Digestion versus Inclusivism

This is one more in our series of blogs on digestion - what it is, and what it isn't. Here, we have a question from a western scholar who has rejected proselytization, and wants to know:
- the difference and similarity between 'inclusivism' and digestion. 
- and haven't some schools of thought in dharma always digested some other schools to yield what is today called Hinduism?

The responses and discussions are quite important. For example, it's pretty stunning that attempts to discredit Vivekananda, and brand Hinduism as some colonial construct, have continued since the 1890s - when Vivekananda enlightened the west, after which the holes in history-centric Christianity were permanently exposed. For a more complete answer to such attempts we will have to await Rajiv's new book 'Indra's Net: Defending India's philosophical unity'.

November 2013

Karl asks:
categories/typologies used in interfaith forums to classify forms of dialogues and attitudes toward the "other"...:  exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.
Do you see any similarities or differences between "inclusivism" and "digestion"? In what ways?"

Rajiv comment: 

"This is a good question.

I do not consider the standard academic classification of inter-religious postures into the three (exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism) to be adequate. I am aware that this classification is normative in the classroom. First of all, these are not mutually exclusive of one another because often a given person's attitude is a muddled combination of more than one of them. He might be exclusive on certain points and inclusive in others, for instance.

But more importantly and to the point of your question, Digestion is an outcome that can result from many starting postures including these three postures. An exclusivist posture like Protestant Nicene Creed based denomination explicitly rejects Hinduism and yet appropriates yoga into Christian Yoga. They do so by distorting those aspects of yoga that would not be digestible. So exclusivism can also lead to partial digestion. Similarly, Inclusivism and Pluralism are each prone to culminate as Digestion of Hinduism. My point is that the 3-way classification does not go deep enough as these three are surface positions where the encounter starts but does not end.

SPECIFICALLY, INCLUSIVISM IS NOT AN END STATE BUT AN INTERIM STATE. IT IS AN UNSTABLE STATE OF TRANSITION. The Christian spouse of a Hindu finds inclusivism convenient, and family/friends on both sides can get a period of peace because it can seem that there is no problem. But in fact they have just set aside the hard issues of differences rather than deal with them. So later on, I find in most such cases, problems surface. They would be better off extensively discussing differences up front, and reaching some sort of "deal" consciously rather than pretending there is no issues because they have slogans to chant from both sides."

Would you agree that what you define as "Hinduism" has also been, and will maybe always be, a locus of digestion of its own? Would you agree that "digestion", as you define it, has taken place within the work of various and great Indian thinkers without them caring much about giving proper acknowledgement to their sources, even sometimes completely modifying the nature of the material they incorporated? (For example, one could try to prove this point by showing how some Buddhist notions were absorbed and reformulated in Vedantic terms, without acknowledgement, even under the cover as one might say. ...) Or would you think that this is impossible?

If it did happen, what do you make of this phenomenon in regard to your own quest of identifying "digestion" in other traditions?"

Rajiv comment:
"Yes, there is continual intra-dharma digestion-like process going on, BUT with one critical difference: The source does not get destroyed as in the case of digestion by Abrahamic religions due to their exclusivity claims, and their mandate to take over "100% market share of souls" in the world. The doxographers in India (I refer to them extensively in my forthcoming book (Indra's Net)) were cross-appropriating from one another and kept the debates and purva paksha vibrant all the time. This is how innovation took place. This is why Hinduism has always been dynamic, continuous and yet connected with its sources (whether explicitly acknowledged or not).

Borrowing without harming the source is a good thing. It is how humanity advances by learning from each other. But in Digestion per se, there is no trace of the source left - as Pagans getting digested into Christianity.

There is another important distinction between cross-borrowing among dharma traditions and Abrahamic digestion of others: As BD shows

there are important common tenets across most dharma systems and hence when they borrow the foundation is robust enough for this to happen with mutual respect.  

In history centric religions, the digestion must remove every trace of whatever disagrees with this absolutist and exclusivist historical grand narrative. Hence the latter is invariably destructive..."

Karl's followup:
"....I share your disappointment with the terminology (or typology) used in interfaith forums. ...

As for your views on digestion, if I understand your point, the problem lies in the power struggles generated by the Abrahamic faiths who always tried to impose their views and now try to absorb whatever is attractive in other systems. ... Coming from [], disillusionment with the Church and with other Christian missionaries is deep rooted.

...I am doing my [] research on Indian doxography. .."

Rajiv comment: The best evidence that Indian doxography did not lead to digestion (in the sense of digestion by the west) is that the systems incorporated or borrowed from by a given doxogrpher have continued to survive independently and separately as themselves, in most cases. For example, many Vedantins assimilated ideas from Samkhya but Samkhya flourishes as its own system. Similarly, Gaudapada got Madhyamika Buddhism ideas but nobody has destroyed Buddhism in the process. In other words, cross-learning was not destructive as it was in the case of history centric religions. I am trying to put your attention back on to history centrism."

Kundan adds:
".... your paper [] .... it is quite clear that it is inclusivism that bothers you...inclusivism has bothered the likes of Hacker and Halbfass and numerous other authors who are invested in a social constructivist approach of showing that Hinduism is colonial construct.

The reason why it bothers people who are opposed to inclusivism is the philosophy of Vedanta, which basically brings into its fold anything and everything which is in the universe and beyond—including the so called negative or demoniac forces.

Interpreted from the fundamentalist point of view, the nondual Vedantic philosophy makes the dualistic worldview of Nicene Creed Christianity a subset. This subordinated status is not acceptable to the Nicene Creed because of which the proponents of Vedanta have been under constant line of fire, including an attempt on the life of Swami Vivekananda (please see “On Himself” by him) who is considered to be the chief protagonist of the Vedantic thought in the west. After the fundamentalist Christians were not successful in killing him, they bandied to deconstruct and delegitimize him in western academia, mostly by spreading canards. In every era new ways were devised to do so—the latest is the philosophy of social constructivism under which people like Halbfass, Richard Kind, Brian Pennington, Andrew Nicholson, etc fall. Paul Hacker is actually the father of them all in the modern times. However this scholarship can be traced to the likes of James Mill.

...You have actually taken the battle of de-legitimizing the inclusivism of Vedanta even further—you have taken it to the pre-colonial times. ...you have taken the works of Sadananda and Jitatmananda, fifteenth and sixteenth century Vedantins, to show how inclusivism is based on a fraud (you give the name doxography). So basically, you and your ilk will go to everywhere in Indian thought where an attempt is made to bring existence, universe, cosmos, under the canopy of Oneness, because this threatens the exclusivism and the exclusivity of the Nicene Creed.

Now coming to your questions, if there is a difference between inclusivism and digestion. Rajiv ji has answered how the inclusivism of Nicene Creed becomes problematic when it engages with dharma traditions. Let me answer the question from the Vedantic perspective:

From the Vedantic perspective inclusivism is not digestion. Why? When Vedanta came to the West, it did not promote a singular and homogenous idea. When it spoke about Oneness, it spoke about diversity as well. It created a perfect harmony between Oneness and diversity. It spoke about its own truth but it did not invalidate the truths of Christianity. It did not inculturate to take over Christianity and push Jesus from the pantheon of the divine beings. .. It did not wean away Christians from Christianity but made an effort to make them better Christians—yes, in that wake, it did not dwell on the differences because of which we have “Being Different” now. Vedanta, explicitly and implicitly, did not harm Christianity. It did not go on a conversion drive.."

Let me take the following question (#2)

First and foremost, the thesis of this question itself is flawed. This is again based on the “construction of Hinduism” theme. If my understanding is correct, this will be refuted in Rajiv ji’s upcoming book. In the meantime, if at all you want to change your views, I am sending you a paper titled “Swami Vivekananda in Western Academia.” You can see for yourself the truth which makes you formulate your question in the above manner."

Manish adds a game-theory based thought
// For example, many Vedantins assimilated ideas from Samkhya but Samkhya flourishes as its own system. Similarly, Gaudapada got Madhyamika Buddhism ideas but nobody has destroyed Buddhism in the process.// --- This is a quote from RM (below mailchain)
-- this sounds good and noble...but it has come at a great cost...since so many competing schools of thought are allowed to co-exist, there is no central theme, or a unified civilisational weltanschaaung (''UCW"), in our civilisation that binds people together...even how our people assess threats from enemies is not a uniform process, so our enemies have always found it easy to divide, make inroads and defeat us...

Rajiv comment: The example in the following sentences is a counter productive diversion away from the point that has already been expressed well above .

Manish provides a couple of options:
.... Option A: Take a misplaced pride in notions of nobility even if it means you are never able to forge your own UCW, and therefore are left vulnerable -- even predisposed --- to being decimated by other not-so-noble civilisations who have forged a UCW of their own.

Option B: Be pragmatic, dump all notions of nobility and recognise the stark reality that the civilisation that invariably wins is the one with a UCW (not necessarily the more noble one), which will conquer you and then force its unified civilisational weltanschaaung down your throat.

Game theory suggests that you are better off with (B). In other words, if you don't develop your own UCW, you will end up being subservient to an alien UCW. In either case, you have to have a UCW. So, why not one which is your own UCW?

Rajiv comment: The flaw with the above is seeing the philosophical exchanges among dharmic worldviews as a matter of "nobility" (whatever that might mean). The discussants in India saw their enterprise as a quest for truth, not a political quest.

Seeing in dharma terms, the deficiency being pointed out concerns kshatriyata in the kurukshatra of discourse. My new book (Indra's Net) has a long chapter in the end that gives my solution to this dilemma: how to remain true to our quest and at the same time not be weak and vulnerable to infiltrations/digestions. The problem I address is that we must remain open and yet pre-empt these attacks. Stay tuned...

Karl responds to Kudan:
"...I am not bothered by "inclusivism", not even by "exclusivism" or "pluralism". I am more prone to think like Mr. Malhotra on the issue, meaning that I believe that the categories are somehow superficial, at most that they are mental attitudes appearing in some circumstances and not in others..."
....you wrongly label my intentions and my work by putting it into some boxes pre-existing in your own worldview. Unfortunately, it does not capture the reality and appears to be a good example of "adhyâropa" (अध्यारोप)...

I have nothing to do with Christianity or any Abrahamic faiths .. as a matter of practice (sâdhana - साधन) I am guided by the Karma Kagyü Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
...my view (darshana - दर्शन) can hardly be defined by a single word, or concept, or any substantiation like an "ism". It is certainly not a "religion", not even a cultural phenomenon or some kind of a national identity. At best, it is nothing standing by and of its own.

I am in fact struggling to understand the worldview of those who find it relevant to reify their (relative) identity with such concepts as "ism" or"religion". Especially when these people claim to understand the such deep views as the one found in Vedânta for example. It appears to me as a really "relative" understanding indeed.

To continue, as a scholar, I reject the use of the word "religion", sometimes even of "philosophy". What we call "religion" today is in fact the end of "religion" as it have been understood and lived by most traditions in the past (see Wilfrid Cantwell Smith)." 

[to be continued ...]



  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.relgiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

    1. If you intend your work to help followers of Christianity alone, good luck to you. Your thesis makes a wrong reading of any principle of Hinduism and I believe its unlikely Jews and Muslims are going to accept your theory. You are trying to force fit any and every faith denomination under the sun into the concept of Trinity AS DEFINED by your faith. And honestly, it sounds like a spoof more than a serious attempt at arriving at pluralistic theology, as you call it. Why on earth do you call your site religious pluralism? All you are doing is force fitting into Christian ideology, principles and doctrines that will not accept your final offering. It might have been more aptly named, reclassifying world religions per christian theology! Honestly, I really wonder whether Christian folks themselves would take to your theorizing too kindly. All I can say is good luck!

  2. Analysis of Hinduism & other dharmic systems is terribly and fundamentally flawed flawed. Read Rajiv Malhotra's 'being Different' book to develop a basic understanding.

  3. Rajiv… Thank you for your critique and kind wishes. I know you don’t want Hinduism to be absorbed or “digested” by the Abrahamic religions, and if you look at my Preview (www.religiouspluralism.ca) you will see that I maintain the individuality of all religions. However, could you be a little more specific about the problem you have with my drawing attention to the parallels between the Christian Trinity and the Hindu Trimurti? I presume you would not argue with the idea of Christ and Krishna as names for the Supreme Being or Supersoul. So I take it that you object to the parallel I draw between the Destiny Consummator (Holy Ghost) and Shiva the Destroyer.

    It is my understanding that in the Hindu religion Shiva is regarded not as a negative principle, but rather as an auspicious agent of positive transformation, cyclical regeneration, and even progressive evolution. Shiva is the Destroyer only in the sense of destruction as the necessary prelude of renewal, death as part of the cycle of rebirth, and culmination as the inevitable overture of consummation.

    I also understand that in addition, to the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva), the Hindu religion recognizes a parallel triunity in more abstract terms, i.e. 1) Bhagavan - Primeval Lord or original personality of Godhead. 2) Paramatman - Supersoul, Universal Self or Supreme Being. 3) Brahman - Ultimate Cosmic Spirit, the impersonal God, undifferentiated, all that exists, root source and final destiny consummation (sometimes said to be "What is and is not"). Then, mapping this triad onto the Trimurti, Shiva may sometimes be thought of as a personalization of the impersonal Brahman.

    Please, help me out here Rajiv.

    Samuel Stuart Maynes