This article was written for the interfaith site homophilosophicus (meaning “the philosophical person”). Having been asked to write this, I found it quite a daunting task. My main worry was that I would misrepresent Hinduism either by making an error or saying something that applied to my lineage as though it applied to all Hindus. I was also worried that I was stepping into the territory of “real theologians”, people with doctorates in theology, but the article seems to have been well received.
If you have any comments for me about this article leave them below as usual. If you have any comments that you would like to share with the non-Hindus at the interfaith site then make them at the publication of the article there. The comments that I have received there so far show that most of the posters are sincere about wanting to know about Hinduism but some of them have a lot of misconceptions.
Dialogue has always been important in Hinduism. Many of the Upanishads (religious texts) take the form of a dialogue, discussing philosophy from different points of view. Many of the Hindu saints were renowned for their debate and dialogue, frequently changing their opinions as a result. In theManisha Panchakam, Adi Shankara starts by asking an outcast to move aside, and ends up concluding that when one knows God, then caste is irrelevant, and that the outcast is Shiva himself. Satsang (literally meaning true company), is respectful dialogue among devotees along with reflection and meditation. This is positively encouraged by many Hindu lineages. Nowadays this sometimes takes place in closed internet forums, private social networking groups, etc. This is seen as valuable as long as it aids learning and spirituality and does not lead to discord.
As well as having a lively tradition of dialogue within Hinduism, this has always extended to other dharmic religions. This is hardly surprising, as the dividing line between Hindu traditions and non-Hindu traditions is not clear cut. You might say that Sikhs are not Hindus because they reject the vedas, have their own saints, and don’t use murtis (devotional images). However the same is true of many sects that are generally accepted to be non-orthodox branches of Hinduism, such as Veera Saiva and Arya Samaj. Relations between Hindus and members of other dharmic religions are often very close, in many cases Hindus and Buddhists share temples (such as the the Bagh Bhairav Temple in Kirtipur) and festivals. Similarly festivals at my local Mandir are frequently attended by Sikhs, and Hindus often attend festivals in the local Gurdwara. Historically we can see the interplay between dharmic religions. The Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism certainly had an influence on each other, and Jainism played a part in emphasising Hinduism’s vegetarian tradition.
With this ongoing history of cooperation and respect between dharmic religions it is not surprising that Hindus are often at the forefront of Inter-religious dialogue and events. The 2009 “World Religions Dialogue and Symphony” was initiated by the Hindu preacher Morari Bapu, and many local, national, and international events are well attended by Hindus. Swami Vivekananda’s address at the World Congress of Religions in 1893 is often considered one of the best pro-interfaith speeches of all time.
However many Hindus are ambivalent about dialogue with non-dharmic religions. One reason for this is that Hindus attending these events are often seen by others as representing Hinduism as a whole. Many non-Hindus don’t realise how much diversity there is within Hinduism. For a follower of one of the Abrahamic religions I compare speaking for Hinduism to speaking for all Abrahamic religions: Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarians, Shia Islam, Suni Islam, Ahmadiyya, Bahai, Mandeans, Druze, and all sects of Judaism. Imagine also that a lot of the other attendees had been taught that Branch Davidian and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan were mainstream parts of your religion. This is the dilemma faced by a Hindu at an interfaith event. When someone does speak for Hinduism, other Hindus are not slow to point out when they say something that does not represent all Hindus. An example of this is the “Declaration of the Second Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit”. Among other things this says:
It is recognized that one supreme being in its formless and manifest aspects has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. The Hindu relates to only the one supreme being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols’.
Now without going into a lengthy description of Hindu theology, most Hindus see some images of God as being aspects of the one creator God (Ishvara), whereas others are illustrious beings (Devas), and are as separate and individual as you or I. Different schools have different concepts of exactly how separate you, I, and the Devas are, ranging from absolutely separate at one extreme to any separateness from God being illusionary at another. I think it is reasonable to say that the view of Hinduism put forward here by Swami Dayananda Saraswati is overstepping the mark by implying that the statement covers all Hindu beliefs. Some Hindus have expressed this in very strong terms. Sandhya Jain wrote:
This is outrageous. A Hindu guru who upholds the legitimacy for Hindus of the literature of another religion, and tries to make Hindu Dharma pass standards set by that intolerant sect, is betraying the Devas, the Dharma, the bhaktas, the Desh – nothing more need be said in this matter. In one stroke, he has also legitimised the missionary and jihadi hatred of and assault upon Hindu dharma in Hindu bhumi.
Hindus who do take part in inter-religious dialogue should be very clear that they are not speaking for the whole of Hinduism. Except in very general terms, nobody can. This is why I make it clear that what I write reflects my own thoughts only.
Another reason that some Hindus are reluctant to get involved in inter-religious dialogue is that it is often seen as an attempt to evangelise or convert, or at least to find information useful when attempting to convert people. This is a genuine concern, as some groups openly suggest that inter-religious dialogue should indeed be used to hone conversion tactics. Jason Barker writes on the Evangelical Christian website “Watchman Fellowship”:
Interreligious dialogue is related to evangelism in two ways: “Christians must practice dialogue with non-Christians (1) to understand the situation of non-Christians and how the gospel answers their needs; (2) answer questions raised by people to involve them in a personal encounter with the claims of God.” This relation of dialogue and evangelism can be seen in the Bible.
… dialogue enhances the efficacy of evangelism. The clarified understanding of other religions will be published in books and articles about the religions, many of which will be read by pastors and evangelists, as well as transmitted to average churchgoers. These people will then be able to present the gospel in a way that most effectively addresses the needs and thinking of people in other religions.
Clearly these groups are not seeing dialogue as a means of mutual understanding but as a means to convert others to their own faith. Other Christian groups see the purpose of dialogue as an opportunity to state their own faith, while not necessarily trying to convert others. J.E. Lesslie Newbigin writes:
On the basis which has been laid down one can speak briefly of the purpose with which the Christian enters into dialogue with people of other faiths. This purpose ‘can only be’ obedient witness to Jesus Christ. ‘Any other purpose, any goal which subordinates the honour of Jesus Christ to some purpose derived from another source, is impossible for the Christian.’ To accept such another purpose would involve a denial of the total lordship of Jesus Christ. A Christian cannot try to evade the accusation that, for him, dialogue is part of his obedient witness to Jesus Christ.
But this does not mean that the purpose of dialogue is to persuade the non-Christian partner to accept the Christianity of the Christian partner. Its purpose is not that Christianity should acquire one more recruit. [emphasis mine]
Though less destructive than the previous reason for entering dialogue, being present only to state your own faith and not understand that of others makes it a futile practice. So, what is necessary for interfaith dialogue to work? I think that Leonard Swidler’s Ten Rules for Interfaith Dialogue set a good basis. I cannot quote them in full for copyright reasons, but the essence is that dialogue should be an open, honest discussion between equals, with all sides being willing to learn, and to attempt to “walk in the other’s shoes” and understand what it means to follow the other’s religion.
Dialogue under these rules has many positives. Probably the biggest benefit is the elimination of misunderstanding, so many people have preconceived ideas about what other religions believe. This is particularly true of Hinduism in the West, so many authors write in good faith about the minority Smarta/advaita vedanta philosophy as though it were Hinduism. We should not forget that Hindus too have misconceptions about other religions.
Inter-religious dialogue also helps us see our own religions from another perspective, which may help us understand and appreciate parts of our own religion, and to find new ways to express them. There are many examples of Hindus seeing their own religion reflected in others, such as the “Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta” by Swami Prabhavananda.
In summary I would say that Hindus should continue their tradition of close alliance with dharmic religions, and engage in genuine dialogue with non-dharmic religions. While it is certainly true that some people will study the dialogue and try to use this to convert Hindus, the benefits in mutual understanding and a new view of Hinduism outweigh this.
We should still avoid “false dialogue”, where one side has no intention of listening, and has come merely to express their own view. This at best wastes time, and at worst aids their conversion attempts without benefit.
Finally, we should clearly indicate when what we are describing is something believed by all Hindus (a very rare occurrence), by most Hindus, by our particular sect, or when it is our own thoughts. This is important for followers of most religions, but particularly to Hindus because of the diversity of beliefs.