MAR 10, 2015
Proselytism incompatible with India
Proselytism vs. Pluralism
It is difficult for me to discuss religious proselytism without relying upon my favorite sentiment in regards to the idea of “false religions”: The only false religions are those that proclaim that there are “false religions”.
And really, any debate about proselytism is really about “false religion”, regardless of how the missionary involved may attempt to “spin” that debate. And in order to truly understand the debate, we have to use the correct terminology, and there is no place on Earth where that terminology has become more confused than India.Essentially, in order to understand this debate, everyone involved has to understand the meanings of the words “Monotheism”, “Monism”, “Polytheism”, “Dualism”, and “Pantheism”, at a bare minimum. Monotheism and Polytheism are the two most confused of these terms, and therefore deserve the most discussion.
Monotheism is Exclusivism
Monotheism probably does not mean what you think it means. It is used at an academic level to mean one thing, while at a “layman’s” level, it has been simplified to mean the idea that there is only one God. And many Hindu people over the years have philosophically linked the idea of Brahman with that “one God”, concluding that Hinduism is therefore Monotheist. However, from an academic perspective, this is completely erroneous, as Sanatana Dharma cannot by definition be Monotheist, any more than the ancient Greek religion of Plato could be.
Right now, many of the readers of this article are probably becoming righteously indignant. They are thinking that Monotheism is “civilised” and Polytheism is “primitive”, and by saying that Hinduism is not Monotheist, I am inferring that it is “uncivilised” and “primitive”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the academic definition of Monotheism is so much more than simply “One God”. It means really that the Monotheist believes that his God is the “Only God”, and that all other “Gods” are therefore either “evil demons” or non-existent (“Exclusivism”). One has only to look at Christianity to see that this is true. There are more divine beings in the Christian pantheon than simply Yahweh (“God”). There is the “Holy Trinity” of Jesus-Holy Ghost-God, and there is a pantheon of “angels”, “saints”, and other divine figures that feature throughout the Christian cosmology. And yet, Christians are able to legitimately call themselves “Monotheists”, because they believe that their religion is the only “true” religion, and that all others are “false”. That is what Monotheism means, not what you think it means.
If you do not take my word for it, let me quote some scholars. My personal favorite is Dr. Jan Assmann, a German Egyptologist and expert in the study of the Judeo-Christian figure known as “Moses”. He differentiates between “Primary” religions and “Secondary” religions, and describes them thusly:
“Primary religions evolve historically over hundreds and thousands of years….Religions of this kind include the cultic and divine worlds of Egyptian, Babylonian and Greco-Roman antiquity, among many others. Secondary religions, by contrast, are those that owe their existence to an act of revelation and foundation, build on primary religions, and typically differentiate themselves from the latter by denouncing them as pagan, idolatry and superstition. All secondary religions … look down on the primary religions as pagan….These religions can therefore perhaps be characterised most adequately by the term “counterreligion.” For these religions, and for these religions alone, the truth to be proclaimed comes with an enemy to be fought.” (Jan Assmann, “The Price of Monotheism,” pp. 3-4)
A few pages later, he gets more to the point:
“The concept of “counter religion” is intended to draw out the potential for negation that inheres within secondary religions. These religions are also inherently “intolerant”…Two hundred and fifty years ago, David Hume not only argued that polytheism is far older than monotheism, he also advanced the related hypothesis that polytheism is tolerant, whereas monotheism is intolerant…Secondary religion must be intolerant, that is, they must have a clear conception of what they feel to be incompatible with their truths if these truths are to exert the life-shaping authority, normativity, and binding force that they claim for themselves.” (Jan Assmann, “The Price of Monotheism,” p. 14)
Historians now recognise that Monotheism likely first arose 3500 years ago, in Ancient Egypt, under the reign of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who later renamed himself “Akhenaton”. He decided that he would be able to have more absolute power if he united all of his domain under “One God”, and felt that it would also be better for him if he himself were that “God”. He eliminated the worship of all other deities, proclaiming them “false”, and proclaimed himself the “One True God”. But this did not outlast the pharaoh, and the Egyptian Gods arose again following his death. Interestingly enough, many academics, including Dr. Assmann and even Sigmund Freud have hypothesised that “Moses” himself was simply a renegade priest of Akhenaton who became more “successful” in exile following the fall of the God-King.
Author Jonathan Kirsch, in his book, “God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism”, details the rise and fall of Akhenaton, as well as the later Monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (The only other major Monotheist religion is Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Parsees, but they are not as important to this debate.) Kirsch notes that even the main “message” of the Bible is not the few passages extolling the virtues of kindness and morality. Rather, the clear agenda of the book is Exclusivism, not charity. A particularly enlightening passage describes the real message of the authors of the Old Testament:
“They do not define wickedness and sin in terms of moral and ethical conduct. Indeed, they are far more concerned with the purity of religion than with the pursuit of justice. The very worst sin of all, as they see it, is not lust or greed, but rather the offering of worship to gods and goddesses other than the True God. Whenever a biblical author is moved to call something “abominable,” he is using a code word for every ritual and belief other than his own” (Jonathan Kirsch, “God Against the Gods”, p. 35).
Polytheism, Monism, and Pantheism
By now, many readers are confused. They are likely thinking, “But the philosophy of the Vedas, and of Advaita in particular, asserts that all of the different Gods and Goddesses are ‘One’? How can this be ‘Polytheism’?” To that, I would ask, “Do you not agree that the religion of the Ancient Greeks fit the definition of “Polytheism”?
If you are to say “Yes”, then I also suggest that you read about the philosophies of Plato and Pythagoras, as well as others. In particular, you should read about the later synthesising of these philosophies into what is now called “Neoplatonism”. Neoplatonism was a religious and philosophical doctrine that will seem very “familiar” to Hindus. It postulates that there is a creative source, known as “The One” that is beyond being, and beyond comprehension of ordinary human minds. All things, including the Gods of Ancient Greece, flowed from this “One”.
Now study the teachings of Pythagoras and other Greek “gurus”, and you will see other similarities. Pythagoras was not just the guy who popularised the “Pythagorean Theorem”, and taught us how to figure out equations regarding triangles. He also oversaw an initiatory Parampara that taught vegetarianism, reincarnation, and the liberation of the soul through non-attachment and asceticism. Does that sound familiar?
Of course, this Ancient Greek society did not arise until many centuries after they had been going strong in India for centuries. Regardless of whether you adhere to the “Aryan Invasion Theory”, the “Kurgan Hypothesis”, or the “Out of India Theory”, you cannot ignore the flow of religion and philosophy from the Vedas…from India…to Europe.
Now knowing all of this, Greek “Polytheism” makes much more sense now, does it not? Just as with modern Hinduism, there were many who viewed the Gods as “competing” for worship, or under a pantheon ruled by Zeus, or they worshiped only one of the Gods, to the exclusion of all others (such as the Dionysian cult, for example), or they viewed all of the Gods as part of “The One”, and had adopted a sort of Advaita-istic philosophy. In any case, they certainly were not Monotheists, under any sense of the word.
On the other hand, the term “Monism” and “Pantheism” come to mind. Monism is the idea of a “oneness” among everything, including the God(s). Monism is also often used by modern philosophers and gurus to differentiate between Advaita and Dvaita (Dualistic) perceptions of the human soul or Atman. Pantheism is the related theory that everything is “God”.
One of the Hindu spiritual Paramparas that actively discusses these specific terms in depth is Saiva Siddhanta. Specifically, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami describes Saiva Siddhanta as “Monistic Theism”. He did not specify a limitation to “Theism”, but it is certainly not “Monotheism”.
And many Hindu philosophers, like Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel for instance, have not shied away from understanding the difference between Monotheism and Polytheism. For example:
“I had an occasion to read the typescript of a book [Ram Swarup] had finished writing in 1973. It was a profound study of Monotheism, the central dogma of both Islam and Christianity, as well as a powerful presentation of what the monotheists denounce as Hindu Polytheism. I had never read anything like it. It was a revelation to me that Monotheism was not a religious concept but an imperialist idea. I must confess that I myself had been inclined towards Monotheism till this time. I had never thought that a multiplicity of Gods was the natural and spontaneous expression of an evolved consciousness.” — Sita Ram Goel
Reincarnation as the “Antidote” to Intolerance
One of the biggest elements of Indian religions that differentiates them from Abrahamic religions is the doctrine of reincarnation. And while it may not be obvious on its face, the concept of reincarnation significantly changes the way that Indian religions view proselytism.
For example, in Abrahamic religions, there is an urge to proselytise that is born of the idea that one must “join the right team” prior to death, in order to avoid eternal torture in the Afterlife, by a so-called “Loving God”. So on the one hand, it is a somewhat altruistic motivation that Christian and Islamic missionaries and terrorists deceive and coerce people into joining their “team”. On the other hand, it is also what American author and intellectual Gore Vidal called “the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race”.
For example, in Christianity, since noted people like Gandhi, Adi Sankara, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Aristotle, Shivaji, and all other non-Christians since the dawn of time never “joined the team”, then they are being tortured eternally in a place called “Hell”, at the whim of this so-called “Loving God”. On the other hand, anyone who did actually “join the team” gets to spend eternity in “Heaven” by kneeling before this “Loving God” as a supplicant until the end of time. And since many horrible people throughout the ages had “joined the team” prior to death, this “team” of supplicants will include Adolph Hitler, Charlemagne, Slobodan Milosevic, Richard Nixon, and Vlad the Impaler.
But if a religion accepts the concept of reincarnation, the “urge” to convert is softened. There is no ticking time-bomb counting down unto the moment of death, whereupon one must make a decision to “join the team” or face eternal torment. In reincarnation, it is accepted that a person will not achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, but that rather, this is a journey that encompasses multiple lives, and sometimes thousands of years.
“It is impossible for me to reconcile myself to the idea of conversion after the style that goes on in India and elsewhere today. It is an error which is perhaps the greatest impediment to the world’s progress toward peace. Why should a Christian want to convert a Hindu to Christianity? Why should he not be satisfied if the Hindu is a good or godly man?” — Mahatma Gandhi
In conclusion, the most important revelation regarding Monotheism and proselytism is one that applies directly to the conflict between the Dharmic religions of India, and the Abrahamic religions of the invaders:
“Precisely because the monotheist regards the polytheist with such fear and loathing, peaceful coexistence between the two theologies is possible only from the pagan’s point of view and never for the true believer in the Only True God.” (Jonathan Kirsch, “God Against the Gods”, p. 12).
That sentiment right there is all that anyone really needs to understand about the difference between Indian religions and Abrahamic religions. In short, it explains everything that has happened to Indian religions over the past few centuries. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists have welcomed the Christians and the Muslims to proselytise their faiths, because they do not fear the equal exchange of ideas.
But the Christian and Muslim religions are incompatible with that equal exchange of ideas. Their religions view such an “equality” to be anathema. To even equate an Indian religion to the status of a “religion” is to be considered obscene to their scripture, and to their “God”. Their motives are impure, because they are not playing by the same “rules”. They aren’t even playing the same “game”. To allow them to act with impunity, without limitation, without oversight, leads to horrific consequences. The Romans made that mistake, and as soon as the Christian minority gained a foothold in the government, they outlawed all other religions, destroyed temples, and executed anyone caught worshiping the Roman Gods. And they took hold of the Roman government when they only made up less than 10% of the population. Christians currently make up 2.3% of the Indian population, while Muslims make up 13.4%. I hate to sound alarmist, but this is no time to put your head in the sand. I leave you with the words of a Roman Senator from 384CE, as he begged and pleaded with the Christian Emperor Valentinian II to not completely abolish religious freedom:
“And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical systems we adopt in our search for the truth. Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.” — Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (C.E. c. 340-402)
His words went unheeded. We cannot let a similar epitaph be the last gasp of Dharma, and the last gasp of India.
Assmann, J. (2009). Trans. Robert Savage.The Price of Monotheism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism.Trans. Katherine Jones. London, UK: Hogarth Press.
Goel, S. R. (2007). How I Became a Hindu. New Delhi: Voice of India.
Kirsch, J. (2005). God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. New York: Penguin Books.
Subramuniyaswami, S. (2005) Dancing with Siva. Sixth Edition.Hawaii: Himalayan Academy.
Symmachus, Q. A. (1973). Trans. R.H. Barrow. Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, A.D. 384.Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bryon Morrigan is a lawyer living in Florida. In addition to his law degree, he also holds a master’s degree in Ancient History, and also formerly served in the US Army as a military intelligence analyst. His novels ‘Acheron’ and ‘The Desert’ are available at most online booksellers.