The exceptionalism of India’s religious history
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
KHAJURAHO’S TEMPLE COMPLEX contains Vishnu and Shiva temples side by side with Jain temples. Hindu and Jain temples coexist at another site, too: one of the first mosques built within India’s borders, the “Prowess of Islam” mosque, repurposed fragments of roughly 30 demolished Hindu and Jain temples. The two religions seem to have flourished together and suffered together. The 20th century’s most influential Hindu, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, derived a doctrine of ahimsa that owed more to Jain teachers than to the Gita’s Krishna. The 21st century’s most influential Hindu so far, Narendra Modi, governs with the support (70 per cent, according to Pew) of only one Indian religious minority, the Jains.
The two religions have cohabited India for thousands of years, yet the historical record turns up only a few, half-speculative incidents of violence. Their theologians have argued back and forth for centuries, since Jains do not revere the Vedas, and Hindus do not revere the Tirthankaras; the two religions are mutually indifferent to each other’s central scriptures and sacred figures. Relatively trivial differences divided Europe’s Catholics and Protestants, or Islam’s Sunnis and Shiites. Yet where is the Hindu-Jain equivalent of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War? Why was there no centuries-long history of periodic pogroms, such as Christians inflicted on outnumbered Jews?
Hindu-Jain relations are not the only example of India’s religious mystery. The Mughal tyrant Aurungzeb beheaded Guru Tegh Bahadur after that Sikh guru intervened on behalf of Kashmir’s persecuted Hindu Pandits. The Granth Sahib rejects Vedic rites, downgrades Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and forbids the sculpting of murtis—and yet insists on reverence for Hindus. “Infinitely invaluable is that Vaishnava [worshipper of Vishnu], says Nanak, who has renounced corruption.” When the Sikhs rose to power, the Khalsa army marched under flags featuring images of the Goddess Durga, Hanuman and Kartikeya.
A charming frieze dated to the 1st century CE (over half-a-millennium into Buddhism’s history) shows the baby Buddha getting bathed by Indra and Brahma. Nalanda, which historians often call a “Buddhist” centre of learning, did not resemble a monotheistic seminary or madrasah: some excavated architecture matches the fivefold plan of a Vishnu temple, expressing a deeper unity. Chinese travellers describe both Buddhists and Hindus studying at Nalanda, as one would expect: the 26th chapter of the Dhammapada contains the Buddha’s glowing description of the ideal Brahmin. It also contains a warning: dhi brahmanassa hantaram. “Woe to the one who strikes a Brahmin.” Nalanda’s demolition happened at the hands of neither a Hindu king nor a Jain one.
In India, we encounter a different civilisational psychology, one that unites the religions that share a birthplace. It even has a name: dharma. More than mutual ahimsa unites the dharma’s religions. The story they tell about life and death is identical. The dharma’s story is India’s ancient, and ongoing, transcendent dissent
Indian religious history must be cordoned off from the religious history of the larger, monotheistic religions. Paradigms borrowed from elsewhere do not map onto ancient India’s religious landscape.
Consider the contrasts. The Fourth Crusade never reached Muslim-held Jerusalem. The Pope’s Catholic crusaders stopped in Constantinople, fell out with the Orthodox Christians there, and sacked the city. (Just 20 years earlier, Constantinople’s Orthodox Christians had exterminated the city’s Catholics in a pogrom.) England broke away from the Vatican because its heirless king demanded a divorce; mass persecutions of English Catholics commenced. A succession struggle over early Islam’s imperial winnings resulted in the Sunni-Shia schism. That schism underlies the modern regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the persecution of Shiites in Sunni-majority Pakistan.
Catholic and Protestant, Sunni and Shia: each pair of sects reveres the same scripture and the same founder. Both Christianity and Islam have a fraught relationship with their parent religion, Judaism, which acknowledges neither the New Testament nor the Quran. Christianity’s persecution of Jews culminated in the Holocaust; subsequent Zionist displacement of Palestinians has fuelled worldwide Muslim antagonism.
IF THE MONOTHEISTIC paradigm were extended to India, Hinduism would equal Judaism; Buddhism would equal Christianity; and so on. Even a cursory glance at history causes the metaphor to break down. What was so different about India’s indigenous religions? Where are their largescale, never-ending interfaith wars, persecutions, and grudges?
In India, we encounter a different civilisational psychology, one that unites the religions that share a birthplace. It even has a name: Dharma.
Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism rejected the Vedas and denied the authority of the Vedas and Brahmins. Yet Krishna himself understood their perspective. The Gita’s second chapter contains a sceptical portrait of priests addicted to the forms of rituals, interested only in their own enrichment (2:42-43). One of the Gita’s most striking images (2:46) concerns transcendence of the Vedas. Krishna says explicitly that enlightenment does not need the Vedas, any more than a man needs a well when water is crashing in from all sides. Elsewhere (9:23), Krishna explains that various forms and modes of worship flow to the same ultimate recipient.
Both the “mother” and the “child” faiths maintained respect for each other, an echo, perhaps, of the strong mother-child bonds in Indian families. The Buddha insisted on the sanctity of the Brahmin, and the Brahmins returned the favour, including him among Vishnu’s 10 avatars.
More than mutual ahimsa unites the Dharma’s religions. The story they tell about life and death is identical. At this point, after global conquests by two monotheistic faiths, billions of people believe a different story, in which people are born once, die once, and are judged, in part, on their belief or unbelief in a credo. The Dharma insists otherwise. Its story is India’s ancient, and ongoing, transcendent dissent.
The story was mapped out in recognisable form in the earliest Upanishads. There we first find the plotline that threads India’s religions like pearls on a string. We die, and we are reborn, many times. Each birth is determined by past karma, the ethical charge of our actions in previous lives. We pass through these bodies to transfigure ourselves over time.
A dharma, brought from India, transfigured the people and the stones of Angkor Wat. Time passed, and the kings took up Buddhism. More time passed, and the jungle insinuated its vines and roots, parting and toppling the great stones. That Indian vision of the universe stayed imprinted on Khmer soil, a monument to the twin quickenings of dharma, Hindu and Buddhist
Notice that specific Gods or rituals, founders or ford-builders, gurus or bodhisattvas figure nowhere in that simple, bare-bones story. Sikhism inherited the ancient Hindu technique of japa, the repetition of a sound or name. Two-thirds of modern Jains believe in the purifying power of the Ganges. Buddhism’s luminous formula, Om mani padme hum, contains, at its origin, the sacred syllable that Hindus place at the origin of being itself. Yet none of these elements is necessary, or indispensable, or worth warring over. None is the sole, defining property of any one religion.
In the religions of transcendent dissent, no proper noun or credo matters. Repetition of a statement, insistence on a specific divine name, membership in a group: none of these is a litmus test of spiritual worthiness, checked like a passport at the gate of heaven.
This distinction is the crucial one because it distinguishes, at an ethical level, the Dharma’s religions from Near Eastern monotheisms. By uncoupling belief and karma, India refused to treat acceptance of a doctrine as an intrinsic moral good. Merely believing in the idea of karma does not accrue good karma.
In the monotheistic religions that dominate the rest of the world, believing in one God, and believing in a specific founder’s special status, are ethical acts. In the Quran, lack of belief is a sin grave enough to merit eternal suffering. As the 33rd sura makes clear, “Surely, God has cursed the disbelievers, and has prepared for them a flaming Fire wherein they will abide for ever.” Dante places virtuous pagans in his Inferno, not because they did anything wrong, but because they were born before Christ. Their virtue cannot save them. The Christian God can neither countenance their presence in heaven, nor grant them the mercy of rebirth on earth.
Angkor Wat’s temple complex is the largest in the world. Built by Hindu kings, a mirror of Hindu cosmogony that centres on Mount Meru, Angkor Wat is a universe within the universe, self-contained, a clearing in the wilderness. A Dharma, brought from India, transfigured the people and the stones of that place. Time passed, and the kings took up Buddhism. Bas-reliefs of Puranic tales and apsaras oversaw, with sublime serenity, different prayers sweetened with the same incense. More time passed, and the jungle insinuated its vines and roots, parting and toppling the great stones. That Indian vision of the universe stayed imprinted on Khmer soil, a monument to the twin quickenings of Dharma, Hindu and Buddhist.
The transcendent dissent retains its power. Consider my own Christian-majority birth country: according to Pew polls, one-third of Americans believe in reincarnation. India’s indigenous theology exerts a hold even on India’s monotheists; over three-fourths of India’s Muslims believe in karma, while almost a third believe in reincarnation. Neither belief has a basis in the “revealed scripture” of any monotheistic religion.
Among religions of the Dharma, conflict continues to have a tough time taking hold, in spite of political efforts to stoke it. North American diasporic Sikhs retain an anachronistic fondness for the Khalistan movement, defacing the occasional Gandhi statue or Hindu temple in its name, but in India, the movement has lost purchase. 1984’s anti-Sikh riots, though at times described as Hindu-on-Sikh violence, was a specific political party’s retaliation for Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Today, as American-funded proselytisation targets Punjab’s Sikh population, India’s largest Hindu organisation has arranged the return of Christianised Sikhs—not to Hinduism, but to Sikhism. Indian Buddhism’s newest sect, Navayana, openly demonises India’s 4.5% Brahmin minority, and Hindus more generally; founded less than a hundred years ago by a socio-political activist (today, regarded as a bodhisattva), its future remains uncertain. Jains, on average one of India’s wealthiest and most influential groups, refrain from inter-religious conflict altogether, partly from their philosophy of ahimsa, partly from their small numbers. They seem to understand that the pilot fish’s destiny matches the shark’s.
England broke away from the Vatican because its heirless king demanded a divorce; mass persecutions of English Catholics commenced. A succession struggle over early Islam’s imperial winnings resulted in the Sunni-Shia schism. Both Christianity and Islam have a fraught relationship with their parent religion, Judaism, which acknowledges neither the New Testament nor the Quran
IF KHAJURAHO IS PROOF of Dharma’s essential unity, Angkor Wat is proof that Dharma can travel beyond India’s borders. The greatest monument of Christianity arose in Rome, far from Nazareth; the Suleiman mosque was built in Ottoman Istanbul, far from Mecca. The contemporary Indian diaspora—possessing numbers, wealth and influence—has an opportunity rare in any group’s history. The only comparable phenomenon might be the Jewish emancipation in 19th century Europe that led to everything from Kafka’s stories to Freud and quantum physics. That explosion of thought and creativity should be the diasporic Dharma’s model and goal— not just the domination of high-paying professions and the ascent of corporate hierarchies.
By rediscovering its unity across faiths, and by uniting resources and creativity with Indian co-religionists, this diaspora stands on the verge of a global Dharmic renaissance. The outsize influence of American culture globally means that work done overseas may flow back and influence the Dharma’s religions in their homeland. Architecture is only one possible expression; monuments can be built in literature, music, sculpture, and film. The colourful spectacle of “Indian-American culture”—dancing and matchmaking and groaning about our parents, as the secular West wants us to portray ourselves—is superficiality, transience, noise. The power that conjured Angkor Wat out of the jungle lies in Dharma. The story that has set Indian religious history as a thing apart—the story involving reincarnation and karma that persists worldwide, in spite of widespread indoctrination to the contrary—lies in Dharma.
Here in the West, on long-converted soil, and in India, where proselytisation continues, the Dharma has a chance to flower anew. Every act of reconnection with that Dharma is an act of defiance against the historical forces that have tried to extinguish it, and the present-day political and religious forces that continue to do so. To learn Devnagri or Gurmukhi, to study the scriptures and sculptures that defined and distinguished our ancestors, to assert the transcendent dissent with pride and creativity and a sense that the future belongs to us: this is the task ahead for coming generations, both in India and outside it. All that is needed is the will.