We have allowed others, unfamiliar with or contemptuous of the truths discovered by millennia of yoga and sadhana, to think for us, speak for us, and ultimately to dictate to us.
Born in 1956 at Honfleur (France) into a Jewish family recently emigrated from Morocco, from the age of fifteen Michel Danino was drawn to India, some of her great yogis, and soon to Sri Aurobindo and Mother and their view of evolution which gives a new meaning to our existence on this earth. In 1977, dissatisfied after four years of higher scientific studies, he left France for India, where he has since been living. A writer of numerous books including the bestseller, The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, he is currently a member of ICHR and a visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. The Government of India awarded him the Padmashri (India's fourth highest civilian award) for his contribution towards Literature & Education.
For over twenty-five years, if I have studied something of Indian culture, it has not been in a bookish or theoretical manner: experience is what has always interested me—to live at least something of what sent so many in this land, like nowhere else on earth, in search of the truth of this universe and this human adventure. That something I slowly learned mainly from Sri Aurobindo, for although he came to be regarded as a philosopher and a thinker, he really was an experimenter before anything else.
If I have honestly warned you about my limitations, it is because I wish to examine with you a few important issues which, in India’s present intellectual climate, are usually regarded as “sensitive” or “controversial”—in other words, fit to be discreetly swept under the carpet. Yet I find that examining them turns out to be immensely profitable, provided we do so from the standpoint of Indian experience, not from dry philosophy or hollow Westernized intellectualism. Conversely, turning away from them or blindly accepting conventional ideas about them is, to my mind, the source of the most serious confusion. Long ago we were warned about this unmistakable sign of our dark age: in the Mahabharata, for example, Markandeya tells Yuddhisthira that in the Kali Yuga, “Men generally become addicted to falsehood in speech,” and “intellectual darkness will envelop the whole earth.” Yet we have done surprisingly little to dispel this darkness from our own minds to begin with. We have allowed others, unfamiliar with or contemptuous of the truths discovered by millennia of yoga and sadhana, to think for us, speak for us, and ultimately to dictate to us.
What are these issues, then? To discuss them—very briefly, of course—I have chosen a few convenient keywords ; they are : “God,” “religion,” “secularism,” and “tolerance.” Imposing words, no doubt, constantly thrown under our eyes and into our ears. Yet the one thing seldom mentioned about them is that they are Western notions, and correspond to no clear Indian concepts—hence the confusion they generate when mechanically applied to the Indian context. I will keep returning to this central point.
But does not the word “God” at least correspond to an Indian concept, you may ask? Apparently it does—but only apparently. We all know how Indians love to stress that “God is one” and “all religions have the same God.” We even find respectable swamis eager to get themselves photographed in front of St. Peter’s of Rome or in an audience with the Pope—although they do not realize that the same Pope would never care to visit a Hindu temple and offer worship there. We are also told that “all religions speak the same truth” or “are as many paths to the Truth,” and so on. Nice thoughts, full of goodwill, but unfortunately ignorant ones, and in fact slogans rather than thoughts. I agree that synthesis is desirable and essential in the search for truth, but painting the whole world with a single brush will not produce a synthesis, only a jumble. To reach a fruitful synthesis, we must learn again to make use of viveka, a laser-like spiritual discernment that extracts the truth but also the falsehood in each element. It is with good reason that viveka is the very first qualification required of a seeker, according to Sankaracharya.
The Semitic God
Our first task, therefore, is to examine the Western concept of God. By “Western,” I mean the god of the three Semitic or Abrahamic religions, Jehovah or Allah; I am not referring to more ancient Greek, Norse or Celtic gods since, as we know, the pre-Christian religions of Europe all but vanished under the onslaught of so-called monotheism (though some are now striving to revive).
The first thing that strikes the unbiased, discerning Indian reader of the Old Testament, especially the Exodus, in which Jehovah (or Yahweh) first introduces himself to Moses under that name, is his ungodlike character. Jehovah is admittedly jealous: the second of the Ten Commandments reads, “You shall have no other gods before me,” while the third explicitly forbids the making and worship of any idols, “for I am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers....” Jehovah does speak as often of punishment as he does of sin, and periodically goes into a state of “fierce anger,” promising the most complete devastation to the Hebrews who reject him. Not content with cursing his reluctant followers, he also curses nation after nation, and finally the earth itself, which he inexplicably holds responsible for man’s sins : “The Lord is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it, he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants” (Isaiah, 24 :1), or again, “The day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isaiah, 13 :9). In fact, he is so obsessed with sin that one looks in vain in his oppressive berating and legislating for any hint of a higher spirituality, such as the Gita’s final injunction to “abandon all dharmas.” Or contrast his “jealousy” with Sri Krishna’s insistence on spiritual freedom: “Whatever form of Me any devotee with faith desires to worship, I make that faith of his firm and undeviating” (7.21), or again: “Others ... worship Me in My oneness and in every separate being and in all My million universal faces” (9.15). But the god of the Bible and Koran will have none of this universality.
If Jehovah had stopped there, we might have found him to be simply a foul-tempered and libidinous god ; after all, some Puranic gods too have such defects, although they usually retain a sense of their limits and a compassion of which Jehovah is spotlessly guiltless. But he has a clear plan, he means business and knows that coercion alone can establish his rule: when the Hebrews over whom he is so keen to hold sway go back to their older worship of a “golden calf,” he orders through Moses that each of the faithful should “kill his brother and friend and neighbour” (Exodus 32 :27). Instructions which were promptly complied with, for we are informed that 3,000 were killed on that fateful day; to crown his punishment, Jehovah “struck the people with a plague.” I find it highly symbolic that Judaism was born in blood and fear, not out of love for its god. As Sri Aurobindo put it, “The Jew invented the God-fearing man; India the God-knower and God-lover." It probably took centuries for the old cults to disappear altogether, and a stream of prophets who sought to strike terror into the hearts of the Israelites. It was a radical, unprecedented departure from ancient world cultures. Naturally, it did not stop there and was to find more fertile soils in Christianity and Islam : earlier, Jehovah was content with being the god of the Hebrews alone, but in the new creeds, his ambition now extended to the whole earth.
Increasingly aware of this cruel, irritable, egocentric and exclusivist character of Jehovah, many Western thinkers, especially from the eighteenth century onward, rejected his claim to be the supreme and only god. Voltaire, one of the first to ruthlessly expose the countless inconsistencies in the Bible, could hardly disguise how it filled him with “horror and indignation at every page.” In particular, he found the plethora of laws dictated by Jehovah “barbaric and ridiculous.” Jefferson depicted him as “cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust,” while Thomas Paine found the Bible more like “the work of a demon than the word of God.” With the growth of materialistic science, in particular Darwinian evolution, such views, which were revolutionary at the time of a Voltaire, became widespread in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bernard Shaw, for example, describes the Biblical god as “a thundering, earthquaking, famine striking, pestilence launching, blinding, deafening, killing, destructively omnipotent Bogey Man....” Freud, seeing in Jehovah an all-too-human creation, subjected him to psychoanalysis—a dream of a subject for a psychoanalyst. Aldous Huxley called the Old Testament “a treasure house of barbarous stupidity [full of] justifications for every crime and folly.” Huxley traced the “wholesale massacres” perpetrated by Christianity to Jehovah’s “wrathful, jealous, vindictive” character, just as he attributed “the wholesale slaughter of Buddhists and Hindus” by invading Muslims to their devotion for a “despotic person.” Because a few—not all—intellectuals had the courage to state the obvious, the power of Christianity was greatly reduced in the West. Yet I have always marvelled that Indians should learn about Christianity neither from their own inquiry nor from those bold Western thinkers, but from the very zealots who are no longer heard in the West.
But is that all there is to the Semitic god? Are we simply faced with a man-made demon or the product of some fevered brain? If you look at Jehovah in the light of Indian experience, it is striking how he has all the characteristics of an Asura. Recall for a moment a being such as Hiranyakashipu: Had he not, too, forbidden all other cults? Did he not order that he alone should be worshipped as the supreme god? Did he not use fear and violence to coerce Prahlad? That he was stopped by a divine manifestation, like many other Asuras eager to possess this world, is another story : the point is that we find here the same seed of pride and cruelty as in a Jehovah, and without a Prahlad and a Lord Narasimha, an exclusivist and cruel religion might well have taken root on Indian soil.
Now, to pinpoint Jehovah’s identity we must remember that he himself acknowledges “Yahweh” to be a name new to the Hebrews: “By that name I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus, 6 :3). He does not say what his earlier name was, but the early Christian Gnostic tradition, which was brutally suppressed by the growing orthodox school, provides us with an answer—or rather two. In the Gnostic Gospels which survived centuries of persecution (most of which were found at Nag-Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945), Jehovah is named either Samael, which means “the god of the blind,” or Ialdabaoth, “the son of chaos.” Thus one of those texts contains this revealing passage:
Ialdabaoth, becoming arrogant in spirit, boasted himself over all those who were below him, and explained, “I am father, and God, and above me there is no one.” His mother, hearing him speak thus, cried out against him, “Do not lie, Ialdabaoth ; for the father of all, the primal anthropos, is above you.”
This not only shows that Jehovah was not the supreme god, but also that he had a mother! For the Gnostics, like the Indians, refused to depict God as only male; God had to be equally female—and ultimately everything. Another text, in the Secret Book of John, points out pertinently, “By announcing [that he is a jealous God] he indicated that another God does exist; for if there were no other one, of whom would he be jealous ?” In fact, Jehovah is viewed in the Gnostic Gospels as no more than a demiurge or a subordinate deity—exactly what Devas and Asuras are in Indian tradition.
The French novelist Anatole France, who made use of the apocryphal Gospels in his perceptive novel The Revolt of the Angels, has one of the rebellious angels depict Jehovah thus:
I no longer think he is the one and only God ; for a long time he himself did not believe so : he was a polytheist at first. Later on, his pride and the flattery of his worshippers turned him into a monotheist.... And in fact, rather than a god he is a vain and ignorant demiurge. Those who, like me, know his true nature, call him “Ialdabaoth”.... Having seized a minuscule fragment of the universe, he has sown in it pain and death.
Now contrast this Semitic notion of God as a tyrannical ruler wholly separate from his creation, with the Indian notion of an all-encompassing, all-pervasive, all-loving divine essence. In the language of the Upanishads: “He is the secret Self in all existences.... Eternal, pervading, in all things and impalpable, that which is Imperishable ... the Truth of things.... All this is Brahman alone, all this magnificent universe.” If Jehovah represents a radical departure from ancient worships, it is because he is “wholly other,” as Huxley puts it. Because of the unbridgeable gulf between him and his creation, no Christian would dare declare, “I am Jehovah” or “I am Christ,” no Muslim would dream of saying, “I am Allah.” But to the Hindu, so’ham asmi, “He I am,” or tat tvam asi, “You are That,” is the most natural thing in the world. Again, can Christian parents christen their son “Jehovah” or Muslim parents name theirs “Allah” in the way a Hindu child can be called “Purushottam,” “Parameswar” or “Maheswari”?
Clearly, if we use a single word, “God,” for such conflicting concepts as the Semitic and the Indian, we land ourselves in total confusion. “God is one,” perhaps, in the Vedantic sense that all is ultimately one, because all is ultimately divine, and yet Hindu inquiry always discerned a whole hierarchy of beings, not all equally true or luminous : a rakshasa, for instance, cannot be equated with a Sri Krishna. Some may object to calling the Biblical or Koranic god an Asura, but I use the word in the deeper sense of a mighty god who comes to his fall owing to ambition or pride ; moreover, the Indian approach has always claimed absolute freedom to inquire into every aspect of divinity, from the most personal to the most transcendent: if the Semitic god has the attributes of an Asura and not those of the supreme Reality, why should we look away from that essential difference? And if a Christian or a Muslim scholar can examine Hindu gods in the light of his religion, and often deride them, or worse as we still see today, why could not a Hindu similarly look at their god in his own light and come up with his own assessment?
A more intelligent objection might be that in later Jewish mysticism (especially the Kabala), and in Christian or Islamic mysticism, we do find seekers going far beyond this loud-mouthed self-declared god. That is certainly true, but they did so despite, not thanks to, the Semitic god, because their own nature or spiritual thirst led them beyond to a truer experience. For that very reason they often had a brush with “heresy,” and most were ruthlessly suppressed, the Gnostic Christians to begin with, whose writings were “madness and blasphemy,”. for they had no use of dogmas and insisted on self-knowledge and the inner discovery : “Look for God by taking yourself as a starting point,” said Monoimus, “if you carefully investigate ... you will find him in yourself.” Even a Meister Eckhart, whose teaching is so akin to Vedanta, was hounded by the Inquisition. The fact remains, at any rate, that those deeper mystics always were a very small number, and that masses of Europe and her Christianized colonies remained stuck with the cruder notion, their progress slowed down or arrested for centuries.
I am not going here into the more complex question of Jesus, as he is portrayed in the New Testament, except for a brief observation or two. A Hindu would probably have no problem with him as a teacher or even an Avatar, were it not again for his exclusiveness which puts a fatal limit to himself and to God’s power to manifest—for why should God have an only child (a male one, of course) rather than ten or thousands ? Why should he send us only one saviour, and to be saved from what ? God creates us, creates sin and ignorance the better to curse us, sends us one and only one redeemer, and warns us that we shall be tortured for ever if we do not accept him! Such crude notions are offensive to any deeper understanding. Also, the language of Jesus, though not so much as that of Jehovah, makes liberal use of threat and arrogance: “Fear him who, after killing the body, has power to throw you into hell.... Unless you repent, you too will all perish.... For judgment I have come into this world.... All who came before me were thieves and robbers.... No one comes to the Father except through me.” How far we are from the Vedic concept of the whole universe as one family, vasudhaiva kutumbakam.
Thus the first and central object of our inquiry, God, tells us that we have surrendered to facile assimilations. We must reject the use of a single word to describe two wholly different concepts. Sri Aurobindo did not fall into this all-too-common trap, and summarized the whole issue in these words:
The conception of the Divine as an external omnipotent Power who has “created” the world and governs it like an absolute and arbitrary monarch—the Christian or Semitic conception—has never been mine ; it contradicts too much my seeing and experience during thirty years of sadhana. It is against this conception that the atheistic objection is aimed—for atheism in Europe has been a shallow and rather childish reaction against a shallow and childish exoteric religionism and its popular inadequate and crudely dogmatic notions.
Religion and Dharma
This takes us to the concept of religion, and here again we have to confront the clumping together of a wide array of dissimilar faiths, creeds and practices under a single term. True, it may be said that all religions are concerned in some way with a supernatural being or creator, but that is not enough, since there is a fundamental disagreement on the said being. Moreover, a number of important differences between the Semitic family of religions and the older faiths cannot be ignored. The most visible distinctions, for instance the complete absence in Hinduism of dogmas, of an absolute authority in the form of an only Scripture or a supreme clergy, or also the belief in reincarnation, have been stressed often enough, and rightly so. But there are radical differences of a more serious nature.
To begin with, the Indian and the Pagan approaches never made a distinction between the “faithful” and the “infidels,” the former to be saved in a single life and the latter to be “eternally barbecued,” as Swami Vivekananda once put it ; humanity was never divided into two irreconcilable camps, or reconcilable only through mass slaughter or mass conversion. Indeed, in the Hindu view, the only thing one may ever be “converted” to is one’s own concealed divinity, and that can only be done through a long and sincere inner effort, not through unquestioning adherence to cruel dogmas. By contrast, a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim can see no hope for a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Parsi or, say, an “animist” Red Indian ; today he may no longer openly spew venom on them (though sometimes he still does), but a close look at his utterances will show that this fatal division is central to his mentality. It is not only humanity that is divided in the Semitic religions, God is also separate from his creation and in particular from man, and by giving man one only Son or one last prophet, one Scripture—“only one book in all these ages,” as Sri Aurobindo remarked—God has in effect ended his communication with man for all time to come. In the Indian view, the Divine is you and me, the bird outside and the wide ocean ; he or she or it is boundless, endless, and cannot be limited to any Book or manifestation or dogma. No Rishi or yogi ever declared his word to be final, or that one could reach salvation only through him ; peddling in tickets to heaven was something alien to ancient India, as was bribing the gatekeeper with a “confession of faith.” There was no easy shortcut on the arduous path to self-discovery.
If one objects that these differences, however deep, are after all only theoretical, or perhaps theological, then we must point out that centuries of bloodshed, holy wars, jihad, plunder, Inquisition and persecution are ample proof that to the followers of Christianity and Islam, the division between the faithful and the infidels was no abstraction. If they indulged in such a barbaric behaviour over such a vast area and such a length of time, it is not because they were intrinsically bad, but because they followed the injunctions of their respective Scriptures and religious instructors. If the Hindu and Buddhist cultures never once tried to conquer other civilizations by force, never persecuted anyone for his beliefs, never waged religious wars, it is not because Indians were intrinsically good, but because their culture never taught them those aberrations, and on the contrary insisted on a complete spiritual freedom to choose or even create one’s own path.
It is only the most superficial and hasty view that can equate such radically diverging phenomena. I used the word “culture” to describe Hinduism and Buddhism, because I cannot bring myself to use the word “religion” in their context : if the three Semitic faiths are religions, then Hinduism cannot be one ; or else call the former dogmatic or exclusivist creeds, not religions. Words should have some clear meaning, as long as we have to use them. Religion is a Western concept ; the Indian concept is neither religion nor even Hinduism or any “ism”—it is sanatana dharma, the eternal law of the universe, which cannot be formulated in any rigid and final set of tenets, because it must be discovered in life and through an inner quest. Still, we may say that pluralism, synthesis, universality, oneness are some of its central pillars, and go on to note that none of these essential values is to be found in the Abrahamic worldview.
I do not mean to denigrate Semitic religions in any way. If any of their followers is happy with his faith and finds it helps him, all to the good. But bringing everything down to a single plane is a distortion and a running away from the truth of things. Recently, the Vatican proclaimed itself forcefully against the idea of “equality of religions.” If Christianity can thus insist on belonging to a separate plane, why could not Hinduism do the same ? And indeed, the ancient Indian culture is not on the same plane as the religions that flowed from the Bible, neither in theory nor in life. There are no doubt a few truths in common here and there, and it is good to note them ; there are also in the Bible (especially the New Testament) considerable borrowings from India, and it is good to be aware of them. But one must also have the courage to see where the two worldviews diverge, and to go to the root of the divergence. Only then can one begin to grasp some of the deeper forces at work in human history.
* The late Ram Swarup’s penetrating analysis of Christianity and Islam from a Hindu perspective (see References) has inspired many in India and beyond. I am indebted to his study in the above discussion on God.