Mr. Malhotra’s scholarship has produced numerous pioneering ideas and paradigms such as:
Rajiv Malhotra holds that the comparative study of cultures has been dominated by discourse rooted in the framework of Western Universalism, or Universalism applied from the privileged perspective of Western scholarship.
Universalism, in its primary sense, refers to religious, theological, and philosophical concepts with universal applicability. Given the economic, political and military dominance of Western civilization over the past several centuries, Universalism has become a Western prerogative; and the concepts universally applied have invariably derived from Western traditions and grand narrative. Many concepts of Western Universalism originate from precepts rooted in the belief systems of Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
To develop an alternative discourse that examines the encounter of civilizations from the Indian (Dharma) civilization’s point of view, Malhotra has evolved several major paradigms for the evaluation and critique of Western Universalism.
An approach to religious differences that is superior to, and moves beyond ‘tolerance’. Malhotra explains that in a personal relationship, one would never consent to be simply “tolerated”, viewing mere “tolerance” of oneself by one’s friends, family or co-workers as an indignity. Rather, in such relationships, one would demand and expect a mutual respect. Such an expectation is no less valid between religious communities. Tolerance implies inferiority, whereas mutual respect equalizes religious difference. Shifting the paradigm from tolerance to mutual respect creates an environment where followers of non-Abrahamic faiths can be equal partners at the table of interfaith dialogue.
Check out his article on “Difference With Mutual Respect: A New Kind of Hindu-Christian Dialogue”
Malhotra warns that the aggressive aspects of Abrahamic religions, such as their expansionist impulse to impose synthetic unity, and their lack of mutual respect, push them to consume other competing systems. One of the key methods by which Abrahamic religions effect this consumption is through cultural digestion.
Malhotra uses (“The Importance of Debating Religious Differences”) the term “digestion” to describe the widespread dismantling, rearrangement and assimilation of a less powerful civilization into a dominant one.
As with the food consumed by a predator, whatever is useful becomes assimilated into the predator’s biology, while whatever does not fit the predator’s needs is eliminated as waste. The West superimposes its concepts, aesthetics, language, paradigms, historical template and philosophy on other civilizations, positioning these as universal. The corresponding elements of the digested civilization become domesticated into Western thought, are reinvented as the intellectual property of Western civilization, and cease to exist in their own right. The result is that the consumed tradition, similar to the food, is destroyed; whereas the predator gets strengthened.
In harvesting the fruits of other civilizations, the West has often destroyed their roots, thereby terminating their ability to produce any more bountiful harvests. Native Americans and European pagans are among numerous examples of such previous digestions into the modern West.
Malhotra contends that the worldviews of Abrahamic religions are history-centric: they accord more significance to truth-claims based on specific historical narratives, than to spiritual messages of the scriptures themselves. Points of history-centric dogma such as the Original Sin, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection become critical beliefs; institutions of Abrahamic religions will not compromise on the requirement that all followers of their religions must accept such beliefs.
This explains, for example, the centrality of Nicene creed to all major Christian denominations. Followers of history-centric religions believe that God revealed His message through a uniquely ordained intermediary, or prophet, at a specific place and time in history. Moreover, they believe that no other human being can claim the same level of access to God as was granted exclusively to this prophet. (“Problematizing God’s Interventions In History”).
In contrast, specific narratives of history are not central to the faith of Dharma traditions. Gautama Buddha emphasized that his enlightenment was merely the discovery of a reality that is always available for seekers to access. He neither claimed to be conveying any new covenant from God, nor to enjoy any special access to God. Belief in the literal truth of the Buddha’s life-history is not necessary for one to apply Buddhist principles, or to test their veracity.
In fact, the Buddha described himself as being neither the first nor the last person to achieve a state of enlightenment. He also asserted that he was neither God, nor the exclusively ordained prophet of any God; and that whatever he discovered was available to every human being to discover for himself. By these criteria, Buddhism is not history-centric.
Malhotra explains how history-centrism (or the lack of it) is a determinant of absolutist exclusivity in some religions, compared with a flexible pluralism that characterizes other belief systems. (“Dharma and the new Pope”): “[Abrahamic religions] claim that we can resolve the human condition only by following the lineage of prophets arising from the Middle East. All other teachings and practices are required to get reconciled with this special and peculiar history. By contrast, the dharmic traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism — do not rely on history in the same absolutist and exclusive way. This dharmic flexibility has made a fundamental pluralism possible which cannot occur within the constraints of history centrism, at least as understood so far.”
Integral vs. Synthetic Unity
Both Western and Dharmic civilizations have cherished the unity of the universe as a philosophical ideal; yet, each has emphasized a very different view of the nature, origins and process of this “unity”. Malhotra posits a crucial distinction between what he considers the “synthetic unity” of Western systems, which gave rise to a static, intellectualistic worldview, as opposed to the “integral unity” of Dharma systems, which evolved into a dynamically oriented, experiential worldview.
In Malhotra’s view, history-centric religions are characterized by the belief that divine creation is intrinsically disparate or atomistic, and that it is the divinely ordained mission of mankind to impose a synthetic unity on creation while acting as the privileged representatives of a God above. For example, the Jewish tradition of “healing the brokenness of creation” presupposes that creation is indeed broken to start with, and therefore it is up to the efforts of the faithful (following a rigidly defined scriptural doctrine which derives its authority from a given historical narrative) to “heal” it. Islam, similarly, prescribes a program of creating material and spiritual change in the world that will bring to light and honour the “unity of all being,” as though to restore an existing defect. Christian concepts such as the Original Sin also hark back to the same principle of a flawed, fractured or fragmented natural state, one that needs fixing or saving by divine intervention.
Such a perspective stands in contrast to the integral unity of Dharma systems, where the presupposition of an already perfect unity is axiomatic, and hence infinite diversity within this ultimate reality is to be welcomed.
While synthetic unity is characterized by a “top-down” essentialism embracing everything a priori, integral unity is a “bottom-up” approach acknowledging the dependent co-origination of alternative views of the human and the divine, the body and the mind, and the self and society. Furthermore, it is the mission of imposing synthetic unity on the universe that drives Western civilizations towards expansionism and universalism.
Order vs Chaos
Malhotra makes the distinction that Western systems depict Order and Chaos as being locked in a zero-sum battle, whereas Dharma systems emphasize the maintenance of a dynamic balance between these two entities.
Dharma philosophical systems are highly systematic in their approach to understanding ultimate reality and in carefully addressing what one can know through various means of knowledge. However, this rigor does not restrict the flexibility of Dharma civilization to achieve comfort with different orders of social organization. Indians exhibit remarkable openness to self-organization and decentralization, compared with many Western societies.
Malhotra explains the Dharma philosophical basis for this openness (“Order, chaos and creation“): “Hinduism weaves multiple narratives around the central motif of cooperative rivalry between order (personified as devas) and chaos (personified as asuras). A key myth shared by all the dharma traditions — the ‘churning of the milky ocean,’ or ‘samudra-manthan’ — shows the eternal struggle between two poles. The milky ocean is the ocean of consciousness and creativity, which is to be churned in order to obtain amrita, or the nectar of eternal life.”
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