April 19, 2006Foreign Affairs

The virtues of Indian polytheism

The Indian religious model can help weaken the religious basis of international conflict.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The gradual eradication of organised religion, Jean-Pierre Lehmann argues, is required for the progress of civilisation. Acknowledging that this is impractical, he contends that replacing fundamentalism-prone monotheistic religions with polytheistic ones may help reduce international conflict. It is in this context that Lehmann holds up the Indian model, the polytheistic basis of which allows it to successfully manage multiculturalism, albeit imperfectly (via Rajeev Srinivasan’s blog).

But in a global environment desperate for ideas, philosophy and religion, India is the most prolific birthplace of all three — because of the great synergy of democracy and diversity, and the much greater degree of self-confidence that Indians now feel.

Indians and members of the enormous Indian Diaspora — over which the sun never sets — are the thought leaders in economics, business, philosophy, political science, religion and literature.

The planet needs quite desperately a sense of moral order, spirituality and an ethical compass. The Indian religious and philosophical traditions can provide a great deal of all three…

Hence the importance of the role India must play in this respect — both because of its innate qualities and because there is no other serious contender. [The Globalist]Lehmann has a point to the extent that the clash of religions, civilisations’ or even ideologies form the basis of international conflict. But Lehmann’s proposition is no more practical than advocating a wholesale eradication of organised religion, not least because monotheistic religions have better safeguards to ensure self-perpetuation. It is not coincidental that all the major polytheistic religions of the ancient world, with the exception of Hinduism and to a lesser extent the Taoist and Confucian faiths, are now extinct. Neither is fundamentalism a sole preserve of monotheistic religions. Although much more difficult to sustain, it is undeniable that chauvinism and fundamentalism register their presence in the most polytheistic and most tolerant of faiths.

To any enquiring mind it is a matter of astonishment and irony that so much blood has been spilt for so long over as abstract a matter as religion. The religious among us will counter that it is fundamentalism, not religion itself, that is the cause of bloodshed. But it is also true that there cannot be religious fundamentalism without religion. Lehmann’s proposition is constructive in the sense that it can help reduce the amount of international conflict that arises from the clash of faiths. But it is at best a half-measure towards the ideal of an agnostic human society.

While the clash of religions may be most easily recognisable cause’ of international conflict, it is also the most superficial one. Nations go to war when their interests are at stake. Sometimes these involve religion. Sometimes they involve ideology. At other times, economics. So polytheism, or even agnosticism, won’t necessarily solve all our problems. Given, however, that so many of the world’s past and present conflicts involve religion in some form, the virtues of Indian polytheism’ can certainly help make the twenty-first century better than the previous twenty. If this were only possible.

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