Saturday, March 26, 2022

Hinduism & the Possibility of Pluralism

I gave these reflections as part of a lecture series on demythologizing religion, with an emphasis on learning to live together in healthy, compassionate, wise, and joyful ways. 

    When I spoke about Buddhism last week, I could speak from the perspective of someone who has personally benefitted from Buddhist teachings and practices and is an active member of a Buddhist community. In other words, I have a lived context for what I was sharing and accountability for mistakes and misunderstandings. It’s important to me to acknowledge that this is not the case when it comes to speaking about Hindu traditions. I have not formally studied Hinduism for a couple of decades and I don’t currently have any personal connections with Hindu communities or practitioners. When it comes to these reflections, I want to be a courteous guest. 

The Voice of a Poet 

    I know I often speak about books and how they changed me. This might have always been the case; I find genuine delight and joy in reading. But part of their power also lies in the fact that I grew up in southwest Missouri, in a very conservative religious community, and books opened the world to me in ways that I otherwise could not have imagined. That curiosity inspired the teenage version of myself to pick up a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali as I wandered through the used bookstore. From the first verses, I was enthralled: 

“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.” (

    Though his skill obviously transcended my own, I recognized a fellow traveler in the poet’s words. I carried that little paperback with me over the Ozark hills. I knew what he meant about being a “little flute of a reed,” one small melody of divine joy and divine sorrow carried on the wind. I put verse seven to music and sang it as part of my devotions: 

“My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.
“My poet’s vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.” (ibid

     I did not understand at the time the complex cultural, sociological, and religious contexts that nourished Tagore, which he called “a confluence of three cultures” – Hindu, Muslim, and British. His family was Hindu, the family name an anglicization of Thakur. They lived in what is now Bangladesh, and, though he died in 1941, Tagore witnessed the violence of colonialism and the buildup of tension and violence leading up to the Partition of Pakistan in 1947. It took many years for me to begin to understand, not just the beauty, but the sociopolitical critique in the words I contemplated in that thin paperback: 

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; 
 Where knowledge is free; 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
 by narrow domestic walls; 
Where words come out from the depth of truth; 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
 into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; 
Where the mind is led forward by thee into 
 ever-widening thought and action— 
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, 
let my country awake.” (ibid

The Possibility of Pluralism 

     Tagore also expressed this freedom in a letter to a friend: “Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin… Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of [humanity] are mine.” ( ) This openness is a fitting aspiration for the pluralism that has often characterized Hinduism, the Sanatana Dharma (“eternal law/way”), over its long history. It contains six major schools of thought, a huge and diverse collection of sacred writings, and a long history of contributions to society, from early metallurgical practices (c. 3000 BCE) to the concept of zero (200 CE). ( ) There is also a wide diversity of belief and practice, from local traditions to Vedic Hinduism to Yogic Hinduism to devotional expressions and more. Hinduism itself is an umbrella term that brings together all these traditions, without a single founder or unifying rite. 

     This pluralism is generally reflected in Indian society as a whole. The Pew Research Center completed a large survey of almost 30,000 adult participants in India from 2019 to 2020, and it uncovered some very positive patterns. Consistently, most members of all major religions reported that they felt they were “very free to practice their religion”. Further, they believed that “Respecting all religions is very important to” both their Indian and religious identities. As the Pew Center wrote, “Indians see religious tolerance as a central part of who they are as a nation. … Indians are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community.” (

     From an outsider’s perspective, this appears to be a very strong foundation to build upon. But the research also pointed to some gaps between these aspirations and reality. Despite the high value on religious tolerance, building relationships with people across religious and ethnic differences is more of a challenge. A practical marker of this can be seen in the fact that most respondents, especially Hindus and Muslims, want to prevent interreligious marriages. The issue persists when people were asked if they would be willing to have members of a different religion live in their neighborhood or village. Though having an integrated neighborhood was more generally tolerated than having interreligious marriages, the numbers are still very high: 

 “For example, many Hindus (45%) say they are fine with having neighbors of all other religions – be they Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain – but an identical share (45%) say they would not be willing to accept followers of at least one of these groups, including more than one-in-three Hindus (36%) who do not want a Muslim as a neighbor.” (ibid

     This discriminating attitude was found across religions, too, and raises questions about what it means to live together on this shared earth. It is a powerful reminder that a common human concern is maintaining an unique cultural identity. Minority populations especially may simultaneously promote both religious tolerance and religious segregation as a way to preserve their culture, traditions, and institutions. In the Pew Center’s analogy, “While people in some countries may aspire to create a ‘melting pot’ of different religious identities, many Indians seem to prefer a country more like a patchwork fabric, with clear lines between groups.”  (ibid

The Dangers of Nationalism 

     We can understand, and even be sympathetic to this reality, while also aware of the dangers. To take one example, it’s no surprise to note that nationalism is again on the rise in many places around the world, often with violent and destructive results. There are several varieties and fusions of nationalism, such as religious nationalism. I began paying more close attention to religious nationalism within conservative Christianity, for instance, back in 2006 or so. I was the pastor of a small, rural church in Missouri and was teaching a class on the importance of religious freedom in the Baptist tradition. Historically, this was something that Baptists were proud to claim as their own, so I remember feeling shocked when one of the prominent members took exception to it. “If it were up to me,” she said deliberately, “I’d outlaw every religion except Christianity.” I didn’t know what to say, and so I looked around the room for help – and there was no help. A shift was clearly underway. 

    Over the last 15 years, we’ve witnessed the grotesque flowering of these ideas into a Christian nationalism now endemic to large parts of the United States. In a report for NPR by John Burnett, Jim Willis described leaving California for Tennessee and to a congregation called the Patriot Church. "This is a spiritual battle. It's good versus evil," he said. "And, unfortunately, evil has taken charge." Burnett describes a “movement of ultra-conservative, politicized churches” that provide “a godly underpinning for right-wing activism in venues like school-board elections, anti-vaccine protests, and the Jan. 6 attack on the capitol.” (

     As you’ve probably experienced, the fusion of religious and political identities is a powerful combination. Similar dynamics have been at work in India, with its own expressions of Hindu nationalism. Parth M.N. and David Pierson, reporting in the Los Angeles Times, recently told the story of Nasir Ali. Ali was guilty of selling Thakur Footwear, which is “the largest wholesaler and leading manufacturer” of shoes for women and children. Unfortunately for Ali, Thakur is also a significant name in India’s caste-based social structure, belonging to the warrior caste and ranking just below the Brahmins. Hindu nationalists surrounded Ali and shouted, “How can you sell shoes with Thakur written on them when you are a Muslim?” They called the police, who arrested Ali “for provoking unrest.” He spent two days in jail, where he was beaten and harassed. “I was targeted because of my religion,” he said. “I live in fear that anyone can beat me up and there’s nothing I can do. It makes you feel helpless.” Ali had to shut down his shoe business and go back to his previous job of selling vegetables. But that, too, carries risks, because of rumors that Muslims were “spreading the coronavirus. One 18-year-old vegetable seller was even “beaten to death by three police officers for violating COVID-19 restrictions.” (

     The history behind today’s expressions of Hindu nationalism are complicated, with the most recent roots in the Partition of Pakistan. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has successfully campaigned on – and encouraged – anti-Muslim sentiments as a way “to galvanize support from Hindus”. Parth and Pierson went on to detail how political goals, such as rewriting India’s constitution and declaring a Hindu nation-state, have paralleled “mob rule” in communities. In one southwestern state, nationalists harassed Muslim children wearing head scarves to the point that the authorities shut down schools and colleges for a time. Mobs have also: 

 “burned effigies of Santa Claus and crashed Christian services, and nationalists have called for the massacre of Sikhs because of their prevalence in farm protests last year that forced Modi to scrap one of his signature policy initiatives, agricultural reform. / In December, a mob of Hindu nationalists stormed a Catholic school to prevent what they thought was a religious conversion ceremony in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.” (ibid

     Meanwhile, at least one far-right leader, Swami Prabodhanand Giri encouraged “every Hindu” to arm themselves and prepare for genocide. “Either you prepare to die now, or get ready to kill, there’s no other way,” he said. “This is why, like in Myanmar, the police here, the politicians here, the army and every Hindu must pick up weapons because we have to conduct this cleanse.” (ibid) On another occasion, he said: 

“We will stand up against every jihadi in India and clean the country of their presence. … If you keep weapons to fight irreligion as Ram did in Mahabharat, you will be blessed by Lord Ram and Krishna. Weapons are essential, to fight with Jihadis and there is no other way … Will a cat not attack and eat a pigeon if it closes its eyes? In such a situation (threat to life) why shouldn’t we first attack the cat and gauge its eye before it attacks us?” (

Seeing the Divine 

     This is all in stark contrast to the beautiful words I read as a teen, written by a man devoted to freedom and at home in a diverse world. Amartya Sen, an economist and philosopher whose work on capabilities has been a key influence in my life, observed that: 

 “Rabindranath would be shocked by the growth of cultural separatism in India, as elsewhere. The ‘openness’ that he valued so much is certainly under great strain right now – in many countries. Religious fundamentalism still has a relatively small following in India; but various factions seem to be doing their best to increase their numbers. Certainly religious sectarianism has had much success in some parts of India (particularly in the west and the north). Tagore would see the expansion of religious sectarianism as being closely associated with an artificially separatist view of culture.” ( )

     Thankfully, there are also movements resisting religious nationalism. One example of how Hindus are organizing to transform the situation is Hindus for Human Rights. Their mission explicitly names several values important to their faith, such as peace, justice, and truth, supporting their goal to “advocate for pluralism” and civil and human rights. This includes resisting “all forms of bigotry and oppression,” such as caste, Hindutva (Hindu supremacy/nationalism), and racism. Their description of “inclusive Hinduism” affirms: 

 “We celebrate the diversity of Hindu traditions, and we believe that we must hold our traditions accountable to their highest teachings. We are committed to the annihilation of caste, and the right to equality for … all communities that have been marginalized by our traditions.” (

     I found my way to Hindus for Human Rights through an article by one of its founders, Sunita Viswanath, in Foreign Policy. She wrote: 

 “The BJP government’s platform, since its election in 2014, has been based on the false promise that Hindu nationalism is the path to ‘acche din’ (good days). The ongoing COVID-19 crisis reveals a truth that many of us have known all along: You cannot build a thriving society on a foundation of hate. / Hindus are taught to see the divine in everyone they encounter. This radically inclusive philosophy is diametrically opposed to Hindutva. By allowing Hindutva ideology to become so entrenched in our communities, in religious and social spaces as well as in politics, we have suffered a loss even deeper than the material losses: We have betrayed our faith itself.” (

     Hearing these voices gives me hope. Beyond the ‘good days’ of the BJP and the MAGA hats of the GOP, we have cultural and religious resources to say no to what harms and yes to what heals. To return to the words of the poet: 

 “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; 
 Where knowledge is free; 
 Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
 by narrow domestic walls; … 
 Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
 into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; … 
 Into that heaven of freedom, … let [us all] awake.” (op cit)