A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rival Religions?... Let's Reconcile Religious Differences instead.

The subtitle of God Is Not One - The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter – unsettled me, coming from academic Stephen Prothero whose book Religious Literacy highlighted what I always experienced – the ignorance people have about other faiths. I have been fortunate throughout my life to have experiences which enriched my understanding of my own faith as well as that of others. Both books were given to me, each by a Christian interfaith mentor and fellow peace activist, one from MI and one from the East coast. So you may understand as a Hindu American interfaith activist who wants to help develop interreligious understanding, why the subtitle bothered me.

That there was a limit to the number of religions covered was surprising but easily understood in the first pages of the book. The author does say “Much is missing here…” And there is an acknowledgement that, while the “religions appear here in discreet chapters, none really stands alone,” but I didn’t get a sense that this interdependence brings religious communities together. There is a tension emanating from the “rival” in the title that in a work that seeks to “replace naïve hopes of interreligious unity with deeper knowledge of religious differences.”

As I read the book, I could understand the justification provided that the eight religions are presented in the order of their influence, although why each was great wasn’t as convincing (great doesn’t mean good, by the way). The presentation of Islam as the first chapter didn’t seem right, given the impact of Christianity’s proselytizing efforts around the world and over hundreds of years. Yet Islam seems to be the one with the most contemporary impact – and the fact that it is presented first is a great conversation starter for anyone reading this book.

The four-step approach to understanding the eight religions identified – Islam, Christianity Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, Daoism and a “brief coda on atheism” – is explained in the intro. I still wonder about this simplification, and what someone who is not religiously literate will interpret, since the nuances are missing.

While daunted by Prothero’s assessment of some of my heroes – think Karen Armstrong, Ramakrishna, Gandhi, lumping them into a category he identifies as “perennialists, who identify all religions as one” – I agree that he is spot-on in his assessment of the need to move into Interfaith Dialogue 2.0. He clearly lays out the need for genuine dialogue across difference, particularly now when our world is filled with religious and antireligious name calling. He reiterates again the need for religious literacy, and the need to reckon with our religious differences. But he raises Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core as an example, where “Patel actively discourages IFYC participants from discussing politics and theology.” And yet a few sentences later, he says we should find “a secular way to talk about religion, with some measure of empathetic understanding.”

I was somewhat perturbed by Prothero’s presentation of the chapter on my faith, that which the Western world has identified as Hinduism. (He got the dissonance we have about the name Hinduism right). It is a family of faiths, it is not an organized religion, and yet, there it is, as number four on his list. In fact, on page two of the intro, he calls [Hindu] Swami Sivananda’s writing [that the essentials of all religions are the same] a dangerous, disrespectful and untrue sentiment. He calls Hinduism The Way of Devotion, and identifies Hindus as being god-besotted. Rather than give fair hearing to the new scientific evidence that is at opposition to the Aryan invasion theory, he identifies it with Hindutva, and the Hindu nationalist movement. He references Hindu nationalists several times, in a country where the impact of corrupt politics and predatory proselytizing is easily visible (I go almost every other year to spend time with family) – even while India still works to stay true to its pluralistic past. I could go on, as an insider offended by the inaccuracies, the clinical approach with which he explains my belief system and that of almost a billion others. But there are many points where he is spot-on again: acknowledging the resilience of Hinduism -“Rather than repelling new ideas, Hindus are forever absorbing them;” “if you are confused at this point, you are not alone;” or identifying God as both “nirguna Brahman” and “saguna Brahman.” He quotes scripture, stories and philosophers and seems to explain what a paradox this faith is. But in the end, he simplifies it beyond my understanding. My faith is not only that of devotion. He states, "It affirms that neither priestly sacrifice (a poor description of the karma yoga path I walk) not philosphical knowledge (jnana yoga) is necessary for release from the bondage of samsara." Being Hindu means I have a multifaceted approach to faith - with many ways, many yogic paths that I and millions of Hindus weave into our lives. To me, he remains an academician with a Western lens who doesn’t understand what the late Indian president S. Radhakrishnan tried to explain in his 1939 publication Eastern Religions and Western Thought. In fact, Indian scholar C. Rajagopalachari said these words while introducing one of my favorite hymns, the famous Bhajagovindam. “The way of devotion is not different from the way of knowledge or jnana. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When wisdom is integrated with life, and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge, when it becomes fully mature, is bhakti. If it does not get transformed into bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that jnana and bhakti, knowledge and devotion, are different from each other, is ignorance.”

The hardest part of reading this book for me came not as a Hindu, but as an interfaith activist. Yes, we need humility, the awareness that we don't have all the answers, and we need interfaith dialogue 2.0 – but it will not come without interfaith dialogue 1.0, where people can discover common ground. Reconciliation of our religious differences – like any other differences – requires tact and compassion. The cross pollination and the deepening of one's own faith that comes with inter-religious knowledge is not offered up for consumption - think Gandhi's following the principles of ahimsa found in the Hindu saint Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, which inspired MLK to follow his Christian path of turning the other cheek with even more dedication. The book didn’t offer me hope – that religious literacy as gained through a book will help those of us who practice the world’s religions (or belief systems) find ways to solve problems created by other people who practice these same religions (or belief systems). Instead, it offered me reality: that religious differences matter, that we must continue to advocate for what we believe in, that we must continue to create friendships across faith lines, and nurture the idea that we should treat others as we wish to be treated.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your review, Padma!

While I do agree with Prothero's broad premise on religious differences being important to understand, what I found particularly lacking in this book was his other stated goal of giving an introduction to these various religious traditions in an accurate manner. While I am not a practitioner of conventional Hinduism of any flavor, I've had some contact with the practices and particular deities (and I'm certainly a fan of bhakti as an important and indeed essential religious practice)--and since I'm a polytheist, it's no surprise that I would find certain flavors within Hinduism appealing and welcoming of my own viewpoint.

Reading your review, since you are someone deeply invested in a lifelong practice of a Hindu path, and your pointing out that his characterization doesn't fit with your own reality (despite his attempts to say "Well, one can't really generalize about Hinduism, but I'm still right" in his answer to your question...which is sort of rude and presumptuous, to say the least!), somewhat reassures me that my own reservations about his work are well-founded, at least in the lens of many people from other religions.

It's interesting, of the various reviews I've read in the Patheos.com book club blogger roundtable recently, all of the Christians seem to think the book is great, whereas the few non-Christians who have written thus far (both of us!) have problems with it. Despite Prothero being "not a Christian" in his own self-identification, that trend is highly suggestive to me. Hmm...

In any case, thanks very much once again for your review!

Ven Konuru said...

I bumped into this old post by accident. I agree with your central argument that western writers seem to oversimplify Hinduism. However, I have to admit that the author's statement about Bhakthi seem to be right on. I can testify with own experience that the he puts the statement seems quite accurate. While it is true that Bhakthi, Jnana and Yoga ultimately gravitate to one realisation and they are somewhat related, it is very much possible to attain freedom (Mukthi) by simply following Bhakthi with no knowledge of other two paths. There are so many examples of this in our Puraanaas. Let us not criticize the author on things he got right!
my two cents
Ven Konuru