Indian Democracy, Dissent and Pluralism

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Indian Democracy, Dissent and Pluralism

Dr. Madan Lal Goel

(Professor Goel, University of West Florida, lectures on topics related to India, comparative religion and international conflict. See: )
India has a long history of dialogue, debate, dissent and pluralism.
The success of democracy in India is frequently attributed to the British influence. The British influence is there. But the British parliamentary institutions succeeded in India because of the receptive soil. Several dozen countries experienced British imperial rule. It is rightly claimed that the sun never set on the British Empire. Yet, democracy has found a solid footing in only a few of the former British colonies, among the few being India. Few countries in Afro-Asia match India’s record of maintaining free institutions.

I am well aware of the many problems that beset the functioning of Indian democracy: criminalization of politics, corruption at the highest levels of government, breakdown of law and order, unstable multi-party governments, and division of the electorate along religious, regional and caste lines fomented by ill-principled political parties. Despite recent economic performance, pollution is rampant, city streets are littered, and a large section of the population grinds in poverty.

I argue in this essay that democratic institutions are reasonably well established in India. Free and competitive elections leading to peaceful change in government have been held with regular frequency, military has stayed out of politics, the judiciary (although under great strain) is free and often assertive, the press is un-trampled and civil liberties exist.

The success of democracy in India owes not only to the British impact but also much to the Indian tradition of debate. This essay describes the ignored Indian tradition of debate. The term debate is used here as a short label for freedom: the freedom to disagree and dissent, the freedom of speech, the freedom of religious views, and other freedoms that go along with these, without fear of being persecuted.

The history of debate and skepticism can be traced to the earliest scripture in India, the Vedas. The creation hymn in the Rig Veda (10:129) asks: “whence it all came; how creation happened?” The answer provided in the scripture is not dogmatic or closed-ended but tentative. Note especially the last stanza in boldface.
At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.

All this was only un-illumined water.

That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.

In the beginning desire descended on it—

that was the primal seed, born of the mind.

: The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom

know that which is is kin to that which is not. . . . . . .

But, after all, who knows, and who can say

whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

so who knows truly whence it has arisen? Whence all creation had its origin,

He, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,

he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,

he knows—or maybe even he does not know.

(Rig Veda 10:129, A. L. Basham, The Wonder That was India)

The Bhagavad Gita, the premier Hindu scripture, is a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. It is not a monologue, a sermon or a speech. Arjuna questions the wisdom of engaging in war that will surely destroy his side (the Pandavas) as well as his enemy cousins (the Kauravas). Krishna’s point of view prevails in the sense that Arjuna joins the battle after initial doubt. The resulting wholesale destruction of the two sides-- the Pandavas and the Kauravas-- gives credence to Arjuna’s argument about the horrible consequences war.
Several of the Upanishads, part of the Hindu scripture, are a record of debates among religious leaders. For example, the Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad is a long dialogue between sage Yagnavalkya and an assembly of pundits. More on this later.
Adi Shankaracharya, born in 788, is the foremost exponent of the Hindu vedantic philosophy. He preached advaita, non-dualism. The world is not separate from God. God is manifested in each and every particle in the universe. Shankaracharya traveled the length and breadth of India debating Buddhists and Jains. He helped found many Hindu teaching centers. Through his argument, not through armed struggle, did he win India for Hinduism. Ancient India has no history of large scale religious violence where opponents were put to the sword.
Then there is the famous argument made by one of the ministers named Javali in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Prince Rama is ordered to spend 14 years in wilderness by the reigning monarch Dasarath, acting under the influence of his queen Kaikeyi. Javali seeks to persuade Rama to take the throne of Ayodhya, forsaking empty arguments about dharma and filial obligation.
Come and be crowned in the prosperous city of Ayodhya, thy locks unbound; the Capital awaits thee. Come and taste the royal luxuries worthy of thee, O Mighty Prince.
I pity those who give themselves up especially to that which is meritorious, disregarding their own interest;
Pious men say, the 8th day should be given up to sacrifices for the spirits of our ancestors. The food that is offered is wasted. Can the dead eat? If that which is eaten here could enter the body of another, then let a sacrifice be offered for those who are setting out on a distant journey and they will not need any provisions!
The Shastras (holy books) were all written by leaned men for the sake of inducing others to give in charity. Their doctrine is “distribute gifts, perform yagnas, give away your wealth; renounce the world.”
O Sagacious Prince, there is no world but this; let this thought be absorbed by thee. Concern yourself with what is evident and turn thy back on what is beyond our knowledge. Take the crown.

--The Ramayana of Valmiki, Translated by Hari Prasad Shastri, Ch 108, paraphrased.

Contemporary India has an impressive record in electing women to the highest levels. Mrs. Indira Gandhi was elected as the Prime Minister in 1967 and held that powerful office for 14 years. Presently, Sonya Gandhi (Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law) is the leader of the ruling Congress party. At the mass level male-female differences are vast and continue to persist. In history, however, women are not absent from the Hindu tradition of debate. Three examples from ancient texts illustrate the point.
In the Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad cited earlier, a female sage named Gargi debates with the much esteemed Rishi (seer) Yagnavalkya. Gargi questions Yagnavalkya about the nature of Brahman, the nature of the Self and the relation between the two. Note her opening combative words.
O Yagnavalkya, as the son of a warrior from Kasi or Videha might string his loosened bow and with two deadly arrows in his hand rise to give battle, even so have I risen to fight thee with two questions. Answer my questions.

--The Upanishads, Tr by Swami Prabhavananda, 1947.

Gargi holds her peace only after her questions have been answered.
In the popular epic Ramayana, Sita, the very personification of sacrifice and wifely duties, insists on accompanying her husband to the forest for 14 years. Given the terrible life that awaits them in the wilderness, Rama opposes the idea. But Rama’s arguments have little impact on Sita. She upbraids her husband. Using strong language, she calls Rama “a woman with the body of a man,” “a procurer,” a pimp, for considering to abandon her while he goes away to the forest for 14 years.
What could my father, the Lord of Mithila, have had in mind when he took you for son-in-law, Rama, a woman with the body of a man?
On what grounds are you so reluctant; what are you afraid of that you are ready to desert me?
But like a procurer, Rama, you are willing of your own accord to hand me over to others—your wife, who came to you a virgin and who has been a good woman all the long while she has lived with you.
--The Ramayana of Valmiki, Tr by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland and others, Princeton University Press, “Ayodhyakand”, 27: 3, 5, 8.
In the Mahabharata epic, Draupadi is lost by her husband Yudhisthira in a gambling match of dice. He lost her in a wager after he had lost himself. Draupadi is dragged to the court by the winning party, the Kauravas. For the insult meted to her, she attacks the silence of the barons gathered at the court including the revered elder statesman Bhisma. She argues that her husband could not have lost her after he had lost his own person in the game. She poses this question.
In this great assembly, I see great people, the elders of the great House of the Kurus, reputed for the dharma, righteous conduct. Here I have been humiliated and dragged to the court by evil men, pulling at my hair. Yet, you all are silent. My husbands are powerless to intervene. Where has dharma fled?
I ask you this question: did my husband Yudhisthira lose me before or after he lost himself in the wager. If he lost himself first, he was not a free man and he had no right to wager me.
The elder statesman Bhisma replied “I am indeed at a loss to give a proper answer to your question. A man cannot gamble something after he has lost his own person in a wager. According to this principle, Yudhisthira had no right to place you as a bet after he had wagered his own person and lost. But then there is this to consider. A man has right over his wife whether he is free or not. Accordingly, I cannot say definitely whether you are a free person or not.

--Mahabharata, narrated by Kamala Subramaniam, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001, Ch 13, paraphrased.

India is known for social inequalities and the caste system. These inequalities persist. However, lower caste groups are not absent from the Hindu tradition of debate. During the Bhakti movement (15th to 17th century), many saint poets belonged to one of the lower castes. Kabir, Surdas and Ravidas in North India are good examples. For example, Kabir was a weaver by caste, Ravidas a cobbler. South India also has a noteworthy tradition of lower caste spiritual teachers.
Ashoka and Akbar
Emperor Ashoka ruled in India in the 3rd century B. C. He did much to spread Buddhism in India and beyond. He encouraged debate to resolve differences among the several orders of Buddhist monks. Three Buddhist councils were held during his reign to debate issues and resolve differences. The largest assembly was organized under Ashoka in 3rd century B.C. For purposes of conducting orderly debates, Ashoka codified debating rules, much like the present Robert’s Rules of Order. See Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian, 2005.
The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1550s) held debates at his court among scholars representing different religious traditions. The assembly included not only the dominant Indian religions of Hinduism and Islam but also Jews, Jesuit Missionaries, and Zoroastrians. Emperor Akbar’s tolerant attitude toward different religions is legendary. He broke away from Muslim orthodoxy.
Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian cites a remark made by a Muslim clergy to the effect that Emperor Akbar was a “good Muslim”. Dr. Sen suggests that Islam was the source for Akbar’s pluralistic religious philosophy. Such is not the case. Akbar had given up on Islam. Akbar adopted many un-Islamic rules of conduct, such as bowing to the sun, wearing at various times the Tilak (a religious symbol) on his forehead and a sacred thread on his wrist (rakhi). The Islamic clergy did not give him a Muslim burial upon his death. Akbar was born a Muslim but he did not die a Muslim. Akbar was of the view that Islam was a spent force and that it would decline in the year 1,000 of the Islamic calendar, i.e. in the 17th century. In this assessment, Akbar was precocious. Islam did decline and lost its luster in the 17th century. Maharaja Shivaji defeated Mughal generals in 1660s. Muslims lost at Vienna in 1683, turning the tide against Islamic imperialism in the 17th C.
--See accounts of Akbar’s religious views and practices recorded by Abdal Badauni, who lived and wrote at the great emperor’s court. History of India: The Mohammedan Period as Described by its Own Historians, Vol. V, Ed by A. V. Williams Jackson, 1907.
Secularism is rightly praised as a Western practice after it became state policy following the age of rationalism in the 16th century. Secularism, incorporated in the Indian Constitution in 1950, has a solid Indian tradition going back at least two millennia. Different philosophical doctrines have always existed side by side in India. India’s motto through history has been: Let hundred flowers bloom; let hundred ideas contend.
“Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti”—Truth is one; the sages call it by various names. Rig Veda
Ancient India was the home to three major religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Atheists and agnostics also existed in India. The Charvaka school and Lokayats represent the atheistic tradition. A smaller number of Christians, Parsees and Jews also found home in India from very ancient times. Christians date from the 4th century, perhaps even earlier. Jews entered India in the first century after the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 A. D. and the Jews were scattered to the far corners of the earth. Parsees entered India in the 7th century after their homeland was overrun by the Muslims. A small number of Arab merchants settled in Cochin in Southern India in the 7th century. Later, Muslims entered India in waves with the invading armies in the middle ages.
Nathan Katz tells us that India is the only country where the Jews were not persecuted. This is a bold statement. In his book titled Who are the Jews of India? (University of California Press, 2000), Nathan Katz describes three Jewish communities in India. AThe Indian chapter is one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora.@ (p. 4). Both Christians and Jews have lived in a predominant Hindu India for centuries without being persecuted.
As mentioned, Zoroastrians or Parsees from Persia (present day Iran) entered India in the 7th century to flee Islamic conquest. The Parsees are an affluent community in the city of Bombay. Among the richest business families in India are the Tata family members who control a huge industrial empire in various parts of the country. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the powerful Prime Minister of India (1966-77; 1980-84), was married to Feroze Gandhi, a Parsee (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi).
Till the advent of Islam in India, religious violence was infrequent. Gautama Buddha lived to the ripe old age of 80. So did Mahavira, the founder of Jain religion. Both the Buddha and Mahavira were critics of the Brahmanical ritualistic system. These critics were not persecuted. They lived full lives. Contrast the situation with that in the Middle East. Jesus was crucified for his views. Muhammad had to flee to Medina to escape armed opposition. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains debated and argued with one another without resorting to arms. The weaker parties were not persecuted, nor their sacred books burned. Even atheists joined the debates.
Pluralism and tolerance of diversity is an abiding feature of the Indian tradition.
Polytheism is the idea that the Divine appears in many forms rather than in one God. At the heart of polytheism is the simple notion that different people have different religious needs and there are different methods of worship. Polytheism is open-minded and easy going. India has been called a polytheistic country where numerous Gods are worshiped.
The belief that there is one God to the exclusion of others is called monotheism. Monotheism has given rise to much violence.
Jews are said to have invented the notion of one true God. They may have borrowed these ideas during their captivity in Egypt. Even though the Jews enunciated the doctrine of one true God, they never denied that other people had their own Gods. Jews did not war against other tribes to impose their religion on them.
Christians borrowed the idea of one God from the Jews. The Christians were intolerant of those who did not accept the Christian God. The Pagans and heretics often met horrible ends. The 16th century Spanish and Portugese Inquisitions were the worst example of this blood letting. Islam outdid Christianity in unleashing ferocity in the name of religion. Monotheism has inspired a fanaticism and death that are largely absent from polytheism.
Hindus are not free of violence. In history, they have been the victims mostly. They have learnt to defend and retaliate. Hindu-Muslim civil war during partition of India in 1947 claimed close to one million lives. The dead included both Hindus and Muslims. More recently in 2002, some 2,000 Muslims were killed in the State of Gujarat at the hands of Hindu mobs, while the state police stood silent. India was ruled by Islamic kings for nearly 500 years, approximately from 1201 to 1707. Most were religiously intolerant. Some were outright tyrants. Emperor Akbar was an exception. Religious violence in India has its origin in this period.
Globally, the bloodiest acts of violence in the name of religion these days come from Islam. Jonathan Kirsch writes:
The men who hijacked and crashed four civilian airliners were inspired to sacrifice their own lives, and to take the lives of several thousand “infidels,” because they had embraced the simple but terrifying logic that lies at the heart of monotheism: if there is one god, if there is only one right way to worship that god, then there is only one fitting punishment for failing to do so—death.

--Jonathan Kirsch, God against the Gods: the History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, 2004. P. 2

Ram Swarup, an incisive thinker on religious issues, eloquently puts the matter this way:
In the spiritual realm there are two categories: God and your neighbor. And correspondingly there are two ways of looking at them: you could look at God through your neighbor or at the neighbor through your God. In the first approach, you will think that if your neighbor has the same needs and constitution and impulses as you have, then his God, in whatever way he is worshiped and by whatever name he is called, must mean the same to him as your God means to you. In short, if your neighbor is as good as you are, his God also must be as good as yours.
But if you look at your neighbor through your God, then it leads to an entirely different outlook. Then you say that if your God is good enough for you, it should be good enough for your neighbor too. And if your neighbor is not worshiping the same God in the same way, he must be worshiping Devil and qualifies for conversion or liquidation.
The first approach promotes tolerance, though it gives plurality of Gods and varieties of modes in worship. The other approach gives one God and one mode of worship, but breeds intolerance.@

- -Ram Swarup, The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods, Impex Publishers, 1980.

Hinduism and Other Earth-Based Traditions
Hinduism has much in common with other earth based traditions such as Native Americans, Taoists, Pythagoreans, Egyptians, Shintoists, and pre-Christian European Celts. It sees Divinity residing in Nature, in the hills, on the mountain tops, in the sacred rivers and in the vast ocean. As in other earth-based traditions, placers of pilgrimage are often on hill tops (Kedarnath, Badrinath), ocean fronts (Rameshwaram), forests (Vrindaban), and rivers (Ganges, Yamuna).
The native and earth-based traditions were obliterated under Christian and Islamic imperialism, including for example the European Celts, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Zoroastrians and the Native Americans. The Communists in China are now engaged in destroying Buddhism in Tibet.
Hinduism is distinguished by the fact that it survived extreme persecution from monotheistic ideologies.
The “New Thought” Movement
Hinduism is much maligned today arising from certain American academic quarters. Hindu Gods and Goddesses are portrayed as sex symbols and Hindu worship as nothing more than demonic.
See Invading the Sacred: an Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America, by Krishanan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee, New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 2007. Certain American scholars of Religion in South Asia (RISA) abuse Freudian theories to impart perverse sexual meanings to Hindu deities. Ganesha’s trunk becomes a displaced limp phallus. Shiva is depicted as a notorious womanizer. The revered saint Sri Ramakrishna is depicted as homo-erotic and abuser of boys. These interpretations find their way into American school textbooks, much to the shame of school-age Indian boys and girls.

Despite the trashing of Hinduism in the western academia, Hinduism is in resurgence today. Hindu spiritual teachings have a global reach. The New Thought churches in the United States (Unity, Unitarianism, Science of Mind, Practical Christianity, Temple of the Universe, Divine Science and others) derive a large part of their theology from Hinduism and Vedanta. Chanting and meditation are now commonly incorporated in their religious services. Robert Fuller, the author of Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (Oxford, 2001) estimates that between 10 to 20 percent of the American public subscribe to some portion of the new thought teachings.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are generally regarded as the founding figures of the so-called “New Thought” movement in the United States. They spearheaded the ‘TRANSCENDLIST’ movement in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of their ideas were derived from Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Emerson wrote:

In all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity. This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Gita, and the Vishnu Purana. . . .

I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavat-Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.@

AIn the morning I bathe my Intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.@

The Unity Church of Christianity is a New Thought church. It was founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in the 1880s. I am a member of the Unity Church of Christianity and attend its Sunday services. Each of the following Unity statements of truth recited at the Church services finds its source in Hindu teachings.

  1. God is absolute good, everywhere present.

  2. Every human being has a spark of divinity within, the Christ Spirit within. Our essence is of God, and therefore human beings are inherently good.

  3. As human beings we create our experiences by the activity of our thoughts. Everything that shows up in our lives has its beginning in thought.

  4. Prayer and meditation is the best way we can heighten our connection with God.

  5. Knowing and understanding Unity principles is not enough—we must also live the truth that we know.

The close association between Hindu spiritual teachings and the Unity principles is quite clear.

Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) is not a relic of the past. The Vedic teachings have relevance for modern age.
The Western nations today resemble Indian pluralistic society of ancient days. Many religious doctrines and viewpoints compete in the market place. The West has come a long way in matters of religious tolerance. Numerous mosques, temples and shrines are built in America. The Washington, D. C. area boasts a large and luxurious mosque. Some of the recently constructed Hindu temples in America are large and impressive. Many Americans subscribe to Eastern religions including Buddhism and Hinduism.
The American religious pluralism is evident from the following denominational breakdown.

Protestants denominations* 50 pct

Catholics 20 pct

New Thought Religions* * 10-20 pct

Jews 2 pct

Hindus 1 pct

Muslims 1-2 pct
*Protestants are divided among more than 20 denominations including Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterian, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Pentecostal, etc.
**New thought churches include, among others, Unity Church of Christianity, Unitarian-Universalist Church, Science of Mind, Divine Science, Practical Christianity, Self-Realization Fellowship, Center for Non-Dualism, and numerous yoga and meditation groups spread through out the U.S. The New Thought movement is a growing movement.
The US is also ethnically pluralistic, as is evident from the following breakdown by race and ethnicity.
Whites (English, German, French etc) 60 pct

Blacks 12 pct

Hispanics 15 pct

Asians (Chinese, Indians, Japanese) 4 pct

Jews 2 pct
A clash of civilizations exists in the globe. It is not a clash that pits every group against every other group. Radical Islam is on the attack. It poses the greatest challenge to civilized world.
The globe has shrunk and it is now a much smaller place. Thanks to the Internet and the mass media, people in distant lands are now our neighbors. We cannot have peace in this shrunk globe so long as we insist that we are in possession of the truth and all others are groping in the darkness. Every method of spiritual growth and worship is worthy of respect. Traditional Hinduism has much to contribute in building a peaceful and harmonious world.
I will conclude with the words of Radhakrishnan, the philosopher President of India (1962-67):
What counts is not creed but conduct. By their fruits ye shall know them and not by their beliefs. Religion is not correct belief but righteous living. The Hindu view that every method of spiritual growth, every path to the Truth is worthy of reverence has much to commend itself.

--S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life, 1962.

The description of the history of debate in India in this essay is derived in large part from Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. Amartya Sen exaggerates the threat to Indian pluralism arising from Hindu fundamentalism. Dr. Sen minimizes the threat arising from Islamic radicalism which now engulfs the globe.
An insightful book on related topics is Ram Swarup’s On Hinduism: Reviews and Reflections, New Delhi: Voice of India, 2000. Also recommended is his Hindu View of Christianity and Islam, Voice of India, 1992.
The following articles by Professor Goel may be found at: .

Clash of Civilizations and Radicalism
The Sacred Feminine

Oneness in Hinduism

On Human Unity

Religious Tolerance
Asian Americans
The Myth of Aryan Invasions of India

Indo-American Relations in a New Light

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