How to Approach Religion in the 21st Century: Lessons from India’s Traditions


This article is a follow-up to my previous article,The Emergence of a New Hinduism, as well as a reflection inspired by a piece that appeared in The Diplomat last week, Can Atheistic China Play Conflict Mediator in ‘God’s Century’?

India and India’s religious traditions provide the model for how humanity can approach religion in the present era. And while India’s religious traditions are primarily Hindu, I also speak more generally of the subcontinent’s traditional approach to religion, which is inevitably linked to a viewpoint that originated in ancient India and continues to this day. This approach is characterized — more so socially than legally — by religious pluralism, which while described as “secularism” in Indian jargon is different from American secularism or French style laïcité. While the freedom to worship in any way is guaranteed in the United States, a narrow set of assumptions about religion and the nature of divinity dominate discourse at the public level, as the whole worthless debate about whether or not President Barack Obama is a Christian demonstrates.

From the perspective of Indian thought, such an issue would never be a problem. India’s approach to religion embraces the multiplicity of religions in the public sphere and it is common for individuals and the state to celebrate all religions; not just theoretically, but as active participants in the rituals, worship, and festivals of multiple faiths. And despite the formal move towards a more streamlined Hinduism described in my previous article, at its essence, Hinduism and its approach, which has rubbed off onto other religions in South Asia (for example, a Muslim cleric in India recently declared that Shiva, a Hindu god, was the first prophet of Islam), will remain broadly pluralistic in understanding religions.

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The roots of this approach originate in ancient India. Hinduism’s oldest collection of hymns, the Rig Veda argues:

They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.

To what is One, sages call by many names — they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan.

(Rig Veda 1.164.46)

This perspective established the long-standing Indian tradition that, despite their differences, the ancient Hindu devas or gods, were permeated with an underlying unity. As Hinduism encountered or gave rise to other religions, this perspective was expanded to include those faiths. A modern version of the above passage from the Rig Veda could read “They call him Bhagavan, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, and he is heavenly, shining Krishna. To what is One, sages give many a title — Ohrmazd, Ishtar, Zeus, Osiris, Amaterasu.”

Since all religious paths are considered valid ways of achieving the same goal, from this perspective, no religion is false (contrary to the view expressed by some Idaho state lawmakers in response to a Hindu prayer on the floor of the Idaho Senate). The tendency in the West and the Middle East has been towards the idea of a universal truth, one that is either some form of Abrahamic religion or alternatively the disbelief or ridicule of all religious experience (or liberalism, communism, and so on). Monotheistic Abrahamic ideas of religion are taken somewhat seriously, or are considered “rational” or plausible by non-religious Westerners while all other forms of religion are derided as “mythology” or vague “mysticism.” The intention here is not to question the spiritual experiences of members of Abrahamic religions, which are certainly valid, but their universal claims.

Yet, in the Indian belief, no one religion can have a monopoly on truth. A common Indian metaphor, about blind men and an elephant, tells of how some blind men touch different parts of an elephant, and then compare notes to find that they are in complete disagreement about the shape of the elephant. The analogy, which is with religion, argues that only by putting together the experiences of all the blind men (individual religions) will gain us an approximate understanding of the whole (truth). A similar viewpoint in the West can be found in the Allegory of the Cave. This is not to say that “anything goes.” Anthropologists, mystics, and religious scholars have noticed several commonalities that run throughout nearly all religions. Hinduism itself, despite its diversity, multiple schools, and multiple perspectives on theology, has some ideas found in every perspective, including karma, dharma, which is like the idea of natural law, and Brahman, the reality which lies at the basis of the universe.

Without getting too much into obscure discussions on metaphysics, it is Hinduism’s belief in polytheism (multiple gods) along with panentheism and monism, ideas that hold that the divine interpenetrates every part of the world that allows for an open, pluralistic, tolerant attitude towards religious pluralism. While a polytheistic understanding would see an analogy to how the gods operate in the multiple governments with separate spheres and  numerous ministers of humanity, a monistic understanding envisions a prism that breaks white light into its many constituent colors, each of which is an aspect of the whole. Either perspective embraces pluralism and allows multiple religious understandings to be reconciled, and even the concept of belief in a single God with multiple gods or angels or spirits.

All this matters because religious pluralism is a characteristic of the globalized 21st century, so these perspectives will help shape the international approach to religion more than simple monotheism and atheism. This is true both in philosophical terms, as well as from a utilitarian social perspective. Societies and individuals from different religious backgrounds increasingly mix and interact, so it becomes harder to publicly hold to the belief that only one’s religion is true or alternatively to contemptuously dismiss all religions. And no religion has to change its fundamental beliefs to acknowledge that the divine spirituality found in their faith is found in other faiths in a different manner.

India can lead the way in this new understanding at the global level, since this understanding is necessary to reconcile different viewpoints on the issue of religion. Indians of all faiths and non-religious Indians generally share an understanding of pluralism in the spiritual sphere that is quite different than the understanding found in countries like China or the United States. Whether or not true, religion is here to stay and will not be fading away anytime soon, though its form and organization may change. It is likely that just as religion, or ritual and belief in something metaphysical was around 10,000 years ago, something will be around 10,000 years from now. The tendencies to worship (whether a god or a celebrity in modern times), to create rituals, to attribute meaning to events, and to organize beliefs into systems are all deeply rooted in human nature, and could very likely be evolutionarily built into human psychology. Therefore, religion is a reality of the human experience, and one that needs to be approached with nuance and understanding. In this, the traditions and experience of India can lead the way.

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