Why all religions are not the same

A synopsis of "The heathen in his blindness", in which Professor S. N. Balagangadhara demolishes the idea of analyzing non-Abrahamic cultures through the western religious framework obsessed with theory-making.

Why all religions are not the same


Professor S. N. Balagangadhara is one of the most towering intellectuals of the present-day world. His seminal ideas are expressed in the book The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (1994; E. J. Brill). The book is an examination of the claim that all cultures have religions.  

Language is a matter of convention. The term, Religion, as used in our daily language, was shaped in the Western world. Since western culture is heavily influenced by Christianity, the term religion is viewed through the lense provided by it. However, people from various cultures experience the world differently and when westerners attempt to view them through their lense, they commit blunders by force-fitting their idea of religion onto them.

For example, the dharma traditions of India were first classified as a part of religion and subsequently categorised into Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The much controversial idea of secularism has also spawned from this concept. It may be fair to say that India struggles with religion, as a concept and as an induced negation-ism to her own heritage. It is pertinent to reexamine the relevance of this western idea to Indian society.

Japan, as a non-Western country invented a new term (shūkyō) in the nineteenth century to denote religion. And Japan even now allows a person to adhere to more than one so-called religion. Majority of the Japanese declare themselves both as Buddhists and as Shinto (Hermeneutics and Hindu Thought: Toward a Fusion of Horizons,  Arvind Sharma, Springer, 2008).

On the contrary, in almost all Indian languages, religion is translated as dharma and this creates a serious semantic problem for us. Traditionally, dharma has a very different meaning than what is conveyed by the word religion. There is raja-dharma (Duty of a king), Pati-dharma (duty of a husband), patni-dharma (duty of a wife), where dharma is used in the sense of law/duty. And, religion invokes faith, which is not implicit in the word dharma.

The idea of religion as culturally universal is not only wrong but harmful to the cause of decolonising Indians. While reading The Heathen in His Blindness, I made a chapter wise synopsis of its principal arguments with my occasional notes which may provoke some interest. One may also go through a much more accessible version of the book, Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? The Making of Indian Religions, by Balagangadhara with Divya Jhingran (Manohar; 2014).

Some Puzzles and Problems

Balagangadhara starts with pointing out glaring failures in the existing theories of religion as culturally universal. That the non-Abrahamic societies do not have a religion, is not a new observation but still a fact worth mentioning. Sam Gill, a specialist in Native American studies, observes no Book, no Religious Law (Canon), no history and no dogma for these Native American cultures and concludes that:

“Our very way of looking at religion is such that these cultures have nothing that we are trained to see as religion.”

The Pagan Greeks were similar, Sir Moses Finley notes. The so-called priests of the Greek religion were part-timers who held office for one year or less and were only public officials.

Did the Hindus call themselves Hindus like the Christians call themselves Christians?

No. In response to a question “Are you still a Hindu” by a Belgian scholar, a villager from Tamil Nadu retorts:

“…Actually, you should not ask to people if they are Hindu. This does not mean much. If you ask what their religion is, they will say, “I belong to this caste.”        

V. S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010; Knopf) uncovers a similar nature of African beliefs—unwritten, without One True God or theology.

Balagangadhara notes that the recurrent and systematic compulsion of western scholars is to conclude something “different” in the religion of pagan cultures rather than accepting that certain societies may exist without religion. One can surely call Hinduism “psycho-therapy”, “philosophy”, “magic”, “proto-science” etc. without any attrition of truth.

Why is there a tendency to enforce a religion on a people?

At any rate, these scholars say that Hinduism or Buddhism can be a religion without creed, belief in God, Book and Churches. Would anything else be left to identify Christianity or Islam if we take away their creed, belief in God, Prophet, Book, and Churches? Would you be able to even distinguish between them?


However, these scholars unhesitatingly identify Hinduism or Buddhism as a religion even without these defining characteristics that are required to identify a Semitic religion.

Again, why? Is it because they are culturally conditioned to believe that cultures must necessarily have a religion?   

“Not by One Avenue Only …”

Balu (as Balagangadhara is commonly called) looks into the history of the evolution of the term religion which traces its origin to the Latin word religio used by the Romans. Christianity grew largely in a Greco-Roman world as a Judaic sect.

What was the state of affairs in Pagan Rome? A letter from a Christian to the Roman emperor in 177 CE clearly says that the Roman laws allowed different communities to practise their own rituals, celebrate their festivals and worship their gods. The so-called persecution of Christians happened when the Christians and the Jews refused to pay obeisance to deities (some Roman gods) of the Roman cities. This refusal politically undermined the authority of the Roman emperor and was not favourably viewed by Roman law either.

Other than a deference to the imperial authority, there was no religious policy in pagan Rome that was in any way discriminatory to any group. Bitter criticisms of religion were an integral part of life. In fact, Cicero, a leading intellectual who participated in religious rituals, did not believe in gods. Cicero’s work De Natura Deorum was an important inspiration for the thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Cicero was a pagan priest, which shows that Roman religio did not care about ideological doctrines even though there were rituals associated with them. Definitely, Roman religio was quite unlike Christianity, in which Faith is the most important aspect. We cannot imagine an atheist Bishop in a church in the image of our atheist pagan priest Cicero.

In this context, I cannot control my temptation to digress and mention Jabali, a character from the Valmiki Ramayana. Jabali was a man of intellect (Muni) and an important government official (Ayodhya Kanda, Valmiki Ramayana). However, his arguments were that of an atheist (as concluded by Rama). He was still supported by other Ministers and so-called religious figures like Vasistha. I can spot in him a glowing resemblance with Cicero.

In the Roman religio, the ritual practices were largely independent of one’s belief in God. This was explicitly stated by the Roman statesman CottaReligio was defined as anything and everything that is transmitted from the forefathers. Religio was tradition. And, it was kind of a settled argument that no theoretical justification is required to uphold ancestral customs. Therefore, even if one’s intellectual journey necessitated a belief that was different from that of his ancestors, he was expected to adhere to the rituals of his forefathers.

The pagan Romans accused the Jews to an extent, and the Christians to a much greater extent, of having no tradition (religio) of their own. Therefore, Jews and Christians were devoid of religio and deemed as “atheists”. The Jews argued that their own tradition came from Moses. The Mosaic Law is supposedly the inspiration for the Greek Law and the Romans begrudgingly acknowledged the existence of the Jewish tradition.

The Christians did not have the privilege of a Roman or a Jewish tradition. Christians argued differently to demonstrate their legitimacy as religio. Instead of the “ancient tradition hence legitimate” approach, the Christians transformed the question of legitimacy: Since their doctrine was ancient, therefore it was true and legitimate. The second question to Christians by pagan Romans was that even if their doctrine had been ancient, why should a doctrinal belief compel them to reject a common public practice? To this question, the Christians responded by linking their practice to their doctrinal belief.

To answer the first question, the Christians made the Old and the New Testaments as their scriptures. The New Testament talks about the ancient lineage of Jesus Christ. The Christians claimed that the arrival of Jesus was predicted by many Pagan great men from Socrates and Plato to Sibylline Oracles. Since they had a truly ancient tradition, hence they had their own religio.

The Christians also claimed that they had the religio for all of mankind, and hence they should be exempted from following city-specific (pagan) traditions. To this effect, they linked belief to practice, and practice without belief was deemed illegitimate in the Christian theology.

To fit the pagan gods of Rome in their rather expedient worldview, they described those gods and goddesses as demons and the Roman religio as a false religion. Their history-centrism (a term coined by Rajiv Malhotra in Being Different) and extraordinary emphasis on a written testimony and Book, all these followed from their attempt to fill the lacunae of their tradition. Since practice was linked to belief and a belief could be true or false, only one avenue of religious rituals—that are tied to the One True Religion—remained legitimate in a Christian state, unlike the scenario in the Roman state where many paths were available.                   

The Whore of Babylon and Other Revelations

Christianity became the official religion of Rome by the fourth century CE and within a few centuries, the Christian worldview became the European Worldview as Europe was pagan no more. There was hardly any encounter between India and Europe for a few hundred years till the fifteenth and sixteenth century.

Now, what did Europeans expect from India? They imagined it as the prosperous land of exotic goods, strange creatures and vast forests. Along with that, they expected to find Christian communities and kings in India, who, after the Biblical incident of the Tower of Babel, would have also come to India.

The expectation was not met when the European travellers did not find their Prester John, a legendary Christian king of India who was popular in European chronicles of these times. In their worldview influenced by Christianity, they recognised Indian culture and deemed it to be constituted of false beliefs. Since practices must follow from beliefs, therefore the Indian practices had to be demonic. Religion is also tied to morality; therefore, Indian practices, in this worldview, would be deemed as immoral.       

Now, what is that morality? Their morality followed from the ten commandments: Thou shall not commit adultery being one of them.Unsurprisingly, in the writings of early European travellers, Indians were sexually promiscuous. Kings married several thousand women, people swap wives, kings in some places appointed Brahmins to deflower their wives, in some other places white men were appointed for deflowering queens!

The reports went on like that. People performed diabolical actions to worship their gods or the demons. Jains were so idolatrous that they did not eat slaughtered animals and also refused to see them slaughtered! There is nothing surprising in these grossly exaggerated or fabricated descriptions when prejudiced people view people of another culture.

The problems missionaries faced in India were born out of their need to correct the “false” belief of the people. They could undertake two routes: Persecution of the heathens or criticism of their false belief. The persecution route was vigorously practiced in places like Goa. In the Inquisition, severe punishments were meted out to the believers of the false doctrine (documented in The Goa Inquisition by A. K. Priolkar). Those who converted to the “true” faith, were given financial incentives etc. But this strategy was not generally successful. Most Hindus remained Hindu.

The other path was that of criticism, through the use of one’s own framework and categorization in describing the ‘other’. To that end, the missionaries were forced to imagine categorizations of “false” beliefs that culminated in the rigid structures of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc.

All this happened when Europe had a Christian worldview. But what about the Enlightenment thinkers who came afterwards? This is where Balu is extremely insightful. He explains how the inner Christian structure of the European worldview remained the same even for the Enlightenment thinkers; although the outer interpretation had changed.  

The challenge was to make sense of the ancient pagan texts and their living culture. The inner Christian structure said that beliefs were represented by the rituals. Europeans, therefore, proceeded to interpret the pagan cultures from their reading of pagan texts. This idea of understanding the Pagan rituals from their texts is a Christian idea that considers rituals to be a consequence of beliefs. Moreover, Christianity delegitimizes rituals of other cultures by proclaiming that their religion is false. From this implicitly Christian lens, the enlightenment thinkers too assumed that all cultures have a religion, without any first-hand experience of these cultures.

The Enlightenment thinkers were ‘modern and progressive’; while the others were, of course, backward. As a result of this barely concealed arrogance, Max Müller accepted (innocently) that people in Sri Lanka had no language! The Enlightenment thinkers arranged world history in conformance with the framework of Protestant Christianity. Therefore, what was the ultimate destiny in the Christian framework, became under the Enlightenment parlance, the same historical pattern observable across the history of various peoples. What was degenerate idolatry in the Christian worldview, became erroneous idolatry in the Enlightenment worldview. Instead of religion as God’s gift to man, it became Nature’s gift to man and so on. 

Made in Paris, London, and Heidelberg

Balu next proceeds to describe how the entity called “Hinduism” was constructed in European centres of learning. The others were called heathens, pagans, idolaters, devil worshippers by the Christians. But even then, they felt the need to categorize different groups of idolaters, in their search for normalization. Guided by the Christian framework, they looked for the Holy Book as the source of the principal belief and the ensuing cultural practices from the beliefs. India, being a long literate society, had many books. As they required a scripture to base their criticism of the false religion on, they were forced to treat the prominent books like Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas as “religious” texts of the Indians. All these books suddenly became the religious scriptures.

As stated before, the Christian missionaries could not convert most of the Hindus. This was in stark contrast to their success in Africa or South America. They identified three reasons for their failure. One, the nature of Hinduism; two, the structure of social life; and three, the role of the Brahmins.

To target Hinduism, they needed to define Hinduism but there were simply no markers to be found. There was no body of canonical scriptures, no formal council, no canonization of saints etc. To them, this phenomenon was an anomaly which they explained away as the peculiar nature of Hinduism. The Hindu customs often had no relation to these texts. The framework of religion often did not work, as David Hume wrote in 1757:

“The pagan religion…seemed to vanish like a cloud, whenever one approached it, and examined it piecemeal.”

Convinced of the universal template of Christianity, they never considered the possibility that Hinduism is an artificial entity made by them in Paris, London and Heidelberg.

They noted the Jati-system of the society, which they called the caste system. Caste came from the Spanish/ Portuguese word casta, which was a term to describe mixed-race individuals in Spanish America, resulting from unions of European whites (espanoles), Amerinds (indios), and Africans (negros).

They also identified the Brahmins as the social elites in India. The missionaries attempted to convert the Brahmins by pointing out the futility of polytheism. On many occasions, the Brahmins actually agreed with the missionaries on the futility of idol worship, the existence of One Supreme Being etc. However, they could not, as the Europeans noted, see or appreciatethe idea of a God-given universal ritual as was the case with Christianity.

This rejection of the universal ritual was high iconoclasm for the Christians, who believed in the God-given Religion and rituals following from the beliefs codified in that religion. They found the attitude of the Brahmins duplicitous. To them, the caste system and the existence of Brahmins became an immorality, by itself. It is not a mere coincidence that social scientists of today consider the caste system per se inhuman. The attitude of social scientists is the continuation of the same Christian idea.

Over time, particularly after William Jones founded the Asiatic Society to study Indian books, the pagans of India were compared to the long-forgotten pagans of Rome and Greece. Since Christianity replaced the pagans, the pagans, including the Hindus, were considered as primitive and puerile. This image was further strengthened by Christian missionaries, Hegel, Marx and even the German Romanticists who called India the Cradle of Human Race.

After the ‘invention’ of Hinduism, the Europeans created another entity called Buddhism, as argued by Phillip Almond in his book The British Discovery of Buddhism (1988; Cambridge University Press). Project Buddhism took shape after the publication of the book, Introduction á l’Histoire du Buddhism Indien by the French scholar, Eugène Burnouf. Depending on the contents of books on Buddhism that were translated into European languages, different kinds of Buddhism were identified. Project Buddhism happened considerably faster than Project Hinduism. Soon Buddhism became to Hinduism what the Protestant religion is to the Catholic religion, for the Protestant audience appreciated Buddha.

Let us imagine a group of scholars from India without knowing either the classical or the modern languages of Europe, make pronouncements about modern European society from their translated readings of the fragments of the Bible in their own vernacular. An absurdity, right? Similarly placed absurd ideas became truisms in the West and, then, among the colonised elite of the former Western colonies.   

Requiem for a Theme

So far the story happened in the Christian world. What about the narrative in a secular world? The secular hypothesis on the origin of religion is traced to David Hume. His theory is referred to as the naturalistic paradigm to enquire into the origin of religion in general. The problem with these theories is that they presuppose the universality of religion as a fact and then explain using their theory why it is so! These theories do not point to any independent evidence either and are post-hoc justifications, no better than any super-natural theory on religion, Balu observes.

Any scientific theory must be falsifiable. Therefore, the first question to ask is: can the theory ever be false? Can there be a culture without religion, which may contradict the hypothesis? Unfortunately, the assumption of cultural universality of religion negates any possibility of these theories being ever tested. Therefore, these naturalistic theories of religion are simply bad theories. The problems arising from these half-baked theories are manifested in various ways. For example, based on the very same theory, some people believe that Buddhism is a religion, while others do not. Evidence of the absence of religion in many cultures was grossly ignored by scholars, demonstrated in the chapter called Some Puzzles and Problems.   

These theories talk about uncertainty and threat in primitive man’s life as drivers that prompted him to invent religion. Holes in such a formulation are easily perceivable. Instead of finding the world as chaotic, primitive man may have been rather impressed by the order of seasons, the rhythm of heartbeat etc. At any rate, his construction of a god, in-charge of a natural phenomenon (say, thunder), would not help him overcome his fears. More significantly, such theories attempt to simulate the experience of the primitive man through unbridled speculation. A person of our times simply has no access to the qualitative experience of the life of hunter-gatherers and it would be wise to abandon such preposterous projects before they create havoc. To conceive that a primitive man’s psychology is the same as ours minus our wealth is gross oversimplification.

All these theories talk about chaos in a primitive world and order in the present world. Does it follow from the Christian cultural background of the scholars? The Book of Genesis (Old Testament) narrates the guarantee of God to have order in the world after the Great Flood. It is possible that scholars relate orderliness as a promise of religion from their own Christian upbringing.

Let us take a look from some Buddhist text where it is said that after the Buddha’s conception, the wild animals ceased to be afraid. In that cultural context, the wild animals were afraid of man. This worldview of the Buddhists is quite a blow to the theories of religion in which man is always afraid of the wild not the other way around. This anomaly between the Buddhist outlook and the European scholars’ outlook tells us that our constructed theories on religion suffer from a false sense of universality of human experience and scholars may be, more often than not, constrained by their own cultural upbringing.

Deconstruction of Hume’s theories on religion would necessitate, Balu further argues, acceptance of a personal God—a causal force operating in the universe as a personalised entity, endowed with intention, thought, reason, and passion. This perception of divinity follows from the Semitic tradition. The Asian traditions—from Hinduism to Buddhism to Shintoism—do not acknowledge such a Personal God as the Bible’s Jehovah.

The next two chapters elaborate an important theme of Balu: How secular scholarship on religion was build on the Christian foundation.

“Shall the Twain Ever Meet?”

The seminal source of secular understanding of religion is a movement in Germany in 1890s called Religionsgeschichtliche Schule—The History of Religion (notice the use of singular)which influenced scholars like Schleiermacher, Otto, Söderblom, William James, phenomenologists like Mircea Eliade and sociologists like Emile Durkheim. This school is a reaction to atheism from the perspective of the liberal protestant framework.

The rise of atheism can be traced to the ever-alive Christological dilemma of Christianity. The basic storyline of the New Testament is, God revealed Himself to Jesus uniquely. The two characters in this story are God and Jesus. If the focus is on God, then it may follow that God has revealed Himself to many others besides Jesus. Then, the universal appeal of Christianity increases but the role of Christ becomes less important and perhaps conversions from other religions to Christianity suffer as a consequence. If the focus in on Christ, then the universality of Christianity remains in question and believers may suffer from a dose of scepticism. 

Movements like Theism or Deismwere aimed at augmenting the universal appeal of Christianity but also induced a movement towards atheism. Therefore, this particular school of studying religion—a loose confederation of atheistically religious scholars—took the challenge of developing scholarship on religion. Notice that religion is described in singular number, rather than in plural number. Balu analyzes the works of a few scholars of this school to understand the genesis of secular scholarship on religion and shows that they all had their Protestant Christian lens on while developing the framework.

Schleiermacher developed his theory on the cultured despisers of religion. The key question is: who did he mean by a cultured person? He, being a product of his culture, considered a ladder to define cultivation of a person: A monotheist at the highest rung, a polytheist below him and an agnostic/atheist at the lowest level!

He further specified: “Religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling.” Which intuition? Which feeling? By going through his writings, it becomes apparent that when Schleiermacher talked about intuition or feeling, he meant concepts like miracles, inspirations, revelations, feelings of the super-natural. He categorically specified that without them, there can be no religion. His conception of the universal defining attribute of religion follows directly from protestant Christianity.

No wonder that he, and other scholars of this school, stated that Protestant Christianity is a perfect religion and other religions may be ranked based on how closely they resemble the perfect religion. However, all these thinkers were liberal and tolerant in the sense that they acknowledged the partial truth in the beliefs of the Hindus or the Buddhists instead of an outright missionary-like dismissal of them being devil worshippers. To this effect, one scholar  Söderblom may be quoted:

“Something of revelation is to be found everywhere. In the higher religion it is purer.”

All these ideas have formed the basis of secular scholarship on religion, in which religions are graded from primitive to advanced and there are no prizes for guessing which religion wins the gold medal. Moreover, non-Christian religions like Hinduism or Jainism can only degenerate (but never progress) in the terminology of secular scholars of religion. For example, the popular Hinduism is a degeneration of “philosophical Hinduism”.

Balu deconstructs the definition of religion offered by pioneers like Durkheim and Eliade. Durkheim’s definition is based on the existence of something called sacred in a culture. Things related to sacred, constitute a religion. Does this famous definition suffer from the peril of circularity? It does. Though “sacred” may simply mean “setting apart”, not everything that has been set apart falls within the realm of religion. As for instance, the experience of people who are “lost to the devil”, are not called “sacred”.             

“Guilty as Charged, My Lords and Ladies?”

When we say that the secular paradigm rejects religious principles, it is not a complete characterization. Even in rejection, some of the underlying assumptions of the rejected principles may be accepted by the opposer.

Balu offers a concrete example from the Buddhist text Dhammapada. It is claimed, by the standard school level textbooks, that Buddha rejected the caste system and also rejected Brahmanism. The last chapter of Dhammapada describes Buddha’s response to a question: “Who is a true brahmin?” Buddha categorically says that by lineage, none can be called a Brahmin. A true Brahmin should possess many noble qualities like truthfulness, performer of dhamma (a universal term to denote righteousness), being free from attachment etc.

In this example, Buddha rejected Brahmanism but did not call the Brahmins as liars or cheats. Therefore, even in his rejection, he accepted Brahmin-hood as a noble characteristic. On the contrary, when Marx rejected Capitalism, he never said that capitalists are not true capitalists and what it would take to truly become one. Therefore, Marx’s rejection of capitalism is different from the Buddha’s rejection of Brahmanism. Calvin rejected Catholicism, called it the Devil’s church and never bothered about real catholic-hood etc. But he accepted Christianity. Therefore, being within the category of Christianity, Calvin rejected Catholicism.

The point is: Even in rejection, one needs to specify a category.

To which category did Buddha belong in his rejection of Brahmanism? From a hostile critic of Indian religion, Max Weber, to a sympathetic admirer of Buddhism, Warder, all have agreed to Buddha’s acceptance of the Caste system. Buddha criticised Brahmanism being within the category of the caste system. As a matter of fact, in Agganna Sutta, the Buddhist book of Genesis, Buddha talked about the greatness of the Kshatriyas over other castes. 

Buddha’s discussion of “who is a Brahmin” made sense to Brahmins and to other caste groups but did not to the Catholics. Similarly, Schleiermacher’s (a scholar with a Protestant worldview) definition of religiosity or “who is a religious person?” would make sense to the Christians and also to the atheists (who incidentally use terms like atheistic religiosity) in western cultural traditions. However, atheist as a term would not make sense to a Hindu, African pagan or Native American pagan, Balu concludes.

This is reasonable given Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a leader of the Hindus, was an atheist. We cannot imagine Pope as an atheist, can we? But Savarkar as an atheist is understandable because it is not a rejection of Hinduism. Same goes for Buddha who may well be classified as atheist/agnostic.

In their rejection of God’s existence, the atheists and secularists of the western traditions still defined themselves under the Christian framework. Christian ideas sound so secular that we do not realize how Christian the secular ideas are. For example, when a Hindu prostrates in a temple or a Japanese bows to his ancestor, the only way the secular world can understand these actions is by attributing them to a different religion as a Christian would do.  

If secular ideas are really antithetical to the Christian ideas, it would be terribly difficult for people to adapt to a secular world after coming from the Christian world. But, it is quite effortless for all. People feel that religion is an unsatisfactory solution to their life’s questions and they move out of religion to a secular world. Interestingly, the meaning of life and life’s questions are generated by religion itself! Therefore, the secular framework conforms to the religious framework.    

Balu presents his case to conclude that the secular framework is the solution to the Christological Dilemma (discussed under Shall The Twain Ever Meet?) to universalize the Christian principles. Our so-called secular world is the secularised religious world.

This “religiously” secular world is closer to Jerusalem than Athens. Why? One example may suffice. “Religion” etymologically may mean to be bound to something. To be bound to What or Who? A Roman pagan Cicero will argue that it means being tied to own tradition. On the other hand, Lactantius (who thought of himself as a Christian Cicero) would consider being bound to God, being a servant of God. Superstition to Cicero would mean indulgence in excess; whereas for Lactantius it would mean “false religion”. And so on (shown in the table below). 

Religious ideaSecularised Religious ideaComment
Religion is a gift of God to man.Religion is man’s Faith in God.
Superstition is false religion.Superstition is the belief in the false theories beyond the realm of religion.Both religion and secularism believe that the pagan traditions are superstition.
God gave religion to humankind.All cultures have religion.Pagan cultures are essentially cultures without religion.
Hinduism, Shintoism, Buddhism are false religions of demon worshippersHinduism, Shintoism, and Buddhism are religions.Pagan/Indian religions are nothing but traditions in those cultures.
Atheists reject God.Atheism means disbelief in God.

A Human Tragedy or the Divine Retribution?

Balu then tries to offer a theory of religion. The consequence of not having a good theory of religion means the following:

(i) It remains unclear whether an entity can be called a religion. A dispute of this kind regarding semantics cannot be solved since personal tastes govern the verdict rather than an empirical analysis. To make an analogy, a definition of a black hole should specify its characteristics and also mention what distinguishes black holes from white dwarfs and pulsars.

However, many scholars like O’Toole and Vernon wrote pages upon pages to discuss many definitions of religion and ended up concluding that a general definition of religion is difficult. Often, these definitions are quite complex and limiting them is quite a subjective affair. Moreover, they are often changed for the purpose of including all religious-looking entities. For example, Durkheim was dissatisfied with the minimal definition of religion by Tylor as a belief in supernatural beings since it did not cover Theravada Buddhism and changed it so as to enable it to include it.

With such definitions, we can never be sure if Cricket in India or Nationalism in China are religions or not.  

(ii) The emphasis is on having a proper definition, even though definition without theory is meaningless. The definition of black holes is not of much consequence if it does not specify the properties of the black hole and how black hole came into being. A mere definition without an accompanying theory does not expand the boundaries of human knowledge.

Balu quotes the definition by one scholar Spiro: Belief in super-human beings. And, he then presents a thought experiment. What about the belief in extra-terrestrial being—is that a religion or not? One may present this as a counter-example of Spiro’s definition’s appropriateness. In response, Spiro may simply expand his definition of religion to include such a belief in extra-terrestrial beings. Therefore, not just a definition but a theory is required to assimilate a counter-example (falsifiability). Unless a general theory about black hole exists, anything can be posited as a black hole without any implication, right? In such semantic disputes regarding religion, the tag of communism, magic or Voodoo is all too common and largely pointless. 

The scholars often consider Christianity as a prototype religion while framing the definition. This approach is inappropriate in ways apart from what was mentioned in the previous chapters. To the Christians, humans are at the summit of creation and animals below them. Therefore, a definition drawn from a belief in super-human beings makes sense for Christians as the idea of religion. However, Hindus do not have this particular hierarchy even though they consider human beings as the most privileged form of existence. They do not consider any creature as lesser to man. And, they do worship trees, rivers, animals, books and cars. Therefore, a definition of religion that involves a hierarchy of beings would not make sense to Hindus. 

“Blessed Are Those Who Seek”

Instead of accepting the fact that all cultures have a religion, Balu takes the problem of defining the religion with reference to Christianity. He also develops a theory about religion with historical and phenomenological perspective.

Christianity calls itself a religion. What are the defining characteristics of Christianity? It was, and to an extent is, intolerant of heretics and heathens—earlier it was unapologetically violent (inquisition) too. This aspect of intolerance is manifested in proselytization. Moreover, Christianity was competing with Judaism, and Islam as well,and one can clearly see theirapproaches being similar.

Roman religio could never grasp the idea of false religion. Hindus of India talk about sarva-dharma-sama-bhava (Equivalence of all religions)—again the idea of a false doctrine is incomprehensible to them. The idea of falsity is alien to these pagan religions, unlike the Semitic ones.

From these observations, Balu characterises the defining features of Christianity, which can be called the essence of religion:

Christianity identifies the difference in doctrinal belief as the source of difference between communities (Rajiv Malhotra used the term Difference Anxiety to denote this idea). They regard practice as an expression of doctrinal belief only. This leads to the ideas of truth and falsity of a belief, which are used to justify conversion to Christianity.   

The other two semitic religions, Islam and Judaism, fit the bill too if we make the above the defining characteristics of religion. For Roman pagans and Indian Hindus, the idea of falsity is alien because of the absence of theorizing in them.

Balu further explains that the idea of a Semitic God makes the world comprehensible to man. God’s will is consistent. In other words, religion is the basic model of explanation, and of orderliness. As religion wanted to make this world intelligible, the questions regarding the purpose of life arose. Moreover, this intelligibility required belief in a personal God. But the belief in an abstract God means a tolerance of people from other faiths. 

Religious pluralism in Europe became possible only when Europeans ceased to subscribe to their own religion. On the other hand, resurgence of Islam in the Arab world (where people strongly subscribe their religion) led to a rise of intolerance and fanaticism.      

In sum, religion is some kind of theory-making: A belief in some true explanatorily intelligible account whose veracity lies beyond any empirical verification. The latter part is also important. Many Tantric scholars may believe in resurrection of Jesus as a yogic process and a common occurrence in India. This belief in the veracity of the Bible through empirical verification will violate the defining characteristics of a religion because a Christian would say, “Resurrection happened because it is stated in the Bible, which is the word of God and we believe in something because the Bible says so”. All these truth-claims are beyond any empirical verification.

The heathen is blind to this truth of religion as he believes only in human certainties but not in any divine plan and order.

“Imagine, There Is No Religion…”

Going by Balu’s definition, indigenous cultures such as the Indian culture have no religion. Balu motivates the reader first by emphasizing the equivalence between religion and worldview. To test his theory—the theory that posits that religion is not a cultural universal—he needs to demonstrate the secular (true secular as opposed to religiously secular) cultures like the Indian culture would have no worldview. This is a real test of his theory. If so, Indian culture surely cannot have a religion too.

The two properties of religion—as per Balu’s definition— are: (a) A worldview regarding origin of the world in order to explain the world and make it intelligible to the believers. (b) Religious truth-claims must have the same status as any other knowledge. Balu demonstrates next that both properties are not valid for the Indian religions.

Regarding origin of the world, Balu cites many Indian texts and shows that there is no unique intelligible explanatory story like the Old Testament provides in Genesis. Balu quotes passages from the Rig Veda regarding origin of the world and it becomes clear that the same book accepted different stories regarding origin of the world. The same pattern is found in ancient Hindu texts like the Aitareya Brahmana, the Kausitaki Brahmana, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Chhandogya Upanishad, the Mahabharata and the Puaranas. The Buddhist texts like the Digha Nikaya are no different.

It is not that all these are a compilation of stories, each by a different group. But most Indians believe in all these ideas simultaneously—there is something of a multiplicity of narratives. In other words, there is no single story regarding the origin of the world like what is narrated in the Old Testament. And, this idea of multiplicity of narratives has been justified in the Nasadiya Sukya (The Rig Veda, 10:129; translated by A . L. Basham). I quote:

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined cosmic water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.

In the beginning desire descended on it –
that was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is kin to that which is not.

And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.
Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse.

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the Devas (gods) themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows – or maybe even he does not know.

So, even the Creator may not know about the origin of the world and the same does not shock the Indians. 

The question of the issue of the origin of the Cosmos is not interesting enough for the Indian thinkers. This is sufficiently indicative of the non-existence of a worldview regarding origin of the world for the Indians. One may contrast the Indian indifference to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to the hostile attitude by the Christians towards it even now.

The other question of religious truth-claims having the same status as other forms of knowledge in Indian culture is next examined. To the Indians, the Indian epics and mythologies are beyond the category of true and false. They are simply important. This was noted by many westerners and they caricatured this quality of the Hindus as a lack of historicity. For example, Paul Hacker said:

“There was never any real history writing in India. This applies not only for political history, but also for history of philosophical and religious schools.”

To the Indians, the truth or the idea of actual occurrence is not supremely important. Balu quotes a conversation between an Indonesian Hindu and a German in which the Indonesian categorically states that he believes that the story of Lord Rama in the Ramayana was true. On being probed further, he acknowledges that it must have been written by some human being, who could have possibly invented the story. But in his worldview, an inventionof the story would have no bearing on its truth. In his words: Do you want to know whether the story is true, or merely whether it occurred?

The above conversation is indicative of the fact that for Hinduism, the truth-claims need not be true in the sense that they happen in history. One may contrast this to the repeated emphasis of the historicity of Jesus and the Bible by the Christians for whom religious truth-claims must be true in the worldly sense of the term.

Balu further offers sociological evidence to the idea that Indians do not have a worldview. He cites several occasions where Indians make fantastic claims of everything being given in the Vedas. This is narrated in a story concerning the brilliant Indian physicistMeghnad Saha who, after a talk on his research, was told by an elderly Brahmin in the audience, “There is nothing new here. It’s all in the Vedas.”From then on, whenever Saha came across a new or intriguing development in physics, he would quip, “But it’s all in the Vedas!”This narration is somewhat demeaning to the Indian approach to science but proves Balu’s point that the Indians have no fixed worldview.

Balu also cites, as a typical case, an ethnographic work describing a village in Tamil Nadu where multiple views emerged in the village gathering when asked about the origin of the world. Moreover, there is no central authority, say a Church, and no system of excommunication to make one interpretation of the text as the official worldview.

The conclusion is exceptional: Hinduism is no religion and the Indian culture is actually a non-religious or secular one. 

Prolegomena to a Comparative Science of Cultures

A true comparative science of cultures is possible only when multiple descriptions are given by different people using the background of their own culture, unlike the present-day situation in which the west dominates the rest. Why is there a need for a true comparative science of cultures?

Learning is an important trait of our species for survival and also to make the environment more habitable. There is a cultural context to human learning as well in the process of learning to learn (meta-learning). To be more specific, we consider two different cultures: a religious culture (Europe) and a non-religious (“secular”) culture (India). Scientifically, we do not know which idea of learning is superior and which one is inferior. Therefore, we may want to have diverse processes for the enrichment of humanity.

The learning in a religious culture is order-based. Religion acts as the blueprint for order. Learning in a religious culture happens in a theory oriented way. More explicitly, any knowledge has to be explainable. If something is not sayable, it is not considered as knowledge but a hunch, an intuition, or a skill. In this religious culture, inter-individual problems are solved by talking about it.

Why was natural science born in Europe but not in China or India? This is a significant question since India and China were technologically way ahead of Europe till 1,500 CE or so. The use of zero and decimal system was known in India at least as early as the fifth century CE whereas the first book of the decimal system was written in Europe in the thirteenth century CE. Balu answers the question through his framework. Since religious culture promotes theory-making and order-inducing rather than an algorithmic way of looking at things, natural science took birth in Europe.

On the other hand, for a non-religious (“secular”) culture, learning happens through the social environment. Performative knowledge is the dominant form of knowledge in this culture. Theoretical speculations too must be formulated in performative terms.

This probably explains why India preferred an algorithm-centered approach to understanding the physical reality rather than having a model of the reality.Surya Siddhanta by Aryabhatta did not posit a theory like Gravity (by Issac Newton). Instead, it simply offered an algorithm to calculate various astronomical phenomenon. The calculations are quite similar when compared to the ones obtained through Newton’s approach.

In a non-religious culture with performative knowledge, people are more confident of their abilities to survive. Therefore, they are not too perturbed by chaos unlike people from a religious culture who panic in such situations. Anecdotes say that this appreciable attitude to chaos is evident among Indian people during disasters and can be contrasted to Europe’s aversion to chaos.

In a culture dominated by performative arts, rituals occupy an important aspect of going about the world. The focus remains on recursive structure and pattern. Rituals create bonding between people, unlike religion, which—by virtue of being intolerant—divides people. The theoretician of the West would say that rituals are symbolic actions etc. However, Balu posits a quite different outlook as to how rituals work. Rituals, he says, create a focus on the action rather than the actor. With a reduced importance of the self, it makes community-life more important and more thriving. Definitely, non-religious culture promotes plurality, tolerance and negates violence. The karmic theories of the Indian philosophies also, as a consequence of this ritual-based learning process, renounce the ego-self.

Both of these cultures, understandably, have their strengths and weaknesses. What about the interaction of these two different cultures—religious and non-religious? Balu offers the example of early Christians encountering the Roman religio (the Roman pagan culture). The early Christians observed nothing but idolatry as per their accounts. However, the modern-day description (Liebesshuetz) of the Roman culture would be “as secular as our present-day world”.

Were the Christians not sincere in their accounts? It could be safely said that this is exactly what happens when a person from the religious-secular world encounters the non-religious secular culture of Asia. They find nothing but religion everywhere like early Christians observed idolatry everywhere!  Interesting, isn’t it?

At the End of a Journey

We can summarise what Balu contributed to human knowledge as the book tries to answer these two questions.

Is religion a cultural universal? And, why do people think that it is?

The journey started with the Roman religio which was not a religion by the present-day standards. However, Christianity’s interaction with Romanreligiocreated what we know as religion today.

For many centuries then, the religious culture of the west did not interact with a secular non-religious culture till the Europeans set foot in India. Their first reaction was that of shock—expressed through their exaggerated accounts of Indian immorality. After this first reaction, they were forced by their religious worldview to create religions out of Indian secular culture. Thus were born Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shintoism etc. all products of the European gaze.

The religious culture of Europe was changing fast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Christological dilemma of universalizing Christianity gave birth to Enlightenment in Europe. These Enlightenment thinkers acted in the religious framework but called themselves secular. When they studied the subject religion, they had their own religion as the perfect model. And, all other constructed religions were but imperfect replicas of this perfect prototype. The theory-making regarding religion remained weak as a consequence of these assumptions.

What characterizes religion? Intolerance perhaps, which is a consequence of theory-making without empirical evidence by a religion? Only Semitic faiths can be called religions by this definition. Indian culture, as a test case, is marked by the absence of a worldview as found in a religion.

Balagangadhara talks about the implications of having a secular culture against a religious one. The learning processes are different. In a secular culture like that of India, one learns pluralism and tolerance while religious cultures encourage anything but that.

About Author: Kausik Gangopadhyay

Dr. Kausik Gangopadhyay is an Associate Professor in the area of Economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode. An Economist by training, Humanist in yearning, he is interested in Dharma, Culture & Civilisation. Twitter Handle: @KausikGy

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