Myth of Hindu Sameness

Abstract

This essay examines the often-repeated claim by Hindus and non-Hindus alike that Hinduism is the same as other religions. Some common factors that cause many Hindus to slip into sameness are as follows: Hindus arrogantly assume that other religions want to be the same as Hinduism, and hence they feel that they are doing these other religions a favor.

Against this one may point out that the traditional Hindu teachings make a clear distinction between valid and not valid religious claims, by separating them as dharma and adharma, sat (truth) and asat (falsity), devika and asuric, etc.
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Medha Editor’s Note: This Article was first published November 18, 2004. The date is not very relevant, as the value of this analysis will be valid for decades to come. There is reformatting also, in the hope that in an essay of such depth and density, important points won’t be missed by the reader.
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Many Hindus misapply teachings about the Unmanifest when dealing with the diversity of the manifest, and the unity of transcendence in dealing with the diversity and conflict found in the world.

Furthermore, they fail to distinguish between shruti and smriti. The unity of all shruti is assumed to mean that all smritis must be the same.

In particular, Hindus fail to understand the critical history-dependence of the Abrahamic religions and the way their core myths and institutions are built around these frozen smritis. Often what Hindus really mean is that all religions are equal in the respect and rights they deserve, but they confuse this with sameness.

At the same time, there are strong arguments that religious differences lead to tensions and violence. Many Hindus have internalized these arguments, over simplifying the Hindu thought about there being one truth and all paths leading to it.

To address these and other issues, this essay presents a new theoretical framework for looking at religions and global religious violence. It classifies religious movements as History-Centric and non History-Centric.
The former are contingent on canonical beliefs of their sacred history. Non History-Centric religious movements, on the other hand, do have beliefs about history, but their faith is not contingent on history.

The essay advances the thesis that non History-Centric faiths offer the only viable spiritual alternative to the religious conflicts that are inherent among History-Centric religions.

In analyzing the predominantly non History-Centric Hinduism through this framework, the essay looks at the two main Hindu responses in its interface with the predominantly History-Centric religions of Christianity and Islam.

These are:
(1) How Hinduism is trying to become History-Centric, and
(2) How Hinduism is self-destructing under the Myth of Sameness, by offering itself as a library of shareware for “generic” spirituality.

The essay cautions that Hinduism runs the risk of becoming either
(1) History-Centric itself, or
(2) Losing its identity and becoming digested into Christianity via the Sameness Myth.

Scenario #1 leads to a three-way jihad among three History-Centric religions – Christianity vs. Islam vs. Hinduism – in which Hinduism cannot win.

Scenario #2 leads to the dissolution of Hinduism through a combination of hostile and friendly takeovers by Christianity, which, in turn, worsens the two-way jihad between Christianity and Islam. Therefore, both scenarios ultimately feed the clash of Christianity vs. Islam, i.e. between conflicting History-Centric positions.

To construct an alternative framework, the essay debunks the Sameness Myth, which reflects naïve Hindus’ wishful thinking about how other religions ought to be rather than how they actually are.

The essay calls for Hindu scholars to develop a rigorous approach to purva-paksha (scholarly critiques of other traditions within the framework of the Indian darshanas); to highlight the Hindu history of constructions through its own smriti traditions; and to refute false presuppositions about Hinduism that have spread into many academic disciplines.

The essay recommends the promotion of equality-with-difference as a core Hindu principle, also referred to within this essay as difference-with-respect. This entails asserting a positive Hindu identity that is neither History-Centric nor dismissive of its distinctiveness.

I: Introduction

There are two current trends in Hinduism that were born of a perceived ‘threat’ to Hinduism. These are as follows:

1. There is a movement to focus Hinduism in terms of God’s interventions in Indian history, most commonly associated with Avatar Ram’s history and the related geography. Such a version of Hinduism is History-Centric. (See my earlier writings.) The term is also explained later in this essay.

2. The second trajectory is less formal and less institutionalized, but is far more pervasive and subversive. This is to unbundle (or break up) Hinduism into a set of separate generic ideas, practices, symbols, etc., that any religion or non religious worldview may appropriate in a modular fashion, assimilating what fits and rejecting (and demonizing) what does not.

I call this the Sameness Myth because it is the result of the false premise that Hinduism is the same as any other religion, thereby making its parts individually available for appropriation.

Both these trends feed and are fed by a ‘threatened Hinduism’, i.e., the sense that Hinduism is facing pressures from within and without. However, this essay does not examine such threats or pressures. (I have other essays on geopolitics and Hinduism.)

History-Centrism (#1) provides any religion with an identity fortress, which is both defensive and useful for an offensive. It also tends to collapse internal differences and encourage homogeneity. I shall argue against the merits of this kind of essentializing of Hinduism, and will suggest alternative ways of bringing cohesion and identity that preserve difference.

After a brief overview of History-Centrism, the main purpose of this essay will be to explain the problems that Hinduism is facing because of #2, i.e., the false myth that it is the same as other religions. I shall show that the Sameness Myth suffers from at least three problems:

  • Sameness with all other religions is incompatible with authentic Hindu dharma.
  • Sameness is making Hinduism irrelevant and redundant. It is sliding Hinduism towards extinction by dilution and assimilation, in the same manner as Christianity’s inculturation strategy made many pagan religions extinct.

It positions Hinduism as a takeover target by History-Centric predators, with a friendly takeover of some components and a hostile takeover and/or outright cultural genocide of other components.

  • In the aftermath of such takeovers the predators become stronger and the world less safe. Hence, sameness can at best be a short-term alternative and antidote to History-Centrism but it leads to unstable states of power that eventually feed more History-Centrism.

The opposite of sameness is difference. Many scholars have considered ‘difference’ to be the source of tensions and violence. Hence, they promote the sameness myth. However, this is a European view based on their experience with Abrahamic religions that are History-Centric.
This view does not apply to non-European cultures such as the Indic traditions that have a worldview of difference-with-respect.
Difference-with-respect is an attitude that is practically unachievable through History-Centric religions, except in the form of artificial political correctness commonly referred to as ‘tolerance’.

My thesis of difference-with-respect is at odds with both #1 and #2 poles above. Furthermore, each pole’s frenzy feeds the other:

  • Moderate Hindus recoiling against religious violence have tended to gravitate towards sameness in order to dilute their distinct identities, and hence absolve themselves of ‘Hindu shame’.
  • Conversely, many Hindus who are concerned about the way the Sameness Myth deconstructs (and eventually destructs) their faiths have jumped on the History-Centrism bandwagon for identity protection, in the form of Hindutva.

 

The following factors have contributed to the Sameness Myth:

  • U-Turns and American Perennialism: Historically, sameness emerged out of 19th century neo-Hindu leaders’ constructions of Hinduism that often mapped Indic categories on to Western ones [1]. For instance, Swami Vivekananda successfully popularized Hinduism in 19th century America. But later, many of his important Western disciples and sympathizers genericized Hinduism.

Several of them eventually did U-Turns back into Western identity and Western thought. Perennialism and the New Age movement were by-products of such movements [2]. Meanwhile, the mainstream History-Centric Christianity did not dissolve itself or melt itself into sameness, but, on the contrary, it strengthened its positioning by appropriating from Hinduism.

  • Opportunistic Hindu gurus: The Sameness Myth took a quantum leap in the 1960s when many Hindu gurus arrived in America. They attracted huge followings and piled up vast donations by playing the sameness game to appeal to the pop culture at the expense of authenticity.

They lowered the bar for Westerners to enter into pop Hinduism, but this also lowered the bar to their exit once the fad had died and once enough components from Hinduism had been successfully appropriated into Western systems. (See details.[3])

  • Postmodernist intellectualism: Postmodernism is the academic equivalent of pop Vedanta as an intellectual framework to deconstruct identity. (While Vedanta deconstructs the individual ego, postmodernism mainly deconstructs the collective cultural identity.)

It has intellectually disaggregated Hinduism into a library of random clip art that may be clicked-and-dragged into any belief system under the control and discretion of the new owner. (For instance, postmodernist frameworks allow scholars such as Courtright to misinterpret Hindu symbols arbitrarily, and to sell their works successfully at the highest levels of the academy.)

  • Politics of South Asianism: It is a glaring contradiction that the very scholars who attack Indian identity (where Hinduism is the core value system) as being ‘chauvinistic’, are the same scholars that, simultaneously, promote
    (i) the divisive sub-national/separatist identities of Dalits, Dravidians and minority religions, and
    (ii) the South Asian identity that pressures India externally.

Furthermore, these scholars suffer from various conflicts of interest as their careers are in institutions of education and funding where Western identity and chauvinism rule.

Meanwhile, Western supremacy remains unaffected by the fringe activities of its liberal scholars. Besides USA and European states, Russia, China, Japan and Arab states remain highly nationalistic.

Therefore, as Ziauddin Sardar and others have pointed out, the criticism of nation-states and related identities has indirectly served to empower the very imperialism, which the intellectuals attack.

Many trendy postmodernist theories are being exported to colonize third world intellectuals who use them to impress white liberals. Unfortunately, many Indian intellectuals have facilitated ‘softening the prey’ on behalf of the predator empires – in effect serving as sepoys [4].

 

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