Samar Halarnkar's concern in his article, Terror has a religion (Maha Bharat, January 13), that India may have to encounter radicalisation of two religious communities - even as Pakistan is threatened by the radicalisation of just one - is understandable. But the issues go well beyond his parameters. I focus on two of them: the divergent nature of religions and of histories of even the same religion.
The nature of the Hindu religion, itself a doubtful term, is very different from Christianity and Islam. It doesn't profess a truth revealed through a prophet in a specific book; nor does it have the notion of the Judgement Day. The absence of one single truth creates space for plurality of modes of faith in god and afterlife, including the denial of god's existence. Hinduism then can't be a religion of proselytisation. Tolerance of divergent views is integral to it. The Sangh parivar's repeated attempts to alter the nature of Hinduism shows its poor understanding.
Christianity and Islam are claimants to the monopoly of revealed 'ultimate truth', which defines every other faith as false and must be vanquished. The exclusive possession of the truth legitimises conversion of others and the belief in its final universal triumph. This has propelled propagation of these religions through persuasion but also through violence. It's also the propeller of jihad today.
However, between the claim to monopoly of truth and the historical evolution of humankind, much has changed. Even proselytising religions have accepted the existential reality of the diversity of faiths. If they haven't given up the notional claim to monopoly of the truth, the empirical acceptance of diversity does dilute their belief - and the struggle - for the final universal triumph. Their own histories have been marked by diversities and 'deviations' from their versions of the truth.
It's hard to speak of Christianity and Islam in the singular. Besides the various sects in Christianity, the history of the Church itself has been of constant adjustments with changing reality. For example, early Christianity had the notion of heaven and hell for the pious and the impious. But lots of Christians fell in-between the two categories. The Church woke up to the reality and from sometime around the second millennium, the notion of Purgatory began to evolve where the intermediate souls could purge themselves of sins before the Day of Judgement.
Islam also has had numerous sects and diverse views, often going beyond moderate differences. Even as Prophet Muhammad's body waited to be buried, differences over whether a khalifa or an imam should succeed him sowed the seeds of the two major sects: the Sunnis and the Shias. There were other powerful divergent voices. The Sufi, Ibn al-Arabi's enunciation of the doctrine of 'wahdat al-wujud' (unity of being) implied the unity of all religious experiences. Mansur's exclamation, 'an al-haq' (I am the Truth, or the Truth, ie god rests in every individual being) was perceived as fundamentally challenging the legitimacy of Islam as the ultimate revealed truth. He had to pay for it with his life. The conflict between the Sufis' and the ulema's versions of Islam are part of folklore. The differences between regional variants of the Muslim community are far too apparent to be ignored.
Through their histories, the zeal of proselytising religions has greatly subsided. While media often go into legitimising hype over the explosive actions of militants, the silent consequences of massive conversion drives fail to draw attention. If the ghastly recent events in Pakistan have alarmed us into fearing a similar turn of events twice over in India, it's imperative to remember that despite grave provocations by exploding bombs in temples, dargahs and mosques, there have been no noticeable riots since 1992-93, except the state-sponsored Gujarat 'riots' of 2002.
We also need to remember that over a year ago, 6,000 Muslim theologians had gathered in Hyderabad with the single agenda of denouncing terrorism. Are we then to feel complacent in our environment? Far from it. But our worries need to be placed in a perspective. A multi-religious society has a different set of dynamics from a largely mono-religious one.
(Harbans Mukhia is a former professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal)