The second great stumbling stock for western (and unfortunately many Indian) historians when they write Indian history is the myth of polytheism.
Throughout its long history, the concept of dharma, or the universal Law, gave such a freedom to Indians that all kind of branches and sects developed within Hinduism, which sometimes even went against each other. Indeed, Hinduism was never static, it never barred its followers from experimenting new techniques and spiritual paths : everything that helps you on the way is dharmic. It is this fundamental principle which allowed India to survive all over the ages with a prodigious continuity, whereas other civilizations saw their cultures and their religions systematically destroyed. Unfortunately, this enormous tolerance of Hinduism – or Induism, if you prefer – is not recognized in the world today, or even acknowledged by Indians themselves, for two reasons. The first one are the Muslim invasions and the second the European colonization. It is the immense shock between these two great monotheist religions and Hindu polytheism, which has completely perverted our perception of India.
Yet, Hinduism, whether you want to call it a religion or a spiritual system, is without doubt the most monotheist religion in the world, because it always recognized that the Supreme can only be diverse and that he incarnates Himself in many forms – hence the million of gods in the Hindu pantheon. Vedic Sages had understood that man has to be given a multiplicity of different approaches, if you want him to fathom the Unfathomable. And truly, for the Hindus, the Divine cannot be “this” or “that”, neti, neti; in its essence He cannot be several – or even one – and thus can never be perfectly seized by the human mind. Indeed, Hindus, who were once upon a time the best dialecticians in the world (and this is maybe why they are today the best software programmers of this planet), were able to come-up with this kind of equation: a) God is in the world; b) the world is in God; c) the world is God; d) God and the world are distinct; e) God is distinct from the world, but the world is not distinct from God; f) it is impossible to discern if the world is distinct from God or not… Never has the unique nature of Hindu polytheism been better defined.
Hindus have also always recognized the divinity of other religions, as their concept of the avatar helped them to accept the reality of other prophets, masters or gurus. It is, for instance, perfectly acceptable for an ordinary Hindu to have on his wall the image of Krishna, alongside the one of Buddha, one of the Christ, with a few photos of the Mecca or even John Fitzgerald Kennedy ! And Hindus have always worshipped at non-Hindu places, such as Velangani, the Christian place of pilgrimage of South India, or some Sufi shrine in Kashmir or Rajasthan. Not only that, but Hindus never tried to convert others to their own religion, not even by peaceful means, as the Buddhists did all over Asia; and their armies never set to conquer other nations to impose their own culture and religion. Yet for the Muslims and later European invaders, who were both persuaded that their God was the only true one, Hinduism with its myriad of Gods, represented the Infidel, the Kafir par excellence, not only did they set upon, by violence, coercion, or devious means, to convert Hindus to their own “true” religion, but they also propagated in the world the image of the “Pagan” Hindus, which has survived even up to today in many ways, subtle – and not so subtle.
(To be continued)