Equating Hindu dharma with proselytizing religions has been the bane of Hindu society.
‘All religions are equal’, this attitude of many Hindus is one of the most damaging things to Hindu Dharma especially when there is an existential threat from the proselytizing monopolistic religions. This attitude arises from a poor understanding of the philosophies of Dharma, added to a naïve and shallow familiarity of the Christian and Islamic creed. For example: Confusing Abrahamic Monotheism with Advaitic Monism
- Monotheism — There is only one God and everything else is his creation.
- Monism — There is only Brahman and nothing else.
To confuse these two as the same is like claiming ‘Christianity is polytheistic because there is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’
Recently in a conversation about the exclusive dogma of Abrahamic religions, a traditional Hindu said that ‘all religions are exclusive’, giving the Charama Sloka from Bhagavad Gita as his reference. Charama Sloka is a key concept of Sri Vaishanavas who hold this Sloka of Bhagavad Gita as the noblest of all shastras,
सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज।
अहं त्वा सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः।।18.66।।
sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣhayiṣhyāmi mā śhuchaḥ
Abandoning all Dharmas, seek me as your sole refuge;
I shall rescue you from all paapa karmas; don’t be sorrowful.
This person claims that ‘mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja’ as evidence of exclusivity, equal to
John 14:6 ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
But this is extremely damaging false equivalence.
In Bhagavad Gita itself, in Chapter 10, Vibhuti yoga, Krishna explains his emanations in every aspect of creation and describes himself.
10.21. Of the sons of Aditi, I am Vishnu; of the luminous things, I am the radiant Ravi(Surya); of the Maruts, I am Marici; of the stars, I am the Shashi.
10.22. Of the Vedas, I am the Samaveda; of the Devatas, I am Vasava (Indra); of the sense-organs, I am the mind; of the beings, I am the sentience.
10.23. And of the Rudras, I am Shankara; of the Yakshas and the Rakshasas, I am Kubera; of the Vasus, I am the Agni; of the mountains, I am the Meru.
10.24. Of the great priests I am the Brhaspati,; of the commanders, I am Skanda; of the water bodies, I am the ocean.
Are these verses in denial of Vishnu, Ravi, Indra, Shankara, Skanda? Or are they to convey that the Purusha is worshipped in different emanations, in different contexts?
And this concept in the Bhagavad Gita is not new, it arises from the Vedas itself, where one Sukta will pray to Varuna as the greatest of gods and another one with Indra as the greatest. To the Hindu mind, these are not contradictory because one particular deity might indeed be the worshiper’s greatest god, but that is not to deny other gods that other people might worship. Western Indologists like Max Mueller recognized this and called it Henotheism.
Is this comparable to the exclusivity of the Bible? Is there any content, where Jesus or YHWH mentions other deities claiming that they are same as him and worthy of worship?
Compare those slokas from Gita with these from Bible – Exodus
20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
20:5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
Recently Nithyasree Mahadevan, an artist of Shastriya Sangeetha, is in the news because she sang a Krithi, ‘Samanulevaru Prabho’ to Jesus, meaning ‘Lord, who are your equals’. This is highly imitative of Thyagaraja Swami’s composition towards Rama, ‘Rama nee samanamevaru’ — Who is equal to you, Oh Rama’.
So why is it ok for Thyagaraja Swami to sing thus to Rama and not ok, for Christians to imitate it for Jesus? Because of the aforesaid philosophical attitude. Thyagaraja Swami when he upholds the peerless greatness of Rama does not mean he denies other gods, for in another Krithi he would call all music as ‘Sadashiva Maya’. Or he would request Gopalakrishna Bharathi and admire the composition, ‘Sabhapathikku veru deivam samaanam aaguma — Can any other god be equal to Sabhapathi i.e. Nataraja’
But when such a thing is sung to Jesus, it is not in that attitude, not in that philosophical sense, but only as a vehement rejection of all other gods. This is precisely why to quote ‘Ekaṃ sat viprāḥ bahudhā vadanti’ to include Christianity and Islam, is actually a misuse of the Upanishadic statement.
Ekaṃ sat viprāḥ bahudhā vadanti
Truth is one, the wise speak of it in many ways
Does it then mean, that the ‘unwise’, will insist that truth can be spoken of,
only in a particular way,
only in a particular book,
only by a particular person — prophet, messiah?
Hence while truth is one, there are certainly two groups- the wise and the unwise.
If so, can the things spoken of by the unwise, be the truth? Or would it be a legion of lies?
So it is foolish to use the above vakya from Upanishad, to posit a false equivalence between, a worldview that sees a singular truth via its multiple facets and desert dogmas which are obsessed with the singular seeing, but dodgy of the truth.
Another confused Hindu had asked. ‘According to Vishnu Purana, Vishnu created Shiva and according to Shiva Purana, it’s vice versa. In Devi Bhagavata Purana, the supreme goddess created Vishnu and Shiva. What’s the truth?’
My response was simply,
ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते |
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ||
Om pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidam pūrṇāt pūrṇamudacyate|
pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya pūrṇamevāvaśiṣyate||
That is complete, This is complete, From the completeness comes the completeness.
If completeness is taken away from completeness, Only completeness remains
Now replace the words ‘complete/completeness’, with Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Brahma, Devi, Krishna. It will still all be true. And answer will be found.
Coming back to the Charama sloka, Krishna details many yogas and ways to practise dharma, attain moksha through 18 chapters, he acknowledges other gods in the course of his Gita, and in 18:63, tells Arjuna to consider all he has revealed and to do as Arjuna pleases. After that only does Krishna say, since Arjuna is dear to him and of firm intellect, that he can abandon all other endeavours of dharma and seek Krishna alone as a refuge. And that such a path is possible only for those who have proven themselves eligible.
18.64. Yet again, you must listen to my ultimate (or supreme) message which is the highest secret of all. You are my dear one and have a firm intellect. Hence I shall tell you what is good to you :
18.65. Be with your mind fixed in Me; be my devotee; offer oblation to me and render salutation to me; you shall come to me alone. Really I promise you, (because) you are dear to me.
18.66. Abandoning all Dharmas, seek me as your sole refuge; I shall rescue you from all paapa karmas; don’t be sorrowful
18.67. This [knowledge] is for you, and it should never be imparted to one who does not observe austerities; to him who has no devotion; to him who has no desire to listen; and to him who is indignant towards Me.
And this adherence is very important in Sadhana, we can’t keep window shopping for deities, gurus or sampradayas –flitting from one to another. At some point when we are of firm intellect and discernment, there will be a clarity of being dear to a particular deity or guru — a certain affinity. And once that is known, it is then we should abandon all other options and cleave entirely to it. That Shraddha is a positive and subjective choice for oneself, but not the denial of all others, or rejection of choices of other people, in their own seeking.
Another interpretation is in the evolution from Sudrah (everyone is born so), to Dvija (disciplined), to Viprah (the wise) — the final state of Brahmana (not of birth) is achieved only when the sadhaka moves beyond the duality of dharma-adharma, and that abandonment of dharma-adharmas is what Krishna is teaching in the Charama Sloka.
Are any of these understandings, in any way promoting ‘exclusivity’, in the same manner as Christianity?
Exclusivity in itself is not as much an issue, but when combined with proselytizing, it becomes a plague that should be fought. For example, the Jewish are exclusive, Parsis might be as well, but they don’t proselytize. In that is the next juxtaposition of the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible.
The teaching to Arjuna is that he should ‘seek’ the Bhagavan with the description of the eligible seeker and how he would be accepted. At no point is there any instruction to go and ‘sell’ Krishna as the god.
Compare that with Matthew 28:16,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
‘Great Commission’ as this is called, has been used by Christians to justify all sorts of crimes — inquisitions, colonization, slavery, the extermination of cultures and peoples of the world.
While Christianity places a commission to impose upon others, via various methods from obligating via charity, to corruption and cultural appropriation, colonization etc., Krishna even to Arjuna himself, after showing the unsurpassable splendour of Vishwarupa — Divi Surya Sahasrasya, the blazing effulgence of a thousand suns arising all together in the sky, still says in
18.63. Thus the [path of] wisdom, the most subtle of knowledge, has been expounded to you by Me; comprehend it fully and then ACT AS YOU PLEASE.
‘Act as you please’, he does not even compel Arjuna, who himself has sought out Krishna’s counsel as he acknowledges Arjuna’s agency, to make the choice.
I am not an expert on the Bhagavad Gita, all the above are simple translations sourced from the internet. But even so, what is described in Charama Sloka is by no measure of reasonable reading close to the exclusivity preached and practised by the Christians.
Yet there are Hindus, very dedicated in their practice and worship, who still subscribe to such farrago of false equivalence.
If that is the analysis of the philosophical lack of equivalence. The statement ‘All religions are equal’, might at least have some value in the legal and social sphere. if it is ever practised. But that is not the case either.
- When the government occupies and controls temples of one religion and not others — All religions are not equal.
- When donations to one religion alone are taxed and others aren’t, yet those taxes are used to subsidise other religions, that is like Hindus paying Jizya and tithe — All religions are not equal.
- When other religions have complete autonomy in running schools and hospitals, while one religion alone is encumbered by the government — All religions are not equal.
- When animal rights activists, go on a holiday during some religious holidays but clamour about animal rights on other holidays — All religions are not equal.
- When journalists tweet about the cruelty caused to silk worms, due to the silk used in Raksha bandhans or Sarees, but are silent about the cruelty of Halal — All religions are not equal.
- When public intellectuals protest the damage to ecology during some festivals and not others — All religions are not equal.
- When occasional acts of reactive violence are exaggerated by political parties, false affidavits prepared by the government to cook up a myth of ‘Saffron terror’, while actual acts of terrorism, explicitly proclaimed as motivated by the dogma, are underplayed — All religions are not equal.
- When a Shankaracharya is arrested during Deepavali surreptitiously at night, based on slander; while Bishops despite being accused of rape by the victims directly, remain unarrested— All religions are not equal.
- When temples from Ayodhya to Mylapore are still occupied by churches and mosques with the excuse that governments can’t fix history, yet all the colonial donations to the churches and mosques are upheld by the same governments — All religion are not equal.
The list is very long to recount in a single article, for it has been the history of this civilization for the past 800 odd years. The political independence of 1947 only changed the appearance of the prison and nature of the jailors, yet Hindus remain imprisoned.
But the greatest bondage is not external, but what Hindus have been taught to believe, attitudes such as — ‘All religions are equal’. This being taught without context or nuance in our schools and institutions, continues to further the farrago of false equivalence.