The Figure of the Hindu as a Model for Political Tolerance in a Politically Intolerant Age


(This article is the result of a collaboration between Troy Worden and Harsh Tiwari.)

2016 was the age of intolerance par excellence. No, not because of fringe elements energized by Donald Trump’s rise. Rather, the kind of intolerance I speak of is more widespread – namely, the liberal intolerance of Donald Trump and his conservative backers. I do not need to conjure up the hateful headlines and malicious monologues attacking the white working class and encouraging the social ostracization of Trump supporters; I would rather heed Francis Bacon’s sage observation that “a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well,” and instead look for a solution to a problem deeply-ingrained in universities, the media, and the psychology of the élite that populate them.

Can’t we make tolerance our New Year’s resolution? Can’t we all get along, to paraphrase one Rodney King.

Humans find goals or ways of being more achievable if they are exampled by someone else; we naturally crave a model, a figure on which to model ourselves. We look up to the great men of history, or celebrities, or intellectual heroes whenever we seek to change ourselves. Very rarely does a man wake up in the morning and decide to embody abstract concepts. Even Benjamin Franklin, in enumerating his list of thirteen virtues, wrote of “Humility” thus: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Who or what is the figure to which the Left and Right alike should look for tolerance? The Hindu.

It sounds strange to choose the follower of a certain religion as a model for tolerance. Allow me to explain: by the Hindu, I do not speak of the millions who subscribe to the faith; rather, I am attempting to point to an idealized conception of such a person, in much the same way that a “reasonable person” in American jurisprudence does not designate the man-on-the-street but someone with a cautious and meditative nature. And which traits constitute the figure of the Hindu?

The answer to this question can be found nowhere else but in Hindu spiritual literature, specifically the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda declares, “Truth is one; sages call it by various names” [1.164.46]. In another hymn which is quite popular in the West, it states, “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation” [10.129]. And in one of the most important spiritual texts in the world – the Bhagavad Gita – the revered Hindu god Lord Krishna, says, “As men approach Me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to Me” [4.11]. The essence of what constitutes a Hindu can be teased out from the scriptures quoted above. The ideal of the Hindu requires first and foremost the realization that no one is all-knowing and that there are lapses in every person’s knowledge which need to be recognized. Even Socrates recognized this selfsame wisdom in proclaiming, “All I know is that I know nothing.” This spiritual, intellectual, and academic humility is the essence of what we call here “the Hindu.” We see then that the Hindu is something of a perennialist; that is, he believes all faiths are in some way expressing an ultimate truth. This core belief denies the Hindu any sort of religious bigotry as well. In fact, the concept of the Hindu need not even be religious. He always approaches other men with the attitude that he might very well have something to learn from them, religious or secular; he approaches every conviction with the attitude that he might very well be mistaken. Disagreement is not a taxing, adversarial endeavor (as it is practiced in the States) but a calm and valuable one. Attachment to ideas is in many ways as reprehensible as attachment to worldly things – if you are not ready to cast them off under the proper circumstances, they are weighing you down rather than buoying you up.

We must note here that Lord Krishna is a preserver of dharma, and that he is an avatar of the supreme being Vishnu, who protects creation. Vishnu restores dharma in a broken world. And what is dharma? That standard or path which allows a human to achieve his best or highest potential through a mental faculty the present world puts to use too infrequently: empathy.

This principle of compassion is elucidated in the Upanishads. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad asserts, “Aham Brahmasmi,” while the Chandogya Upanishad states in reply, “Tat vam asi.” The meaning of these two statements taken together is twofold. Firstly, they mean “I am finite, so are you.” This ties in with the earlier ideal of intellectual humility, where we acknowledge the limitations of our own knowledge. The second interpretation of the statements is, “I am infinite, so are you.” This brings us back to dharma and empathy. After we have acknowledged the limitations of our knowledge of the world, we need to engage with other people with the respect that is due to them. Although we may be ignorant with limited minds, we can choose to have unlimited minds by embracing the ideas and understandings of other persons. The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita capture the true potential of humanity which lies in mutual respect and collective efforts directed toward a common goal: self-realization and enlightenment. The Hindus call this moksha.

Dharma is thus a means to moksha because it is necessary for those who cannot directly achieve transcendence. In short, it is meant for those who are unable to cast off all their illusions, known as Maya. The Hindu looks upon his fellow human beings not with contempt but with compassion. He sees men and women by their very natures unable to immediately reach enlightenment and realizes that they must be treated in such a manner to ensure their flourishing under even these conditions. Vishnu the Preserver is therefore not just the upholder of dharma but also a compassionate figure.

Contrast the Hindu as we have painted him with a liberal élite such as Henry S. Rosen. Disinviting Trump supporters from one’s home and quitting a tennis team full of them is not just the negation of the Hindu but a blatant violation of the Greek concept of xenia, or hospitality to foreigners; to violate this principle would be to incur Zeus’ wrath (indeed, Paris’ abduction of another man’s wife and the suitors’ occupation of Odysseus’ home prompts much bloodshed). We would like to think that scorning even intellectual foreigners is a perfect example of xenophobia as practiced by the Left. This does not speak to an expansive or intellectual mindset but an insular and bigoted one. Liberals such as Mr. Rosen would do well to assume the best of those Trump supporters, to see them as helplessly mired in Maya rather than insidious agents of hate. In a word:– compassion. Maybe then could Mr. Rosen possibly learn something from his fellow human beings; his house as well as his mind ought to be open to the new and novel.

Ultimately the mark of an élite mind ought to be this sort of openness. Too much ire has been heaped upon the monied and educated classes in America, even if it is somewhat deserved. We on the Right should not disdain intellectuals or their culture, for we hate at our own peril (populism has produced no Shakespeares). Rather, we should see them as talented yet misguided people trapped in a thickly-spun web of Maya, deserving of rebuke but also empathy. As it stands they hold the reins of power, government, the media, and the Academy – in short, much of our high culture – and their stewardship of that culture is important. Even though we might consider them and their young protégés (Millennials) as fervently devoted to stupidity, we can learn from their experience while attempting to change their thinking or even join them in controlling these institutions. Conservatives’ goals should be critique and change, not abandonment and destruction. The only means of doing so requires confronting opponents as human beings with good intentions despite their bad policy.

If there is any New Year’s resolution more informed by the folly of 2016 and more worthy of our earnest effort, it is learning to be like the Hindu.

Roy Warden is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. He is actively involved in the California College Republicans and especially interested in philosophical justifications for conservatism and traditionalism.

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