India owes its tolerance to Hindu dharma

This article by Dr David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) was first published by DailyO.

India has been primarily Hindu in terms of culture and religion for many centuries, extending to thousands of years. Hinduism has endured remarkably through long periods of foreign invasion and hostile rule, though other ancient religions have long since perished.

We find this vast spiritual and cultural tradition comprehensively explained as early as the Mahabharata, and synthesised philosophically in the Bhagavad Gita more than 2,000 years ago. The Mahabharata describes the geography of the entire subcontinent of India relative to the worship of Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, explaining the main deity forms and yogic teachings of later Hinduism, as well as delineating the rule of kings. Other important dharmic traditions, notably Buddhism and Jainism, share a common culture, values and practices with the Hindu.

Christianity arrived in India at an early period but was a minor influence until the colonial period. Islam began inroads in the eighth century and become a strong force after the thirteenth century. Yet these religions, in spite of great efforts, could not replace Hinduism as the dominant cultural tradition.

Composite culture and cultural continuity

Culture has an identity and continuity that evolves over time. In this regard, we can speak of an Indian culture and identity that is predominantly Hindu, just as we can speak of a European culture and identity that is predominantly Judeo-Christian, or a Middle Eastern culture that is predominantly Islamic.

There is certainly much beautiful art, profound philosophy, transformative yoga practices and deep experiential spirituality in Hindu and related dharmic traditions. This ancient dharmic culture spread to East Asia, Indochina and Indonesia, but also to Central Asia and influenced West Asia and Europe.

Yet Hindu dharma has not been frozen in time and continues to assimilate not only other religions, but also science, democracy and other modern trends, without losing its identity as promoting the spiritual quest above outer forms or dogmas.

It is crucial that India recognises its past, which has a strong Hindu component, in order to understand its cultural heritage. There may be aspects of older traditions that are not politically or scientifically correct in terms of current standards or may need reform, just as is the case with older cultures of the world. But there is much of tremendous value that should not be forgotten.

The fear of Hindu majoritarianism

There is a fear in India that highlighting its Hindu past may alienate non-Hindus or make Hindus intolerant today. There is a fear of Hindu majoritarianism in India, just as there isa fear of Christian majoritarianism in the West, or Islamic majoritarianism in the Middle East.

Yet Hinduism has never had a single book, church, or religious law, nor any single savior or religious leader. It recognises that the Divine dwells in the hearts of all beings as the very power of consciousness. Its views of religion and culture are pluralistic and synthetic, not exclusivist or monolithic. Hinduism has not been an aggressive religion, but one often under siege owing to its emphasis on inner spiritual practice over seeking power in the external world.

The British tried to eradicate pride in India’s past through denigrating Hindu teachings starting with the Vedas. Though they preserved certain Sanskrit texts, their interpretations were condescending and inaccurate. Marxist and Freudian scholars have continued with demeaning interpretations of Hinduism and miss its sublime art and spirituality.

The great gurus of modern India since Vivekananda have kept the teachings alive and expanding in spite of such concerted efforts that have even targeted them personally.

India’s characteristic culture and yogic spirituality that the world honours owes a great deal to its Hindu background. India has more peace and tolerance today than Pakistan and Bangladesh that have rejected their Hindu past and where the percentage of Hindus in the country has been radically reduced. Muslims have greater religious freedom in India than in Pakistan, with Islamic groups like Shias and Ahmadiyyas that are often attacked in Pakistan able to operate freely in India.

Mahatma Gandhi referred to himself as a “proud Hindu”. Yet such a term will rarely be found repeated in media and academic circles in the country today.

Hindu dharma has supported the timeless spirit of India and should be respected for its role. Hinduism remains one of the greatest cultural, religious and spiritual traditions in the world. An India without Hindu dharma would not be India.