We are a dharmic, even yogic civilization. What’s more, our primary focus is realization, transformation, transcendence – not belief, dogma, or ritual. No wonder the category “religion” is a foreign imposition, one might say oppressive. Religion, in the Abrahamic and therefore modern sense, is based on a prescriptive faith, on the basis of which is a special contract between believers and their God or object of reverence. Often, such an agreement is based on a single scripture that serves as a commitment binding the believer and his community of faith.
It has not always been the case. In pre-Christian Greece and Rome, religion simply meant piety and worship of deities. Cicero developed this to mean cultum deorum, “the proper performance of rites in the worship of the gods.” The Greco-Roman deities, like the Hindu devas, were the brightest or enlightened, both male and female.
The Romans made offerings by fire to their gods and cremated their dead. Like other Indo-Europeans, their heroes fought to outdo each other with great deeds. They believed that a life well lived, exceeding normal human capabilities, would earn them eternal fame, kleos aphthiton, similar to Rig Vedic sravasakshitam. Epics were written all over this ancient world to celebrate the deeds of gods and men.
After the Christianization of Rome, the classical world was vandalized and destroyed as Catherine Nixey described it in The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017). Christian conquests in the Americas and other parts of the world ruined other classical civilizations like the Mayas and the Incas. What remained of other classical civilizations further east was invaded and reduced to dust by new iconoclastic religions such as Islam.
Although all allegedly worshiped the same God, originally called YHWH in the Torah, Jehovah in the Bible, and Allah in the Quran, the nature of their covenants makes Jews, Christians and Muslims mutually exclusive. You cannot be both a Jew and a Christian or a Jew and a Muslim or a Christian and a Muslim. You have to be one to the exclusion of all the others.
When Christians and Muslims encountered people of non-Abrahamic and Dharmic dispositions in India, they were, to say the least, deeply perplexed. A Hindu can worship as many deities as he wants. A Buddhist or a Jain can too. In India and Nepal, many Hindus also worship the Buddha. Buddhism and Jainism have most Hindu deities in one form or another, including goddesses such as Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Durga.
This overlap and multiplicity is present throughout the East. In Buddhist Thailand, Hindu gods are worshiped in the courtyards of houses. The royal family traces their line of Vishnu. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, the national airline is called Garuda, which is the mount of Vishnu. The largely communist and atheist Chinese population also follows Taoist, Confucian and Mahayana Buddhist practices. In Japan, it is possible to be both a Shintoist and a Buddhist.
The problem, then, with surveys such as Pew’s latest, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, is category imperialism in which an Abrahamic-modern idea of religion is forced upon a civilization, country and culture that , in fact, has no equivalent word for it. There is not even the modest admission in its stated methodology that Dharma is not the same as religion.
Although a staggering 29,999 adults were polled across the country in interviews conducted in 17 languages, the survey fails to address the root of the problem of religion. What we are experiencing in India is not a clash of religions as is commonly understood and proclaimed daily in the media, but in fact a conflict over different notions of religion.
Nowhere has this difference been so clearly stated as in the fascinating, albeit heated, debate over RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s speech at Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed’s book launch, The Meeting of Minds at Ghaziabad, on July 4. His widely cited remark that Hindus and Muslims in India have the same DNA was all the rage.
Why? What was wrong with this statement which is factually correct? For some 40,000 years, Indians have had very similar DNA, suggesting that the impact of genetic invasions and migration is not as brutal or as severe as one might imagine. For the sake of argument, one can push Bhagwat’s remark to its logical extreme: all humans have more or less the same DNA. But of course that would be a very Hindu thing to say: the whole human race is one family, vasudhaiva kutumbakam.
What was surprising was that it was the middle class Hindus claiming moral superiority who reacted to the leader of the RSS more than the Muslims or the leftists. The latter, who usually disagrees with, if not denounces, the RSS, of course criticized Bhagwat for calling India a Hindu Rashtra, but they had no problem with his claim that Hindus and Muslims had a common ancestry and culture.
What Bhagwat was emphasizing was this older, non-Abrahamic, pre-modern idea of Dharma when he said that India was a Hindu nation. All Indians are, in this sense, Hindus, whatever their individual or collective worship or their ritual obligations. Bhagwat used “Hindu” in a radically different sense from the Pew Survey or Abrahamic understanding. In its sense of the word, Muslims, Christians, Jews or Parsis could naturally and easily consider themselves Hindus, just as they could practice yoga, without compromising or giving up their religious beliefs or practices.
But several middle-class Hindu groups accused Bhagwat of the “Gandhian error” of appeasing Indian Muslims. Unfortunately, their notion of religion, of being Hindu, is the modern or Abrahamic conception. They don’t want any compromise with Islam in India. Haunted by memories of the medieval Muslim conquest of India, the most recent partition on religious lines and the Congress’s policy of appeasing minorities, they want the Hindu majority to take the hard line of zero tolerance on Hindu relations -Muslim.
Few people noticed that Bhagwat ended his speech with a verse from Mohammad Iqbal – arguably the greatest Muslim poet of the last century, let alone one of Pakistan’s founding fathers and ideologues – which roughly means: although his style storytelling was not very sophisticated, perhaps his listeners would have understood what he was trying to convey.
You can be as Hindu as you want, but once you claim that you are more Hindu than others, or worse, that others are less Hindu than you, there is a problem. The irony of the contemporary era is that the RSS now occupies the happy medium, representing moderation and reconciliation while the “born again” Hindus take more extreme positions.
(Views are personal)
(Writer is Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and tweets @MakrandParanspe)