The fundamental difference between Hindu and Abrahamic religions is that Hindus believe in concept of knowledge and faith that can have space for different beliefs.
Todays `Seculars’ don’t understand this very thing & harp on each thing that is `Hindu’.
Typical politically correct statements are being made for last many months since the invention of word 'Hindu terrorism' or 'saffron terrorism'. The hold-all statements of various shades can be summarized in a two statements - 'terrorism has no religion' and 'all kinds of fundamentalism are bad'. While one may agree with the first statement, the latter statement is born out of ignorance, or anxiety to sound politically correct.
We need to differentiate and delineate the finer nuances of fundamentalism of different faiths/religions/ traditions. A few of my learned friends felt that the terms like ‘secularism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ have been hijacked by West-oriented intellectuals and given certain shades and it is futile to put in efforts to change these perceptions. However, I think, that such debates are required to bring back the right sense to such words. So, let us try to look at the fundamentals of different religions and see how fundamentalism of one faith is much different from another.
Since, the fingers are currently pointed at Hindu fundamentalism, supposedly as dangerous as Islamic fundamentalism, let us put Hindu dharma on one side and Islam and Christianity on the other. I am using Hindu dharma as a ‘way of life’ that encompasses different religions and faiths born in India viz. traditionally called Hindu religion (Vedic/ Sanatan), Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and various other sects that grew out of traditional Vedic traditions or deviated from mainstream Hinduism.
Since, they are all born in India and from same roots, there are many common ethos and practices which are common to all of them. Similarly, Islam and Christianity also have common roots, though they are adversaries today. Both are born out of Abrahamic faith of which Jew religion is the fountainhead. All of them are born in holy Palestinian region, so they too have many common traditions and way of practicing their religions. Thus, I shall be addressing the two groups as Hindus and Abrahamic for easy comparison. At this moment in history, there is a lot of difference between Christianity and Islam. However, when the comparison is at a broader level, we can take the common practices that are at the roots of these faith systems.
The fundamental difference between Hindu and Abrahamic religions is that Hindus believe in concept of knowledge and faith that can have space for different beliefs. As I note in my book ‘Secrets of RSS’ it means, “My faith is true and so is yours”. For Abrahamic religions it is, “Mine is the only truth”.
An oft repeated Sanskrit shloka says, “Truth is one, different people say it differently”. This creates an environment of mutual respect. For Abrahamic religions, there is only one truth; all other beliefs are ‘false’. Thus, while Hindu dharma is ‘inclusive’, Abrahamic religions are ‘exclusive’, where there is no place for different views about the ultimate truth. Therefore, Abrahamic religions have One Book, while Hindu dharma does not have one authorized scripture that must be obeyed by all the followers. For Hindus, one is free to choose his/her path to attain moksha, not bound by what The Supreme book says.
From this foundational framework flow more differences in approach. Hindu thought allows different philosophies to crop up and prosper without any problem; Abrahamic thought does not brook such deviations. This has led to religious wars and bloodshed over question of faith, while India has hardly seen such bloodshed in the name of faith. Thus, Hindu dharma system presides over a republic of religions, while Abrahamic faith systems may be termed as one party rule or dictatorship.
Due to this reason, West has seen exodus of various people at different periods of history; India has never seen such exodus (except during partition, brought about by a demand for separate country based on religion). It has given shelter to such persecuted people from across the world - right from Syrian Christians, Jews to Parsis for hundreds of years.
Rajiv Malhotra, a public intellectual, notes that Hindu dharma followers may not necessarily need a medium to reach the Supreme being, while in case of Abrahamic religions, if you do not believe in the prophet or the son of God, there is no salvation for you. It is a pre-condition for liberation. A priest in Hindu tradition is not a medium, he is only a person who facilitates religious rituals. Closest in this sense of a medium is Guru, but even Guru is not a pre-condition, nor is allegiance to one Guru necessary. There are enough examples of people who attained self-realization without a Guru or through a number of Gurus.
Hindu dharma being a way of life and not really the only ‘way of life’, even an ‘atheist’ scholars like Charvaak can be a Hindu called a ‘rishi’. This is simply not possible in Abrahamic belief systems and the ‘atheist’ or ‘heretic’ may be prosecuted for blasphemy.
Abrahamic religions believe in ‘niraakaar’ (or formless) God Almighty, while Hindus can believe in ‘niraakaar’ or ‘saakaar’ (having a body which can be seen). Within this too, a believer can seek his God in any form that he believes in. There are no ‘false’ gods; there is a freedom of choice. They can be as comfortable with Jesus Christ as they are with Krishna.
Abrahamic religions tell their followers that only theirs is the true path, and all other ‘non-believers’ would land up in hell for not following the prophet and his religion. It is enjoined as their duty to convince others to convert to save them from ‘hell’. With this as their duty, their followers have followed the directions coming from their prophets or holy books to win over countries, to convert the ‘non-believers’ to ‘save’ them, to earn goodwill of their ‘God’ and a place in ‘heaven’.
Compared to this, none of the different off-shoots of Hindu dharma have ever gone out aggressively or attacked any population to spread their religion. Their spread has been through propagation of their ideas and acceptance by the local populace. China and whole of South East Asia is living proof of this pacifist approach of Hindu tradition based religions. Utilizing debates (shastraarth) by Adi Shankaracharya to win over Buddhist scholars is classic example that saw the revival of Vedic religion.
The idea of ‘republic of faiths’ is the reason why democracy in its primary form was prevalent in the times of Mauryas and why it took roots so easily post-independence. All Hindu dharma based faiths, in fact even other pre-Abrahamic religions globally, believe in principles karma, re-incarnation and worship nature as a form of ‘Supreme Being’. Principle of ‘ahimsa’ is born out of this respect for all living beings and nature. From these thoughts flow the teachings of Hindu traditions to preserve nature, farmers first worshipping mother earth before putting his plough on her and an artisan worships the land ‘bhumi puja’ before he digs it to make a house. For a Hindu, he or she is part of an entirely integrated universe. Thus, love for environment and its preservation are inherent in Hindu tradition. Abrahamic religions believe that their ‘God’ has given them right to enjoy ‘earth’ to fulfill their desires as it is a gift to them from ‘Almighty’. The thought of environmental protection is born out of compulsion in West as it faces dire consequences of the pillage of the planet for its unrestricted growth and self-aggrandizement.
Readers may note that I have not talked of any current social or historical examples to bolster my argument or criticize any faith as I wished to take it up at an academic level and let readers ponder over the fundamentals of different faith systems. Whatever has been stated above is easily available on public platforms, on official websites and religious scriptures of different faith systems. One can form one’s own opinion about what can happen when different systems go back to their fundamentals or become fundamentalists. Once we absorb these thoughts, we would not easily make sweeping statement that ‘all kinds of fundamentalism are bad’.