For a long time, ‘tolerance’ was spoken of as a characteristic feature of Hinduism. Even people who otherwise strongly disagreed with Hinduism still managed to praise the fact that Hinduism had a benign, harmless tolerance. But in recent years the image of Hinduism and of Hindu society has changed quite drastically.
Media coverage of the Hindu political assertion in India that began in the late 1980’s and the accompanying inter-religious conflict has changed the popular perception of Hinduism.
To make a striking anecdotal example of the change of image of Hindus – during a conversation with an Eastern European man at the gym, the topic of religion came up. When he found out I was a Hindu, the first thing he said was, “Are you one of those extremists?”
Amazing! As soon as I said I was a Hindu, the first thing that came to his mind was extremism. I would surmise that this was probably a result of watching TV footage of Indian riots with imagery of Hindu mobs wielding weapons roaming the streets – which had been on the TV a few weeks earlier.
Events in recent years have indeed shown that Hindus, like others, are not incapable of indiscriminate violence in certain situations.
At one point the very idea of a ‘Hindu extremist’ was not even thought possible by most people, but things have changed. This is not to say that many outsiders do not still regard Hinduism as tolerant or inclusive, but it cannot be denied that there has been quite a drastic change in perception of how Hindus are viewed.
What are the facts regarding ‘Hindu tolerance’? Is Hinduism really an inherently tolerant religion, and have Hindus practiced tolerance on a scale that would stand them apart from the history of other civilisations? Or was the reputation a false one?
Historically, Hindu India has indeed been a land of refuge for a great number of persecuted peoples. For example, a greater number of practitioners of the ancient Zoroastrian faith can be found in India than in any other country in the world (including the country of the religion’s origin, Iran). Zoroastrians arrived in India as refugees in the 8th century CE, and have lived there free of harassment ever since. There are also Jewish communities in India (mainly in Kerala), that also came as refugees up to 2500 years ago. When Israel was founded in 1948, the country’s government recognised this, and sent a message of thanks to India, acknowledging that India was one of only two lands where no Jew was persecuted. Syrian Christians are another community that came to India for refuge, in the 6th century AD, fleeing persecution from their co-religionists. They too have never known anything apart from freedom and amity when living among Hindu communities. These are just three examples. The list could be increased considerably.
Hinduism also tolerates diversity of worship in a way that is unparalleled. There is extremely limited and isolated history of conflicts between different sects of Hinduism that could compare with the bloodbaths that have occurred in the conflicts between rival sects of Christianity and Islam. It is not that there have never been any disagreements between different sects of Hinduism, but the scale has always been minimal or restricted to the field of debate.
However, fate was not kind to Hindus in the last millennium. India faced numerous foreign invasions and Hindus were subject to terrible religious persecution in their own homeland, over a period of several centuries. Unlike many other ancient civilisations, Hindu society managed to survive this ordeal, but it was badly bruised and traumatised. Eventually Hindus gained the upper hand militarily (from the 17th century onwards) – but not much sooner than Hindu society shaken off and defeated the challenge of Muslim rule than it was subject to another colonisation, which while not as brutal as the first also had far reaching consequences. The forced partition of India and the accompanying massacres concluded the British colonisation.
The occasional bout of intolerance and agitation we see from Hindus is the result of Hindu society being sensitive of a living memory of great hardships and persecutions. On some occasions this has caused over reactions when incidents of indiscriminate killing of Hindus occur. This is not to say that Hindu violence should be condoned – certainly it should not. All indiscriminate violence should be condemned equally. But it should be understood in its wider historical setting as an aberration from the historical Hindu behaviour pattern, and not used to tarnish the image of Hindu society and Hinduism as a whole, which for the most part continues to be the most inclusive and diverse religious tradition in the world.