for the sake of simplicity to introduce my concepts. In reality no religion is homogeneous; there are numerous sects, denominations and interpretations corresponding to multiple interpretations and sub-groups. The broadest categories, like ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’ each contain many diverse views internally. Even within the same sub-group or sect, there can be differences between individual perspectives.

Ultimately, every individual has the right to articulate his own stance and be judged accordingly. Each individual must be treated according to his/her stance. Those who elect to follow a sub-group should be treated in accordance with that group’s positions. But those who have autonomous ideas should not be lumped with others of the same faith.

Therefore, when I reject Christian A’s stand, it does not mean that I am also rejecting Christian B automatically. I must view each individual separately according to his overriding views. Christians must not characterize my posture on one Christian as being representative of my attitude towards all Christians. In other words, my principle of mutual respect applies to an individual or sub-group based on the given individual or the group’s posture towards others. People choose whether to go with the bandwagon or to jump off.

Part III: Unresolved Challenges

This article has been an attempt to reboot the interfaith movement by honestly pointing out the dead end of the much touted process presently under way. I see this as the opening shot to explore alternative approaches, and not a claim of having delivered a complete solution.

I see many open issues that would have to be addressed. But in this opening piece I merely want to convey a few hard punches with clarity and disrupt the interfaith leaders out of their comfort zones.

I wish to conclude by listing some of the vexing problems that we need to consider further:

  1. The contentious issues in the public square cannot be so easily wished away. It is fine to do this conceptually for the sake of establishing a simple framework, but at some stage we will need to tackle these head on. For instance;
    1. How do we resolve serious property disputes based on rival history centric claims, when so much is at stake in the outcome?
    2. Even though private beef consumption by others ought not to interfere with a vegetarian’s private lifestyle, it does bother vegetarians to see truckloads of cattle being sent to slaughter houses in their villages.
    3. Many of the sacred (or holy) sites of one faith are ‘public’ spaces and yet the management rules are of great concern to the sensitivities.
  1. The public-private coupling can be very strong and not easily separated even in non-proselytizing and non history centric faiths. Prominent examples are: Hindus do not want Ganga or a sacred mountain or Ram Sethu tampered with. The same is true of Muslims wanting rights to broadcast prayers very loudly and publicly as part of what they see as their practice.
  2. Could we interpret God’s mandates through the prophets as second-person speech meant for the listeners at that time and place, and hence contextual and not universal? This would avoid charges of blasphemy and yet open the possibility of interpreting texts in the light of contemporary contexts. It would severely curtail claims of publicly applicable truths and make truth-claims mostly private.

My purpose in writing this is served if a few serious thinkers from various faiths are willing to hit ‘reset’ in their open minded explorations and brainstorm some of these ideas for collective exploration for a way forward.

Author: Rajiv Malhotra  

Published: March 31, 2014

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. Jagrit Bharat is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Jagrit Bharat and Jagrit Bharat does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. 

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[1] The term ‘Western Universalism’ is extensively discussed in my book BEING DIFFERENT. It refers to the way so much of the global discourse is dominated by Western categories on the false assumption that these represent the universal experience of humanity at large. I will use the terms ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ interchangeably in this article.

[2}‘Digestion’ is a term discussed in BEING DIFFERENT referring to the process by which a dominant civilization devours and assimilates another civilization, in a manner that the predator becomes stronger while the prey is destroyed or diminished.

[3] Some systems claim that only after death, in Heaven, one shall know this ultimate truth. Others claim that humans have the potential to self-realize through spiritual practices and be able to reach the state of ultimate knowing during their stay on earth. Kant believed that ‘nuomenon’ (the reality as it is) is inherently unreachable by humans; hence we will never know it. Madhyamika Buddhists believe that there is no such ‘thing’ as an ultimate reality, i.e. whatever one postulates as something that ‘exists’ independently is a false notion we must deconstruct. Along similar lines, there are postmodernist thinkers and philosophers who believe that an ultimate reality does not exist at all, and the very notion is a human construction to give ourselves a sense of security, purpose and stability.

[4] Data from the Hubble telescope may tend to validate general relativity, while those from the CERN atom-smasher may favor quantum gravitation.

[5] Is Dharma like science?BEING DIFFERENT explains at great length that the rishi claim of every human’s ultimate essence being sat-chit-ananda is experientially verifiable, and this has been done time and time again by lineages of such enlightened masters. The achievement of this state of consciousness is not easy and is rarely achieved, but the very possibility of this undermines the truth-claims that are dependent on history centrism which are inherently not verifiable experientially. Hinduism is the complex of truth claims based on the experiences of many rishis based on their individual dedicated efforts (tapas and sadhana). As in science, rishis also have differing viewpoints and perceptions. The experimental verification is not solely from enlightened yogis. There can be verification of siddhis and other claims from those at various stages on the path. This methodology allows us to go further than through the dogmatic arguments one finds commonly. However, this method of scientific empiricism is not accepted by all religions as the criteria for truth. Given that Dharma’s realm of metaphysical knowledge, a theory is not verifiable by everyone because (a) the experience is private (inner realm) and not public, and (b) not everyone is capable of experiencing it. Of course, Dharmic knowledge allows for limited independent verifiability as it has been experienced multiple times by unrelated parties over time, and their experiences have been recorded. Entire lineages have developed techniques that train successive generations to experience the same knowledge. But because its validation is limited to a small group and is unavailable to everyone, it cannot be falsified, and hence it cannot have universal consensus.  It has to be content with being classified as truth-claims. This admission of being open to future insights is shared by science and Dharma.

[6] In my other writings, I am developing the notion that private/public could also correspond to injunctions from God (in case of prophetic religions) that are second-person commands and thirst-person commands, respectively. But I shall not burden this brief introductory article with further complexity.

[7] I recognize that this may not be completely true because private beliefs can condition one to hold implicit or unconscious prejudice towards the other in subtle ways.  Private/public separation is not black and white in practice and this is a simple model to see where it might take us.

[8] For instance, geography is itself sacred (or at least holy) according to most faiths and hence there are claims on such ’public’ places. The way Ganga is to be treated, cows not to be slaughtered, etc. are some of the Hindu norms that others might see as infringement upon the public space. A more comprehensive policy would need to be debated concerning the management of public spaces.

[9] Ahimsa is superior to approaches that start with a required consensus such as: ‘There is one God’. But what if: person 1 does not believe in God, person 2 believes there are multiple Gods with separate domains, person 3 believes there are many Gods which they all are elements of one God, person 4 believes in the ultimate as Goddess, person 5 believes the question itself cannot be answered by the human mind? My system of ahimsa does not require them to have any such theological consensus.

[9] Siddhanta refers to Hindu theories used to argue positions.

 

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