Book Club Channel
The Importance of Being Different: A Q&A with Rajiv Malhotra
In the provocative new book Being Different, Indian-American scholar Rajiv Malhotra argues that the popular and widely affirmed Western concept of universalism is disingenuous—and actually dangerous to inter-religious understanding and dialogue. The book, the result of 40 years of practice and study, offers instead an invitation to view the West through the lens of the "other"—in this case, the dharmic tradition of Hinduism. Malhotra seeks to demonstrate how such a "reversal of gaze" can lead the way for a deeper and more informed engagement between dharmic and Western civilizations.
Recently, Malhotra spoke with Patheos about why "being different" is so important, the one person he hopes reads this book, and what his dream center for inter-religious dialogue would look like.
(Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism.)
The subtitle of your new book is "An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism." Why do you feel it's important to challenge the popular Western concept of universalism?
As Asia's power rises rapidly, it is natural that India and China will reassert their worldviews and compete with the West on that level as well. It behooves liberal Westerners to understand where Asians are coming from philosophically, and not assume that the political power to project Western ideas as universals will continue. Secondly, many "Western" things are not of Western origin to begin with, but were appropriated from other civilizations including India; I deal with this in a future volume.
Your title implies that "being different" is a positive thing in inter-religious study and dialogue. Why is this important, from a Hindu perspective?
The cosmos is built on the principle of difference—in plants, animals, geographies, and even each moment in time is unique. So difference in culture, human cognition and worldviews—these are natural. It is interesting that westerners are so protective of the diversity of plants and animals, but the same emphasis is not placed on protecting spiritual diversity. Western religions have traditionally pushed for monocultures. Monotheism is more appropriately defined as "my-theism," meaning that my idea of theism is the only valid one.
In Hinduism, sva-dharma is the path for a given individual, the "sva" prefix literally meaning "my." It's like "My Documents" or "My Favorites" on your computer. God made us unique individuals, each with a purpose based on past conditioning, including in past births, and each equipped to discover one's sva-dharma. Besides, the Abrahamic religions' history of imposing standardized canons, uniform beliefs and the like, is filled with some of the worst organized, large scale atrocities in world history. It is time we respected difference as a starting point in mutual understanding. In the book, I coin the term "difference anxiety" to refer to one's anxiety that the other is different in some way—be it gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or religion.
What conversations do you want this book to inspire?
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team after more than ten years managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of Christian Education and music/theatre programs for young people and has served as a music director for worship and special retreats.