It is odd to read today of "Hindu fundamentalism," because Hinduism is areligion without fundamentals: no organized church, no compulsory beliefs orrites of worship, no single sacred book. The name itself denotes somethingless, and more, than a set of theological beliefs. In manylanguages--French and Persian among them--the world for "Indian" is "Hindu."Originally, Hindu simply meant the people beyond the river Sindhu, orIndus. But, the Indus is now in Islamic Pakistan; Indus and the worldHindu did not exist in any Indian language till its use by foreignersgave Indians a term for self-definition.Hinduism is thus the name others applied to the indigenous religion ofIndia. It embraces an eclectic range of doctrines and practices, frompantheism to agnosticism and from faith in reincarnation to belief in thecaste system. But none of these constitutes an obligatory credo for aHindu; there are no compulsory dogmas.I grew up in a Hindu household. Our home (and my father moved a dozentimes in his working life) always had a prayer room, where paintings andportraits of assorted divinities jostled for shelf and wall space withfading photographs of departed ancestors, all stained by ash scattered fromthe incense burned daily by my devout parents. Every morning, after hisbath, my father would stand in front of the prayer room wrapped in histowel, his wet hair still uncombed, and chant his Sanskrit mantras. But henever obliged me to join him; he exemplified the Hindu idea that religion isan intensely personal matter, that prayer is between you and whatever imageof your maker you choose to worship. In the Indian way, I was to find myown truth.
Like most Hindus, I think I have. I am a believer, despite a brief periodof schoolboy atheism (of the kind that comes with the discovery of rationality and goes with anacknowledgement of its limitations--and with the realization that the worldoffers too many wondrous mysteries for which science has no answers). And Iam happy to describe myself as a believing Hindu, not just because it is thefaith into which I was born, but for a string of other reasons, though faithrequires no reason. One is cultural; as a Hindu I belong to a faith thatexpresses the ancient genius of my own people. Another is, for lack of abetter phrase, its intellectual "fit": I am more comfortable with the beliefstructures of Hinduism that I would be with those of the other faiths ofwhich I know. As a Hindu, I claim adherence to a religion without anestablished church or priestly papacy, a religion whose rituals and customsI am free to reject, a religion that does not oblige me to demonstrate myfaith by any visible sign, by subsuming my identity in any collectivity, noteven by a specific day or time or frequency of worship. As a Hindu, Isubscribe to a creed that is free of the restrictive dogmas of holy writ,that refuses to be shackled to the limitations of a single holy book.Above all, as a Hindu I belong to the only major religion in the world thatdoes not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenialto be able to face my fellow human beings of other faiths without beingburdened by the conviction that I am embarked upon a "true path" that theyhave missed. This dogma lies at the core of Christianity, Islam, andJudaism--"I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto theFather [God], but by me" (John 14:6), says the Bible; " There is no God butAllah, and Mohammed is his Prophet," declares the Koran--denying unbelieversall possibility of redemption, let alone of salvation or paradise.Hinduism, however, asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, andHindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths.
How can such a religion lend itself to fundamentalism? Large, eclectic, agglomerative, the Hinduism that I know understands that faith is a matter of hearts and minds, not of bricks and stone. "Build Ram in your heart," the Hindu is enjoined; and if Ram is in your heart, it will little matter where else he is, or is not.