At a time when religious bigotry has vitiated the air around us, it is worthwhile to investigate how old the idea of tolerance is and remind ourselves of the intolerance of our ancestors. Although early India had strong traditions of cultic and religious syncretism, there is plentiful evidence to prove the prevalence of religious and sectarian antagonisms from very early times.

In the 2nd century BC, Patanjali tells us that the relationship between Brahmins and Buddhists is like that between the snake and the mongoose; and its actual violent manifestation is supported by a plethora of historical evidence. Similarly, there is copious proof of the Shaiva-Vaishnava antagonism. The persistent animosity between Shaivism and Jainism, and the persecution of the latter by the former, is also well documented. In the 11th century Alberuni tells us that the Hindus are “haughty, foolishly vain and self-conceited” and “believe that there is no religion like theirs”.

But ignoring all this, Indian politicians constantly chant the aphoristic statement “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (the world is one family) out of context.

Privileging Hinduism over others

The construct of tolerant Hinduism seems to be of relatively recent origin and to have first acquired visibility in the Western writings on India. In the 17th century, Francois Bernier (1620-1688), the French doctor who travelled widely in India, was one of the early Europeans to speak of Hindus as a tolerant people. In the 18th century the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Von Herder (1744-1803), the forerunner of the Romantic glorification of India, referred to the Hindus as “mild” and “tolerant” and as “the gentlest branch of humanity”. Around the same time, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that they “do not hate the other religions but they believe they are also right”. Such views find a more prominent place in the writings of Orientalists like William Jones, according to whom, “the Hindus...would readily admit the truth of the Gospel but they contend that it is perfectly consistent with their Sastras”.

In the 19th century, some Indians also began to speak of the tolerance of Hindus, but they clearly privileged Hinduism over other religions. Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883), who founded the Arya Samaj in 1875, claimed to believe “in a religion based on universal values... above the hostility of all creeds...”. But as a champion of the Vedic religion, he sharply opposed all other religions: to him, Mohammad was an “impostor” and Jesus “a very ordinary ignorant man, neither learned nor a yogi”. His contemporary Ramakrishna (1836-1886) spoke of the equality of religions, but in his view “the Hindu religion alone is the Sanatana Dharma”.

His disciple Vivekananda (1863-1904) also laid emphasis on toleration and picked up the famous Rigvedic passage “ekaüsad viprà vahudhà vadanti” (The wise speak of what is One in many ways) in support of his vision that “India alone [was] to be...the land of toleration”. But this was incompatible with his view that “from Pacific to the Atlantic for five hundred years blood ran all over the world” and “that is Mohammadanism”, even though his Rigvedic quote has become a cliché through being endlessly milked by politicians.

Similar views continued to be held by some leaders in the early 20th century. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), for example, couched his views in the vocabulary of tolerance and quite often cited the above Rigvedic passage but, in reality, espoused militant Hinduism. Even the Muslim-hater MS Golwalkar (1906-1973) spoke of the Hindus as the most tolerant people of the world, although this sounded like the devil quoting scripture, for he identified Muslims, Christians and Communists as internal threats to the country. It would appear that these leaders, from Dayananda to Golwalkar, used tolerance as a camouflage for Hindu belligerence: they privileged Hinduism over other religions and did not provide enough space to them. Unlike them, Mahatma Gandhi, who lived and died for communal harmony, genuinely found Hinduism to be the most tolerant of all religions even if his excessive pride in its inclusivism may have tended to make it exclusive.

Emphasising the syncretism

Many historians and social scientists have also spoken and written about the inclusive character of Hinduism and have produced much literature which highlights its syncretic traditions. Several instances of mutual accommodation among the various Hindu sects have been cited.

It is rightly held that the Buddha, founder of a heretic religion, emerged as an avatara of Vishnu around the middle of the 6th century AD. He figured as such in several Puranas and other texts including the Dashavataracharita of Kshemendra (11th century) and the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva (12th century) as well as in inscriptions and in the Kitabu-ul-Hind of Alberuni (11th century). Even sacrifice to him was recommended for those desirous of beauty. But, interestingly, he was also reviled as a thief and an atheist, and Shiva is believed to have appeared on Earth in the form of Shankara to combat the Buddha avatara, even though Shankara himself is described as an illegitimate child in a 14th century Vaishnava text.

The Vedantist philosopher Madhava Acharya (14th century) is often said to have displayed an exemplary tolerance of opposing points of view in his Sarvadarshanasamgraha (Collection of All Systems), which begins by presenting the school of Charvakas, criticises it and ends with Shankara’s Advaita “as the conclusion and crown of all philosophical systems”. But it is forgotten that this was in keeping with the traditional Indian practice of presenting the opponent’s view before refuting it.

Further, Adinatha (Rishabha), the first tirthanakara of Jainism, was accepted as an incarnation of Vishnu in the Bhagavatapurana. Christ was sometimes included in the incarnations of Vishnu, and the Muslim sect of Imam Shahis believed that the Imam was himself the tenth avatara of Vishnu and that the Quran was a part of the Atharvaveda. Akbar was sometimes thought of as the tenth avatara of Vishnu and Queen Victoria too was accepted as a Hindu goddess when a plague broke out in Bombay following an insult to her statue by some miscreants.

It is, however, missed in all this that neither Adinatha, nor the Imam, nor Christ, nor Akbar, nor even Victoria occupied an important place in the Brahmanical scheme of things. In other words, non-Brahmanical religions were not treated on par with Brahmanism but as religions which, although unwelcome, did exist and so had to be tolerated. It is difficult to say that the status of Islam and Christianity is no different in present-day India, although there is the argument that the attacks on them by the proponents of Hindutva do not represent Hinduism and Hindus.