By Harbans Mukhia
March 7, 2017
The current spate of tension, including violence, on India’s campuses is essentially reducible to a conflict between two notions of truth: the single Truth and a pluralist vision of truth whether the subject is nationalism or religion or any other. How attractive is the idea of Truth being absolute and pure and thus being the most powerful negation of untruth or falsehood! Indeed, if Truth is absolute, it must also be singular; conversely, untruth and falsehood must be multiple in nature. Was it always understood thus?
Time was when the notion of truth’s singularity or plurality was at best academic. The forceful assertion of its singularity came with Judeo-Christian or Biblical monotheism. Judaism asserted the being of a single God as the absolute Truth and adherence to it essential for being a Jew. However, it was not a proselytising religion and did not impose this condition on others. That change came with Christianity. Jesus being the son of God, the ultimate Truth had been revealed to humanity through him in the Bible. Implicit in it was the falsehood of all other faiths, forms of belief, indeed all modes of thought of which there was a multitude.
All these came to be labelled “infidelity” with the embedded disapproval of lack of faith in that Truth. Since Christianity was a proselytising religion, an irreconcilable conflict came to be posited between its single Truth and all the rest that were by their very nature falsehoods, a conflict of which the conclusion was foregone: Its ultimate and universal triumph over all that is false. The ultimate, universal triumph was also implicated in the notion of the Day of Judgment, by which day all of humanity would have turned to Christianity. Whether this triumph came through persuasion, persecution, temptation, use of state power etc. or a combination of all of these remained open-ended. But the monopoly of the Truth gave its owner unlimited power to tempt, punish, subjugate those whose loyalties lay elsewhere.
The notion of the absolute and therefore single Truth was inherited by Islam which announced that while partial truths had been revealed earlier through the agency of prophecy, Muhammad was the last in the line of prophets and therefore the single ultimate Truth was embedded in the Quran. Indeed, a synonym of God in Islam is the Truth (al-Haq). The slightest deviation from any word of the Quran was tantamount to bida’t (heresy) and strictly unlawful. It also imbibed the concept of the Day of Judgment from Christianity and therefore the other attributes of the singularity of Truth and its inevitable triumph over falsehoods, termed kufr, with the same meaning and intensity as infidelity. On the Day of Judgment all humans would have turned to Islam. In Hindu as well as Jain and Buddhist philosophies, while debate on the nature of truth was frequent, it usually ended in the acceptance of at least plural versions of truth. Absence of a single foundational text or a prophet and above all, absence of the notion of the Day of Judgment, also contributed to this vision.
Interestingly, singularity of Truth was not confined to religions alone. In a great twist of irony, the same premise underlay theology’s and indeed religions’ most strident ideological adversary — Marxism. For it too, all history is driven by one Truth, class struggle, and its inevitable universal triumph is written into it with the transition to the stage of socialism and ultimately communism. Class struggle is waged at various levels of persuasion, propagation etc., including but not exclusively through violence.
This indeed is the theory and a good deal of history has been shaped by it. The conflict and the violence unleashed by the tension between the Truth and falsehoods has been the cause of shedding untold amount of human blood and enormous destruction through history and has not ceased yet. But that is not history’s only facet. There is an inverse side to it too. If the theory of the single Truth does not allow it to accept any space for an alternative view, the moderation wrought on it by history through the centuries has created that space. Space was created first by the emergence of divergent versions of the same Truth within the boundaries of each religion and ideology, including Marxism, and gradually the acceptance that alternate views, faiths and belief systems have survived all the violence unleashed upon them over such a long span of time. It is possible therefore that they are all somewhat better than utter falsehoods. Medieval Christian texts, for example, are teeming with denunciation of Muhammad as a false prophet; no longer. Within Islam too there has been questioning of the very legitimacy of prophethood, including Muhammad’s, among several divergent views on the nature of Islam and its relationship with other religions. Marxism too has had a number of often competing versions during its lifetime and some of the giants among the “socialist” regimes were at more than an ideological war with one another.
Here is another irony in the making: As the religious and non-religious ideologies holding on to the notion of a single Truth have, over the centuries, moderated their thinking even if in varying degrees, we are now being driven into that street by the claimants to the one system of thought which had chosen its own distinctive path of pluralism. The Hindutva ideology of its current proponents, from V.D. Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar to K.S. Sudarshan and Mohan Bhagwat, replicates the structure of the singularity of Truth with all its attendant violence. Perhaps this is the farthest Hinduism can go, or can be driven from its evolved pluralist vision. Interestingly, persuasion seems to be the weakest link in this drive: Use of power — state and administrative power including lure for compliance and punishment for defiance — is apparently the chief agency for this massive task of transformation.
Will it succeed? Well, history has witnessed even more massive transformations in the long term; it would be hard to predict success or failure with certainty. State power has effected several such processes in the past: The spread of Christianity, Islam and Marxism had intimate connections with it. On the other hand, the state that exists and operates in 21st century India is not the absolutist state that effected these processes and is unlikely to turn into one. That is one strong guarantee against the repetition of history.
Harbans Mukhia taught history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi