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Clash of Civlizations: A Hindu Response

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

In his controversial 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington wrote that the fundamental source of conflict in the modern world would not be driven by economic factors but by ideological factors and that the “Dominating source of conflict will be cultural”.  He asserted that nation states would remain “The most powerful actors in world affairs”, but that “The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations”.

He argued that civilization identity would be shaped by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations – Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African.  The causes for the conflict, he said would be because, “Differences among Civilizations” are both real and basic and that “Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and most important, religion”.  He argued that the differences will not disappear soon and that while all differences don’t necessarily lead to violent conflict, “Over the centuries, however, differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts”.  The most violent conflicts in the present, he said would be between the West/Christian and Chinese and the West/Christian and Islamic nations.

This is the gist of his thesis which was elaborated later in a book titled “The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order”, published in 1996.

The response to this thesis has been wide, varied and furious.  Most of it has come from Muslim scholars, humanists, Marxists and internationalists of various hues.  Very little has been said by scholars representing the Hindu viewpoints.  We know that part of the clash of civilizations has to do with the emergence of nation states after de-colonization, the fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting “Imbalance” in the political dynamics of the world.  Democracy and free market capitalism seemingly won the battle over Communism and state-controlled markets, but we now know that the challenges to democratic governance are many.

After the events of September 11, 2001 and America’s invasion of Afghanistan to rid it of its Taliban regime and then of  Iraq to dethrone Saddam Hussein, debate now rages in many policy circles about the nature of our modern world.  Huntington has added more fuel to the controversy recently with an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal (June 16, 2004) in which he argues that the United States is primarily a Christian nation, that its liberalism is grounded in Christianity and that non-Christians will remain “Strangers” in the US.

Appropriating liberalism in the cause of Christianity, Huntington concludes his essay by saying, “Americans tend to have a certain catholicity toward religion: All deserve respect. Given this general tolerance of religious diversity, non-Christian faiths have little alternative but to recognize and accept America as a Christian Society”.

The clash of civilizations that Huntington predicts was foreseen by Bipin Chandra Pal more than a hundred years ago in the book “Nationality and Empire”.  Pal predicted that Hindu civilization will side with the Judeo-Christian West in its war against Islamic and Chinese civilizations.  Pal proposed his theories despite the fact that he considered the West as the greatest danger to humanity.  He was a great admirer of Islam’s spiritual values. Pal thought that Islam was going to be influential through its power of propaganda and not through war, but he was scared of Islam’s political manipulation. He foresaw the dangers of political Islam, which he considered an aberration.  Pal is not on Huntington’s reading list, or if he has read him, he is not telling us. 

Hindu Responses

The survival of pluralism is linked to a complete understanding of the subversive influence of religious traditions and political ideologies exclusively appropriating claims to God or to a good life.  Certain sections of the Muslim society at present win easy acceptance among gullible believers around the world for their monopolistic claims to represent God.  Christians are more sophisticated and have a more powerful colonial tradition to carry on their proselytization businesses, without the shrill cries ofjihadthat accompany many Muslim initiatives to make the world Muslim.  Next, the monopolistic claim to usher in “Equality” as dreamed by Marx has come unhinged everywhere in the world except, it seems, in parcels of the academic landscape.

In India, religious conflict has become more and more fierce, more so after the partition of the country.  Despite India’s openness there is also native to the Indian tradition a powerful culture of inquiry and resistance to the marketing of spurious ideas and claims.  That Jesus is the only son of God and Mohammed the last prophet are claims that Hindus look at skeptically.  Islam and Christianity dismiss if not abhor the idea of incarnation of Gods and of imagery and image worship.  Without image, there is no worship.  Hindus worship their Gods – they bathe them, dress them, kiss them, adorn them and adore them.  For Christians and Muslims, God is a distant being/idea.  However, they demand that the rest of the world accept their God or be doomed as “Sinners” or as “Kafirs”.

The practitioners of many pluralist religions are not driven by religious intolerance as the practitioners of the two “Great” monotheistic faiths.  So, how should one deal with these aggressive and intolerant religions?  Confronted with the paradox of religious freedom and the intolerance espoused by certain religions, the “Objection to conversion from any indigenous religious leadership is an urgently necessary and long-overdue assertion, not a violation, of human rights”, argues Swami Dayananda Saraswati.

David Frawley argues (“Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations”, 2001) that India is a sacred land whose kings and people did not seek to conquer others’ lands.  He proposes the idea of India as the “World’s Mother” – the source of evolutionary transformations.  While bemoaning the fact that over time many customs calcified and became dominated by authority and rituals, he believes that India is ready to re-emerge as the world’s spiritual guide to help people transcend time and space to a universal consciousness. 

Rajiv Malhotra has argued that the West, China and Islam all represent top-down monocultures.  These civilizations adopt a “Chauvinistic Grand Meta-Narrative of History” and their trajectory is “Global Dominance”.  He sees threats to Indic civilization from all three global competitors - the West, Islam and China.  The West seeks to undermine India through its control over Indian churches, through the activities of non-governmental organizations, through propaganda in English language media and with the help of “Academic Mercenaries”.  The threat that Islam poses is the propagation of Arabism through madrassa education.  And China seeks to subvert India through the activities of Maoists and Naxalites and by flooding India with cheap goods.

Huntington’s thesis is a neo-Christian/Western program which should be seen for what it is: A continuation of the colonial program which sought to lift the rest of the world out of misery because it was the “White Man’s Burden”.  Collaborations that he proposes between the West and some specific others, including India, to fight global Islamism and the Chinese putsch, are based on the old supremacist ideology of Western/Christian domination.

Within the framework of the nation-state system, India will have to collaborate selectively with neighbors and distant partners.  The great civilizational divide is between the aggressive monotheistic (and mono-atheistic) traditions and the world’s pluralistic traditions.  As such, the fight between the West and Islam is a fight between ideological partners for the world’s collective soul, whereas the fight between the West and China is for territorial and economic gain.  Marxism is on the wane in most parts of the world but not in India, where Marxists collaborate with Islamists and Christian fundamentalists to subvert Hindu pluralist traditions.

Indian governments and leaders have been naïve, short-sighted, over eager, or plainly idealistic in many of their attempts to build relationships with individual nations, regional associations and civilizational groups.  Thus, we had Nehru accept the “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” (Panchsheel) proposed by Zhou Enlai in 1954 and end up a disappointed if not a defeated man when the Chinese invaded India in 1962.  Fifty years after the panchsheelwas accepted, we have former President K. R. Narayanan proposing (India Abroad, June 25, 2004) a new Indo-Chinese cooperation phase and explicitly ignoring Chinese expansionist plans, its occupation of Tibet, its aggressive nationalism and its brazen militarism.  Naïveté, inexperience, eagerness and other weaknesses displayed by Indian policy makers and leaders sap India of material strength and moral sagacity.  Similarly, the BJP leaders’ eager attempts to offer support to the Americans immediately after the events of September 11, 2001 fell almost flat on their face because they overlooked the fundamental relationships that shape the modern world dynamic.  

So, in conclusion, it is important to be aware of the designs of the world’s two most aggressive religions – Christianity and Islam – and the world’s most aggressive mono-atheism – Marxism.  They are still the important markers in the civilizational divides and the aggressive nationalism of the Chinese is a close second.  However, what might, hopefully, come to the aid of pluralists all over the world as well as to Indic traditions is science, which one hopes will reaffirm and support the findings of Indian sages about beginningless time, of cyclical time, of individual liberation, of perennial access to the transcendent, of progress not yoked to history, of multiple ways to attain transcendence, of reincarnation and so on.  If that happens, then the individual and collective quest for temporal power may recede and the opportunistic and specious speculations of historians and political scientists will cease.  Science as a handmaiden of Western imperialism, though, could still be used to undermine pluralist traditions.  In the short run though, while all the criticisms of the Hungtington thesis is valid, there is also quite a lot of “Reality” embedded in his thesis.

Originally published on July 16, 2004.

 
     
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