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February 22, 1999

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E-Mail this story to a friend Amberish K Diwanji

Hindus are very intolerant

Tell a lie a 1000 times and it becomes the truth. This was claimed by none other than Josef Goebbels, minister for propaganda in Hitler's cabinet. Except that he was wrong. Tell a lie a 1000 times and people believe you easily, often thinking it is the truth. But it is not the truth.

Today, there is a certain myth prevailing that Hindus are a very tolerant people and that Hinduism is a very tolerant religion. That it is the tolerance of Hinduism and the Hindu people which allowed and allows other faiths, sects and beliefs to exist in this country in perfect harmony. That because India is a Hindu majority country it is secular (clearly implying that if Hindus are not in a majority, India would not have been secular).

Alas, it is very easy to believe flattering things about ones own self. Tell a man he is intelligent and handsome, he'll nod approvingly; say he's not and you could end up in a fight! On what basis are these premises made? It must be very ego satisfying for Hindus nurturing delusions of grandeur to hold such beliefs about their great faith, but it is not very true.

Despite its many social flaws, there is no doubt good reason to believe that Hinduism, as a religion and philosophy, is very tolerant. The reason is because Hinduism means different things to different people. It does not have a single book (like the Bible or Koran) but has many books -- the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagvad Gita, besides books such as the Ramayan, Mahabharata, Ramacharita Manas, Dnyaneshwari, and so on. In these books one comes across various ideas, beliefs, stories and devotional songs to guide the common man. Similarly, while Hinduism is at one end extremely ritualistic, it can also be lived completely bereft of these rituals and sacraments. Even those who insist that Hinduism has certain core beliefs have difficulty listing them. You can even be an atheist and be a Hindu (only Buddhism comes close in this respect). It is this elasticity, this all-encompassing nature of this great philosophy and theology that has ensured the survival of the world's oldest religion, a religion assaulted more from within than from outside.

However, are Hindus really tolerant, or do we simply believe that we are and then propagate this lie so much that we end up believing it. Reams have been written, scores of scholars, theologians, and intellectuals of different persuasions quoted in seeking to prove the tolerance of Hindus. Nothing is more satisfying that quoting some white-skinned Westerner who chooses to attack Christianity and Islam and praise Hinduism and Hindus. Yet when some brown-skinned Indian chooses to find fault with Hinduism, he is called Macaulay's child, brown sahib, a person who has never understood India, and so on. Praise Hindus and you have understood India (and Hinduism); criticise certain aspects of Hinduism and be damned! Is this not an Inquisition?

How do you measure tolerance? Muslims today are called intolerant. Yet history shows that for centuries, Jews were safest in Muslim lands while being hounded in Christian lands, until the creation of Israel changed that. Today, Christian-majority nations and states are pushing the frontiers of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice, ideas that India imported and Indians (mostly Hindus) today seek proudly to defend because these ideas are for the benefit of all citizens. Ideas cannot to be condemned simply because they come from another land or from people of a different faith.

While there is no doubt about Hinduism per se being tolerant, all Hindus cannot claim that privilege. Every society and religion has its outsiders. The Jews had their gentile, Christians their pagan, Muslims their kafirs. Hindus had their mlechha (the impure outsiders and lower castes). But while other faiths only targeted outsiders, Hindus also targeted people within their faith: the so-called untouchables and lower castes. A great amount of energy and effort was expended by the so-called upper castes in keeping down the lower castes by creating a maze of laws that were inhuman to say the least.

There is much boasting about how other faiths could flourish in India, the inference being about how Hindus were tolerant. Yet what kind of tolerance is it that is kind to some while cruel to others? Is it to do with fear? Christianity and Islam both first came to India along the Malabar coast (ironic, but the great Shankaracharya, who revived Hinduism in India and ousted Buddhism, also came from the region now known as Kerala), but then they were small settlements with a limited impact. The major impact of both came with the conquerors. The fact is that (upper-caste) Hindus were tolerant to both Muslims and Christians because being conquerors and rulers, to not tolerate them and their faith meant instant death! And their intolerance to their own lower caste brethren drove the latter into the arms of other faiths.

The fact is that no Hindu would dare have treated a Muslim the way he did an untouchable: the Muslim rulers/kings/warriors would have chopped off his head. Ditto when the Europeans came. Would any upper caste Hindu have dared prevent a Muslim or Christian from entering his house or his locality? On the contrary, the upper caste Hindus forged close alliances with the rulers of the day to improve their positions in society and became part of the Úlite. (Upper-caste) Hindus were tolerant towards Muslims and Christians because the latter had swords and guns; but the same Hindus were intolerant of lower-caste Hindus who came with their hands folded, seeking to pray in the temple and live with dignity in the village. Both of which were denied to them!

Today, both the Muslim and Christian conquerors and rulers are no longer in our midst. And the result is an upsurge of Hindu intolerance, whether it is in the massacres in Bihar (remember, dalits are hardly ever treated as equal Hindus), in the killing of Stains, in the communal violence that so pervades our society. Tolerance is how the ruling class and society treats its people of all kinds, and our record is no great shakes.

What is mentioned above can be said of all peoples of all communities. Christians, exhorted to love their neighbours, have perpetuated the worst crimes in history against native people across the globe. For centuries, the Church supported apartheid and racism, and the imperialism of the West. The killings in the name of Islam (despite Prophet Mohammed's message never to convert by force) are endless and gory, the destruction of temples and the forced conversions of Hindus and others (offering them the Koran or the sword) in India and elsewhere are part of Islam's history.

Yet, the point I am trying to make is that the people of all religions have shown incredible cruelty towards others weaker than them at a given point in history. It is not much different for Hindus. Upper caste Hindus centuries ago, were not tolerant of people weaker than them (who were then the so-called lower castes). Hence when Hindus boast of their tolerance, let us take it with a large pinch of salt.

Certainly, Hinduism has never been involved in a clash with Buddhism (like how Christian and Islam fought) and this is due to the accepting and open philosophies of both. Yet, all religions preach certain values of love, brotherhood, service, etc. Humans have failed to understand them. When some of us (of any religious denomination) criticise the actions of some Hindu bigots (as we do that of Muslim and Christian fanatics), it is only because our religions teach us better.

Amberish K Diwanji

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