Thursday, March 02, 2006

Nasadiya Temper 12 February, 2006

The recent controversy over Islamic cartoons in Europe is once again testing the boundaries of religious tolerance. Most Hindus, of course, believe that they are tolerant and trace their broadmindedness to their many gods. Some even ask: how did our tolerant pluralism turn into the intolerance of Hindutva?

Hindu pluralism is grounded in the Rig Veda, Wendy Doniger, the Sanskrit scholar, tells us in a wonderful essay, “Many Gods, Many Paths”. It may well have originated in the charming humility of the Nasadiya verse (10.129): “[In the beginning] there was neither being nor non-being … [but] who really knows? … [for] the gods came afterwards.” This questioning attitude, adds Doniger, might also have led to the invention of a god whose name was the interrogative pronoun, ka. For the creator once asked Indra, “Who am I?” Indra replied, “Just what you said: Who.” And this is how the creator got the name, Ka or Who.

The pluralism of the Rig Veda, however, did have a monistic hue for the very substance of the universe was divine. Each god had a secondary or illusory status compared to the divine substance, yet was a powerful symbol of and a guide to the divine. Hence, many gods co-exist comfortably in a non-hierarchic pantheon. And the devotee of many, non-hierarchical gods is more likely to see the many sides of truth, and thus be more tolerant.

By the time that this unassuming outlook is enshrined in the famous “Neti, neti” (“Not this, not that”) attitude of the Upanishads, the seeds of monistic certainty have been firmly planted. It is charming the way open-minded kings in the Upanishads invite holy men of various schools to debate religious issues. But the modest openness of neti becomes a “submerged form of intellectual imperialism” when we come to Shankara. A belief in the unity of brahman and atman may lead to a belief in the unity of all persons but it does not necessarily lead to a respect for all viewpoints, as the argumentative followers of Shankara and Ramanuja will testify.

Thus, social pluralism doesn’t always follow from intellectual pluralism. The problem is that when I speak with certainty about my beliefs, I cannot help but suggest that what I believe in is superior. I secretly want you to renounce your opposing view and accept mine. Hence, all such statements are attempts at conversion. Here lies the leap from tolerance to intolerance. What stops one from trying to convert others is good manners. Fundamentalists lack these and take the further leap and threaten death.

The source of Hindutva’s intolerance, or for that matter any fundamentalist’s, is a political one and it is futile to seek answers in belief. All fundamentalists are insecure, and seem to take an excessive interest in others. They would do well to see Walt Disney’s 1942 film, Bambi. In it is a rabbit named Thumper, whose mother asks him, “Thumper, what did your father say?” Thumper replies, “If you can’t say something good about a person, don’t say anything at all.” Islamic, Hindu and Christian fundamentalists ought to consider joining Thumper’s School of Social Harmony. They might also consider following Albert Camus’ sensible advice: “To be happy one must not be too concerned with others.” The ordinary Hindu on the street, or any person anywhere, I am convinced, is tolerant in belief. She has the unassuming Nasadiya temper of the open-minded seeker in the Rig Veda, and all fundamentalists could learn something from it.

gurcharandas@vsnl.com

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And the devotee of many, non-hierarchical gods is more likely to see the many sides of truth, and thus be more tolerant.

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