Ramakrishna Mission and Sameness - A Debate, June 2011

This debate is very interesting since it brings out some of the irreconcilable differences between Dharmic and Abrahamic faiths and shatters the 'false sameness' asserted by certain groups on both sides of the aisle, while also bringing out the pluralism of ideas within Hinduism that exist with mutual respect for one another.  

This discussion also includes a sad story of how the Ramakrishna mission, in its eagerness to be "inclusive" with the west, donned the mantle of 'sameness'. As a tragic consequence, the RKM largely failed to deliver the original and uniquely Hindu message of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda, and has become increasingly irrelevant to those in the west who seek genuine Hinduism, and not just an Indian imitation of the Christian Church. The SRF of Paramahamsa Yogananda also suffers from the same deficiency.

Ideally, this summary should be read along with another related discussion on the digestion of Hinduism into Christianity that took place at the same time.

In a way, this debate sets the tone for Rajiv Malhotra's book 'Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism" that would come out a few months later.

RKM and Sameness - Debate (June 2011)

Vijaya Rajiva initiated the debate:
"I have been following the discussions concerning Christianity and Hinduism, especially the last one by Jataayu. I agree with him that the widespread grassroots organisations in India of the Ramakrishna Mission, do not quite fit in with Rajiv's account of Swami P. as the prevailing R.Mission's ideology and work, especially in their schools, hospitals etc.

However, Rajiv is right in emphasising the nefarious nature of the attempt to merge Hinduism into Christianity. I will write about that on another post.

Gandhiji said that the Sermon on the Mount went straight to his heart. But he did not accept that Jesus was the only son of God. And as we know, he resisted all attempts to convert him. There is the famous story of his friend in South Africa who leaned forward and tried to remove the tulasi beads from Gandhiji's neck saying it was superstition. Gandhiji gently pushed him back saying : it may be superstition to you but they are beads my mother put round my neck.

And despite recent attempts to tarnish the Mahatma's reputation in this regard, he remained a staunch Hindu to the end ! One of those secular intellectuals (cannot recall his name now) even tried to make out that Gandhiji did not call
out 'He Ram !' when he was struck down...."

Rajiv Malhotra responded:
This is a bit lengthy, but important to get the confusion out of the way, because this is the most common cause of confusion among dharmic people today.

Swami Tyagananda in Boston
A typical example of RKM's position is that of swami Tyagananda in Boston with whom I have argued this very point. He insists that all religions lead to the same goal, that all religious paths are equivalent, etc. When i try to argue on this, he slips away after making some superficial statements about world peace, lets not kill others, the same brahman is in each of us, we all have love in our hearts, etc.

Oneness and Multiplicity
Such folks fail to understand the difference between (A) Oneness as nirguna/nirakar Brahman, and (B) multiplicity as saguna/sakar Brahman. B is dependent upon A. B is not false any more than the smile (though dependent on the face) is real. Mithya being temporary does not mean its non-existent. It merely means it is not permanent and not independently

All karma and dharma are in the realm of B. So if B were purposeless or unimportant then so would be karma/dharma, etc. Such swamis cater to modern and postmodern fashions and are uninformed. They chase western fans by supplying them what they like to hear.

Swami Shantananda, Delhi 2005
I also debated this issue with the head of RKM in Delhi, Swami Shantananda back in 2005. When he said all religions are equally valid, I asked to define "religion". I asked if ravana's religion, bin laden's religion, hitler's religion were equally valid. "Of course not" he said, looking worried, "those are not valid religions."

I asked what is the criteria for validity. All men in history have
claimed that whatever they espouse is valid. So what we have are an unlimited number of religious "claims." How do you decide which are valid and which are not? The swami had no ready answer, shifted into "we want peace" diversions that are irrelevant to the topic of debate. I reminded him that we were discussing Vedanta metaphysics and not political correctness...

Violation of Purva Paksha tradition

... What became very clear from this encounter (which is typical of dozens I have had over the hears) was the following: There is a certain mental block against seriously studying other positions from one's own siddhanta, a blockage that's a clear violation of the purva-paksha tradition. This is based on fear, yet another breach of the audacity called for by our tradition. Much of this posture is the result of wanting to suck up to the market of quick opportunities to gain followers, donations, slots as speakers at events, prestige as "peace
maker" and so forth.

Venkatanarayanan responds:
"1. Swami Dayananda Saraswati is the only erudite sannyasi I have heard saying categorically, unambiguously and forcefully that "all religions are not the same" and "all religions do not seek the 'same' God".
2. Many sannyasis tend to be superficial or facile or politically correct in matters of inter-religious debate.
3. Mouthing inanities regarding world peace etc is not scholarly debate.... " 

Vaidyanathan wondered:
"Jesus as Upa Devatha is a nice huffington post article for Rajiv to think about?

Christians and Mulsims adopt similar strategies. A Muslim friend once said that he thinks about Hindu gods as Jins. Christians say Indian gods are demons

So appropriating Jesus within the Hindu pantheon as a upa devata is a perfectly understandable strategy ( understandable to those who do the same )

Rajiv's response to Vaidyanathan:
"... much more is involved by way of amending core Christian beliefs in order to retrofit Jesus as upa-devata. (I use the term ishta-devata.) One cannot use any and all ideas as ishta-devata and get the same result. Imagine bin laden, hitler, ravana as ishta-devata."

Sagar noted:
"This "sameness" argument - all religions lead to same goal, all religious paths are equivalent led the RKM mission to seek a status of "non-Hindu religious minority" from Calcutta HC. When the news became public, it caused a furore - the SC finally overturned their minority status, quoting Vivekananda's works... "

R. Subramanian comments:
"Very true. At the same time RKM has to be commended for the vast humanitarian undertakings, at the same time the philosophy that swamis like Shri Malhotra pointed out in the below need to be utterly condemned.

How can the doctrine of "only one chance or eternal hell" ever be reconciled with Karmic evolution of the soul and its intellect into the state of perfection? How can the doctrine of "original sin" ever be reconciled with beginingless soul and its Karmic cycles??..."

N. S. Rajaram does not mince words:
"I suggest such responses are not necessarily due to ignorance but cowardice-- an unwillingness to be seen as taking a forthright stance."

Vaidyanathan comments:
"Frankly even Vaishnavism advocates such ananya Bakthi, have we ever seen Ganesh icons or Nava Grahas in Vishnu temples in Tamil Nadu ?"

Kashyap responds:
"Yes Ganesha is there in several TN Vishnu temples, but He is called "Thumbikkai Azhvaar".

Of course Vaishnavism is a type of exclusivism (but lets keep in mind Dharma is still the foundation here so we don't have the conflicts that the Abrahamic exlusivisms have). .."

Subbaro suggests a private approach:
"We should not openly criticize Ramakrishna Mission and other Hindu religious organizations. Instead, silently we should try to bring change in them. Open criticism will only give more leverage for anti Hindu forces."

Rajiv Malhotra disagrees:
"... This advice assumes as though it is original and nobody has thought of it and tried it. How naive! What about 20 years of my life spent doing all this "private" convincing with such gurus? Just because you could be an armchair mouse-clicking activist does not mean that nobody else has spent hundreds of
hours traveling to try and convince such folks.

Also, what makes you think that their view is based on naivete and not deeper causes such as selling out for western sponsorship, i.e. preaching sameness because that gives people what they like to hear..."

Krisha Kirti Das responds on 'exclusivity of Vaishnavism"
"No, Vaishnavism is not a "type of exclusivism", any more than it stands firm on the precept that Brahman is fundamentally saguna, not nirguna as the Shankarites believe. And yes, us Vaishnavas say they are mistaken. Does your "inclusivism" include us? I think not, so why not call the position you have articulated exclusivist? It turns out that your position, contra Vaishnavism, is just as exclusivist. In other words, once you commit to a particular position on reality, you necessarily must decide what falls within and without it, so you cannot avoid being "exclusive""

Rajiv Malhotra analyzes "Inclusiveness"
"The category of inclusivist is a western one. It is stealth imperialism - I include you in my schema, on my terms and in my framework. This leads to conversion as there is pressure to conform to what is seen as "universalism", another dangerous idea. My book exposes every one of these fashionable ideas individually.

I advocate "mutual respect" instead (see my huffpost blog on this). Difference is preserved. You are you and I am me. We are NOT the same. We respect each other as is. My philosophy, deity, sadhana work for me, and I respect you for following your philosophy/deity/sadhana. The ONLY
caveat is "mutuality," meaning that you cannot trample my faith, and if you do i will not tolerate that. If you dont show mutual respect, you are like a virus in the network that needs to removed as a threat to society and to dharma..."

Banarjee provides an analogy:
"I agree with this. One way to think about this is to analogize religion to parents. We cannot say that all parents are the same or all are good or everyone's parents but mine are bad. What we can say is that while our prime loyalty and duty is towards our own parents because of the emotional ties of growing up with them, because of our gratitude for what they have given us, etc., we also recognize that other children will have similar feelings towards their own parents and these are not exclusive and should not be exclusive so we have mutual respect for everyone's parent-children relationships. We also avoid the trap of saying that since someone else's parents are also good, I should leave my family and join theirs.. "

Bhanot adds:
"The 'sameness' debate I don't think was about 'exclusivity' or
'inclusivism' - all these concepts carry different nuances. The debate was that our Swamis consider all religions to be same where exclusivity is not a problem as every Dharmic religion may consider itself to be 'exclusive' but under Dharma it gives the other benefit of the doubt, whereas the Swamis consider the Abrahamic religions to be Dharma's also.."
... Just saw Rajiv ji Malhotra's post on his preference for the term 'Mutual Respect' as opposed to 'Inclusiveness' - I don't think that works either, as 'mutual respect' leads to 'sameness' also in my opinion. You need a word for 'exclusivity but with a benefit of doubt' ...

Rajiv Malhotra responds: 
".....I dont think you have read my piece on mutual respect incl the comments i wrote in response to others. You need to read carefully why the word "mutual" is critical in mutual respect - i.e. it is not unilateral or unconditional respect. This is why bin laden gets disqualified to get our respect. We are not saying respect everyone no matter what. I tried using the network virus as example to make this point.

Properly understood this cannot be mixed up with sameness..." 

Banarjee posts:
"If we all have faith in Dharma and for that matter in Karma, why this debate? Aren't we born with the past Karma (Atman chose the new body and environment)? So whether we are a Vaishnava or Shaiva - has to do with the cycle of rebirth
and Karma. Who makes it 'inclusive' or 'exclusive' when we are born into a family/environment where our body/mind/intellect is yearning towards a particular world-view, way of living, following (or not following) a particular
path, deity?

Secular vs sacred, monotheism vs polytheism, religion, atheism and 'belief system' - all are products of tribal attempts to rationalize and justify..."

Geeta makes an brilliant point:
"...Both our epics deal with the issue of standing up to the opponent who is shrewd, intelligent, educated  and uses knowledge to serve his purpose . Such an opponent has to be taken on, and has to be done by everyone. Our activity could be as minor ( but hugely significant) as sitting on School Parent teacher associations, writing letters to the editor of our newspapers, magazines and other media when we see something that is a wrong interpretation of our values. And I say this from long experience - I have had responses from the writers of Op Ed pages, and others"

Jataayu responds to an earlier comment:
"1. The view that "Hindu" identity was brought only by British is historically incorrect. ...

The "Hindu" label has been used by Vijayanagara kingdom ("Hindu raya suratrana"), by Bhakti saints like Kabir ("hindu turak na koi" - at least to differentiate us from Muslims), by Shivaji (Hindu Pada Padshahi) ... Some medieval Sanskrit texts also use the term Hindu.

2. The Shaiva, Vaishnava, Smarata type identities are not religious. They are denominational....

3. "Hindu" is the best and most opt one because it embodies the ideas of a civilization, a culture, a nationality and also a broad canvass where many religious sects and social groups can be brought together...

4. That does not mean other sub-identities are useless. After all, in today's globalized world, we live with multiple identities, which can be overlapping....

5. I disagree with your observation that "Hindu" identity is upheld only by superfluous people who are not rooted in Dharma. It is misreading. We live in modern times and we do need a *modern* Hindu identity. ..
On the contrary, it is the "traditional" types that you mention are the ones who mostly mistake forest for the woods... For decades, the traditional Tamil Shaivite institutions were over-stressing their sub-identity of Shaivism, claiming that it had its roots only in Agamas and Tamil canon and denying its Vedic and Vedantic connection, which was against the truth and against the tenets of Shaivism itself. Once this theory got established strongly, and the threshold was breached, it was easy for the Christians to barge in and create havoc. Now we have to wage another great struggle to reclaim our own heritage, by asserting its "Hindu" character."

Geeta responds:
"Senthil and Jataayu's counter reasoning makes sense when seen from a historical perspective. Hindu Padshahi, JaageDharam Hindu etc. slogans or thinking came because North was invaded by foreign belief systems from time to time. Hindus of North had to examine and reexamine their faith and defend it. Guru Nanak, Kabir and reformist worked on keeping the Vedic principles alive by making the practice of the dharma the life of the Hindu and not his/ her sub group identity.

Those parts of India which never had to face such outside forces, maintain the unbroken sub group identity.The threat of Christianity is a modern phenomena and Tamil Nadu must do the required soul searching and keep the essential dharma and accept a pan Indian identity rooted in the Principals of the faith/culture/tradition -..."

Sameer says:
"We can ask ourselves, is Dharma a universal science, like Physics, or is it mumbo-jumbo belonging to a particular cultural tradition.

If it is the former, then it is natural that some people from other cultures would also be aware of some of the principles of Dharma, to varying extents.

We need not be hostile to the idea of commonalities between the original teachings of Jesus and Sanatan Dharma."

Rajiv Malhotra responds:
"The issue being debated is not dharma's universal claims, but
the distortion of one side or the other in order to make the dharma fit within the limits of Judeo-Christianity. Either central elements of dharma are eliminated (like karma-reincarnation) to fit into Christianity; or there is inculturation meaning that what is distinctly Christian gets disguised in front
of non-Christians."

Kapil has the last word in this thread:
"... 'Breaking India' is on the agenda of Cultural Imperialism because Vedic Knowledge Culture is a highly rational alternative to the Abrahamic. Such 'invasions' are always carried out with active local collaborators - and, unfortunately as your good self has shown, there are plenty."

Vijaya Rajiva in a separate thread notes:
Ramakrishna did not actually say all religions are the same. I think it is Kanchan Bannerji who pointed out that what he said was there are as many religions as there are people.Substitute the word 'religions' with 'opinions.'

Rajiv Malhotra's response:
I too [respect] Sri Ramnakrishna and Swami Vivekananda immensely. But ask any top RKM leader today if they have deviated from the style of their founder, and they will candidly tell you that they have. Thats the tragedy.

Vivekananda was staunchly Hindu. He spoke to westerners a certain way to bring them closer into dharma, and these certain lectures were not intended for Indian audiences. His teachings are to be seen as audience specific. After his death,
those teachings that sounded (or could be made to sound) generic/sameness became popularized by his successors. Hence their dilution started.

One of my future volumes that's about 70% complete is devoted to the influences of RKM and others like them upon western culture in ways that are today erased from the record. (Example: Tesla, who is considered the pioneer in physics for
many breakthroughs, had exchanges with Vivekananda. It was Vivekananda who told him that matter and energy were two aspects of the same substance (prakriti). Tesla found that incredible as that was before such equivalence was established in modern physics. Many years later came Einstein's famous E = MC**2 in which this equivalence gets quantified. But the principle of energy and matter being equivalent came from Vivekananda via Tesla into Western science.)

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