Principle of Charity

  1. Before deciding about whether or not Vivekananda was ethnocentric, jingoistic or even plain intolerant, one has to understand what Vivekananda was saying. In doing so, the interpretative “principle of charity” requires us to render him maximally consistent.
  2. Consider the title of this thread: “All religions are true”. Spelling-out Vivekananda’s stance regarding this theme presupposes the ability to provide convincing answers to questions about what Vivekananda thought “religion” was, what “truth” was, and how the latter relates to the former.
  3. Let me focus on the citation: “Ours is the true religion because, above all, it… stands up… to tell and to declare to the nations who are mere children of yesterday in comparison with us Hindus – who own the hoary antiquity of the wisdom, discovered by our ancestors here in India.”
  4. Two things are striking in this citation: the “truth” of a religion is directly linked to its “antiquity” and to its “wisdom”.
  5. What is “religion” to Vivekananda here? Clearly, not every piece of wisdom is religious because it is wise. (For instance, Polonius’ advice to his son, though wise, would not be seen by Vivekananda as a part of religion. That is, nowhere does he consider Shakespeare as a “religious” sage.)
  6. As Vivekananda sees it, “religious wisdom” is obviously tied to its antiquity. The issue is: what has antiquity to do with either “religious wisdom” or its “truth”? When it comes to knowledge, antiquity is no guarantee for its truth: we do not say that Plato found the “truth” because he wrote 2000 years ago, do we? (I presume that Vivekananda also knew this.) Galileo’s theory is not “true” because he came centuries before Einstein. In other words, Vivekananda turns our normal stance with respect to knowledge and wisdom completely around, when he talks about religion: other nations are children compared to the Hindus, he says, and this matters to the issue at hand. The antiquity somehow testifies to “religious” truth. Question: what was Vivekananda’s notion regarding “truth” here?
  7. Just as an example, consider his approving citation of Narada in Volume 3 regarding Bhakti: “Bhakti is greater than karma, greater than Yoga, because these are intended for an object in view, while Bhakti is its own fruition, its own means and its own end.” This means that claiming that “all religions are true” does not entail the claim that “all religions are equal”. Some are obviously better (or more superior) than others. The history of the Indian traditions provides ample evidence for this stance. Consequently, it follows that, in the context of the Indian traditions and culture, the claim “all religions are true” cannot possibly mean what my respected colleagues think it ought to mean, viz., all religions are equal. This observation merely reinforces the suggestion that the link between “religion” and “truth” (as the Indian traditions see both) is not quite the same as our twenty-first century interpretations.

    8. Consequently, it appears that the onus of proof lies on my respected colleagues to show either that (a) all Indian traditions are “ethnocentrically jingoistic” or (b) that Vivekananda was that or (c) both.

Citations from Vivekananda do not settle the issue one way or another. What are at stake are our interpretations. May I look forward to illuminating (and non ad hoc) arguments about (i) what Vivekananda’s notion of “religion” was; (ii) what his notion of “truth” was; (iii) how the claim that “all religions are true” entails the claim that some “religion” cannot be better than the other?

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