Re-imagining Religious Freedom

The doctrine of religious freedom is enshrined in the UN charter under the Declaration of Universal Human Rights and also in article 25 of the Indian constitution. Both these declarations state that the right to “change” one’s religion is a universal human right. The Indian constitution goes further by including the right to “propagate” one’s religion as a fundamental right.

Since the right to “change” and to “propagate” religion is given to all individuals it is assumed to be universal, fair and neutral. However, there are at least two distinct viewpoints that come from different types of religious traditions. Religious freedom, as currently defined, privileges one view of religion over others. This privileging, enshrined in law, has real-world implications. It is proposed that more balanced definitions of religious freedom would better promote religious harmony and religious diversity.

Pagans’ View of Religion

“What is religion?” is a question that scholars still actively debate. For understanding religious freedom we need to examine the distinctions between two kinds of traditions that are classified as “religion.” In particular, there is a distinction between what African scholar Makau Mutua calls “proselytizing universalist faiths”1 and other human traditions. Balgangadhara2 argues in detail that the concept of religion exemplified by the Abrahamic faiths is in an entirely different category than those of the other traditions. Differences in conceptions of religious freedom thus arise from the differences in category.

Here is what Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the last of the pagan prefects of Rome, when faced with official Christian persecution of the ancient Roman traditions, had to say in the 4th century C.E.

“Grant, I beg you, that what in our youth we took over from our fathers, we may in our old age hand to posterity??. The love of established practice is a powerful sentiment … Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians. … And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. … What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.”[3]

Let us zoom forward a few thousand years, to another continent, the “New World” of the Americas.The chief of a Native American tribe offered this reply to a Christian missionary’s proselytizing sermon:

“The Almighty, for anything we know, may have communicated himself to different races of people in a different manner. Some say they have the will of God in writing; be it so, their revelation has no advantage above ours, since both are equally sufficient to save, or the end of the revelation would be frustrated … the difference can only lay in the mode of communication.”[4]

The remonstrances of the Native American tribes were, unfortunately, insufficient to save their traditions from assault by those that claimed theirs was the only true way. Regis Pecob, Member of the Pueblo Tribal Council presented the following testimony, included in the Hearings on Religious Freedom before the US Congress in 1994.[5]

“For the Pueblo, this long road began with the efforts of the Spanish to forcibly impose Catholicism and destroy our traditional spiritual beliefs. We survived that campaign only at great human cost—in torture, in murder, in mutilation, in the destruction of whole communities.”

He quoted further a 1924 declaration of the Pueblos: 

“We have met because our most fundamental right of religious liberty is threatened. … the religious beliefs and ceremonies and forms of prayer of each of our Pueblos are as old as the world and they are holy. … To pass this religion, with hidden sacred knowledge and its many forms of prayer, on to our children, is our supreme duty to our ancestors and to our own hearts and to the God whom we know. Our religion is a true religion, and it is our way of life. We must now tell how our religious freedom is threatened and denied to us.” [emphasis added]

Let us now consider a place far removed from the Americas. 

“I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu. But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”[6]

This is Gandhi writing in Young India in 1928. Oddly enough, none of these peoples considered defining religious freedom as the freedom to change their religion. Quite the contrary. For them religion constituted the traditions and practices handed down by their ancestors. In this view it is equally absurd for someone to discard these traditions to adopt someone else’s religion as it would be to change one’s ancestors for someone else’s. Similar ideas of “religion” are found in the many native communities in India and throughout the world. If all people have their traditions and each is valid for them, why would one want to cause someone else to change? Indeed the freedom they sought was precisely the opposite – the right to pass on their traditions onto their children without interference and without being subjected to organised campaigns to get them to change.

The Missionary Religions

Let us now examine some quotes with a different perspective on this issue.

The International Mission Board’s page on “Mobilization for Missions” opens with the following quote:“Declare his (God’s) glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people.” Psalm 96:3 God wants Southern Baptists as a people to mobilize vast resources for reaching all people groups for Jesus Christ.” 7 [Emphasis in original]

The International Mission Board is very clear in its goals – its stated vision is to “to lead Southern Baptists to be on mission with God to bring all the peoples of the world (‘panta ta ethne’) to saving faith in Jesus Christ.” This vision is apparently authorised by no less than God himself:“We must realize that this is not our mission; however, it is God’s mission, and He has called us as His people to join Him in fulfilling that mission.”

Their aims are nothing short of the apocalyptic end of the world. As their documents proclaim:“It is a vision that will be fulfilled, for Jesus said in Matthew 24:14, “The gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a witness to every nation and then the end will come.”

Is this some fringe missionary group? Hardly. The International Mission Board is an entity of the influential Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention in the United States was formed in 1845 mainly to create mission boards. It boasts of over 16 million members and runs 48 Baptist Colleges and Universities. It counts several past United States’ Presidents among its members and its revenues from member contributions top $9 billion annually, in league with the largest corporations. President George W. Bush has addressed each of the Convention’s last four annual meetings.

The Baptists, however, do not view their missionary programme as a programme against religious liberty. On the contrary, they claim that “Religious freedom was a distinctively Baptist contribution as formulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”8 . The Baptist views on religious freedom include “the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference Constitution.

A Question of Choice?

The secular idea of the freedom of religion, born of the European experience with religion, presumes that the right to belief and the change of belief without restriction or favour from the government is sufficient for religious liberty. In effect, it creates a competitive marketplace of religious belief. This idea of a competitive marketplace of religion is, however, not a universal idea, but limited to particular faiths. Thus these faiths are asymmetrically equipped to compete in this marketplace since others do not view religion as a competitive endeavor in a similar way. As a result the idea of “free choice” in this marketplace becomes highly asymmetrical in practice, favouring imperialistic proselytising creeds over local traditions.

Competitive Religions

The first asymmetry is the asymmetry of doctrines. For most of the native traditions the idea of preaching to others to get them to abandon their traditions and follow someone else’s is absurd. For the proselytising creeds, to do so is a religious imperative, central to their faith.

The charter of World Evangelism is justified using Biblical quotes.

Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” reads the quote attributed to Jesus on the Joshua Project website.9 This task is taken seriously and literally. The evangelical Joshua Project website’s charter is“Bringing Definition to the Unfinished Task.” The Joshua Project was born out of the AD 200010 movement with the goal to “plant a Church” amongst every people group by the year 2000. The co-chairman and godfather of the movement is the evangelist Billy Graham whom President George W. Bush credits for his “born-again” conversion. In 1995 the movement sponsored the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Seoul, South Korea where “4,000 Christian leaders from 186 countries, including India, gathered to draw up secret and covert (world) evangelical plans.”[11]

Hundreds of seminaries and missionary colleges exist to teach strategies for evangelisation—what works, what does not work, how to prepare, how to leverage social and economic problems and issues, how to create multi-media marketing campaigns complete with personal customer testimonials and how to influence the media. The evangelicals are, in their own words, “mobilized for mission”, to “make disciples of every nation.”

The “Sonar” community of India recently got prime billing in the “prayer” site of the International Mission Board.

“Did you know that the Sonar people of Maharashtra, India, re the primary crafters of gold and silver Hindu idols? These idols are the most powerful stronghold that Satan has upon the Hindu worshipers in India and around the world. When the Sonar people embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, the subsequent change in their livelihood could have a huge ripple effect in the world of Hinduism. As one international Christian worker said, “When we reach the Sonar with the gospel, we will see the collapse of Hinduism.” Pray that the gospel would flow through and permeate the Sonar culture like molten silver fills a mold.”[12]

The idea that people would pray for the collapse of other religious traditions, branded as Satanic, highlights the distinction of doctrine between the two kinds of traditions.

For one side, that holds the views “to each their own” religion is not seen as a competitive enterprise, far less a war for outright global monopoly. They have not asked for this war. Many are not even aware that they are at war till it comes to their doorstep. Non-Abrahamic traditions are neither tolerant nor intolerant towards other traditions. They are simply indifferent – to each their own, they hold. While for the proselytising religions, conversion of others is considered an essential component of advancing “God’s work.” The other traditions are, at best, preparations for conversion into the “One True Religion” and, at worst, downright Satanic. For the evangelicals, conversion is a moral position. It is not seen as an act of aggression on other traditions, but merely the benevolent saving of the heathens who would otherwise be condemned to hell. They cannot thus be, doctrinally, indifferent to these others. When combined with institutional mobilisation, this becomes a global war for religious affiliation — the target no less than the eradication of all other religions that are seen as competitors keeping humans in the sway of Satan.

Thus the campaign for conversion is fundamentally unsymmetrical. The native traditions are grossly unprepared to fight this war. Unlike the mission organizations, they have not collected the demographics of their “opponents”, their sources of funds, their social problems, competitive analyses of their creeds, their strengths and weaknesses, the flaws in their marketing literature. They have not prepared their own list of target groups among the “nonbelievers.” They have not, because unlike the evangelicals, they do not consider all the other traditions of the worlds as their opponents and competitors. There is no doctrine within these traditions that supports the idea that all other people on the planet must be converted to their particular way.

Ironically it is secular ideas of the human right of religious freedom that are used to protect evangelical expansion against native traditions. Makau Mutua, writing about the African traditions, points out that

“the (human) rights regime incorrectly assumes a level playing field by requiring that African religions compete in the marketplace of ideas. The rights corpus not only forcibly imposes on African religions the obligation to compete—a task for which as nonproselytizing, noncompetitive creeds they are not historically fashioned—but also protects the evangelizing religions in their march towards universalization … it seems inconceivable that the human rights regime would have intended to protect the right of certain religions to destroy others.[13] ”

Similarly, the Asian Tribune puts forth a Buddhist perspective on conversions in Sri Lanka:

“The stubborn refusal of Western religious rights groups to see the conversion issue in its proper Asian context has seriously complicated the matter. Buddhism in Sri Lanka as in Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos and Tibet is inextricably linked to the country’s cultural and national heritage …

Instead, Buddhists allege that the West wants to impose on Sri Lanka the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting religious freedom under international law. But the problem is that this law was developed to protect individuals and religious groups from the State persecution and not to protect one religious community from being proselytized by another, according to Buddhist lawyers who are actively campaigning for the enactment of anti-conversion legislation. ”[14] (emphasis added)

In other words, secular ideas of human rights to religious freedom protect religious groups from state interference – addressing the problems that Europe encountered, but not the issues faced in the Asian context. Thus these ideas do not account for conflict and repression caused by powerful well-funded global corporate entities seeking to eliminate the religious traditions of local communities.

Even if the native traditions were resourced and aware of how to respond to the evangelical activity, to be forced to respond to it is also a curtailment of their freedom. This is because a response to evangelical activity in kind will invariably turn the traditions into a mirror image of those religions and into a caricature of their own traditions, i.e., they would have ended up accepting the position of the proselytising creeds that religion is a competitive endeavor and is a global war. In a war, they would study how to bring the “fight” to the other side. So as the Baptists launched their mission to convert the Nagas, the Nagas would launch missions to convert the Baptists. The fact that they do not is the fundamental difference between the two kinds of religious systems that leads to the asymmetry of motivation. As Swami Dayananda Saraswati wrote in an open letter to the then Pope:“You cannot ask me to respond to conversion by converting others to my religion because it is not part of my tradition. … Thus, conversion is not merely violence against people; it is violence against people who are committed to non-violence.” [15]

While the competitive view of religion is natural to the evangelical, to respond in kind makes native traditions into something that they are not. This is precisely why there is such conflict and ambivalence over the “re-conversion” activities of Hindutva in India. In responding to conversion by re-conversion, Hindutva forms itself into a mirror of the proselytising religions. While ostensibly seeking to uphold the Indian traditions, changes them into a competitive Abrahamic caricature in a way that makes most Indians deeply uncomfortable.

Thus evangelical activity takes away religious freedom from the native traditions on two accounts. To respond competitively would be to alter one’s traditions into competitive religions in the mirror image of the evangelisers—i.e., to treat the conversion game as a religious war for headcount. To passively fail to respond would mean the gradual erosion and destruction of one’s traditions. This catch-22 occurs because the playing field of religious freedom itself has been defined based on the religious history and doctrines of one side.

The Asymmetry of Power

The second asymmetry is the asymmetry of power and resources. When religious freedom gets defined simply as the non-interference of the state in religious activity it serves to privilege those private institutions that view religion as a competitive quest for monopoly and have mobilised enormous resources to this end. It thus favours organised institutional religions over those whose traditions do not have a corporate charter. Evangelical Missions should best be considered local sales offices of large multi-national corporations. How large? The budget of the International Mission Board 2005 is $283.1 million (over Rs. 1200 crores). A similar amount in 2004 led to the “planting” of over 21,000 churches across the globe. The one year revenue of institutionalised Christianity is estimated to be $260 billion dollars (2001 figures).16 About a fifth of this, $47 billion, are allocated to global mission work every year, comparable to the entire annual net tax revenue of the Government of India. Clearly we are dealing with a very well financed and well organised global enterprise. The business of conversion is big business. It demands results in terms of numbers converted. The well-publicised stories of “success amidst difficulty” sustain the fund-raising activities of evangelical groups.

The Joshua Project17 tracks every “unreached people group” in the world, over six thousand at last count, providing detailed linguistic, demographic and targeting information. This project, started by a splinter group of American Evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, is “a largescale intelligence operation that brought together American strategists, theologians, missionary specialists, demographers, technologists, sociologists, anthropologists and researchers to create the most comprehensive people group profiles in the 10/40 window…”

The 10/40 window, denoting the latitudes on the globe considered the prime target for conversion, has India squarely in its sights. The information is so detailed that “the ethno linguistic profiling … cannot even be matched by data with the Government of India.”18 Its mission is “to identify and highlight the people groups of the world that have the least exposure to the Gospel and the least Christian presence in their midst.

The Joshua Project shares this information “to encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic people group.”19 According to the Project overview “Mission agencies use the data to strategically determine where to send new church-planting teams.” Mission Frontiers magazine tracks the “progress” in reaching those people. Between 1995 and 2000, 1200 additional people groups were subjected to a “Church Planting” movement in their midst.

Among the targets—the small “Akha” group in Vietnam consisting of a mere 3040 people following their ethnic traditions to the largest groups—the 13 million Sinhalese who follow Buddhism—only 4 per cent of which have yet been converted according to the Joshua database. India contains the largest number of targeted groups. Sample targets – among the Buddhists – the 102,480 Bhotias in Sikkim, and the 47,030 Sherpas, the 162,210 Tibetan Buddhists and the 8,410,800 Marathi Neo Buddhists; the 3,165,200 Bania Jains; among the Muslims – the 9,796,100 Ansaris, the 6,938,600 Sayyids, the 894,690 Faqirs and the 112,420 Ganchis.

The  tribal religionists are, of course, the easiest targets, many of them having already been “reached” – a remaining sample include the Mongpa, all of 850 people, following Tibetan Himalayan customs. The Sikhs are another major target – further divided into 58 groups, from the 11,581,200 Jat Sikhs to the 880 Assamese Sikhs. Among the 1596 Hindu target groups – the 3.4 million Aroras, the 53.5 million Yadavs, the 6.9 million Nairs, the Sonar community of nearly 6.5 million people to the barely 14,000 Kashmiri Hindu Zargars.

To each of these thousands of target groups gets assigned church planting teams, missionaries, resources, funds, media support, Bibles in their language and dubbed versions of the “Jesus” film (with children’s versions), now available in a staggering 877 languages. No other global corporate multinational could come close to a marketing campaign of  this breadth.

To imagine that the native traditions are “free” to compete in the well-resourced global onslaught is to ignore both the disparity of resources, and more importantly fundamental differences in the nature of the traditions. The idea of a “free market” of religions thus arises from and supports the competitive world view of evangelical religion.

Since the believers of evangelical religions consider missionary activity as part of their faith, such believers in high places can have a disproportionate impact over those of non-evangelical traditions. The report “George Bush Has a Conversion Agenda for India”20 describes the US President as “probably the most resourceful and influential Christian Missionary ever.” While Bush Jr.’s evangelical beliefs get a lot of attention, this is certainly not a new phenomenon in the US. Faith has always been a very important issue for American voters. President Bush’s “Faith-based initiative” merely legitimises direct monetary support from the US Government to Christian groups. In 2004 alone, $2 billion (nearly Rs. 8,600 crore) dollars were paid by the US Government21 , overwhelmingly to Christian groups, under this program.

The disproportionately Western influenced global media, working with secular ideas of religious liberty that support evangelism, is muted in its criticism and coverage of the plans and tactics of missionaries. On the other hand, rare instances of violent reaction to missionary activities get disproportionate worldwide coverage and attention. The stories of alleged persecution reinforce the evangelical self-image of Christian martyrdom even when the resources at their disposal are far greater than the groups they target. While there is absolutely no justification for violence in a democratic society, current laws provide little recourse to the target groups to prevent missionary activities in their midst, even when it causes conflict and tensions within the communities.

For instance, Talom Rukbo, the father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh, remarked:

“The church—Christian missionaries quickly capitalized on the innocence of our forefathers. They fraudulently convinced our people that we were barbarians and converted some into Christianity. … They declared that the converted persons must discard (1) the “animist” practices, (2) our festivals and that our Gods and Godesses were Saitan (evil spirits— Satan). …

Slowly this created frequent disturbances and social disharmony. The Christian missionaries were stooping to the lowest, most uncivilized means to tear social fabric of our society apart.”22

Unfortunately the current human rights regime makes it very difficult for even democratically elected governments to restrict missionary activity.

Can One Say “No”?

While there are laws to restrict intrusive commercial solicitation and deceptive marketing practices these apparently do not apply to the sales force23 of the religious multinationals.

Let us say a remote group in Arunachal Pradesh actually becomes aware of this conversion war in which they are a statistic on a plan. Perhaps they have heard of the consequences of this campaign for a neighbouring village group and wish to preserve their traditions without interference. The panchayat or the democratically elected council votes to disallow missionary activity in their midst. What would happen?

Precisely the same language of “human rights” would then be used to target this tribe. Because the right to “change” and to “propagate’ religion has been made into a “human right” any law that seeks to curb missionary activity can then be ruled as a violation of human rights. This anomaly occurs precisely because of the fact that the definitions of religious freedom are not culture neutral. They arise from a culture in which religion has been viewed as a transferable “belief system” and a competitive evangelical enterprise. This definition affords little human rights protection from evangelical activity to those that do not hold these views of religion.

Just as a village may wish to pass such a law, can a state do it, can a country? The consequences can be readily seen in the debate on a bill for religious freedom that was recently approved by the Council of Ministers in Sri Lanka and is up for debate in the Sri Lankan parliament. While the bill prohibits conversions with the use of coercion or allurements, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has expressed “concern” urging the “Sri Lankan Government to refrain from passing laws that are inconsistent with international standards.”24 These international standards are precisely the human rights laws that are the subject of this discussion.

Numerous Christian organisations, including the World Evangelical Alliance are putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to forestall the bill. Christina Rocca, the US Secretary of State, reportedly expressed “grave concern” over the proposed legislation to Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States. “Ms Rocca has explained that the Department of State was receiving numerous representations from Senators and Congressmen about the Government`s move. During a previous meeting, The Sunday Times learns, Ms Rocca had warned that pressure was building up and this could have adverse consequences on US aid and trade concessions to Sri Lanka.”25

Once the right to change religion and to propagate is made a fundamental human right without a corresponding right to not be asked to change or be subject to proselytising activity the situation becomes one-sided. The state is now obligated to protect the missionary’s activities while no protection is afforded to the non-proselytising community’s tradition so that they are not made targets of highly-organised and well-funded conversion campaigns.

The Exclusivity of Belief

The premise of evangelical activity is the belief that theirs is the only true way and everyone else is, at best, in error if not absolutely demonic. This belief inevitably sets those who believe thus into conflict with everyone else. It is not surprising that the primary principle under attack by evangelicals is the principle of religious pluralism.

“Good News for India” defines itself as “an interdenominational Christian organization that is committed to training, sending out, and supporting national missionaries to preach the Gospel and plant churches among the unreached people groups of the Indian subcontinent.”26 Good News for India runs the Luther W. New Jr. Theological College in Dehradun with several small satellite training centres in five north Indian states, over 163 churches, and several primary schools. The college was dedicated by the President of Word [World?] Vision, a global NGO associated with Christian evangelical activity. The aim of the college – to churn out “national missionaries” that are more cost-effective than Westerners. Good News for India finds their methods of training “very effective in producing laborers for the harvest in India.” They offer accredited Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in missionary activity leading to paid careers as missionaries and boast of having “planted” 350 churches under the name “Christian Evangelistic Assemblies.”

Clearly, this group of evangelicals knows India well. That is why they list that their major challenge in India is the pluralistic Indian thinking.

“Anyone who is familiar with India knows that India has always been a challenge to the Gospel. Hinduism that teaches, “just as all rivers lead to the ocean, all religions lead to God”, dominates the thinking of the masses. … Many Hindus revere Jesus as another god. Yet their eyes are blinded to the uniqueness of Christ.”27

The goal then of evangelical conversion is to lift the “blindness of pluralism to convert into an exclusive belief system. Indeed without that no conversion can take place. If it was simply the question of learning from another way, or accepting another way as true, one does not actually need to be “converted” to do that. ll conversion is a conversion into exclusivism. For all those concerned with retaining India’s pluralistic ethos evangelical activity should thus be of particular concern. It is not surprising then, that after decades of successful conversion activity in Nagaland, the separatist groups that routinely use terrorist methods against their opponents have the exclusive slogan of “Nagaland for Christ.” This switch happens when exclusivism reaches a dominant position in a region. The long-term implications of exclusivist conversion should concern all those who wish India to remain a pluralistic and diverse nation.

The idea of “change” of religion from [Article 18 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration again comes from a culture in which multiple religious participation does not make sense. In testimony before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Prof. Sharma of McGill stated “(1) That the concept of religious freedom articulated in article 18 presupposes a certain concept of religion itself, a concept associated with Western religion and culture; (2) That a different concept of religion … leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and (3) That unless human rights discourse is able to harmonize these two concepts of religious freedom … the clash of the two concepts might ultimately result in the abridgement of religious freedom in actual practice…”28

According to the 1985 census in Japan, for instance, 95 per cent of the population of Japan declared itself as followers of Shinto and 76 per cent of the same population also declared itself as Buddhist. Clearly, a significant fraction considered themselves multiple religious participants. Even in India, early British census takers were flummoxed by people happy to subscribe to multiple religions till they were coerced by the colonial census to choose one or the other. This pluralism, deeply ingrained in the Indian people, finds expression as far back as the Rig Veda and the Ashoka pillars. Sharma states “If the Indian census-takers did not insist that one can only belong to one religion – significantly a British and therefore Western legacy – I would not be at all surprised if the Indian religious statistical reality began to resemble the Japanese.”

However, Article 18 of the charter of human rights presupposes that one can only belong to one religion at a time. As Sharma continues, “If one believes that one can only belong to one religion at a time, then it stands to reason that religious freedom would essentially consist of one’s freedom to change such affiliation by the voluntary exercise of choice.”

However, in the context of multiple religious participation a different idea of religious freedom would emerge – one that the Indian constitution and the Indian census do not, ironically, support – the freedom to profess multiple religions without being asked to choose one or to change into another.

Sharma concludes, “(In the Eastern context) … freedom of religion means that the person is left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion. Such exploration need not be confined to any one religion, and may freely embrace the entire religious and philosophical heritage of humanity.”

This explains the difference between evangelical activity and, for instance, the spread of Indian traditions. Indian traditions can best be regarded as practical learning traditions. They rarely required disavowal of existing belief or tradition. Learning traditions like the teachings of the Buddha could thus be accretive – as they were in China and Japan. To accept the message of the Buddha did not mean to consign one’s ancestors to hell or to reject existing community practices. This is quite similar to the way Indian Swamis brought the practice of Yoga to Americans in contemporary times, without any requirements of “conversion.” One could learn and do the practices of yoga asanas and meditation as a Christian, Muslim or Jew without any requirement to disavow one’s religion.

Towards a Balanced View

There is a cultural conflict between two very different ideas of religion and of religious freedom. For one the “right to change” is central. To the other the right to retain or continue without interference from the state or from powerful global institutions is paramount. Current rights language favours the former and insufficiently protects the latter. How do we move towards a more balanced view?

We do not suggest that the “right to change” should itself be taken away. For instance, some schools of Islamic jurisprudence hold that apostasy by a Muslim renouncing Islam is punishable by death. This certainly does not support the spirit of individual freedom or enquiry. Similarly, we do not hold that tradition is itself immune from criticism or change. There is plenty of scope for individuals within or outside a tradition to criticise, change and evolve particular practices.

Yet, exploration, individual critique or specific reform is different from a systematic institutional effort aimed at converting all others and annihilating their traditions resulting in the destruction of entire cultural ecosystems. As Mutua writes, “Imperial religions have necessarily violated individual conscience and the communal expressions of Africans and their communities by subverting African religions. In doing so they have robbed Africans of essential elements of their humanity … The result … is a culturally disconnected people neither African nor European or Arab.”29

What would a charter of religious freedom look like if it were being defined by the “unreached” people, with knowledge of consequences others have obtained at the hands of the proselytizing creeds, rather than by the evangelical cultures? Perhaps it would read something like this:

“All peoples have the right to pass on their traditions to their children without interference, without being subjected to organised institutional evangelical activity by others. All peoples find their traditions of value – if not they can always abandon them or make changes. However, no one shall form an association with the express purpose of getting others to convert people away from their religion or to teach others to do so. All peoples have the right to the preservation of their culture and traditions and the right to be free of religious evangelism.

Every human being has the right to be free from being subject to the preaching of exclusive religious doctrines. Every person is free to participate in and learn from none, one or more ways to happiness and fulfillment without being asked to specify a religious identity or to convert from one to another.

No religious, political, social, religious or educational institution or organisation will be permitted to have as its aims the systematic conversion of other people. The marketing claims of institutional religions aiming at conversion will be subjected to the same legal test as those of other corporate entities. Every individual is free to explore the religions and practices of the world without being subjected to systematic marketing and conversion campaigns.”

To test the asymmetry of the current definition one can predict that this new definition of religious freedom would be most objected to by specific groups – prominent among these would be evangelical Christians and their power base. Most groups that follow ethnic traditions throughout the globe, other than those that act as proxies for evangelical interests, or those that are attached to the presumed neutrality of “secular” definitions of religious freedom, would welcome the change. If anything, that is the clearest indicator of how the current definition of religious freedom is seriously asymmetrical in its assumptions.

Nothing in this formulation should be construed as restricting the freedom of any community to practice their faith privately and in congregations of fellow believers. At the same time such freedom should not extend to constraining the freedom of others to practice without interference.

Augmenting the human right to practice as well as change one’s religion with the rights of communities to be free of organised campaigns that aim to destroy the practice of their traditions by conversion into exclusive religious systems would provide a necessary balance for maintaining religious harmony and protecting cultural and religious diversity.


1. Makau Mutua in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, A Deskbook. Published by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 2004. Chapter 28.

2. Balgangadhara, S N. The Heathen in His Blindness. Manohar Books.

3. Quoted from The Heathen in His Blindness.

4. An Indian speech in answer to a sermon, preached by a Swedish missionary at Conestogo in Pennsylvania. Early American imprints. Second series; no. 6535. American Antiquarian Society, 1966

5. American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994. Hearing, Serial No. 103-92. Statement of Regis Pecob, Member Pueblo de Cochiti Tribal Council.

6. Young India: January 19, 1928

7. mobooklet/mobintro.asp



10. See, for instance, http:// and http://

11.Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.

12.This was in the prayer section of the International Missionary Board website on June 3, 2005, but was later removed after publicity on a site that tracks Christian missionary activity on http://www.christian item_display.php?type=NEWS&id=1117790952. It is still available at the Southern Baptist Convention prayer site http://

13. Makau Mutua, Chapter 28

14. Asian Tribune. May 3, 2005. Controversy over Freedom of Religion Bill: Buddhists to meet UN envoy today. http:// w w w . a s i a n t r i b u n e . c o m / show_news.php?id=14309

15. 1999/10/is-conversion-is-violence-onhindus. Html 16.Source: World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press. 2001.


18. Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.

19. h t t p : / / w w w. j o s h u a p r o j e c t . n e t / overview.php

20. Tehelka, February 7, 2004

21. 20050301-044719-3828r.htm

22. Talom Rukbo the Father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh from a talk he gave called “The Truth Every Bharatiya Should Know”: (quoted in WD0302/WD21-7837.html)

23. Many of the missionaries are paid “stipends.” Colleges in India graduate native missionaries by the thousands who are then given a paid job with conversion quotas. So yes, this is a sales force.

24. 2005/july/07132005_srilanka.html

25. Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), July 31, 2005. US Warns Lanka on Religious Bill.

26. about.htm

27. about.htm

28. 2000/september/panel1/SubPanelA/ 09182000_Sharma_test.html

29. Makau Mutua, Chapter 28 Copyright © 2002-2010.

Sankrant Sanu. All rights reserved


Building on Our Own Traditions

“Aap Hindu ho ya Muslim?” (Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?)

It was an innocent question asked by Salma,* a pretty ten-year-old girl studying in a village school in the outskirts of Jaipur. She addressed it to Naren, a young college student and aspiring journalist, who accompanied me to Jaipur as part of our survey of village schools. We talked with the students in this two-room school for a little while and were delighted to have seen fresh, young faces with their enthusiastic questions.

Naren was surprised that he was asked this question. The issue of Religion had not come up even though it appeared from the names that many of the children in the school were Muslim.

“Aap hi bataao, aapko kyaa lagtaa hai?” (You tell me what you think?), parried Naren.

Pat came the answer.“Aap zaroor Muslim hoge, kyonki aap ache ho.” (You are good; you must be a Muslim.)

This was such an unusual experience for Naren and me that we later raised this incident with Sandeep,* an avowed leftist, who was running the school. I expected Sandeep to be as appalled as we were at the child’s comment and interested in talking to the children about it. His answer proved to be even moresurprising to us. He suggested that it would not be secular to teach children about respect for the religious beliefs of others and the fact that good people are found among practitioners of all religions, because it would go against their beliefs.

Pluralism, a Hindu Belief?

Unfortunately, Sandeep does no appear to be unique in having these ideas of secularism. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, criticises a Supreme Court judgment on teaching mutual respect for religions in schools in the following words:

‘There is a misplaced sense that toleration requires that citizens respect each other’s religions. This stems from confusion…There is something dangerous about thinking that a tolerant society requires respect for people’s faiths. Toleration requires a respect for their rights. The test of whether you respect other’s rights comes only when you think that they might beup to something fundamentally different or strange.’ (“Living with difference”, The Hindu, September 14, 2002)

He finally dismisses the idea of pluralism, that multiple paths exist, as a “partisan description of the religious experience, and should not be seen as neutral amongst religions.” Some “liberal” Indian intellectuals label presumably teaching about religious pluralism as partisan because it is considered as a “Hindu” belief. Ironically this stance would find good company among right-wing evangelical Christians in America who routinely criticise religious pluralism as a liberal flaw.

The question for us must remain whether we will build a more harmonious, tolerant and just society by teaching all Indian children to respect different religious traditions and the fact that good people are found among adherents of different religions, or is that as Mehta claims instead, “in the long run such beliefs are as damaging as saffronisation.”

In this essay, I use “pluralism” and “plural society” as one that accommodates people with different beliefs, and the secular state as one particular system to maintain a plural society. The ideas of a secular state arose in European thought as a result of their experience with religious exclusivism and the close control that the centralised Church maintained on religious and non-religious thought. Religious wars dominated the history of mediaeval Europe. The Roman Catholic Church enshrined the principle of religious exclusivism to the extreme, not only the belief (still held by most Christian denominations) that Jesus was the Only Way, but “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla (“There is no salvation outside the Church”). Anyone promulgating a doctrine other than that approved by the Church could be tried for heresy and executed. As the power of influence of the Roman Catholic Church spread, native pagan traditions, as well as earlier versions of Christianity, such as Celtic Christianity and Arianism, were wiped out.

The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century challenged papal authority. This led to a century of religious strife in Europe between Catholics and Protestant denominations when hundreds of thousands of people were killed. The smouldering tip of this conflict can still be seen in the ethnic-religious Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland, and the separation of Catholic Ireland from the United Kingdom in 1922. The other end of the conflict of religious exclusivism can be seen vividly in contemporary events across the world where mutually exclusive ideologies are battling for supremacy in what is being described as the “Clash of Civilisations.”

The birth of ideas pertaining to religious tolerance in Europe, religious pluralism and ultimately the separation of religion and state arose out of their experience with religious intolerance. This religious intolerance was a natural outgrowth of religious exclusivism – the idea that there is only One Way, and that One Way is controlled or determined by a particular church, tribe or book. Thus, the liberal struggle in the Age of Reason was precisely against the ideas of religious exclusivism and authority, and the resultant foreclosure of free thought and speech in the name of curbing apostasy and heresy.

The European Experience

In the Islamic world, the Shia- Sunni conflicts and the persecution of Sufis, Bahais and Ahmediyas arise from doctrinal exclusivism. The Indic view, by contrast, developed differently. The pluralism of paths and viewpoints is an essential Indic viewpoint, found as far back as the Rig Veda, that states: “Ekam Sat,Vipra Bahuda Vadanti” (Truth is One, the Wise describe it variously)—a principle that was broadly accepted among followers of religions of Indian origin like Hindu, Buddhist, Jains and Sikhs and some others such as the Bahais. This is slowly being understood throughout the world in the Unitarian Church, among some liberal Christians and Muslims, and among humanistic groups such as the United Nations where Kofi Annan used a Rig Veda quote to point to a great and ancient teaching of religious pluralism that can offer succour in the world of religious conflict based on exclusivist doctrines.

A clear exposition of these ideas of pluralism in ancient India is also found in EmperorAshoka’s rock edicts from the third century BC.

‘Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, honours both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honours them with gifts and honours of various kinds. But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honours as much as he values this— that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others…

Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of the- Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.’[emphasis added] What a wonderful statement of religious pluralism!


Respect for Diversity

The idea of mutual respect of panths, or paths, became part of Indian philosophical traditions, encapsulated as “Sarva Dharma Sambhava, Sarva Pantha Samadar.” (Each one’s duty is of equal value, each path worthy of equal respect). This idea did not result in the homogeneity that Mehta dreads. On the contrary, it allowed for tremendous diversity and dialogue, far more than that which existed in Christian Europe or exists in America even today. This diversity confounds us even now when we try a simple exercise like defining what Hinduism is.

This allowance for diversity is what permitted even atheistic schools of philosophy to exist in India without persecution (there are hardly any such examples in Europe in the Christian era, till after the Age of Reason). India also sheltered communities like the Jews, Syrian Christians and Zoroastrians, fleeing from persecution in Christian and Islamic societies, even while they preserved their faiths. This is the same tolerance and quest for Truth that allowed new gurus, teachers and paths to arise in Indian society – such as Buddha, Mahavira and Guru Nanak—without being condemned as heretics and crucified.

Religious Exclusivism

While free enquiry and debate were encouraged, the idea found in the Ashoka rock edict as well as repeatedly in Indian scriptures is that “speech matters” and it is by no means free. To speak sweetly and to encourage mutual respect will foster harmony. By contrast, speech, education and propaganda thatfosters the spread of religious exclusivism will inevitably cause conflict in society – and this is vouchsafed by even a rudimentary study of the history of the world.

The European struggle for freedom of thought and speech was born in an environment of religious control by a centralised authority. Anyone outside church authority who challenged existing doctrines could be guilty of heresy that could cost them their life. In many ways Indian society evolved beyond this to discover that any sincere quest for Truth needs to be respected and at the same time anyone can be challenged to a debate. This can happen because there is a shared goal— to discover what is true. When there is religious exclusivity and belief that there is only One Way and all others are condemned to hell, there can be no debate – the only option is to convert or kill.

Eroding our Social Contract

Contemporary Indian secular thought, in simply regurgitating Voltaire and other European thinkers, forgets the conditions they faced at the time and which they were fighting against. Instead of building on the traditions of Indian pluralism, as well as our own traditions of active debate and discourse between different paths, they instead decry teaching religious pluralism and mutual respect. This in turn directly or indirectly; supports the growth of religious exclusivism and intolerance. At the very least we have to question why we appear, in many ways, nostalgic for religious harmony and why 50 years of secularism appears to have only widened the cleavage between communities—a cleavage which is considered to be ‘spreading’ to rural areas.

This must tell us that there was an existing principle and idea, separate from elitist secularism, that allowed for harmony even in rural communities not exposed to secular doctrines. We see this when we understand that Sarva Pantha Samadar – mutual respect for other ways – is not only a statement but also a civil contract that has deep resonance in our society. It is easier for Pat Robertson to get away with calling Prophet Mohammad a terrorist on prime-time television inAmerica than it would be for Togadia to do so here in India. To break this civil contract is to further polarise the society along religious lines. Thus, every time a madrassa teaches that only Muslims are good people and the rest need to be converted; every time a right-wing Christian evangelist in India proclaims their need to “save” the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs who are living in darkness; and every time a Hindutva proponent points fingers at an allegedly homogenous Indian Muslim community as a Pakistani Trojan horse, we erode our social contract. Similarly, organisations like Sabrang Communications and SAHMAT, that could play a positive role in teaching pluralism, do very little to produce material that would teach the Salma’s of India about respect for other paths to help build communal harmony. Instead, they follow arrow partisan agendas geared more to serve or oppose particular political interests and groupings rather than building a harmonious society. In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi’s approach was to sing Ishwar, Allah tere naam—an approach that would no doubt be reviled as assimilative by many of the Indian intelligentsia of today.

Assimilation through Violence

Western societies have evolved to a civil understanding of their own kind of secularism, something that was a result of their particular history. In this history, people had become conditioned to accept the ideas of centralised laws (determined by the controlling church) handed down from above. Furthermore, as a result of their Christian histories,Western societies had already been homogenised in beliefs to a far greater extent than India ever was. Their history ofreligious conflict had also brought the idea of tolerating (in the beginning) Christian dissent, and (later) other minorities, as long as doing so did not threaten the foundations of the State. In actual practice, despite the spread of liberal ideas starting from the 18th century, countries in Europe and America underwent a couple of centuries of nationalistic consolidation all the way into the 20th century around the idea of a nation-state – a period in which religious and ethnic minorities were either persecuted or forcefully assimilated till they were no longer perceived as a threat.

Universalism and Pluralism

Ironically, Indian pluralistic and universalistic thought, in the form of translations of the Bhagvad Gita and the Upanishads (first in Persian and then into European languages by the late 18th century), played a positive role in the development of European liberalism. It also influenced a wide range of Western intellectuals in the process of questioning the dominant influence of the religious exclusivism promulgated by organised Christianity. These people ranged from Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Tolstoy and Emerson and from Voltaire to T.S. Eliot and Thoreau.

In contrast to European history, India has a much better record ofpluralism. Indian pluralism has involved a civil contract of mutual respect and co-existence between communities, and relied on that principle to build a harmonious and heterogeneous whole. Of course, it had its own problems, such as casteism. However, there is broad intellectual consensus that caste-ism is a problem and there are laws to tackle it. Religious exclusiveism is, however, a different problem that Indian intellectuals have been unwilling to tackle – one that inherently sets communities against other communities based on ideology. Indian pluralism on the other hand worked to harmonise different philosophies at the level of civil society even when intellectual debate continued. By contrast, the secularism proclaimed by many Indian intellectuals, and exemplified by Mehta’s article does nothing to directly and positively create a civil or ideological harmony and a common narrative. Instead, it encourages extreme viewpoints and thus relies on the military apparatus of the State and its monopoly of force (“rule of law”) to keep from violence the proponents of different ideologies that are, a priori, taken to be intellectually irreconcilable.

Immunity to Reason?

The idea that religious exclusivism must not be challenged is often justified by saying that as a “belief” it is immune from rational challenge. However, if liberals throughout history took the same stand on beliefs, then no one would have challenged Southern Baptists and other Christian sects on slavery and racism and there could be no law passed that made prohibitions on Dalit entry into Hindu temples illegal. The fact of the matter is that religious beliefs have always been subject to challenge and have also been subjectto change as part of negotiation in society.

Just as the prohibition on temple entry (or racism) was challenged on the basis of a belief in the equality of people irrespective of caste boundaries, this is taking the same approach of teaching the equality of people across religious boundaries—and it challenges those that teach otherwise. Also, the realisation that religious exclusivism has been a key reason for religious conflict in the world- is borne out by a study of world history. To refuse to stand up for religious pluralism is to refuse to cherish possibly one of the greatest teachings that India could give to the world —a teaching that may be our best hope for religious harmony.

By refusing to challenge religious exclusivism, the current Indian intellectual approach favours ideological extremists. Since civil compromise and conciliation are not favoured in protecting extreme ideological stances, the self-proclaimed leaders that emerge from this approach are those that hold that the interests of their community are different and unique. Thus representing a community’s interests is defined as maintaining separateness and “nonassimilation” into the mainstream and the intellectual opinion provides cover for this. While teaching pluralism still allows considerable leeway in practising one’s own way of relating to the divine, it challenges the religious tenets that teach children that relating to the divine is exclusively available only to the members of one community.

What are Our Choices?

In India we have a choice to base our secularism on the long traditions of Indian pluralism, articulated as far back as thousands of years ago in the Rig Veda and the rock edicts ofAshoka or on the oretical European intellectualism. Secular ideas of tolerance appealed to us and we remained a plural society because of our traditions of pluralism and despite the fact that European intellectual secularism was understood and put in place by only a small English-educated elite inIndia. Other former British colonies, with a similar elite, have not succeeded in remaining secular Nonetheless, we are already seeing the cracks in the elitist secularism as we begin a search for our own expression of a pluralistic system. In doing so we have the choice to look at our own deep traditions of Indian pluralism or continue to apply theoretical eighteenth century European ideas, generally out of context. In the first case, we would actively teach pluralism andIndia. Other former British colonies, with a similar elite, have not succeeded in remaining secular. Nonetheless, we are already seeing the cracks in the elitist secularism as we begin a search for our own expression of a pluralistic system. In doing so we have the choice to look at our own deep traditions of Indian pluralism or continue to apply theoretical eighteenth century European ideas, generally out of context. In the first case, we would actively teach pluralism and mutual respect (the roots of which still exist deeply in us) to all our children and intellectually challenge the ideologies of doctrinal exclusivism that have brought so much grief and conflict to the world. In the latter case, we would continue to insist that the State protect religious exclusivism and we shall provide intellectual cover for it. We will in fact proclaim, as Mehta does, that teaching pluralism is, instead, what is dangerous.

The former approach, where we teach pluralism and challenge exclusivism, has ample room for heterogeneous viewpoints while moving our society towards harmonious co-existence. The latter approach, which aims to protect exclusivism, and denounce mutual respect for religions as insufficiently secular, will naturally and inevitably lead to greater religious exclusivism and polarisation in society. Our only hope will then be to, at some point in the future, develop a military state apparatus strong enough to keep the fighting dogs at bay, or replicate the cycle of European history. In Europe, one or the other creed of religious exclusivism triumphed. We should, if we tread that route, be prepared for the centuries of religious and sectarian warfare that followed it, untill a new model for maintaining harmony in a plural society becomes internalised by the people at large.

Copyright (c) 2002-2010. Sankrant Sanu. All rights reserved.

Need I belong to only one religion?


Religion and secularism are both hot topics of discussion in India today. With rare exceptions, commentators on all sides of the debate in India, suffer from a general malady – that of using Western[i] terms, categories and worldviews to understand an Eastern society. We explore how adopting Western worldviews and nomenclature has distorted the Indian reality, to the extent that we have ceased to understand ourselves.

The confusion starts from basic concepts such as the difference between religion and dharma. We look at the pluralistic nature of Indian dharmic traditions and how they have both changed and stayed consistent through the centuries. Understanding these constructs, and ourselves, will allow a better framework for approaching the situation in India today.

Is religion dharma?

Prof. Arvind Sharma is a professor of Hinduism and Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal. In a landmark essay[ii] he points out that the word religion as used in the standard form carries three connotations (1) That a religion is conclusive, that is to say it is the one and only true religion; (2) That a religion is exclusionary, that is to say, those who don’t follow it are excluded from salvation and (3) That a religion is separative, that is to say, in order to belong to it one must not belong to another. In each of these three ways the notion of dharma, which is the original Indian concept, is very different from the notion of religion.

In the essay, Prof. Sharma, points out that these three notions of religion are not a universal idea and by and large do not express the reality of what are called Eastern religions. For instance, the conclusive and separative notion of religion implies that one can only be a member of one religion or another. In both Eastern and many indigenous societies, this does not hold true. For instance the 1985 figures for religious affiliation in Japan were 95% professing Shintoism and 76% professing Buddhism – clearly a considerable number (over 70%) chose to suggest that they subscribed to multiple “religions.” Similar statements of non-exclusiveness can be made about Confucianism and Taoism in China, again not religions in the Western understanding of the word.

These three notions of religion – conclusive, exclusionary and separative, give Abrahamic religions a hard-edged identity. In Abrahamic religions there has been a strong emphasis on the separation of “believer” and “non-believer” and a religious imperative to move as many people from the latter category to the former. Truth has been conclusively and unquestionably revealed and captured in a book, and those that follow it are the only ones that are on the right path. Quite literally, this means that you are “with us or against us” – that the believers are right and represent the good who are “with God”; and all the others are misguided and are part of the darkness and deprived of any direct access to what is the ultimate good. The pagan, the heretic, the kafir, the unconverted represent the darkness against which the true believers are enjoined to wage war, either literally or figuratively. In the Roman Catholic Church this is enshrined in the doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus (“There is no salvation outside the church”)[iii], and in Islam in the clear distinction between mumin and kafir, and between dar-ul-Islam and dar-ul-harb. So in the Abrahamic world, the identity of a religion and religious group is in fundamental opposition to those that are not part of that group. This means that per the religious doctrine of Abrahamic religions, there is an inherent conflict with any other people who have not converted to their particular conception of God. Any true believer then must do his part to affect this conversion, not doing so is only betraying his faith.

By contrast, the worldview of the dharmic traditions is that while scriptures can be very helpful, Truth cannot be found by scripture alone[iv] but by a path of experiential realization and Self-discovery – and in that sense religion is not conclusive. It is also not separative and exclusive in the sense of dividing the world into believers and non-believers. The dharmic worldview is that there are many tribes throughout the world, and many teachers and teachings. Each tribe has good and bad people in a continuum; people that have a greater degree of access to truth and “goodness” are worthy of respect; and others less so. Since there is a continuum of “goodness” among individuals of each tribe, the need for converting other tribes to a particular conception of God as a religious imperative is not really there. A teacher can share his or her understanding of the truth; and means and ways for others to access this; but there is no underlying belief that only one such way exists. These ideas find clear expression as far back as the Rig Veda, with its famous quotation:

    “Ekam sad; vipra bahudha vadanti” (while Truth is One, the wise describe it in different ways) I.164.46 of the Rig Veda

So dharma itself does not create a religious identity. One’s worldly self-identity in the dharmic model derives from one’s local community, profession or ancestry, jati or kul, but that identity is not a religious identity, fundamentally opposed to the existence of the identity of the “other” as a manifestation of falsehood.

While, in my personal experience in a practice of both a form of esoteric Christianity and Sufism, there are dharmic truths found in higher interpretations of both Christianity and Islam, mainstream understanding of both these systems have a strong focus on the uniqueness of religious identity, in a manner quite different from dharmic ways, which do not establish identity in the religious sense of uniqueness and virtue in contrast with the “other”. In the discussion below we continue to refer to religion in the mainstream sense and dharma as the universal conception of what is right and true, understood by different cultures and cultural concepts in different ways or panths.

It is also worth examining this related term – panth. Even the idea of panth (as in “Sikh panth”) does not equate to religion. Panth does have a sense of identity, as in the followers of a particular teaching or teacher, but is again quite different than the strongly exclusive identity of Abrahamic religions. The idea of identity in panth (or way) is an inherently non-exclusive conception of itself as a “way” among many and hence without the injunction to regard those outside that particular way to be inherently on the side of darkness and ignorance, and thus needing to be converted to the “right side”. The Buddhist terminology of sangha (community of the followers of the Buddha) is quite similar to the notion of pantha as well.

Harmony between panths: the principle of dharmic pluralism

The recognition that multiple legitimate paths exist, by itself, precludes the kind of religious conflicts that have distinguished Abrahmic religions. In the dharmic approach, conquest, conversion or continued conflicts are not the only options in an encounter with a new tribe or civilization. A dialogue of understanding is also a possibility. Thus we find in the dharmic history of India a multiplicity of dialogues within and between different individuals and panths.

While the panths followed different enlightened teachers and had different favored expressions (or “Ishta-devas”) to relate with Reality (including agnostic and atheistic schools) these doctrinal disputes were more often dialogues in a process of deepening the understanding of Truth, than in the establishment of political hegemony. To assure that these doctrinal differences stayed within the limits of civil discourse, the Indian sages enunciated a vital corollary to the principle of One Truth most clearly:

“Sarva Dharma Sambhava, Sarva Panth Samadar” (Each one’s dharma is of equal value, all paths are worthy of equal respect)

This in a nutshell is the principle of Indian pluralism, articulated by the Indian sages centuries before the West had understood the need for secularism.

Note however, that the principle of “Sarva Pantha Samadar” can be understood both as a statement of truth, as well as a treaty. And as a treaty it works only if all the participants in the fray accept it as valid. As we shall see later, this provides us at least one of the clues to religious conflict in India.

When dharma meets religion: the creation of Hindu identity

When we begin to understand what dharma is and that it has been a very different concept than religion, it follows then that the concept of a “Hindu” religious identity, if understood in the image of Abrahamic religions is not really an original dharmic concept. Neither is “Hinduism” a religion in the same sense that Christianity is a religion.

To understand how most of the Indian dharmic community came to be called “Hinduism” it is worth recalling the origin of the word Hindu. It is well recognized among scholars that Hindu came from the Sanskrit word “Sindhu.” In Old Persian the ‘S’ became an ‘H’ and the word become Hindu, a geographical designation of the place beyond the Indus, i.e. India. On a recent trip to Mexico, it was interesting to find that Indian food is called “La comida Hindu.” Even now when it is considered archaic (and extremely politically incorrect) to call all Indians “Hindu”, etymologically the words are the same – Hindustan is a synonym for India. In some ways this sense was retained all the way up to the 20th century when Indian Muslim poet Iqbal wrote a national song that inspired many in the freedom movement:

      “Sare jahan se acchha,


    stan hamara…”

So how did “Hindu” become a religious designation? It was in the encounter with the adherents of two major proselytizing Abrahamic religions – first Islam and then Christianity that the idea of “Hinduism” successively took shape in the form of an Abrahamic religion. The question of religious identity was first posed to the dharmic community in its encounter with Islam, which had a very clear separation of believer and infidel, of us and them, in a way that was alien to the dharmic way, and was not a party to the dharmic truth treaty of “Sarva Pantha Samadar.” “Hindu”, which started of as a geographical term, was turned into a religious identity mainly by negation, first in contrast to the Islamic invaders[v]; and later on by the British.

At the same time, dharmic society’s natural response to the Abrahamic threat was to harmonize it in accordance with the eternal dharmic principles – and to attempt to appeal to the higher interpretation, to “Indianize” them, or to broaden their worldview and have them accept the treaty of “Sarva Pantha Samadar.”

It is no surprise then, that during the Islamic rule emerged great teachers such as Guru Nanak, who again reinforced dharmic truth and downplayed the idea of religious identity.

“Neither Hindu nor Muslim, all our bodies breathe a life from the same God, called Ram or Allah.” Similarly, experiments by Akbar and Dara Shikoh in Din-I-ilahi were attempts to bring Islamic religious ideas into harmony with the dharmic traditions of India.

The many Indian bhakti poets like Kabir, Rahim and Raskhan played their part in this effort. The reign of Aurangzeb was a setback to this to integration – religious identity was the determining factor in applying the “jaziya” tax, so the population needed to again be clearly categorized as “Muslim” and “non-Muslim” aka Hindu. Nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that in the absence of disuniting political forces, Indian Muslims had been on a path towards being integrated within the dharmic panoply of Indian traditions.

Enter the British: Fomenting religious conflict

Even while the influence of dharmic traditions had partially been in the process of healing from the shock of the Islamic invasions, along came the British. It was a time when India was in a politically vulnerable and fragmented situation with the decaying Mughal Empire. The British with their policies opened up some wounds that had not yet completely healed. In consolidating their rule over India, British employed three techniques. The first was the policy of divide and rule, the second was the destruction and replacement a of well-developed native education system with a system for educating the elite in their own language and worldview; and the third was to denigrate native traditions and establish their “natural” superiority in the minds of the elite, to make the country easier to rule.[vi]

Much of the British divide and rule between different communities is well documented in historical accounts. There is a fascinating book “Richer by Asia” written by Edmund Taylor, an American intelligence agent posted in India during World War II, which gives us another insight into understanding religious strife in India. Edmund Taylor was in the division for Psychological Warfare. Being both a professional in the field and detached from contemporary British and Indian politics gave him a unique vantage point to study British policies in India. He writes:

      “… when the Sikhs rose up against British domination, a young British officer, Lieutant Edwardes, won fame ‘by availing himself of the hostility which he knew to exist between different races of the Panjab’ to raise against the Sikhs a levy of Moslem Pathans … the British during the Great Mutiny of 1857 ‘afterwards armed the Sikhs against the Mussulmans and Hindus of Delhi. …“The British assault on the Indian psyche has sometimes escaped the notice of Western historians… not because it was committed in secret but because it was committed too openly… The flames of civil strife … were constantly being renewed by the incendiary results of British state policy. …

“If the United States Army had the policy of balancing every white regiment by a Negro regiment, if it systematically employed Negro troops to quell riots or uprising among the white population and white troops to quell Negro disturbances, then race-relations in America would be a good deal worse then they are. A more effective program of psychological warfare against the American people could hardly be devised. Yet, for fifty years after the Great Mutiny, according to Garratt and Thompson, this policy of racial ‘counterpoise and division’ governed the employment of the Indian Army.[vii]

The creating and denigration of Hindu identity

With the native schooling system and economy destroyed, there was a huge demand for English education among the Indians for government jobs. In their education system, the British trained an intermediary ruling class from among the natives. This ruling class learnt first to understand religion in Western terms, including the use of the term “Hindoo” as a religious designation to refer to a large part of the dharmic community, and then later learnt the antidote of secularism for this peculiar, but apparently universal, disease of religion.

Education was largely in the hand of the missionary schools, even though it did not always involve explicit preaching for conversion. However, one goal of both the missionary and the secular administrator was to denigrate native religions and practices – the former to convert to the one true religion and the latter to instill in the natives the aura of Anglican superiority.

So firstly there was the creation of a “Hindoo” label for much of the indigenous dharmiccommunity and then the systematic destruction of the “brand-value” of the label within the elite by holding “Hindoo-ism” to be responsible for a large number of social ills. Along with the use of the Manusmriti in the pattern of the scripture-based interpretations of Christian law, the idea of a homogenous religious identity with conclusive doctrines in the image of Christianity was perpetuated. This is not to suggest that everything that the British did was deliberate – this would imply more agency to them than they possessed, but that they could not transcend their experiences and ideas of what religion is, or the self-conceived superiority informed by their religious beliefs. They operated from the worldview of fixed laws handed down by revelation and interpreted by centralized church authorities and believed that was how religions must operate. They were largely unable to comprehend the dharmic system — that shared an acceptance of diverse worldviews with considerable flexibility of interpretation among different social, regional and linguistic groups.

Over time, the denigration of the “Hindu” brand created a natural force for communities like the Sikhs to gradually cease to self-identify as Hindus (the notion of the Khalsa Pantha, was similarly understood as an Abrahmic religion with a separative identity), and a number of people from within the dharmic communities to develop a distaste for “Hinduism” amid considerable confusion, that continues today, about what that term really means.

Hindu identity in Contemporary India


The forces in play during the Indian freedom struggle, and the events leading up to and including the partition, had a significant role in continuing to shape religious discourse and conflict in India. That period, ending with the partition of India, is a testament to the cumulative failure of the political leadership in bridging the religious divide in a meaningful and effective way.

The politics of independent India have played a part in the continued formation of the Hindu identity along religious lines, largely by exclusion. After having accepted Western categories of religion and having just emerged from the terrible religious conflict of the partition, the political elite of India was highly sensitized to assuring a religiously harmonious India. So they swore by the secularism that they had dutifully learnt was the antidote for the disease of religious conflict and “minority rights” the antidote for “majoritarianism.”

Unfortunately, the constitution and, more significantly, the politics of independent India, served to make the situation worse rather then better. The perception that the constitution of India has afforded to the minorities privileges apparently denied to the “Hindu” majority, for example the right to run educational institutions without interference from the state, steadily led to both a pull away from the Hindu label, as well as a backlash against that pull. A famous example in this regard was the case by the Ramakrishna Mission that claimed they were not Hindu to avoid persecution from the communist government in West Bengal (they lost).[viii]

Finally, the entire spectrum of political forces in contemporary India, those that exploited minority fears to create religious “vote banks”, counting on a caste-based division of the Hindu populace to win, and those that opposed it by forging a pan-Hindu identity, as well as much of the discourse in the intelligentsia, have contributed to the rise of the Hindu religious identity in the form of Hindutva.

The rise of Hindutva is an expression of the majority dharmic community in pro-actively claiming a religious identity, instead of constantly being defined by negation. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword – while it may serve to protect, if it takes the form of an exclusivist religion, instead of a pan-Indian shared ethos, that would itself be a defeat for the dharmic traditions.

Thus, for our dharmic plurality, there is an anguish in this encounter with separative, exclusivist religions in either direction – the option of not having a religious identity has not really been available in the encounter, since the “other” is insistent that they do have a clearly defined religious identity; yet the option of taking on an identity in the image of “religion” is equally a cause of anguish, since it is a lie to who we are. This anguish is the very source of the debate and ambivalence in the Indian society towards the idea of “Hindu identity” that is present in the rise of “Hindutva.”

Is it necessary to belong to only one religion?


Despite all the assaults on the Indian psyche and a pressure for conformance into the Abrahmic modes of religious identity, deep down we remain a deeply pluralistic people. This is surprisingly true on both sides of the Hindutva debate. Secularism has succeeded in India precisely because of our pluralistic dharmic roots. But even now, when we have mentally accepted Abrahamic religious categories and its antidote of secularism, these categories continue to disturb our sensibilities. We understand what they tell us what religion is, but deep down we cannot accept it as our way.

Let us take some examples from contemporary India that show this ambivalence.

Kushwant Singh is widely hailed as a liberal secular journalist. In a recent article, he writes:

      “There was a time when filling up forms against the column ‘religion’, I would triumphantly put down ‘none’. It would be more accurate if I wrote ‘khichdi’ i.e. a mixture of a few. I am by no means the only one who is confounded by the demand that we specify the one and only one religion we belong to. Many people take what they believe is good from different religions and make a tasteful pot-pourrie.“This was brought home to me by my neighbour, Reeta Varma, who is an Assamese Goswami Brahmin. When her husband died, there were Hindu, Buddhist and Christian prayers at his cremation. Last month she rang me up on Id-ul-Fitr and asked me cheerfully, “Sir, can you guess how I celebrated Id?” I replied: “You may have gone to a dargah, or simply eaten sayviyaan (vermicelli pudding) as most Muslims do on Id. “No,” she replied triumphantly, “I went to Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Chandni Chowk. You think I am going nuts?”

“I found it most bizarre: a Hindu celebrating a Muslim festival in a Sikh temple. But why not? Then I got a letter from Kulshreshtha of Faridabad. It started with a question: “Is it a must to belong to one religion only?” It went on to say that a neighbour who is Hindu likes to fast during Ramzan and offer namaaz; and another neighbour, a Muslim is a regular visitor to the Ayyappa temple. In the first census of Gujarat in 1911, the census superintendent recorded 35,000 ‘Hindu-Mohammadans’. He was soundly ticked off by his superior.[ix]

Now this kind of flexibility in religious practice and designation is a particularly dharmic formulation, which has largely been alien to Abrahamic society outside of India. However, it is not unrepresentative of the conflict that religious identity has created within the Indian mind. Unfortunately, as we are accepting Western categories, we are going backwards from a dynamic dharmic pluralism in a direction where a Hindu-Mohammadan designation will indeed seem absurd to us and our “Abrahamization” will be complete.

Nonetheless there is hope for the dharmic worldview from all quarters. This is what Suma Verghese, an Indian Christian, writes in her essay “Indian Christian: In Search of the Christ Within” about her discovery of dharma:

      “Discovering this wisdom in our own backyard awoke in me a passion for India and the Indian way of life. I was Indian whether or not a Christian.”Adds Raimondu Pannicker, author of A Dwelling Place for Wisdom: “If we as Christians… could succeed in undergoing the Advaitic experience… then Christians, at least of Indian origin, would be automatically enabled to live an advaitic-Christian faith, which makes possible both a fully Hindu and a fully Christian life—without the pain of a split personality.


Similarly many Indian Muslims are not only culturally Indian, but have also connected in a deep way with their dharmic roots. Of the numerous examples here, I will choose a recent one, an article by Saeeq Naqvi in the Indian Express, where he waxes nostalgic about the dharmic pluralism of India:

      “…In fact in this long poem, ‘Lamp in a Temple’, Ghalib describes Varanasi as the ‘Kaaba of Hindustan’, somewhat in the same vein as Iqbal’s description of Lord Rama as the ‘Imam of Hindustan’. …Krishn ka hun pujari/ Ali ka banda hoon/ Yagana shaan-e-khuda/ Dekh kar raha na Gaya (I am a pujari of Krishna and a devotee of Ali/ I cannot help myself when I see the wonders of God).” …

Visit Ustad Alauddin Khan’s house in Maihar and you will be witness to one of the great spectacles of composite culture. The great master said his namaaz five times a day but his music he derived from Saraswati, who adorns all the walls of his house.[xi]

The sad part is that we are nostalgic for pluralism — wasn’t secularism, the antidote for the disease of religion, supposed to make us “more plural”? Why do we then find ourselves less so after 50 years of taking secularism pills? Or are we suffering from a misdiagnosis instead?

In contemporary intellectual analysis, the RSS is considered the main threat to India’s pluralism. Did this organization single-handedly change India’s pluralistic traditions? Do we need to imagine it so powerful that it can change our very nature? We checked the RSS website and found the following statement as the first point in their mission statement:

“a) The truth is one but can have plural manifestations. This plurality need not be in conflict with one another; it can be cooperative and complementary. To understand, appreciate and realize the unity in a tremendous vortex of diversities, should be the humanity’s goal of life.[xii]

Isn’t this backwards from what we’ve been taught? In the Western worldview and terms of discourse, it is naturally assumed that the “Hindu Right” (another Western category) must be doctrinally opposed to pluralism, just as the religious right is in the West, or the orthodoxy is in Islamic countries. But if dharma is, by its nature, pluralistic, can any organization that claims to be Hindu be anything other than pluralistic?

On the other hand, if RSS is truly pluralistic as it claims here, we need to hold it to its stated objectives. We cannot condone violent inhumane actions by anyone irrespective of religious or organizational affiliation. Such action can neither uphold dharma nor be considered dharmic. But the larger question is, what is the conflict about? Is the conflict between Hindutva and secularism, as we are currently led to believe, or is the real conflict between pluralism and the ideologies of exclusivism?

The seeds for dialogue

The surprising finding here is that the positions of the “liberal” Khushwant Singh, the “Christian” Suma Verghese, the “Muslim” Saeed Naqvi and the “Hindu right-wing” RSS, at least on paper, don’t seem all that far apart – in fact they all point towards the ethos of Indian pluralism. The hard-liners on all sides will be shocked that these different constituencies are even quoted together, but our hopes for peace don’t lie with the hardliners. They lie in having truly pluralistic Indians discarding pre-conceived labels and beginning dialogues that shed light on current issues. Dialogue, rather than sticking to pre-conceived ideologies and positions about who we can or cannot talk to will lead to real change. Not simply by the enforcement of the law, not by writing articles about the “fascist saffron” threat to Indian secularism in the international media, not by labeling people as “pseudo-secular”, none of these will help us to move towards a genuine peace. If we desire peace, we need to learn how to talk to each other directly and to understand ourselves. This has been the Indian Way that we must reclaim if we are to live together in harmony.

What is required then is for truly pluralistic Indians to gather together and change the parameters of this debate. The battle is not between Hindutva and secularism. The battle is between all those who support the dharma of a pluralistic and diverse society vs. all those extremists who would convert us to an exclusivist creed. Pluralism is our natural state and pluralistic Indians are found across the political and religious spectrum. And these pluralistic Indians must speak up against the actions of extremists and exclusivists of all hue whether they be found among Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Communists or any other affinity. If the pluralists don’t speak out, the extremists will control the discourse, as has been happening so far.

Finally in pursuing this dialogue we must recognize that we have been looking at each other through the tinted glasses of a Western world-view which has distorted what we see and know about ourselves. We have been fighting with shadows without even understanding the source of our conflict. Understanding ourselves as truly as possible on our own terms then becomes a crucial first step towards sustaining this dialogue for building a harmonious society.


[i] We use the term Western here as a generalization. One could more specifically use “Judeo-Christian” or Western European or Occidental, denoting the general civilizational origin of these concepts.


[iii] Some examples of the numerous Roman Catholic sites that explain how this works:


In Protestant denominations the quote from the bible
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6) is most typically used to justify exclusiveness. In the book “Christ, the Yogi” Prof. Ravi Ravindra explains why this is an erroneous understanding of Christ’s teaching.

[iv] The Bhagvad Gita itself clearly denies that Truth can be limited to the religion of a book:
When thy mind leaves behind its dark forest of delusion,
Thou shalt go beyond the scriptures of times past and still to come.
When thy mind, that may be wavering in the contradictions of many scriptures,
Shall rest unshaken in divine contemplation,
Then the goal of Yoga is thine.
Juan Mascaro, The Bhagavad Gita 2:52-53

[v] It is interesting that even after the Islamic conquest it was more common to refer to people by their jati, and geographical origin, as in “Turks”, “Pathans”, “Arabs”, Rajputs, and so on, till a gradual process of religious differentiation as a major distinction took place.

[vi] The book, “Masks of Conquest” by Gauri Vishwanathan is a fascinating study of the reason for the introduction of English-medium schooling and English literature by the British in India.

[vii] Richer by Asia, by Edmund Taylor. ©1947 and 1964. Time Life Books.

[viii] This provides a particular interesting contrast to the case of the Ahmediyas in Pakistan that are campaigning to be counted as Muslim. See, for instance:





© Copyright 2003-2005, Sankrant Sanu.

All rights reserved.

Are Hinduism studies prejudiced?

This is the original version of the article that caused Microsoft to replace Encarta’s article on Hinduism. This later was anthologized in the book: “Invading the Sacred” published by Rupa Press. Click for a PDF version of the article.

The scholarship of certain sections of the academic community studying Hinduism has been controversial in the Indian community. In this article we try to examine whether there is truth to this controversy, and whether such academics influence the mainstream portrayal of “Hinduism” in standard sources. We use Microsoft® Corporation’s Encarta® Encyclopedia as the reference in this study.


In this article we discuss the differences, in both approach and result, of Encarta’s articles on Hinduism in comparison with the articles on some of the other major world religions in Encarta. Encarta Encyclopedia is published by Microsoft Corporation, which claims that it is the “Best-selling encyclopedia brand.” Encarta is widely used as a reference source in American schools. In particular, because of its widespread use amongst children, we would expect Encarta’s coverage of religions to be even-handed, sensitive and unprejudiced. In a world of religious conflict, it becomes particularly important that children are given balanced viewpoints of mainstream beliefs and practices of all religions.

In particular, we contrast Encarta’s treatment of Hinduism, with the two other major religions — Islam and Christianity. On occasion, we also refer to the treatment of other religions like Judaism and Buddhism. The purpose of this article is not to make value judgments or a comparative study of the religions themselves. In studying such a vast and complex phenomena as the major religions, one can always find conflicting or questionable issues, just as one can find highly elevating truths. What aspects of the religion get highlighted is a matter of editorial choice. Our interest is not in comparing the religions per se, but in understanding the differences in editorial choice – both in the selection of content as well as style, in the scholarly treatment of these religions in Encarta.

Unless otherwise noted, all references below are to the main content article on each of the religions in Encarta. We have used Encarta Encyclopedia 2002 (US edition) for our reference, though a casual look at Encarta 2003 suggests that the articles on the major religions have remained the same as Encarta 2002. All actual quotes are in quotation marks preceded by the name of the article in Encarta.

The Contents Page

Our study begins with the main contents page for each of the religions. In some cases, the contents page contains, in quotes, a single highlighted statement about the religion. In the 2002 version of Encarta, these quotes are present for Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, and not for Christianity and Islam.

  • Judaism: “The God of creation entered into a special relationship with the Jewish people at Sinai.”
  • Buddhism: “Karma consists of a person’s acts and their ethical consequence.”
  • Hinduism: “Rama and Krishna are said to be avatars of Vishnu though they were originally human heroes.”

Note, that the one statement that was chosen about Hinduism is that which repudiates Hindu belief, while the statements for the other two religions reflect a balanced positive or neutral stance. Notice also the use of “said to be” in Hinduism while the statement on Judaism is presented in the editorial voice as a presentation of fact. To understand this representation, let us draw up a hypothetical quote on Christianity to parallel the quote on Hinduism.

  • Christianity*: Jesus Christ is said to be the “Son of God” though he was just a human.

Irrespective of belief in the truth or falsity of this statement, or the parallel one in the case of Hinduism, when such a statement is the highlight of the commentary on a religion, it reflects a certain attitude about how the subject is approached. Let us see if this attitude continues to persist in the article on Hinduism in comparison to other religions.

Fundamental principles

In the article on Hinduism, we find that the “Fundamental Principles” divided into four sections – Texts, Philosophy, “Gods” and “Worship and Ritual.” We find the sequencing of ideas within this section fairly haphazard – generally moving to specifics without laying out the general – giving the impression of a somewhat incoherent system.


“The canon of Hinduism is basically defined by what people do rather than what they think. Consequently, far more uniformity of behavior than of belief is found among Hindus, although very few practices or beliefs are shared by all. A few usages are observed by almost all Hindus: reverence for Brahmans and cows; abstention from meat (especially beef); and marriage within the caste (jati), in the hope of producing male heirs.”

In doing so the author takes the richness and diversity of Hindu thought and tries to approach it from the point of view of an orthodox church defining a single “canon.” Failing to find the “canon” or articulate the underlying worldview of a system that allows many paths to flourish within it, the author gives up to quickly start listing mainly social practices. Let us see how the same issue is treated in Christianity.


“Any phenomenon as complex and as vital as Christianity is easier to describe historically than to define logically, but such a description does yield some insights into its continuing elements and essential characteristics.”

In the description of Christianity, Encarta approaches it from a point of view of humility – the problem being of the expository limitations of the author. No such humility is visible in the description of Hinduism, where the author quickly reduces any notion of complexity to an anthropological viewpoint. Further on, we explore various examples of how the anthropological viewpoint dominates the article on Hinduism.

Dealing with “contradiction”

Let us see how the articles deal with supposed contradictions.


“Although Hindus believe and do many apparently contradictory things—contradictory not merely from one Hindu to the next, but also within the daily religious life of a single Hindu—each individual perceives an orderly pattern that gives form and meaning to his or her own life.”

he article on Hinduism is very clear that there are contradictions, and highlights this aspect. The articles on Christianity and Islam are either unable to find any contradictions, or don’t find them the most significant aspect of the religion to cover. In the few instances when they do, they use substantially different language to talk about these.

In Christianity, any contradictions of behavior are attributed to the limitations of individuals rather than limitations of the faith or of “Christians” as a generalized entity.


“To a degree that those on the inside often fail to recognize, however, such a system of beliefs and values can also be described in a way that makes sense as well to an interested observer who does not, or even cannot, share their outlook.”

The article on Islam does not mention any “contradiction” at all, but a continued “refinement.”


“Recurring debates among Islamic scholars over the nature of God have continued to refine the Islamic concepts of God’s otherness and Islamic monotheism.

Even when the article on Islam admits differences in contemporary practice, it puts the difficulty of these on the analytical or expository abilities of the author (“difficult to identify”), rather than the religion.


“Yet the radically different political, economic, and cultural conditions under which contemporary Muslims live make it difficult to identify what constitutes standard Islamic practice in the modern world.”

The key to understanding both the diversity as well as the unity of Hinduism is neither in the search for a “canon” (a strongly Christian worldview), nor in the anthropology of particular practices. It is in recognizing that the philosophical foundations of Hinduism have celebrated diversity of path and individuality (which itself is a distinctive feature), while at the same time encouraging theological debates to further understanding.

In the articles on Christianity and Islam the problem, if any, is usually depicted as that of the author’s inability to describe rather than any contradictions. The author of Hinduism, apparently, faces very little difficulty – she carries on with an anthropological description of practices “from above” – sure that any contradiction that is found is surely in the religion itself, and not in any lack of understanding or expository ability.

Peaceful “Jihad” and violent “Ahimsa”

A further study about the difference in approach and attitude in the articles on religion can be found in the description of subtle concepts. We take two – jihad and ahimsa, in particular, both of which may be somewhat familiar to the lay reader.


“Many polemical descriptions of Islam have focused critically on the Islamic concept of jihad. Jihad, considered the sixth pillar of Islam by some Muslims, has been understood to mean holy war in these descriptions. However, the word in Arabic means “to struggle” or “to exhaust one’s effort,” in order to please God. Within the faith of Islam, this effort can be individual or collective, and it can apply to leading a virtuous life; helping other Muslims through charity, education, or other means; preaching Islam; and fighting to defend Muslims. Western media of the 20th century continue to focus on the militant interpretations of the concept of jihad, whereas most Muslims do not.”


“The most important tenet of sanatana dharma for all Hindus is ahimsa, the absence of a desire to injure, which is used to justify vegetarianism (although it does not preclude physical violence toward animals or humans, or blood sacrifices in temples).” [Em. added]

In both cases, the authors treat subtle subjects in the respective religions. In the article on Islam, the author presents a sympathetic view of Jihad, and attempts to favorably influence Western perceptions. In the article on Hinduism the author adds decidedly unfavorable editorial asides seeking to “correct” possibly favorable perceptions by introducing “contradictions.” The tone of the article again is of a higher entity looking down on lowly customs and illogical “native” interpretations (as in (“ahimsa” …”is used to justify”). This is an illustration of the very different viewpoint (dare we say “agenda”) from which the article on Hinduism is written. While the articles on Islam and Christianity attempt to uplift the reader to a refined understanding of those religions, the article on Hinduism attempts to denigrate instead.

To understand what we mean by this let us see how Encarta would present Christianity and Islam, if it were to use the same logic and attitude as used in the article on Hinduism.


The most important tenet of Christianity is love (although it does not preclude burning heretics and witches at the stake, the Crusades, Christian colonization and the Jewish Holocaust).


Muslims claim that Islam is a religion of peace (although it does not preclude suicide bombing or other terrorists acts).

To be really clear, we are not suggesting that such descriptions of Christianity or Islam should have been in Encarta – they would be decidedly negative portrayals. Unfortunately, this tone of portrayal prevails in the article on Hinduism.

This is, surprisingly, not the only example of the technique of negative editorial aside in the article on Hinduism. We see also:


“Svadharma comprises the beliefs that each person is born to perform a specific job, marry a specific person, eat certain food, and beget children to do likewise and that it is better to fulfill one’s own dharma than that of anyone else (even if one’s own is low or reprehensible, such as that of the Harijan caste, the Untouchables, whose mere presence was once considered polluting to other castes). …

A positive portrayal of “Svadharma” (literally “Self-Dharma”) would introduce it as a high statement to an individual to discover and understand their purpose and calling in the cosmos and actualize it. Yet in the hands of the Encarta author it becomes an excuse for an aside on the historical practice of untouchability that is derided in contemporary mainstream Hinduism. In neither of the other two articles of the major religions, Christianity or Islam, do we find the use of the technique of the denigrating editorial aside. Indeed, the purpose of the other two articles appears to be to elevate rather than to denigrate – and quite rightly so for a mainstream source dealing with religion.

Philosophy or Anthropology?

The article on Hinduism appears quite disjointed in its understanding of Philosophy, Anthropology, Cosmology and Mythology. “Fundamental Principles” leads with Anthropology. As we see below the section on “Philosophy” is mostly “Mythology” depicting “Cosmology” – the very limited coverage of the well-developed schools of Hindu philosophy is relegated to a list in the section “Rise of Devotional Movements,” in the topic on History. Without setting out the philosophical principles underlying beliefs and practices in Hinduism, the coverage of “Gods” and “Rituals” appears particularly bizarre. Let us see how the section on “Philosophy” starts.


“Incorporated in this rich literature is a complex cosmology. Hindus believe that the universe is a great, enclosed sphere, a cosmic egg, within which are numerous concentric heavens, hells, oceans, and continents, with India at the center.

“They believe that time is both degenerative—going from the golden age, or Krita Yuga, through two intermediate periods of decreasing goodness, to the present age, or Kali Yuga—and cyclic: At the end of each Kali Yuga, the universe is destroyed by fire and flood, and a new golden age begins. ”

Firstly, this is not philosophy, but as the author points out, cosmology. Secondly, as a description of Hindu cosmology, it is fairly inadequate and reductive. It fails to point that there are multiple creation myths in Hindu texts. Also, as far as Hindu cosmology goes, people like notable astronomer and author, Prof. Carl Sagan, have pointed that the calculations of the age of the universe based on this cosmology works out to be fairly close to our current scientific estimates – and “(Hinduism) is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.” Mentioning any of this, would, of course be quite contrary to the tone of the article. Rather than presenting the creation myth as a story and presenting the hidden elements of scientific truth, the article gives a reductive description, preceded by the phrase “Hindus believe.”

To understand this better, let us compare it with the article in Encarta about the Biblical creation myth.

Adam and Eve:

“Adam and Eve, in the Bible, the first man and woman, progenitors of the human race. The biblical account of the creation of human beings occurs twice: in Genesis 1:26-27 and in Genesis 2:18-24. Marked differences in vocabulary, thought, and style between these accounts have led to the scholarly consensus that these creation stories reflect two distinct sources (see Bible: The Development of the Old Testament). In the first account, the Hebrew common noun adam is used as a generic term for all human beings, regardless of gender; Eve is not mentioned at all. In the second account, Adam is created from the dust of the earth, whereas Eve is created from Adam’s rib and given to him by God to be his wife.”

The first notable difference is that of the expository technique. The latter article presents different creation accounts in the reading of Biblical texts. Note how this shifts subtly if it were preceded by “Christians believe …”. That there are differences in two different stories in the same book could then be extrapolated, as is done in the article on Hinduism to state, “Christians believe many contradictory things.” Instead the article about Adam and Eve” treats it as a scholarly study of text (where different “accounts” are found), rather than conclusive statements about “Christian belief.” Let us see how one would present a section on Christian “Philosophy” with the same approach as in the case of Hinduism.


Christians believe that all humans descend from one man and woman, called Adam and Eve and calculated the age of the world to be about 10,000 years. They believe also that the female Eve was created from male Adam’s rib by God to be his wife (which is used to justify Christian attitudes towards women such as a historical denial of voting rights).

Christians believe many contradictory things – for example, that an all-loving, forgiving God puts human beings in everlasting Hell, if they sin without repenting in this life. [Em. added]

This would be a similarly reductive account presenting “Christians” as irrational, and failing to grasp the multiple levels of subtleties involved in understanding a religion. As we see in the description of Hinduism, this is precisely the approach of the Encarta article.

An account similar to the one in Encarta of Adam and Eve would be a neutral objective treatment of similar material in Hindu mythology, rather than a treatment that “boxes-in” the rich and diverse Hindu cosmology into “Hindu belief.” Adding the relationships to modern scientific understanding would make it a “sympathetic” treatment for current audiences. Instead, the Encarta article on Hinduism consistently chooses a subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) negative portrayal.

Despite a very rich philosophical tradition, the anthropological view dominates the article on Hinduism. Both the articles on Christianity and Islam, lead instead with the philosophical ideas. Apparently the broadness of Hindu philosophical ideas “Vasudeva Kutumbha” (the world is a family), and the ideas of religious pluralism (“many paths lead to God”) that continue to guide most Hindus, find no place in the Encarta article.


Nowhere is the anthropological view more apparent than in the treatment of “gods”. Firstly, an inadequate attempt is made to put the idea of “gods” (not “Gods”) in proper perspective for a Western reader. The word “deva” in Sanskrit, is less akin to the “God” of Christianity, but more so to “angel” (a power higher than man but lesser than “God”). Secondly, the concepts that “God” is “unknowable” and that different deities are thus representations of different aspects (“roop”) of “God,” is glossed over. The Encarta article also completely misses the concept of the Hindu trinity – that any Hindu child could recite – a key idea in the presentation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as creator, preserver and destroyer, and their female counterparts as three aspects of the One God. That the male and the female energies co-exist in Indian thought and the idea of God as both male and female (at the same time being beyond gender) is also missed. Having skipped all the structure, the topic of “Gods” is presented as a confusing “curio-shop” of unrelated deities and sects, complete with sensational descriptions of blood and gore.


Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshipers of Shiva Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts”; and Aghoris, “to whom nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member.

While “phallus” is one interpretation of “linga” there are others as well. Apparently the author, whose interests appear to have a limited focus, continues to find contradictions from that single point of view – missing both other common interpretations as well as the underlying symbolisms. A disproportionate interest in the dimension of esoteric “sects”, “phallus”, “skulls”, “flesh” and “ordure” dominates the article and we find that practices and aspects far more prevalent and relevant to contemporary times – like Yoga or Chakras, meditation or mantras, breath and Pranayama that are practically absent in the article.

The article continues with these descriptions, clearly showing the author’s interest in particular ways of looking at Hinduism.


As Durga, the Unapproachable, she kills the buffalo demon Mahisha in a great battle; as Kali, the Black, she dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed hands of her victims. The Goddess is also worshiped by the Shaktas, devotees of Shakti, the female power. This sect arose in the medieval period along with the Tantrists, whose esoteric ceremonies involved a black mass in which such forbidden substances as meat, fish, and wine were eaten and forbidden sexual acts were performed ritually.

In the well-embellished description of Kali, the intensity of the language speaks for itself of the Encarta’s author interest in this particular area. Clearly blood and gore, erotica and exotica are of much greater interest to this particular writer than Hindu philosophy, or any of the symbolism of these ancient descriptions. Again, the article shows more interest in the portrayal of esoteric sects and ceremonies than exploring mainstream and commonplace Hindu rituals – like saying “namaste”, the sacred syllable “Om”, lighting diyas or wearing bindis (the “dot” on the forehead)– practices that are vastly more familiar to a Westerner and a Hindu child alike, none of which find a place in the Encarta article.

The article instead describes various “Gods” and “Goddesses”, particularly emphasizing the sensational, as we saw in the description of Kali above, without presenting these within the unifying coherent theme that most Hindus view these manifestations – of different forms of One Supreme Reality, which cannot be boxed into a single set of attributes or descriptions.

As the section on “Indian Philosophy” on Encarta states:

“Most of the poems of the Veda are religious and tend to be about the activities of various gods. Yet some Vedic hymns and poems address philosophic themes … such as the henotheism that is key to much Hindu theology. Henotheism is the idea that one God takes many different forms, and that although individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really revere but one Supreme Being.” [Em. added]

Has the Encarta article on Hinduism lost all keys? While there is a passing mention of this concept in the Encarta, it is, characteristically, watered down from the clearer statement above.


In this way Hindus have been able to reconcile their Vedantic monism (see Vedanta) with their Vedic polytheism: All the individual Hindu gods (who are said to be saguna,”with attributes”) are subsumed under the godhead (nirguna,”without attributes”), from which they all emanate. [Em. added]

A common Hindu saying is – “As you are, so God’s image appears to you” – since God is beyond images or attributes, we superimpose our own. Does Encarta’s choice of subjects and descriptions in the article – scatological and incoherent, reflect the author’s own state?

Finally, let us see how the article describes Rama and Krishna, considered as incarnations of God (as Vishnu).


“Most popular by far are Rama (hero of the Ramayana) and Krishna (hero of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata-Purana), both of whom are said to be avatars of Vishnu, although they were originally human heroes.” [Em. added]

The article appears to speak with the certainty of divine knowledge! Let us see how a similar issue, the divinity of Jesus is treated in the article on Christianity;


“The ultimate mystery of the universe, called by many different names in various religions, was called “Father” in the sayings of Jesus, and Christians therefore call Jesus himself “Son of God.” At the very least, there was in his language and life an intimacy with God and an immediacy of access to God, as well as the promise that, through all that Christ was and did, his followers might share in the life of the Father in heaven and might themselves become children of God. ”

We note both the subtlety of thought and the sensitivity of expression in description, versus the heavy-handed certainty by which the article on Hinduism speaks, of happenings and events further back in time than the historical Jesus. Is this certainty born out of knowledge of fact, or simply a disregard for the corresponding religious sentiment?

More “blood” and animal “sacrifice”

The presentation of “Gods” is not the only place in the article that Encarta is interested in gory descriptions – of “blood”, “skulls”, “ordure” and the like. Starting from the concept of ahimsa
(which refers to “blood sacrifices”) to the celebration of the Indian festival of Holi, this point of view permeates the article. In fact, the Encarta article on Hinduism has more references to “blood” and “animal sacrifices” than it does to Yoga. Yoga, arguably the most popular contribution of Hinduism to the West is mentioned in two places – both insignificant, as we see later on. Other than the quote above, let us see where else Encarta mentions themes related to “blood” or “animal sacrifice” in the article on Hinduism.


“Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.

Let us start with factual accuracies – Holi, as any Hindu knows, is celebrated with all the colors of spring – green, yellow, red, pink, not just “red” as the article states. It celebrates the coming of spring with a riot of color. Factual details aside, for Encarta the suggestion of “cascades of red powder and liquid” works well to further the theme of blood and gore prevalent in the article. This goes on in the description of “Worship and Rituals.”


“In many temples, particularly those sacred to goddesses (such as the Kalighat temple to Kali, in Kolkata), goats are sacrificed on special occasions. The sacrifice is often carried out by a special low-caste priest outside the bounds of the temple itself.

Similarly, the vast majority of Hindus living today have probably never seen an animal sacrifice in their life – and “many temples” is certainly a gross inaccuracy. Why is this rare practice chosen when we don’t find mention of commonplace practices like “satsang” (literally, company of truth, or good), meetings where people congregate to communally chant or read from scripture are orders of magnitude more prevalent? The comment on “low-caste” that rounds out that quote above is obligatory to keep the “otherness” of Hinduism on centre stage – a technique we find employed elsewhere in the article.

It is also very worthwhile to compare this overall approach to highlighting “blood and gore” with the treatment of “animal sacrifice” in the Encarta article on Islam, a religion on which such sacrifices are obligatory that every Muslim is required to perform on Hajj (rather than a rare occurrence).


“The final ritual is the slaughter of an animal (sheep, goat, cow, or camel). This is a symbolic reenactment of God’s command to Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail, which Ibrahim and Ismail duly accepted and were about to execute when God allowed Ibrahim to slaughter a ram in place of his son. (In the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Abraham is called to sacrifice his son Isaac rather than Ishmael.) Most of the meat of the slaughtered animals is to be distributed to poor Muslims.”

Notice how the stress is on symbolism and how the last line is used to soften the theme. We shall spare the reader a rewrite of the Islamic depiction with details of the animal’s severed head and pouring blood and omitting any hint of symbolism. Would an anthropologist probing the Bible many millennia from now condemn Christians as cannibals when reading of Christ’s disciples being asked to partake of Christ’s “blood and flesh”? If approached from the point of view of the Encarta article on Hinduism, devoid of either sensitivity or an understanding of symbolism, this would probably be the case. Surprisingly, the author chooses this approach to Hinduism, which is a living contemporary tradition rather than simply an anthropological study of relics and past rituals.

These are choices in both omission and commission that are worth noting. While including exotic details and ritual the author continually misses large and commonplace topics – like the forms of Indian dance and music as a component of the religion, the celebration of “Ram Lila” – enactments of Ram’s life common throughout the north, and major Hindu celebrations like Janamashtami (Krishna’s birth), Raksha Bandhan or Onam.

Where is the real “Philosophy” and “Yoga”?

Now that we have read the description in Encarta of Aghoris, “”to whom nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain,” we look around for the yogis we have seen or known. Unfortunately, with the concern of the Encarta article on Hinduism in looking for scatology, it completely misses the highly refined theology and practices like Raja Yoga or Hatha Yoga or Patanjali or yogic meditation. In fact, the word “Yoga” has exactly two occurrences in the article (other than the one description of “Aghoris” as yogis above):


“Many elements of Hinduism that were not present in Vedic civilization (such as worship of the phallus and of goddesses, bathing in temple tanks, and the postures of yoga) may have been derived from the Indus civilization, however. See Indus Valley Civilization.”

“The philosophies of Shankara and Ramanuja were developed in the context of the six great classical philosophies (darshanas) of India: the Karma Mimamsa (“action investigation”); the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”), in which tradition the work of Shankara and Ramanuja should be placed; the Sankhya system, which describes the opposition between an inert male spiritual principle (purusha) and an active female principle of matter or nature (prakriti), subdivided into the three qualities (gunas) of goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas); the Yoga system; and the highly metaphysical systems of Vaisheshika (a kind of atomic realism) and Nyaya (logic, but of an extremely theistic nature).”
The first reference serves to separate Yoga from Hinduism. In the second reference, it is buried in a list of themes, each of which is probably more significant to describe than long-winded descriptions of Kali. Note that this list of classical philosophies is the only significant description of these philosophies in the entire article on Hinduism – that too not in the explicit section for Philosophy, but embedded in the “Rise of Devotional Movements” section of “History”

To be fair to Encarta, there does exist a separate article on Yoga that the article on Hinduism does not directly reference. That article states:


As a system of practice, Yoga has from the beginning been one of the most influential features of Hinduism.

Surely, as one of the most influential features of Hinduism, Yoga merits more than a single word (with no link or reference) mention in the article on Hinduism.

In the obsession with external aspects of myth and ritual, blood and gore, the article gives very little space to either the highly developed systems of Hindu theology and philosophy or its most commonplace practices in comparison to the other articles on religion, neither does it link directly to a separate article on Indian philosophy. In the next section we will see a surprising example of what it does choose to include as a link.

Contemporary growth of the religion

There are other differences in detail that consistently add an unsympathetic flavor to the reading on Hinduism. We will end with some examples relating to the contemporary spread of these religions.


“The Muslim community comprises about 1 billion followers on all five continents, and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world.”

“Today about 1 billion Muslims are spread over 40 predominantly Muslim countries and 5 continents, and their numbers are growing at a rate unmatched by that of any other religion in the world.”

Both in the introduction and conclusion, the article on Islam repeats positively how Islam is growing, almost from the point of view of an evangelist.

Let use see how Encarta covers the spread of Hinduism.


“In more recent times, numerous self-proclaimed Indian religious teachers have migrated to Europe and the United States, where they have inspired large followings. Some, such as the Hare Krishna sect founded by Bhaktivedanta, claim to base themselves on classical Hindu practices.”

As is consistent with the tone of the article, notice the deprecating use of “self-proclaimed” and “claim to”, words rarely used in similar ways in the other articles. The author also fails to mention the fast growing “Yoga” movement (which Time magazine reported as having over 15 million practitioners in the US) and the large influence of Hindu thought on the “New Age” movement. The article completely misses movements like “Transcendental Meditation” of Maharishi Mahesh Yoga and the Self-realization fellowship of Parmahansa Yogananda, or the influence on Americans of the beat generation or the 60’s culture (Swami Satchitananda was called the “Woodstock guru”)– people like George Harrison, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Mia Farrow, Madonna. To do that would bring Hinduism in, leave it less “other.” But, unfortunately, the quote above follows the general theme of the article – to obscure or denigrate anything positive, and find and highlight that, which is likely to be misunderstood, failing to provide it in the proper context.

The article on Hinduism ends with a bang – something that can aptly demonstrate that deep-seated prejudice and even, perhaps, a political agenda. After failing to have links for “yoga” or “Indian philosophy” in the Encarta article, at the very end Encarta discovers the power of links.


For information on religious violence in India, See India.

This is the appropriate ending for the article on Hinduism? We first surmised that this might be due to some current events (even then it would not be an appropriate ending for academic an article on Hinduism, other than motivated by considerable prejudice). But we find the same ending, for the same article, as far back as Encarta 1999! As a crosscheck, let us look at the other articles on religion.


“For additional information, see articles on individual Christian denominations and biographies of those persons whose names are not followed by dates.”


<No link suggested at the end>

Given the thread of negativity that permeates the Encarta article on Hinduism, it comes as no surprise when, in the end, it suggests the topic of “religious violence” as additional reading. If the articles of Christianity and Islam were written with the same intent, this is what last links could look like.


For additional information about burning witches at the stake, see Witch Hunt.


For terrorist violence, see International Terrorism.

Again, we do not suggest these endings be used, nor does Encarta do so. They are provided for the purpose of illustrating the underlying attitude in choosing such endings – an attitude that pervades the article on Hinduism.

Analysis of cause

We have established a significant difference in the treatment of Hinduism versus other religions, notable Christianity and Islam. In this section, we look at probable cause for the difference in treatment.

Selection of Authors

Encarta provides the following names and biographical information for the authors of the three Encarta articles in question:

  • Christianity. Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan, B.D., Ph.D. Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University. Author of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Historical Theology, and other books.
  • Islam. Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Yale University. Dallal, Ahmad S., B.E., M.A., Ph.D. Author of An Islamic Response to Greek Astronomy: Kitab Ta’dil Hay’at al-Aflak of Sadr al-Shari’a.
  • Hinduism. Doniger, Wendy, M.A., Ph.D., D.Phil. Mircea Eliade Professor of History of Religions and Indian Studies, University of Chicago. Author of The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, and Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities.
Emic or Etic?

The first observation we make is that scholars who profess those faiths have written the articles on Christianity and Islam; this is not the case with Hinduism. While the topic of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) study is often debated within academia, we would expect Encarta to choose uniformly either the emic or etic view of the major religions. In the Encarta article on Christianity, Prof. Jarsolav Pelikan strongly defends the emic viewpoint:

Like any system of belief and values—be it Platonism, Marxism, Freudianism, or democracy—Christianity is in many ways comprehensible only “from the inside,” to those who share the beliefs and strive to live by the values; and a description that would ignore these “inside” aspects of it would not be historically faithful. To a degree that those on the inside often fail to recognize, however, such a system of beliefs and values can also be described in a way that makes sense as well to an interested observer who does not, or even cannot, share their outlook.

The same logic, apparently, does not apply to Eastern religions. In general, though not always, we would expect the “emic” view to be more sympathetic than the “etic” view, particularly when the “emic” author is a practicing member of their faith.

Areas of interest of the authors

While the orientation of study of Professors Pelikan and Dallal is towards the philosophical, scientific and theological aspects of the religions they write about, Prof. Doniger’s orientation is more anthropological — studying rituals and myths rather than philosophy and theology. Even within that field, Prof. Doniger’s dominant area of interest, going by the books she has authored, is in the exotic and erotic aspects of these rituals and myths. Thus the study of Professors Pelikan and Dallal is a living practicing view of the religion, including theological, metaphysical and scientific issues that would positively engage contemporary audiences, Prof. Doniger’s appears to be an archeological dig, turning over quaint specimens that strike her fancy for examination. While this is certainly a valid field for study, it is clear that it leads to very different viewpoints and results in the articles.

Acceptability of the authors in the represented community

The third aspect of authorship is the broad acceptability of the author in the religious community they purport to represent. In general, it is more likely for emic authors to be acceptable, though not universally so. A research on the web shows that while Profs. Pelikan and Dallal are not regarded as controversial, Prof. Doniger has come in for considerable criticism for her lopsided portrayal, and unsubtle understanding of Hinduism. While Hindus, in general, are known for their tolerance of criticism (which is probably why the Encarta article has survived, without protest, for several years), we wonder why Encarta, as a mainstream encyclopedia, would deliberately choose to continue with authors that are highly controversial within the communities they write about. Note that, particularly in Hinduism, this could be very true for supposedly “emic”, but in reality, non-practicing, authors as well.

Deliberate prejudice or error?

While there is some evidence of prejudice on the part of Encarta’s author on Hinduism, it is not clear whether prejudice also exists in Encarta as well. Certainly, as the ultimate editorial authority, Encarta cannot evade responsibility for the situation, at the very least in the selection of authors and editorial oversight over prejudiced treatment in a sensitive topic like religion. However, Encarta may well have, knowingly or unknowingly participated in an environment of bias.

A western graduate student of Hinduism in a US university, suggests a broader prejudice:

“… in American academia it is politically incorrect to treat Hinduism in a positive light and it is taboo to deal negatively with Islam.”

Certainly, the comparison of the articles on Encarta would validate this thesis. However, more study of this topic is clearly required.


We have not studied the effects of such negative portrayal of Hinduism on Hindu children growing up in America. We can speculate that derogatory mainstream portrayals of Hinduism, quite different from what they have seen or experienced first hand, would at the very least be confusing, and ultimately damaging to the self-esteem of such children. In the author’s personal experience, many Hindus are reluctant to identify themselves as such publicly, even when they are practicing Hindus – we conjecture that this may result from unconsciously accepting the negative portrayals of their religion. We find that this subject has not been studied much – however, the one study that we found supports this possibility. There are also accounts that scholars studying Hinduism that also “come out” to be practicing that faith face allegations of “bias” – apparently this is not seen to be the case when Christians or Muslims study their own faiths in the academic community (which is the general rule).

Such articles in “Encarta” also get used by various religious fundamentalists and hate groups to label Hinduism a “cult” – the Encarta article serves as a good “objective” reference to make their point. The interested reader can do a web search on “Hinduism cult Encarta” to find examples.

Inaccurate, negative mainstream portrayals of a religion can ultimately only prove harmful to the community. Clearly much more work is needed to study the exact effects and consequences of such portrayals.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In this article, we compare the treatment of different religions in Encarta. We find that there are significant differences in the treatment of Hinduism vs. the treatment of
Islam or Christianity in both the selection of content and the attitude displayed in the writing – resulting in a distinctly negative portrayal of Hinduism vs. the other religions. We conjecture that the reason for this difference is related largely to the difference choices in the selection of authors – whether they are emic or etic and their area of interest or specialization in the religion they study. We also find that Prof. Doniger, the author of the Encarta article on Hinduism is controversial within the Hindu community.

The authors of the article on “Islam” and “Christianity” have a mature and balanced viewpoint and they represent their religions in a way that the vast majority of adherents will find appropriate and positive. We commend Encarta for their choice of authors in portraying these religions in a sympathetic way. Unfortunately, the same balance and sympathy is not visible in the article on Hinduism. While we believe that Prof. Doniger is certainly free to pursue her specific areas of interest and scholarship in Hinduism, we do not believe that her article represents the mainstream of Hindu thought in both the selection of content and its interpretation, which would be appropriate for a widely read source such as Encarta.

Given that Prof. Doniger’s specific interests and attitudes strongly influence the article, it would be insufficient to simply remove a few of the most glaring examples of negativism, while leaving the rest of the article unchanged. We recommend instead that an article written by someone “emic” to the community, who can represent Hinduism in a positive, mainstream viewpoint, promptly replace the article on Hinduism in Encarta.

This is the original version of the article that caused Microsoft to replace Encarta’s article on Hinduism.

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© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.