Poisonous ‘Fundamentalism’ of Religions

By: Koti Shreekrishna

Religious fundamentalism can be defined as strict adherence to certain fundamental theological doctrines as prescribed in the sacred text(s). Originally, fundamentalism[1] applied to the Christian faith and it called for belief in the literal truth of the Bible. When taken at face value, it would amount to converting the whole of humanity to Christianity with total disregard towards all the other faiths.[2] The Qur’an holds a slightly broader view than the Christian Bible: It refers to the Jews and the Christians as people of the Book and others as infidels.[3] But the Qur’an, like the New Testament of the Bible, also believes that it is the final revelation of God and hence everyone including Jews and Christians also should follow it. Thus, Islamic fundamentalism pretty much means the same thing – convert the whole of humanity to Islam.[4] As a result, Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism are not only a threat to each other but also to every other society.

It is no surprise that these two faiths have spread with much vigor and have devastated most religions and cultures. The intolerance they have shown towards even Judaism, which is among the Abrahamic religions (and precursor to these two), is a testimony to their fervor. This is not to say that they do not have the power to heal. But generally, their healing has come only after they have brought down a pre-existing peaceful and a viable situation.

Fundamentalism as applied to Judaism would mean that only the Jews are the chosen people, and their God is exclusively for the Jews. It would also mean that the frontiers of Israel (The Promised Land) as described in the Torah, belong exclusively to them.[5] Since they do not seek converts, Judaic fundamentalism poses no threat to the faiths that are outside their promised land, which is a narrow region comprising only 0.1% of land mass of the earth.

Zoroastrian and Baha’i fundamentalism pertain largely to retaining their identity and customs. They do not seem to pose any threat to other religions. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion with a strong influence of the Vedic religion. Baha’ism is a milder re-interpretation of the Islamic religion. Zoroastrians are few in number and are mostly in India and Iran. Baha’ism has a small worldwide following and many voluntary follow Baha’i principles.

Buddhist and Jain fundamentalism would mean denying the existence of God (in the sense of the other religions of faith). Due to their difference with the religions of faith, in theory they would appear to be a potential threat to all religions of faith. However, in reality they are not. In fact, their ways of worship has incorporated many elements of the Hinduism and vice versa. Their major difference with Hinduism pertains to negation of the authority of the Vedas, especially the Vedic rituals and social divisions common to Hinduism. The days are gone when a Hindu leader would deliberately debate and negate those religions and actively win their followers to Hindu-fold, as it happened hundreds of years ago. One can also imagine that a fundamentalist Jain state would forbid meat consumption and use of any animal products, just as an Islamic or a Jewish state would prohibit sale of pork. A fundamentalist Buddhist state also will be reluctant to allow animal sacrifice. Emperor Ashoka (2nd Century BCE) banned animal slaughter following his conversion to Buddhism.

Sikhism believes in one God and does not aggressively seek converts. Sikh fundamentalism is largely not a threat to other religions. Their fundamentalism mostly focuses on retaining the Sikh identity and fighting for a Sikh nation. Recent history has shown that this nationalistic zeal has become a threat to the Sikhs as well as to others, specially the Hindus.[6]

The impact of fundamentalism of the various aboriginal faiths pertains to their locale and most of the threat is against all those who may have exploited them. Their fundamentalism takes the form of retaining their identity, regaining their territories and seeking privileges as compensation for past injustices their ancestors were subjected to.

Communism, at least in principle, seeks to annihilate all religious faiths. The way communist China extinguished the Buddhist order in the entire mainland including the autonomous region of Tibet, is a prime example. The Indian brand of Communism is rather cynical, as it appears to be opposed only to Hinduism and on every occasion it joins the bandwagon with fundamentalists of other religions in the Indian context. Communist regimes in other countries, such as Cuba, have been relatively more tolerant of religion.

Secularism, by definition, is something that is outside of religion. It calls for a separation of the state and religion. Though it doesn’t actively seek to antagonize religion, it can be perceived as a threat by religious institutions since it advocates an ethical and a moral code that is independent of all religious considerations or practices. (In India, ‘secularism’ has taken on a funny and distorted meaning; we should remember that the original meaning of the word is different).

However, secularism is perhaps the most reasonable, desirable and rational system for coexistence in a world with many religious faiths. A threat to secularism is a threat to all religions as well as to the basic human freedom and dignity itself.

Now let us examine what amounts to Hindu fundamentalism. As defined earlier, fundamentalism refers to a strict adherence to certain basic theological doctrines prescribed by the sacred text(s), which in the case of Hinduism would include the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad-Gita. The fundamental principles enshrined in these texts are: respect, tolerance, and assimilation of all faiths and philosophies. These concepts are deeply rooted in the Rigveda, which tells us that “God is one and sages call it by different names”[7] and “Let noble thoughts come to us from every direction.”[8]

Assimilation does not mean elimination of uniqueness. It just means drawing on the nectar of wisdom from various sources. Likewise, “God is one” does not mean all religions are same. That would be like saying both Italian food and Mexican food are same, although their purpose is the same. Thus Hindu fundamentalism would let every faith there is, there can be, there may be, and there will be, to prosper, without denying their uniqueness. This is perhaps the reason why India, where the majority follows Hinduism, is the only country where religious holidays pertaining to many world religions are celebrated and several religions have co-existed for ages.

Does this mean that the Hinduism does not pose any threat to other faiths? Perhaps, it does. A major threat, if one would like to call it so, is the threat of assimilation. All other faiths and philosophies may appear to lose their original identity and merge into Hinduism. However, this threat is largely unfounded. In reality, Hinduism, like the English language is ever-growing and ever-assimilating; it is extremely dynamic and generously absorbs noble truths from anything it comes in contact with. At times it appears to misrepresent other religions – for example, Buddha was made an incarnation of Vishnu, but this has not done any harm to Buddhism or affected the teachings of Buddha. Within the body of Hinduism itself many conflicting texts and philosophies have been preserved. And in spite of the conflicting views, Hindus have never discarded any text and have lived in harmony.

Another apparent threat is that Hinduism may be making a subtle and unintended mockery of other faiths for their narrow and rigid focus (for instance, see Bhagavad-Gita 7.21).[9] A rather indirect threat with direct consequences to both Hindus and others is that most Hindus fail to acknowledge the differences that exist between the various religions and say that all religions are same. This by definition is blasphemous to several religions. Basically, in their harmonizing zeal, Hindus generally deny the uniqueness claimed by many religions, and blindly (even fanatically) claim that all religions are same. In doing so, they do grave injustice both to Hinduism and to other religions.  Hindus, blinded by their magnanimity to embrace all religions ignore the obvious – respect and tolerance also must include respecting the uniqueness and intolerance claimed by other religions!

The half-baked partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947, is also an outcome of the inability of Hindu leaders to recognize the uniqueness claimed by other religions (Muslims for Islam in this case). This is imposition of Hindu mind-set and continues to be the most expensive burden on the Indian sub-continent. It has caused loss of millions of lives, and huge amount of national resource. Both the nations are at each other’s throat and it appears like the worst is not over yet. India has not forgiven the Muslims for partition and Pakistan has not forgiven Hindus for the half-baked partition. If Islamic fundamentalism founded the holy and pure state of Pakistan, it is the misguided Hindu ideal that contaminated it by leaving a significant non-Muslim population in Pakistan. Likewise it also coerced a large number of Muslims (equivalent to nearly 50% of population of newly formed Pakistan) to stay in India, thus compromising their opportunity to live in a pure Islamic country.  Because it was the Muslim leadership that insisted on partition based on religion, all the Muslims could have been settled in the newly formed Pakistan and India could have remained a country for rest of the Indians.

Unfortunately, many Hindus fail to see that imposition of Hindu mindset in understanding other religions, even when they explicitly claim exclusivity is also sort of Hindu fundamentalism. This patronizing nature is an irritant even to other religions that took birth in India (Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism). Apart from this, there is a ‘misguided’ Hindu fundamentalism, practiced by relatively small yet vocal number of Hindus. It was these who were responsible for bringing down Babri Masjid and killing some missionaries. They make all the wrong provocative calls for Hinduism. They also claim that all Indians are Hindus and call for shutting of Western influence entirely. They claim that all the modern scientific and technological advancement was already made by the ancient Hindus. They also attack night clubs and harass people who celebrate Valentine’s Day and public display of love. It is this brand of Hindus that are labeled as Hindu fundamentalists in the news media, because in some ways, they behave like the fundamentalists from other religions such as Christianity and Islam. Ironically, these are the Hindus who have deviated from following ‘fundamental’ Hindu principles. Next time when we encounter the term “Hindu fundamentalists” in the popular media, we should remind ourselves that it is a misnomer and what it actually means is that some Hindus have deviated from the fundamental tenets of the Hinduism, pretending to safeguard it.

One of the essential features of Hinduism is the recognition that all practices and customs are dictated by time, place, and context (for instance, see Bhagavad-Gita 3.28).[10] It is only the fundamental spiritual concepts like rta, satya, and dharma that remain unchanged. Unlike the Qur’an, no Hindu scripture says that it is the final edition. Hinduism is not opposed to reformation but in fact, welcomes freshness in thought. The Semitic religions don’t have an internal framework that promotes doubt, debate, and dissent. Hinduism does. And though it is an ancient faith, this feature makes it an ever-renewing faith. However, many Hindus resist this and think of it as a threat to their religion and/or culture.

Now comes the great dilemma: How to prevent Hinduism from the onslaught from within or by other religions? Perhaps this is done best by not imposing Hindu mind-set on others (including other Hindus) but by understanding others from their perspective and work on settlement devoid of violence or appeasement of the contending parties.

Footnotes

1fun•da•men•tal•ism ˌfəndəˈmen(t)lˌizəm / noun
a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.
strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline.
Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalism

2New Testament, John 14:6. Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (New International Version)

3Qur’an 42:13. “The same religion has He established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah …and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.” (Omar, Amatul Rahman and Omar, Abdul Mannan. The Holy Qur’an (as explained by Allamah Nooruddin). Hockessin: Noor Foundation International Inc., 2000)
In the Qur’an there are many references to the Jewish and Christian Holy Books. In fact the Qur’an (5:68) addresses Christians and Jews in terms of the Book: “O People of the Book!” (http://www.answering-islam.org/Green/onbible.htm)

4Qur’an, 3:19. “The only religion approved by God is Islam (Submission).”

5See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Promised_Land

6See http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalistan_movement

7Rigveda Samhita 1.64.46. They call him (the Sun) Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and Agni. / He is also the divine Garutman with fine wings. / The one Supreme is hailed by the wise by many names, / including Agni, Yama, and Matarishvan.

8Rigveda Samhita 1.89.1. May noble thoughts come to us from every side, / unchanged, unhindered, undefeated in every way; / May the gods always be with us for our gain and / our protectors caring for us, ceaseless, every day.

9Bhagavad-Gita 7.21. “But, in whatever form one chooses to worship god in good faith, I strengthen his faith further.” (Sreekrishna, Koti and Ravikumar, Hari. The New Bhagavad-Gita. Mason: W.I.S.E. Words, 2011)

10Bhagavad-Gita 3.28. “One who has true insight into the interplay of guna and karma, and how they are influenced by the collective nature of society, does not get entangled.”
The world is always in motion and thus, always changing. Most of us are a part of the society and are influenced by it. Our customs, mannerisms, and practices adjust themselves to our surroundings if we let them follow a natural course. But if we are perturbed by changing times and cling on to practices that are not applicable today, then we are bound to be confused.

This article is originally published HERE.

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