On September 15, 2016, Religion News Service carried a story about the authorities in India examining restaurants for serving illegal beef derived from cows. In its 2016 report Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, gave an account about prosecution for blasphemy in Pakistan.
Cows have been holy ever since the time of the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures. The cow conveys divine nourishment to all living beings, “Mother Cow” indeed. Krishna, one of the greatest gods, adopts human form to cavort with beautiful milk maidens. Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, was a pious Hindu who shared the veneration of cows. When India is described in its constitution as a “secular republic”, the adjective never meant hostility to religion, but rather that Hinduism was not established by the state. The killing and eating of cows is illegal in most Indian states. Cows wander freely through urban traffic—the police is reluctant to remove them, and pedestrians stand and salute them with folded hands. I was once stuck in stalled traffic in New Delhi for about forty minutes because an assembly of cows had decided to settle down in the middle of a busy avenue.
The delicate balance between pervasive Hindu piety and secular government was shifted toward the former with the election in 2014 as head of the government of Narendra Modi. His party, the BJP (Indian People’s Party) includes in its constituency the Hindu nationalist movement. Modi himself started his career as a member of an extremist Hindu group, the RSS (National Patriotic Association). Since his election Modi has made some amiable gestures toward religious minorities, but extremists have clearly assumed that he is one of theirs. Recently a Muslim old man was lynched by a mob on suspicion of having killed and eaten a cow. There has been a number of violent acts against Muslims, Christians and Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables, resented by upper-caste Hindus for privileges under affirmative action. Nobody questions Modi’s personal piety. He is a strict vegetarian, regularly performs Hindu rituals. He is celibate, claims to have never consummated an arranged marriage with a child bride, and is a devoted yoga practitioner. He has recently condemned violence by the cow protection movement.
Ali Jinnah, who founded Pakistan after the separation from India in 1947, never intended an Islamic state but rather “a state for Muslims” (who are a religion, but also a quasi-ethnic group bonded by the Urdu language). Jinnah was anything but a pious Muslim, with the demeanor and lifestyle of an English aristocrat—as different as possible from Gandhi who lived and looked like a Hindu “godman”, half-naked and talking about Jesus-like nonviolence. (Gandhi also was celibate, did a “fast unto death” to stop the horrible reciprocal massacres between Hindus and Muslims during Partition. For advocating reconciliation between the two communities Gandhi was assassinated by an ex-member of the RSS.)
A creeping Islamization began in Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq (president 1978 to 1988). In foreign policy he cooperated with the United States in the jihad to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan (inadvertently helping the spread of radical Islamism throughout the region). Domestically more and more elements of Islamic law infiltrated Pakistan (which, like India, was inaugurated on the model of British democracy). The ferocious legislation against “blasphemy” was an important part of this. But numerous court cases (many resulting in death sentences) were accompanied by extra-judicial murders committed by vigilante groups. Not many Hindus are left in Pakistan, but Christians and liberal Muslims are often targeted.
Both Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif (the present leader of Pakistan) have tried to improve relations, but violent incidents over Kashmir (divided between the two countries) have hampered the process. There is here a curiously synchronistic history of enduring hatred between two peoples—the Partition of the Indian subcontinent took place in 1947, the establishment of the State of Israel and what Palestinians call the naqba/”catastrophe” is dated 1948. In the latter history as well, the conflict began without, so to speak, theological enhancement. Increasingly both Zionism and the Palestinian cause were invested with religious legitimations.
I could now go on to compare and contrast different cases of “religionization” or “desecularization”. But I would rather take up a different question. Scholars from South- or East-Asian traditions have proposed that violence and intolerance are the products of West-Asian monotheism, as against the peaceful, tolerant faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism: Could they be right? Unlikely, I think—no matter whether one looks at ancient texts or at contemporary religious phenomena. Sure, the Bible and the Quran have passages that would offend the principles of Human Rights Watch, though it should be noted that these passages have been differently interpreted in the history of the three Abrahamic faiths. So have troubling phases in the long development of Hinduism and Buddhism. The frame story of the Bhagavad Gita is of a conflict between Arjuna, a prince of the warrior caste, and his cousins. Arjuna has doubts about killing his relatives. The religious core of the Gita is a long, profoundly metaphysical dialogue between Arjuna and his chariot driver, who is the god Krishna appearing in human form. The practical conclusion after all the metaphysics is that Arjuna overcomes his scruples, follows his dharma/caste duty as a warrior, and goes on to kill. As to Buddhism, it is noteworthy that the samurai, the classical warrior class of Japan, were mostly adherents of Zen Buddhism (not exactly famous for pacifism). Neither does religion today lead to a clear answer to the above question. Sure, world attention is rightly focused today on the unspeakable brutalities of radical Islamists, who act by brushing aside the sentence which begins every chapter of the Quran except one: Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim/”in the name of God the compassionate, who acts compassionately”. There are enough Christian and Jewish terrorists to give arguments to anti-monotheists. But the recent acts of Hindu nationalists do not strengthen these arguments, neither do Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka blessing violence against Hindu Tamils, nor Buddhist monks in Myanmar endorsing the persecution of Muslims.
There are indeed heroes of humanity of different faiths or none, like Mahatma Gandhi or Yitzhak Rabin who tried to make peace across the boundaries of hatred and paid for it with their lives, and the staffs of Doctors Without Borders who work in hospitals in besieged Aleppo while being deliberately bombed by Putin’s and Assad’s airplanes. The acts of the murderers sometimes resemble each other too.
During my first visit to India, many years ago, I was walking on a street in Calcutta in early evening. It was getting darker. Suddenly a large group of young men came running into the street, wearing khaki shorts reminiscent of British colonial troops. They were shouting slogans (presumably in Hindi) and waving swastika flags—enough to make anyone with a central-European background gasp upon seeing what was the symbol of the Nazi party. The men in Calcutta belonged to the RSS. They probably did not have the Nazis in mind. But the aura of hatred was the same.