The Hindu Roots of Universalism, and Its Relevance to Modern Religious Studies
by June McDaniel
Universalism has been a very influential concept in Western thought, especially in the study of comparative religion. It is the belief in one universal religious truth, which can be reached or understood in many ways. This approach has promoted a sympathetic and tolerant attitude towards the world’s cultures and religions, and emphasized the values common to different perspectives. While it is widely believed that universalism is a philosophy originating with Plato and Greek philosophy in the fourth century BCE, the concept is at least a thousand years older. We see universalism in the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, and it has continued to be an important concept in India to the present day.
Hindu interpretations of universalism have varied over time. This paper will examine the development of the idea of universalism in the Hindu context, discuss some relevant modern issues, and suggest some useful applications.
The earliest statement of universalism comes from the Rig Veda, usually dated around 1500 BCE or earlier. The Rig Veda I.164.46 states “Ekam sat vipra bahauda vadanti” or “to what is one, the sages give many names (titles): they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.” This statement is echoed in Rig Veda 10.114.5: “Him with fair wings, though only one in nature, wise singers shape, with songs, in many figures.”
These statements have been interpreted in two major ways. From the perspective of non-dual (and thus non-theistic) Vedanta, following Sankara and other writers, they mean that only the One or brahman is true. The world of names and forms is maya, it is false or illusory in relation to brahman. Thus, all form and human ways of understanding are false, including the gods, who participate in the realm of maya.
The schools of dualistic or theistic vedanta have interpreted “Ekam sat” differently. Brahman is true, and the names and forms used by the sages are also true (as sages are speakers of truth). Brahman is present in a particular god, and all of the gods, as well as such figures as Prajapati and Purusha. This interpretation came to include symbols, visible signs of the invisible truth, such as space, wind, fire, prana, and certain mantras like OM.
Thus, the “Ekam sat” line has been interpreted to mean that only brahman is universally true, and everything else (including all gods) is maya or illusion. It has also been interpreted to mean that all gods are true, as they participate in or share in the reality of brahman. Thus one interpretation says all gods are universally false, and the other says all gods are universally true.
We may also note that the range of the statement has grown over time. It has gone from a metaphysical statement (all is one), to a pan-Hindu statement (the various Hindu gods represent the same reality), to a pan-religious statement (all religions follow one truth, though their prophets use different names and forms to represent that truth). Some commentators have debated the legitimacy of this expanded interpretation.
Both non-dual and dualistic interpretations of universalism are also present in the Upanishads. The major texts of these Vedic commentaries range in dates from about the eighth century BCE to the fourth century BCE, though many were written later. We have the non-dual approach of “Neti, neti” or not this, not that” meaning that no physical object or mental concept fully embraces brahman. We still see this approach today in jnana yoga, in which illusion is peeled away by a process of denial and negation in order to reach ultimate truth.
We also have the theistic approach to Vedanta, in which brahman is the lord deep within the self, the inner controller within the heart, Isvara or Isa. This approach may be monotheistic, as we see in many Vaishnava interpretations of Vedanta, or it may be broader, including all gods. As the Mundaka Upanishad states, “This whole world is brahman, the hidden mover… within all that moves, breathes, and winks.” (MU 2.2.1-3).
With Badarayana and other writers, this distinction developed into the doctrine of nirguna and saguna brahman, one term meaning absolute existence without form, the other with brahman taking on name and form, or nama-rupa. While non-theistic Vedanta emphasizes the nirguna aspect, most theistic Vedanta does not accept the lesser nature of the god with form, and understands both aspects to be of equal value.
In both the Upanishads and the brahmanas, we see a tendency to establish equivalences between beings and qualities apparently belonging to different levels and spheres. As Dandekar notes, one derivation of the word “Upanishad” is “placing side by side, equivalence, correlation.”I Such establishing of equivalents and correlations between different spheres acts as a precursor for the later universalist equating of different gods and symbols, all being part of the same underlying reality.
Another complex early text on universalism is the Bhagavad Gita, the conversation between the god Krishna and the prince Arjuna on the battlefield. The Gita is a text which integrates many different Hindu schools of thought: yoga, bhakti, samkhya, vedanta, and others. As Miller notes, the text is usually dated by scholars as being written between 400 BCE and 400 CE.II
On the topic of universalism, we have two opposing statements. When Krishna discusses other religions, he says to Arjuna,
When devoted men sacrifice
To other deities with faith
They sacrifice to me, Arjuna
However aberrant the rites. (BG 9.23)
Thus, whenever people worship other gods, they are really worshipping the one god, Krishna. Krishna’s identity with all gods is also shown in his revelation to Arjuna of his universal form, in which he is the sun gods, the gods of light, the howling storm gods, and thousands of others. This is universalism- all deities are really the one Ultimate Truth. However, two lines later he states:
Votaries of the gods go to the gods
Ancestor worshippers go to the ancestors
Those who propitiate ghosts go to them
And my worshippers go to me. (BG 9.25)
Here, people who worship other gods do not go to Krishna, they go elsewhere. This is even more specific in chapter 7:
But finite is the reward
That comes to men of little wit
Men who sacrifice to the gods reach the gods
Those devoted to me reach me. (BG 7.23)
Thus, the Gita has universalist ideas (Krishna is within himself all gods) and also non-universalist ones (that Krishna is different from other gods, who have different heavens).
With the rise of bhakti in the medieval period, universalist ideas tended to wane. The puranas emphasized the adventures of the gods, and often gave arguments for sectarian belief and practice. We do find, however, the concept of the istadevata, the personal god who is individually chosen, which means that people can choose any gods to worship. We also have the notion of avatar, in which deities can take on different forms. This implies that the deities of other religions can be true, because they could really be Hindu gods in disguise (thus, Buddha has been called one of Visnu’s avatars). There have also been bhakti mystics like Kabir and Nammalvar, who have included universalist statements in their poetry.III
Universalism returned as an important Hindu concept in the nineteenth century. Raja Rammohan Roy began the Brahmo Samaj, and sought to recapture the “purity” of older Hinduism, by following the non-dual interpretation of Vedanta. Thus, the Samaj forbade polytheism, worship of statues, caste restrictions, and belief in avatars. They were to follow the universal truth of Hinduism, not the mythic accretions that had been added over time, and they would not allow “graven images” (as they phrased it) within their buildings. Roy’s successor Keshub Chandra Sen sought to incorporate Christian ideals in the Samaj, and began to compile a Samaj text with passages from many different religions: Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
We also see universalism in the ideas of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, though their approaches were different. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar was a Sakta devotee and temple priest. He danced and sang to the goddess Kali, and worshipped her all of his life. He followed Bengali Saktism as his primary practice, but he accepted the truth of other religions. He spent a week or so experimenting with Muslim and Christian worship, and he performed Vaisnava worship as well. He did meditation with a Vedanta guru, and with a tantric female teacher. He was a universalist and a passionate devotee of Kali.
His disciple Vivekananda had a more Brahmo approach to universalism. He felt that Hinduism should be rational, non-mythical, and activist, especially in the area of social service. He was not much interested in Ramakrishna’s passion for Kali and worship of the goddess within statues- he took Ramakrishna’s ideas of universalism and changed them, to bring them in line with his interpretation of Vedanta philosophy. His ideas have come to dominate the Ramakrishna Mission, which he founded in Ramkrishna’s honor. The last time I was in Calcutta, a swami of the Ramakrishna order told me that Ramakrishna was never a Sakta- he was only a Vedantin sage. I wondered if he had ever read Ramakrishna’s biographies.
On occasion, Vivekananda also espoused what we might call evolutionary universalism- that all religions are true, but that they are evolving towards a superior form. We see this approach today in some forms of liberal Christianity, and also in Bahai religion. As Vivekananda stated,
The idea of an objective God is not untrue- in fact, every idea of God, and hence every religion, is true, as each is but a different stage in the journey, the aim of which is the perfect conception of the Vedas. Hence, too, we not only tolerate, but we Hindus accept every religion… knowing that all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of them marking a stage of progress.IV
Some writers have called this “reverse colonialism”- for Vivekananda is saying that while all religions are true, they all evolve towards Hinduism, which is most advanced.
We also see universalism in the political sphere, mostly exemplified by Gandhi, who did not claim the superiority of a particular path. As he stated,
After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that 1] all religions are true; 2] all religions have some error in them; 3] all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism, in as much as all human beings should be as dear to one as one’s own close relatives. My own veneration for other faiths in the same as that for my own faith; therefore no thought of conversion is possible.V
However, today there is conflict over the role of universalism in modern Hinduism. One one hand, it is the form of Hinduism followed by most Indians living and working in the West- especially scientists and engineers. It is “India for export”- the aspect of Hindu thought most widely known and respected around the world. As Carl Jackson notes in his book Vedanta for the West, universalism is Vedanta’s greatest attraction to Americans- its all-embracingness, its tolerance, its ability to reconcile religious differences.VI For some, it is the basis for a claim of Hindu superiority- Hindus being more tolerant, loving and forgiving than Christians, who only claim to have these qualities.
On the other hand, some Hindu nationalists say that universalism condemns not only a Hindu state, but even Hindu devotional practice. This conflict comes out of different interpretations of the term. I shall give these names, in order to clarify them.
We might call one understanding intellectual or abstract universalism. It is a philosophical position, rather than a religious belief. It states that all religions are equal, as all go to the same goal, and therefore one should not follow a particular one. Here we have a universal truth at the expense of the particular, for the clarity and rationality of the philosophical position is preferred to the particularity of a specific belief and practice. When this is turned into a religious claim, it can become anti-religious, forbidding religious practice in the name of tolerant humanism. Here, humanism contradicts itself by negating the human right to religious freedom . From this perspective, practicing any religion constitutes religious prejudice or bias.
We might call the other understanding religious or sectarian universalism. In this approach, one religion is practiced, and others are accepted as valid and legitimate. It emphasizes the importance of particular or exclusive practice as a personal choice, but respect is given to other religions. In this approach, one can legitimately be both a Hindu or other religious practitioner and a universalist. One can support a religious nation, and still be a universalist.
This was also the real difference between Ramakrishna and Vivekananda- while Ramakrishna performed devotional bhakti practice and was a sectarian universalist, Vivekananda avoided devotion and ritual, and followed intellectual universalism.
I noted at the beginning of this paper that I would suggest some useful applications. In the field of Religious Studies in the USA, universalism has been under attack for over fifteen years. The universalism followed by Eliade and other scholars of comparative religion was based on the idea of the sacred as the common goal of religions. It is likely that Eliade was inspired in this idea by his study of Vedanta with Surendranath Dasgupta.
This idea has been attacked by a group calling itself Postmodernist, or sometimes Deconstructionist. They claim that all religious understandings are political, that belief in any common or universal religious truth is superstition and intellectual colonialism, the imposition of Western religious ideas (such as universalism) on non-Western victims. No legitimate comparisons can be made between world religions, as religions are only responses to social history and alien to each other.
- Indian scholars might note that India has its own tradition of universalism, and that it is not a Western Platonic or Eliadean idea forced upon India by colonialist thinkers. They can make clear that universalism is an indigenous category, thus giving permission to Western scholars to use the concept in the field of comparative religion without fear of practicing intellectual colonialism.
- Indian scholars with their long history of religious study and universalist philosophy are in a unique position to promote comparative religion and to argue against postmodernists who reduce religion to politics.
- India now has virtually no programs in Comparative Religion, History of Religions, or Religious Studies in its universities. The tradition of universalism which respects all religions should lead to the formation of such programs, so that scholars in India can understand the language of modern comparative religious discourse and effectively participate in global religious conversation and scholarship.
To speak metaphorically, both the idea of universalism and the study of religion itself have become recent victims of cultural theory and Postmodern reductionism in the USA. Nobody in the West has been able to liberate them. India has the most ancient ideas in this area- perhaps it can contribute some contemporary voices as well.
- R. N. Dandekar, “Upanisad,” in Mircea Eliade’s 1989 Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 15, p. 208.
- Barbara Stoller Miller, trans. The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, p. 3.
III. Kabir wrote of God being neither Hindu nor Muslim, and the Tamil saint Nammalvar said in the Tiruvaimoli 5, “Let each one offer worship as he deems fit and each one shall attain his God’s feet. No God is inferior to any other God. Each one reaches his goal as his destiny has commended.”
- Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 4, Mayavati Memorial Edition, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), p. 187.
- M. K. Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as told in his own worlds, (Paris: UNESCO, 1958), p. 60.
- Carl Jackson, Vedanta for the West: The Ramakrishna Movement in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 100.
June McDaniel can be reached at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, College of Charleston.