By Ashok Vohra
19 May, 2015
Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism is a missionary religion. But unlike many other missionary religions it is a tolerant religion. Buddha himself had a tolerant personality as is clear from the following episodes. Once someone spat on the Buddha. The Buddha asked him if someone gave one a present which one did not accept, whom would it belong to? When man who spat at him replied, “to the giver”, Buddha responded that he did not accept his gift either. Similarly, when one of his disciples took to praising him as the greatest Buddha that ever existed, he asked his disciple if he was acquainted with all the past and the future Buddhas. When the disciple answered in the negative, Buddha gently chastised him: “Why, therefore, are your words so grand and sweeping?”
Buddha realised that a claim to exclusivism by followers of different faiths would not be acceptable. He adopted inclusivism and argued for multiculturalism and religious pluralism in society. The doctrine of religious pluralism is the all-embracing perspective that upholds that one’s own religion’s perception of reality and the path of liberation advocated by it are as valid as those of other religions even if they may be opposed to one another. There is no hostility but hospitality towards all.
Buddhism critically evaluated almost all the doctrines presented by Hinduism and also several tribal religions it came across. However, the evaluation was done not with arrogance or authority and sense of superiority but was based on humility and reason.
Buddha’s sense of humility was based on the principle that no human being can know and understand everything. Only a bigot can claim that his knowledge is superior and ultimate and hold that the claims made by the others and other religions are totally false and untenable.
According to the Buddha, “These sectarians, brethren, are blind and unseeing. They know not the real, they know not the unreal; they know not the truth, they know not the untruth. In such a state of ignorance do they dispute and quarrel”. He illustrated these bigoted preachers with the parable of the blind men and the elephant. This principle underlies the source of tolerance in Buddhism.
The Buddha denounced only phoney expositions by some Brahmins and fake traditions and practices. In different Nikayas -- texts he held ‘virtuous’ Brahmins in esteem -- he condemned the tendency of religious disputants to display their own doctrine and rubbish those of others -- and encouraged gifts by Buddhists to non-Buddhists, and admitted the right of non-Buddhists to heaven.
Wherever it is difficult to reconcile two opposite views and there is genuine disagreement between two religions, Buddha argued that aggression is of no help. A continuous attempt at reconciliation in the light of one’s experience alone and not hatred, would be of help.
The Buddha advocated a tolerant attitude by removing the ego-attachment to one’s own religious doctrines and practices. The ego-attachment makes us wrongly believe that our religion, its principles and practices are absolute. He says: “To be attached to a certain view and to look down upon other views as inferior—this, the wise men call a fetter.” One has to consciously make all efforts to remove these false notions.
The Buddha advised Buddhist monks to hold opinions but not cling to them. He says, “A man has a faith. If he says ‘This is my faith,’ so far he maintains truth. But by that he cannot proceed to the absolute conclusion: ‘This alone is Truth, and everything else is false’.”
(Ashok Vohra was formerly professor of philosophy, Delhi University).