Why Lisa Miller should look at Vivekananda!

S Gurumurthy
First Published : 23 Aug 2009 10:15:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 23 Aug 2009 10:26:23 AM IST

The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: `Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.’ A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal.” This is no monk of the Ramakrishna Mission discoursing on the spiritual teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who had experienced the truth of all three faiths -Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — as valid for their respective faithfuls. It is Lisa Miller, Society editor in Newsweek, in her column (August 15, 2009), “We Are All Hindus Now”. By “We” she means Americans.
Lisa Miller is highly concerned that Americans, while remaining true to their Christian faith otherwise, have begun to think and act like Hindu faithfuls. Here is an account of the interesting rendezvous between modern America and ancient Hinduism and its potential for global religious harmony .
From melting pot to WASP The choice of “We” for Americans by Lisa Miller is intentional. It is calculated to reinstate an attempted debate in the US on “the challenges to America’s national identity” that had failed to take off. Samuel P Huntington, who had prognosticated the clash of faiths and civilisations in the 1990s, later wrote a book in 2002 titled Who Are We? — a question addressed to Americans. Huntington’s answer to the question was that the core American identity — `America’s Creed’ as he puts it — was WASP, that is, White (in race) Anglo-Saxon (in ethnicity) and Protestant (in faith). All other identities, Huntington says, are subordinate. But, unlike his earlier work on clash of civilisations that had set off a furious debate within and outside the US, his theory on WASP as American identity did not.
Now, some history. For over two centuries, the American identity was based on the metaphor of `the melting pot’ where all identities eventually, inevitably melt to become the unique American porridge. The theory of `the melting pot’ is traced back to 1782 when a French settler in New York, J Hector de Crevecoeur, envisioned the US as not merely a land of opportunity but as a society where individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men whose labours and posterity will one day cause change in the world.
But, the metaphor of the `melting pot’ received a jolt after Islamist terror struck at the US from within. The US identity was alternately seen as a `bowl of salads’, where all identities remain, but in the same bowl, that is, the US. But “where is the dressing to cover it all?,” asked the dissenters of the `Salad Bowl’. The result was Huntington’s WASP as the core American identity; but that failed to click.
Now in her article, Lisa Miller seemingly answers Huntington’s titular question “who are we” derisively, yet provocatively. She says `we are `Hindu’ — that means, not WASP! Her conclusion “let us all chant OM”; the emphasis on `us’ can even incite.
The crisis of national identity in the US is evident in the article. Lisa Miller is no novice in matters of faith; she is a specialist. She writes a weekly column “Belief Watch” in Newsweek. Says her bio, `she reports, writes and edits stories on spirituality and belief; she wrote The Politics of Jesus, a cover story in Newsweek (March 10, 2006) on the impact of religion in the midterm elections in the US.’ See why she fears that the US might get Hinduised.
Hinduised America?
After describing how Hindus accept all Gods and all forms of worship as valid, Lisa Miller says: “The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like” the Hindus do.
“They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false; Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” Shortly, what Lisa Miller says about the two faiths is this: Christianity regards all non-Christian faiths as false, but Hinduism recognises all faiths as valid, as valid as the Hindu creed itself. But, she does not stop at this comparison. She laments that most Christians in the US are beginning to think and believe the way the Hindus do. She says: “recent poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.”
Lisa Miller goes on to show how Americans are deviating from the fundamentals of Christianity.
“Americans”, she says, “are no longer buying” the view that Christianity is the only true religion and all other religions are false. She cites a 2008 Pew Forum Survey and says that 65 per cent of “us” believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life”. This includes 37 per cent evangelicals — “the section”, Lisa Miller points out, “most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone”. She adds. For the Hindus who believe in rebirth, the soul alone is sacred; for the Christians, who do not believe in rebirth, their body is as sacred as the soul; yet a third of the Americans, up from six per cent in 1975, cremate their dead like Hindus. Worse, a fourth of the Americans believe in rebirth, according to Harris 2008 poll, like Hindus. More. And some 30 per cent of the Americans, up from 20 in 2005, say “they are spiritual, not religious”; this marginalises the Church. She implies that these are just consequences of the American Christian distancing from the basic tenet of Christianity as the only true faith and all other faiths as false.
`Semitic’ propensity for conflict But, what is wrong if American Christians refuse to regard the other faiths as false? Is it not the right approach to accommodate other faiths in a world of diverse faiths? Two-thirds of Christians in America believe in Christianity and, at the same time, they do not view other faiths as false. She knows that those Americans, who do not hate the other faiths as false, still believe in Christianity.
But she does not seem to regard mere belief in Christianity Christian enough, unless the faith extends more to dismiss — that is hate — all other faiths as false. This view directly flows from belief that the sacred text of Christianity, which proclaims it as the only true faith and others false, is inerrant. This is what has come to be known as fundamentalism. Lisa Miller’s view clearly seems fundamentalist. This leads to how this fundamental tenet has been the very source of intolerance.
The Encyclopaedia of Britannica, compiled mostly by Christian intellectuals, says that in the very view that Christianity is the only true faith and other faiths are false inheres intolerance. It says, “Christianity, from its beginning, tended toward an intolerance that was rooted in its religious self-consciousness. Christianity understands itself as revelation of the divine truth that became man in Jesus Christ himself….To be a Christian is to `follow the truth’ (III John); …He who does not acknowledge the truth is an enemy “of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18); he “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom 1:25) and made himself advocate and confederate of the “adversary, the devil” (I Pet 5:8). Thus one cannot make a deal with the devil and his party — and in this lies the basis for the intolerance of Christianity (15Ed. Vol4. Pp.49192). That is, recognising other faiths as valid amounts to making “a deal with the devil”. The fundamental command to regard other faiths as false, which is what, in Lisa Miller’s view, makes one a true Christian, has the propensity and potential for conflicts; it has actually led to violent conflicts in history. This propensity and potential is shared by the three monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Islam and Christianity. That is why the Fundamentalism Project of Chicago University found that the “traits of fundamentalism are more accurately attributed to” sacred text-based Abrahamic faiths — read the monotheistic ones — “than to their cousins” in the East, namely Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Confucianism (Fundamentalisms Observed, University of Chicago, p820). This brings the discourse closer to India.
Hinduised Christianity?
While Lisa Miller complains about Hinduisation of the (`Semitic’) Christianity in the US, the secular intellectuals object to semitisation of Hinduism in India! The seculars who complain about semitisation dare not name any faith as `Semitic’, even though, by `Semitic’, they can mean only the Abrahamic. Scholars like Sitaram Goel and Konrad Elst say that the label `Semitic’ is “hopelessly inaccurate” for the Abrahamic faiths besides sounding anti-`Semitic’ to the Western ears. Yet the Indian seculars insist on the word `Semitic’ for the Abrahamic faiths. Keeping aside the label issue, move on to the core of the debate and its history. Dr Karan Singh first characterised the rise of Hindutva in 1990s as semitisation of Hinduism; later, the secular intellectuals appropriated the label! The Ayodhya movement, which gave birth to the ideology of Hindutva, had challenged the views of Indian seculars who had, for decades, derided Hinduism as “illiberal” and “inequitable” and successfully de-legitimised Hinduism in the Indian public domain. But, the rise of Hindutva in 1990s made it tough for them to continue their anti-Hindu line; so they not only U-turned, but also fell in love with Hinduism and, more, certified it as “liberal”! They went on to distinguish the “liberal” Hinduism from the “illiberal” and “semitisised” Hindutva; they castigated Hindutva for importing `Semitic’ features into the liberal, tolerant Hinduism. But, surprisingly, in the entire debate, the seculars would not name the “illiberal” and “intolerant” `Semitic’ faiths — read the Abrahamic faiths — nor say what objectionable features of theirs Hindutva imports into Hinduism! Here the secular scholars in India have been less than open and honest, while Lisa Miller has been brutally explicit and honest. She says that Hinduism is polluting the American Christian beliefs.
Lisa Miller’s logic seems to be: what is the Christianity left of Christianity if Christians do not believe it to be the only true faith and see other faiths as false. In Lisa Miller’s view, while Hinduism accepts all faiths as valid as itself, a true Christian has to believe that only his faith is true and that even Hinduism, which accepts other faiths, is a false faith. But the secular scholars in India have no guts to say about the `Semitic’ faiths what Lisa Miller says about the Hindu faith.
The need to de-semitisise The charge of semitisisation of Hinduism by the seculars is political, not theological. The real issue is the need for de-semitisising the `Semitic’ — that is Abrahamic — faiths. Beginning with Swami Vivekananda’s expositions on inter-religious harmony the discourse of the Hindu school has been a continuous plea for `de-semitisising’ the `Semitic’ faiths. Vivekananda even wanted India to be “junction of Vedanta brain and Islamic body”; that is India, with Hindus and Muslims, should have a body, organised and united like the Muslims, and a mind liberated by Vedanta — namely a society organised on Vedanta as the core thought. That is, organised Hindus and de-semitisised Muslims! His was a call for the de-semitisisation of all `Semitic’ faiths; mention of Islam was just the context. The `de-semitisisation’, which Vivekananda had pleaded for, seems to have started in Christianity in US with American Christians beginning to accept, like Hindus do, the other faiths too as valid. Yet, despite that being a welcome development, Lisa Miller is clearly frightened of the de-semitisation process.
But unless the `Semitic’ faiths `de-semitisise’, they will not be able to contain their inherent propensity for conflict. When a faith says that the other faiths are false, as in Lisa Miller’s view Christianity does, it is an invitation for conflict with other religions. In contrast, if each religion accepts that other religions are as true, will that not put an end to clash between religions? This is conflict avoidance. This has been the very fundamental of Hindu approach to other faiths. A religion — read Hinduism — which believes that all religions are as valid as itself, has no potential for conflict with other religions. And a religion — read a `Semitic’ faith — which believes that its faith and God alone, are true and all other religions as false, has all propensity for conflict with other religions.
Once a faith is declared to be false, does it not become an object of hate? How then can religious harmony be achieved if some religions declare other religions to be false?
This is where opinion-makers like Lisa Miller need to rethink. What she sees as the USP of Christianity — namely Christians believing in their faith as the true faith and other faiths as false -has the propensity and potential to dynamite global religious harmony; more so because Christianity is the largest faith in the world. Her logic equally applies to what Islam also believes in, namely that Islam alone is true and all others including Christianity false. And that is what inspired the terrorists to attack the US on 9/11. If Christians are mandated by their Text to think that theirs is the only true faith and others as false, Islamists too are mandated by their Text to think likewise.
Where will the two conflicting and explosive mandates against all other faiths lead the world? Here is where the Hindu view that all religions are true is not only relevant, but seems to be the only way out of the dangers of religious fanaticism. The Hindu faith itself is different from the Hindu view of other faiths. By saying that each faith is sacred for its followers, a Hindu does not cease to be a Hindu. Likewise if a Muslims or Christians say that all faiths are as valid as theirs, they are no less Muslims or Christians. They remain Christians or Muslims and accept others faith as valid; they only become less sectarian.
It needs no seer to say that the features of `Semitic’ faiths, which tend to promote conflict with other faiths, need to be given up — that is, the `Semitic’ faiths need to be de-semitisised. That is the only way out of the current drift towards religious and civilisational clashes. This is what Swami Vivekananda had warned the world, particularly the West, on September 11, 1893, exactly 108 years to the date of the religious terror strike at the US on September 11, 2001. The young Indian monk, who was just 30 then, pleaded before the august audience of religious elders of the world against “sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism” which, he pointed out, “have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair.” How far-sighted a warning?
Yet, Lisa Miller seems to lament, instead of celebrating, the decline of bigotry and sectarianism in her faith. And the Indian seculars are still impeding, instead of enabling, the emergence of the non-conflicting Hindu thought as the global mediator between different faiths. Will Lisa Miller look at Vivekananda? Will our seculars and leftists heed him?
From THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS 23, August 2009

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