Unethical Interference

“The Semitic self-description contains a universal truth claim, which gives rise to a dynamic of proselytization. When the biblical God reveals His plan, it covers the whole of humankind. Those who receive this revelation should try to convert the others into accepting the message in this divine self-disclosure. That is, proselytizing is an intrinsic drive of Islam and Christianity. The pagan view, on the contrary, implies that every ‘religion’ is a tradition—that is, a specific set of ancestral practices—characterizing a human community. The traditions are upheld not because they contain some exclusive truth binding the believer to God, but because they make some community into a community. Any attempt at interfering with the tradition of a community from the outside will be seen as illegitimate, since all traditions are part of the human quest for truth….(p.209)

… The value of non-interference is central to the tradition of citizen x {a Hindu} and it is unethical for him to allow Muslims and Christians to interfere in the traditions of human communities. Thus he opposes conversion….—S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing India Studies, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.209-210

When I read the rebuke above from Gangadhara against the proselytizing of Semitic religions, I said to myself, ‘Gangadhara hits where it hurts’. But his statement about ‘non-interference’ being central to the Hindu tradition surprised me a bit. I could ignore it if it is his opinion, but when he calls other’s interference “in the tradition of human communities” unethical, I remembered all kinds of ‘unethical interference’ of one (Hindu) sampradaya with others. As a student of Hinduism (and the history of religion in general), this made me raise further questions about such claims by such scholars.

But before proceeding, I should confess that I cannot claim to understand Balagangadhara’s views in this entire book. Not only the language, but also his style of writing is beyond my level to understand the subject of this book. When I completed the Chapter One, I wrote, “It is beyond my capacity to understand this chapter.” I faced a similar problem through the next chapters, since it is hard to comprehend such scholarly writing.

The main problem for me is the language itself. I don’t like English and I never studied in English medium education. In college, I simply memorised several essays and wrote them to get good marks. Beyond this I never developed my skill in English, since I have never liked this language very much. So when I read any book in English I struggle a lot to understand both the language and the subject matter. The only reading I enjoy is Tamil, that too poetic literatures.

 

So my limitation in English is the first impediment for me to understand this book. Next is the subject matter. Since he writes as a scholar, a student like me has to struggle a lot to understand it. However when I reached chapter 8, “The Secular State and Religious Conflict”, I breathed a little easier as this subject is also my favourite one. I not only enjoyed reading it, but I also agreed with the author on many points.

However when I came to this statement about the ‘unethical interference’ and his claim that ‘The value of non-interference is central to the tradition of’ Hindus, I recalled several such ‘unethical interference’ by one sampradaya with another.

When I further reflected on this topic, a few more issues came to my mind. The first one is that if Hinduism is considered a homogenous religious entity like the Semitic ones, we can agree that proselytization is ‘unethical interference’ by others. However, if the reality is that ‘Hinduism’ received that label very late, and is actually several heterogeneous traditions, then one tradition has always ‘interfered’ with another tradition, and have made the followers of one tradition change to another.

Even more, certain traditions have nearly caused the complete disappearance of other traditions. For example, the Upanishadic tradition almost made the vedic tradition of yajna disappear gradually. Similarly the origin and growth of the temple tradition pushed other vedic traditions to remain elitist. The various sampradayas of Vedanta schools are developed because of the interference of one tradition in another. Since there existed no ‘Hinduism’ in those early periods, I am not sure whether we can claim the new thoughts came from outside and were ‘entrenched’1 in the so-called Hinduism, or whether it was the mutual influence and interference of one tradition with another.

In other words, these various (Hindu) sampradayas uprooted the ‘specific set of ancestral practices’ of a particular tradition in order to make a new community from another community. The best example is Srivaishnavas. They strongly believe in their community identity based on the ‘exclusive truth binding the believer to God’ viz., Narayana (Vishnu). These days Sri. Anandabadbanacharaya is giving a discourse about Ramanuja (Ramanuja vaibhavam, Podigai, Tamil Channel, Monday to Friday, 6.45 to 7.00 pm) where he will often use the word ‘Srivaishnavas’2 as a community binding its members to Vishnu.

 

This outright interference of one tradition in another tradition is spelled out clearly by a renowned scholar of the Dvaita school of philosophy, Professor K.T. Pandurangi:

Another sanctioned activity in the propagation procedure given to samnyasins and mathadhipatis is to spotlight the supremacy of Visnu worship by criticizing those who worship other deities. They should not only declare Visnu’s sarvottamatva {all powerful; the most greatest one} but they should frankly condemn those who do not follow their beliefs. Those who preach other philosophies like Advaita must also be taken to task as vehemently as possible….

There is a belief that when it is a matter of spirituality, one should not follow the normal attitude in civil life by politely letting others disagree. They say: “Knowing fully well what is wrong and what is right, if I don’t tell the other what he believes is wrong, I will be doing a great disservice. I will not be helping an ignorant person. To help an ignorant person who has distorted knowledge is my responsibility as much as to propagate.” Pandurangi added that this may be in response to the earlier aggressive faiths that were in vogue before the advent of Dvaita, such as the Saktas, who were prone to spread their faiths by forceful means. — T. S. Rukmani, Samnyasi in the Hindu tradition, Changing Perspectives, New Delhi, D.K. Printworld (p) Ltd. 2011. p. 41

Such open statement by a modern Professor of one tradition is a telling rebuke on the claim by Balagangadara that:

The pagan view, on the contrary, implies that every ‘religion’ is a tradition—that is, a specific set of ancestral practices—characterizing a human community. The traditions are upheld not because they contain some exclusive truth binding the believer to God, but because they make some community into a community. Any attempt at interfering with the tradition of a community from the outside will be seen as illegitimate, since all traditions are part of the human quest for truth….(p.209).

I strongly opposes proselytization efforts by the Christians, as I learnt it from my own personal experience. So I completely agree with my understanding of Balagangadhara’s comments on the Sematic religious’ agenda of proselytization as well as the neutrality of Indian state:

…the Indian state ought not to be neutral with respect to religious conversion in India because it cannot be neutral.

The above statement is odd, to put it mildly. We can bring the ‘oddness’ to light by formulating it as a logical statement: with respect to religious conversions, if a liberal state ought to remain neutral, and if the Indian state ought to be a liberal and neutral state, then the Indian state can be neutral. However, the Indian state cannot be neutral on this issue. Therefore, either (a) a liberal state ought not to remain neutral or (b) the Indian state ought not to be liberal and neutral or (c) both. We can eliminate the choices (a) and (c) rather quickly: the obligation of state neutrality with respect to religious conversion is a cornerstone of liberal political theory. Consequently, there is only one choice left: with respect to religious conversions, theories of state neutrality oblige the Indian state not to be liberal and neutral.

…The post-independent Indian state implemented a series of reforms to ‘the Hindu religion and its law’, while it did not interfere with Islam and Christianity. {see Chatterjee, P. ‘Secularism and Tolerance’, in R. Bhargava (ed.) Secularism and Its Critics, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 1998.} 6 This suggests that some interpretation of ‘neutrality’ and ‘liberalism’ is at stake here. Theories of state neutrality that interpret this notion to mean neutrality of justification force us to compromise the notion of a neutral state. Such interpretations either generate odd conclusions or try to defend indefensible positions.—212 (Italics original)

 

For a student of religious history (or Hinduism about which I am still not clear), a scholar like Gangadhara, while he rightly criticizes any proselytizing efforts by any religion and questions the neutrality of a secular state, should not claim that there was no ‘interference’ of one tradition with another in Indian sampradayas.

 

Hinduism, which is not a religious entity, always provided the space for one tradition to interfere with another and gave birth to many communities, thoughts and movements. With my limited understanding on Hinduism, I can say that although this space (or permission) is granted, it never allowed one to eradicate the truth claim of another tradition/community, even though some remain an insignificant minority (like Vedic yajnas). It was never considered ‘unethical’ but an obligation on the part of one (tradition/community) to propagate and give birth to another tradition/community.   There was ample record of even violence used in this process by a few.

However ‘unethical’ it looks to any secular scholar of modern time, the obligation of a bhakta to encourage and influence the followers of other traditions is never considered wrong. And not interfering is even considered as ‘disservice’ (as noted above by Pandurangi).

The following observation authenticates my view:

On April 8, 2007, the famous religious speaker Sri Velukkudi Krishnan, who is from a Vaishnavaite sampradaya, spoke on the National Tamil TV channel. He asked his listeners to repeat ten oaths after him. As expected, a few were along sectarian lines such as ‘Ramanuja is the only acharya to be followed’, and ‘Narayana is the only god to be worshipped’. This brings to mind similar claims of Islam through the call ‘laillahi illalah Muhamadu va rasulullauh’ = There is no other God other than Allah and Muhamud is His prophet.

But what was interesting to me were two of the oaths. One said ‘Neither by birth, or wealth or education we won’t consider ourselves great.’ He never said ‘By birth, or wealth or education we won’t consider ourselves great but will treat all are equal’. The other oath was, ‘I will share these
oaths with at least ten people.’

I wish I could have recorded them and shared all those ten oaths. I don’t want add any of my comments but anyone can read their own as per her/his perception.

19-03-15.

 

Endnotes

  1. The Upanisadic period, probably, is the time when a number of new ideas were associated with Hinduism. There is enough evidence to indicate that the fourfold varna (class) division of society had hardened and we also know that the four purusarthas or values of human existence (dharma, artha, kama, moksa), as well as the karma theory connecting the self with transmigration, were all well entrenched in the tradition….— T. S. Rukmani, Samnyasi in the Hindu tradition, Changing Perspectives, New Delhi, D.K. Printworld (p) Ltd. 2011. p. 16
  2. V. M. Gopalakrishnamachariyar, a Tamil and Sanskrit scholar who wrote an undisputable commentary to Kamba Ramayana, (Chennai, Uma Padippagam, 2006, Seven volumes) giving his comments to the song 2705, in Yuddhakanda (part One, p. 198) says: ‘By calling Tirumal (Tamil name for Vishnu) as ‘Mulattevu’ (original or prime deity) shows that this poet, viz., Kamban is a Vaishnava.’ Interestingly in the very next song in which Kamban describes about Siva (when Hanuman saw Him in Himalayas on his way to bring the medicinal hill) with high respect, the author says, ‘this shows the respect that this poet (Kamban) has for Siva’. But he never mentions that Kamban has bhakti to Siva. Above all the word ‘Mulattevu’ in this song is in bold letter.

திருமாலைக் கூறுமிடத்து, ’முலத் தேவு’ என்றது, இக்கவிஞர் வைணவரென்பதைக் காட்டும்.–வை. மு. கோபாலகிருஷ்ணமாச்சாரியார், கம்ப ராமாயணம், சென்னை, உமா பதிப்பகம், 7 தொகுதி, யுத்த காண்டம், இரண்டாம் பகுதி, மருந்துமலைப் படலம். பாடல், 2705, ப. 198,

இக்கவி (2706), சிவபெருமானிடத்து இக்கவிஞர்க்கு உள்ள மதிப்பைக்காட்டும்….–ப.198, மேற்படி,