Constant bullying tactics and denigration from people that are scared of Hinduism's influence has made India's soft power not get the attention it deserves.
Maria Wirth is a German who came to India on a stopover (that’s at least what she thought) on her way to Australia after finishing her psychology studies at Hamburg University. She visited the Ardha Kumbha Mela in Haridwar in April 1980 where she met Sri Anandamayi Ma and Devaraha Baba. She dived into India’s spiritual traditions, sharing her insights with German readers through her articles and books. For long, she was convinced that every Indian knows and treasures his great heritage. However, when in recent years, she noticed that there seemed to be a concerted effort to prevent even Indians (and the world) from knowing how valuable this ancient Indian heritage is, she started to point out the unique value of Indian tradition also in the English language. She is also the author of the book “Thank you India – a German woman’s journey to the wisdom of yoga”.
Recently, there was a conference in Delhi on the many different aspects of India’s amazing soft power – like cuisine, Ayurveda, crafts, languages, dance and many more. Spirituality is in all likelihood India’s most important soft power because it gives answers to the basic questions of human beings regarding the meaning of life, and most importantly, who we essentially are. India’s Advaita Vedanta is probably the most logical description of spirituality: in absolute truth, our universe, including our persons, is consciousness or spirit (Brahman, Sat-chit-ananda). The physical ‘reality’ is an appearance on that invisible spirit. It is more like a mirage appearing in the desert, while in truth there is nothing but desert sand (Brahman, spirit).
The truth that we all are essentially the same invisible spirit was discovered by the Rishis in India. This knowledge is of immense value. It naturally resonates with anyone who is open-minded and wants to know the truth. The rishis also made it clear that we can realize what we are because we ARE it.
Yet this knowledge is also the reason why India is so much opposed. News about India in mainstream media is mainly negative. Why? Because the West and particularly the Church don’t want people to get interested in India. If someone is interested and becomes familiar with India’s wisdom, he is likely to lose faith in dogmatic religions, because Sanatana or Hindu Dharma makes sense – and the Church loses its hold.
The Church had this experience already 200 to 300 years ago when the Vedas first reached Europe because the intellectual elite there were highly impressed. The Church realized that the spread of Indian thought would threaten its influence, and a strategy was put in place to demean India’s tradition, which was now called Hinduism and unfairly associated with an ‘oppressive caste system’ and ’idol worship’. There is a clear attempt that this knowledge, which originated in India, does not become common knowledge, and that aspects of this knowledge, which have been taken over by the west, are no longer associated with India.
For example in the 1970s, the new age movement was very much related to India. Even in 1982, at a conference in Mumbai about ancient wisdom and modern science, which was organized by the International Transpersonal Association, it was openly acknowledged that the conference was held in India, because India’s wisdom (the concept of Atman) is the consistent background for the new findings of unity underlying the diversity.
At that time, I was very happy thinking that, since now science validates Indian wisdom, the knowledge of all of us being connected surely will sicker down to the common man.
I was wrong. Today, almost 40 years later, India has been completely cut out in Wikipedia’s entry on transpersonal psychology. New age, too, has been disconnected from India. It is revealing how Wikipedia’s piece on transpersonal psychology ends:
“…transpersonal psychology has been criticized by some Christian authors as being a mishmash of New Age ideas that offer an alternative faith system to vulnerable youths who turn their backs on organized religion.”
Those Christian authors are not interested to find out if there is indeed a transpersonal dimension to our existence, but fear that even more youth could leave the Church if they come to know about it.
Here is where India needs to come in strongly and make its presence felt. Truth needs to come back into the discourse. Indian wisdom points to a verifiable, scientific truth which can be experienced in one’s life. The dogmatic religions, on the other hand, make unverifiable, unsubstantiated claims about truth which will be allegedly experienced after one is dead. It needs also to be mentioned that Christianity and Islam got billions of followers mainly by bullying people into believing, and once inside the faith, not allowing them out for many centuries. Ever since Christianity allows people to leave the Church, there is a steady exodus. That means that the respectability of a religion, which is defined as “a belief that is held strongly by many people” is not deserved if its “many people” were bullied and threatened with dire consequences if they don’t accept it.
To bring ‘spirituality’ back on track, India should own and promote some aspects, which are already catching up in the west because they make sense.
One issue is, for example, the view that Divinity is within. If all is interconnected and ultimately one, THAT which is the cause for all must be the essence in all. Ayam Atma Brahma, says the Upanishad. This view does not fit into the doctrine of Christianity and Islam, but many Westerners have already adopted it. If India promoted this knowledge in a big way, the doctrines of the exclusivist religions would be put into a proper (never mind if not so favourable) perspective. There could be unconventional means, too. For example, I saw recently a boy wearing a TV shirt with “God is inside you” written on it.
Another issue is vegetarianism which is connected to the first point. Do we have the right to brutally slaughter billions of animals, which have emotions and feel pain, only because we like the taste or because the Old Testament allows it? There is already a debate in the west and vegetarianism is growing. A German environment minister even banned meat at official functions of her ministry. India is the natural leader to promote veg food and to ban especially beef. Everyone knows that Indians revere cows. It is often made fun of. If India owned the stand of her rishis – even if not for compassion, but purely for ecological reasons – it would be a game changer as it would help to reduce meat eating. It would also be beneficial for the human mind.
Another issue is rebirth which also catches on in the west. Here, too, India is a natural leader, as rebirth on the level of appearances is a given in Indian ancient texts. Rebirth, too, is incompatible with Christianity and Islam, as their doctrine is based on “only one life as a test and thereafter either heaven or hell”. Yet rebirth makes sense. It explains why there is seemingly so much injustice in this world when God is supposed to be just. About 25 percent of Americans believe already in rebirth. There is enough evidence in form of research and documentaries. Professor N.K. Chadha of Delhi University worked together with Ian Stevenson of Virginia University, where over 3000 cases of rebirth are documented. If India promoted this view as common sense, it would weaken the very base of the dogmatic religions and help people to come out of narrow-mindedness. Incidentally, the Church banned the belief in rebirth in 553 AD. It means it was widespread until then.
There are other aspects, which India can stand up for, for example, that different lokas (planes of consciousness or even universes) with different timescales exist, for which there is already certain openness in the west.
Yet for India’s soft power to have a chance to influence the world, one issue needs to be urgently addressed. If this issue is not addressed, the world will continue to ignore India’s soft power or will keep de-linking it from India. This issue is the claim that Hindu civilisation is not respectable, that Hinduism is wrong and Hindus, being idol-worshippers, will go to hell, unless they convert. That is what followers of Christianity and Islam are taught in religious class, and it is incomprehensible why such wrong, unacceptable teaching has not yet been strongly condemned by Hindus. Not objecting to this claim would amount to not honouring truth, not honouring the wisdom of their rishis and accepting falsehood. Further, such teaching fosters hate crimes and divides humanity, apart from being mere fiction.
Muslim countries have petitioned the UN to ban criticism of Islam. A far worthier petition would be a petition from Hindus to ban the teaching that Hindus are inferior and burn in hell. If Hindus and Buddhists could come together on this issue or countries like India, China, Japan would object to such unsubstantiated claims, it could make the world take note and start a debate.
When an individual denigrates somebody on the ground of his religion, he commits an offense and is punished. Then how is it possible, that the doctrine of a religion can denigrate members of other religions wholesale and yet be respected and not being pulled up?
A recent judgment by the Delhi High Court, allowing a medical doctor to conduct missionary activities while doing his service, said:
“All persons in this country have a right to practice their faith in the manner they consider fit so long as it does not offend any other person.”
The judge obviously did not consider the method or arguments with which a missionary tries to lure a ‘heathen’ into his religion. He is telling him that Christianity alone is the true religion and Hinduism is wrong, and if he wants to save himself he needs to convert. In some cases, the language is much stronger and devas are called devils.
His poor patients may not complain to the court. Yet is this acceptable? Does this not offend Hindus and other ‘heathen’?
Due to the fact that big parts of India were ruled for some 1000 years by followers of Islam and Christianity, when Hindus had to lie low, India lost its position as Vishwa guru. Yet it needs to regain it, in the interest of humanity as a whole, as the knowledge which the Rishis have handed down is the key for a meaningful and fulfilling life.