Pluralism and Universalism Within Hinduism – David Frawley

published on April 1, 2012

The 10th Rev. Dr. Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture by Dr David Frawley
(Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) on 24 March 2012 in Bangalore organized by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD)

Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma

Hinduism has always traditionally referred to itself as Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Dharma. Sanatana implies however not simply eternality but perpetual renewal and by implication universality. As such, Hinduism encompasses many different sects or sampradayas, both ancient and modern, and allows for a great diversity of spiritual practices and philosophies – almost bewilderingly so to the non-Hindu, and probably more so than any other religion in the world today.

Yet Hinduism is also a way of spiritual knowledge and Self-realization, which we find embodied in the many Vedantic and Yogic philosophies and practices. It is not simply a religious belief or a church, but encompasses also mysticism, philosophy, art, science and the occult. It has an extensive literature and teachings in all these areas, often of enormous proportions, going back many centuries.

However, even the term Hinduism, which does not itself imply universalism but rather a local culture, actually arose because of this older universal view of Sanatana Dharma. Followers of Sanatana Dharma did not need to define themselves relative to another religious group, as they did not see religion and spirituality as something divisive, which needed to be placed in competing camps. The result was that they were given a limited identity from the outside.

Followers of Sanatana Dharma and its various sampradayas ended up being defined as Hindus by other groups that usually did not share the same universal view, and whose priority was to convert Hindus to their own beliefs. Hindus became identified by what they were not, which was not a member of certain other religions, rather than what they were. Hindu teachings were also denigrated accordingly and the deeper philosophies of Hinduism were often ignored, especially their universal relevance. For conversion purposes it was easier to defined Hinduism in a limited way as a local phenomenon only. Yet the universality of Hindu teachings continued, though few outside of India understood this until recent years.

This background universalism of Sanatana Dharma affords Hinduism a synthetic tendency, an ability to incorporate within itself a diversity of views and approaches, including at times those from groups outside of Hinduism or even opposed to Hinduism.  Because of this syncretic view, sometimes Hinduism is equated with a blind universalism that accepts without discrimination anything that calls itself religious or spiritual, as if differences of spiritual teachings did not matter in any way.

While this may be true of some Hindus, the Hindu tradition also contains a lively tradition of free debate on all aspects of theology, philosophy and metaphysics, showing differences as well as similarities, and not simply equating all teachings as they are. A good example of this is the debates between the dualistic and non-dualistic schools of Vedantic philosophy, but many other examples exist as well. The different sects within Hinduism have always been free to disagree, though each sect has its particular guidelines and there is an overall respect for Dharma.

Pluralism and Hinduism

Universalism implies pluralism, a diversity of views, not mere uniformity or one view or belief for all. We live a in a vast and diverse world with considerable variations in individuals, communities, cultures, and climates. We have local variations in food, clothes and seasonal activities. There is no one size to fit all, to use a modern phrase. The same is true in terms of religion and spirituality. Religion in the world is a highly diverse phenomenon with a wide variety of views and practices that are at times in variance with each other. Religion is as diverse as any other aspect of human life. That diversity has been a point of conflict but can be a point of enrichment as well.

What makes a culture great is a rich diversity of deep thought and free creativity, which is not anarchy, but embracing the entire human potential to transcend, whether through religion, art, science, mysticism or other disciplines. This allows each individual to find his or her path that will likely have some uniqueness about it, which will be based upon inner discovery, not upon outer dictates alone.

The modern world is based upon pluralism at a social and political level, at least in theory, as well as pluralism in culture, art and science. However, while the western world embraces pluralism at an outer level, it generally lacks the same pluralism at an inner level of spiritual practices, though this is beginning to change as eastern teachings are becoming more commonly accepted in the western world. A Hindu type spiritual pluralism seems an appropriate spiritual counterpart to western cultural pluralism. Pluralism has its value both in science and spirituality.

The unity of the universe is like the gigantic banyan tree with numerous leaves, branches, aerial and ground based roots. Sometimes that deeper unity is hard to find, missing the forest for the trees as it were. It can be easier to try to impose an artificial unity on the diversity of life, which is what the human intellect and emotions are inclined to do, than it is to accept all of life’s differences, but such an artificial unity eventually breeds division and conflict, and must eventually break down.

We see Hindu pluralism is the great variety of Hindu groups, sects or sampradayas on one level and in the great variety of Hindu teachings and culture that includes the many paths of Yoga, the different philosophies and schools of Vedanta, Ayurvedic medicine, the Vedic Sciences, Hindu music and dance, and the great Sanskrit language.

This diffuse, inclusive and universal nature of Hinduism can be different than the more singularistic orientation of Abrahamic religions, though it is a view generally shared by pagan traditions. It has caused some followers of Abrahamic religions to view Hinduism not as a religion, which to them implies One God, One Book and One savior or prophet, but as a collection of cults with little in common, much as the early Christians viewed the pagan world around them.

Yet what may be regarded by outsiders as Hindu polytheism, much like pagan polytheism, is not a belief in separate and warring Gods but a form of pluralism, with a background recognition of One Divinity, truth or reality, Ishvara, Atman or Brahman. One is reminded of the pagan Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle from whom much of the classical theology and philosophy of western religions derives, who had a clear conception of Deity and the Absolute even before the Christian era. The ancient Egyptians similarly recognized the Sun as the supreme deity behind all other deities, not as a mere outer light but as a symbol of the light of awareness. The Native Americans had their recognition of the Great Spirit long before the Europeans came to convert them, and it was they who held to their word and honored all treaties that the white man broke.

The ancient Hindus back to the Vedas have a  recognition of the One Reality that became embodied in the great Vedantic philosophies of the Absolute and non-dual Brahman. This was not a different trend than their recognition of many deities or Devatas but an extension of that same regard for the sacred presence that resides in all things. The same views and practices exist in Hinduism today.

Yet once we recognize the universality of truth and spirituality, we must also recognize that there is no separate religious identity by birth. No one is born into one particular religion or another or has a religious identity stamped upon him or her in the womb. Religions are given to individuals by their families and cultures, sometimes as a blessing, but sometimes merely imposed upon them in an artificial manner.

We all inherently belong to the one religion that is the basis of all life. There are certain natural religious tendencies in all human beings: capacities for devotion, service or meditation, for example, which different religions adapt or mold according to their own views, considerations or compulsions. The ultimate goal of religion is to know the Divine, which is to know one’s Self. This means that religious conversion is only an outer phenomenon and may be of no value at all. We are all inherently one with the Divine. Spirituality is a self-discovery, which is a shedding of outer attachments. This at least has been the Hindu approach through history, which has never embraced any aggressive form of conversion.

A universal approach to religion should approximate this natural religion of humanity, with its efforts to relate to the sacred nature of all life and to discover the spiritual nature of one’s own being. Hinduism to a great extent has been able to do this and most great Hindu teachers continue to strive in that direction.

Hinduism is very much a religion of nature. Hindus have innumerable holy places in nature, sacred mountains like Kailas, or sacred rivers like Ganga, whose sanctity rests upon their natural power, not upon human activity. We need to honor this natural religion beyond all socially defined religious beliefs, which is the religion of the greater conscious universe that is our inmost Self and divinity.

If a particular religious teaching does not honor that universal spirituality, we should note, it can lose its ability to benefit our inner being or to unite humanity. Religion as competing beliefs and identities tends to remove us from our natural inclinations and can distort them. Hopefully their era is coming to an end and humanity can once more return to a universal sense of spirituality and the diversity of approaches that it can honor.

Pluralism and Unity

Yet there has been a confusion between pluralism and unity, even among Hindu thinkers. Pluralism teaches that there are many paths, but it does not teach us that all paths are ultimately the same, or that it does not matter what path we may choose to follow. Many Hindus quote the Vedic verse that Truth is one but the paths are many. Yet this statement affirms not just a unity of truth but a pluralism of paths as well.

This statement also needs to be interpreted in light of the Upanishadic verse that the path to truth is as sharp and narrow as the edge of a razor. This Upanishadic statement is not to narrow truth to one doctrine or creed, but to show us that to perceive the highest reality requires tremendous discipline, concentration and determination. It does not come without some sort of striving, dedication or sadhana.

Hindu pluralism rests upon viveka or discrimination. We should cultivate even more discrimination relative to the religious and spiritual teachings that we follow than we do relative to our food, work or relationships, as after all the spiritual factors are more important and enduring. What may be good for one person may not be good for another. Within Hindu dharma are a variety of teachings, doctrines and practices in its different sampradayas. In fact one could argue that there are more religions inside of Hinduism than outside of it, in that Hinduism has never rejected any helpful approach to truth or Divinity, religious or non-religious, through the long course of its history.

Pluralism states that one should allow everyone to find their own path, but it does not say that all paths will necessarily be right and good for everyone. It is the same as in science: a scientist cannot say that all scientific theories are correct even if their motivation is good. Pluralism also allows people to make mistakes. Pluralism in food choices means that one is free to choose whatever food one likes, but this does not mean that there are no health consequences in bad food choices, or that the same food will be equally good for everyone and at all times.

Dharmic Pluralism

Yet Hindu pluralism is not western social pluralism, which is often a form of relativism, or lack of values. Hindu pluralism rests upon eternal principles and a sense of dharma, but also on an adaptation of these eternal principles to actual changing life circumstances, in which they cannot simply be enforced from the outside.

Hindu universalism is a dharmic universalism. It accepts all dharmic teachings but cannot embrace adharma out of tolerance or synthesis. Hinduism rests upon certain teachings that cannot be compromised, a sense of eternal values, which is dharma. Hindu pluralism is a dharmic pluralism. It is not an adharmic pluralism and does not accept adharma as an alternative. Dharma is pluralistic in the sense that it is adapted to the changing needs of time, place and person, not in the sense that it can be compromised. Our highest dharma is to seek to know the Divine within us. This should not be subordinated to any lesser motivations.

One is reminded of the ecological principle of the need to think globally but act locally. That expresses the natural and organic relationship between dharmic universality and dharmic pluralism.

Faith and Other Approaches to the Spiritual Life

Dharma is a universal principle like the law of gravity. It is not a matter of one faith or another and remains in operation for everyone whether they believe in it or not. A particular faith, we should note, cannot be universal, whatever value it may have. There can be no final name, form or personality, book or historical revelation as universal or as representing the supreme. There can be no one such faith for all humanity, whether it is a faith in Jesus, Buddha or Krishna, or in any name or formulation of divinity.

This is not to say that faith is not important. While faith in truth or divinity can be helpful and can take us very far, faith in a particular formulation of truth or divinity is an affair of one community and cannot be for all, however much it may be able to inspire certain groups or individuals.

Hindu thought, notably, the Bhagavad Gita, discusses faith or shraddha as threefold like all of nature as sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic, enlightened, egoistic, or destructive. There is the famous English statement about the danger of blind faith. Just because something is someone’s faith does not make it necessarily true, good or beyond question. This is particularly true when the faith is not in some universal principle but in a localized or divisive belief. We must be discriminating relative to faith as we are to all aspects of life.

Different faiths belong to different communities and may help them approach dharma, truth or divinity. But the higher truth is beyond all names, forms and personalities. Different sampradayas or branches of Sanatana Dharma can also have their different faiths, as they have their different founders, teachers, and doctrinal variations. But they recognize the existence of other sampradayas that may have different foundations, teachers, and doctrinal variations.

Hinduism moreover is a sadhana or spiritual practice tradition and emphasizes individual spiritual experience through Yoga and meditation. All doctrines are to be put to the test of inner practice and made our own, or their real value cannot be realized. In Hinduism, belief is not enough for union with the Divine or for Self-realization. Religion in the outer sense of belief is meant to take us to that place of inner practice, in which the divisions of belief pass away. Our true spiritual work is on ourselves. While we should seek to improve the outer world as well, we should do so from a position of an inner change of consciousness, not through imposing our personal ideas or emotions on others.

Moreover, dharmic traditions do not always emph
size faith as the supreme principle. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, liberation or nirvana, is achieved through knowledge born of meditation. Belief and faith are at best preliminary factors.

In some Bhakti movements, liberation is gained by surrender (the Ishvara pranidhana of Yoga). Surrender, however, is also not accepting a particularized faith as an end in itself, but only as a means of mergence into the deity. One could call surrender the highest act of faith, but it is also going beyond any particularized belief.

A universal tradition can accept any number of faiths, but would integrate that faith in a broader pursuit of inner spiritual experience. We must honor pluralism in faiths as well as the specific role of faith in Dharma. To define religions as faiths, as is the current tendency, particularly in interfaith movements, can be misleading, particularly for the knowledge-oriented traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism.

The issue of faith brings up the greater issue of devotion. Hindu thought allows for a great variety of devotional forms and approaches to the deity within, accepting all variations. Whether it is honoring God as the father, mother, brother, sister, friend, or lord. All these devotional moods are there in Hindu mantras, chants and rituals. Whether it is imaging the Divine in nature, in the human form, animal form, plant form, rock or mountain, abstract, numerical or geometrical forms, all options are allowed. Hindu Devatas like Shiva, for example, can have forms and manifestations on all these levels, yet represent the Absolute beyond all time and space as well. To reject certain forms of devotion as unholy is not the sign of a universal view and easily breeds sectarianism.

Yet we must also discriminate between Bhakti or devotion and Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of Devotion. Bhakti or devotion remains but a feeling unless it is cultivated through Bhakti Yoga, which implies a regular devotional practice or sadhana to experience the Divine within. Such sadhanas again will be designed according to the individual and have their variations. They will allow different relationships to the deity or different forms of deity worship in a pluralistic and universal approach.

Pluralism and Self-realization or the Atman

Hindu pluralism like Hindu universalism rests upon a recognition of the Atman or the One Self in all Beings. In Hindu thought, Self-realization is through the individual, not en masse, though certainly there are many helpful group practices that one can do. This Hindu view of Self-realization requires an adaptation of the eternal teaching to the living individual, the embodied soul or Jivatman. The Hindu way is from Jivatman to Paramatman, from the individual to the Supreme Self. For this, a belief in God or a creator can be helpful, but can also at times become an impediment, particularly if that deity is formulated only as an external entity.

Hindu universalism is similarly based upon an understanding of the Purusha, that the entire existence is a single being and the universe is a single organism. We all live in the great cosmic ocean of consciousness. All the differences between people and creatures are but waves on the same ocean. The Vedas in this regard are said to be Apaurusheya or impersonal as they are not rooted in the separate personal ego but in the cosmic Being. Universalism implies going beyond any limiting concepts of time, place and personality. These can be used as a point of access to the transcendent but cannot represent the transcendent itself.

Universal Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) and Universalized Modern Hindu Based Movements

Many modern Hindu based movements starting with the Ramakrishna mission in the nineteenth century have formulated themselves as much as universal as Hindu. Some appear to deny their Hindu basis and project their own movement as a greater universal teaching that includes Hinduism along with the other religions of the world as but one option. Some have portrayed their founder as a universal avatar, encompassing all the religions of the world. Much of this may be semantics, as the term Hinduism does not usually suggest universality to most people, particularly to those outside of India and particularly during the colonial era.

However, one should remember the universal background of Hinduism itself when considering the universal claims of any Hindu based teacher or teaching. Hinduism formulates itself as the same Sanatana Dharma or universal teaching that such modern movements appear to claim for themselves. This means that the claim for universality that we find in modern Hindu based movements is nothing new but a characteristic factor of Hinduism itself.  It has been part of the greater Hindu tradition and has been so all along, since the Vedas themselves. It is inaccurate to present Hinduism apart from this universal background.

Hinduism in its broader formulation as Sanatana Dharma is not meant to be one religion among others, but a synthetic approach to religion, spirituality, science and culture, that can encompass many religions or sampradayas, as well as many different cultural forms and ways of knowledge.

The different sampradayas within traditional Hinduism like the Vaishnava, Shaiva or Shakta are older than most other religions and have a more extensive literature, and could equally constitute religions of their own. One could say that there are more religions inside of Hinduism than on the outside. Often Buddhism and Jainism were accepted as part of a greater Dharmic tradition as well.

The question then arises whether Hindu pluralism and universality can encompass other religions or even atheists. There is theoretically no limit to the number of views that Hinduism can accept, if they are sincere efforts to find truth and rooted in a sense of dharma, and respectful of other dharmic approaches.

Yet this also depends upon the willingness of other groups to honor Hinduism. So far, in spite of a strong sense of unity and universality in religion projected by modern Hindu gurus, Hindus remain perhaps the most significant religious community in the world to be targeted for conversion, often by groups who do not even try to understand the spiritual teachings, practices and benefits already existing within the Hindu tradition.

Of course there are inequalities and ignorance in Hindu society that need to be addressed and corrected, as there is in most of the countries of the world. But there are teachings within the Hindu tradition that do address these and can correct them if implemented properly. These reform movements within Hinduism need to be strengthened for Hinduism to reclaim the universality it was originally based upon.

Hindu Pluralism and Social Ramifications

Reflecting pluralism in religious and spiritual teachings, we must at a social level respect freedom of religion, extending even to atheism. We should be willing to grant freedom of views even to those whose theology we may not agree with. Note that in Hindu philosophy, even the views of the atheistic Charavaka School were examined with care, and there was not any attempt to suppress them.

Yet while recognizing that there are important doctrinal differences between various religions and spiritual paths, we should also strive to create common ethical values for all humanity. These universal values consist of truthfulness, non-violence, compassion, respect, tolerance and kindness. Such values should be acceptable to all religious or non-religious groups based upon a common human courtesy, regardless of theology or philosophy.

In this regard, Hindu universalism promotes a dharmic pluralism, a freedom of religious beliefs and spiritual practices on all levels, even for teachings that Hindus may not agree with, as long as such teachings do not violate the common ethical foundation of human society and human values. To accept pluralism and universalism is not to encourage conflict or competition, but rather to promote tolerance and a freedom for all to approach or discover the truth according to their own angle of approach.

Return to Sanatana Dharma

It is important that all Hindu based movements recognize the greater tradition of Sanatana Dharma behind them. Otherwise Hinduism itself can become limited and sectarian. It is important that Hindus today embrace Sanatana Dharma in the broader sense, regardless of the particular Hindu movement that they may follow. No one group or teacher or sect within Hinduism can claim universality or Sanatana Dharma for themselves. They must recognize the greater universality behind Hinduism and its various branches, including such important teachings as Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda, and the Vedic sciences and their relevance for all humanity.

There are many good examples of this. There is the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission and its magnificent modern temples built throughout the world, including the largest in Delhi. While promoting their own sampradaya, they honor all aspects of Hindu dharma. Another group is the American magazine Hinduism Today, which though Shaivite in origin has taken such a broad view of global Hinduism. Yet another is the publishing house Voice of India, particularly the books of Sri Ram Swarup that formulate Hinduism in a universal light. Such groups neither hide their Hinduism nor fail to honor the greater Sanatana Dharma behind what they do.

At the same time, other religions in the world should recognize that Hinduism also has its foundation in a sense of universalism, great philosophies of the Divine and the Absolute, and great systems of Yoga, and is not limited merely to ethnicity or caste, as it is often portrayed to be, particularly for purposes of conversion. As a western born Hindu, I have to frequently deal with such misinformation and even hostility when I try to explain my religious views to non-Hindus in the West.

Hinduism in its broader foundation is not merely one religious belief among many but has the capacity to integrate the different spiritual and religious urges of humanity. This consists of showing how all the human tendencies towards devotion, knowledge, work, service and the application of various Yoga practices of pranayama, mantra and meditation can be employed for the benefit of all.

The world as a whole needs a new universal and pluralistic spiritual tradition that can embrace what is valuable and beautiful in all spiritual traditions, including native and indigenous approaches, without having them lose their unique forms and practices in the process. Hinduism and its tradition of Sanatana Dharma offers a good foundation to do this. It does not seek to convert or conquer the world. Rather it aims at helping us understand that already the entire universe dwells within our own hearts. We are all part of one family but a family in consciousness that includes all existence.

* The Tenth Rev. Dr. Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture organized by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue(BIRD) on 24 March 2012 in Bangalore


Note on the author

David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) is the author of more than forty books on various aspects of Hinduism, Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda and Vedic astrology, published in more than twenty languages worldwide over the last thirty years. He has several books dealing with Hinduism itself, both its ancient origins and its modern challenges. He is currently the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies ( His books in India are available through Voice of India and Motilal Banarsidass.

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