The Aberration of Hindu Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

AN English friend, a scholar of comparative religion, asked me some while ago if I thought the Hindus living in this country were affected by the virulent propagation of Hindu fundamentalism by one of the political parties in the context of India's last general election. If so, would it add to inter-ethnic tensions in Britain? I said that, first of all, Hindu fundamentalism was a contradiction in terms. The dictionary definition of fundamentalism, of a literal acceptance and maintenance of a finite set of traditional orthodox beliefs of a religion, did not apply to Hinduism. There was no one set of beliefs which a Hindu was required to accept and practise. But, in setting out to provide a better understanding of the new assertion--which I do here--I am accepting reference to Hinduism as a religion and its aberrant form as Hindu fundamentalism as they are thus identified in the public mind. Neither notion is correct, but I will have to be thus content.

The propaganda for Hindu fundamentalism did not spring from any new discovery of principle in the great Hindu texts that had not previously been applied in the last 3,000 years. It was an unscrupulous exploitation of the economic ills of a vast underclass for acquiring power.

Most people are familiar with the religious persecutions in the histories of the revealed religions of Semitic origins -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- which have demanded compliance with the Word and the Book. There is no historical evidence of such persecution in the Hindu kingdoms since Vedic times. The kings (among whom were my own ancestors) were good, bad or indifferent, but none indulged in persecuting subjects or travellers who did not worship as they did or as their organised priesthood conducted public or private worship. The Muslim scholar, Al-Biruni, who travelled in India in the 11th century and made an extended study of Hinduism, amply makes this point. The principle of tolerance was handed down to me in impressive oral traditions.

The attitude was a strongly ingrained one. It had its origin in that Hinduism was not a religion in the sense in which the word is understood, that is, a particular system of faith and worship. It was primarily a moral order of humanity and righteousness within a highly organised social system. Its historic texts are singularly free from dogmatic affirmation concerning the nature of God. Its core did not depend on the existence or non-existence of God. It is possible to be a good Hindu whether one believes in a single god, or many gods, or an ultimate principle or being, or no god at all. Hinduism is thus a matter of ethics rather than belief. It had no specific name until other religions made their entry into India, when it too acquired a religious significance.

This absence of dogma is basic to an understanding of Hinduism. The Hindus themselves called their moral order sanatana dharma, a concept hard to translate from the Sanskrit. The closest, but yet incomplete, way of comprehending it is to think of an eternal law that governs all human and non-human existence. It gives absolute freedom of belief about the nature of God and form of worship. Dogmas, and therefore religious dogmas, can only be transitory and distort a transcending truth. A passion for dogmatic certainty has racked the religions of Semitic origin. And hence the incessant quarrels within them. The great Hindu teachers through the centuries expanded that all religions are simply different phases of the same Truth, called God by those who so prefer. The intellectual debate of the nature of this Truth has been a continuing one. A significant element of this debate is that it does not seek to safeguard Hinduism and protect conformity, but encourages revision and improvement.

As the Indian elections were announced, unscrupulous men were waiting and reaching out for a theme to exploit the long-suffering millions of India's poor for electoral gain and power. …