by Saad Ismail
“As a Hindu I belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenial to be able to face my fellow human beings of other faiths without being burdened by the conviction that I am embarked upon a ‘true path’ that they have missed. This dogma lies at the core of the ‘Semitic faiths’, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Bible contains the words ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father [God], but by me’ (John 14:6); ‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet’, declares the Quran, denying unbelievers all possibility of redemption, let alone of salvation or paradise.”(1)Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor is a Hindu because Hinduism exclusively eschews exclusivism.
If the irony of such posturing is lost on such a prodigious thinker as Tharoor, it is in no small part due to the wide-spread acceptability that this narrative enjoys in popular imagination. Championed by no less a figure than Swami Vivekananda – Tharoor’s youthful inspiration, incidentally – Hinduism in this view is triumphally cast as the most progressive religion. Indeed, in Vivekananda’s supremely successful ‘restatement of the religion’, Hinduism is the ‘mother of all religions’ – while all others are errant children who happen to have got a few things right here and there, but ultimately have yet to come of age (2).
Thus, while children squabble over doctrinal differences, Mother keeps her composure knowing the Truth of their petty disputes. The ultimate truth that Mother has to teach the world is, of course, the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism). All other religions are invited to accept this doctrine which represents the summit and culmination of man’s religious quest. Upon embracing non-dualism, we will all be delivered from doctrinal disputation, because our differences themselves will be dissolved. After all, in the face of the One, multiplicity can only be illusory.
Must non-dualism, however, entail a homogenization of difference and diversity? Indeed, it becomes eminently important in the terrain of Advaita to resist this temptation. Advaita, literally meaning ‘not-two’, is also not one – to use Anantanand Rambachan’s powerful phrase(3). Whether we believe that reality is ultimately one or more than one, we must live in the world respecting each other’s differences. Compassion can be distasteful if driven from a patronizing place of knowing what’s best for the other, as anyone who has encountered any evangelist will attest. Against the Golden Rule, one must not always wish for one’s brother what one wishes for oneself. ‘Forget not the Other in the brother’, as Tim Winter contends. For we all have different histories and trajectories, different frameworks and traditions, within which we are situated and through which we encounter the world.
Indeed, Hinduism (a notoriously difficult term to define) is by no means simply synonymous with Advaitic philosophy. Al Biruni in the eleventh century observed that Hinduism meant different things for the philosophers and the commoners – whereas the former provided a unificatory framework for the tradition, the latter elided the same(4). Whatever the validity of these claims, one can certainly observe from the lived practices of the religion, that there is rich geographic, linguistic, doctrinal, and devotional diversity. To gloss over all these in the name of the noble philosophy of Advaita would not be a noble thing to do. To be precise, it is the modernist reconstruction of advaita, or neo-advaita, that seeks to subsume diverse traditions under its singular rubric. And what is perhaps most problematic is when it attempts to appropriate other religions in its name, such as Mahayana Buddhism. While these attempts might arise out of goodwill, they nevertheless deny individual traditions their identity and authority to speak for themselves (5).
The problem is not that we are different. The problem is how do we coexist while respecting our differences? We must also bear in mind that is only under modern religious nationalism that there arises an acute need to summon a unifying identity around which to rally. While this certainly serves political expediency, nonetheless, a wholescale homogenization of these complex traditions would be highly irresponsible, if not outright hegemonic. Of course, Hinduism is not merely a modern colonial construct. There are unifying and diversifying points that can be traced across pre-colonial history too, but it is only in the modern period with the template of Protestant Christianity as the model religion, that modern Hinduism emerges with its specific contours (2, 5).
This modern re-imagining served many a practical purpose at the time, which must be understood in order to trace its contemporary ramifications. The Asian and Religious Studies scholar Richard King writes:
“The claim made by neo-Vedantins such as Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan that Hinduism was the only truly world religion – that is, the only religious tradition to acknowledge fully the importance of diversity and to preach tolerance, provided an effective means whereby the long-established Hindu inferiority complex could be overthrown and a considered response be made to centuries of Christian polemic. The advancement of this Hindu inclusivism provided the rhetoric of tolerance necessary to establish possession of the moral high ground.” (5)
This brings us back to Tharoor’s inclusivist Hinduism. Recall that Tharoor (indeed, as Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan before him) regards Hinduism as being exceptional in this matter. In exclusion to other comparable faiths, it is a non-exclusivist religion. In other words, Hinduism is the most progressive/liberal/evolved/supreme religion precisely because it never claims to be the most progressive/liberal/evolved/supreme religion. The irony is stupefying.
Polemics aside, I grant that a legitimate case can indeed be made for a tradition to be uniquely inclusivist in contrast to other traditions. However, inclusivist readings of one religion should not be compared with exclusivist readings of others. Indeed, texts themselves are neither inclusivist/exclusivist – but it is the reader who reads them in one way or the other. Neither liberalism nor dogmatism are the sole monopolies of any tradition to the exclusion of all others. It is highly disingenuous of Mr. Tharoor to juxtapose “One truth, many paths” with the Muslim proclamation of faith “No god but God”, implying that for Muslims one truth/god entails one path. It is indeed extremely difficult to read the Kalima as heralding the fiery exclusivism that is the nightmare of popular media pundits. That this nightmare becomes a reality from time to time in some parts of the world is indeed concerning, but the myopia of recent events must not disabuse us of the wider view of history and of reading the Quran contextually and responsibly. To be sure, the Kalima readily renders itself to a universalist impulse, as if to say that the God of all believers, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists is the same one God. The Quranic God is a universalist God, ‘the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus’, and by implication of all the innumerable prophets, messengers and seers who came before Muhammad. ‘We do not discriminate between anyone among the Messengers’, as the Quran affirms unequivocally.
The question of salvation is similarly nuanced. A compelling Quranic case can be made for all people of the book, i.e. all world religions, as being on the path to salvation (if they do good). This is certainly one reading of the Quran, and not a far-fetched one by any measure (see my conversation with Juan Cole for example). Even if one doesn’t make this doctrinal concession, however, an average Muslim would readily concede that salvation ultimately is God’s business and nothing can be said with certainty about anybody’s posthumous destiny. Furthermore, the Quran clearly exhibits an impatience with theological wrangling, asserts that God will ultimately inform you about your mutual debates in the hereafter, and exhorts everyone to get busy doing good works (6).
Tharoor is hardly alone in believing monotheistic religions to be quintessentially intolerant. This popular view can even be gleaned in the pages of the pioneer of comparative religious studies Wilfred Cantwell Smith. The social anthropologist Talal Asad while reviewing Smith’s book, states that this thesis rests on careless thinking, and ‘an oversimple assumption of the relation between language and social life’. ‘Because’, argues Asad:
“… it equates the concept of a unified doctrine (i.e., to be assented to or rejected as a whole) with the substance of that doctrine (e.g., strict monotheism as opposed to Trinitarianism, poly-theism, atheism, etc.)… no attention is paid to the practices of polytheistic communities that generate intolerance, or of monotheistic believers who are tolerant – let alone to the variety of behaviors in which “tolerance” is expressed and lived.” (7)
Before we conclude our reflection, we must briefly turn our attention to the closely related idea of ‘syncretism’. The term ‘syncretism’ is far from neutral, and its uses in our public discourse are certainly far from benign. ‘Indian Islam’ is paraded by every media pundit as the supreme solution to the ascendancy of ‘foreign’ versions of Islam in the country. While there may be some substance to the apprehension, structuring it in this manner definitely elides the crucial problems. For one, having Indian ancestry is no guarantee that an Islamic tradition (or any tradition for that matter) will be immune to bigotry. Similarly, it needs reiterating in our country that foreign pedigree is not instantly a red flag. To be more specific in our diagnoses, we can speak of the problem of dogmatism, blind faith, and bigotry – which plague all denominations universally, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, whether Sunni or Salafi, whether ‘indigenous’ or ‘foreign’. The Muslim problem of exclusivism is the same across the board. While one pushes for theologically ecumenical views, both contemporary voices and those from the past, it may not be practically persuasive to the vast majority for whom the debate is seemingly doctrinally predetermined. In all such cases where theological inclusivism is a remote possibility, Abdullah Saeed argues, one must not discount the importance of social inclusivism. In a secular society, while religious traditions take time to adapt, one can never force doctrinal reform. But perhaps we may attain most of our aims for ethical co-existence by simply becoming more socially inclusive. As communities, there may be some resistance to being inclusive of each other’s beliefs and religions, but we can be more hopeful about promoting mutual respect and inclusion for the people involved (8).
Perhaps syncretism is a consolation on our tongues and minds, primarily because it assuages some of our deep-seated anxieties regarding sameness and difference. It says something about us as a culture, that we would rather opt for a lax syncretism over serious adherence to any tradition (even if it be a syncretistic tradition). Ultimately, this has to do with our anxiety around the debate about inclusivism. We want doctrinal closure in a world where it may be impossible. We want all our fellow citizens to recognize our deeply cherished beliefs as legitimate. Is that even a rational expectation? Perhaps we cannot face the fact that there will be people who do not share our background, and so naturally, may not see what and why we hold so dear to our hearts. It is easy to want our opponents to at least meet us halfway, or share our shared ideals of secular syncretism. It is much more difficult to live in the real world of fissures and incommensurabilities, while respecting those same points of discomfort and incongruence.
In conclusion, some of the above interpretations of Islam can readily be met with the charge of being too charitable. But instead of debating what Islam ‘really’ says, or what the Quran ‘really’ means, I invite you to at least consider this point: that while it is possible to read the same scripture with an exclusivist lens, it is not necessary that one does so.
Indeed, the reason you may react to any inclusivist reading of the Quran with suspicion is because there is a deeper phenomenon at work here, which one also witnesses in Tharoor. We are all prone to essentialization, not least when it comes to what is popularly termed the ‘Abrahamic vs Dharmic’ dichotomy. ‘Essentially’, Hinduism is a pluralistic religion whereas the Abrahamic religions are ‘essentially’ dogmatic by contrast. This logic enables Mr. Tharoor to speak of the “Abrahamic Hinduism’ of the ‘Sangh Parivar’” (9). The idea is that wherever Hinduism is dogmatic, it is being Abrahamic. By the same token, it follows: wherever Islam is non-dogmatic, it is being non-Islamic.
- Shashi Tharoor, ‘Why I am A Hindu’; Aleph, 2018
- Jyotirmaya Sharma, ‘A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and Hindu Nationalism’; Context, 2019
- Anantanand Rambachan, ‘A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two Is Not One’; State University of New York Press, 2015
- Gavin Flood, ‘An Introduction to Hinduism’, Cambridge University Press: 1996
- Richard King, ‘Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘the Mystic East’, Routledge: 2001
- The Quran, 5:48
- Talal Asad, ‘Reading a Modern Classic: W.C.Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion’, University of Chicago Journals, 2001
- Abdullah Saeed, Inclusivism and Exclusivism among Muslims Today between Theological and Social Dimensions; NTU Singapore, 2020
- India Today, Hinduism a liberal faith: Exclusive excerpts from Shashi Tharoor’s new book, 2018