powerful thesis presented by Rodney Stark then is that monotheism implies
religious intolerance. In this he has the support of a prominent Hindu thinker,
S Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), who wrote:
intolerance of narrow monotheism is written in letters of blood across the
history of man from the time when first the tribes of Israel burst into the land
of Canaan. The worshippers of the one jealous God are egged on to aggressive
wars against people of alien cults. They invoke divine sanction for the
cruelties inflicted on the conquered. The spirit of old Israel is inherited by
Christianity and Islam, and it might be not unreasonable to suggest that it
would have been better for Western civilisation if Greece had moulded it on
this question rather than Palestine. Wars of religion which are the outcome of
fanaticism that prompts and justifies the extermination of aliens of different
creeds were practically unknown in Hindu India.
will notice that, towards the end of his statement, Radhakrishnan exempted
Hindu India from the charge of intolerance generated by the aforesaid
monotheism. Did he do so because he, unlike Rodney Stark, regarded Hinduism as
polytheistic and therefore not be clubbed with Judaism, Christianity and Islam,
contra Stark, who insists that Hinduism is both monotheistic like the Abrahamic
religions and missionises like them as well?
the situation we need to examine the concepts of monotheism and mission as they
are understood in the context of Hinduism.
monotheism. Radhakrishnan took pains to distinguish Hinduism from polytheism.
He began by quoting from the ṚgVeda like so many other Hindu scholars:
“Him who is
the one, real sages name variously” (Ṛig Veda),
“my names are many as declared by the great seers” (Mahābhārata:
Śānti Parva). To admit various
descriptions of God is not to lapse into polytheism. When Yājñavalkya
was called upon to state the number of gods, he started with the popular number
3306, and ended by reducing all of them to one Brahman (Bṛhadaranyaka Upanishad).
“This indestructible enduring reality is to be looked upon as one only.”
referred to some of the gods of the Hindu pantheon he wrote, “The polytheism
was organised in a monistic way. Only it was not a rigid monotheism enjoining
on its adherents the most complete intolerance for those holding a different
view.” Elsewhere, he wrote: “The bewildering polytheism of the masses and the
uncompromising monotheism of the classes are for the Hindu the expressions of
one and the same force at different levels.” There is a double insistence here:
that Hinduism is monotheistic, but also that its monotheism is somewhat
different from that found in the Abrahamic religions.
To get some
clarity on this point it might be helpful to be blunt and raise the question:
is not Hinduism then a pagan religion, as its monotheism differs from Abrahamic
Abrahamic religious traditions, as Judaism, Christianity and Islam are
collectively called, associate paganism with the worship of many gods, and
their many idols. The former is condemned as polytheism and the latter as
idolatry; and the two are viewed as inextricably intertwined forms of worship,
which are superseded in an aniconic monotheism, which the monotheistic
religions self-consciously uphold and propagate.
first blush appears to conform to paganism. It seems to worship many gods and
seems to do so by worshipping different images. It thus comes across as
polytheistic and idolatrous, and therefore pagan. This perception fuels the
missionary zeal of the Abrahamic religions to destroy such paganism.
only one problem with this scenario. It is based on a false presumption. It is
true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship,
but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as
traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of the
one and same God. Thus a plurality of gods does not denote polytheism in
Hinduism but rather the plurality of the forms in which the same one God might
A new word,
such as polyformism, may have to be coined, or an older word, polymorphism, may
have to be invoked, to be set beside polytheism to provide the corrective.
situation is characterised not by polytheism but what might be called at best
“apparent polytheism”, because the reality underlying all the different gods is
the reality of the one God. Hence, ironically, the situation could also in a
sense be described as one of “apparent monotheism”, in the sense that the one
God appears in various forms.
the various images of the various gods also reflect the same point. Any of the
many forms, in which God might be seen as appearing, can be visually
represented in Hinduism, as a way of focusing the mind on God. This should not
be taken for some new-fangled apologetic exegetical sleight of hand performed
by modern Hinduism. When the seventeenth-century French traveller, Francois
Bernier, was shocked by what he saw of Hinduism, this is how the pundits of
Banaras explained the situation to him:
indeed in our temples a great variety of images...To all these images we pay
great honour; prostrating our bodies, and presenting to them, with much
ceremony, flowers, rice, scented oil, saffron, and other similar articles. Yet
we do not believe that these statues are themselves Brahma or Vishnu; but
merely their images and representations.
them deference only for the sake of the deity whom they represent, and when we
pray it is not to the statue, but to that deity. Images are admitted in our
temples because we conceive that prayers are offered up with more devotion when
there is something before the eyes that fixes the mind, but in fact we
acknowledge that God alone is absolute, that He only is the omnipotent Lord.
explanation may not have convinced him, but Hindus apparently have no
difficulty with it. Sometimes parents belonging to the Abrahamic religions
wonder whether this plurality does not end up leaving the Hindus confused, and
particularly their children. For the Hindus, however, such plurality does not
create any confusion of identity, no more than several pictures of us in our
albums, taken at different stages of our life and in different situations and
clothes, cause us to become confused about our identity.
matter how paganesque Hinduism might appear, it is not pagan in the sense
attributed to the word by Abrahamic religions.
well-known scholar of Hinduism, Klaus K Klostermaier, observes:
homes are lavishly decorated with colour prints of a great many Hindu gods and
goddesses, often joined by gods and goddesses of other religions and the
pictures of contemporary heroes. Thus side by side with Siva and Vishnu and
Devi one can see Jesus and Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha and Jina Mahavira, Mahatma
Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and many others. But if questioned about the many
gods even the illiterate villager will answer: BhagavāN
Ek Hai – the Lord is One. He may not be able to figure out in theological terms how the many
gods and the one god hang together and he may not be sure about the hierarchy
obtaining among the many manifestations, but he does know that ultimately there
is only One and that the many somehow merge into the One.
is the great difference between Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions.
Monotheism in Abrahamic religions represents the denial of gods in God, while
the monotheism of Hinduism represents the affirmation of gods in God. Two
different kinds of monotheism may be involved here. Failure to recognise this
misleads the followers of Abrahamic religions into branding Hinduism as pagan.
usual error is not to regard Hinduism as monotheistic; Stark seems to have
erred in the opposite direction, of regarding the monotheism of Hinduism as
identical in nature with Abrahamic monotheism. The crucial difference is that
Hinduism combines monotheism with polymorphism, while it is aniconic in the
This has a
crucial bearing on his understanding of the nature of missionary activity in
Hinduism. Here again Stark places it on par with that in Abrahamic religions. However,
because Hindu monotheism admits of polymorphism, the nature of missionary
activity within it is also different. S Radhakrishnan highlighted this
difference as follows:
In a sense,
Hinduism may be regarded as the first example in the world of a missionary
religion. Only its missionary spirit is different from that associated with the
proselytising creeds. It did not regard it as its mission to convert humanity
to any one opinion. For what counts is conduct and not belief. Worshippers of
different gods and followers of different rites were taken into the Hindu fold.
Krishna, according to the Bhagavad Gita, accepts as his own, not only the
oppressed classes, women and Sudras, but even those of unclean descent
(Papayonayah), like the Kiratas and the Hunas. The ancient practice of
Vratyastoma, described fully in the Tandya Brahmana, shows that not only
individuals but whole tribes were absorbed into Hinduism.
then is that Stark posits a direct relationship between monotheism and
missionary activity but in doing so he assumes that there can be only one kind
of monotheism which will always lead to one kind of missionary activity – the
proselytising kind. Hinduism, when placed in this context, generates another
possibility: the possibility of a polymorphic monotheism, as distinguished from
the monomorphic monotheism of the Abrahamic type, which generates a different
pattern of missionary activity, which does not involve “conversion” in the
sense associated with Abrahamic monotheism.
the Hindu evidence in this connection retains the link forged by Stark between
monotheism and mission but adds a wrinkle to it. Stark bracketed Hinduism along
with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a monotheistic religion, which is
justified, but he did not evaluate the implication the inclusion of Hinduism in
this category had for the nature of monotheism involved, and how this nuance
affected the sense of mission.
with permission from Religious Tolerance: A History, Arvind Sharma, Harper Collins
Source: Scroll. in