Some reflections on the Hindu theory of tolerance


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IN recent years Hindu activists have attacked Christian missionaries, churches and mosques and made distasteful remarks about Islam and Christianity. For their apologists these are uncharacteristic aberrations provoked by minority intransigence that has stretched the traditional Hindu tolerance to its limits. Their critics see these events as predictable expression of the spirit of intolerance that lies at the heart of Hindu thought and which has long been obscured by the Orientalist myth of Hindu tolerance conveniently popularised during the colonial era.

In this paper I step back from the immediate context of this controversy and use it to reflect on the basis and limits of Hindu tolerance. The paper is divided into two parts. In the first part I elucidate the philosophical grounds and the logical structure of the Hindu theory of tolerance.1 In the second I examine their strengths and weaknesses, and conclude that the Hindu claim to be a tolerant people is only partially sustainable.

Hindu theory of tolerance is grounded in and overdetermined by the following four beliefs, which have played and continue to play an important part in Hindu thought. First, primacy of conduct. Hindus hold that the ethical quality of life and not a body of dogmas lies at the heart of religion, and matters most. Religion represents a way of life, and is to be judged by the kind of life it inspires.

Beliefs are not important in themselves but only insofar as they affect one’s ability to lead the good life, and are to be assessed not in terms of their cognitive validity but their moral effects. Hindus are therefore allowed a considerable freedom of religious belief including borrowing those of other religions provided that they lead what the wider society takes to be an acceptable way of life.

Second, a dharmic view of morality. The ethically acceptable life is one lived according to dharma or a set of moral duties. Dharma is divided into two types: sadharanadharma or universally binding duties such as telling the truth, non-injury to other living beings, non-stealing, purity, freedom from envy and control of passions, and varnashramadharma or the duties pertaining to one’s caste and stage in life. Unlike the former which is the same for all, the latter is relative to and varies with the individual’s caste and stage in life. Except in the case of the renunciates who step out of the social order altogether, the good life in the Hindu view is one that meets the demands of both, especially the latter.

This idea is also extended to non-Hindu societies, each believed to have its own view of dharma which it is entitled to follow. In the traditional Hindu society, such non-Hindu communities as existed were generally entitled to live by their traditional customs and practices. According to Dharmasastras, their dharma is an integral part of their communal identity and collective inheritance, and it is an act of sacrilege to violate it.

Third, individual uniqueness. For Hindus, every individual is the ultimate architect of his life and must work out his salvation himself. Salvation is not a gift or an undeserved act of grace, but a personal achievement based on one’s karma or deeds. While sharing the atman with others, every individual has a distinct self consisting of a unique set of psychological and moral dispositions (swabhava), that is a product of his karma in his previous life and which he can and should improve upon in this one.



Every human being goes through a cycle of births in the course of a journey all his own, and builds up a distinct personality or self. No two individuals are therefore ever like or have the same moral and spiritual needs. The mode of worship, the conception of god, and the form of moral and spiritual discipline that suit one individual do not necessarily suit another. Although they all have the same destination, namely liberation from the cycle of rebirth, their paths vary.

Fourth, religious pluralism. For the Hindus the ultimate reality is infinite and cannot by definition be grasped in its totality by the finite human mind. All religions grasp some aspects of it and miss out others. Like the blind men trying to imagine the size and shape of the elephant on the basis of one particular part of it, different religions represent different and inherently partial visions of the ultimate reality and contain both truth and error.2 Even though God incarnates Himself in history, He reveals Himself differently to different societies and epochs depending on their capacities and needs. Divine self-revelation is a continuous process, and no religion can claim to offer the final and exhaustive knowledge of God.



For Hindus, all religions are so many different ways of understanding and realising the ultimate reality or what may loosely be called God. As one of the Vedic maxims asserts, ‘Truth or Reality is one, though sages call it by different names.’3 In the Bhagvadgita, Krishna says that ‘whoever comes to me through whatever route, I reach out to him,’ and that ‘all paths in the end lead to me.’4 This raises the question whether some religions might not be wholly misguided or unworthy of respect.

The Hindu response is ambiguous. Some Hindu thinkers rule out this possibility. Some others hold that every religion has a self-correcting mechanism and that a wholly misguided one is bound eventually to collapse under the weight of its errors and false promises. Most, however, admit the possibility of a false or misguided religion, and argue that a religion that violates sadharanadharma or universal moral values and enjoins murder, deception, lying, and so on is inherently suspect. In their view certain values are so central to human life that they set limits to what constitutes a religion or one worthy of respect.

These four beliefs form the basis of the Hindu theory and practice of tolerance. Since religion is concerned with the quality of life and not with subscription to a particular body of dogmas, Hindus argue that all theological and religious disputes are pointless.5 The dharmic view of morality implies that different individuals and groups should lead different forms of life depending on their caste, psychological make up, traditions, and so on, and that inducing or coercing them to do otherwise violates their moral integrity and damages their wellbeing.

The principle of individual uniqueness implies that no religion suits all equally, that the idea of a single universal religion is fundamentally flawed, that each religion should grant its adherents the freedom to adapt its doctrines and practices to their unique spiritual needs, and that we should encourage tolerance not only of other religions but also within each of them. Finally, religious pluralism implies that since all religions lead to the same destination, mean much to their members, and contain both truth and error, they deserve equal respect. As Radhakrishnan once said, ‘tolerance is the homage the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the infinite.’



The Hindu theory of tolerance approaches the question of tolerance from an angle very different to that of most of its European counterparts, and has its obvious strengths and limitations. Although it does not reduce religion to morality, it takes the latter to be central to religion, and makes little philosophical and emotional investment in religious beliefs. If an individual can lead the good life by holding one set of beliefs rather than another, he is left free to do so.

This partly explains why the Hindu religious tradition has generally been able to live with vast and deep doctrinal differences and avoid sectarian quarrels. Since it expects each individual and social group to lead their own appropriate way of life, it places tolerance at the centre of morality and religion, and avoids the all too familiar monistic disputes about which way of life is the best and should be imposed on others.



The principle of individual uniqueness places stringent limits on what can be done to an individual. Her salvation is her responsibility, her spiritual and psychological needs are different from those of others, and she must work out her salvation at her own pace and in her own way. Any form of coercion violates her ‘truth’, and is not only immoral but also bound to fail. This partly explains why Hindu sects did not generally compete for followers, and even when they did, they generally left each individual free to decide the matter for himself without being threatened with dire otherworldly sanctions.

The epistemological pluralism, in which the Hindu theory of tolerance is embedded and which gives it its distinct identity and appeal, breeds humility and open-mindedness and creates a climate conducive to inter-religious tolerance. Since it is agent-sensitive, respects differences of insights and needs, and eschews all claims to finality and inerrancy, it encourages respect for other religions and ways of life and nurtures a pluralist ethos. This explains the considerable tolerance Hindus have shown over the centuries to other religions.

Jews, who were persecuted in Christian and treated as second class citizens in Muslim countries, have lived in peace in many parts of India and enjoyed official patronage, financial support and even a self-governing district of their own in the Hindu kingdom of Cochin. Christians, Muslims and Zoroastrians began to arrive in India from the fifth, ninth and tenth centuries respectively. They were well received and given full freedom of religious belief and practice.

In some parts of India, several Hindu communities have both Hindu and non-Hindu customs for different spheres of life, and see nothing wrong in describing themselves as Muslim Hindus or Christian Hindus. Most Salam Girasia Rajputs traditionally had two names for every member of the community, one Hindu and one Muslim. Some Hindu temples have shrines of both a Hindu God or goddess and a Muslim saint. Hindus widely worship Sai Baba, who was a Muslim saint. India perhaps is one of the very few countries in which public debates between the leaders of different religions were for long a common practice, and in which great religious seekers such as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and others experimented with different religious practices without the slightest inhibition.



While the Hindu theory of tolerance has these and other strengths, which at least partly account for the considerable tolerance of the Hindu society, it also has its weaknesses, which partly explain the Hindu society’s intolerance and periods of inter-religious violence. Its weaknesses arise from the twofold fact that the grounds on which it justifies tolerance are not all mutually consistent, and that they are not as unproblematic and benign as the Hindus like to think.

While the Hindu theory allows its adherents considerable freedom of belief, it tends to be extremely restrictive of their freedom of conduct. Hindus are expected to follow the dharma of their caste on pain of social ostracism and, under traditional Hindu kingdoms, of legal sanctions. As the Gita says, ‘It is better to die doing one’s dharma than to adopt that of another.’6 This does not mean that individuals can never get out of their castes. They can and, contrary to the Orientalist myth, have done so for centuries.



One can renounce the world and render oneself casteless; groups of individuals can set up a caste of their own and decide upon its dharma; or isolated individuals or whole castes can raise their status by emulating the rituals and practices of higher castes. Since the first involves renouncing the social world altogether, few are either inclined that way or prepared to pay the price. The second is not much help in the long run because the new caste imposes its own dharma. The third mode of escape has more or less the same outcome, for the dharma of the higher caste exercises the same constraints as those of one’s own. It is therefore hardly surprising that despite some degree of social mobility, most Hindus long remained trapped within the caste of their birth.

The combination of an extensive freedom of religious belief and the demand for conformity to social norms creates a paradox which the Hindu theory of tolerance is unable to resolve. The Hindu is free to hold whatever beliefs he likes as long as he observes his caste duties. This raises the question whether he may adopt beliefs that involve rejecting the caste system altogether while remaining a Hindu. The Hindu theory has three answers. It either restricts his freedom of beliefs, or allows him to hold egalitarian beliefs on condition that he does not act on them, or it allows him to live by these beliefs.

The first undermines or at least severely limits its claim to be tolerant; the second creates a hiatus between beliefs and practices and violates the individual’s moral integrity; the third is morally and socially most costly because an isolated individual who leaves his caste is cut off from his community and has nowhere to go. Even if the whole caste embraces egalitarian beliefs as has happened sometimes, this has a limited practical value because the higher castes, against whom the equality is asserted, rarely concede the claim.



As for religious pluralism in which Hindus take great pride, it is not at all as benign and egalitarian as it appears.7 It is hierarchically structured and accommodates differences by grading them on the basis of a distinct vision of human excellence. Although it tolerates a wide variety of sects and ways of life, and consider them best for their followers, it does not grant them equal status and dignity. A sudra’s way of life is as good for him as a Brahmin’s is for him, but that does not detract from the fact that the latter is supposed to attain higher excellence and to be morally superior. This is equally true of the various form of religious life.

As the Gita says, those of inferior intelligence (alpamedhasan) who worship inferior gods receive inferior spiritual rewards.8 And although there are different ways to attain moksha, some such as jnanayoga are generally considered the highest and most reliable. It is striking that Raman Maharshi, Aurobindo and many other traditionalists took a low and patronising view of Mahatma Gandhi for taking the messy path of karmayoga to achieve his self-proclaimed goal of moksha, and were convinced that he was heading for failure.

Hindu pluralism is not only hierarchically structured but is also the basis of a new hierarchy. Hindus are convinced that no religion can exhaust the plenitude of the infinite and that all religions are inherently partial and limited. In their view their religion acknowledges and respects these fundamental truths and was indeed to first to discover them. Other religions ignore these truths. They claim perfection, condemn or take a demeaning view of other religions, and deny their adherents the freedom to borrow from them. For Hindus these religions are therefore inferior. Many Hindu thinkers use religious pluralism to grade all religions, placing themselves at the top and Islam and Christianity, usually the former, at the bottom. Other religions are tolerated and even respected but never accepted as equals.



Hindu pluralism is further handicapped by what Max Weber called absolute relativisation.9 For Hindus difference is the central feature of human life as well as its organising principle. Every society is different; within each, castes and social groups are all different, and ultimately all individuals too are unique and different. Since they are all different in their nature and modes of being, different forms of life are appropriate to them. As we saw, every caste and stage of life has its own appropriate dharma. Every society too has its distinct traditions and ethos, and hence only a particular way of life is appropriate to it. This is also true of each individual to whom only a particular way of life is suited.

This form of pluralism makes it extremely difficult to take an overall view of society and restructure it on the basis of a wider vision of the good life. This may partly explain why utopian thought, a bold and imaginative reconstruction of society inspired by a will to change the world, is largely absent in Hindu thought. Relativised pluralism also freezes society.



Different individuals lead different ways of life because these are appropriate to their temperament, moral capacities, stage of life or position in society. While this protects them against others’ interferences and ensures their negative freedom, it also severely restricts their choices, denies them the positive freedom to reject their way of life in favour of another, and discourages them from rebelling against the intolerable practices and institutions of their society.

Once we introduce the Hindu theory of karma and swabhava, the pluralism becomes even more restrictive. Birth in a particular religious or cultural community is seen not as an accident but as a result of the individual’s karma and an expression of his spiritual constitution and needs. There is therefore a strong presumption that the religion of his birth is best suited to him, that it is his natural spiritual home, and that he should live out his life within it. He is, of course, free to borrow the beliefs and practices of another religion, but not in such a way that they violate the substance of his own.

Hindu pluralism is basically a form of peaceful coexistence with other religions in a spirit of relative indifference, each expected to remain confined to its boundary and never to challenge the other’s beliefs and practices. It is structurally ill-equipped to encourage a systematic creative or even critical engagement with other religious traditions.

This may explain why few Hindu writers have produced either critical commentaries on or interpreted their own central doctrines from the standpoint of Islam, Christianity or even Sikhism during their centuries of encounter with them. It may also explain why Hindus feel a deep sense of unease and even hostility towards religions making universalist claims and engaging in proselytising activities.



Since these religions neither accept peaceful coexistence nor respect religious boundaries, they challenge the very basis of Hindu pluralism. Historically speaking, Hindus encountered universalist and proselytising religions at three different periods in their history, namely the rise of Buddhism and the arrival of Islam and colonial Christianity. Each provoked much resentment and, when Hindus had the power, considerable intolerance.

The rise of Buddhism is a good example of this. Buddhism was a reaction against the beliefs, practices and rituals of the Brahmanic orthodoxy and, unlike Jainism, it was concerned not just to exist alongside but to challenge the latter and win over its followers. Not surprisingly, it provoked a strong opposition and even some disorder, particularly when it received royal support from Ashoka. This is why Ashoka’s edicts had to urge his subjects to ‘hear one another’s principles’, to ‘honour another man’s sect’, and not to fight in the name of religion. Once the Hindu kings replaced Ashoka’s Maurya dynasty, some Hindu leaders took advantage of the royal patronage, harassed the Buddhists, and destroyed some of their monasteries.



Another difficulty with Hindu pluralism lies in its reductionist account of religion. It asserts that all religions are basically concerned with the same thing, have the same goal, worship the same God, and are all so many different paths to the same destination. Their differences are acknowledged but believed to be unimportant, unrelated to the essence of religion, and attributed to ignorance or social and historical circumstances.

Such a view of religion is simplistic and even false. Different religions entertain not only different conceptions but also different concepts of God, and some even dispense with the concept altogether. The Buddhists are agnostics, and the Jains atheists. Brahman, the qualityless cosmic consciousness of the Advaitins and free of all human emotions including love and mercy, has little in common with the quasi-anthropomorphic conceptions of God common to the Hindu dualists and the three Semitic religions. And the latter three again differ greatly in their conceptualisations of God.

Different religions, again, differ greatly in the way they relate God and the universe, define human life and destiny, and imagine salvation. The dominant Hindu idea of moksha has little in common with the popular Hindu and the conventional Christian and Islamic views of salvation. Although all religions do share some moral principles in common, they differ in several others, and define and prioritise the former very differently. Given these and other deep differences, it makes little sense to say that all religions are so many different paths to an identical destination.

Thanks to this reductionist tendency, Hindu thinkers including the most eminent among them have great difficulty appreciating the specificity and integrity of other religious traditions. Hindus tend to think of religion as a spiritual science, and of great religious leaders as spiritual explorers who through yogic training acquired the powers needed to discover the central truths of human existence. Since other religions see their prophets differently, even the most eminent and sensitive Hindu thinkers cannot make much sense of them, and turn them into yogis of one kind or another. Vivekanand’s comments on Islam are a good example of this.

The Koran, Vivekananda argues, contains profound spiritual insights but also many superstitions and errors. This was so because, although prophet Muhammad had great spiritual powers and access to divine inspiration, he was not a ‘trained yogi’ attaining the ‘superconscious state’ by means of a prolonged spiritual discipline. He was not therefore ‘prepared’ to cope with the ‘hallucinations’ to which such a state of consciousness, where normal forms of reasoning do not apply, is vulnerable. Not surprisingly he could not distinguish between genuine spiritual insights and hallucinations, and ended up producing a religion in which great truths lay side by side with naive fantasies about the life in heaven and hell.



Although Vivekananda was free to reject Muhammad’s account of his revelations, it is striking that he simply could not appreciate that Islam took a very different view of divine self-revelation. Aurobindo took a broadly similar view of Islam, and displayed what a critic rightly calls the ‘condescending tolerance of an adult for the juvenile follies of a teenager.’ Although Gandhi took a reverential view of Jesus, he too thought of him as a yogi who had arrived at his spiritual insights by intense spiritual training, and could not make sense of the Christian idea of the Son of God. In all these and other cases the assimilationist tendency severely restricts the Hindu religious imagination, and leads both to distortions of other religions and a hurtful attitude of misguided superiority.



Religious pluralism has much to be said for it. For reasons too complex to discuss here, it is a philosophically and morally superior view to religious monism or the claim that a particular religion represents the final word of God. It needs, however, to be based on non-assimilationist grounds. Religions are profoundly different and incommensurable. Each represents a unique vision of the world and God, and nurtures a distinct set of sensibilities, capacities, virtues and values. They are not all paths to the same destination, whatever that may mean, and are not all mutually translatable. It is precisely because they are different that the claim to absolute superiority by any one of them not only cannot be established in a noncircular manner but is also logically incoherent.

Furthermore, since they are different, each can profit from a dialogue with others and appreciate both their uniqueness and commonalities. The dialogue not only uncovers such commonalities as may exist but also creatively develops them, and brings the religions closer in a spirit of mutual respect. Such a non-reductionist pluralism accords full and equal respect to all religions and avoids the arrogance of both religions monism and reductionist pluralism. It also has the further advantage of encouraging each religion to take a relaxed attitude to internal disagreement, fostering internal pluralism, and nurturing the spirit of intra- and inter-religious dialogue.



I have so far argued that the Hindu religious and cultural tradition has great resources for tolerance, and that its historical record is just as good as and in some respects better than that of others. I have also argued that it has a deep-seated tendency to freeze differences, to respect them by incorporating them within a hierarchical system, and to take a patronising attitude towards other religions. So long as those involved accept all this, they are tolerated. But if they dare challenge the hierarchy and demand equality of status and respect, as is increasingly being done by lower castes, dalits, non-Brahmanic forms of Hindu religious life and non-Hindu religions, Hindu tolerance is stretched to its limits and throws up to crude or subtle and militant or mild forms of intolerance.

To create a tolerant India, we need to do two things. We obviously need to mobilise the Hindu resources for tolerance. But we also need to acknowledge and face up to its deep-seated tendencies towards intolerance, and subject them to a systematic egalitarian and pluralist critique. This great cultural task was undertaken by a large body of thinkers from Ram Mohan Roy onwards, Gandhi being the last of them.10

Although they did much valuable work, it was handicapped by its colonial provenance and understandable religious and cultural biases. We need both to build on and rethink it in the context of contemporary India. The Hindu religious tradition is too stubborn a political fact to be ignored or left to its orthodox and sometimes misguided guardians. And since it has resources for both good and evil, the only sensible course of action is neither to debunk nor to glorify it but to engage with it in a constructively critical spirit.



* I am most grateful to Professors Dhirubhai Sheth, Dhiren Narain, Rajni Kothari, Abdul Momin, Achyut Yagnik and Thomas Pantham for several long and helpful discussions on the basic ideas of this paper.

1. The Hindu religious tradition obviously speaks in many different voices, and cannot be homogenised. I concentrate on what I take to be its classical and dominant strand.

2. This is an influential and frequently invoked metaphor in Hindu thought. It seems to be Jain in origin.

3. Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti.

4. Gita, 4: 11; 9: 22.

5. Al Biruni, an 11th century traveller to India, commented on the Hindus: ‘On the whole there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves; they will never stake their soul and body or their property on religious controversy.’ Cited in R.C. Zaehner, Hinduism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1966, p. 4.

6. Swadharme nidhanam shreyah paradharmo bhayavaha.

7. The Hindu pluralist tradition has had many powerful advocates, the most influential being Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. For Vivekananda, pluralism represents India’s ‘greatest religious contribution’ to the world. It has been the ‘backbone of our national existence’ and has made India ‘the glorious land of religious toleration.’ Collected Works, Advaita Ashram, Calcutta, 1989, Vol. lll, pp. 186 f. God’s book is ‘not finished’ and there is ‘a continuous revelation’; CW, Vol. ll, p. 372.

8. Gita, 7: 23, 9: 25, 3: 25 and 26.

9. See H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber, Oxford University Press, New York, 1948, pp. 149 f. For a sensitive discussion of Weber, see Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘The Ethical Irrationality of the World: Weber and Hindu Ethics’, Critical Horizons 2(2), 2001.

10. For a critical discussion, see my Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, Sage, Delhi, 1989.