Religious Tolerance in Ancient India

Ancient People of India

by Jayaram V

Truly, the new generation of Hindus is the gift of India to the mankind. We hope that their lives and actions become a source of inspiration to others to follow.


Many people tend to believe that since the present day Hindus exhibit a greater degree of religious tolerance, the same must be true in the past also. It is true that today, many Hindus display a rare degree of religious tolerance, which is very much in harmony with their religious beliefs and practices.

But this concept was evidently not present to the same degree among the Hindus in the past. The secular attitude of the present day Hindus is a product of their recent past, of their modern education, of their increased sense of responsibility and of their awareness of their great heritage and ancient religion. In some ways, it is also a social and political compromise, something which they do not like, but cannot wish away or avoid in the light of the realities that confront them.

The ancient Indians were hardly tolerant of other religions or religious sects that opposed their faith in some way. The vedic people used the most derogatory epithets to describe those who were different from them either in their body color or in their religious beliefs. Perhaps the word kafir might look less objectionable compared to the epithets the Vedic people used to describe their opponents who practiced different religions or worshipped different gods.

The situation did not change much during the later vedic period or during the post Mauryan period. A number of religious sects headed by new religious teachers came into prominence during the seventh and sixth century B.C. These sects preached radical philosophies. Some of them doubted the very existence of God and the possibility of any after life.Some believed in the existence of soul, but not in the existence of a Creator.

No amity existed among these diverse sects. They hardly tolerated each other and tried their best to prove each other wrong. They quarreled among themselves frequently and used derogatory epithets to describe each other. The vedic brahmins of this period were excessively vehement in their description of these heretics, to whom they showed little sympathy and understanding. They regarded these otherwise very wise teachers as perverted philosophers, cursing them vehemently and wishing them prolonged suffering in the darkest hells!It is true that in course of time most of these schools became integrated into Indian philosophy as different schools of thought.

Even the Buddha could not remain free from the attacks of his opponents. The Ajivakas with whom he had several debates never liked him, nor appreciated his teachings. Under the leadership of his cousin Devadutta, some of his followers formed a separate religious movement and always schemed against him. The rivalry between the two groups was so vehement that there were even attempts on the life and reputation of the Buddha.

The Mauryas came from a lower caste hindu family from eastern India. Because of this they probably never liked Brahmanism. Chandragupta Maurya became a Jain during the end of his rule, while Asoka became an avowed Buddhist. We do not have much information about the religious tolerance of the Maurya kings, though we have reasons to believe that the Mauryas might have been very practical in their approach to religion. We have definite information that the religious policy of Asoka annoyed the brahmins of his time and contributed to the down fall of his empire after his death resulting in the emergence of Sungas as the ruling dynasty.

The Sungas were brahmin kings. They supported Brahmanism and had little sympathy for any other religion, especially Buddhism. They opposed Buddhism and even persecuted Buddhists, destroying some of their monasteries and forcing them to leave their empire.

The post Mauryan period was characterized by the emergence of many new religious sects in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.The most prominent sects of Hinduism were Saivism and Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism. Hardly any amity existed among these two sects. Rivalry between the two sects often led to serious religious clashes, which generated a great deal of ill will and religious tension. The rivalry between these two sects continued for very long, for several centuries, until recently, often dividing the Hindu society vertically into two sections. Some form of subtle rivalry between these two sects exists even today!

The followers of Saivism quarreled not only with the followers of Vishnu, but also with the Buddhists, whom they criticized and ridiculed in several ways. Some of the south Indian saints of Saivism were particularly vehement in their criticism of Buddhism and Jainism.

Great rivalry existed between the Mahayana and Hinayana sects of Buddhism. Besides these two major groups, there were other groups with in Buddhism, which did not tolerate one another. Some of them had to remain secretive for fear of reappraisals. The different sects of Buddhism expelled those from their respective Order who did not agree with their views. Same kind of tension prevailed between the Svetambara and Digambara sects of Jainism also.

The Brahmins of ancient India never appreciated the foreign rulers, who invaded India and established their rule in the country. They placed the aliens on par with the untouchables of their society, unless those in positions of power and authority converted themselves to the Brahmanical faith and gave them rich grants. They described the foreigners in the most derogatory way and considered them as unclean people. They personally avoided all form of contact with them and abhorred any kind of social relationship with them such as marriage.

The Guptas were great worshippers of Vishnu and we have reasons to believe that during their time Saivism must have suffered a set back in the north! By the end of the Gupta period, the conservative sections of Hindu society grew weary of Buddhism. Sasanka, who ruled some parts of eastern India during the reign of Harshavardhana was so intolerant of Buddhism that he even burnt the temple at Bodhgaya as well as the sacred bodhi tree itself! One reason why Buddhism disappeared from the land of its origin completely was because of the high degree of intolerance displayed by the majority of the orthodox Hindus during the post Gupta period.

The religious rivalry remained strong in the post Guptas period. The conservative sections of Hindu society never accepted Tantricism whole heartedly and condemned it as a perverted and demonic practice. Neither in the past nor in the present, Hindus ever accepted Tantricism whole heartedly. For a majority of them sex as a way of salvation, or worship of the physical body as a means of self realization was abhorrent. Even in modern times, teachers like Acharya Rajneesh, who preached sex as the way to salvation, remain condemned by the conservative Hindus.

Sri Adi Shankaracharya is considered by many as the most prominent reformer of Hinduism in ancient India. His life is a story of intense struggle against the orthodoxy and superstition of his times. in his short life span of 32 or 33 years he had to cope with a lot of opposition from various Hindu scholars of his time. Any one who is familiar with his life and teachings understand the extent of trouble he took to convince people to accept his views and ideas.

It is fact that he died a mysterious and sudden death at a very young age of about 32 years. It would not surprise us if some modern historian comes out with an unquestionable proof that he did not die a natural or sudden death but was killed by some fanatic of a different sect!

The religious attitude of the Hindus during the medieval and the British periods remained mostly suppressed because of the fear psychosis created by the aggressive policies, politics and tactics of the foreign rulers. But in their hearts of hearts a majority of the natives never liked or accepted the ways of the Muslims or of the Christians. Since they had little scope to express their inner feelings without risking their safety and security, most of them remained innerly hostile, unwilling to make any reconciliation with the outsiders. The upper caste Hindus abhorred the very idea of any personal contact with these groups and regarded them socially on par with the untouchables.

It is true that the Hindus never subjected other religious groups and sects to either inhuman treatment or physical torture. They believed that religion was a matter of an individual's life style and his past karma and that each individual should be left to follow whatever dharma that suited him best. They also believed that it was better to follow ones dharma, however inferior it might be, rather than adopting another's dharma. So they did not appreciate the idea of forcing any one to change his or her religion and they never appreciated any one who tried to convert people from one religion to another in a an organized manner, under the pressure of some material gain or physical threat.

But it does not mean they appreciated the new religions that came from outside and challenged their own. In the face of stiff opposition from these religions, they willingly underwent great suffering or withdrew into a shell. They distanced themselves physically as well as socially from these foreigners and also from those who succumbed to the pressures andjoined the new faiths.

Thus we can see that secularism was never a common practice in ancient or medieval India. The people of the subcontinent hardly behaved tolerantly towards the other faiths in the past. They neither approved the new faiths nor accepted them socially. In their opinion, the emergence of theses religions was a sign of Kaliyuga, a product of their past collective karma, which could be resolved only by becoming more religious.

The following points further prove our argument that the Hindus in the past were rarely tolerant of other religious groups.

1.The Brahmins never allowed the lower castes to enjoy equal status. They had little tolerance for the lower sections of Hindu society, their very people. Till modern times, these unfortunate souls were not allowed to read the vedas or other important religious scriptures. They were not allowed to enter the temples, where the brahmins also worshipped, and worship the gods. They had no permission to draw water from the same well from where they also drew water or share food with the higher castes sitting in the same line during a social or religious function. We have little doubt that higher caste Hindus in the past were racist and casteist in many ways, cruelly and inhumanly intolerant of their own people who belonged to a lower strata of the society. Some of the hindu law books even hinted that killing these unfortunate people for some valid reason was not a ghastly crime, especially when such a crime was perpetrated by a Brahmin!

2.The ancient Indians never appreciated the ways of the tribal people who lived in the forests and whose practices were in many ways were different. They also did not permit any one other than a Brahmin priest to recite mantras on important religious occasions. The punishment prescribed for those who recited mantras against the prescribed injunctions was to pour hot lead in the mouth of the reciter and in the ears for those who were not authorized to listen!

3.The Parsis who fled Iran and came to India to escape persecution, did escape persecution but found dealing with the conservative elements of Hindu society a really tough option. If the Parsis survived in India subsequently and prospered, it was not because of the tolerant nature of the Hindus of western coast, but despite of it. Those who doubt this are advised to read the early history of Parsis in India. We have evidence to suggest that some degree of tension existed between the Parsis and the Hindus even during the early British rule.

4. We are made to understand that when St.Thomas, one of the apostles of Christ, landed in Kerala and began preaching a new religion, he was met with a strong resistance and ultimately killed by the local people.

Our aim in presenting this article is not to prove that hindus were bad because they were not secular or that religious intolerance is acceptable. We want to state that the present Hindu is a better Hindu, whose approach to other religions is in line with his religious beliefs than his ancestors who hardly tolerated other religions and beliefs.

Religious intolerance is an undeniable reality common to all religious groups. There is hardly any religious group in the world today, other than the Hindus, who are willing to let other religions coexist peacefully without any organized attempt to convert them or coerce them. The wars are still fought in this world more frequently in the name of religion.

Every one knows that if the world were to become one, religious tolerance should become an universal practice. In this regard we believe that the Hindus of today are a way ahead of the followers of other religions. They show a great degree of religious tolerance and do not mind to worship god in all possible forms and with all possible names.Truly, the new generation of Hindus is the gift of India to the mankind. We hope that their lives and actions become a source of inspiration to others to follow.

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