As I grew up, I became aware that Hindu attitudes to other traditions were not reciprocal. I came to understand the exclusive character of Christian claims and the denunciation of Hinduism which often accompanied these claims. This understanding did not engender disrespect for our Christian friends or hostility towards Christianity as a tradition. Frankly speaking, we felt, on the basis of our Hindu views, that Christians were wrong on this issue. I would venture to suggest that most Hindus still feel this way.
I interpreted the reality of religious plurality through popular Hindu generalizations such as "One God, many names," "Many paths, one goal", etc. In the light of such interpretations, Christian claims seemed arrogant and narrow-minded.
Later on, during my studies at a Hindu monastery in India, I came to realize that religious plurality in India, and within Hinduism, was a far more complex phenomenon than that which was suggested by the generalizations cited above. While the Vedas were accepted as the authoritative scriptures, their meaning was vigorously debated. The nature of God, the relationship between God and the world, the human problem, and the means to the attainment of liberation were intensely debated and the differences were understood to be consequential. They were not glossed as semantics. It was difficult to hold on to the view that all paths led to the same goal when the character of the goals themselves were so different. The names, which one used for God were not just different names. Names, as words which attempt to describe the nature of God, mattered and resulted in different constructions of reality. Hindus understood that God was the goal of human existence and was one and the same for all. There was no unanimity, however, about the nature of God and means of attaining God except that which was achieved by subordinating some positions through hierarchies of various kinds.
Most of the Hindu models for interpreting religious pluralism are inclusive. Other traditions and viewpoints are accepted, but only within the general framework that they are growing towards and will arrive at one's own position. There are higher truths and lower truths along a single continuum. Lower truths are not wrong, but are partial and incomplete. Advaita Vedanta (Non-dualism), systematized and expounded by Shankara (ca. 9th century CE) through his commentaries on the Upanishads, is perhaps the most prestigious Hindu theological and philosophical tradition. For the Advaitin, ultimate reality, which the Upanishads refer to as brahman, is non-dual and without definable qualities (nirguna). The world does not have a substance or reality of its own independent of brahman. It is an inexplicable appearance of brahman, which remains limitless and timeless, under the conditions of space and time. Liberation is the discovery of one's non-difference from brahman and this is attained through the assimilation of the teachings of the Upanishads in a mind which has cultivated virtue. God understood as a creator in relationship with the world (saguna brahman), is usually equated with a lower truth or standpoint. The higher standpoint is the non-dual one, wherein all dualities are transcended and God is the one indefinable reality (nirguna brahman). Similarly love of God (bhakti) as a reality different from oneself is a preliminary step on the path to liberation. Liberation is the direct result of the knowledge (jnana of the non-dual reality and one's identity with it.
While I belong to the Advaita tradition of Hinduism and continue to be deeply influenced by its understanding of human existence, there are fundamental issues and questions with which I am grappling. I feel that these issues need to be re-examined and that traditional interpretations are by no means final. Many of the issues concern the claims of Advaita vis-à-vis other Hindu traditions and other religions. Let me cite a few examples. Are there alternative ways of understanding the relationship between God as a non-dual reality which cannot be defined in worldly categories (nirguna brahman), and God as a creator in relationship with the world (saguna brahman)? Is the hierarchical outlook of a lower and higher truth with their value implications, the only way in which these dimensions of the divine can be understood? Theistic traditions like Christianity, Islam and the devotional (bhakti) movements in India, are usually equated with having a saguna brahman viewpoint. How are we to understand the relationship between God and the world? Dualistic views which understand the world to be a reality independent and separate from God, represent, from the Advaita perspective, a lower truth. From the higher standpoint, God alone is. Can we avoid discussions of purpose, evil and value of the world by asserting the truth of non-duality?
These questions, as you can see, are not unrelated. They are important to me because they are vitally connected with my own journey for the meaning of my existence and my desire to understand the relationship between the claims of my own tradition and those of others. I cannot ignore the challenge of claims that are different from my own. These sorts of questions, however, would not perhaps, be significant for me without the encounter with people of other faiths. I seek insights within my tradition, knowing that the questions which are asked in other traditions and the wisdom which they embody could be profoundly instructive. For if God is the one God which my tradition proclaims God to be, then, surely, what my fellow human beings are saying about God is relevant and challenging to me and requires explanation and understanding on my part. My Christian and Muslim brother or sister may be speaking differently, but they are speaking about that which is dearest to me and which is also the goal of my own existence. This is a truth of tremendous significance which unifies me with the worshipper in every tradition, in whose prayer I hear the longings of my own heart.
Surely, the nature of God does not, in itself, admit to variation and difference. The fact that we are making different claims about One who, from its own standpoint, is the same for all of us, requires explanation. It is only ignorance of other traditions or the refusal to be challenged by their claims which enables one to explain away religious pluralism by the naïve conclusion that one's own tradition is true to the nature of God and that all others are false. Such an answer, though still prevalent, is too simplistic for those of us who have cultivated meaningful relationships with people of other faiths. If the experience of religious pluralism presents us with the question, the answer(s) will not be found outside of deep dialogical encounters, at every level, with those who share with us the thirst for God.
Dr. Anantanand Rambachan is a Hindu scholar from Trinidad and Tobago and professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, U.S.A.