With a rekindling conflict on the Indo-Pakistani border, Kashmiri faces riddled by pallet guns, and clashes among casts, it seems as if tolerance towards the other is on a decline. And this although some argue that Indian thought is essentially tolerant by its disposition. Tolerant to the extent that its openness is the reason for the nation’s survival through the plethora of upheavals as well as influxes of different cultures and religions.
But is Indian thought essentially tolerant? And if so, can the nation retain its historic openness towards the other and itself? At least Neo-Hindus such as Swami Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan would agree.
They emphasize the tolerant side of Indian thought, in particular of Hinduism, in their quest of finding an Indian identity they can be proud of. Even in order to contribute something genuinely Indian to their ideal of world peace.
Yet, this understanding was not an exclusively Indian phenomenon. Such was also the perception of Western thinkers in the beginning of the 19th century, who were among the first Western scholars to be, after a long period, exposed to Indian thought.
They inferred their conclusion, exempli gratia, from sections in the Rig Veda (1:164:46), where it is written: “ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti“ (that which exists is One: sages call it by various names). Or from the Bhgavad Gita (7:21-22): “Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me”.
Of course, the definition of tolerance varies. For example, Radhakrishnan understands tolerance not merely as peaceful coexistence, but as “active fellowship” with fraternity as its aim. It was by means of tolerance, so one claims, that different religions and groups lived for many centuries relatively peaceful in India.
Leaving aside the fact that India was not always the epicenter of tolerance, neither towards foreigners nor amongst each other, many scholars argue nowadays that what is described here is inclusivism rather than tolerance. Inclusivism is defined by seeing the other position as identical to the own, yet, mostly as slightly inferior. In particular when reading the passages of the Gita (also 9:23) the idea of inclusivism makes sense.
Instead of saying you are different, but I accept you, they seem to say: you are not that different at all; actually you believe in the same things as I do, with the difference that you are taking a slight detour on your path to truth. The often doctrinal stand of the Neo-Hindu position fits this picture quite well.
It reminds of the following anecdote. When Christian missionaries came to India and they attempted to convince the “aboriginals” that Jesus was the prophet they should worship, apparently Indian’s replied something like: thank you for the kind offer, however, we already have a Jesus – he is a bit more bluish than yours and is called Krishna.
This does not, as the philosopher Anand Amaladass writes, necessarily has to be something negative. For whenever Hinduism adopts something from an alien tradition, it changes something in itself, leading to an attitude of openness.
Indian thought today
In the end of the day it does not matter, whether we are just seeing inclusivism or tolerance or understanding, maybe even real love for the other in Indian thought. What matters is that Indian thinking contains something that teaches openness towards the other.
Actually, if we want to read it that way, every religion has this quality, whether Islam or Christianity. Texts are not fixed entities. We engage in a dialog with them. Hence, in order to find the right answers to our presents problems, we also have to pose the right questions.
Indian scriptures proved to have the right answers over centuries. We just have to remember and reread. Especially those exclusivists, who are are eager to transform Hinduism towards intolerance.