A post-conservative understanding of religious tolerance in modern India

Western news media take only a token notice of Indian politics; but it would require a great ignorance not to notice an India torn into factions by the rabble-rousing of a nationalist party (mostly called by its acronym of B.J.P.) and its loud-mouthed leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This Modi, by his policy and its execution, merits all the comparisons in the world to figures like Hitler, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Trump, Mussolini, et al., and enjoys support among the most unlikely-looking people. I have relatives myself on both sides of the question.

One of the B.J.P.’s most obvious hypocrisies, is its invocation of the name of the legendary Prince Rám, the Indian original of the Greek hero ‘Menelaus’. The epic of the Ramayan (India’s Iliad) is too long to repeat here, but seeing it invoked by the zealots of the B.J.P., is an insult to anyone who knows it, and goes to inform my own response as well.

My response to the B.J.P., and to all self-proclaimed ‘Hindu Nationalists’ everywhere, is this: if we Hindus set ourselves up as the world’s elite; — Aryans as much in the Nazi, as in the original Sanskrit sense of the word; — if we say, in other words, We are right and everyone else is wrong, why then do we worship Rám, who accepted a hermitess’ half-eaten fruit? Who went into exile, rather than fight his brothers for their father’s throne? If we make a cause of war over a simple choice of what god to worship, why do we honor Rám, who to rescue his kidnapped wife, teamed up with a subspecies of hominin (called ‘Vaanars’ in the text), whom neither the sages of his day, or the scientists of ours, even considered human?

I should go on to say: is it such a great offence, to worship the Creator alone, as Muslims do, and consider all the lesser immortals as His creations? Surely not. Whom did the lesser immortals worship, long ago before human civilization was out of the Stone Age, if not Him? Allah or Brahman, or Ra-Atum or Ahura Mazda or the first of the Elohim: these are all names for Him to whom all the world, from Big Bang to Cosmic Contraction, is the blink of an eye.

Moreover, ecumenism is the distinguishing tradition of greatness in India. All our greatest and most legendary rulers have been exemplars of it: the very idea of religious tolerance was created by such kings as Chandragupta Maurya, his descendant Ashoka, the next dynasty’s Vikramditya, and the Mughal emperor, Jalal-al-din Mohammed Akbar. Who is the hero, the very type and example of a good king, in Early Modern times? Akbar, who welcomed all faiths, all traditions, all customs, and suppressed nothing but cruelty. Who is the archfiend, the very type and example of an evil king, in those times? his descendant Aurangzeb, who tolerated no faiths, no traditions, no customs but those he chose himself, and suppressed everything but cruelty.

The secular, ecumenical state is not a modern idea, nor was it imposed by the Occident. It was an ideal embraced by all those good kings mentioned above: Rám, Chandragupta, Ashoka, Vikramditya, and Akbar, and many more. It was introduced on the national scale, for the first time as far as we know, by Cyrus the Great, the first emperor of Persia. Why was he the Great? I might ask. Not because he conquered other kings (though he certainly did); not because he was generous (though he undoubtedly was); not because he built cities, roads, aqueducts, canals, and gigantic memorials (though he indisputably did those things); but because he allowed freedom of practice under his rule. He said, more or less, to all newly-conquered peoples: you may follow your own laws, worship your own gods, live in your ancestral homes, hold your own festivals, etc., as long as you answer to me. That made him the Great, and that made him a good king. We can do no better than to follow his example. The descendants of his people still live among us; they are the Parsi people, and they are as Indian as its food.

Not to flog a dead horse, I should refrain from the mention of Mahatma Gandhi, and the Buddha before him: liberators both, to whom we should not be ungrateful for our freedom, and yet to whom it is vilest ingratitude to show intolerance. But so ends all I would say to the nationalists in India, and I beg my readers to take heed of this message.