Yesterday was a day of great festivities and celebration in India. In Ayodhya, a city in Northern India, a temple was consecrated to the god Ram at the ostensible site of his birth. The site had been a mosque for hundreds of years and had been destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992, leading to riots and massacres of Muslims. Following several decades of legal battles, the ruling of the supreme court of India finally recognized this as a Hindu site, dating earlier than the mosque. This paved the way to the building of a new temple, which was consecrated yesterday, hailed as “a symbol of a new India”.
The story of one religion building its holy shrine on a site deemed holy by another religion and the ensuing battle of memory and ownership is, of course, one possible connecting point between our reality in Israel and that of India, one that is worth pondering upon. For me, however, yesterday’s event was far more significant, and very sad, in ways that are more subtle, but that also carry even more important lessons for our reality in Israel.
I come at this as someone who has spent about half a century studying and engaging Hinduism. I have written two books on the subject of Judaism and Hinduism and have edited a third. More significantly, I come at this as someone deeply appreciative of Hinduism. I have garnered much experience in various Hindu settings and am honored to count some of India’s top Hindu leaders as friends or associates. I consider myself a friend of Hinduism, in the way I believe individuals and faiths should be friends and well-wishers to other faiths. It is precisely from this positioning that I find yesterday to have been a sad day for Hinduism and for Jewish-Hindu relations.
Most observant Jews would consider all this a non-issue. Hinduism, to them, is idolatry, pure and simple. Remember the images of burning sheitels on the streets of New York, as women’s wigs were made from donations to Hindu temples? For many, Hinduism is Avoda Zara plain and simple. I have devoted a book-length study to the question of Hinduism as Avoda Zara, why it matters, and why Hinduism may be considered, according to some halachic opinions, non Avoda-Zara. (I am not alone in this view. Several others, including Rabbi Daniel Sperber, are of the same opinion). As I argue in Same God, Other god: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry, for many, Hinduism is Avoda Zara plain and simple. Mere image worship is not necessarily an adequate criterion. As Rabbi Menachem Meiri claims, religions may have erroneous teachings and practices, but that does not turn them ipso facto into Avoda Zara. Something more is involved.
That “something more” might be the lack of a governing notion of God, who is the source of unity beyond particular religious understandings and who is the guarantee of morality. That “something more” could also be the politicization of power and the way in which religion is used as a means of gaining and advancing political power. In a sequel to Same God, Other god, more than a dozen contemporary Jewish thinkers were asked to reflect on what idolatry means today, if it is not simply a means of labeling another faith. Many of the answers that are featured in the recently published Idolatry: A Contemporary Jewish Conversation profile the political abuse of religion. Biblical prophets criticize the faith of other nations because of the political abuses of ancient empires. The Rabbis reject emperor worship. Religion in the service of political power is or is destined to become corrupt religion. Which brings me to yesterday’s consecration in Ayodhya.
The point goes much deeper than the fact that elections in India are around the corner and that the dedication of the temple could help Modi land a fourth term in office. Hinduism in India is undergoing significant changes. With the rise of the BJP party, to which Modi belongs, and with the implemention of Hindutva ideology, an ideology that considers Hinduness a fundamental feature of India, thereby sidelining religious minorities, Hinduism takes on increasingly nationalistic colors. This is accompanied by various measures of repression of religious minorities, experienced differently by different religious minorities in different parts of India. The common denominator, however, is an attempt to assert, or reassert Hinduism, against foreign religious forces, often associated with missionary activities and the sense of loss of Hindu membership and identity. (The parallels to Judaism are obvious and have led to attempted alliances between the two religions on these grounds). An exclusivist, nationalist, state-affiliated, non-tolerant version of Hinduism is emerging, drawing its power from the state and reinforcing, in turn, the power of the state. The Ayodhya temple is an icon of this movement, a symbolic expression and an image of an emerging form, or variant, of Hinduism.
Watching yesterday’s proceedings I was struck by one inescapable fact. One came to see Lord Ram. What one saw, instead, was Modi. Modi was everywhere, the sole and primary actor. Modi performed the rituals, contravening Hindu “halakha”, which led to the boycott of the ceremony by some of India’s most noted leaders, the four Shankaracharyas, as well as by prominent religious orders. Modi dispensed the blessings. Modi gave the speeches. It was the Modi show. I recall a taxi driver in Mangalore telling us, just a year ago that Modi is god (or did he say a god?). This was as much Modi’s consecration as it was that of the idol of Ram.
One of my theses in Same God, Other god is that Hinduism cannot be judged as a whole, in terms of whether or not it is idolatrous. It is a decision that has to be made on a case by case, group by group, basis. To me, the issue of idolatry is not whether Lord Ram and his images are idolatry. That is, actually, the lesser question. The real question is whether the entire enterprise, source of much jubilation in India, is not the emblem of an emerging idolatrous version of Hinduism. Modi, in this view, is not the god. He is the idol.
One important Hindu teacher, who is currently the president of the Divine Life Society founded by Swami Sivananda, is quoted in Same God, Other god, as saying that idolatry is not what we worship. It is in the narrowness of mind and ensuing intolerance. Much as Meiri might think, it is the broader context and attitude that support religious faith that define idolatry, not simply the diversity of religious forms and languages. If Modi’s form of Hinduism leads to intolerance, undermining a longstanding view of Hinduism as a tolerant religion, is that not a sign of its idolatrous nature?
Religions, in my view, are there to help each other. Jews have received much inspiration from their contact with Hinduism (this may be a one sentence summary of my The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism). Hindus have received far less from Judaism. A criticism of how religion can turn into idolatry with the corruption of power is one message that this friend of Hinduism wishes to sound today.
For all their enormous sophistication and subtlety, Hindus often practice a very non-critical view of religion. This is true for the naïve ascription of historical facticity to mythological realities (this is at the root of the Ayodhya controversy). It also applies to the inability to broadly practice a more self-critical approach to religion, including its politicization and corruption by power. Still, thoughtful Hindus are more than aware of the reality. As a highly placed Hindu leader told me today: “the battle between priests and prophets is longstanding, with the former leading to the corruption of religion, including their willingness to sell out to money and power”, accounting for how Modi could perform the rituals in the first place. But, as he says, fear reigns, and leaders like himself are afraid to speak their minds, for fear of retaliation. That’s why they need friends from the outside.
Observing these transformations in India is of help to us in Israel, a country that shares many features in common with India (age, centrality of religion, struggles with democracy, national identity and relations with religious minorities). As we witness another great nation moving towards an increasingly idolatrous version of its faith, what are we to say of similar realities unfolding in Israel? In fact, as I have suggested idolatry is one possible lens for considering the spiritual causes of the catastrophe of October 7th. Viewing the big picture as it applies to another religion may be useful to us. Judaism has a message to share with Hinduism today. Developments in Hinduism hold an important message for Judaism as well.