I’m doing some thinking atm about Hinduism (when am I not?) and whether the Faith constitutes a Universalist or a specifist religion.
Obviously, these days, there are a number of Hindu (or Hindu-derived) religious movements and sects which are pretty decidedly convinced that they are, indeed, universally applicable – the Hare Krishnas are probably the best-known (and most locally visible) example of same; and there’s certainly other ‘reform’ movements which have grown up in recent centuries (some of which resonate quite consciously with, for instance, Christianity) which advocate similar things.
But this has obviously not always been the case. If we turn back to the very oldest parts of the Hindu canon (the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda) – we are presented with a portrait of the proto-Vedic religion as being the Faith of the Aryan People. And, in specia, one whose Gods (and adherents) are at War with the other peoples and other cultural complexes whom they encounter. Consider the many verses which exalt Lord Indra’s status as the sacker of cities and the wrecker of fortresses as oblique references to the conduct in the ongoing struggle against the Dasyus (who appear to represent a previous people of the Subcontinent).
In other words – Hinduism, at least in its ancestral form, was very much a pantheon and religion tied quite closely to the specific people who initially carried it forth.
But what started as an obviously specifist faith quite clearly began to grow and expand its ambit over the centuries. Deities such as Hanuman represent – in both the mythic corpus, and more modern interpretations – incorporations from outside the original bounds of the Aryan people. This is a pattern which can apply even to Aspects of the ancient RigVedic deities – a not insignificant number of which appear to have been drawn from not-necessarily-Aryan sources.
There is also the unquestionable fact that Hinduism, for much of its last few thousand years of history, has not been a purely Aryan faith. The Tamils (and other South Indian peoples) have contributed much to the Faith – and, indeed, when Muslim invaders overran the North, provided a southern heartland to preserve it free from the excesses of zealous iconoclasts from the west and Central Asia.
Indeed, we can go far further with this. Once upon a time, the Hindusphere extended all the way from Afghanistan in the west (and potentially even further depending upon how one regards the Indo-Scythians), through to the islands of Indonesia in the east. We still see ‘relics’ of this in the form of the modern Hinduism of Bali – or, in more monolithic form, the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (I also note that some of the only other non-Gora regulars down at the Bharatiya Mandir are a small group of South-East Asians practicing the faith of their forefathers)
Even so, though, it remains difficult to argue that ‘orthodox’ Hinduism (if there is such a thing) is easily amenable to participation and inclusion for those born ‘outside’ the Faith as Mlecchas (a word which, interestingly enough, originally appears to have meant ‘Dravidian-language speakers’ – but now simply refers to those who are ‘non-Vedic’ … a demonstration of Hindic assimilationism in action 😛 ). The obstacles presented by a Gora’s lack of Caste or undergoing of the Sanskara rituals which accompany a proper Hindu’s progression through each and every of the stages of life are, at first glance, relatively insurmountable. Indeed, this is one of the reasons popularly advanced for why Hinduism has no word for “convert” – because in the absence of literally being born again into the right family/culture, it is often held to be impossible to ‘convert’ or pick up the necessary traits and qualities.
But again, there are counterarguments. These include records of foreigners being ‘adopted’ into a Caste, the de-emphasis of ‘caste’ in some strands of modern Hinduism; and the other explanation of the lack of a word for ‘convert’ being the idea that as ‘all paths tend towards the light’, you can’t ‘convert’ into something you’re already effectively part of. In addition to this, it’s also worth noting that ‘caste’ has acquired an almost substantively different meaning over the last two-and-a-half thousand years as compared to its previous meaning in the days of the Rig Veda and proto-early Vedic religion. Then, caste wasn’t something you were born into, and instead referred to an aptitude you opted to become (and in any case, its later and more restrictive developments had easy analogues in most other Indo-Aryan cultures).
And in any case, there’s quite an array of examples (both historical and scriptural) of caste and other signifers (even the general requirement of Sanskrit as the language for prayer) being set aside if they are not, in those instances, a furtherance to Devotion.
In short, a not insignificant purview of the elements which would restrict Hinduism from being approached as a ‘universalist’ faith have not exactly been consistent over the entire span of said Faith’s existence.
And while this doesn’t, in and of itself, afford Hinduism a ‘universalist’ status (particularly considering the fact that the very existence of those strictures in some form of force seems to point towards ‘specificist’ underpinnings); it’s also worth considering the way some of the post-Vedic developments in the Faith suggest a philosophical Universalism.
‘Sanatana Dharma’, after all, as a name for our religion, does not exactly suggest ‘specificity’ – but instead, the pervasiveness of the ‘Eternal’. (And, incidentally, this forms something of a duality with the name by which most of us here in the Anglosphere know the Faith – “Hinduism” .. a word derived from a term coined to refer rather specifically to the religion of the people of the Indus valley)
There’s also the interesting progression of the lyrical portrayals and depictions of the Dev-inities from razing the cities of foreign peoples and sending Their Manifestations to play a direct role in pivotal mortal battles, through to running the universe as a whole and presiding over the progression of the Ages (while still, obviously, retaining a healthy interest in directly intervening in the Lokas and, where necessary, bashing a few (decapitated) skulls together).
So in conclusion … I don’t know whether you can neatly label Hinduism as either a ‘universalist’ or a ‘specifist’ Religion. (This is even, notwithstanding, the sustained difficulty in ‘easily labeling’ HInduism as anything – it’s simply too big and too broad (and often, not coincidentally, too mutually contradictory with other strains within it) to be put in even an impressively large box)
There are arguments (of greater or lesser applicability and value) for both sides – and the truth, as it often seems to, probably lies somewhere in between.
But what I do know, are two things.
First, that there is much of use, value and worth for even those who are not Hindus to be found in Hinduism.
And second, that I think and feel that I might have gotten beyond a point wherein this ‘universalist’ versus ‘specifist’ debate has a substantive practical application to me. Despite my Barbaras birth … I know I’m in the right place. The ‘specific’ right place, even.
[Author’s Note: Initially prepared for a facebook posting which can be found here]