Religious Pluralism in India

Lord Shiva dancing (Chamba, India, 18th century) — Google Arts and Culture/ National Museum, New Delhi

Our religious and metaphysical worldviews correspond in deep and complex ways with social and ethical orders of our societies. Religiously monotheistic societies tend to be connected with highly centralised political structures, and indeed there is strong evidence that the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire was motivated by a desire to further consolidate power in the figure of the single Roman emperor. Just as there is one God above, so there should be one Emperor below.

In pluralistic and polytheistic traditions, such as Hinduism, however, a more diverse range of metaphysical worldviews has been found to be allied to a more decentralised model of power and authority, in terms of both the secular and religious order.

That the coherence and continuity of intellectual and spiritual traditions does not require centralised direction and uniformity of thought is a fact that has been obscured in many parts of the world. However, this pluralistic worldview was common in many ancient religions across the world, including Greek and Roman religion, which often sought to equate the gods of foreign traditions with their own. In the context of Asatru, a movement which draws on ancient Norse paganism, religious leader Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson explains

“This is a good thing about polytheism versus monotheism. Monotheism is one truth for the masses, but polytheism is many truths for the individual … Nobody can teach you. You have to find it yourself.”

The idea that religion is not about a single truth and that all religions may be provide valuable insight and afford us a fulfilling way of life is quite a radical one according to the standards of Abrahamic religions. However, in Hinduism, this idea is encapsulated in the widely-used expression ‘sarva dharma sama bhāva’.

According to Wikipedia, this phrase was propagated by figures such as Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekenanda and Mahatma Gandhi. The very well-referenced article also adds the following –

“Although commonly thought to be among the ancient Hindu vedas, the phrase is actually attributed to Gandhi, having been used first in September 1930 in his communications to his followers to quell divisions that had begun to develop between Hindus and Muslims toward the end of the British Raj. The concept is one of the key tenets of secularism in India, wherein there is not a separation of church and state, but an attempt by the state to embrace all religions.”

Without disputing the above findings, this article will examine some of the older sources of Hindu literature in order to suggest some conceptual affinities between this formulation and similar ideas over a period of time.

To start, we may note that, already, the famous Nāsadīya Sūkta of the Rig Veda appears to advocate for a human role in articulating the nature of the divine or transcendental as follows –

The Poets’ Stretched Out Their Measuring String

Was There Above? Was There Below?

Who Really Knows? Who Here Can Say?

From Whence Did It Come? From Whence This Creation?

[Rig Veda 10.129.5; my own translation]

Indeed, the idea that individual intuition and creative inspiration is the basis for multiple religious conceptions and forms of religious practice has been taken far within the Hindu tradition. As a result, a wide variety of conceptions of the divine have been formulated from within the Hindu tradition, including monotheistic, polytheistic, panentheistic, animist and so on. Indeed, the idea of a god may be a personal or impersonal god, a god who is involved in the world as creator, sustainer etc. or who is removed from the world, and so on and so forth. Thus Dr Elisa Freschi distinguishes between five ways of understanding god in the Hindu tradition as follows –

“god as devatā ‘deity’: a superhuman being …

god as nityasiddha `perpetually perfect’ …

god as īśvara ‘Lord’: the omniscient, omnipotent (and often also benevolent) being of rational theology …

god as brahman ‘impersonal being’ …

god as bhagavat ‘personal God’ …”

Perhaps it is the pluralistic dimension in particular that allows the leeway for individuals to find creative expression in religion and spirituality. The term ‘dharma’ connects with ideas of ethical behaviour as well as religious practice, and thus it is no surprise to find that this term is also a pluralistic one and to an extent both an individualistic and a group identity. Indeed, our dharma is connected with our svabhāva, the intrinsic and authentic nature of each person, and accordingly it varies according to the character of the individual as well as the context in which they find themself at each point in time. Thus, talking about the Mahabharata, Dr Bhangaokar explains –

“the Mahabharata gives a variety of contexts in which Dharma can be interpreted differently, like apaddharma or Dharma during emergencies (apattikala), or the Dharma for kings (rajadharma) or varnasramadharma — Dharma that is applicable to various castes and life stages … Another variant of Dharma is svadharma, an individual’s Dharma situated and determined by birth in a particular caste (jati), or social class, based on changing familial roles across life stages and mediated by gender.”

Further, regarding the various conceptions, pluralistic or syncretic conceptions have been expressed in various places in Indian literature, starting with the following well-known verse from the Rig Veda –

They say ‘Indra’, ‘Mitra’, ‘Varuṇa’, ‘Agni’, and he is the bird with beautiful wings.

[There] being One, the wise proclaim many names; they say ‘Agni’, ‘Yama’, ‘Mātariśvan’.

[Ṛg Veda 1.164.46 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; my own translation]

The above survey suggests a picture of Hinduism as a tradition of religious pluralism that advocates for human beings to engage in open-minded spiritual and metaphysical inquiry without fear or favour. The Hindu world-view that emerges is a coherent philosophy and worldview without ideology, dogma or doctrine.

The phrase ‘sarva dharma sama bhāva’ would thus give expression to an idea deep-rooted in the Indian tradition that it is for every individual and every group to make their own earnest inquiry into the best way of life and the best way of giving expression to our connection with the divine for themselves. This philosophy should of course be distinguished from the absurd relativistic principle, ‘sarva mata sama bhāva’, viz. that every belief or opinion is equally correct.

To sum up the importance for every individual to strive to articulate his own understanding of the divine and the transcendent, alone as well as in community with others, and in different contexts and life-situations, we may end with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita as follows –

I engage with those who come to me

In just such a manner as they come

Human beings follow my path in every manner

[Bhagavad Gītā Chapter 4 Verse 11; my own translation]

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