Reverend William Buyers was a zealous missionary who operated out of at Banaras (Varanasi). During his stay in India, he travelled extensively spreading the message of the Gospel from present-day Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to the Varanasi region (often spelt as Benares during the colonial period). In his book titled “Recollections of Northern India” which was published in 1848, he writes,
The Hindoo, in general, is mild and forbearing, and does not usually attempt to prevent others from the free exercise of their religion, but if they interfere with his own religious rites, he is very irritable and vindictive. (p. 272)
Now, these peculiar observations about Hindus are based on William Buyers own experience and assessed through the lenses of his missionary task and is worth revisiting in the light of the recently published research survey conducted by the PEW Research Center.
The 233-page long PEW report surprisingly made few visible headlines in the Indian media and some of the ‘suitable outcomes’ were handpicked and discussed on few online programmes and other podcasts. This comprehensive report reflects the opinion of 29,999 respondents from 26 states and 3 Union territories between 2019 and 2020. The preliminary reading of this report may sound contradictory and may be bewildering for the foreign readers and particularly for those who have always a prejudiced approach. However, I argue that the report largely confirms the reality that was completely overlooked, constantly attacked, and intensely defamed by the ‘breaking India’ forces. I attempt to discuss certain important outcomes presented in this report and reflect on the so-called contradictions. In this lengthy report, a few points draw attention to the entrenched preconceptions of the surveyors. However, excluding these the rest of the survey truly enlightens the readers.
Let me start with the title of the report which reflects longstanding misconception and obsession of equating the term religion in its Western sense with the Dharmic philosophy of the Indian subcontinent. Additionally, by bringing the notion of tolerance in the subtitle and assigning it as a ‘central part’ of India as a nation the report reveals its deep western underpinnings in Abrahamic religious tolerance. Like the term religion, there is no specific corresponding word for tolerance in any Indian language. Swami Vivekananda wrote extensively on investing the notion of religion and Indian philosophy. In his famous address at the ‘Parliament of religions’ in Chicago in 1893, he articulates that sacred and spiritual laws referred to as Veda-s reveal the notion of religion to Hindu people. He further explains that Vedas illuminate that every human soul is eternal and perfect and contrary to other religions Hindu does not see himself or herself as a sinner which is the primary characteristic of a human being. In this famous speech he says,
The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realising – not in believing, but in being and becoming. Thus, the whole object of their system is by constant struggle to become perfect, to become divine, to reach God and see God, and this reaching God, seeing God, becoming perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect, constitutes the religion of the Hindus.
In the same speech, he also rejects that Hindu ‘religion’ is neither polytheism nor henotheism. The ‘God’ in his different images is omnipresent and a human being is not a believer but a seeker– who is constantly seeking the ‘truth’. Furthermore, he explains that even Veda-s are not having a singular monopoly on the truth. Not surprisingly, as per the survey about half of the total Hindus surveyed say that there are many ways to interpret and understand the religion, and at the same time, a greater number of them state that religion is not only vital but ‘many religions’ can be true and essentially that diversity strengthens the country. Now one of the important data points might sound contradictory when the report states that 66 per cent of Hindus view that Hindus and Muslims in India are distinct and there are hardly any similarities between them. But precisely this underlines the Indian notion where mutual respect is foremost and not a dominance of one particular religion with a tolerant attitude towards others. Another fascinating datapoint of the survey tells us that majority of the Hindus say that ‘God’ exists not only in peoples but also in nature and animals. Furthermore, those who are brazenly labelled as ‘communal’ because of their staunch support to the world’s largest democratic party, BJP and the present union government, the majority of them unequivocally assert that diversity is paramount for this age-old civilisation.
In 2014 after Narendra Modi assumed charge of the office of Prime Minister and secured another consecutive term by a victory bigger than 2014. This consecutive downfall completely rattled the opponents and they sharpened their concocted theory of India turning intolerant towards the minority population. However, busting this fabricated plot, the survey undoubtedly reveals that the majority of Indian citizens not only see any kind of religious discrimination but everyone is free to practice their religion. Besides, large number of people transcending their religious and regional boundaries consider Indian culture as unique.
The next statistics help readers to understand this view of the uniqueness of this land. A significant number of Indian Muslims and Christians both believe in the philosophy of ‘karma’ which is not corresponding with their respective theologies. Also, 32 per cent of Christians and 26 per cent of Muslims of India feel that the river Ganga has purifying power. Both these data points elucidate the profound influence of Hindu philosophy that originated and evolved in this land and constantly manifests through numerous ways and practices.
Lastly few domestic and many western scholars often classify Hindu religion in various air-tight boxes of sectarian notions. Numerous writings on Indian history records the strict and volatile relationship amongst the various supposed Hindu sects. Not surprisingly, the report breaks this cherished theory of the Hindu sect and tells that majority of Hindus do not know their sect. The report also mentions that majority of Hindus participate in a pilgrimage which is an ancient tradition and reinforces the cultural spread and prominence of Indian thought. If you simply observe the pilgrimage routes you will notice the diverse practices and reverence of not only deities but mountains, rivers, lakes, woods, trees, and numerous animals.
This report is an important empirical document for further research and discussion. Many such empirical research exercises will assist the students, academicians, and larger sections of the society that was constantly held hostage to one dominant education policy controlled by left-leaning historians, academicians and their cabals.
(The writer is the Senior Research Fellow, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation & Affiliated Researcher at Kyoto University, Japan. Views expressed are personal)
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