9th Anniversary Special
September 2002 

Year 9    No.80

Tolerant tradition

The Hindu tradition of toleration is showing signs of strain — the strain of religious tension, fanned by fanaticism


For centuries Hinduism has been the most tolerant of all religions. It was from the ranks of the Brahmins that the first converts to Buddhism were recruited in the sixth Century BC. Two hundred years after Ashoka’s death Buddhism had replaced Hinduism in vast areas of the sub-continent, although the Buddhism that prevailed was not of the purity envisaged by the Enlightened One. But within two centuries after Buddha’s death, eighteen varieties of the Buddhist doctrine divided and confounded the converted faithful!

And then, at the beginning of the first millennium, the growth of monasticism left India open to easy conquest. When the Arabs came, they looked with scorn upon the Buddhist monks and destroyed their monasteries, making the new faith unpopular. The survivors, under the influence of the youthful Adi Shankara, were then reabsorbed into the Hinduism that had begotten them.

As the historian Will Durant records in an elegant sentence: "the ancient orthodoxy received the penitent heresy Brahmanism killed Buddhism by a fraternal embrace." And all this because Brahmanism had always been so tolerant. The history of the rise and fall of Buddhism and of a hundred other sects in this subcontinent records much disputation, but no instances of persecution (except from foreign invaders). After five hundred years of gradual decay, Buddhism disappeared from India, not violently or with bloodshed, but quietly and peacefully. And throughout Hindustan, Hinduism (after centuries of decline and decadence) came back into its own: still tolerant, still accommodating.

But all this was in the past. During the last few years I have been a querulous spectator of a new phenomenon — on occasions almost a frightened one. The Hindu tradition of toleration is showing signs of strain – the strain of religious tension, fanned by fanaticism. This "great orchestra of different languages praying to different Gods" that we proudly call "India" is now seen and heard playing out of tune.

Is Hinduism then changing its face? I hope not — but I fear it is. It is as well to express this fear openly. Secular India versus militant Hinduism is reminiscent of ambassador George Keenan’s metaphor when contrasting democracy with a dinosaur. "You practically have to whack off his tail," said Keenan of the dinosaur, "to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed: but once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he may destroy his habitat with his adversary." We must not let the dinosaur destroy our habitat.

Look back a little and reflect on what a great patriot of India had to say — a man whose birth centenary we ritualistically celebrate in November each year. He never regarded the varied peoples of India as the dinosaur looked at he Earth’s smaller inhabitants.

Writing in the quiet seclusion of a prison in 1944 (his ninth term of imprisonment for revolting against the British) Jawaharlal Nehru contemplated "the diversity and unity of India":

"It is tremendous (he wrote): it is obvious; it lies on the surface and anybody can see it… It is fascinating to find out how the Bengalis, the Malayalis, the Sindhis, the Punjabis, the Pathans, the Kashmiri, the Rajputs and the great central block comprising of Hindustani–speaking people, have retained their particular characteristics of hundreds of years, have still more or less the same virtues and failing of which old traditions of record tell us, and yet have been throughout these ages distinctively Indian, with the same national heritage and the same set of moral and mental qualities."

There was something living and dynamic about this heritage (says Nehru) which showed itself in ways of living and a philosophical attitude to life and its problems. Ancient India, like ancient China, was a world in itself, a culture and civilisation, which gave shape to all things. Foreign influences poured in and often influenced that culture, but they were absorbed. Disruptive tendencies gave rise immediately to an attempt to find synthesis. And (Nehru adds) almost lyrically: "some kind of a dream of unity has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilisation. That unity was not conceived as something imposed from outside, a standardisation of externals or even of beliefs. It was something deeper and, within its fold, the widest tolerance of belief and customs was practiced and every variety acknowledged and even encouraged."

Many Hindus, many Sikhs, many Muslims, many Buddhists — in fact, most Indians — endorse and share this dream; Nehru’s vision of the diversity and unity of India.

But events in Gujarat and elsewhere show that ‘Dinosaurs’ breed fast — on hatred. Dinosaurs in one religious camp give impetus to the breeding of them in another — as recent events in Pakistan bear testimony. Scientists tell us that it was a great meteorite that finally destroyed all the dinosaurs on this earth. If so, I like to think that the meteor was the symbolic wrath of God!

I belong to a minority community, a microscopic wholly insignificant minority, which spurned the offer made (at the time of the drafting of our Constitution) — to Anglo–Indians and Parsis alike to have, for at least a decade, our representative in Parliament. The Anglo–Indians accepted the offer — but most of them migrated to places abroad. We Parsis declined the offer — and most of us stayed in India.

In the Constituent Assembly, Sir Homi Mody said that we would rather join the mainstream of a free India. We did. And we have no regrets. I have never felt that I lived in this country at the sufferance of the majority. I have been brought up to think and feel that the minorities, together with the majority community, are integral parts of India.

I have lived and flourished in secular India. In the fullness of time, I would also like to die in secular India, when God wills.

(The writer is a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court).

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