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    Default Pluralism and universalism within hinduism (by david frawley)!

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    {The 10th Rev. Dr. Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture by Dr David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)
    on 24 March 2012 in Bangalore organized by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD)}

    Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma

    Hinduism has always traditionally referred to itself as Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Dharma. Sanatana implies however not simply eternality but perpetual renewal and by implication universality. As such, Hinduism encompasses many different sects or sampradayas, both ancient and modern, and allows for a great diversity of spiritual practices and philosophies – almost bewilderingly so to the non-Hindu, and probably more so than any other religion in the world today.

    Yet Hinduism is also a way of spiritual knowledge and Self-realization, which we find embodied in the many Vedantic and Yogic philosophies and practices. It is not simply a religious belief or a church, but encompasses also mysticism, philosophy, art, science and the occult. It has an extensive literature and teachings in all these areas, often of enormous proportions, going back many centuries.

    However, even the term Hinduism, which does not itself imply universalism but rather a local culture, actually arose because of this older universal view of Sanatana Dharma. Followers of Sanatana Dharma did not need to define themselves relative to another religious group, as they did not see religion and spirituality as something divisive, which needed to be placed in competing camps. The result was that they were given a limited identity from the outside.

    Followers of Sanatana Dharma and its various sampradayas ended up being defined as Hindus by other groups that usually did not share the same universal view, and whose priority was to convert Hindus to their own beliefs. Hindus became identified by what they were not, which was not a member of certain other religions, rather than what they were. Hindu teachings were also denigrated accordingly and the deeper philosophies of Hinduism were often ignored, especially their universal relevance. For conversion purposes it was easier to define Hinduism in a limited way as a local phenomenon only. Yet the universality of Hindu teachings continued, though few outside of India understood this until recent years.

    This background universalism of Sanatana Dharma affords Hinduism a synthetic tendency, an ability to incorporate within itself a diversity of views and approaches, including at times those from groups outside of Hinduism or even opposed to Hinduism. Because of this syncretic view, sometimes Hinduism is equated with a blind universalism that accepts without discrimination anything that calls itself religious or spiritual, as if differences of spiritual teachings did not matter in any way.

    While this may be true of some Hindus, the Hindu tradition also contains a lively tradition of free debate on all aspects of theology, philosophy and metaphysics, showing differences as well as similarities, and not simply equating all teachings as they are. A good example of this is the debates between the dualistic and non-dualistic schools of Vedantic philosophy, but many other examples exist as well. The different sects within Hinduism have always been free to disagree, though each sect has its particular guidelines and there is an overall respect for Dharma.

    Pluralism and Hinduism

    Universalism implies pluralism, a diversity of views, not mere uniformity or one view or belief for all. We live a in a vast and diverse world with considerable variations in individuals, communities, cultures, and climates. We have local variations in food, clothes and seasonal activities. There is no one size to fit all, to use a modern phrase. The same is true in terms of religion and spirituality. Religion in the world is a highly diverse phenomenon with a wide variety of views and practices that are at times in variance with each other. Religion is as diverse as any other aspect of human life. That diversity has been a point of conflict but can be a point of enrichment as well.

    What makes a culture great is a rich diversity of deep thought and free creativity, which is not anarchy, but embracing the entire human potential to transcend, whether through religion, art, science, mysticism or other disciplines. This allows each individual to find his or her path that will likely have some uniqueness about it, which will be based upon inner discovery, not upon outer dictates alone.

    The modern world is based upon pluralism at a social and political level, at least in theory, as well as pluralism in culture, art and science. However, while the western world embraces pluralism at an outer level, it generally lacks the same pluralism at an inner level of spiritual practices, though this is beginning to change as eastern teachings are becoming more commonly accepted in the western world. A Hindu type spiritual pluralism seems an appropriate spiritual counterpart to western cultural pluralism. Pluralism has its value both in science and spirituality.

    The unity of the universe is like the gigantic banyan tree with numerous leaves, branches, aerial and ground based roots. Sometimes that deeper unity is hard to find, missing the forest for the trees as it were. It can be easier to try to impose an artificial unity on the diversity of life, which is what the human intellect and emotions are inclined to do, than it is to accept all of life’s differences, but such an artificial unity eventually breeds division and conflict, and must eventually break down.

    We see Hindu pluralism is the great variety of Hindu groups, sects or sampradayas on one level and in the great variety of Hindu teachings and culture that includes the many paths of Yoga, the different philosophies and schools of Vedanta, Ayurvedic medicine, the Vedic Sciences, Hindu music and dance, and the great Sanskrit language.

    This diffuse, inclusive and universal nature of Hinduism can be different than the more singularistic orientation of Abrahamic religions, though it is a view generally shared by pagan traditions. It has caused some followers of Abrahamic religions to view Hinduism not as a religion, which to them implies One God, One Book and One savior or prophet, but as a collection of cults with little in common, much as the early Christians viewed the pagan world around them.

    Yet what may be regarded by outsiders as Hindu polytheism, much like pagan polytheism, is not a belief in separate and warring Gods but a form of pluralism, with a background recognition of One Divinity, truth or reality, Ishvara, Atman or Brahman. One is reminded of the pagan Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle from whom much of the classical theology and philosophy of western religions derives, who had a clear conception of Deity and the Absolute even before the Christian era. The ancient Egyptians similarly recognized the Sun as the supreme deity behind all other deities, not as a mere outer light but as a symbol of the light of awareness. The Native Americans had their recognition of the Great Spirit long before the Europeans came to convert them, and it was they who held to their word and honored all treaties that the white man broke.

    The ancient Hindus back to the Vedas have a recognition of the One Reality that became embodied in the great Vedantic philosophies of the Absolute and non-dual Brahman. This was not a different trend than their recognition of many deities or Devatas but an extension of that same regard for the sacred presence that resides in all things. The same views and practices exist in Hinduism today.

    Yet once we recognize the universality of truth and spirituality, we must also recognize that there is no separate religious identity by birth. No one is born into one particular religion or another or has a religious identity stamped upon him or her in the womb. Religions are given to individuals by their families and cultures, sometimes as a blessing, but sometimes merely imposed upon them in an artificial manner.

    We all inherently belong to the one religion that is the basis of all life. There are certain natural religious tendencies in all human beings: capacities for devotion, service or meditation, for example, which different religions adapt or mold according to their own views, considerations or compulsions. The ultimate goal of religion is to know the Divine, which is to know one’s Self. This means that religious conversion is only an outer phenomenon and may be of no value at all. We are all inherently one with the Divine. Spirituality is a self-discovery, which is a shedding of outer attachments. This at least has been the Hindu approach through history, which has never embraced any aggressive form of conversion.

    A universal approach to religion should approximate this natural religion of humanity, with its efforts to relate to the sacred nature of all life and to discover the spiritual nature of one’s own being. Hinduism to a great extent has been able to do this and most great Hindu teachers continue to strive in that direction.

    Hinduism is very much a religion of nature. Hindus have innumerable holy places in nature, sacred mountains like Kailas, or sacred rivers like Ganga, whose sanctity rests upon their natural power, not upon human activity. We need to honor this natural religion beyond all socially defined religious beliefs, which is the religion of the greater conscious universe that is our inmost Self and divinity.

    If a particular religious teaching does not honor that universal spirituality, we should note, it can lose its ability to benefit our inner being or to unite humanity. Religion as competing beliefs and identities tends to remove us from our natural inclinations and can distort them. Hopefully their era is coming to an end and humanity can once more return to a universal sense of spirituality and the diversity of approaches that it can honor.
    ...being a human...



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