Devdutt Pattanaik: Gods of plurality

Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

In 2011, the Harvard University dropped two economics courses taught by Indian MP Subramanian Swamy after he wrote two articles that “demonise” Islam. This was done allegedly to protect the plural nature of one of the most respected Universities in the world.

In 2016, America voted as its president, Donald Trump, a man who in public forums repeatedly demonised Islam to cheering crowds. Does that mean America is no longer plural and tolerant? Does it mean America is now a land of bigotry and intolerance?

Academicians and scholars often speak of how we should be wary of simplistic binaries. Yet, most academicians and scholars succumb to this simplistic binary.

Plurality is described as respecting each other’s faith. But what if there is something unworthy of respect in the other’s faith. Indians have long noticed that Left Liberals of America, while free in their criticism of religion, tend to be overly protective of Islam, as compared to their criticism of Christianity, specially Catholicism, and Hinduism. It must be kept in mind that America was built by Protestant Christians.

Thus, there is a display of selective prejudiced plurality, where professors writing inconvenient articles — outside the University — professing their private beliefs, are persecuted. This is how universities become less about academics and more about activism.

Words like ‘diversity’ and ‘plurality’ are glamorous in public forums but modern society is not equipped to deal with it, especially since it is rather technocratic, reducing all problems and solutions to a binary: yes/no, one/zero. Our vote ultimately is a binary: you vote one, which means you reject all others. Democracy does not know how to deal with nuance, gradation, weightage or context.

Harvard University, in excluding Subramanian Swamy, submits to the idea of exclusion, which is the cornerstone of Abrahamic mythology. It declares some ideas as false gods, and justifies their rejection. Now, America’s electoral college has rejected the true god propagated by Harvard University. So, a new true god has emerged, one who uses the same language that Harvard, the great American University, considers inappropriate.

Wisdom is appreciating how the world is. However, most universities around the world have their roots in the Catholic faith. And so see knowledge as a tool of control, to determine how the world should be. Harvard and many American universities are more bothered with how plurality should be, rather than appreciating how plurality functions in diverse societies like India, where despite riots, Hindus and Muslims live together, and there are more temple to mosque ratios in India than in America.

But, American academicians are conditioned to see Hinduism as a religion of injustice that institutionalises the caste system. So, they cannot imagine that plurality can be learned from India. They cannot see that India worships even Shitala mata, the goddess associated with measles and cholera. Even one who causes epidemics is no false god. In India’s temple, all gods, even the inconvenient ones are welcomed, or at least tolerated, despite great misgivings. That is the Indian version of plurality that needs to be learned, and taught, before we all fall into the delusion that there is one true god for all.

Devdutt Pattanaik writes and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times. Reach him at devdutt@devdutt.com

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