What is religion (dharma)? The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad responds to this question by a thunderclap, da da da. It means dama, daan and dayaa, self control, charity and compassion. Indian tradition holds these values as three basic ingredients of religion.
Swami Vivekanand has defined religion as manifestation of divinity that already exists in man. He says that ?each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divine within, by controlling nature external and internal. Do this either by work or worship or psychic control or philosophy, by one or more or all of these and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines or dogmas or rituals or books or temples or forms are but secondary details.?
It is this weltanschauung of human soul that has permeated Indian religious tradition since time immemorial and has led to recognition of the right of each and every individual to approach the Creator in a manner and mode of his or her choice as reflected in the inimitable words of Swami Ramkrishna Paramhansa who said yat mat tat path (to each individual is his way).
It is important to remember that the pluralism of the names that are given to the Divine or the ways that are pursued to reach the Divine have been likened to the streams having sources in different places finally mingling their waters into one great sea. Similarly men prompted by their unique dispositions take different paths that ultimately lead to One Cosmic Reality. The concept of One God and many paths and One God permeating all souls has been known as Ekeshwarwad or Adwaita (monism or non-duality). Traditions like Bhakti movement which strive to merge the finite with the inexhaustible infinite are the logical shootouts of belief in non-duality.
We can say that Indian pluralism emphasising universal acceptance and not just tolerance of diverse religious traditions is not a modern day innovation rather it is deeply rooted in religious and spiritual ethos and reflected in the lives of great spiritual leaders of India.
We have an interesting story about Shankaracharya, the great teacher of Adwaita, who is given credit for renewing Hinduism in 8th century. While in Varanasi he used to go for his dip in Ganges every morning. One day he found a Chandal (an untouchable) standing and asked him to move off his path. The Chandal enquired whom he was calling off to move, the body or soul. This remark awakened Shankaracharya to his belief in Adwaita and he fell at once at the feet of Chandal as if he were his guru and composed famous Manish panchaka of five shlokas which has a refrain ?He who has learnt to look upon all as Brahman is really my guru, be he a Brahmin or a Chandal.
There is another fascinating story about Swami Ramkrishna Paramhansa, a great Adwaita teacher of 19th century. He was very fond of ice-cream and one day he heard a vendor calling out in the street. The vendor was summoned but when he found the vendor to be a Muslim, he instinctively decided not to buy the eatable from him and dismissed him. After the vendor left, his strong Adwaita consciousness stung Swamiji to the quick and he recognised his fall from that supreme height in his behaviour in having wounded a Muslim vendor. He immediately rushed to call him back and bought of him the ice-cream and ate it in his presence with great joy.
Unlike Western world, Indian pluralism had no occasion to struggle against religion rather it is nourished and cherished by religion itself.
(This article was first published in Covert.)