We are a Dharmic, even Yogic, civilisation. What is more, our primary orientation is realisation, transformation, transcendence - not belief, dogma or ritual. No wonder, the category "religion" is a foreign, one might say oppressive, imposition. Religion, in the Abrahamic and, consequently, modern sense is based on a prescriptive faith, fundamental to which is a special contract between the believers and their God or object of reverence. Often, such an agreement is based on a single scripture that serves as the undertaking binding the believer and his faith community.
This was not always so. In pre-Christian Greece and Rome, religion simply meant piety and the worship of divinities. Cicero elaborated this to mean cultum deorum, "the proper performance of rites in veneration of the gods". Greco-Roman deities, like Hindu devas, were the shining or illumined ones, both male and female.
Romans made fire offerings to their gods and cremated their dead. Like other Indo-Europeans, their heroes fought to surpass themselves through great deeds. They believed that lives well-lived, exceeding normal human capacity, would earn them everlasting fame, kleos aphthiton, akin to the Rig Vedic sravasakshitam. Epics were written across this entire ancient world to celebrate the deeds of gods and men.
After Rome became Christianised, the classical world was vandalised and destroyed as Catherine Nixey has described in The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017). Christian conquests of the Americas and other parts of the world ruined other classical civilisations like the Mayas and Incas. What was left of other classical civilisations further east were overrun and ground into the dust by newer iconoclastic faiths such as Islam.
Though all of them supposedly worshipped the same God, originally called YHWH in the Torah, Jehovah in the Bible and Allah in the Quran, the nature of their covenants make Jews, Christians and Muslims mutually exclusive. You cannot be both a Jew and Christian or Jew and Muslim or Christian and Muslim. You have to be one to the exclusion of all others.
When Christians and Muslims encountered people of non-Abrahamic, Dharmic dispositions in India, they were, to say the least, sorely perplexed. A Hindu may worship as many deities as he or she likes. So can a Buddhist or Jain. In India and Nepal, many Hindus also worship the Buddha. Buddhism and Jainism have most of the Hindu deities in one form or another, including goddesses such as Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Durga.
This overlap and multiplicity are present all over the East. In Buddhist Thailand, Hindu gods are worshipped in the courtyards of homes. The royal family traces its lineage from Vishnu. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, the national airline is called Garuda, who is Vishnu’s mount. China’s largely communist and atheist population also follows Taoist, Confucian and Mahayana Buddhist practices. In Japan, it is possible to be both Shinto and Buddhist.
The problem, then, with surveys such as the latest one by Pew, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, is an imperialism of categories in which an Abrahamic-modern idea of religion is imposed upon a civilisation, country and culture that, in fact, has no equivalent word for it. There is not even the modest admission in its stated methodology that dharma is not the same as religion.
Though an impressive 29,999 adults were surveyed across the country in interviews conducted in 17 languages, the survey fails to go to the root of the problem over religion. What we are experiencing in India is not a clash of religions as is commonly understood and proclaimed daily in the media, but actually a conflict over different notions of religion.
Nowhere was this difference as starkly exposed recently as in the fascinating, if fractious, debate over the RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat's speech at the launch of Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed’s book The Meeting of Minds at Ghaziabad on July 4. His widely quoted remark that Hindus and Muslims in India have the same DNA caused a furore.
Why? What was wrong in this assertion that is factually correct? For some 40,000 years, Indians have had very similar DNA, suggesting that the impact of genetic invasions and migrations is neither as stark nor as serious as imagined. For the sake of argument, one can take Bhagwat’s remark to its logical extreme: all humans have more or less the same DNA. But of course, this would be a very Hindu thing to say—the entire human race is one family, vasudhaiva kutumbakam.
What was surprising was that it was middle-class Hindus, claiming the moral high ground, who reacted to the RSS leader more than either Muslims or Leftists. The latter, who customarily disagree, if not denounce, the RSS, of course criticised Bhagwat for calling India a Hindu Rashtra, but they had no problems with his claim that Hindus and Muslims had a common ancestry and culture.
What Bhagwat was emphasising was this older, non-Abrahamic and pre-modern idea of Dharma when he said India was a Hindu nation. All Indians are, in this sense, Hindu, whatever be their individual or group ways of worship or ritual obligations. Bhagwat was using "Hindu" in a sense radically different from the Pew Survey or the Abrahamic understanding. In his sense of the word, Muslims, Christians, Jews or Parsis could naturally and easily also consider themselves Hindus, just as they could practice Yoga, without compromising on or giving up their religious beliefs or practices.
But several groups of middle-class Hindus accused Bhagwat of the "Gandhian error" of appeasing Indian Muslims. Unfortunately, their notion of religion, of being a Hindu, is the modern or Abrahamic one. They want no compromise with Islam in India. Haunted by memories of the medieval Muslim conquest of India, the more recent Partition on religions lines and the Congress policy of the appeasement of minorities, they want the Hindu majority to take the zero-tolerance hardline on Hindu-Muslim relations.
Few noticed that Bhagwat ended his speech with a couplet from Mohammad Iqbal - arguably the greatest Muslim poet of the last century, not to mention one of the founding fathers and idealogues of Pakistan - that roughly means: Though his style of narration was not very fancy, perhaps his listeners would have got what he was trying to convey.
You can be as Hindu as you like, but once you claim that you are more Hindu than others or, worse, others are less Hindu than you, there’s a problem. The irony of contemporary times is that the RSS now occupies the middle ground, representing moderation and reconciliation while "born-again" Hindus adopt more extreme hardline positions.
(Views are personal)
(The writer is Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and tweets @MakrandParanspe)