THE article by Professor Bhikhu Parekh is really more on ‘Bhikhu Parekh’s Theory of Hindu Tolerance’ rather than on ‘Hindu Theory Tolerance’ (Seminar 521, January 2003, pp. 48-53). I have a very high regard for him both as a person and a scholar but I sincerely think that either his understanding of Hindu tolerance is flawed, or he is also unconsciously a victim of the belief among the intelligentsia that it is somehow fashionable and progressive to unfairly criticize Hinduism. To be fair to him, he faithfully respects the adage that criticism should always be sandwiched between layers of praise, and I believe he is sincere in his praise of Hinduism.
But the damage that Parekh inflicts is very significant. As he says, he steps back from the immediate context of the recent controversy in the wake of deplorable atrocities on minorities by narrow minded mobs of criminals intent on taking revenge. The right course should have been to put pressure on the government to hunt down the criminals responsible for the Godhra carnage, rather than to show intolerance to intolerance in the same style. Even under severe provocation, civilized societies should not resort to lawlessness and insane cruelty. What Parekh does is not condemn particular cases of intolerance; instead, he blames Hinduism itself (though in general, but not in the immediate context). Though not expressed in so many words what he says amounts to charging Hindu tolerance as superficial, condescending at best, and not respectful to other faiths on the basis of equality. Stretched to its limits, Hindu tolerance can easily transform itself into mild or militant intolerance, depending on the circumstances.
According to him, it is not the difference between theory and practice, but due to this weak form of tolerance that is inherent in Hinduism. The author makes his argument on the ground that Hindu allowance for pluralism is assimilative, not of a type that allows others to exist independently on their own with equal respect, but one that allows it only in terms a hierarchy. Because this is so, the moment equality is demanded and hierarchy is challenged, the limits of tolerance are ruptured and intolerance results. The author has said this in an elaborate and polite manner, hedged with liberal praise, but this is the sum and substance of his argument.
The argument is unacceptable as it is unfair and wrong. Just as the entire Muslim society or Islam cannot be blamed for acts of terrorism in India or the world at large, Hindu society or Hinduism cannot be blamed for particular acts of atrocities against minorities in India.
Scholars of Hindu philosophy and religion have shown that Hinduism allowed independent and separate schools of philosophy and religion, there being no question of their being hierarchically ordered. Apart from theistic schools like Yoga and Vedanta, atheistic schools also like Lokayata, Samkhya, Mimamsa and early Vaisheshika thrived with many followers. Of course, there was fierce intellectual discussion among them, each claiming superiority and trying to vanquish others in debates. This is but natural in any intellectually vibrant society. Inspite of this richness of debate, it is surprising that Bhikhu Parekh approvingly quotes Al Biruni to say that there was very little dispute around theological topics. The debates and disputes within Hinduism were as rich as in Buddhism, and probably more than in western religions. A look into various books on Indian philosophy such as those by S. Radhakrishnan, Surendranath Dasgupta, M. Hiriyanna, J.N. Mohanty and Hajime Nakayama demonstrates this point. As Koenraad Elst has observed: ‘Hindu India has also had no history of book burning, of executing heretics or confining dissidents to lunatic asylums. The Buddha could preach his heterodox doctrine till his old age without ever being persecuted’ (Elst 2001: 30). Buddhism vanished from India not because of Hindu persecution or even assimilation. Nalanda and such Buddhist universities, which were strongholds of Buddhism were destroyed by Muslim invaders when Buddhists were killed or converted in large numbers to Islam, especially in Bengal and Bihar.
Regarding treatment of minorities, Parekh cannot be unaware of the several privileges they enjoy in India that Hindus do not. It is the minorities who are the first among equals in secular India, not Hindus. Minority run educational institutions qualify for state grants, but not those run by Hindus. The former can have their own admission policy inspite of it. Muslims get a subsidy for Haj trips while Hindus have to give special taxes at pilgrim centres to cover security expenses. Minorities have their own special personal laws, whereas in a secular country all should have been under a common civil law (see Elst 2001:524-583).
If anyone points out these anomalies of our secularism he is at once branded as a communalist or a fundamentalist. India is not, and will not be, a Hindu state and rightly so. And this is due to the tolerance of Hindus, even if you call it condescending tolerance. As Elst put it, Hindus are damned if they do, and damned if they do not (Ibid: 97). The best refutation of Hindu intolerance of minorities, including Muslims, is provided, as Elst point out again, by the fact that the constant trickle of Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh is not matched by a similar trickle of Muslim refugees from India. On the contrary, there is a vast movement of Muslims migrants from Bangladesh illegally settling in India (Ibid. p. 69). Recently the home minister of India pointed out that thousands of Pakistanis legally entering India do not return after the expiry of their visas.
Much is made of the hierarchical Hindu society, as if there was no such hierarchy in traditional societies elsewhere in the world. Several eminent sociologists have pointed out that the caste system, contrary to what was commonly thought, permitted upward mobility, that what we have are jaatis which are not hierarchical, and that they should not be confused with varnas (see, for example, Srinivas ed.1996; Gupta 2000). The contribution of the so-called lower castes to Hinduism has been so significant that it is erroneous to call Hinduism as Brahmanism (Nadkarni 1997).
Parekh is again wrong in his finding that as per Hinduism jnanamarga is the most superior (as yet another instance of the Hindu tendency to order everything into hierarchy?). Philosophers have accorded different preferences to the different paths to God. While jnanamarga is the most superior according to Sankaracharya, it was bhaktimarga according to Ramanjua and Madhva, karmamarga according to B.G. Tilak, and an integrated yoga combining all the three according to Aurobindo. It is interesting that just as there was no unique hierarchy among paths to God realization there was no unique or universally agreed hierarchy among jaatis too.
Yet another example can be given to show how Hinduism permitted diversity and pluralism without any attempt at hierarchical ordering. This is with respect to the bhakti movements of medieval India. Almost every region of India witnessed bhakti movements. It was not one movement, but many. Each had its own favourite god, each had its own founder saint and each created its own rich literature and in its own regional language. And yet amidst all this diversity and pluralism, there was unity without any one person or church or ecclesiastical order trying to achieve it.
Bhakti movements simplified, democratized and humanized Hinduism as never before. They also showed that Hindu assimilativeness does not homogenize but allows different sects and beliefs to maintain their separate identities without any hierarchical ordering. Such vibrant creativity has been continuously witnessed in Hinduism from the Vedic period right up to the present. Contrast this with other religions which had and still have hierarchically ordered, lavishly financed, centrally managed ecclesiastical orders expanding their territories, wiping out differences in the name of purity and giving little peace to non-proselytizing religions. If Hinduism could hold it own against such aggression, it is because of its inherent strength, flexibility, creativity and tolerance of differences.
If Bhikhu Parekh finds that Hindu tolerance has limits, and that it is not infinite and absolute, there is nothing wrong or unnatural about it. Gandhiji himself said that tolerance of injustice, unfairness and intolerance is cowardice, and not ahimsa. It is, however, necessary to ensure that even intolerance of intolerance does not stoop down to lawlessness and barbarism. If under some extreme provocation, it did so, it is certainly not because of the preaching of Hinduism, which has always valued truth and nonviolence above everything.
Professor, Institute of Social and Economic Change
Koenraad Elst, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind: Ideological Development of Hindu Revivalism, Rupa, New Delhi, 2001.
Dipankar Gupta, Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2000.
M.V. Nadkarni, ‘Broadbasing Process in India and Dalits’, Economic and Political Weekly 32(33 & 34), 16-23 August 1997, pp. 2160-2171.
M.N. Srinivas, (ed. and intr.) Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1996.