The slogan of all religions being equal is a gross misrepresentation as their inherent aspirations differ greatly.
Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.
The slogan "Sarva dharma samabhava", or "equal respect for all religions" is not a part of Hindu tradition, it is a recent creation of Mahatma Gandhi. One may of course argue that it is in the spirit of Hindu tradition. But that is precisely the question: does "equal respect for all religions" really sum up traditional Hindu secularism?
We need not go into the exact meaning of the word dharma here. The Mahatma wrote and thought largely in English, and the original phrase is the English one, so dharma merely figures as a translation of religion. What he meant, was in effect: equal respect for Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
Now, some people take this to mean that all religions are equally true. It seems the Mahatma himself has on several occasions put it like that. Latter-day cults like the Baha'i and the Ramakrishna Mission in its new non-Hindu colours, declare that all Prophets, as well as their messages and Scriptures, are "equally true". Of course, this is rank nonsense.
The utterances of prophets are just as much statements on which logical operations are possible, as anyone else's statements. Of course, where they use metaphors and other figures of speech, that special type of language has to be taken into account, just as when non- prophets use such language. but effectively, even prophets' statements can be true and untrue, and if that is too hard to swallow, let us at least agree that two prophetic statements can be in conflict, or logically irreconcilable.
When Krishna says that it is always He who is the object of devotion, no matter what the form of the mental and physical focus of worship may be (such as gods and idols), he is in logical conflict with Mohammed who declares that Allah does not tolerate other gods beside Himself and wants idols to be destroyed. These two cannot be true at the same time. Either these many forms are fit for worship, or they are not.
Now, one might try to be clever and say that at some higher logical level, a synthesis of two opposites is possible. Alright: God's unity and God's multiplicity through many forms are indeed compatible, are two ways of looking at the same thing. But the point in exclusivist doctrines is precisely that this synthesis is rejected. Only one viewpoint takes you to heaven, all the others, and especially syncretistic attempts to associate idolatrous viewpoints with the strict monotheist viewpoint, lead straight to hell.
When two prophets give an opposite opinion on the same question, one can still say that both were not really talking about the same thing, because the cultural circumstances were different. Thus, some founders taught non-violence and non-killing, including strict vegetarianism, while others exhorted their followers to kill and gave the example themselves, and sanctioned animal sacrifices. But then, what is prophethood if it is so determined by cultural circumstances? If the one and eternal God had one plan for humanity and wanted to teach it his one religion, why is He sending a Mahavira teaching absolute non-violence to one place and a Mohammed teaching war to another place? It seems there is something wrong with the notion of prophet as an agent sent by the one God.
One may distort history and say that the Indians to whom Mahavira preached were less warlike than the Arabs to whom Mohammed preached. This does injustice to both peoples, but mostly to the Pagan Arabs, who were far more humane in their warfare than the Prophet; but let us now suppose it is true. Then what was the point of God sending prophets, if He just gave the different peoples what they already had? He sent the Prophets precisely to change things. So, if He could, through Mohammed, make the Arabs give up idolatry, totally alter the position of women, and other such drastic changes, why didn't He also order them to become vegetarians as He had done to the Indians long before via Mahavira?
The answer is that Mahavira wasn't God's spokesman. His insight was human, and he never pretended more than that. Anyone can see for himself that getting killed is an occasion of suffering, so it is something one should not inflict on other sentient beings: that is how non-violence can be thought up without needing God's intervention. And the state of Liberation or Enlightenment which Upanishadic teachers taught, was always presented as a state which everyone can achieve, not as something which God has exclusively given to this or that chosen prophet.
The truth is universal, and to the extent that religions hold up this universal truth, they can be said to be true. But what constitutes the difference between religions, is mostly the way and degree of putting other things than the universal truth in the centre. Some religions take the natural aspiration for truth in their followers, and then channel it towards peculiar and exclusivistic doctrines that have little in common with the universal truth.
Let us drop this pipe-dream that all religions are equally true. We may say that the spiritual aspirations in human beings, regardless of the culture they happen to be born into, are equally true. But the belief systems that feed on this basic human urge for universal truth, often by mis-educating and misdirecting man towards non- universalist beliefs, cannot at all be said to be equally true.
It should be clear that "Sarva dharma samabhava", if interpreted as "equal truth of all religions" oversteps the limits of secularism as a doctrine of the state, unconcerned with the internal affairs of religion: it is a far-reaching statement about the nature of religion itself. It is moreover an untenable statement. It is, on top of that, at least in most of its formulations, far from religiously neutral: it rejects the Hindu humanist conception of religious teachings (as being products of the universal human consciousness), and espouses the Islamic prophetic conception of religious teachings (as being God-given messages). Finally, it discourages critical thought about religion, and is thus opposed to the scientific temper. So, this doctrine of the "equal truth of all religions" is not really helping anyone. We better discard it.
Both the line taken by the Communists, that all religions are equally untrue and deserve equal disrespect, and the line taken by the sentimentalists, that all religions are equally worthy of respect because equally true, do injustice to the fundamentally human character of religious culture. The human intention behind a given religious practice is worthy of respect. But the belief systems and concomitant moral codes are open to criticism, like any human construction, and some of them may be discarded, even while others may stand the test of experience and remain sanatana, forever. So, there is no apriori equality between religions. It is a different matter that people believing in superstitious doctrines still deserve equal respect with the people whose insight is more advanced. In that sense there should of course be "equal respect for all religions".
To conclude this reflection on the "equality of all religions", let us mention the view that secularism is really a synthesis of all religions. Secularist Mahesh Jethmalani agrees with the BJP view that a common civil code for members of all religious communities in India is a legitimate demand of secularism, but he agrees on the basis of an unusual interpretation of the term: "The [uniform civil code] is in keeping with the needs of a modern Republic. It is devoid of Hindu ritualism and is rational in the extreme. It is religiously neutral, in that it calls upon the Hindu as much as the Muslim to eschew traditional ways of life in the interests of a new 'national religion' which synthesizes the best from all the religions in the land."
It goes without saying that our secularist's bias is showing. On top of his explicit exclusives against Hindu ritualism, there is his stress on synthesis, which very word is enough to enchant a Hindu, but incapable of arousing a Muslim's interest. This synthesis of the best of all religions is a make-believe, which is held up to fool Hindus, but which the members of a number of religions will scornfully reject, because it would go against the exclusive claims which constitute the basic identity of their religions.
Moreover, our secularist's utter superficiality and non- comprehension of religion is showing. As Mahatma Gandhi understood well enough, in spite of his prayer-sessions with readings from different Scriptures, one religion (in his case Hinduism) is quite sufficient to guide an individual all through life. A "combination of religions" is as nonsensical as two suns shining in the sky. What is possible is one broad-minded religion which can assimilate new forms: one Sanatana Dharma which is intrinsically pluralist, and can appreciate new accents (as on brotherhood and social service) proposed by other religions. But a synthesis of the doctrines that everyone makes his own Liberation through yoga, that Jesus has brought Salvation once and for all, and that you get a ticket to Heaven by affirming that Mohammed is the final Prophet, is simply nonsense.
Synthesis implies the rejection of the rejection of synthesis. So it means the rejection of the exclusivist claims of Islam and Christianity. I agree with our secularist that synthesis and a "new national religion" are the solution. That "national religion" is age-old, it is Sanatana Dharma. But this Dharma is sanat kumar, eternally young, so it is indeed new, especially to those who are under the spell of secularism and have blacked out from their consciousness this age-old heritage.
The most surprising thing about Mahesh Jethmalani's secularism, is that it is quite the opposite of a separation of state and religion: it has the ambition of creating and promoting a religion through state arrangements like the common civil code. In my secularist homeland, we have a uniform civil code, but no one there is fantastic enough to see it as a stratagem in a larger project of floating a new religion. In fact, we think it is none of the state's business to create, destroy, promote, discourage, or indeed to synthesize a religion. We think it is none of the state's business to "call upon [members of the different religions] to eschew traditional ways of life": those ways that are in conflict with the law, are simply forbidden, and all others, traditional or not, are simply left to the people's own choice. The secular state is not making any call to eschew any ways of life whatsoever.
A truly secular state is by definition not a despotic state. It does not choose or devise or synthesize a religion for you. It is a self-restrained state. That is why the Nehruvian socialist doctrine of a hungry state, with state initiative and state guidance, has naturally combined with a perverted and despotic kind of secularism.
1. An example of a human, culturally determined belief in Mahavira's teachings, is the belief in generatio spontanea, the belief that if you have the right environment for a certain species to live in, then automatically that species will come into being there. it is not central to his teachings at all, it is mentioned somewhere for the sake of comparison, and being a culturally determined misconception, it may just as well be discarded without anyhow affecting the Jain path to Liberation. But if it had been construed as God- given, there would be a theological problem.
2. Sunday, 4/11/1990.
3. When Mahatma Gandhi said :"I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a Sikh", one of the Muslim leaders aptly commented : "Well, that is a typically Hindu thing to say." And we may add that it is an absolutely un-Islamic thing to say.
4. The recent reproach by Christians that other societies have not cared for social work, can be answered by Chuang-tse's parable: when the pond has dried up, the fish spew water on eachother, trying to stay wet ; but when they are swimming they forget about eachother. Traditional societies had better social security than what the missionaries, whose arrival together with colonialism marked the break-up of traditional culture, can make up for with all their charity.