years ago an Indian journal requested a number of prominent Hindus to answer
a simple question – "Why are you a Hindu?”. Those who replied included
politicians, writers, scientists, intellectuals, professors and film stars.
What they had to say provided an interesting insight into
contemporary Hinduism, which is perhaps the oldest living religion, with
over 550 million followers in India alone, apart from several millions more
in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and in the West Indies.
The overwhelming majority of those who took part in the survey,
made it clear that they were Hindus, not merely by accident of birth, but by
conviction, and that they considered Hinduism a dynamic religion which
remained relevant in all ages. Even the then Chief Minister of the State of
Kerala – an active member of the Communist Party of India – said that though
he was not a believing Hindu, he continued to observe Hindu customs and
participate in Hindu festivals.
Among those interviewed was Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, an
internationally-reputed scientist. His research work had helped realize the
Green Revolution in India, which led to the doubling of its food production
in less than 25 years. This scientist, who won the Magsaysay Award in 1961,
said: “Birth determined my religious classification – but intellectual
conviction later made me happy over the appropriateness of the accident”.
In the West, there is today growing interest in Indian
philosophy and religion, be it in the Hare Krishna Movement, transcendental
meditation or in Yoga. Are these merely passing fads for a generation
looking for something novel, or do they signify a new awareness of an
ancient philosophy that has certain permanent and universal values?
To some outsiders, Hinduism is synonymous with strange rituals,
a complex pantheon of gods, fatalism and an esoteric philosophy, ill-suited
for people outside the country of its origin, much less for the modern
world. The essential spirit of Hinduism must however be distinguished from
its external trappings.
Hinduism is different from most other religions, in that it is
not based on any single holy book or on any one prophet. There are,
therefore, no dogmas or creeds which have to be accepted to be a Hindu.
It is at one level a philosophy that has been continuously
evolving in response to the challenges of new ideas and new situations, and,
in the process, has produced a succession of holy men and philosophers, each
one providing his own distinctive interpretation of life and its correlation
to the divinity. It is for this reason that Mahatma Gandhi once defined
Hinduism as “a search for truth”.
is, therefore, a flexible religion that can be adapted to changing
circumstances. This resilience is one of the major attractions of Hinduism,
and a source of its strength and durability. It has certainly provided a
mould for a rich diversity of philosophies, catering to different levels of
spirituality and intellectual development.
Right from the very dawn of the evolution of Hinduism there has
been this open-mindedness to new ideas and religions. The 4000-year old
Vedas have a significant prayer: “Let noble thoughts come to us from all
External currents of philosophy and spirituality have entered
India at many stages in its history. These include Judaism and Christianity,
which came to Indian in the first century A.D.; Zoroastrianism in the
seventh century, Islam in the eighth century, and finally the impact of the
west from the sixteenth century onwards. Hinduism did not succumb to the
onslaught of these new religions and ideas. On the contrary, it emerged, in
a sense, enriched by this contact.
In this interaction, Hinduism was helped by its concept of truth
being one, but with different facets, and the acceptance of the concept of
religions being different paths to approach the ultimate truth. This has
been picturesquely described in the Upanishads which declare that cows of
different colours yield the same white milk. More recently, the Indian sage,
Swami Vivekananda, said: “All religions are rivers moving towards the one
ocean known as Truth”.
With this background, it is easier to understand how religions
from across the seas were able to establish themselves in India, co-exist
harmoniously with other religions, and in fact, flourish down the ages.
Likewise, it explains the birth, in India itself, of three major world
religions – Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
People of all these different religions have live in harmony for
centuries thanks to this catholicity of the spirit of Hinduism. It is this
attitude of tolerance and understanding that continues to infuse the people
of India today when it is seeking to modernize itself through the
application of science and technology.
In this process, when traditional values are constantly under
strain, it is comforting to be able to draw sustenance from a religion and
philosophy that has endured some four millennia – not as an ideal or
abstraction, but as a way of life for millions.
It is also a way of life whose philosophy of tolerance has been
embodied in the concept of secularism in India today. Secularism does not
connote irreligion or materialism, but rather that there is no State
religion, and that all religions are equal before the law.
Such a catholicity of outlook helps not only to keep at bay the
forces of narrow-minded fundamentalism, but to make a positive contribution
towards understanding between people of different faiths, and a deeper
spiritual life through cross-fertilisation of ideas and experiences.
If faith in such a philosophy can remain – as the Bhagavad Gita
says – “steady like a lamp in a windless place”, it could well make for
greater emotional integration in India, and prove a model for a world that
has yet to realize that religions are but different paths to the one
from INDIA DIGEST No. 3 - Nov. - Dec. 1987)