Posted on 1-March-2015
In around the eighth and the seventh centuries B.C. in Palestine there started a movement among the polytheistic Israelites of permitting among them the worship only of Yahweh. This probably was the outcome of a spirit of xenophobia encouraged by the ruling establishment of the time. The worship of any other god whether of native descent or foreign was proscribed and their temples and idols were to be destroyed. By the middle of the sixth century, mainly during the Babylonian exile of the Jews and at the hand of exilic writers and prophets, Yahweh had grown from being one among many gods into being the only true God, the creator of heaven and earth and of man and beast. No other divinity, anywhere in the world, worshipped by any other people was godly and no other divinity merited being worshipped. The Christian God and the Muslim Allah also have the same attributes as Yahweh and like Yahweh revealed themselves to Abraham. It is another matter that, though believing in the same only and true God, Jews, Christians and Muslims found themselves in conflict with each other during long periods of history. Leaders of the worshippers of Yahweh, God and Allah established canons of doctrine, belief and practice, deviations from which would not only not be tolerated but would actually be punished by torture and death. Since Jews lost their state and political power after the destruction of their second temple in around 70 A.D. they have not had the opportunity to punish deviants among them after they crucified and killed the best known Jew in the world, Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian Church has committed some of the worst atrocities in dealing not only with heretics among them but also with heathens in Africa and America, and to a lesser degree elsewhere too. It is only in much more recent times, after the four century long development of multi-faceted secularism in modern West, that the notions of heresy, blasphemy and apostasy have ceased to have any practical importance in modern Christianity. Islam, the last of the three Abrahamic monotheisms to arise, developed its own established canons of belief and practice--in fact several competing Sunni canons and a Shi'ia canon--and has through ages punished blasphemers, apostates and non-believers, starting from the time of Mohammad in Medina to modern day Pakistan for example. Many modern Western writers have remarked on an implied spirit of intolerance of other peoples' religious beliefs in the three main monotheistic religions of the world, followers of which comprise roughly half of humanity.
Before the rise of Yahweh only worship among the Israelites and of Yahweh/God/Allah as the only true God, all of the Middle East and indeed all the world had been pantheistic or polytheistic. Different ethnic or cultural groups worshipped different deities with different rituals. They would either be indifferent towards their neighbours' gods, or pay passing obeisance to them and at times include them in their own pantheons. Conquering groups would co-opt the conquered group's deities, develop myths to kill them off or refashion them in the image of their own deities; conquered groups would normally accept the conqueror's gods as obviously they had proved to be more efficacious than their own. Complete exclusion of other peoples' gods, typical of the monotheistic religions was rare. For nearly all its history India has been like the ancient, pre-Yahweh Middle East. We do not know anything about the religion of the Mohenjodaro-Harappa people, the tablet depicting a long haired, bearded figure surrounded by animals notwithstanding. But we do know a great deal about the deities in the pantheon of the early Rigveda, later Rigveda, the early Puranas and the later Puranas. What comes out clearly was that the pantheon kept on expanding; it also becomes clear that some of the early gods lost their importance such as for example Varuna; in later Hindu texts Indra became a minor, even comic figure as in the Ahilya story, while Shiva, nowhere to be found in the original vedic pantheon, became for some people the most important and the most powerful god. New gods continue being created and added to this pantheon. Then, neither the religions of the vedas and the puranas nor the upanishadic texts supplanted the earlier widespread and popular worship of village and family deities nor of some nature spirits, e.g. Ganga. What is known as Hindu religion now is in fact a collection of myriads of different divine beings and an equal variety of religious and social practices. Even a text such as Manu's Dharma Shastra, elevated to the status of the universal Hindu religious and social code by British colonial officials is not universally applied across all the caste, ethnic or regional groups that together make up Hindu society. Some of this variety is the result of centuries of co-option of different ethnic groups into the matrix of the varna system. And what has characterised Indian society is that this variety of religious beliefs and practices has co-existed by and large peacefully within one geographical area forming a more or less unified system of exchange. It is this co-existence of diffirent relgious practices within one loose fold that modern educated Hindus refer to when they talk of India's spirit of tolerance. And it is this spirit that has facilitated the easy acceptance of different foreign groups that have come into India in the past and made it their home.
Different programmes of Hindu revivalism starting in the nineteenth century mark a discontinuity from this past. Some programmes of revivalism were benign such as Ram Mohun Roy's campaigns for social reforms, the foundation of the Brahmo Samaj seeking to create a new religion free of image worship or priesthood, Vidya Sagar's campaign for widow remarriage or Gandhi's campaign against untouchability. Others were more problematic. Dayanand Saraswati argued that true Hinduism existed in the time of the vedas, the fount of all knowledge and wisdom and it was necessary to return to that pristine form of Hindu religion. This strand of revivalism was tinged not a little with an anti-Christian and an anti-Muslim bias in that Dayanand introduced what he called a purification or shuddhi movement which allowed for the reconversion of Christians (and Muslims) to Hinduism--proselytisation had been alien to Hinduism. Of all the various trends of Hindu revivalism, the most virulent has been the one introduced by the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh(RSS). First of all this was a manufactured kind of Hindu religion--manufactured out of a set of prejudices, invented histories, xenophobia, a desire to avenge the humiliation of Muslim conquest and of European colonisation. This Hinduism also favours militarism and intolerance of religions such as Islam and Christianity because they had been brought in from abroad. It is also intolerant of such practices as women wearing jeans or going out with male friends to pubs and restaurants or celebrating St.Valentine's day or of writers like the Tamil novelist, Perumal Murugan who ought to be silenced . RSS Hinduism also consists of a new kind of Hindu orthodoxy which passes for Hindu culture and which must be made to become all pervasive in India. This new spirit of intolerance is reminiscent of the spirit that created the three monotheisms of the Middle East. Thus while the RSS cannot create a Hindu monotheism, it has created a version of Hinduism suffused with anger, hatred, and ignorance, a bit like the spirit promoted by King Josiah of the Israelites in the seventh century B.C. Some people describe RSS's programme as semiticising Hinduism. It is interesting that some of the practices of the State of Israel, such as its settlements policy in the West Bank or its desire to make Israel a purely Jewish state, are admired by the followers of the RSS. This new Hinduism, if not checked, will end up creating a tyranny of a narrow group of Hindus and push India back into ignorance and darkness, creating on the way a state of permanent social strife. While one of the Middle Eastern monotheisms, having lost political power two thousand years ago lost its intolerance--except a newly found one in the State of Israel--and the other lost it through the weakening of all religious fervour in an increasingly godless western society, the RSS is cultivating that spirit of intolerance of other religions or deviations from its newly invented orthodoxy in a society in which such intolerance of other cultures has been by and large absent.