Indic paths have always welcomed dialogue but the expansionist designs of other faiths have consistently created roadblocks.
Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at:
**Disclaimer: Neither this piece, nor its author feigns possession of any insight whatsoever into the realm of the mystic, where constructs such as nāma (names), rūpa (forms) and mātrā (degree/quality) reportedly do not matter. It is only in that mystical dimension that such markers of the mundane world are rendered invalid, whereas elsewhere they wield enormous influence on the jīva, the transient shell of the eternal Atman. Their myriad manifestations overwhelm the (common) senses of the jīva more often than not, and the present exercise seeks to disentangle only a few threads of that overwhelming intellectual jungle. Its domain is the manomaya and the vijñānamaya koṣa-s, made of the mind-matter, where the incessant flow of thoughts (known as citta) and discrimination (or viveka) hold sway, respectively. It makes no attempt to approach the ānandamaya, the koṣa nearest to the state called turīya where the mystic dwells. Without pretence, it scratches only the surface of human consciousness, and reflects on things which affect that layer in the most devastating manner. Therefore, this piece must be read with the prior knowledge that its subject pertains to the world of names and forms, where things and beings often differ in degree as well as in quality; yes, this must be agreed upon at the outset to facilitate any form of fruitful engagement. Ipso facto, no charge of criticism should be levied upon this unassuming piece by randomly quoting such profound lines as “Jawto mawt tawto pawth” (translated as: there are as many (valid) paths as there are inclinations – often interpreted, perhaps wrongly, as “all paths lead to the same God/Reality” – and often confused with the Vedic dictum “ekaṁ sadviprā bahudhā vadanti”). Such acts will have done grave injustice to both Sri Ramakrishna, the King of Mystics and the utterer of that famous Bengali quotation, as well as the present essay. We should leave the mystics out of our mundane (known as laukika, śuṣka) scholarly discourses, for they speak in a language we (śuṣka) pundits have hardly any access to.
With such an understanding in mind that the triad consisting of (i) the venerable reader, (ii) the copyright-brandishing author (who is, notwithstanding the Frenchman and part-time philosopher Rolland Barthes’ wild claims, not dead – in fact he is very much alive and kicking by Sri Krishna’s Grace) and (iii) the following piece are bound together by the above agreement, we may proceed to engage with the following words.
Interfaith dialogues are aimed at achieving peaceful coexistence of individuals and communities practicing (or born into) different faiths, at least in theory. These are meant to be an exchange of ideas, generally through an open and civilised conversation, between practitioners and suitable representatives of two or more faith systems with the goal of arriving at points of mutual agreement, as well as finding the major areas of difference (if not contention) so as to coexist without confrontation. The first instance of such a thing in the modern world was perhaps the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1893. There are, of course, instances of staging pretentious, insincere and highly deceptive interfaith assemblies whose sole aim is to sell the agenda of the liberal left, or worse, to establish the supremacy of a single faith. In fact, Swami Vivekananda, who was a delegate to the 1893 parliament, had expressed his doubts regarding the ulterior motive of its organisers. He said this in his reply to the address of welcome (on his return from a four-year long stay in the West during 1893-1897) presented at Calcutta:
“The Parliament of Religions was a great affair, no doubt. From various cities of this land, we have thanked the gentlemen who organised the meeting, and they deserved all our thanks for the kindness that has been shown to us; but yet allow me to construe for you the history of the Parliament of Religions. They wanted a horse, and they wanted to ride it. There were people there who wanted to make it a heathen show, but it was ordained otherwise; it could not help being so.”
If we ignore these unfortunate instances for the moment, we may talk about the possibility of making a genuine effort to establish meaningful communication between two or more systems. The question can be framed as: how probable is it to have a fruitful interfaith dialogue between the practitioners of the Sanatana Dharmic tradition and those of the major non-Indic religions? It may sound rude or even offensive, to some, to state that theoretically there is zero possibility of holding an interfaith dialogue, with an aim to establish harmonious coexistence, with specifically those faiths which designate an outsider as a kafir/infidel/heathen/gentile. Disbelieving in the idea of divinity as it has been taught by a particular prophet/saviour/messiah results in marking such disbelievers as kafirs/infidels/heathens by the followers of those prophets/saviours/messiahs. This very framework of "othering" is based on contempt, distrust and ill-feeling. It breeds an unhealthy competition for establishing supremacy in terms of number, a tendency which soon transforms into an obsession with following as well as hatred for those who disagree. The obsession with bringing more followers into one's own fold – more than some other creed has been able to accommodate – turns into the so called ‘holy wars’ (there's hardly anything holy about them) in no time. Those unwilling to comply with the demands of the numerical supremacists of a particular faith inevitably draw the ire of these supremacists themselves, and the ‘holy war’ is invariably waged on the non-compliant individuals and/or communities. The entire community of followers of the great bhakta Guru Nanak, and its equally great leaders stand testimony to this bloody fact in the Indian historical context. The funny part is that the most vicious of these so-called "holy wars" have been fought, throughout history, between such faith-based communities who proclaim their access to ‘The Truth’ by tracing the same lineage or even by laying claim on parts of the same ‘holy book’. But then, the sheer magnitude of the tragedy and calamity that befell the victims on either side of those wars render it not so funny, after all.
Such ‘holy wars’ are being waged even in this day and age – albeit after having made the necessary adjustments to the ancient rules of the game – in fact after bringing in a sea change in the tactics of such warfare. Pretence of innocence and victimhood (by virtue of being religious/ethnic minorities), academic and bureaucratic tools like subaltern studies, atrocity literature and human rights watch, and a plethora of other ingenious, insidious strategies have been put in place by those who wish to win the number game. These faith-leaders talk about saving the souls of millions, when they have in reality sold their own souls to the proverbial devil, they claim their power to have been derived from the strength of the spirit, while they destroy the same in others – deluding them by greed and material prosperity in exchange of their allegiance to a 'God' who they can neither understand intuitively nor experience first-hand. Simply because it's impossible to do so. It is impossible on at least two counts, if not more. The first is ontological: the God that counts the number of his following, much like a zealous teenager who is lost in the virtual world of social networking would do, and even gets vengeful after losing some of His followers, must be a terribly immature God indeed. Now, the concept of God – even when it is conceived by those who see humans residing outside of their faith as kafirs/heathens – is an Idea where any conceivable attribute exists only in the superlative degree. The idea of God is, by definition, the Idea Absolute – nihil ultra – there’s nothing beyond God. Also, according to these faiths, two of the unmistakable attributes of God are, as delineated by Thomas Aquinas, perfection and goodness.
Hence it follows that God must be Goodness Absolute, as well as Absolutely Perfect. How can God then behave like an immature zealous child who is easily upset and irked? Ergo, it follows from the previous discussion that the idea of God as conceived in these faiths is a highly contradictory one, leaving the idea to remain an ontological conundrum – in other words, it remains an unsolved paradox. Under such circumstances, one cannot possibly understand, let alone directly experience, something that has not yet been adequately resolved. The second objection is ethical: the very notion of supremacism based on numerical figures is inferior to the supremacy on account of profundity of understanding that leads to a first-hand experience of Divinity. How can a level-headed individual entertain a call made by any faith-leader/mystic (or their minions) to undertake a spiritual journey, along a particular path, unless they can empirically, or at least intuitively, demonstrate (to the individual in question) their ability to establish some sort of communication with the source of their alleged spiritual power? There is absolutely no ethical ground for any of them to claim authority over spiritual matters unless they can resolve doubt – which is natural, and is fondly accommodated by Dharma within itself – without leaving any trace of it behind the sceptical initiate. An individual’s spiritual journey can never begin by appealing to their baser instincts. This is exactly what Sri Krishna tells Arjuna, at the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita: yoga (i.e. spiritual connection, not merely the physical acrobatics) is nothing but sannyāsa (or detachment). Such connections of the spirit, such communication between the conscious and the super-conscious cannot be established, without first resolving all doubts concerning mind, body, and all things that interact upon these two. The God who doesn’t entertain man’s doubts has no moral right to command allegiance of man. The very suggestion of doing so, that too in God’s name, is morally repugnant, and ethically untenable. It beats the very purpose of spearheading a spiritual movement: a creed or religion has no validity unless there is within it a foolproof framework for nurturing righteous values for humans – values that will enable them to help themselves, empower them from within; and not leave them to perpetually look for help from without, weakening their morale, their doubts unresolved, their queries unattended.
Dharma, as is increasingly – and quite correctly – being understood by a rising tide of Indics (by which term we indicate the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Buddhists, and the Jains) and Indic activists, is righteous conduct rather than creed/faith/religion. Translating Dharma as religion is the most disastrous instance of mistranslation. It is done by the uninformed and the dishonest, both producing the same misleading effect upon the reader. The entire ‘official’ academic machinery in this country, starting from the highest echelons of the university down to the most elementary levels of preliminary education, is hell bent on upholding this awful lie and propagating it far and wide. Its evil pursuit is buttressed and further reinforced by the various structures of bureaucracy – its foster child – to produce an illusion which has deluded billions of successive generations in India and elsewhere. This illusion helps sustain the entire façade of lies built by the deceitful scholarship of Marxist social scientists, working in cahoots with women’s studies departments, third wave radical feminist activist-scholars/poets/writers/singers/actors/CEO-s. Therefore, before this superstructure of falsehood built around Indic history and knowledge can be undone, we must ensure a sound understanding of Dharma in the minds of, first, Indics, and afterwards, of everyone else. Younger and elder cohorts of Indics must first understand how Dharma differs from the idea of religion, radically and completely. In Dharma there is only the Self, and hence, there is no “other” in the worldview of Dharma; whereas a religion is defined by first dissociating a group of chosen people from all others, and then elevating them higher up in terms of social status, rights and freedom. In religion, this special group of people are chosen on the basis of their allegiance to a set of commandments as laid down in one or several books. There is no question of allegiance to a book or its commandments in the case of Dharma.
Dharma is as eternal as life itself, it is that which, when undermined, threatens existence itself. It is Dharma that reveals the sacred books, not the other way round. Since all of existence is one in essence, as is taught in several Dharmic traditions, there is no reason why an individual or a community shall not be given as many chances as they require to get assimilated in the large body of one Dharmic community or the other. This is why adherents of Dharma – individuals and communities whom we can designate as Dharmic – have historically not indulged in indiscriminate “othering” even when they encountered those who are notably and drastically “other”. Such encounters have occurred way too often – perhaps more often than what any other community anywhere in the world or at any point in time in history had to endure. The Dharma adherents, rather than distancing themselves from the “other”, have created an ever-increasing number of pathways for the “other” to enter its fold and become an integral part of the “Self”. And all this without coercion, without violence, without spilling a single drop of human blood. It should also be highlighted that no dogma has ever been placed before the “other” for him to swear by at the gate of the Dharmic community. Opening the gates of the gigantic body of the Dharmic community has always been carried out with the awe-inspiring humility of inviting the ‘atithi’– the stranger who can knock on the door at any time, without prior notice – and not with the air of admitting a new member into an exclusive club, where only the members have the privileged access to, and a monopoly on, knowledge – and in turn on truth.
Here lies the crucial difference between Dharmic traditions and their adherents on one hand and the kafir/heathen-bashing religions on the other: Dharmic traditions are confident in proclaiming that Dharmic (or righteous) conduct will invariably lead any individual, irrespective of their birth, sex, intellectual or physical prowess, right to the Source, the Cause, in which alone all doubts and dualities are resolved – the best among them are even ready to demonstrate this fact; while non-Dharmics, the religionists continue to insist on faith, faith and only faith, which is a far cry from śraddhā: for how can there be anything that is qualified by the term ‘interfaith’ when only one side of it is defined by faith, while the other is not? Unless these fundamental realities of the two sides are appreciated, there can be no interfaith dialogue. The keyword here is appreciation – which asks for a good deal of effort at understanding – mere acknowledgement won’t do.