ANEKfiNTA VEDfiNTA:

 

Developing a Genuine Hindu Religious Pluralism

 

Jeffery D. Long

(Vivek›nanda)

 

(Copyright © 2002, by Jeffery D. Long)

 

Prefatory Note: In the essay in which he presents his rationale for this conference, David Ray Griffin expresses a commitment to including participants representing a variety of religious traditions, articulating Whiteheadian versions of religious pluralism that could be seen to be acceptable and helpful from their various confessional stances.  In keeping with this commitment, this paper is being entered, at Griffin’s invitation, as a contribution from a constructive postmodern Hindu perspective.

 

The author, a convert to Hinduism–formally since 1995, but informally for a much longer period–would like to emphasize at the outset that he has not been designated by any one particular community within Hinduism to speak on its behalf.  Indeed, he is aware that there are some Hindus who might not even recognize him as a fellow Hindu, the very possibility of conversion to Hinduism being a contested issue, bound up with divergent definitions of Hinduism, both within the tradition and among scholars of Hinduism in the contemporary academy of religion.  But it is his hope that his ideas might nevertheless be found to be not only acceptable, but even helpful, to the global Hindu community, as well as to the community of Whiteheadian process thinkers of all religious persuasions who are committed to religious pluralism.  He is offering his reflections here, not as a voice of authority–which he does not claim to possess–but out of a sincere desire to share a perspective that he hopes will, on its own merits, be found useful to both of his adopted communities, Hindu and Whiteheadian.

 

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1.         Introduction: Hybridity, Pluralism, and Hinduism

            Despite their many interesting and significant differences, as well as the internal variations distinct to each of them, the three main streams that constitute classical Indian philosophy–Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist–and Whiteheadian process thought converge on a variety of philosophical issues.  The larger intellectual project of which this paper is but a portion is the development of a novel fifth philosophy that will be a synthesis of all four of these streams of thought.  As Whitehead writes of the creative advance, “The many become one, and are increased by one.” (Whitehead 1978: 21)  Although it will include the points that these philosophies share, it will, at the same time, be more than merely the sum of their common elements.  As a synthesis, a hybrid, it will also include distinctive elements of each system, combining these in a novel fashion that will, at least ideally, accentuate all of their strengths while also compensating for each of their weaknesses.

            The underlying motivation behind this project is a desire to express its author’s own personal hybrid philosophy.  This philosophy is itself an expression of his emergent hybrid religious and philosophical identity, an identity that draws upon all four of these streams of thought–as well as, though to varying degrees, Christianity, Daoism, New Age thought, and other religions and philosophies as well.

The goal of this project is to affirm, through example, the validity of such hybrid approaches to truth, which are increasingly common in the pluralistic era of globalization that humanity has entered.  This writer feels, or at least hopes, that such approaches will ultimately point the way to the ‘religion of the future,’ to a ‘secular spirituality’–or better yet, a ‘spiritual secularism’–that will supersede the religious tribalism and warfare that has long characterized human interreligious relations.  The author sees this supersession as one element in the transition of the human race from a modern condition–or rather, one characterized by warfare between modern and premodern modes of life–to a postmodern condition, on the understanding of postmodernity expressed by David Ray Griffin in his introduction to the SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought. (Griffin 2000)

This supersession will occur not through the imperialistic imposition of a system ‘from above,’ but through the gradual realization ‘from below’ by religious persons of all persuasions that their lives and understanding of truth in general are far more enriched by the process of learning from and integrating the insights of a variety of traditions than by exclusive adherence to only one.  Such, at least, has been this author’s experience.

How this will happen–through a radical abandonment of religious commitment in its traditional sense, or, as this author generally tends to prefer, through a reconception of each tradition from within along more global, pluralistic lines–will vary from tradition to tradition, and indeed, from person to person.  As John Cobb writes:

 

Global theology in a pluralistic age need not cut its ties to the particu-larities of religious traditions…[T]here is no global strategy for develop-ing global theology in a pluralistic age.  The strategy is pluralistic.  It will be quite different for Muslims, for Hindus, for Sikhs, for Jains, for Buddhists, for Jews, and for Christians. (Cobb 1999: 59)

The connections of such a project to the larger concerns of this conference–to the development of a Whiteheadian form of religious pluralism–should be fairly evident.  A precondition for the viability of any kind of coherent hybrid worldview, as opposed to a merely eclectic collection, or ‘smorgasbord,’ of ideas–as such worldviews can sometimes be accused of being, and often are by the defenders of traditional orthodoxy–is some kind of account of the mutual logical compatibility of the various elements that constitute it.  And producing a logically coherent account in terms of which diverse perspectives can be interpreted in such a way that they can be shown to be mutually compatible and capable of integration within a broader, more comprehensive understanding of reality is, I take it, at the heart of the pluralistic project, or at least of a Whiteheadian religious pluralism.

Hybridity, of course, raises the question of identity, of where one will stand, as a religious person, if one has a hybrid religious identity of the kind I have just described.  It is one thing to proclaim oneself a citizen of the world.  But, at the end of the day, one still must live somewhere, as part of some particular community, with its distinctive history and concerns.  The modern myth of neutrality, of the dislocated, disembodied intellect, is as destructive as tribalism, its danger being the reverse of communalism–alienation.

If my particular hybrid worldview must be identified pre-eminently with any one of its constitutive elements, it would definitely have to be Hinduism; for it is the Hindu tradition that I take to provide the larger overarching and comprehensive logical structure in terms of which my worldview is best expressed.  In terms of content as well, it is also the closest approximation of my worldview, in its totality, among all the existing world religions, and the one with whose culture and practices I feel the strongest emotional resonance.  Finally, I have also developed strong personal ties to the Hindu community, the community that has provided, despite the fact that I am not a Hindu by birth, the single most accepting and welcoming home for someone with my beliefs of any that I have encountered in the course of my personal search.  As a Whiteheadian, a Hindu, and a pluralist, I am therefore seeking to develop a Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralism.

2.         Developing a Genuine Religious Pluralism: A Whiteheadian Approach

If the goal, as the subtitle of this paper suggests, is to develop a ‘genuine Hindu religious pluralism,’ the first questions that arise are “What do we mean by a ‘genuine’ religious pluralism?  What might distinguish a genuine religious pluralism from one that is not genuine?  And what do we mean by ‘religious pluralism’ in the first place?”

David Ray Griffin defines religious pluralism, in a generic sense, in his rationale for this conference.  “For Christians to accept religious pluralism,” he writes, “Is [for them] to accept two affirmations–one negative, the other positive.”  He continues:

 

The negative affirmation is the rejection of Christian absolutism, which means rejecting the a priori assumption that Christianity is the only religious tradition that provides saving truths and values to its adherents, that it alone is divinely inspired, that it has been established by God as the only legitimate religion, intended to replace all others.  The positive affirmation, which is more than simply the reverse side of the negative, is the acceptance of the idea that there are religions other than Christianity that provide saving truths and values to their adherents…To accept generic religious pluralism is not necessarily to deny that Christian faith has distinctive truths and values of universal importance, the acceptance and implications of which Christians should seek to spread.  But it means that, if Christians do believe they have such truths and values, they assume that other religions may as well. (Griffin 2001a: 1)

Taking our lead from Griffin, an even more generic definition of pluralism–one not stated from an explicitly Christian perspective–might read something like the following:

 

Religious pluralism in the most generic sense consists of the affirmation that many religions, including but not limited to one’s own: (1) provide truths and values that are of ultimate significance to and that possess salvific efficacy for their adherents (however such ‘salvation’ may be conceived in the religions in question), (2) are legitimate–that is, their existence and overall health are to be encouraged, or at the very least not challenged or threatened–and any willful disregard for this legitimacy is to be regarded as immoral, and (3) the truths and values provided by the many religions may have a wider, or even universal, significance from which all human beings, and not only adherents of those religions in which they are originally taught, can benefit.  Openness to these truths and values through the comparative study of religion and interreligious dialogue is therefore integral to the religious life of a pluralist.

This is the understanding of religious pluralism, in the broadest, most generic sense, with which I shall be operating in this paper, and which I shall be taking to be normative.  I will not, in this paper, argue for this understanding, so much as presuppose it.

Again, this is religious pluralism in its broadest, most generic, sense.  Clearly, the definition given here can allow for an enormous range of variations.  In other words, given this definition of religious pluralism, one can imagine a great variety of possible scenarios that could fulfill it–a great variety of species that are members of this genus.

As Griffin has already explained in his rationale for this conference, there is an ongoing debate in the contemporary academy over the meaning of religious pluralism, over what religious pluralism should be like.  Because generic religious pluralism allows for sub-varieties, several distinct forms of this position have arisen.  The debate is over which form of religious pluralism is the best, the most genuine.

This, of course, propels us back into the question with which I began this section, “What is a genuine, as opposed to a non-genuine, religious pluralism?”  As with generic religious pluralism, the definition of a genuine religious pluralism with which I shall be operating here is a stipulative one, which is not so much argued for in this paper as presupposed.  Taking Griffin’s rationale for this conference, again, as my point of departure, I will define a genuine religious pluralism in the following way:

 

A form of religious pluralism is genuine inasmuch as it reflects the real diversity of the religions that actually exist without, on the one hand, reducing that diversity to a single idea or set of principles (which is different from discerning common themes that might, in fact, unite the world’s religions), or, on the other, vitiating that diversity by devolving into a ‘debilitating relativism,’ a position that claims to affirm religious diversity but does so by divesting the religions of any substantive content.

            As Griffin, again, points out in his introductory essay, the problem with many existing pluralistic models of truth, many forms of religious pluralism, pre-eminently that proposed and defended over the years by John Hick, is a monistic or identist tendency to presume that in order for many religions to be true, they must articulate the same truths and/or be “oriented toward the same religious object…and promote essentially the same end (the same type of ‘salvation’).” (Ibid: 8)  But it is not at all clear, from the definition of generic religious pluralism, that this needs to be the case.  Might there not be many aspects of one larger truth, and many legitimate religious objects and ends?

             The adequacy–the ‘genuineness’–of an identist model of religious pluralism can be called into question primarily because attention to the particulars of the world’s religions reveals at least three basic types of religion, distinguishable in terms of their religious objects, salvific goals, and the corresponding worldviews that they affirm.  Again following Griffin, I define these three types of religion in the following manner:

(1)       Theistic Religions–These are religions that are oriented towards a Supreme Being, a personal God, and are productive of salvation, or a right relationship between God and the practitioner, which is variously conceived as loving union, eternal life with God in Heaven, etc.  Such religions typically have a strong ethical emphasis.  Examples of such religions include Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Pure Land Buddhism, and, within Hinduism, the Vai˝˚ava and ⁄›kta faiths and some forms of the ⁄aiva faith.

(2)       Acosmic Religions–These religions are oriented towards an impersonal Absolute or Ground of Being, and are productive of realization or enlightenment.  Such religions are typically contemplative in nature, with a strong emphasis on wisdom and on gaining insight and transforming consciousness through meditation.  Examples of these religions include Jainism, Therav›da Buddhism, philosophical Daoism, Neo-Platonism, the various types of Gnosticism, and, within Hinduism, Advaita Ved›nta and some forms of ⁄aivism.

(3)       Cosmic Religions–These religions are oriented towards the cosmos itself, the cosmic order and the spiritual beings that inhabit it, and are productive of harmony within this cosmos and right relations with these beings.  Examples of these religions include the so-called ‘animistic,’ indigenous traditions of the Americas, Africa, Australia, Asia, and of Europe (such as Wicca and the related Druidic and Neo-pagan faiths, and the ancient Norse and Greco-Roman faiths), as well as Shinto, popular Daoism, and Confucianism.

The caveat, of course, must also be entered here that no single religion fits exclusively into any one of these categories–rather, these categories mark the dominant trends within the religions listed under them.  But, in fact, some element of each category is present in nearly every world religion–pre-eminently, as we shall see later, Hinduism.

As it relates to these three categories, or types, of religion, the main problem with monistic or identist pluralisms is that they tend to reduce these three to one–most often to an acosmic impersonalism–and to privilege a realization experience over experiences of loving union with divinity or cosmic harmony.  So although the position of John Hick, for example, is that ‘the Real,’ the one transcendent religious object toward which all religions are, according to his account, oriented, is beyond the categories of ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal,’ he nevertheless describes It in apophatic language that is strikingly reminiscent of acosmic forms of Buddhism and the Advaita Ved›nta school of Hinduism:

 

…[I]t cannot be said to be one or many, person or thing, substance or process, good or evil, purposive or non-purposive.  None of the concrete descriptions that apply within the realm of human experience can apply literally to the unexperienceable ground of that realm [i.e. the realm of the Real, the spiritual realm]. (Hick 1989: 246)

Hick could here just as easily be talking about the Mah›y›na Buddhist ultimate, the ‘Void’ or ‘Emptiness’–⁄Ònyat›–or the Advaitic Nirgu˚a Brahman, or the Eternal Dao.

            Similarly, his account of the salvific process as a process of self-transformation, of moving from an ‘ego-centered’ to a ‘Reality-centered’ state, is strongly reminiscent of acosmic religions.  The implication that devotion to the various ‘personae’ of the Real, the personal deities of the theistic religions, is ‘really’ a way of overcoming our state of ego-centeredness is not unlike Advaitic Hindu claims about the function of Bhakti.  The personal forms of God, of ÊŸvara, are ultimately as illusory as the rest of the phenomenal world.  In the end, only Nirgu˚a Brahman, the eternal Brahman without qualities, is real.

The phenomenological evidence suggests, however, if we take it seriously (and Whiteheadian process thought does allow us to do so), that experiences of a personal God and of an impersonal Absolute are not reducible to one another.  They are distinct and also produce distinct–albeit overlapping–results in the lives of those who have them.  To privilege one kind of experience, one form of religiosity–theistic, acosmic, or cosmic–and to reduce the others to it is a failure of pluralism.  A unified, non-relativist worldview is still possible in which these various types of experience can retain their distinctiveness.

Whiteheadian process thought is just such a worldview.  It is a worldview that allows for the possibility of a more ‘pluralistic’ or ‘genuine’ religious pluralism in which all three types of religious object and the salvific experiences that correspond to them can occur, and in terms of which the varied worldviews of the many religious traditions can be interpreted not as incompatible, but as, in fact, complementary.

            The legitimate worry that underlies identist forms of religious pluralism, with their reduction of many religious objects and ends to one, is a concern to avoid what some pluralists have called a ‘debilitating relativism.’   By this is meant an affirmation of diversity that issues, because of the prima facie incompatibilities that obtain between the worldviews of the religions that constitute it, in a self-contradictory, self-refuting position that ends up saying nothing.  Outlining an internally coherent and unified worldview in terms of which the varied positions of the world’s religions can be shown to make some kind of sense, to be mutually compatible, is one of the central tasks of religious pluralism, and indeed, of the philosophy of religion as such.  As Griffin writes:

 

…[T]he problem of the intellectual conflicts among the various religions has provided one of the major objections to the truth of religious beliefs, especially because the claim that religious beliefs reflect genuine religious experience is arguably undermined by the existence of radically different ideas of ultimate reality. (Griffin 2001c: 247)

Many religious pluralists–including, but not limited to, Hick–have therefore taken it to be imperative to demonstrate, in their pluralistic models, a convergence of religions.  This has met with, at best, mixed success, because, as we have already discussed, convergence has more often than not taken the shape of the reduction of several religious types to one.

            These thinkers, I would maintain, have neglected Whiteheadian process thought to the detriment of their own positions.  Process thought postulates the existence of a personal God, along the lines of the theistic religions, an impersonal Absolute, like that postulated in the acosmic religions, and a cosmos of actual entities striving for universal harmony of creative expression, not unlike that sought in the cosmic religions.  All three basic religious objects and ends can obtain within this internally coherent worldview.

Clearly, however, the fact that process thought can account for the differences among the three basic types of religion, in terms of their ultimate objects and ends, does not mean it is sufficient to account for all of the apparent incompatibilities among religions.  As Griffin points out, Christianity’s “relations to Hinduism and Buddhism involve very different issues from those involved in its relations to Judaism and Islam.” (Griffin 2001c: 248)  Can process thought also be used to address the differences among religions of the same type, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

I would argue that it can.  As I have shown elsewhere (Long 2000, Long 2001), process thought shares a number of basic metaphysical affinities with traditional Jain philosophy.  On the basis of their relational ontology, Jain thinkers developed, over the course of several centuries, a complex and logically rigorous method for demonstrating the fundamental compatibilities of seemingly incompatible doctrines, using this method to resolve classical Indian philosophical disputes between the Brahmins and Buddhists.  It seems to me a Whiteheadian, on the same basis, could use the same logical model.

Taking Whiteheadian process thought as the basis for a pluralistic model of truth also addresses a number of the other major concerns that have been raised as criticisms of the dominant forms of religious pluralism in contemporary Western academic discourse.

Prominent among these is the concern, often raised about pluralistic models, that they tend to be presented–incoherently–as religiously and philosophically neutral ‘meta-views’ or ‘views from nowhere,’ without any properly metaphysical justifications being given for the major metaphysical claims that they make.  This is what Griffin calls such models’ “false claim to neutral universality” (Griffin 2001a: 14-16, 48)

What emerges from such an approach, as S. Mark Heim points out, is a modern Western intellectual imperialism, an imposition of the standards of a particular culture–that of Western modernity–on the world’s religions–an imposition arguably no less destructive in its potential to distort the religions than the traditional religious absolutisms of which it is a critique. (Heim 1995: 141-142)

This destructive potential is highlighted even further in an article by Kenneth Surin (Surin 1990), in which he points out the affinities between this identist style of religious pluralism and the homogenization of culture under global capitalism.

Another concern is that, in the writings of many pluralists, the desirability of pluralism is more often than not simply assumed, due to a perception of its being conducive to more positive interreligious relations and dialogue.  But the urgency of the issues of interreligious violence and misunderstanding seems to be all the more reason to produce nuanced philosophical arguments that can answer potential criticisms of logical incoherence–arguments lacking in the writings of many contemporary religious pluralists.

If one holds a Whiteheadian process metaphysic, one can, in fact, expect there to be precisely the kind of religious plurality that we actually find­–because the universe, as conceived in process thought, lends itself to just this kind of plurality of interpretations.  A Whiteheadian does not embrace religious pluralism as an ad hoc political stance, a stance that is conducive to interreligious dialogue or better interreligious relations–though an ethical imperative to pursue both of these goals does emerge from process thought, and process thinkers have been at the forefront of efforts to pursue these goals.  For the Whiteheadian, religious pluralism is a logical entailment of process thought.

The fact that, for a process thinker, religious pluralism is a perfectly logical extension of the worldview that s/he already holds also helps a Whiteheadian form of religious pluralism to avoid the kind of ‘debilitating relativism’ mentioned earlier.  Whiteheadian religious pluralism is a pluralism that emerges from and is held as a logical consequence of a specific and definite worldview.  Because the Whiteheadian religious pluralist is already committed to certain basic propositions about the nature of reality, s/he is able to engage on a substantive level with the world’s religions.  S/he is thus enabled to coordinate and to synthesize insights from these diverse traditions into her Whiteheadian worldview, which, in turn, is enriched by the encounter–as are, ideally, the religions themselves.

This, of course, is one variety of the ‘mutual transformation’ of which the Whiteheadian Christian religious pluralist, John Cobb, speaks, and which he conceives as one of the central goals and benefits of interreligious dialogue. (Cobb 1982)

This directly addresses another common criticism of standard forms of religious pluralism.  I am referring here to the charge, leveled by a prominent critic of religious pluralism, Paul J. Griffiths, that most pluralist conceptions of interreligious dialogue omit the substantive issues that make such dialogue at all interesting or intellectually engaging.  Because they typically emphasize interreligious agreement and unity at the expense of the very real diversity and substantive differences that characterize the world’s religions, such conceptions of dialogue tend to produce “a discourse that is pallid, platitudinous, and degutted” (Griffiths 1991: xii).  They leave the adherents of the world’s religions very little to talk about.  If we are all being transformed by the Real, why do we need to talk?  What is there to discuss?  If your religion is working for you, and mine is working for me, we certainly need not attack or seek to convert one another, but there also seems to be little motivation for us to interact at all.  Of course, as we each go through the process of transformation from an ‘ego-centered’ to a ‘Reality-centered’ state we will be more inclined to feel compassion for one another, and to work for peace and social justice–as many pluralists, like Paul F. Knitter, argue.  But can we learn from each other?

A Whiteheadian perspective, because, again, it does make substantive claims about the nature of reality, and provide arguments for these, is able to engage with the world’s religions in the substantive and intellectually interesting fashion that thinkers such as Griffiths maintain can only occur through interreligious apologetics, in which both sides are committed to a worldview, but are, at the same time, open to learning something from one another.  The concern of the religious pluralist, however, is that such apologetic exercises all-too-frequently degenerate into polemics.  In some circumstances, these polemics can further degenerate into justifications for interreligious violence and oppression.  Some might argue that process thought is susceptible to the same misuse.

Given, however, the hypothetical and open-ended nature of process thought, Whiteheadian religious pluralism is not a ‘closed inclusivism,’ an absolutist worldview that assumes itself to already have all of the answers.  Adherents of a closed worldview are open to other views only inasmuch as these views reinforce beliefs that they already hold.  Whiteheadian thought, however, is open to the claims of the religions themselves, as the vast repositories of human wisdom and experience that they are.  It does not see itself as offering the final answers to any of the ultimate questions.  A process thinker does, indeed, have certain definite views about the nature of reality, but s/he is also open to new experiences, insights, and expressions of truth.  For, on the one hand, process thought does aspire, as its philosophical ideal, to the articulation of, “a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” (Whitehead 1978: 3)  But, on the other, it immediately recognizes that:

 

Philosophers can never hope finally to formulate these metaphysical first principles.  Weakness of insight and deficiencies of language stand in the way inexorably.  Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap…There is no first principle which is itself unknowable, not to be captured by a flash of insight.  But, putting aside the difficulties of language, deficiency in imaginative penetration forbids progress in any form other than that of an asymptotic approach to a scheme of principles, only definable in terms of the ideal which they should satisfy. (Ibid: 4)

So there is a keen awareness of the limits of language in process thought.  “In philosophical discussion,” Whitehead writes, “The merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” (Ibid: xiv)  He also defines the ‘Dogmatic Fallacy’ as that error which, “consists in the persuasion that we are capable of producing notions which are adequately defined in respect to the complexity of relationship required for their illustration in the real world.” (Whitehead 1933: 145)  “The Dao that can be named,” as Laozi affirms in the Daodejing, “is not the Eternal Dao.” (Daodejing 1: 1)

Because of the character of Whiteheadian thought as a ‘middle path’ between the extremes of absolute certainty and absolute skepticism, the Whiteheadian is in a position to both teach and learn from the world’s religions and philosophies. Cobb describes the open and open-ended character that is proper to a Whiteheadian pluralistic approach to truth when he speaks of “the self-relativization of metaphysics”:

 

It is the nature of process thought to understand itself as in process.  There is no certain or irreformable core, however strongly one may be convinced of some formulations.  Everything is always open for reconsideration. The expectation is that all of its ideas will some day be superseded, although it expects also that this supersession of ideas will still include the pre-linguistic discernments expressed in particular and imperfect ways in current formulations. (Cobb 1996:56-57)

The conclusion, then, is that a Whiteheadian religious pluralism, a pluralism that is expressed in terms of Whiteheadian process thought, is an excellent contender for the title of a ‘genuine religious pluralism,’ on the understanding of what constitutes such a pluralism that was given earlier.  It does not reduce the diversity of the many religious interpretations and experiences of reality to one single type.  Nor, however, does it refrain from seeking to situate and to coordinate and synthesize these various interpretations and experiences within a larger, internally coherent worldview, thus avoiding the potential charge of relativism.  At the same time, this worldview is sufficiently open-ended and expansive that it does not simply force the world’s religions into its own pre-determined categories, but is also open to transformation by the religions and philosophies with which it comes into contact.  This, essentially, is the worldview advocated in this paper.

In keeping, of course, with the open-ended character of process thought and its openness to new understandings and expressions of truth, one must immediately admit that it is entirely possible that other, non-Whiteheadian, but nevertheless genuine, forms of religious pluralism might exist.  It is also possible that, just as there are sub-varieties of religious pluralism in the generic sense, there may be different varieties of Whiteheadian religious pluralism as well, such as the Hindu version that I am outlining in this paper.  It is to this Whiteheadian Hindu version of religious pluralism that I shall now turn, raising the question: What are the distinctive issues that a Whiteheadian Hindu must face in developing a pluralism that is both authentically Whiteheadian and authentically Hindu?

3.         Issues Specific to a Whiteheadian Hindu Religious Pluralism

The task of developing a Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralism is considerably different from that of developing a Whiteheadian Christian religious pluralism, such as that advocated by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin.  To be more specific, such a task is considerably easier, at least in terms of the situation of the Whiteheadian Hindu with respect to the larger religious community that s/he inhabits.

This may be a highly subjective and potentially contentious kind of observation to make; but it seems to me that the mainstream Hindu tradition is, on the whole, vastly more friendly to the kind of position that a Whiteheadian religious pluralism involves than is mainstream Christianity.  This, indeed, is part of the story–though certainly not the whole story–of why I chose to convert from Christianity to Hinduism (or rather, to be more true to the Hindu tradition, how I realized I was already a Hindu, in the first place).

It seems to me that both the Whiteheadian and the religious pluralist–and perhaps doubly so the Whiteheadian religious pluralist–would frequently find themselves at odds with mainstream Christianity.  (This, at least, was what I found.)  For both Whiteheadian thought and religious pluralism–and again, perhaps doubly so a religious pluralism based on Whiteheadian thought–involve major shifts in a mainstream Christian understanding. The efforts of Christian process thinkers–who are also religious pluralists–such as Cobb, Griffin, and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki are, for that very reason, all the more admirable.  For these thinkers are prophetic voices, at the forefront, from my perspective, the cutting edge, of where Christianity should be, and all too often is not.  If more Christians thought like Cobb, Griffin, and Suchocki, the world would be a far different–a much better–place!  

This is most definitely not to say that process thought and religious pluralism are not authentically Christian.  I am in firm agreement with those who would argue that both movements are more authentically Christian than the mainstream of that tradition has typically been.  I am certainly not saying that Christianity is essentially anti-pluralist.  It has, however, historically been very anti-pluralist.

            All of that being said, however, it is not the case that a Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralist has no work to do, that Hinduism has no issues whatsoever with which a Whiteheadian religious pluralist needs to contend.  Two main issues, it seems to me, need to be addressed by a religious pluralism that is both authentically Whiteheadian and authentically Hindu.

The first of these is the pervasiveness of expressions of Hindu religious pluralism that appear to have an identist character.  The problems involved with identist forms of religious pluralism were touched upon briefly in the preceding section, and Griffin has covered them extensively in his introductory essay.  The hard fact that one who wants to develop a Whiteheadian religious pluralism from a Hindu perspective has to face is the fact that the identist forms of religious pluralism that have been so problematic and so contentious in the contemporary Western academy–and to which this conference is a Whiteheadian response–are essentially Hindu positions that have been cast in the guise of Western–often Kantian–philosophical terminology.  Identist religious pluralists such as Hick, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Paul F. Knitter, have essentially been echoing–and in some cases repeating almost verbatim–the claims of major nineteenth and early twentieth century Hindu reformers–of Neoved›ntins–such as ⁄ri R›mak¸˝˚a Paramah›˙s›, Sw›mı Vivek›nanda, and Mah›tma Gandhi.  This fact accounts, in part, for the objection, raised against identist religious pluralism in a number of quarters, that it is not an authentically Christian position.  It’s not.  It’s a Hindu position.  (Sorry, everybody!)  So one issue with which a Whiteheadian religious pluralist needs to contend is whether Hinduism does, in fact, necessarily entail an identist position–in which case a truly Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralism is an impossibility–or whether an alternative Hindu view is possible.

The second major issue is the issue of inclusivism.  Many Hindu assertions that are frequently taken to evidence Hindu ‘tolerance’ or ‘openness’ to other religions–Hindu religious pluralism–are revealed to be, on closer examination, expressions of a religious inclusivism, a position of which Western religious pluralists have long been critical.

            As with expressions of Hindu pluralism that appear to have an identist character, the seemingly inclusivist, as opposed to genuinely pluralistic, character–on the under-standing of genuine religious pluralism given in the previous section–of Hindu assertions gives rise to the question: Is a truly Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralism possible?

            Hindus have long prided themselves on the internal diversity and inclusiveness of the Hindu tradition.  Indeed, two of the seven points in the definition of Hinduism used by the Indian Supreme Court are, “A spirit of tolerance, and willingness to understand and appreciate others’ points of view, recognizing that truth has many sides,” and the “Recognition that paths to truth and salvation are many.” (Fisher 2002: 126, 127)  This idea is expressed in the most ancient of Hindu scriptures–possibly the most ancient extant religious text in the world–the ¿g Veda: Eka˙ sadvipr› bahudh› vadanti–“Reality is one, though the wise speak of it variously.” (¿ig Veda 1.164: 46c)  It is also expressed in the well-known subh›˝ita, or proverb: Eka˙ sadanek›¯ panth›¯–“Truth is one, paths are many.”  A theistic version of this pluralistic approach is expressed in the Bhagavad-Gıt›, or ‘Song of God,’ when Bhagav›n ⁄ri K¸˝˚a proclaims the validity of many paths to salvation, or liberation: Ye yath› m›˙ prapadyante t›˙stathaiva bhaj›myaham, mama vartm›nuvartante manu˝y›¯, P›rtha, sarvaŸa¯, “As human beings approach me, so I receive them.  All paths, P›rtha, lead to me.” (Bhagavad-Gıt› 4:11)

Such an attitude toward diversity has become especially prominent in the modern period–meaning, in India, since the early 1800’s.  The nineteenth-century Bengali saint, ⁄ri R›mak¸˝˚a Paramah›˙s›, regarded by many as an avat›r, or divine incarnation, was famous for his openness to a variety of religious practices.  He even practiced the paths of several distinct Hindu sa˙prad›yas, or denominations, as well as Christianity and Islam:

 

I have practiced all religions–Hinduism, Islam, Christianity–and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects.  I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps, though along different pathsHe who is called Krishna is also called ⁄iva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and fill›h as well–the same R›ma with a thousand names.  (Nikhilananda 1942: 60)

The vivid imagery that R›mak¸˝˚a uses to describe his conception of the relations among the world’s religions continues to be used by many religious pluralists today:

 

God can be realised through all paths.  All religions are true.  The important thing is to reach the roof.  You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope.  You can also climb up a bamboo pole…You may say that there are many errors and superstitions in another religion.  I should reply:  Suppose there are.  Every religion has errors.  Everyone thinks that his watch gives the correct time.  It is enough to have yearning for God.  It is enough to love Him and feel attracted to Him. (Richards 1985: 65)

 

It is not good to feel that one’s religion alone is true and all others are false.  God is one only and not two.  Different people call him by different names: some as Allah, some as God, and others as Krishna, Shiva, and Brahman.  It is like water in a lake.  Some drink it at one place and call it ‘jal,’ others at another place and call it ‘pani,’ and still others at a third place and call it ‘water.’  The Hindus call it ‘jal,’ the Christians ‘water,’ and the Mussulmans ‘pani.’  But it is one and the same thing.  Opinions are but paths.  Each religion is only a path leading to God, as rivers come from different directions and ultimately become one in the one ocean…All religions and all paths call upon their followers to pray to one and the same God.  Therefore one should not show disrespect to any religion or religious opinion. (Ibid)

 

Along similar lines, Mah›tma Gandhi writes of the “Equality of Religions”:

 

Religions are different roads converging upon the same point.  What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?  In reality there are as many religions as there are individualsI believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world.  I believe that they are all God-given, and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed.  And I believe that, if only we could all of us read the scriptures of different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of those faiths we should find that they were at bottom all one and were all helpful to one another. (Ibid, 156, 157)

Hindus, especially in the modern period, have tended increasingly to conceive of Hinduism as something like a ‘meta-religion,’ a pluralistic model of truth along the lines of what many Western philosophers of religion have been trying over the course of the last few decades to develop.  So, just as Indian philosophy seems to have anticipated Western thought in a number of other areas, Hinduism has similarly been the inspiration and source for many Western pluralistic models–like those of Aldous Huxley and John Hick–as well as the imagery in which these are frequently expressed–many names for one God, many rivers flowing into one ocean, many paths to a common destination, etc.

With the philosophical positions and the writings of many contemporary Western religious pluralists containing echoes of the writings of such prominent figures of the contemporary Hindu tradition as R›mak¸˝˚a and Gandhi one can see why a Hindu could conceivably look at Whiteheadian religious pluralism and say, “Aren’t we already there?”

The Whiteheadian can, of course, respond that the vision of pluralism expressed in many of the above-cited quotations is an identist one–again, many names of one God, many rivers flowing into one ocean, many paths to a common destination, etc.  Indeed, most of these quotations suggest a theistic identist religious pluralism, that the one valid religious object–even of non-theistic, cosmic and acosmic paths–is a personal deity, the Supreme Being.  It is also interesting in this connection to note that the Western forms of religious pluralism that I have mentioned that have taken much of their inspiration from Hinduism are, as discussed earlier, acosmic identist pluralisms.  Why this inconsistency?

This question of the identist character of Hindu pluralism is the topic of the next section.  But to anticipate my argument somewhat, I shall simply say at this point that the distinctions that process thought wishes to make between a personal deity, an impersonal absolute, and a universal cosmic harmony, though present in Hinduism, are frequently blurred in the writings of Hindu authors.  Rather than distinct ultimate realities, these are more frequently regarded as aspects of the single all-inclusive reality of Brahman, the Whole, which is conceived as both Sagu˚a and Nirgu˚a, formed and formless, personal and impersonal.  Which aspect of Brahman is emphasized will vary depending upon the sectarian affiliation or predisposition of the author–whether Brahman is pre-eminently a personal deity with an impersonal aspect, or pre-eminently an impersonal absolute with ultimately illusory personal manifestations, or, as a Whiteheadian would want to affirm, an organic unity incorporating God, World, and Ground of Being.

The very fact, however, that such variety is possible–and, indeed, occurs–within the Hindu tradition is another factor in its favor, one could argue, if one is trying to make a case that Hinduism already is something like a Whiteheadian religious pluralism.

Empirically speaking, Hinduism is a vast family of faiths that contains, internally to itself, many religions that cut across the spectrum of religious types described earlier.  There are theistic religions–forms of theistic devotionalism–like the Vai˝˚ava and ⁄›kta faiths, and some of the varieties of ⁄aivism.  There is acosmic impersonalism, such as that found most prominently in Advaita Ved›nta, as well as in certain other forms of ⁄aivism.  There is also cosmic religion, of which possibly the most ancient form of Hinduism–that described in the ritualistic Vedic Sa˙hit›s, or hymns–seems to have been an example, as well as the numerous practices that have been incorporated into Hinduism over the millennia of the fidiv›sıs, the aboriginal tribal peoples of India.

Hinduism has also self-consciously theorized this internal diversity, in terms of the four yogas, which are all conceived as valid paths to the common ultimate goal of liberation, or mok˝a, from sa˙s›ra, the beginningless–and potentially endless–cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, or punarjanma.  The basic division of these yogas has striking affinities with the division of the world’s religions into three types, based on religious object and salvific goal, presented earlier.  There is the karma yoga, or spiritual discipline of good works, which encompasses the ancient Vedic ritual practices, as well as personal morality, or dharma, and so comes close to mapping onto the idea of cosmic religion.  There is the jñ›na yoga, or way of realization, the path of acosmic impersonalism.  There is bhakti yoga, or theistic devotionalism.  Finally, there is the r›ja yoga, or royal yoga, the classical path of meditation as outlined in Patañjali’s Yoga SÒtra, which has been adopted in numerous traditions, including some that are usually regarded as distinct from Hinduism, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and even some non-Indian traditions.

Speaking of these traditions, in addition to its internal diversity, Hinduism has also been productive of diversity.  Three major world religions have emerged from it: Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.  According to at least one prominent definition of Hinduism, that used by the Indian Supreme Court, these three religions are actually forms or ‘branches’ of Hinduism.  Many regard them as n›stika, or heterodox, Hindu sects.

Even the perceived ‘heterodoxy’ of these three traditions is often downplayed in current practice.  I have observed, at least in the Indian diaspora, that Hindus and Jains frequently make use of the same temple facilities.  I have personally visited two ‘Hindu-Jain’ temples in Pennsylvania alone, and am a member of one of them.  These temples celebrate Jain holidays, like ParyÒ˝a˚a-parva, with no less fanfare than they do Hindu festivals and pÒj›s, and include images of Jain tırthaºkaras alongside those of Hindu deities such as R›ma and ⁄iva.  I have also witnessed–though this is more rare, given the violence of the 1980’s, which has poisoned relations between the two communities–Sikhs worshiping in Hindu temples and Hindus worshiping in gurdw›ras.  Finally, ‘Bhagav›n Buddha’ is regarded by Hindus as an avat›r of Vi˝˚u, a divine incarnation.  Though this was originally an anti-Buddhist doctrine, its original polemical intent is largely forgotten.

In addition to these close cousins that are indigenous to India, it can also be argued that Hinduism is either the original source or has been a major inspiration behind practically every other religion in world history.  Its influence upon the ancient Indo-European faiths (Iranian, Celtic, Norse, Germanic, and Greco-Roman) can be noted, as well as its influence in pre-Socratic times on ancient Greek philosophy, on Pythagoras in particular, and, of course, later, upon Plato–a circuitous historical link with Christianity, and ultimately, with Alfred North Whitehead himself, who readily admits the affinities between his own philosophy and “some strains of Indian…thought.” (Whitehead 1978: 7)  The strong resemblances between Vedic language, beliefs, practices, and mythologies and those of other Indo-European cultures were long believed to have been the result of an invasion of or mass migration into ancient India by Sanskrit-speaking Central Asian ‘Aryan’ tribes.  Archaeological evidence from both South Asia and Europe, however, is now causing this model to undergo considerable revision, and a picture is gradually beginning to emerge of India as the true cradle of Western civilization.[1]

Finally, the influence of Hinduism, via Buddhism, upon the cultures of East and Southeast Asia is very well known.  A number of Chinese and Japanese deities–such as the Shinto goddess of wisdom, Benten, a form of the Hindu Saraswatı–are clearly derived from Hinduism (Reader 1998: 40, 41).  Many Hindus regard Hinduism as the ‘trunk’ of the ‘tree’ of the world’s diverse religions and philosophies, the historical, cultural, and conceptual center from which its many branches have emerged.

But back to the issue of inclusivism, many also see this internally variegated ‘tree’ as a unity, with which Hinduism is to be identified.  The following bit of dialogue from the Hinduism installment of the world religions video series entitled The Long Search, between the narrator, Ronald Eyre, and a Hindu pa˚˜it, is illustrative of this point:

 

Eyre:                Do you mean that we’re all Hindus really, going various ways?

 

Pa˚˜it:              I think at the highest stage there is nobody beyond Hinduism.  Everybody is a Hindu.

“Everybody is a Hindu.”  Is this a genuine religious pluralism, or is it the most radical conceivable form of inclusivism, inclusivism taken to its logical limit?

            Religious inclusivism is a position of which Western religious pluralists have long been critical.  Seeing it as a paternalistic view–an exclusivist wolf in a pluralistic sheep’s clothing–they have sought to clearly distinguish their own positions from it.  Inclusivism, like pluralism, is a position that has many possible sub-varieties, some being more open to other religions than others.  In general, though, it can be said that religious inclusivists, like religious pluralists, regard the world’s religions in a positive light, as, in accordance with the definition of religious pluralism given earlier, providing ‘truths and values that are of ultimate significance to and that possess salvific efficacy for their adherents.’  But they are much less inclined than religious pluralists to view the world’s religions in such a positive light on their own terms.  What one finds more often, rather, is that religious inclusivists take their own religion to be definitive of truth and salvation for all human beings, and then judge the adequacy of other religions in terms of the resulting standard.  

One could say, in these terms, that the chief difference between inclusivism and the more explicitly objectionable position of religious exclusivism–which rejects the legitimacy of all religions but one–is that, whereas exclusivists employ the standards of their own tradition in evaluating other religions and find those religions severely wanting, inclusivists employ the same standards, but with considerably greater interpretive charity.  For exclusivists, one could say, the glass is half empty; while for inclusivists it’s half full.

From a pluralist perspective, particularly a Whiteheadian pluralist perspective, the problem with both inclusivism and exclusivism is that they do not take with sufficient seriousness the possibility that other religions may teach important truths that are not already contained within their own traditions.  They are also not incompatible with a denial of the ultimate legitimacy of all other religions–with their right to exist as other religions.

The question here is: Is this account descriptive of Hindu attitudes toward other religions?  Is Hindu ‘inclusiveness’ necessarily an assertion of Hindu superiority, a claim that Hinduism already includes all the truths of the other religions?  Or is it a genuine openness–a ‘genuine religious pluralism’–that is willing to learn from other paths?

Before exploring these questions further, it is necessary first to make a distinction, which Griffin also makes, between two different varieties of religious inclusivism–really two different positions–that pluralist critics of inclusivism frequently tend to conflate.  These are epistemic and soteriological inclusivism. (Griffin 2001a: 22-23)  The second of these, I would argue, is the one that religious pluralists quite rightly find objectionable.  But some version of the first I would argue, is an inevitable outcome of holding any kind of non-relativist position, any view at all.  As I have already said, religious inclusivists take their own religion to be definitive of truth for all human beings, and then judge the adequacy of other religions in terms of the resulting standard.  Using one’s own standard of truth–which basically amounts to having a standard of truth–is not only unproblematic, but actually necessary to making epistemic judgments.  The question is how it is used.

Griffin summarizes the Christian version of the soteriological doctrine of inclusivism in the following way:

 

It asserts that Christianity is the only religion in full possession of saving truth, so whatever religious truths are found in other religions are already included in Christianity.  And it asserts that although all salvation comes through Jesus Christ, people in other religions can be included in this salvation. (Griffin 2001a: 22)

This doctrine is well illustrated by the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s concept of the ‘anonymous Christian.’  Not unlike the Hindu pa˚˜it who claims that ‘Everybody is a Hindu,’ Rahner, a Christian pa˚˜it, has claimed that all people of good faith, regardless of their explicit religious affiliation, are oriented salvifically towards Christ–even if only implicitly.  This is because faith in Christ, in some form, on Rahner’s understanding, is constitutive of human salvation–a notion that has been critiqued by such process thinkers as Schubert Ogden. (Ogden 1992: 79-104)   It is through this ingenious, if paternalistic, formulation, that Rahner reconciles the traditional Christian insistence on the necessity of Christ for human salvation with the equally central (though inexplicably dispensable for many in this tradition) proclamation of God’s universal love.

Is Hindu inclusivism of this soteriological variety, which asserts the superiority of Hinduism as the only legitimate way to salvation, the only salvific path?  Is it the inevitable epistemic variety?  Or is it something else entirely?  A classic statement of this position would be the following:

 

A characteristic of Hindu religion is its receptivity and all-comprehensive-ness.  It claims to be the one religion of humanity, of human nature, of the entire world.  It cares not to oppose the progress of any other system.  For it has no difficulty in including all other religions within its all-embracing arms and ever-widening fold. (Monier-Williams)

This position seems not so much to affirm religious diversity as obliterate it.  It is not that Hinduism is the one true religion–it is the only religion!

            I shall be arguing that this is ultimately a semantic issue, though one of great importance to the self-understanding of the Hindu tradition.  But first I shall turn, in the next section, to the issue of the identist character of Hindu affirmations of pluralism.

4.         Addressing the Monistic or Identist Orientation of Hindu Pluralism

            The first major issue involved in the development of a genuine Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralism, already touched upon briefly in the preceding section, is the predominance of monistic or identist models, or at least of identist language, in Hindu expressions of religious pluralism.

There is one sense in which a Hindu religious pluralism of any kind will, I think, inevitably be identist; though I would also argue that this is an identism that is not, in the end, incompatible with a Whiteheadian religious pluralism.  I would call it a minimalist identism.

It is not an identism with respect not to the ultimate religious object; for it is fully compatible with the distinctions among the three ultimate realities that are postulated in process thought–the Supreme Being, the impersonal Absolute, and the Cosmos of actual entities.  It is also not an identism with respect to the ultimate religious end, inasmuch as it still recognizes the distinct ends of loving union with the Supreme Being, realization of the Absolute, and harmony with the Cosmos–the respective ends, the reader will recall, of bhakti yoga, jñ›na and r›ja yoga, and karma yoga, which correspond, respectively, to the theistic, acosmic, and cosmic types of religion, also discussed earlier.

The identism to which I am referring is with respect to a particular consequence that the Hindu tradition takes to arise from the attainment of any of these three ends, and to which all three of them–with the occasional exception of the karma yoga­–are believed to lead.  I referred above to the fact that the common soteriological goal toward which all of the four yogas, or types of religious practice, are directed is mok˝a, or liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.  This is a view that is, on the one hand, so pervasive in the Hindu tradition, as well the Jain and Buddhist traditions, as to be, in my judgment, non-negotiable.  I take the doctrine of rebirth and the possibility of the goal of liberation from it to be sufficiently fundamental, sufficiently basic, to the Hindu tradition as to be indispensable from a Hindu view, even a Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralism.

A Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist cosmology without some version of the rebirth process as one of its fundamental constituents would be analogous, in my opinion, to Christianity without Christ.[2]  On the other hand, the ideal of liberation is broad enough that it still allows for considerable diversity in terms of what might constitute it.[3]  A Hindu religious pluralism will inevitably be identist in the sense that a Hindu will likely conceive of the soteriological goals toward which all religions point as involving some kind of liberation from the rebirth process.  But answers to the question, ‘Of what does such a liberation consist?  What might it be like?’ can and do vary enormously among the numerous schools of thought in Hinduism, and so still allow for considerable diversity.

For Advaitins, liberation is an effect of the obliteration of personal identity in the realization of one’s unity with the impersonal Brahman–not an obliteration so much as an awareness that there never was a distinct identity to obliterate in the first place.  For theistic Vai˝˚avas, however, it is eternal life in Heaven–Vaiku˚˛ha–with Lord Vi˝˚u, a life accompanied by retention of personal identity and memory, and even a kind of quasi-physical form, not unlike the glorified body of the resurrection in the Christian tradition.  For Mım›˙saka karma yogıs it is not (yet) a goal, life in the Cosmos being preferable.

For a variety of reasons, though, an Advaitic model has dominated recent English-language Hindu discourse and discourse about Hinduism by non-Hindus, including on the topic of religious diversity–hence the tendency of Hindu-inspired Western writers such as John Hick to develop identist models that bear a strong resemblance to Advaita Ved›nta.  Because of the influence and the predominance of a particular interpretation of Advaita Ved›nta in contemporary Hinduism, expressions of Hindu religious pluralism, too, tend to take an identist form, assuming all true religions must lead to an Advaitic realization.

Advaita Ved›nta, however, does not reflect, despite its present pervasiveness in most Anglophone accounts, the dominant historical consensus, or even the contemporary consensus, of the Hindu tradition regarding the ultimate nature of reality, a point that Griffin and others have made elsewhere. (Griffin 2001c: 278-279)  As Griffin explains, “Most Hindu piety is theistic, being bhakti (devotion) to a personal deity.” (Ibid: 278)[4]

            Indeed, the practice of Hinduism is overwhelmingly theistic in nature.  The kind of acosmic practice and understanding that Advaita Ved›nta expresses–that ultimate reality is not a Supreme Person to whom one should be devoted, but an impersonal Absolute to be realized–is typically to be found either among the members of the original Advaita community–the DaŸan›mı order of monks founded by fidi ⁄aºkar›c›rya and their lay supporters–or among more modern, Westernized, or even Western, Hindus.

            Of course, theistic practice is not incompatible with Advaita Ved›nta.  Indeed, ⁄aºkara–fidi ⁄aºkar›c›rya (c. 788-820 CE)–recommended the path of bhakti, the path of devotion to a personal deity, for householders, instituting the practice of Pañc›y›tana PÒj›, or devotion to the five deities, Vi˝˚u, ⁄iva, SÒrya, Ga˚eŸa, and ⁄aktı.  All five of these deities are regarded in this tradition “as equal reflections of the one Sagu˚a Brahman, rather than as distinct beings.” (Subramuniyaswami 1997: 779)  Significantly, in connection with a discussion of Hindu religious pluralism, it is this practice that laid the foundation for the modern practice “in which Hindus freely add Jesus, mother Mary, Mohammed, Buddha or any other holy personage to their altars.” (Ibid)

According to ⁄aºkara, however, as Griffin, again, points out, Sagu˚a Brahman, Brahman with attributes, the Supreme Being or personal God, is derivative from Nirgu˚a Brahman, the formless Brahman that, according to this school of thought, is finally the only true reality.  All else, including the personal God, is a projection of m›y›, or cosmic illusion, and an effect of avidy›, or ignorance.  “Brahman is the reality–the one existence, absolutely independent of human thought or idea.  Because of the ignorance of our human minds, the universe seems to be composed of diverse forms.  It is Brahman aloneIt can never be anything else but Brahman.  Apart from Brahman, it does not exist.” (Prabhav›nanda 1947:70)  Even the Supreme Being, God–Bhagav›n or ÊŸvara–is derivative from this impersonal Ground.  “Devotion to a personal God, therefore, would involve an inferior relation to ultimate reality.” (Griffin 2001c: 278)  To be sure, such devotion can serve to help one overcome the selfish, desiring ego.  But ultimately, according to Advaita Ved›nta, or at least according to its dominant interpretation, one must renounce such practices and take up the life of a monk on the path of realization.[5]

The Bhagavad-Gıt›, the most popular of Hindu scriptures in the modern period, and regarded by many as having an authority on a par with the Vedas, acknowledges the legitimacy and the effectiveness of both practices, theistic and acosmic, personal and impersonal.  But it actually recommends bhakti, or theistic devotionalism, as the more appropriate path for most people, due to the difficulty of the acosmic practice, which is, again, an essentially monastic practice, requiring the renunciation of physical pleasures and most human social relations: KleŸo’dhikataraste˝›mavyakt›saktacetas›m, avyakta hi gatirdukha˙ dehavadbhirav›pyate–“The difficulty of the search for the Unmanifest is greater [than that of bhakti].  Embodied beings can only attain it by constant striving, the suffering of their repressed senses, self-discipline, and anguish.” (Bhagavad-Gıt› 12: 5)

Again, this verse is not incompatible with Advaita Ved›nta.  ⁄aºkara, who wrote a famous commentary on the Bhagavad-Gıt›, takes this verse to support his view that the jñ›na yoga, the impersonal path, is superior because it is more difficult, and so suited to persons of greater spiritual capacity.  But his view is not universally held in the tradition.

This brings us to the next point, which is that Ved›nta, the larger stream of Hindu thought of which Advaita is but a portion–albeit an historically important one–is far more internally diverse than the contemporary Western privileging of Advaita might suggest.  Among the ten schools of Ved›nta, most are not, in fact, monistic, like Advaita.  Most seek, rather, to coordinate the experienced phenomena of identity and difference, of unity and diversity, into a coherent whole.  This is not unlike Whiteheadian process thought; for process thought, too, seeks to coordinate unity and plurality, the one enduring reality and the many passing moments, and sees both as integral to human experience.  Reducing one or the other of these to the level of illusion is a failure of metaphysical explanation:

 

Ideals fashion themselves round two notions, permanence and flux.  In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux.  Permanence can be snatched only out of flux; and the passing moment can find its adequate intensity only by its submission to permanence.  Those who would disjoin the two elements can find no interpretation of patent facts. (Whitehead 1978: 338)

Among the schools of Ved›nta, ⁄aºkara’s Advaita is, of course, the standard-bearer of monistic unity, and M›dhv›c›rya’s dualistic or Dvaita Ved›nta represents a rigorously pluralistic theism, affiliated with the Vai˝˚ava faith.  But the majority of the schools of Ved›nta seem to be attempts–some more successful, in terms of logical and experiential coherence, some less so–to reconcile the twin polarities of our experience.  

The most famous of these is probably the ViŸi˝˛›dvaita Ved›nta system, or ‘Non-dualism with Difference,’ of R›m›nuja (1017-1137).  But there is also the Bhed›bheda, or the ‘Separateness and Non-Separateness’ school of Bhart¸prapañca (who lived before ⁄aºkara), Bh›skara (c. 9th century CE), and Y›davaprak›Ÿa; the Dvait›dvaita, or ‘Dual Non-Dualism’ of Nimb›rka (c. 11th century CE) and ⁄rıpati (1350-1410); the Acintya Bhed›bheda or ‘Inconceivable Separateness and Non-Separateness’ of Baladeva (18th century), as well as the Advaita ÊŸvarav›da, or ‘monistic theism’ of the ⁄aiva Siddh›nta school, described by the twentieth-century master, Satguru ⁄iv›ya Subramuniyasw›mı, in terms that are strikingly reminiscent of Whiteheadian thought, as ‘dipolar panentheism’:[6]

 

Monism is the doctrine that reality is a one whole or existence without independent parts.  Theism is the belief that God exists as a real, conscious, personal Supreme Being.  Monistic theism is the dipolar doctrine, also called panentheism, that embraces both monism and theism, two perspectives ordinarily considered contradictory or mutually exclusive, since theism implies dualism.  Monistic theism simultaneously accepts that God has a personal form, that He creates, pervades and is all that exists–and that He ultimately transcends all existence and that the soul is, in essence, one with God (Subramuniyaswami 1999:1186).

Clearly, the simplistic identification of Ved›nta with ⁄aºkara’s Advaitic monism that has been such a prominent feature of modern Western understandings of Hinduism is grossly inadequate to the very real internal diversity of this tradition.  It should also be clear that Ved›nta, in its totality, is far closer to process thought than one might otherwise guess to be the case; for, like process thought, most forms of Ved›nta seek to affirm the reality of both the personal and impersonal, temporal and eternal, ultimate realities.

Again, as mentioned in the previous section, though the predominant tendency of all of these schools is to affirm and to attempt to coordinate all of the aspects of reality affirmed in Whiteheadian process thought–God, Being, and World–these are typically seen not as distinct ultimate realities–as Griffin and Cobb affirm–but as aspects of one larger, all-comprehensive Reality or Whole, typically identified by the term ‘Brahman’ and understood as having both Nirgu˚a and Sagu˚a aspects.  But sometimes a genuine ontological pluralism is affirmed.

This is also true of the Ved›nta of the modern period, from which many Western forms of religious pluralism take their inspiration.  Sw›mı Day›nanda Saraswatı, who lived from 1824 to 1883 and was the founder of a well-known Hindu reform organization called the firya Sam›j (in which, incidentally, I received my formal admission to the Hindu dharma), made the following affirmation, not unlike the Whiteheadian affirmation of a plurality of ultimate realities:

 

There are three things beginningless: namely, God, Souls, and Prakriti or the material cause of the universe.  These are also ever-existing.  As they are eternal, their attributes, works and nature are also eternal. (Richards 1985: 55)

A Whiteheadian would, of course, reject the hard-core ontological dualism that this quotation suggests between the soul and matter, seeing soul and Prak¸ti as different arrangements of the same fundamental type of experiencing actual entity–a ‘soul’ being a personally ordered series of such entities and Prak¸ti being an aggregate of such entities experienced as an object.  Process thought, in a basic ontological sense, is monistic, but dualistic with respect to the kinds of structures which actual entities can constitute.

But Day›nanda Saraswatı’s basic ontological pluralism, and his rejection, in no uncertain terms, of the Advaitic monism of many of his fellow Neoved›ntins, definitely places him closer to Whitehead than to ⁄aºkara:  “The Neo-Vedantists look upon God as the efficient as well as the material cause of the universe, but they are absolutely in the wrong.” (Ibid)  Day›nanda Saraswatı affirms the basic theistic God-World distinction.

R›mak¸˝na, too (1836-1886), who is generally regarded as the major figure of the Neoved›ntic movement (its founding figure being R›mmohan Roy, 1772-1833), affirmed a distinction between the personal deity–his favored form of divinity, or I˝˛adevat›, being K›lı, the Divine Mother–and the impersonal Absolute–this despite the identist flavor of his many famous pronouncements about the unity of the world’s religions, some of which were cited in the preceding section.

For believers (I count myself as one of them), R›mak¸˝˚a is definitive of the virtuoso religious practitioner.  In the course of his many famous s›dhanas, or spiritual practices, the Master is known to have experienced forms of both acosmic realization and loving union with divinity–sometimes simultaneously.  Furthermore, in contrast with the Advaitic tradition with which his teachings–under the influence of his most famous student, Narendran›th Datta, the celebrated Sw›mı Vivek›nanda–came to be identified, he also recommended both as valid salvific and liberating experiences, reducing neither to the other, nor seeing one as derivative from the other.

For his own part, R›mak¸˝˚a preferred to remain–indeed, he was commanded by God to remain, by his own account (which suggests divine sanction for a Whiteheadian perspective!)–in the literally indescribable state of bh›vamukha, in which he is said to have been aware simultaneously of both the one eternal substance at the foundation of existence–⁄aºkara’s Nirgu˚a Brahman–and the ongoing personal presence of divinity:

 

The immense ‘I’ or the cosmic whole, of which we have been speaking till now, is the junction point between the Absolute and the Relative, the Impersonal and the Personal, the Nirguna and the Saguna aspects of the Divine Mother–the universal Being-Will. And to be established in that is to be in the Bhavamukha, the threshold of relative consciousness–a state in which the mind could ever dwell in the Divine in both His absolute and relative aspects and yet without the least distraction to this union, apply itself actively to everyday concerns. Established in that, Sri Ramakrishna was in touch with all aspects of the Mother's evolution as the world of manifestation, combined with a keen sense of their unity in Her. It must be however noted that the one in Bhavamukha is not in touch with the manifestation of the Whole alone, which Sri Ramakrishna called Leela [literally ‘divine play’], but also with the unmanifested Absolute state of it, the Nirguna, for which he used the word Nitya [literally the ‘eternal’]. (Tapasyananda 1985)

Another Bengali sage of the modern period, ⁄ri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950), is also known to have experienced all three basic kinds of ultimate religious object.  He also developed a system of ‘integral yoga,’ with considerable affinities to process thought, intended to incorporate all three, without privileging one over the rest.  Griffin’s summary of Ernest Simmons’ summary of Aurobindo’s work is worth citing at length here:

 

Another position rejecting the subordination of the personal God to the impersonal absolute, as Simmons has shown, was proffered in the twentieth century by Sri Aurobindo Ghose, who developed a ‘realistic Advaita’ in opposition to the ‘illusionist Advaita’ of Shankara (Simmons 1981, 217).  In contrast with Shankara’s version of Vedanta, which relegated Ishvara ‘to subordinate or inferior phases of the Brahman-idea,’ Aurobindo affirmed the position of the Gita, which ‘represent[s] the Ishwaraas higher even than the still and immutable Brahman…, as containing within himself the opposition of the Brahman with qualities and without qualities (Ghose 1950, 84-85).  As Simmons points out, Aurobindo did not deny the experience of Nirguna Brahman.  Indeed, his first mystical experience was of ‘the spaceless and timeless Brahman.’  Rather, Aurobindo denied only that this was the sole or the highest experience (Simmons 1981, 173).  Put otherwise, Aurobindo spoke of Brahman, the impersonal supercosmic existence, and Ishvara, the personal cosmic spirit, as co-equal and co-eternal, rejecting all ideas of any hierarchical ordering between them (Simmons 1981, 46-48). (Griffin 2001c: 279)

Finally, Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), the ‘Mah›tma,’ or Great-Souled one, similarly affirmed the validity of both theistic and non-theistic religious experiences and ends–again, despite the identist implications of many of his pronouncements on religious pluralism.  Indeed, what is particularly of interest about Gandhi’s perspective is the fact that he draws explicitly upon the Jain doctrines of relativity, mentioned earlier, in the formulation of his view–Anek›ntav›da, the ‘Doctrine of Pluralism,’ Sy›dv›da, the ‘Doctrine of Conditional Predication,’ and Nayav›da, the ‘Doctrine of Perspectives’– ideas to which Gandhi was exposed growing up in Gujarat, where Jains are prominent.

Again, as I have argued elsewhere, these doctrines arise out of a relational ontology that is essentially identical to that affirmed by Whitehead.  Gandhi’s willingness to draw upon these ideas thus suggests a logical compatibility with process thought.

While Gandhi did embrace, in many of his writings, Advaita philosophy, he also spoke and wrote frequently of a personal God–distinct from humanity and from the rest of the universe–and of the importance of discerning and behaving in accordance with this God’s will, and of the actions of God as an agent in human history–theistic concepts more in line with Vai˝˚ava Dvaita philosophy, or Judeo-Christian-Islamic-type mono-theism, than with the ultimately impersonal and formless Brahman of Advaita Ved›nta.

            In early 1926 or late 1925, this apparent inconsistency in his thought was pointed out by a reader of Gandhi’s English-language newspaper, Young India, in a letter to the editor.  Gandhi’s response to this letter, in the January 21, 1926 issue, is highly revealing and useful for one interested in discerning a consistent philosophy underlying Gandhi’s numerous, and seemingly disconnected, pronouncements on religion:

 

I am an advaitist and yet I can support Dvaitism (dualism).  The world is changing every moment, and is therefore unreal, it has no permanent existence.  But though it is constantly changing, it has a something about it which persists and it is therefore to that extent real.  I have therefore no objection to calling it real and unreal, and thus being called an Anekantavadi or a Syadvadi.  But my Syadvada is not the syadvada of the learned, it is peculiarly my own.  I cannot engage in a debate with them.  It has been my experience that I am always true from my point of view, and am often wrong from the point of view of my honest critics.  I know that we are both right from our respective points of view.  And this knowledge saves me from attributing motives to my opponents or critics.  The seven blind men who gave seven different descriptions of the elephant were all right from their respective points of view, and wrong from the point of view of one another, and right and wrong from the point of view of the man who knew the elephant.  I very much like this doctrine of the manyness of reality.  It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Musalman [a Muslim] from his own standpoint and a Christian from his.  Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents.  Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa.  I want to take the whole world in the embrace of my love.  My anekantavad is the result of the twin doctrine of Satya and Ahimsa [truth and nonviolence]. (Gandhi 1981: 30)

Much more can, of course, be said on this topic; but this preliminary survey of the tradition should suggest that Hindu religious pluralism is eminently compatible with a Whiteheadian worldview, despite the identist shorthand that Hindu thinkers often use to express it.  Indeed, Hinduism is far more ‘Whiteheadian’ than is generally recognized.

5.         Addressing Hindu Religious Inclusivism: Is Everybody a Hindu?

But is the task of the Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralist then finished?  How should a Whiteheadian religious pluralist respond to Hindu assertions to the effect that Hinduism is not the only true religion, but the only religion?  Is it genuinely pluralistic for a Hindu to see religions like Christianity and Islam, for example, as forms of bhakti yoga, alongside the Vai˝˚ava faith, or of Jainism and Buddhism as, like Advaita Ved›nta, variants of the jñ›na yoga, the path of wisdom?  Or is it imperialist?

One could argue, as mentioned earlier, that the dominant Hindu position, at least as it is frequently expressed by Hindus, does not so much accept diversity as obliterate it.  It is not so much that other religions are accepted as that their very ‘otherness’ is denied.  ‘Other’ religions, in a certain sense, do not even exist.  A Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralist needs to address this inclusivist Hindu stance and explore ways of reconciling it with a genuine religious pluralism.  This means asking: When Hindus say, ‘Everybody is a Hindu,’ and ‘All religions are forms of Hinduism,’ is this actually a version of Hindu triumphalism, the ‘bad’ kind of closed inclusivism that contemporary Western religious pluralists accuse Christian inclusivists like Rahner of perpetuating?  Or is it something else?  I shall argue that this is ultimately a semantic issue that hinges on the meanings of two key terms that are actually foreign to the Hindu tradition–‘Hinduism’ and ‘religion.’

As Wilhelm Halbfass observes, “It has often been stated that Hinduism is not a well-defined, clearly identifiable religion in the sense of Christianity or Islam, but rather a loosely coordinated and somewhat amorphous conglomeration of ‘sects’ or similar formations.” (Halbfass 1991: 51)  Indeed, Hindus, for most of history, did not even use the term ‘Hindu,’ but more specific sectarian labels, like Vai˝˚ava, ⁄aiva, ⁄›kta, Sm›rta, etc.  The same is the case with the term ‘religion.’  Two Sanskrit words come close to meeting the definition of ‘religion’ as this is generally understood in the West.  There is ‘dharma,’ which can mean ‘religion,’ but really means ‘way of life’ or ‘cosmic order,’ and there is sa˙prad›ya, which means ‘a religion,’ a particular sect or denomination.

‘Hinduism,’ in terms of the history of the word, is really an artificial creation, a construct developed first by Muslim and then by European Christian conquerors in order to facilitate their dominion over the Indian subcontinent. (Inden 1990: 85-130)  The power to define a thing, to construct knowledge, is a power that imperialist forces have utilized throughout history in order to shape it to their own ends, as Edward Said and Ronald Inden, in works like Orientalism (Said 1978) and Imagining India (Inden 1990), have elaborated in depth.  The concept of ‘Hinduism’ has helped to enable Westerners, for centuries, to divest the people of India of agency by teaching them that they are benighted victims of an inescapable prison of superstition and otherworldly spirituality.  Hinduism is “‘a mysterious amorphous entity,’ one that is palpable yet lacks something.”  What does it lack?  “[A] ‘world-ordering rationality,’” that the West provides! (Ibid: 86)

One modern Hindu response to this characterization of Hinduism as amorphous, and not ‘a religion,’ but a collection of sects, has been, as Halbfass explains, to accept it:

 

…[B]ut the weakness or deficiency it suggests has been turned into an element of self-affirmation.  In this view, the fact that Hinduism is not a religion in the ordinary sense does not imply a defect; rather, it means that it is located at a different and higher level.  It is something much more comprehensive, much less divisive and sectarian than the ‘ordinary’ religions.  It is not itself a religion; i.e., it is not itself a sect.  Instead, it is–according to this view–a framework, a concordance and unifying totality of sects.  The ‘ordinary’ religions, such as Christianity and Islam, should not be compared and juxtaposed to Hinduism itself, but to the sects, that is, ‘religions’ that are contained within Hinduism.  Hinduism as the san›tanadharma is not a religion among religions; it is said to be the ‘eternal religion,’ [the] religion in or behind all religions, a kind of ‘metareligion,’ a structure potentially ready to comprise and reconcile within itself all the religions of the world, just as it contains and reconciles the so-called Hindu sects, such as ⁄aivism or Vai˝˚avism and their subordinate ‘sectarian’ formations [not unlike a pluralistic model of truth and religious diversity]…A.K. Banerjee states in his Discourses on Hindu Spiritual Culture: ‘Hinduism has evolved out of itself a multitude of religions, each of which bears perfect analogy to Christianity and Mohammedanism [i.e. Islam], so far as the application of this term is concerned…We commit an obvious logical fallacy, when we put Hinduism by the side of Christianity, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, etc., to signify that it is one of the sectarian religions of the world.’  The contrast between Hinduism and the other religions is thus comparable or even reducible to the contrast between Hinduism and the Hindu sects, and it is a contrast between the more comprehensive and the less comprehensive. (Ibid 51, 52-53)

As Halbfass characterizes it, then, the Hindu affirmation of the all-inclusiveness of Hinduism is a form of Hindu triumphalism–or counter-triumphalism–an affirmation of Hindu superiority, a reply to those Muslims and Christians who define Hinduism as amorphous and then denigrate it for being so, a counter-assertion that Christian and Muslim cohesiveness is bought at the price of a limited and exclusive vision of truth.

But though this triumphalist dimension of Hindu inclusivism certainly exists, and is certainly every bit as un-pluralistic as its Christian or Islamic equivalents–and therefore to be rejected by a Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralist–is it the entire story?  Before one begins ascribing motives and getting caught up in denunciations of Hindu absolutism it is necessary to examine reasons other than human depravity, Hindu reasons, that might shed more light on this stance and the legitimate reasons why a Hindu might hold it.

When Hindus call Hinduism an all-inclusive religion, what do they mean by these words?  Again, both ‘Hinduism’ and ‘religion’ are terms that are, in their origins, foreign to a Hindu self-understanding.  Might it be that when these terms are employed by Hindus they are being stretched beyond their ordinary meaning to refer to concepts that are indigenous to Hinduism?  How else could one make sense of the claim that Hinduism is the world’s only religion, when Hindus are quite aware of the existence of other faiths?

What does ‘Hindu’ mean to Hindus?  First of all, one is not simply a ‘Hindu’ any more than one is simply a ‘Christian.’  A Christian is, except in idiosyncratic cases, a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, or a member of one of the Orthodox churches.  Similarly, a Hindu is, at least by birth, if not by choice, connected to a sub-sect, or sa˙prad›ya, of one of the four major Hindu traditions–the orthodox Vedic Sm›rta tradition or one of the three main theistic traditions–the Vai˝˚ava, the ⁄aiva, or the ⁄›kta.  Again, in premodern times, these religions or ‘sub-religions’ within Hinduism–the samprad›yas–were the primary means by which Hindus identified themselves in what a modern Westerner would recognize as ‘religious’ terms–as devotees of Vi˝˚u or of ⁄iva or of the Mother Goddess, and so on, with the appropriate sectarian beliefs and practices.

The more comprehensive term, dharma, means, at its broadest, the totality of the cosmic order.  In its most narrow meaning, it means one’s own personal duties within that order–one’s svadharma–as a member of society born with a specific role in a specific family, in a specific j›ti or ‘caste,’ in a specific community, and in a specific sa˙prad›ya or ‘sect.’  (It is possibly this concept of svadharma that Gandhi had in mind when he wrote that, “In reality there are as many religions as there are individuals.” (Richards 1985: 156))  Dharma, though it manifests in the lives of all beings as many svadharmas, is ultimately one.  Again, Eka˙ sadanek›¯ panth›¯–‘Truth is one, paths are many.’

Dharma is san›tana, or eternal.  It is the universal law, the foundation of actual existence.  Its literal meaning is ‘that which gives support’–again, something like a basis or a foundation.  If it must be identified with the term ‘religion,’ it would mean something like ‘religion as such,’ the eternal ideal or ‘Platonic form’ of religion, in which all particular instances of religion participate, rather than any one actual religion (though it has gradually come to take on the latter usage in more recent times).

Sa˙prad›yas, however, sects, variations on the many yogas, or ways to mok˝a, are numerous.  ‘Sa˙prad›ya is a genus with species.  ‘A’ sa˙prad›ya is something like ‘a religion.’  ‘Dharma,’ however, is not a genus with species.  It is a universal (s›m›nya) with particular instantiations.  It makes no more sense to talk about ‘a dharma,’ on the premodern meaning of this term, than it does to talk about ‘a number four.’

When a Hindu affirms that Hinduism ‘includes all religions,’ s/he essentially equates the Western term ‘religion,’ which is generally regarded as a genus, having many species, such as Christianity, Islam, etc.–with the Hindu term sa˙prad›ya, similarly equating the Western term ‘Hinduism’ with dharma–the San›tana Dharma.  This is logically distinct from Christian inclusivism, which amounts to saying, “Religion C–a particular member of the genus ‘religion’–includes all religious truth.”  But Hindu inclusivism, on the understanding that I am suggesting, amounts to a tautology: “Religion as such includes all religious truth.”

Articulating something like the San›tana Dharma–the ‘eternal religion’ that many Hindus identify with Hinduism–the broader worldview of general truths that encompasses all the world’s religions and philosophies, is, I would argue, the ideal goal of all pluralistic interpretations of religion, including the Whiteheadian–to somehow give expression to the larger vision of reality that underlies religious and philosophical diversity.  But, as we have already seen, one of the central insights of Whiteheadian thought is that, with regard to the expression of this larger worldview in some historically particular linguistic and conceptual form, there will never be finality.  Truth cannot be identified with any one expression of it, only approached asymptotically.

A question thus arises: Can the historical Hindu tradition, a tradition–or family of traditions, as the case may be–that is particular to a specific time and place, justify, in Whiteheadian terms, being identified with the San›tana Dharma, the eternal truth, which is independent of time and space, and is, at least according to Whiteheadian thought, not finally identifiable with any such particular historical formulation?  Is using the term ‘Hinduism’ to refer to this truth not unlike the false claim to universal neutrality asserted by identist forms of religious pluralism?  Again, triumphalist motives aside, I would say that this issue has ultimately arisen out of a general ambiguity in the very meaning of the term ‘Hinduism,’ an ambiguity traceable to the history of the term itself.

One can discern at least three distinct meanings of the term ‘Hinduism’ that are employed by writers on Hinduism, both from within and outside the tradition.  These meanings are frequently conflated, or are switched between without warning, sometimes even in mid-sentence.  Which definition one employs will have a profound effect upon the meaning of statements like, ‘Everybody is a Hindu,’ and the potential compatibility, or otherwise, of such statements with a genuine religious pluralism.  Clarifying what we mean by ‘Hinduism’ will go a long way in the direction of addressing the issue of Hindu inclusivism and whether Hinduism as traditionally conceived can really be genuinely pluralistic, by the definition of ‘genuine religious pluralism’ employed in this paper.

In order to distinguish between these three meanings, I shall use the nomenclature of Hinduism(I), Hinduism(V), and Hinduism(SD).  These ‘Hinduisms’ are distinguished in the following manner:

 

(1)       Hinduism(I): This refers to Hinduism as the family of religious traditions that are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent.  ‘Hindu,’ on this understanding, basically means ‘Indian.’  Historically, this is the original meaning of the term.  It includes Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, and is employed by the Indian Supreme Court.  It is a broader, though less precise, meaning than the next, more common one.

 

(2)       Hinduism(V):  This refers to Hinduism as the Vedic tradition, that family of religious traditions and philosophical schools that take the Vedas to be, in some sense, sacred and foundational.  This premodern orthodox Brahmanical meaning is the standard world religion textbook meaning of Hinduism, and the meaning that most Western scholars of religion have in mind when they use this term.

 

(3)       Hinduism(SD): This refers to Hinduism as the san›tana dharma, the ‘eternal religion,’ the ‘universal religion,’ the ‘perennial philosophy,’ the ‘meta-religion’ that is inclusive of all others.  This is the understanding of Hinduism that is most relevant to our concerns, and that seems to inform most Hindu writing that can be interpreted as expressing either religious pluralism, religious inclusivism, or both.

Hinduism(SD) is clearly the most inclusive meaning of ‘Hinduism’ and Hinduism(V) the least inclusive–though Hinduism(I) is the most problematic.  The logical relations among these meanings of Hinduism can be illustrated schematically in the following way:

 

Hinduism(SD)–The San›tana Dharma

Hinduism(I)–The Indian Tradition

 

Non-Indian Theistic Religions:

Zoroastrianism, Judaism,

Christianity, Islam, etc.

 

Non-Indian Acosmic Religions:

Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism,

Philosophical Daoism, etc.

 

Non-Indian Cosmic Religions:

Shinto, Popular Daoism,

Confucianism, Indigenous Religions, etc.

 

Non-Indian

Secular Philosophies:

Modern Science, Marxism, Process Thought, etc.

 

Hinduism(V)–The Vedic Tradition

 

Sa˙prad›yas (‘Religions’):

Sm›rta

Vai˝˚ava

⁄aiva

⁄›kta

 

DarŸanas (‘Philosophies’):

S›˙khya

Yoga

Ny›ya

VaiŸe˝ika

PÒrva Mım›˙s›

Uttara Mım›˙s› (Ved›nta)

 

 

Jainism

 

Buddhism

(Therav›da,

Mah›y›na,

Vajray›na)

 

Sikhism

 

Lok›yata

(Material-ism)

 

fijıvika

(extinct)

 

            My basic claim regarding the relevance of these three definitions to developing a genuine Hindu religious pluralism is that it is a simplistic identification or confusion of Hinduism(SD) with either Hinduism(V) or Hinduism(I) that can lead to the closed variety of inclusivism that a Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralist wishes to avoid.  At the same time I would claim that some form of the idea of Hinduism(SD)–of an ultimate truth–is as indispensable for a Hindu religious pluralist as the symbol of Christ is for a Christian religious pluralist.  What ultimately proves to be at issue is whether Hinduism(SD) needs to be called ‘Hinduism’ at all; for the very ambiguity of the term ‘Hinduism’ lends this word to the confusion just mentioned, and so to the more problematic type of inclusivism.

So my critique, as a Whiteheadian Hindu religious pluralist, of Hindu inclusivism is basically the following: The identification, found in many Hindu writings, of either the Vedic or the broader Indian tradition, of Hinduism(V) or Hinduism(I)–however internally diverse and inclusive these two may actually be–with the San›tana Dharma, the eternal Truth with a capital ‘T,’ is an example of the very kind of absolutism that is the antithesis of a genuine religious pluralism.  It is to restrict truth by identifying a particular historical and linguistic expression of truth with truth itself.  It may evidence the very same closed attitude for which contemporary Hindus frequently criticize Christians and Muslims.  It is also in violation of the Hindu tradition itself, which teaches that Brahman cannot be defined in words.  It is neti, neti–“Not this, not that.” (B¸had›ra˚yaka Upani˝ad 4.5: 15)

The ambiguity of the term ‘Hinduism,’ of course, is a function of the fact that the very notion of ‘Hinduism’ is a foreign import, an outside imposition, a descriptive label given first by Muslims and then by European Christians to the vast array of religious paths and ways of life indigenous to the Indian subcontinent.  Indeed, the very word ‘Hindu’ is a geographical term, a Persian mispronunciation of the word ‘Sindhu,’ the name of the river–called by the Greeks the ‘Indus’–beyond which, from a Persian perspective, lay the country of ‘Hindustan,’ the land of the ‘Hindus.’  In other words, the term ‘Hindu’ simply meant, in its origins, ‘Indian.’

Accordingly, when European scholars coined the term ‘Hinduism’, it meant ‘the religion of the Indians’ (with all of its diverse internal variety).  This original meaning of Hinduism is, of course, the one that I am calling Hinduism(I).

            Hinduism(I), being simply an ethno-geographic term meaning ‘Indian,’ is not particularly useful for the purposes of pointing out a coherent tradition.  To be sure, one can argue that there are actually quite a few common assumptions and issues that give some cohesiveness to what one might call the ‘Indian tradition,’ just as there is a similar cohesiveness to the ‘Western tradition.’  But this is to elide the significant differences internal to both ‘traditions.’  Ideas that unite the various schools of thought that make up this tradition include the ideas of karma, mok˝a, and sa˙s›ra, mentioned before, as well as the prevalence of yogic s›dhanas, or spiritual disciplines, aimed at producing mok˝a.  It includes those traditions generally understood to fall under the umbrella of ‘Hinduism’ (or ‘Hinduism(V)’).  But it also includes Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the Lok›yata, or Materialist, school of philosophy (which does not share, but explicitly repudiates, the above-mentioned ideas and practices, thus adding to the ambiguity of this definition).

This is the definition employed by the Indian constitution, and it serves mainly to distinguish Hinduism from the non-indigenous or ‘foreign’ religions of Christianity and Islam.  This, however, is a problematic usage because it is precisely such a nationalistic definition of Hinduism, and the understanding that goes with it, that helps fuel much of the anti-Christian and anti-Islamic rhetoric that has been a major Hindu contribution to the poisoning of interreligious relations in India in the modern period.

The logic, if one can call it that, of the exclusivism that is based on this definition is that if ‘Hindu’ means ‘Indian’ then the ‘Indianness’–and so the patriotism–of those who do not define themselves as ‘Hindu’ can be called into question.  Christians and Muslims in India can thus be viewed with suspicion, as outsiders and invaders.  This thinking can also fuel questions about the ‘loyalty’ of Hindus who reach out to other communities–hence the assassination of Mah›tma Gandhi by a fellow Hindu.

This definition also has a significant impact on non-Indian converts to Hinduism, such as myself; for the ‘Hinduness’ of those who are not ethnically Indian is also problematized by this same definitional logic.  We are marginalized by such an understanding, and made to feel somehow less authentically ‘Hindu,’ despite the fact that we may display, in practice, a greater commitment to the study and preservation of the tradition than many born Hindus.

As a definition of Hinduism, then, Hinduism(I) is just inclusive enough to be vague–and so, from a scholarly perspective, useless–and is yet, at the same time, just exclusive enough to promote interreligious violence, marginalization, and hatred.  As the most destructive definition of Hinduism, my personal preference is that it be jettisoned.

The identification of Hinduism(I) with Hinduism(SD) essentially amounts to a nationalistic assertion that India is the fountain of all primordial wisdom–an assertion to which my own, earlier claim in this paper about India being ‘the true cradle of Western civilization’ arguably comes dangerously close.  Such an identification issues in a closed inclusivism, a restrictive understanding of truth, for the fairly clear reason that it can, like all forms of nationalism, slide easily into an assertion that no other culture has ever done anything worthwhile, that India has much to teach rest of the world, but nothing to learn.

Because of the ambiguities inherent in Hinduism(I), this definition has largely been abandoned by scholars of religion in favor of Hinduism(V), a definition that does point to something fairly specific, and that also seems to have more foundation within the tradition itself.  Hinduism(V), Hinduism as the Vedic tradition, is rooted in a premodern Brahmanical understanding of what is now called ‘Hinduism.’  On this understanding, one is a Hindu if one recognizes, in some sense, the authority and sanctity of the Vedas.

This is, in one sense, a restrictive definition of Hinduism; but it is also a strikingly liberal and inclusive one.  Historically, as the schematic above suggests, it has allowed for an enormous variety of internal diversity within the Hindu, or Brahmanical, tradition, a wide range of practices and beliefs.

This inclusiveness is largely due to the fact that the Vedic literature does not present, in the absence of some specific, traditional interpretive lens–such as Advaita Ved›nta–a single coherent or cohesive worldview or set of propositions.  Positions that range from the most extreme monistic idealism to the most radical ontological pluralism are thus able to claim Vedic authority.  It is also the case that, as the tradition developed historically, the actual Vedic texts became more and more remote from many of its central concerns.  Allegiance to the Vedas eventually became more of a political statement–‘lip service’–a way of locating oneself within the Brahmanical hierarchy of views, than a substantive indicator of one’s philosophical position.  The term ‘Veda’ came to refer to an unspecified but widely revered primordial wisdom.  Authors claiming allegiance to the Vedas could, and still do, articulate positions with little or no relation to the views laid out in any actual Vedic text.

The religious paths (sa˙prad›yas) and systems of philosophy (darŸanas) in the Vedic tradition include, at the most orthodox end of the spectrum, the explicitly Veda-based PÒrva Mım›˙s› and Ved›nta darŸanas.  Both take the Vedas to be definitive of legitimate religious and spiritual practice.  (They disagree, though, on which parts of the Vedic corpus are the most important.  The PÒrva, or earlier, Mım›˙s› emphasizes the karma kha˚˜a, or ‘action portion,’ the earlier Vedic scriptures.  The Uttara, or later, Mım›˙s›, or Ved›nta, emphasizes the jñ›na kha˚˜a, the later wisdom literature).

Within the broad mainstream of the Vedic tradition are the various Hindu theistic paths, which give nominal acknowledgement to the Vedas, but give far greater emphasis, in practice, to their own sectarian literatures–particular PÒr›˚as, the Vai˝˚ava and ⁄aiva figamas, and the ⁄›kta T›ntras, for example.

But this tradition also includes S›˙khya and Yoga, which can hardly even be called nominally Vedic.  These two darŸanas do not explicitly deny the authority of the Vedas.  But they base their authority–much as the non-Vedic Jain and Buddhist traditions also do–upon the enlightenment experiences of their sage-founders–K›pila and Patañjali, respectively.  It is not at all clear from examining their root-texts, or sÒtras, that the Vedas historically had any relevance to them whatsoever, with respect to their origins.  Perhaps they were later incorporated into the Vedic fold because of their widespread followings, an incorporation made possible by the fact that they were not explicitly opposed to the Vedas.  Some even speculate that these two schools of thought–along with other Ÿram›nic paths, like Jainism and Buddhism–are remnants of a pre-Vedic culture.

In what sense, then, is Hinduism(V) a restrictive understanding?  This has to do with the premodern, authoritarian, and supernaturalist character of orthodox Brahmanical epistemology.  If they explicitly reject Vedic–and by implication, Brahmanical–authority, then even non-Vedic paths that are substantially identical to certain Vedic paths–as Jainism arguably is to S›˙khya, in a number of significant ways–are regarded by orthodox Brahmins as being beyond the pale of legitimate religious practice and belief.

An explicit rejection of Vedic authority, then, even if it happens to be coupled with perfectly orthodox views on a wide range of important topics–topics such as karma, rebirth, liberation, and nonviolence–is enough to relegate a school of thought to the level of illegitimacy.  Jainism and Buddhism, therefore, are regarded by orthodox Brahmins as being on the same level as the Lok›yata, or Materialist system, and are designated by the same term of opprobrium–n›stika, or ‘denier’–the closest Hindu term that there is to ‘heretic’–this despite their many agreements with Vedic thought on numerous issues.

Hinduism(V), therefore, because it bases itself not on common human experience and reason, but on the authority of a set of texts (and that of the caste that is regarded as possessing sole legitimate custodianship of these texts–the Brahmins) is fundamentally a premodern understanding of Hinduism.  It is also an exclusivist understanding–inclusive though it may be of a wide range of substantive understandings of reality.  For even the fact that many Jain and Buddhist views, for example, can be defended rationally, and are even substantially identical to views held by Vedic schools of thought, does not matter from this perspective if those who hold them do not accept the Vedas.

This is logically not much different from Christian exclusivism, which regards even religions with basically the same worldview and ethical norms as Christianity to be beyond the pale of salvation if they do not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  (Even Christian inclusivists may have a problem with religions that explicitly reject a Christian understanding of Jesus.  Rahner, for example, raised the question of the legitimacy of Islam in this regard, as opposed to religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, most of whose followers had simply never heard of Jesus.)  Similarly, according to orthodox Brahmins, those who reject the authority of the Vedas are placing themselves beyond the pale of eligibility (adhik›ra) for the saving knowledge that alone can lead to mok˝a, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth.  Hinduism(V) is therefore not an understanding of Hinduism that is conducive either to religious pluralism, or even to religious inclusivism in its wider sense, as ‘including’ traditions from beyond the Vedic fold.

Modern Hindu writers, however, in contrast with more orthodox authors, base their claims ultimately, in keeping with the modern epistemic shift, on the authority of human experience and reason.  They reconcile their commitment to the Vedas with their modern epistemology through an interpretation of the Vedas as recording the experiences of enlightened sages, or ¸˝is–experiences available, in principle, to all who undertake the requisite yogic practices.  Hinduism is, in the modern writings of the tradition, extolled as a supremely rational religion, and as having an empirical basis in meditative experience.

This, fundamentally, is the Hindu version of the shift that Griffin describes among Western thinkers from a supernaturalist to a naturalist worldview. (Griffin 2001a: 35-47)  The Vedas are seen, by the premodern, orthodox Hindu tradition, as ‘eternal’ (nitya), as existing outside of time and space and not subject to analysis by human reason (tarka)–a claim which led to unending ridicule on the part of Jains and Buddhists, who prided themselves on the rationality (yukti) of their views.  The Vedas are, on this premodern view, basically ‘supernatural.’  But with the modern shift, they become repositories of wisdom available, in principle, to everyone–‘natural’ wisdom.  

This, of course, is where the third definition of Hinduism, the all-inclusive meta-religion–Hinduism(SD)–comes into play, and is why the theme of Hindu inclusiveness is so prominent in modern Hinduism.  If the Vedas articulate a philosophy available, at least in principle, to human beings of all cultures and at all times–a ‘perennial philosophy’ or a San›tana Dharma– then that philosophy becomes discernible, in principle, in the writings of wise people and mystics of all religions, and not just the Vedic religions.  On this modern understanding, then, ‘Everybody is a Hindu’ because everybody has access to the same ultimate truths that are recorded in the Vedas.  Hinduism(V) is essentially universalized, thereby becoming Hinduism(SD).

It is thus in the modern period that one begins to find prominent Hindu thinkers like R›mmohan Roy, R›mak¸˝˚a, Sw›mı Vivek›nanda, Gandhi, Sw›mı Prabhav›nanda, Paramah›˙s› Yog›nanda, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan extolling the virtues of figures like Jesus and the Buddha.  The Hindu tradition becomes a universal tradition, including the wisdom of all the world’s religions.  To what extent this universalism amounts to a ‘closed’ inclusivism of the kind Halbfass describes, an assertion of Hindu superiority–to the ‘finding’ of Vedic ideas latent in the teachings of the world’s other religions–or is an ‘open’ pluralism–actually incorporating new understandings and insights from other religions into Hinduism–varies from author to author, and even from text to text by the same author.  (Among the thinkers I have listed, the one that is the most consistently ‘pluralistic’ is probably Gandhi.)  But it is clearly in the modern period, with the emergence of Hinduism(SD), that something like a genuine Hindu religious pluralism becomes conceivable.

But the question still remains: Why use the word ‘Hinduism’?  Why identify the historical Vedic tradition–Hinduism(V)–with the broader universal truth to which it points and in which it participates–Hinduism(SD)–if, as so many modern Hindus claim, all traditions point to and participate in this truth?  Is such a usage at all legitimate, from a pluralistic Whiteheadian perspective?

If a modern Hindu, even a modern Hindu who is ‘genuinely pluralistic,’ has a prior commitment to an understanding of the Vedic tradition as disclosing fundamental truths and as a reliable guide to truth, then when s/he encounters the insights of other traditions, s/he will of course attempt to incorporate those insights in a way that will be coherent with what s/he already holds to be true from the Hindu(V) tradition.  This is the sense, mentioned earlier, in which some kind of inclusivism–an epistemic inclusivism–is inevitable for anyone who is open to other views and is not a relativist.  It is therefore not illegitimate, and is, I think, compatible with a genuine religious pluralism to, as was said before, evaluate other traditions in terms of one’s own, provided one is also open to new truths that, though they may need to be compatible with–in order to be acceptable–will not necessarily be identical to what one already holds.

But not all Hindu thinkers necessarily move from this broad understanding to a deployment of the term ‘Hinduism’ to refer to the eternal religion.  Gandhi articulates an understanding of ultimate truth not unlike that of Whitehead–a more postmodern view–as transcending any one historical linguistic formulation: “The one Religion is beyond all speech…It is not less real because it is unseen.  This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc.  It harmonizes them and gives them reality.” (Richards 1985: 156)  And rather than saying, ‘Everybody is a Hindu,’ Sw›mı Vivek›nanda articulates a position that anticipates John Cobb’s idea of the mutual transformation of religions through dialogue:  “The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian.  But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.” (Ibid: 89).

I, for one, would prefer to think of myself as an adherent of the San›tana Dharma, a form of the eternal religion or the perennial philosophy, than as ‘Hindu,’ a term with geographical and ethnic connotations that exclude me.  But I still use this term because, for all its ambiguities, it communicates more substantive content to most people about my beliefs and practices than any other term in widespread current usage.

In the end, though, I actually believe that it is perfectly legitimate for a Hindu to use the term ‘Hinduism’ to refer to the San›tana Dharma–but with the self-relativizing understanding that a Christian can, with equal legitimacy, call it Christianity–much as St. Augustine does when he writes, “For what is now called the Christian religion existed of old and was never absent from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh.” (Augustine 1953: 218f)  Similarly, if, by ‘Islam,’ a Muslim means, according to the original Arabic definition of the word, obedience to the will of God, and that all human beings who follow the will of God inasmuch as it is known to them are thereby ‘anonymous Muslims,’ I have no objection.  If this is what ‘Islam’ means, then I want to be a Muslim.  If ‘Christianity’ means the primordial truth that ‘was never absent from the beginning of the human race,’ then I want to be a Christian.  And if ‘Hinduism’ means the San›tana Dharma, the eternal order underlying all religions, then please, call me a Hindu!  But would it not be better simply to call the truth the truth?

In conclusion, the interpretation of Hindu inclusivism along genuinely pluralistic lines is a possibility, if one takes the term ‘Hindu’ in proclamations about all religions being parts of Hinduism to refer to an eternal truth beyond ‘religions.’  The term ‘Hindu,’ however, is unfortunate, inasmuch as, historically, it is also bound up with ethnic and religious traditions that are not universal, but highly particular and localized, in scope.  The use of the term ‘Hinduism,’ then, is probably best replaced with a more specific, indigenous term–with less political and cultural baggage–like San›tana Dharma, or truth.

6.         Conclusion: Anek›nta Ved›nta–Towards Genuine Hindu Religious Pluralism

            Hinduism, as I understand it, as a believer, entails a position that is fundamentally identical to what I have described as a Whiteheadian–and thereby, a genuine–religious pluralism.  On this understanding of what it means to be Hindu, if one is a Hindu, then one is also a religious pluralist.  One is a religious pluralist because one is a Hindu.  At the same time, for me personally, it is equally true that I am a Hindu because I am a religious pluralist.  I have adopted this tradition precisely because I see it in this way.

            It is not, however, a perfect tradition–for there is no such thing.  As Cobb says of process thought, Hinduism is–and will always be–‘in process.’  The identification of Hinduism with the San›tana Dharma runs the danger of slipping into an absolutism no less closed to the truths of others than the most rigid exclusivism; and the identist understanding of Hindu pluralism that arises from Advaitic interpretations has the same problems as the Western models that take it as their inspiration.  But there are also strong affinities, as we have seen, between process thought and the dominant Hindu worldview, and a way of interpreting Hindu inclusivism that is not necessarily closed to the truths of other traditions, but is genuinely pluralistic.

Much more work clearly needs to be done.  But by showing the affinities between the dominant Hindu worldview and process thought, and the ambiguities of the term ‘Hinduism,’ I hope I have at least begun the task of developing a genuine Hindu religious pluralism, a pluralistic or Anek›nta Ved›nta–a task which will ultimately involve a more thorough coordination and synthesis of the concepts of process thought with those of the Hindu tradition.  But I hope the present paper will at least suggest the direction that such a project might take, where it might begin, as well as some sense of where it may end up.  

The ultimate hope, of course, is that such a pluralistic understanding of Hinduism, and of all religions, might lead to the kind of harmony among human beings envisioned by the Vedic sages:

 

Sam›nı va ›kÒti¯ sam›n› h¸day›ni va¯,

Sam›nam astu vo mano yath› va¯ susah›sati.

 

United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be at one,

That you may long together dwell in unity and concord!

 

(¿g Veda 10. 191: 4)[7]

 


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[1]               See especially Kenoyer 1998, Feuerstsein, Kak, and Frawley 1995, and my unpublished paper, ‘Celtic Hinduism: Ancient India, Ancient Ireland, and the Lost Cultural Heritage of Europe’ (Long 2002).

[2]               As far as Buddhism goes, I am quite aware that there are many Buddhists–particularly Western Buddhists and some East Asian Buddhists–who would disagree with me on this point.  My views are closer to the Tibetan tradition on this issue.  I readily grant the argument, though, that Buddhism is far more about the practice of the path and the elimination of suffering, of dukkha, than about a set of views on rebirth.

 

[3]               Griffin has elaborated on the compatibility of some version of the punarjanma, or rebirth, doctrine with process thought. (Griffin 1997: 184-208)  I am in complete agreement with his basic argument.  On a point of detail, though, as I understand him, his conception of rebirth is that it is an ability that human beings have gradually evolved, rather than the ‘normal’ behavior of a personally ordered series of actual entities, or a ‘soul,’ when its physical vehicle can no longer function, as affirmed in the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions.  I affirm the rebirth doctrine in general, on the basis of arguments like Griffin’s and my own paranormal experiences.  I affirm a specifically Hindu version of rebirth, contrary to Griffin’s view of it as a relatively recently evolved ability, in keeping with the modern Hindu understanding that the testimony of scripture either includes (in the case of ŸrÒti) or is based upon (in the case of sm¸ti)direct experiential accounts of the phenomena it describes.  Given the compatibility of many of the scriptural accounts with process thought and my own experiences, rather than waiting for more evidence in order to accept these accounts, I choose, in the spirit of William James, to accept them until such time as compelling evidence suggests I should not.  Na tvev›ha˙ j›tu n›sa˙ na tva˙ neme jan›dhip›¯, na caiva na bhavi˝y›ma¯ sarve vayamata¯ param–“Never, indeed, was there a time when you or I, nor any of these kings, did not exist; nor will there ever be a time when any of us shall cease to be.” (Bhagavad-Gıt› 2:12)

[4]               The Bhagavad-Gıt›, however, does not say, as Griffin next states, that, “Brahman is the body of God.”  But the basic import of his reading is absolutely correct–that the personal God is the all-inclusive reality.  Brahman–Nirgu˚a Brahman–is more like the abstract concept of God, the ‘essence’ of God, corresponding to the impersonal Absolute, or Principle of Creativity, of process thought.  The ‘body’ of God would be the Cosmos (jagat) made up of all the beings that inhabit it.  Bhagav›n ⁄ri K¸˝˚a states, in one of the verses Griffin cites, May› tatamida˙ sarva˙ jagadavyaktamÒrtin›, matsth›ni sarvabhÒt›ni na c›ha˙ te˝vavasthita¯–“I have extended all this mysterious universe.  All beings are situated in me, not I in them.” (Bhagavad-Gıt› 9:4)  But elsewhere, K¸˝˚a states that he does dwell within all beings.  Aham ›tm›sarvabhÒt›Ÿayasthita¯–“I am the Self situated within all beings.” (Bhagavad-Gıt› 10:20)  The import of the first verse is that God is the one necessary being.  This is compatible with process thought, according to which the Cosmos as such is necessary, but not the particular beings that make it up, which are contingent.  The particulars, of course, of God are also contingent, being dependent upon the particular beings.  But the existence of God is necessary.  Interestingly, the Gıt› also says that God’s particulars are also dependent upon the beings that make up the Cosmos, that God is their experiencer, their ‘enjoyer.’  Bhokt›ra˙suh¸da˙ sarvabhÒt›n›˙ jñ›tv› m›˙ Ÿ›ntim¸cchati–“Having known me as the enjoyer…the friend of all beings, one attains peace.” (Bhagavad-Gıt› 5:29)  The Gıt› is replete with process themes.

[5]               Roger Marcaurelle argues, however–convincingly, I think–that the renunciation that ⁄aºkara held to be a necessary pre-requisite for liberation was an inner renunciation, available in principle to all people, including lay householders, women, non-Brahmins, and even mlecchas–non-Indian ‘barbarians.’  This is in contrast with the more conventional interpretation of ⁄aºkara, within the DaŸan›mı community, according to which only male Brahmin sanny›sıs, or renouncers, are eligible for mok˝a. (Marcaurelle 2000) On this view, again, theistic practice, like the Pañc›y›tana PÒj›, is meant for those at a less mature spiritual level.

[6]               My information on the various schools of Ved›nta is drawn largely from Dasgupta 1922, Padmarajiah 1963 and Klostermaier 1998.

[7]               Translated by Raimundo Panikkar. (Panikkar 1977: 863)