The powerful thesis presented by Rodney Stark then is that monotheism implies religious intolerance. In this he has the support of a prominent Hindu thinker, S Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), who wrote:

The intolerance of narrow monotheism is written in letters of blood across the history of man from the time when first the tribes of Israel burst into the land of Canaan. The worshippers of the one jealous God are egged on to aggressive wars against people of alien cults. They invoke divine sanction for the cruelties inflicted on the conquered. The spirit of old Israel is inherited by Christianity and Islam, and it might be not unreasonable to suggest that it would have been better for Western civilisation if Greece had moulded it on this question rather than Palestine. Wars of religion which are the outcome of fanaticism that prompts and justifies the extermination of aliens of different creeds were practically unknown in Hindu India. 

The reader will notice that, towards the end of his statement, Radhakrishnan exempted Hindu India from the charge of intolerance generated by the aforesaid monotheism. Did he do so because he, unlike Rodney Stark, regarded Hinduism as polytheistic and therefore not be clubbed with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, contra Stark, who insists that Hinduism is both monotheistic like the Abrahamic religions and missionises like them as well?

To assess the situation we need to examine the concepts of monotheism and mission as they are understood in the context of Hinduism.

First monotheism. Radhakrishnan took pains to distinguish Hinduism from polytheism. He began by quoting from the ṚgVeda like so many other Hindu scholars:

“Him who is the one, real sages name variously” (ṚgVeda), “my names are many as declared by the great seers” (Mahābhārata: Śānti Parva). To admit various descriptions of God is not to lapse into polytheism. When Yājñavalkya was called upon to state the number of gods, he started with the popular number 3306, and ended by reducing all of them to one Brahman (Bṛhadaranyaka Upanisad). “This indestructible enduring reality is to be looked upon as one only.”

When Radhakrishnan referred to some of the gods of the Hindu pantheon he wrote, “The polytheism was organised in a monistic way. Only it was not a rigid monotheism enjoining on its adherents the most complete intolerance for those holding a different view.” Elsewhere, he wrote: “The bewildering polytheism of the masses and the uncompromising monotheism of the classes are for the Hindu the expressions of one and the same force at different levels.” There is a double insistence here: that Hinduism is monotheistic, but also that its monotheism is somewhat different from that found in the Abrahamic religions.

To get some clarity on this point it might be helpful to be blunt and raise the question: is not Hinduism then a pagan religion, as its monotheism differs from Abrahamic monotheism?

The Abrahamic religious traditions, as Judaism, Christianity and Islam are collectively called, associate paganism with the worship of many gods, and their many idols. The former is condemned as polytheism and the latter as idolatry; and the two are viewed as inextricably intertwined forms of worship, which are superseded in an aniconic monotheism, which the monotheistic religions self-consciously uphold and propagate.

Hinduism at first blush appears to conform to paganism. It seems to worship many gods and seems to do so by worshipping different images. It thus comes across as polytheistic and idolatrous, and therefore pagan. This perception fuels the missionary zeal of the Abrahamic religions to destroy such paganism.

There is only one problem with this scenario. It is based on a false presumption. It is true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship, but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of the one and same God. Thus a plurality of gods does not denote polytheism in Hinduism but rather the plurality of the forms in which the same one God might appear.

A new word, such as polyformism, may have to be coined, or an older word, polymorphism, may have to be invoked, to be set beside polytheism to provide the corrective.

The Hindu situation is characterised not by polytheism but what might be called at best “apparent polytheism”, because the reality underlying all the different gods is the reality of the one God. Hence, ironically, the situation could also in a sense be described as one of “apparent monotheism”, in the sense that the one God appears in various forms.

Similarly, the various images of the various gods also reflect the same point. Any of the many forms, in which God might be seen as appearing, can be visually represented in Hinduism, as a way of focusing the mind on God. This should not be taken for some new-fangled apologetic exegetical sleight of hand performed by modern Hinduism. When the seventeenth-century French traveler, Francois Bernier, was shocked by what he saw of Hinduism, this is how the pundits of Banaras explained the situation to him:

We have indeed in our temples a great variety of images...To all these images we pay great honour; prostrating our bodies, and presenting to them, with much ceremony, flowers, rice, scented oil, saffron, and other similar articles. Yet we do not believe that these statues are themselves Brahma or Vishnu; but merely their images and representations.

We show them deference only for the sake of the deity whom they represent, and when we pray it is not to the statue, but to that deity. Images are admitted in our temples because we conceive that prayers are offered up with more devotion when there is something before the eyes that fixes the mind, but in fact we acknowledge that God alone is absolute, that He only is the omnipotent Lord. 

The explanation may not have convinced him, but Hindus apparently have no difficulty with it. Sometimes parents belonging to the Abrahamic religions wonder whether this plurality does not end up leaving the Hindus confused, and particularly their children. For the Hindus, however, such plurality does not create any confusion of identity, no more than several pictures of us in our albums, taken at different stages of our life and in different situations and clothes, cause us to become confused about our identity.

Thus no matter how paganesque Hinduism might appear, it is not pagan in the sense attributed to the word by Abrahamic religions.

As a well-known scholar of Hinduism, Klaus K Klostermaier, observes:

Many Hindu homes are lavishly decorated with colour prints of a great many Hindu gods and goddesses, often joined by gods and goddesses of other religions and the pictures of contemporary heroes. Thus side by side with Siva and Visnu and Devi one can see Jesus and Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha and Jina Mahavira, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and many others. But if questioned about the many gods even the illiterate villager will answer: bhagavān ek hai – the Lord is One. He may not be able to figure out in theological terms how the many gods and the one god hang together and he may not be sure about the hierarchy obtaining among the many manifestations, but he does know that ultimately there is only One and that the many somehow merge into the One. 

This then is the great difference between Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions. Monotheism in Abrahamic religions represents the denial of gods in God, while the monotheism of Hinduism represents the affirmation of gods in God. Two different kinds of monotheism may be involved here. Failure to recognise this misleads the followers of Abrahamic religions into branding Hinduism as pagan.

The more usual error is not to regard Hinduism as monotheistic; Stark seems to have erred in the opposite direction, of regarding the monotheism of Hinduism as identical in nature with Abrahamic monotheism. The crucial difference is that Hinduism combines monotheism with polymorphism, while it is aniconic in the Abrahamic traditions.

This has a crucial bearing on his understanding of the nature of missionary activity in Hinduism. Here again Stark places it on par with that in Abrahamic religions. However, because Hindu monotheism admits of polymorphism, the nature of missionary activity within it is also different. S Radhakrishnan highlighted this difference as follows:

In a sense, Hinduism may be regarded as the first example in the world of a missionary religion. Only its missionary spirit is different from that associated with the proselytising creeds. It did not regard it as its mission to convert humanity to any one opinion. For what counts is conduct and not belief. Worshippers of different gods and followers of different rites were taken into the Hindu fold. Krisna, according to the Bhagavadgita, accepts as his own, not only the oppressed classes, women and Sudras, but even those of unclean descent (papayonayah), like the Kiratas and the Hunas. The ancient practice of Vratyastoma, described fully in the Tandya Brahmana, shows that not only individuals but whole tribes were absorbed into Hinduism. 

The point then is that Stark posits a direct relationship between monotheism and missionary activity but in doing so he assumes that there can be only one kind of monotheism which will always lead to one kind of missionary activity – the proselytising kind. Hinduism, when placed in this context, generates another possibility: the possibility of a polymorphic monotheism, as distinguished from the monomorphic monotheism of the Abrahamic type, which generates a different pattern of missionary activity, which does not involve “conversion” in the sense associated with Abrahamic monotheism.

Interestingly, the Hindu evidence in this connection retains the link forged by Stark between monotheism and mission but adds a wrinkle to it. Stark bracketed Hinduism along with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a monotheistic religion, which is justified, but he did not evaluate the implication the inclusion of Hinduism in this category had for the nature of monotheism involved, and how this nuance affected the sense of mission.

Excerpted with permission from Religious Tolerance: A History, Arvind Sharma, HarperCollins India.