How Religious Intolerance in Hinduism is Different from Religious Intolerance in Christianity and Islam
Islam and Christianity have fought and oppressed other religions and their followers, including each other, for millenia, because of a religious imperative to do so. However, Hindu scriptures have no exhortation for the faithful to oppress other religions and their followers. The current anti-Muslim feeling in India has its roots in history, not in scripture. It is therefore easier to remove this feeling — if only Indians show a willingness to look at the present and the future, and stop living in the past.
Internal and External Enemies
All religions have nasty teachings in their scriptures in addition to anything that may be good in them.
The main difference between Hinduism and either Christianity or Islam is that Hinduism is a very old religion. So when the majority of Hindu holy books were written, there were no competing religions in the same geography. The only exception seems to be Zoroastrianism, because their holy book, the Avesta, talks about the “devas” as antagonists and even specifically names Indra and Sarva (Rudra). Likewise, the Vedic “Asura,” or demon, is considered to be an equivalence of the Avestan “Ahura” – the Zoroastrian God is Ahura Mazda.
But in the subcontinental mass of India, there really was no competition to the Vedic religion except ancient Dravidian gods, and all these deities seem to have been assimilated into “Hinduism” and their followers made “Hindu” in the course of time. By the time Islam and Christianity came to India, the majority of Hindu texts had already been cast in stone for centuries, although you can find exceptions like the Bhavishya Purana which makes references to Queen Victoria's London.
The more recent hatred of Muslims in Hindu-dominated India, which is a standard feature of Hindu social behavior in the middle and upper-middle classes today, does not come from scripture, but from a desire for vengeance against centuries of Muslim rule and oppression in the distant past.
But what Hinduism lacked in external enemies to hate and discriminate against in its scripture, it made up for by hating internal enemies. Thus, Hinduism invented the caste system, which discriminated against the lower caste Shudras and the still lower outcasts, today called Dalits. That Hindus of the past were exceptionally creative can be seen from the fact that no other civilization in the world was able to create such an ingeniously evil system to control people in perpetuity as the caste system of the Hindus.
Islam and Christianity both came up in the backdrop of an already existing and dominant religion, Judaism. The Old Testament is taken from the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, the holy book of the Jews. It contains as explicit an intolerance as one will ever see in a religious book. The God of the Jews does not hesitate to kill or brutally punish those who do not believe in Him. To help His favorites, the Israelites, He kills the firstborn of every family in Egypt. And no mention of intolerance in the Old Testament would be complete without citing the First and Second Commandments:
I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
And we should also point out that the seed of religious intolerance was certainly laid by the Old Testament when God says in Deuteronomy, 12:3:
And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.
Christianity and Islam both took inspiration from this directive.
It is pertinent to point out that all three religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, share the Old Testament. Therefore, Christianity had to fight for adherents with Judaism to convert Jews and prove that Christianity was the superior religion. The hatred of Christians for the Jews also comes from the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew who claimed something that was considered heretical to Jews — that he, Jesus, was the son of God — and so was crucified by the other Jews for his heresy.
Christianity accepts the Old Testament, but adds a new Testament based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Christianity claims that only those who believe in Jesus as the son of God will be saved in the afterlife. Therefore, to “save” others' souls, Christians regularly used to convert people at the point of a sword and kill those who refused. Both the Old Testament of the Jews and the New Testament of Jesus contain plenty of highly intolerant verses. For instance, in the Gospel according to Matthew (12:30), we read that
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
And in the Gospel according to Mark (16:16), we read that
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Again, in the Gospel according to John (3:36), we read that
He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.
One can see the effect of verses like these on a true believer. If, for example, one believes that “whoever is not with me is against me,” then which true Christian would allow anti-Christian forces to live? They must convert to Christianity or die. A verse like John 3:36 is almost an inducement to kill:
He that believeth not the Son shall not see life.
The practical realization of this intolerance probably reached its zenith with the establishment of the Inquisition by the Catholic Church.
Fortunately, in the last five hundred years, Christians have become civilized and tolerant. They no longer try to convert people by force, and do not act on all the intolerant passages in their Bible. Most modern western Christian states have accepted religious tolerance and the separation of Church and State as foundational principles.
Christian states are becoming more and more tolerant with time. While blasphemy is still actually a crime on the books of many Christian-majority countries, not many have actually been charged with the crime, and many countries have actually removed these obsolete laws recently — for instance Australia (at the Federal level, 1995), Canada (2018), Denmark (2017), the Netherlands (2014), Malta (2016), New Zealand (2019), and Norway (2015).
Islam came 600 years after Christianity, and therefore it had to compete against both Judaism and Christianity for followers. Therefore, as Judaism and Christianity before it had done, Islam also asserted that “its” God was the only true God:
Ya ilaha il-Allah, Mohammadur rasoolullah
There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
This is the shahada, or testimony, that every Muslim is required to accept. Like Christianity before it, Islam’s scriptures have plenty of intolerance towards those who do not accept the God of Muhammad, including outright murder. As an example, Surah al-Anfal, 8:12 and 8:13, say:
Remember, O Prophet, when your Lord revealed to the angels, “I am with you. So make the believers stand firm. I will cast horror into the hearts of the disbelievers. So strike their necks and strike their fingertips.”
This is because they defied Allah and His Messenger. And whoever defies Allah and His Messenger, then know that Allah is surely severe in punishment.
But, unlike Christianity, Islam has never gone through a phase of separating Church from State. This is because Islam is not just a way of praying to God or conceptualizing the creation of the Universe. Islam is also a way of life. Muslims considers two things to be sacred to them: the Quran, which they consider the direct, revealed word of God to the Prophet Muhammad, and the Hadith, which are recorded testimonies of Muhammad during his lifetime. The Quran is considered to be absolute and unchallenged; the Hadith is sacred but subject to interpretation. The distinction is something like the Hindu distinction between shruti (directly revealed wisdom from God) and smriti (that which is remembered). The Hadith is the reason why there are many schools of Islam. Based on the Quran and the Hadith, Muslims have a “divine law,” or Sharia, that encompasses every aspect of a person’s life. The Sharia covers what kind of clothes people should wear (hence the hijab and burka); how people should deal in finances, contracts, agriculture, witnesses, marriage, and divorce; permissible food and drink; inheritance, medicines, and apostasy; to name just a few.
A true Muslim must follow the Sharia. This is what makes it almost impossible to achieve separation of Church and State in Islamic-majority countries. Many laws of the Sharia are incompatible with modern views of justice. For example, the punishment for stealing in the Sharia is cutting off the criminal’s hands, and for adultery it is stoning the adulterers to death. The penalty for apostasy (leaving the faith) and blasphemy (disrespecting the faith) in the Sharia is death, and indeed there are a few Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei which actually enforce the death penalty for blasphemy.
Because Islamic law covers the sacred as well as the profane, it is impossible to be a devout Muslim and also achieve official separation of Church and State. So what has happened with Christianity over the past 500 years seems almost impossible in Islam. This makes the eradication of religious intolerance very difficult.
This does not mean that all Muslim-majority states, or all Muslims, are intolerant. Indonesia is an example of a state with more than 200 million people, with more than 86% Muslims, that is quite tolerant. In fact, the Hindu epic Ramayana is one of the national epics of Indonesia. And yet, one could go to jail in Indonesia for 5 years for “deliberately, in public, expressing feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt against religions with the purpose of preventing others from adhering to any religion,” or “disgracing a religion.”
So Islam has a problem with tolerance. That explains why, despite the large number of peaceful Muslims, we find, once in a while, somebody who cannot handle criticism or mocking of Islam, and responds violently, as happened with the Chechen Muslim who killed Samuel Paty, the French teacher, for discussing cartoons disrespectful of the Prophet. Such violence has to be punished with utmost severity, and nobody should justify such violence.
Hindus are not handicapped by their religion in this aspect. Hindu holy texts have nothing about Muslims or Christians, mainly because Hindu texts were written so long ago that there were no Muslims or Christians then. So there are no words in any sacred texts telling Hindus to go and kill “disbelievers,” as the Quran does.
So why do Hindus commit hate crimes against Muslims in India? Clearly, there is no religious sanction for this violence. This violence has its roots in Indian history. Hindus kill Muslims and try to disenfranchise them because of the treatment Hindus received at the hands of Muslim emperors such as Aurangzeb, 400 years ago, and earlier. There is no reason why Hindus must kill Muslims in revenge for actions done 400 years ago, at least if religious scripture were to be the guide.
In other words, a Hindu is, unlike a Muslim who kills for religious reasons in accordance with his holy book, not killing for scriptural reasons. He or she is killing to fulfil a vendetta.
And so it is easier to stop this.
And this is exactly what the founding fathers of India, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Ambedkar, tried to do. They created a secular country that would be governed by the rule of secular, not religious law. They thought that since Hindu holy books did not teach hate against any religion, they could start with a clean slate and create a secular republic. That with Hinduism as the dominant religion, it is possible to achieve a separation of Church and State.
Of course, the Hindu holy books did actively talk about discriminating against the Shudras and Dalits, and also discriminated against women, and so the Constitution was written to safeguard the separation of Church and State and offer explicit protections for women and lower castes.
For about 40 years after Independence, this secular system worked quite well. Then, beginning in the late 1980s, Hindus started imitating the intolerance of Islam and Christian scripture, with the Rath Yatras of LK Advani, calling for the demolition of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. This movement had its culmination in November 2019, when the Supreme Court of India awarded the land on which the mosque had stood (it had been demolished by Hindu right-wing thugs in 1992) to Hindus to build a temple instead.
Hindus have also started converting people of other faiths to Hinduism. Such conversion does not exist in Hindu scriptures because, again, when these texts were written, there were no other religions. You had to be born Hindu to be a Hindu. There was no other way.
And finally, Hindus have been demanding for some time that the Indian Constitution should be changed from its current description of India as a secular country to that of a Hindu republic. This looks increasingly likely to happen.
Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions that have religious intolerance built into them in their very scriptures.
Christian-majority countries have gradually been becoming more and more liberal in the last 500 years, and not taking the intolerance in their scripture as literally as they used to.
Muslim-majority countries have not, in general, been able to rid themselves of the intolerance that flows from their religion, because their social law is so closely tied to their religious texts. This makes it difficult for a Muslim-majority state to be secular.
Hindus in India have a choice to make. They can imitate Muslim-majority countries and tie their laws closer to religion, or they can follow the example of Christian-majority countries and become more and more liberal.
In this context, it is important to remind ourselves that Hinduism has no religious discrimination written into its scriptures, but has been developing a social religious intolerance for the past 30 years, which appears to be peaking now. The roots of this intolerance are not religious; they are historical.
And because these roots are historical, it is easier to uproot this intolerance, because this intolerance is not the word of God. The reason this intolerance continues in India is that many Hindus continue to live in the past instead of living in the present and looking at the future. It is my hope that some day, the Hindus of India will stop living in the past and start living harmoniously in the present, with a view to a bright future.
All it requires is the will of humans - not the sanction of God.
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