Encounter with other religions, debate and dialogue
The presence in Hindu temples of images representing other religions such as Guru Nanak and Jesus are often explained to visitors as recognition that all religions are true and share an underlying unity. This modern liberal ideology has neo-Vedantic roots, extending the account of tolerance and inclusivity beyond acceptance of a variety of Hindu beliefs and practices to respect for all religions. For example, speaking at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 in support of this perspective of many paths but one goal, Swami Vivekananda characterised this innovative interfaith event as fulfilling Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad-Gita, quoting Krishna’s declaration that he would receive anyone who came to him by whatever means (4.11). Whether or not inspired by this ideology of the truth and unity of religions, Hindus have been actively involved in other interfaith organisations and initiatives including the Interfaith Network in the UK.
Vivekananda’s neo-Vedantic portrayal of Hinduism was received very favourably and widely admired. However, it does have implications for other religions. If all religions are true, it can be argued that there is no reason to convert from one religion to another. If all religions share an underlying unity, there are no grounds to claim a unique revelation. This has the effect of relativising all religious paths, while asserting a subtle form of superiority for Vedanta or a Vedantic interpretation of Hinduism in that it alone has understood the truth and unity of religions. This view is present in the writings of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, another neo-Vedantin with an interest in interfaith relations, who went as far as contrasting Hinduism with the Abrahamic religions, such as Christianity, which he viewed as narrow and dogmatic, threatening unbelievers with damnation and professing exclusive possession of truth.
Just as Christian attitudes to Hinduism have varied markedly, ranging from condemnation to subordination to admiration, Hindu attitudes to Christianity have varied. Rammohan Roy (1772-1883) wrote The Precepts of Jesus – The Guide to Peace and Happiness, an account of Jesus’ teaching that reproduced extracts from the Gospels while excluding miraculous elements, thereby appalling missionaries who were alarmed by its rationalist tenor. Gandhi was similarly positive about Jesus both as a moral exemplar and as a pioneer of non-violence though he often coupled this with observations on the failings of Christians and a rejection of the uniqueness of the incarnation. Complicating Christian-Hindu relations have been the perceived complicity of Christianity with the colonial project and its non-Indian origins (in spite of its long presence in parts of India) as well as the emphasis on conversion that has been regarded as a threat.
There have been many Hindu responses to religious diversity. For example, the Arya Samaj (founded in 1875) launched shuddhi (purification) campaigns to reconvert those who had converted to other religions, notably Islam, a ritual process that also drove a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs that contributed towards increasing differentiation of Sikhism from Hinduism. Or again, appeal has been made to the Ramayana and the conflict between the divine king Rama and his demonic adversary, Ravana, as a model for Hindu-Muslim relations, whereby especially from the mid 1980s onwards Rama’s capital city Ayodhya has been the focus of disputes over the alleged demolition of a temple commemorating Rama’s birth for the construction of a mosque dedicated to the first Mughal emperor Babur. Hindu attitudes towards Buddhism are also interesting as Hindus claim the Buddha to be one of Vishnu’s avatars (descent forms), his purpose variously described as being to teach false doctrines as a test for the faithful (thus criticising aspects of Buddhist teaching) or to reform aspects of Hindu practice such as animal sacrifice (thus claiming the Buddha as Hindu really, and denying that he intended to found a separate religion). Such attitudes can be perceived as either examples of tolerant inclusivism or religious appropriation that is insulting to Buddhists. However, centuries after Buddhism died out in India, it saw a revival when Ambedkar led a large-scale conversion of dalit communities on the basis of his view that Hinduism was inextricably connected with caste as an oppressive institution whereas Buddhism’s progressive principles (as he saw them) held out the promise of liberty and equality for all.