Indic civilization (a broad canopy housing many sects, creeds, spiritual schools, beliefs and religions) is almost universally acknowledged as the world’s oldest living civilization. It may or may not be the greatest civilization to have ever existed on this earth as there are many worthy claimants for that title like the Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Persian & Nile Valley civilizations to name a few. But Indic civilization has surely been a survivor. While most great civilizations of the past have perished, Indic civilization has stood the the test of time and survived for more than 5000 years. Its actual age is still an evolving subject of research for the historians with newer excavations and evidences emerging regularly. Mark Twain’s famous observation about Banaras, an important seat of sanatan dharma, aptly sums up the veneration and awe generated by the world’s oldest living civilization. While visiting Banaras, Mark Twain had remarked,“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together. ”
So what made the Indic civilization tick while other great civilizations perished. It would be naïve to believe that no discords, disagreements, counter concepts existed in such a diverse land as ours. But unlike other civilizations, Indic civilization managed its differences well and did not allow its religious differences to spill over into violent and bloody clashes, as seen over the ages and witnessed even till today, as different religious thoughts and civilizations clash across the world.
Most recent example of such a civilizational clash is Taliban’s brutal imposition of a purer form of religion on their co-religionists. “Sarv dharm sambhaav” (viewing all religions and spiritual thoughts with equanimity and compassion) and “sarve bhavantu sukhinah, sarve santu niramayah” (wishing wellbeing and good health to all humanity) have been the pillars of Indic civilization since time immemorial. Indic culture has been the cradle of different religions, cults, modes of worship. Yet it has not seen bloodshed and violent clashes in the name of religion as seen in medieval Europe and Arab world.
Our forefathers understood the importance of open debates, cordial discords and “lets agree to disagree” approach for religious differences within Indic fold. Buddha preaching against the orthodoxy of sanatan dharma of those times, must have come in direct confrontation of thoughts with the dominant orthodox Brahmanical clerics of those times. Yet Buddha was not thrown into a prison or beheaded by the proponents of Sanatan dharma. Instead his teachings were treated as a breath of fresh air in the spiritual super market that India was, leaving it to the better judgement of the masses to choose what they felt was right. No wonder, large parts of north India soon adopted Buddhism without any bloodshed or coercion of any other form.
Followers of sanatan dharma converted to Buddhism because they felt that what Buddha was preaching was right. And when Buddhism finally receded from North India, it was again not the result of some violent struggle to overthrow Buddhism. Buddhism gradually receded because even though it started as a reformist religion, it fell prey to the same orthodoxy and clerical dominance against which Buddha stood up in the first place. Hinduism reclaimed its share in the Indian spiritual space not by violent means but by the intellect and reformist efforts of a brilliant Adi Shankaracharya among many others.
Similarly when Guru Nanak propounded the concept of nirgun and nirakaar God, he was indirectly challenging the Hindu concept of idol worship. Yet Hindus adopted his teachings of an evolved form of worship with open arms. Guru Nanak is revered by millions of Sikhs and Hindus alike for his teachings. If a Buddha, Mahavira or a Nanak were born in any other civilization, they would have quickly been labelled as apostates and might have been compelled to drink from the poisoned chalice like a Socrates.
Middle east has been another cradle of religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam emerged from this holy land. These religions share a common past and there is reverence for their messengers across these religions. Since these religions evolved in the fabled land of Abraham, they are often referred to as Abrahamic religions. But even with their shared roots and inter faith reverence of holy messengers, the Abrahamic faiths could not avoid violent and bloody clashes in the name of religion in the past. These clashes continue till this day in the form of terror strikes against western world and religious oppression as seen in Israel. So what went wrong.
The Abrahamic religions are monotheistic. They believe in a single God and by implication, reject existence of Gods of other religions. The followers of these religions also propound that those who don’t share their beliefs are some sort of inferior beings (kufr in Islam or pagans in Christianity) who need to be shown the light or the right path either by persuasion or by force. So these religions lay great stress on proselytization or conversion as they consider it their holy duty to bring non believers on the right path.
In short they will not let others to just be. This impulse has resulted in violent clashes in the form of Christian crusades and Islamic invasions in the past, both driven and sanctioned by the belief about superiority of their God and faith. This approach is in sharp contrast to Indic concept of “sarv dharm sambhaav” or equanimity, compassion and respect for all religions. May be that is why Indic civilization has survived while others suffered and perished.
Let us analyze secularism, often prescribed as a panacea in modern world for peaceful religious coexistence. Secularism as a concept has deep historical roots in Europe. Medieval Europe went to bloody wars in the name of religion like the church driven crusades against Islam and other pagan beliefs. At one point of time, the catholic church controlled the religious and political discourse within Europe with an iron hand. Even scientists like Galileo were sent to the gallows because their discoveries challenged the beliefs propounded by the powerful religious clergy. Secularism in the West emerged as a consequence of the religious reformation, overthrowing the hegemony of the catholic church. The term was formally coined by the British reformer George Holyoake.
French scholar Jean Bauberot laid down the following as essential components of western secularism- (1) Separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state (2) Freedom of conscience of all individuals, circumscribed only by the need for public order and respect of rights (not religion) of other individuals (3) No discrimination by the state against individuals on the basis of their beliefs. Secularism brilliantly lays down the limit of the state in religious matters and clearly defines relationship framework between state and individuals with no room for any religious bias in their dealings. But secularism is inadequate in defining relationship between individuals of different faiths. The best it can offer on this front is “tolerance” for other religions. This concept of tolerance for other religions is colored by the experiences of Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths, which see followers of other religions as inferior beings, who have to be tolerated at best for the sake of peace in the society.
Tolerance has its limits and its not the same as Indic concept of mutual respect and acceptance that different religions are like different paths leading to the same ultimate God and truth. That is why we still see violent clashes, bombings, stabbings etc. across the secular world in the name of religion as the tolerance limit of individuals and organizations are crossed from time to time.
It would be an infinitely better world if religious leaders across different faiths muster the courage of conviction to reform. They must train their followers to develop the Indic concept of “sarv dharm sambhaav” or mutual respect and regard for all religions and religious thoughts. Mutual respect and regard for all religions and shunning the impulse to change others, might hold the keys to a peaceful future for humanity.