Being Different: A Classic for Inter-religious Dialogue

Being Different: A Classic for Inter-religious Dialogue February 14, 2012

By Ravi Ravindra

[This post is part of a roundtable discussion on the new book Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, by Rajiv Malhotra, featured March 1-15 at the Patheos Book Club .]

Rajiv Malhotra’s book Being Different is a masterpiece and a must read for anybody interested in the East-West dialogue or in Hinduism or Christianity.  For many decades I myself have been writing about some of the same or similar issues, especially in my three books—Whispers from the Other Shore (1984), The Yoga of the Christ (1990; published in the United States as The Gospel of John in the Light of Indian Mysticism) and Pilgrim Without Boundaries (2003)—but not with the enormous passion, audacity or insistence with which Rajiv has written.  I have a great admiration for him and general agreement with the themes of his book.  Being Different is a classic and it is bound to cause a great stir and debate in inter-religious discussions.

Many examples can be added from my own experience of the sort of Christian hegemonic and exclusivist stance Malhotra writes about.  I received a pitiful letter from the publisher in Greece intending to publish a Greek translation of The Yoga of the Christ requesting a change of title because “if the Church saw ‘yoga’ and ‘Christ’ in the same title, they will burn my publishing house down.” A reviewer questioned the temerity of a non-Christian writing about one of the sacred books of Christianity.  Very soon after this book had appeared in England, in 1990, one could find advertised on the internet another book with exactly the same title as of my book.  On inquiring it was discovered that the putative publisher did not exist and the ruse was to direct any interested person to a Christian propagandist.

It is a very deep conviction in the Western psyche that not only truth is one but only one expression of truth can be right and acceptable. The same attitude persists in the sciences, so much so at one stage some of the Positivists philosophers who were the worshippers of science could easily say that ‘non science is non-sense,’ very much a scientific version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation.)

As Malhotra rightly points out that there has been a persistent tension between science and religion in the Western culture.  But as science has become practically the paradigm case of knowledge for the present age, the Christian apologists have clamed that the Judeo-Christian theology somewhat exclusively provided the essential and hospitable conditions for the rise of modern science.  The scientific works of several of the most important scientists in the great scientific revolution of 16th and 17th century which established modern science–for example, Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes—were severely censured by the Christian Church authorities; many others, including Kepler and Newton, held views out of keeping with the religious orthodoxy of their denominations.  I had remarked in an article “Physics and Religion” published in The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mircea Eliade, 11:319 -23. New York: Macmillan, 1987) as follows: “It is sometimes said that the Judeo-Christian theology provided a hospitable ground for the rise of modern science, but it is also possible to say that progress in science was made in spite of, rather than because of, the distinctly biblical component of the Western mind. What the biblical stream did contribute to modern science was an ethos that facilitated the control and mastery of nature and permitted its technological exploitation. This, in turn, made possible the later Western domination of the globe.”

Monotheism is often considered by pious people and scholars in the West to be the acme of religious understanding. But no other religious notion has had a more pernicious consequence in creating bigotry and fanaticism than monotheism. Monotheism has resulted everywhere in ‘MY-theism,’ leading to warfare against other people’s religious forms. No one would say, “There is one God, and it is not my God but yours.” The late Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz once said: “We owe to monotheism many marvelous things, from cathedrals to mosques. But we also owe to it hatred and oppression. The roots of the worst sins of Western civilization–the Crusades, colonialism, totalitarianism–can be traced to the monotheistic mindset. . . . For a pagan, it was rather absurd that one people and one faith could monopolize the truth.” (Cited by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order).

Octavio Paz served as the Mexican ambassador to India in the 1960s, an experience he regarded as highly significant in both his life and his work, as witnessed by books written during his stay in India, especially The Monkey Grammarian and East Slope. He could not, therefore, be unmindful of the fact that beautiful sacred buildings are not exclusively related to monotheism–witness the marvelous temples of the so called polytheistic (which very often needs to be understood as trans-theistic) Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Many of these temples were destroyed by the monotheistic fervor that views every other religion’s sacred images and buildings with a lack of respect or even hatred.

The insistence that the Ultimate cannot be captured in any image or form, also contained in one of the Ten Commandments in the Torah, cannot be sustained by a mind unprepared to live without crutches of form, color, name, beliefs, and dogmas of faith. Every religion has idols; it is only other peoples’ idols that monotheists find troublesome, not their own. All scriptures, theologies, and liturgies, no less than images and icons, are particular expressions of religious understandings. Mental idols are more pernicious than idols made of wood or stone because they cannot be so easily seen or seen through. Wilfred Cantwell Smith (the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, and with whom I was privileged to teach a course called ‘Religions of India’ several decades ago) has observed, “For Christians to think that Christianity is true, or final, or salvific, is a form of idolatry.”

We live at a moment of great opportunity. Owing to enormous strides in the means of communication and transportation, it is difficult to remain parochial.  These days we need a special sort of imperviousness to ignore the existence of other great cultures. We see that there are various modes of approaching reality, that there are other religions, other kinds of music, other visual sensibilities, other modes of thought — quite different from those to which we are accustomed. If one has a searching and a learning mind—just the opposite of a manipulative, coercive and missionary mind–a far more fundamental and radical self-questioning is both easier and more necessary than it has been in the past.

If we do not dismiss those who are different from ourselves simply as stupid, insensitive, misguided or damned, a cultural and religious isolation can be justified only by our ignorance, or by a firm conviction that we are already in procession of the ultimate truth or the way to it, or by lack of energy and real wish to examine and understand our own culture and thereby ourselves. We cannot know our own culture, in its presuppositions and preoccupation, without encountering other cultures. We need a particular combination of the religious virtue of humility, the philosophic practice of self-objectivity, and a psychological openness to approach other cultures. The only way we can truly understand ourselves or our culture or our religion is in relationship with others, in the practice of a genuine pluralism without some hidden agenda of covert manipulation. This leads to a radical questioning of ourselves. Thus a diagnosis of our situation is facilitated and made sharper, creating some of the necessary conditions for the transformation of our being. As Kipling said:

Winds of the World, give answer!

They are whimpering to and fro-

And what should they know of England

who only England know?

Self-objectivity, seeing ourselves as others see us, is a difficult undertaking. One runs the risk of becoming a stranger in one’s own home; however, if one wishes to know oneself deeply, there is no choice. As between individuals, so between cultures: real knowledge of the other, and thereby of oneself, arises and flourishes largely in a state of love.  Otherwise, it is difficult to escape a covert control and manipulation of one by the other, whether the control and manipulation is religious, economic or conceptual. The attempt to look at other cultures in their own contexts, recognizing the relativity of our modes of thinking and questioning, permitting other cultures their integrity, and allowing their self-understanding to affect our inquiries about them, is all very necessary and helpful in approaching truth about ourselves and therefore in approaching Truth.

To give only one example of a fundamental difference in the main traditions of India and the Biblical tradition, we can look at the emphasis placed on ‘self-knowledge’. Since oneself is the instrument of knowing, there is an enormous importance placed on svadhyaya (self-study, self-knowledge, self-observation) in all the varied spiritual traditions of India which are essentially insight oriented. One would find hundreds of entries under svadhyaya in a concordance of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras and other spiritual texts in India.  By contrast, there is not a single entry under the equivalent heading of ‘self-knowledge’ in the concordance of the Bible, the source of guidance for the faith oriented traditions.

A discovery of major differences between traditions calls for a celebration, not a denial or obliteration, if one is a searcher of Truth.  The presence of manifest differences is a continual reminder that expressions of Truth are not the Truth, and that all the great sages everywhere have said that the Ultimate Truth cannot be expressed in any form—whether the form is theology, philosophy, art, music or liturgy.  Search for Truth—not Christian truth or Hindu truth—can be aided by forms appropriate to a searcher, but finally requires going beyond all forms.  We cannot know Truth but it can take birth in us.  If the followers of the Biblical tradition have some feeling for the great traditions of India, they would be much more sympathetic to many treasures in their own traditions, such as the following remark of the seventeenth century Christian mystic Angelus Silesius:

“Christ could be born a thousand times in Galilee.

All in vain, unless he is born in me.”

Rajiv Malhotra’s book can be very helpful in promoting a genuine dialogue between the Indian and the Biblical traditions and is highly recommended.

Ravi Ravindra was born in India and received his early education there. He went to Canada as a graduate student and later as an immigrant. Now he is a Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he served for many years as a professor in three Departments: Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Physics. He was a Member of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, and the Founding Director of the Threshold Award for Integrative Knowledge. He has been a member of the Board of Judges for the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Ravindra’s spiritual search has led him to the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, G. Gurdjieff, Yoga, Zen, and a deep immersion in the mystical teachings of the Indian and Christian classical traditions. Ravindra is also the author of many books.  Visit his website at



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