Unity in Diversity – A Hindu Experience

Pravar Petkar

Pravar is a Hindu based in the UK, with interests in exploring Advaita Vedanta and the importance of meditation in the Hindu tradition.

It might often be imagined – somewhat uncharitably, I think – that all faiths and religions are ‘closed circles’. Following and believing in the tenets and practices of each circle are a prerequisite for entry into those circles; those who do not hold those beliefs are barred and othered as ‘non-believers’. A particular faith might claim to hold the sole path to the divine truth and argue that all others are under the influence of Satan and destined for hell. In my experience of Hindu philosophy and the life of the Hindu community, none of this is the case, and instead, we see a more plural and open outlook that accepts those with a variety of views. Hindu dharma, as it is properly known, posits that we are all on different paths towards the same truth, and that all these paths are equally valid. This naturally generates an appreciation of the unity that exists within a diversity of people and paths both within the community and in the rest of the world. Nor is this mere philosophising, but a living culture that I find from experience that the Hindu community upholds today.

The ancient core of Hindu philosophy and culture is given in the Ṛg Veda as ekam sat vipraḥ bahudā vadanti: literally, that truth is one (ekam) and that the wise call it by different names. This means that the ultimate truth, the underlying substratum of reality on which the whole material world rests (dharma), is at the heart of the myriad traditions within the Hindu fold. Each tradition, with its own separate beliefs and customs, does not have its own ultimate truth for itself, where the truth held by one sect is superior to that held by another. Imagine a mountain, with several paths that allow one to ascend to its summit. Different traditions and paths will climb up that mountain in different ways, and none are invalid, as all strive for the self-realisation of the individual. Accordingly, Hindus do not specify any one path by which self-realisation and one’s alignment with the substratum of our world through right conduct are achieved; one may choose their own path depending on their own nature and qualities. This is equivalent to the Jain principle of anekāntvāda; indeed, the same message exists too in the Jain tradition as both emerge from the same civilisational roots. 

Give the immense diversity and openness of the Hindu culture, one might wonder how all of the various paths can peacefully coexist together, beyond what seems a rather lofty and abstract common basis. Together with the aforementioned core of Hindu philosophy, Hindus believe in the principle of vividhataa mein ekataa: within the diversity throughout the world, there is too an inherent unity. The Advaita Vedantins (a prominent school of non-dualists) in the Hindu tradition take this as axiomatic to its fullest extent:  for them, everything is Brahman, the ultimate reality; Brahman is ātman (consciousness) and so every person, regardless of their origin or beliefs, is ātman manifested. The Bhagavad Gītā, one of the many Hindu sacred texts, says in Chapter 7, Shloka 7 that we are all like the beads strung along a string, where that string is the ultimate reality.

At its simplest, this is a recognition that we all have something in common at a deep level. The idea of unity in diversity suggests that our diversity comes first, and is appreciated before anything else; in contrast, diversity within unity implies that unity comes first, and appreciating diversity is something of an afterthought. Systems such as the international human rights framework also see the humanity in everyone, regardless of their nationality, gender, religion or any other orientation. History shows us that in the last seventy years, these rights have created a culture in which we all recognise each other as equally human. Hindu dharma creates this culture not through the top-down mechanism of an international treaty but the bottom-up one of individual understanding. And it goes further, beyond recognising that we are all one, to embracing all the differences that exist between us, which become something to be valued and celebrated. When we are able to value the differences between us in this way, earnestly explore each other’s traditions and learn from them, a pluralistic outlook naturally emerges. In this way, the two principles of ekam sat vipraḥ bahudā vadanti and vividhataa mein ekataa work together and are in many ways, two sides of the same coin.

I have observed too that there is an immense diversity within the UK’s Hindu community, with people hailing from a wide range of regional backgrounds, and varying approaches to pursuing self-realisation. This creates a myriad of different opinions, yet all are part of this cohesive whole. Every mandir or community centre that one visits has its own unique feel to it as a result. The Hindu values of pluralism, openness and an appreciation of the unity in diversity creates a welcoming atmosphere in all these places, rather than a closed approach that emerges from intolerance of differences. I have found this very atmosphere in a number of places in the UK. Though I might hold different customs to many of them, celebrate different festivals and speak a different mother tongue, I have never felt a sense of alienation or division; indeed, one is welcomed as if part of that community and part of a broader family. It is not on paper alone that Hindus say vasudhaiva kutumbakam: the whole world is one family.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the Hindu community, and in fact the whole world, is an immensely diverse place. In amongst this diversity, Hindu philosophy tells us not to segregate ourselves based on our differences, but to appreciate those differences, see what it is that unites us and feel part of a broader whole; in short, to celebrate the unity that lies in diversity.

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