Through millennia, from the Vedic to modern times, India has evolved her own organic processes to harmonize diversity and create a ceaseless dialogue and exchange of ideas between diverse elements.
When the Intolerance debate burst forth upon the Indian political scene, one of the aspects being emphasized again and again was how the Nehruvian idea of a tolerant India was getting sabotaged. What went unnoticed was the fact that tolerance has been an idea intrinsic to India for thousands of years. Through millennia, India has evolved her own organic processes to harmonize diversity and create a ceaseless dialogue and exchange of ideas between the diverse elements. At any particular point of time, one can see eddies of such evolutionary dialogues happening between seemingly diverse and even conflicting elements. This has been true from the Vedic to modern times.
Not that India has been bereft of conflicts. There have been many—ethnic, religious, political and so on. But the general subsuming meta-movement has always been towards harmonizing the diverse elements through placing them in an underlying matrix where the diverse—even conflicting—elements become its complementary manifestations. We call the process Samanvaya and it goes way beyond the concept of tolerance.
One finds such harmonizing processes throughout Vedic literature. A popular one is the verse of the seer Dirghatamas: “Truth is One and the wise call it differently.” (Rig Veda: 1.164.46) Vedic society should have known internal strife with various social groups, diverse spiritual traditions etc. Yet the deities and traditions got harmonized through an elaborate system of ever growing body of mythologies as well as rituals. The Ishavasya Upanishad brings together some of the strongest binaries the human mind has created. The knowledge of the temporal with the knowledge of the absolute is made interdependent for the attainment of holistic knowledge. In the same way, the worship of the personal deity and the adoration of the impersonal deity are integrated as complementary in obtaining liberation rather than pitting one as superior to the other. (Ishavasya Upanishad, verses 11-14)
Vedic religion was harmonized with the supposedly non-Vedic Pancharatra doctrine. The latter forms the ground for temple worship, image worship etc. Definitely, the temple form of worship and the Vedic form of worship could have had a conflict. Hence the western Indological mind naturally thought of Pancharatra as non-Vedic or even anti-Vedic. However Indic scholars with traditional roots differ. They do not see them as opposing or unrelated entities. Rather, they are diverse elements in interaction embedded in the substratum of a harmonizing cultural field. There are traditional scholars who even go to the extent of saying that “the influence of the agamas or tantras as they are more familiarly known in Indian life has been profound”. (P.T.Srinivasa Iyengar, quoted by Dr S. Rangachar, Philosophy of Pancaratras, Sridevi Prakashana, Mandya, 1991, p.22) And then he adds, “The living Hindu religion of today from Cape Comorin to remotest corners of Tibet is essentially Tantric.”
Pancharatra was internalized and harmonized rather than pitted against the Vedic as a distinct system. Pancharatra speaks of the four Vuhas or emancipations of the Supreme: Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. When Pancharatra got internalized, as a spiritual phenomenon, Vasudeva becomes the supreme Godhead and Sankarshana his manifestation as the individual soul (jiva); Pradyumna the mind; and Aniruddha the ego-sense. This internalization of the Bhagavata doctrine then finds resonance with the verses of the Chandogya Upanishad (“He becomes one then becomes threefold”, 7.24.2). (Edwin Bryant, Krishna: A Sourcebook, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 318) What is true of the Vedic religion is also true of Buddhism.
In Lalitavistara, an early Buddhist work, we find the Buddha condemning tantra. However, Buddhism later developed its own tantra system. Similarly, despite the rejection of the Vedic authority, we find Buddhist architecture—particularly the stupa—incorporating the features of the Vedic fire altar (or according to some authorities “Brahminical fire altar tumulus”). (Le Huu Phuoc, Buddhist Architecture, Grafikol, 2010, p.142)
The six darshanas, as well as the Jain and Buddhist approaches to Reality, have provided the Indian approach to knowledge a dynamic pluralism—both in terms of epistemology and ontology. The cognitive flexibility that these systems provide to the Indian mind is staggering. The Satkarya-vadha in the Vedic system where the effect is involuted in the cause in the non-linear way, along with Sankhya, resonates with the autopoietic (self-producing) view of life put forth by philosophers of modern biology. The Syadvada of the Jains seems to anticipate the mathematical formalism of quantum bits. The Buddhist doctrine of Pratityasamutpada can provide us epistemological tools to explore various ways in which evolution functions.
One can contrast this with the almost strangling effect that the imposition of Aristotelian philosophy, along with Christian theology, had on the development of material and psychological sciences in the West.
The diverse Indian knowledge systems nevertheless have a connecting dynamic matrix. Jain seer Acharya Mahaprajña, on the authority of Jain text Anyayogavyavacchedadvatrimsika of Haribhadrasuri, shows how seemingly varied Indic systems of knowledge form a whole: “The Vedantic monism is like the waveless ocean and the Buddhist phenomenonalism is like the state of ocean with strong waves. (Jain) Non-absolutism appropriates them both.” (Acharya Mahaprajña, The Axioms of Non-absolutism, Facets of Jain Philosophy: Anekantavada and Syadvada [Ed. Sreeland Rampuria], Jain Vishva Bharathi Institute, 1996, p.2)
The same harmonized acceptance of diverse systems is also revealed in the inscription of the Kesava temple at Belur, Mysore: “May Hari the Lord of the three worlds, worshipped by the Saivas as Siva, by the Vedantists as Brahman, venerated by the Buddhists as the Buddha, by the logicians as the chief agent, by the Jains as the emancipated being and by the ritualists as the principle of observance, grant our prayers.” (Cultural Study of Hoysala Inscriptions, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums in Karnataka, 2000, p.105)
Even where there were somewhat violent attitudes towards fellow Indic sects, Samanvaya proved successful in the long run. A good example is the so-called impaling of 8,000 Jains by the Saivaite saint Gnana Sambandar—a 7th century Saivaite monk. This is often quoted by Marxist scholars like Prof Romila Thapar to show that ancient Indian history was that of violent persecution performed by a Brahminical religion against Jains and Buddhists. Though Sambandar was against the Jains and Buddhists theologically, the internal evidence in his poetry also suggests that ultimately he considered both these sects as the working of Siva himself (Sambandar Thevaram, 2.172.10). He further says that the blasphemy against Siva by Buddhists and Jains were accepted as principled by none other than Siva himself (Sambandar Thevaram, 1.66.10).
There is no evidence of the impaling story itself in contemporary historical records, including those of Jains or in the Pandya inscriptions, under whose reign the event was said to have happened. So scholars of South Indian history, including K.A.N. Sastri, had dismissed the episode of voluntary impalement of 8,000 Jains who were defeated by Sambandar in debate, as Saiva braggadacio without any basis in facts. (For a complete factual counter to this Marxist portrayal, see: Sita Ram Goel, Hindu Temples: What Happened To Them, Vol II, Appendix IV, Questionnaire for the Marxist Professors, Voice of India, 1991, pp.409-422)
However, the story does not end here. Later, Tamil Hindu scholar U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942), popularly known as “Tamil Grandpa”, set forth to discover and preserve ancient Tamil classics which were mainly of Jain and Buddhist origins. When he discovered Jivakachintamani, an ancient Tamil Jain classic, it was through the help of reputed Saiva mutt at Thiruvavaduthurai that he published the Jain work. (Dr U.Ve.Saminathaiyer, En Sarithram [My history, Tamil], Dr U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer Book Centre, 1950: 1997, pp.575-77)
Despite the colonial Indologist as well as post-colonial Marxist approaches to ancient Indian history viewing it as a conflict between the so-called upper caste Brahminical system oppressing and assimilating the “non-Brahminical” systems, the Indic approach has always been harmony-oriented. In fact, the finest achievements of Buddhism in India, namely the Ajanta cave paintings and Nalanda University, were patronized by the Vakataka king Harisena and the Gupta emperors respectively. Both royal lineages were rooted in Vedic religion. When Mihirahula the Hun massacred Buddhist monks, Indic kings Baladitya and Yasodharma came together and vanquished the oppressor.
It is not only in the realms of high philosophy and royal history that the harmonization process worked. It equally worked in the folk traditions and popular culture of India throughout the ages. Thus, in the popular story of Adi Sankara, it is said that when Adi Sankaracharya defeated the famous Jain scholar Amarasimha, the latter became so dejected that he started burning his own works. When he came to know of this, Adi Sankara went and prevented him from burning any further of his scholarly works and thus we got the famous Sanskrit thesaurus Amarakosha.
A similar story is also told about the emperor Shalivahana. The emperor, originally hailing from the background of potters, was humiliated when the Naga princess he had married exclaimed playfully in Sanskrit and the king could not comprehend what she had said. So when he set forth to study Sanskrit very quickly, his minister Gunadya told him that it would take him a minimum of 12 years while another minister, Sarvavarma, was confident of making the king an expert in six months. The infuriated Gunadya stated that he would cease speaking in Sanskrit if that happened. And that is exactly what happened. Gunadya left the emperor’s court and vanished.
Later the emperor had tribal visitors who offered him a classic Brihatkatha written in their language Paishacha. Shalivahana considered Paishacha an uncivilized language and refused. Soon after this, the emperor fell ill because of eating some inferior meat, and inquiries revealed that the animals in the forest literally starve, captivated by the music of the guru of the tribals. So Shalivahana went to the forest himself to witness this phenomenon. There he saw that it was Gunadya who was singing his Paishachic Brihatkatha and burning the palm-leaf-written verses one by one. Regretting his error, the emperor prevented further burning and returned to his capital with his minister and the Paishachic classic.
This folk tale has layers of meaning and shows how Samanvaya works not just in the realms of religion and philosophy but also in the realm of linguistic diversity. One, it shows that Sanskrit, contrary to the myth built around it, is not very hard to learn. Then it subtly criticizes the vanity that may come with the learning of Sanskrit, which was definitely the cultural lingua franca of classical India. Further, it shows the beauty of a supposedly crude tribal language and elevates it to a sublime height. It underlines the duty of those in authority to nourish linguistic diversity. The result has been that Sanskrit itself has evolved more as a pervading matrix absorbing local linguistic substrata in its course rather than imposing itself as an annihilator of local linguistic diversity. Folk tales similar to the one about Shalivahana exist throughout India in almost all local languages.
The process of Samanvaya has never ceased in Indian history.
In the 17th century, the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur had campaigned against the tantric traditions in Assam and related regions. But within the next generation, the harmonization had brought together again the Shaktic and the core Vaishanvism of the Sikh Panth together when the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh wrote Chandi di Var (a martial ballad of the Goddess battling the demons based on the Markandeya Purana) with the advent of the Khalsa movement.
The fierce Hindu resistance to Islamic invasions is just one side of Indian history. Underneath, the Indic matrix was also working on Islam and harmonizing it. When Abul Fazal’s Akbar Nama had Akbar confess regretfully that he had “forced many Brahmins by fear of power to adopt Islam”, it was indeed a significant moment for the process of Samanvaya triumphing over the monocultural expansionist tendencies. Akbar went on to say that he had done such proselytization when his mind was not enlightened. Despite the regressive movement during Aurangzeb’s reign, Samanvaya reached its zenith in the immortal works of Dara Shikoh, the martyred elder brother of Aurangzeb.
The importance of Dara Shikoh in the process of Samanvaya has not yet been studied and realized to its full potential. From the condescending admission of Amir Khusrau that Hindus did have some correct beliefs from a theologically rigid point of view, the point reached by Shikoh is amazingly universal. In his introduction to the Persian translation of the Upanishads (Sirr-i-Akbar, The Greatest Secret), Shikoh reveals his religious philosophy. He compares the different world scriptures—the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (Taurat and Injil) as well as the Psalms (Zabur). He declares that the degree of clarity and intelligibility in them are not uniform. He states that the content of the Quran is allegorical.
Then he goes on to do the unthinkable. He contends that the Upanishads are the Quran in a protected book—kitab maknun—a reserved term in the Islamic theological world that refers to the original form of the Quran inscribed by Allah himself.
So for Shikoh, the Upanishads stand as a holy text by themselves, but to understand the real meaning of the Quran, Muslims have to study the Upanishads. Elsewhere, Shikoh also considered the idol worship of Hindus positively. According to him, a concrete representation of a deity was essential till one gets the inner meaning of religion. (Malik Mohamed, The Foundations of the Composite Culture in India, Aakar Books, 2007, pp.53-55)
The martyrdom of Shikoh would not go waste as demonstrated by another martyr Ashfaqullah Khan who, when asked by the British why he—a Muslim—was fighting for the freedom of Hindustan, replied that he preferred his Hindu brothers over British colonialism. The spirit of Shikoh still lives vibrantly in India in the Mahabharata dialogues Rahi Mazoom Raza wrote, which made the entire nation stand still in the late 1980s every Sunday morning as the TV serial was telecast. In the life of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, it has become an inspiration for the entire nation.
In modern times, with respect to Abrahamic religions, the process of Samanvaya was initiated by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition. Swami Brahmananda, the heir to the Vedanta mission in the United States, initiated the celebration of Christmas. Swami Ranganathananda, one of the highly respected monks of the Ramakrishna movement, gave a Christmas lecture that became quite famous under the title The Christ We Adore. The booklet shifts the importance from the historicity and exclusive salvation into an inner message of sadhana and experience of the Divine.
The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda-initiated Samanvaya has continued to bear fruit despite strong scepticism from some quarters of Hindu nationalism (interestingly, outside the mainstream Sangh). A good example is Father Anthony Elenjimittam (1915-2011).
A Gandhian Christian priest from Kerala, he worked in Italy, bringing Indic values to Christianity. Incidentally, he was the man who coined the term “pseudo-secularism” and he was also perhaps the first person to write an appreciative book on the RSS in English from a Gandhian perspective: Philosophy and Action of the RSS for the Hind Swaraj (1951).
Inspired by the Bhagavad Gita’s concluding verse and motivated by Sri Ramakrishna’s words—“Help me to recognize you in all forms”, he founded the Mission Satchitananda in Italy.
Equally important is the work of Father Anthony de Mello (1931-1987) who, through his book Sadhana—A Way to God (1978), became a veritable phenomenon in Catholic monasteries throughout the world and also became famous among other religionists. Rejecting exclusivist claims,he placed his “story telling Master” as “not a single person” but a “Hindu Guru, a Zen Roshi, a Taoist Sage, a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Monk, a Sufi Mystic”.
The Master of Wisdom for Anthony de Mello was also “Lao Tzu and Socrates, Buddha and Jesus, Zarathustra and Muhammed”. He sidelined the historic-centric approach to religion, emphasizing it as an inner journey: “Do (the Master’s) historical antecedents really matter? History, after all, is the record of appearances, not Reality; of doctrines, not of Silence.” (Anthony de Mello SJ, Note to One Minute Nonsense, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1992)
Eleven years after his death, in 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, restricted the use of his work as some of his positions were found to be “incompatible with the Catholic faith”. The path of Samanvaya is no path of roses.
Tolerance is at best a Cartesian concept of mechanistic tolerance of mutually competing worldviews, waiting for their time to come. It is simply an interlude for the battle of gathering forces waiting to attain critical mass to subjugate or annihilate the other. What is needed for a real pluralist society is harmonization with mutual respect.
In his work on the Brahma Sutra, Dr S. Radhakrishnan zoomed in on the word Samanvaya and pointed out its relevance in modern times: “Today the samanvaya or harmonization has to be extended to the living faiths of mankind. As the author of the Brahma Sutra tried to reconcile the different doctrines prevalent in his time, we have to take into account the present state of our knowledge and evolve a coherent picture.” (Dr S. Radhakrishnan, The Brahma Sutra: The Philosophy of Spiritual Life, George Allen & Unwin, 1960, p.249)
It is time we move from the mechanistic and imposed tolerance to the more organic and historically evolved Samanvaya, which is needed not only between various religious and linguistic groups as in a pluralistic society, but also for humanity as a whole, between its various pursuits of knowledge and beauty through art, science, philosophy and religion.