The Spinning Wheels of Pluralism

Throughout his poetry, recently published as the collection Sufi Lyrics, Bullhe Shah describes religious life as a spinning wheel. We are impelled to spin properly, but that can only take us so far ...

Throughout his poetry, recently published as the collection Sufi Lyrics, Bullhe Shah describes religious life as a spinning wheel. We are impelled to spin properly, but that can only take us so far. Spinning, in Bullhe’s world, will eventually lead to entanglement, and to undo this confusion one must spin backwards. As he says:

Make the Ganges flow backward, yogis, and you will gain a vision of God. Take the cotton roll of love in your hand. Twist the axle, do not let it fall. With the spindle of knowledge and the spinning wheel of meditation, make things spin backward.

The act of spinning backwards reveals that the narratives people use to organize their lives are simultaneously more and less than they seem. Unbeknownst to them, almost despite themselves, all religions can lead to the same God, if only we don’t take them at their word.

Bullhe Shah’s Sufi lyrics provide a window into a world struggling with multiple religious traditions, but struggling in a way different from how we do today. (His conceptual category “religion”—having different objects of reference—certainly has different contours than the modern one.) Taken with other accounts of different religious movements competing and negotiating for space, his words provide a powerful reminder of both the uniqueness and the repetition of the struggles of the so-called secular state, as well as showing that other possibilities exist.

His words provide a powerful reminder of the struggles of the so-called secular state.

In a speech at the culmination of Bhatta Jayanta’s four-act Sanskrit play Āgamaḍambara—recently translated by Csaba Dezső as Much Ado About Religion—the scholar Dhairyaraṣi, appointed by the local king, makes a different, but still startling argument in favor of religious tolerance. After arguing a number of theological points that make room for multiple contradictory religious systems, the scholar throws up his hands and says:

But let’s cut the discussion short. People who talk too much incur odium, so now I curb the excessive jabbering of my tongue…All scriptures are authoritative: thus say the political scientists.

After hundreds of verses of theological argumentation, the word “politics” (nīti) starkly enters the discussion to resolve any remaining theological disputes. Dhairyaraṣi makes space in his arguments for people who may not be fully convinced that they should accept a possibly heterodox sect by essentially saying, whatever you think about their theology, it would lead to a better society if we accept them.

As the wheel spins backwards and the threads untangle, the political background of tolerance rears its head.

To get to this point, we need to go back to the beginning of Bhatta Jayanta’s play, which does not always present such a welcoming view of religious difference. Āgamaḍambaratakes place in 9th century Kashmir, a politically unstable place where many different religious movements asserted themselves. The play follows a young Brahmin post-graduate who has announced, “until I humiliate the enemies of the Veda, who dirty their speech with incessantly brandished pernicious argumentation, the efforts I made in my studies will seem frustrated.”

And so the post-graduate travels around Kashmir, debating the finer points of epistemology and theology with a number of opponents. His first stop is at a Buddhist monastery run by one Dharmottara. The post-graduate and his assistant mercilessly mock the lascivious monks of the monastery, calling out their hypocrisy, but when they get to Dharmottara, they treat him with the utmost respect. He clearly is a holy man, although he may not have control over his monks. The post-graduate then engages Dharmottara in a long, complex debate over the natures of permanence and causality in the material world. While the play presents the post-graduate as triumphing over the Buddhist abbot, it makes it clear that they engage in a debate within the same conceptual universe. These two debaters look around and see objects in fundamentally different ways—but they also inhabit the same thought-world. That is, they are able to have a rational and mutually intelligible conversation about their different worlds. Differing opinions can be understood, at least enough to be refuted.

This type of debate continues as the post-graduate moves on to debate Jain monks, but things get stickier in the third act, which opens with two Shaivite Tantric practitioners on the run from the law. The indubitable post-graduate has been appointed as a minister in the government, and begins to expel religious orders he sees as heretical. The criteria for expulsion are notable—religious orders are not persecuted for what they think, but rather prosecuted for how they act. The post-graduate-cum-minister inveighs against the Shaivite Tantrics:

What do they not think fit to drink? Surely only that which is not liquid. They cannot eat only what is bitter or cannot be cracked by teeth. If there is any being with breasts at all which is not suitable to have sex with, then it must be unborn or dead. What in the world could be an appropriate place for [such] asceticism? Perhaps a pub…When they proclaim the Lord’s name, saying “We follow Shiva’s teaching,” these wicked people are doing damage to His chaste religions.

Unlike the Buddhists or Jains from the first two acts, the Shaivite Tantrics are not allowed to remain in the kingdom. If Buddhists think the wrong things, they are still seen as acting in the proper way. While these Shaivite Tantrics might think in the proper way (that is, they pray to the right god), they act very wrongly. They cause reputable religious orders disrepute, because they appeal to the same authority. It is not that these Shaivite Tantrics are the wrong type of religion, rather, they are no longer within the realm of what counts as “Religion,” and so they no longer have to be tolerated by the state.

This schematic becomes more difficult in the final act. It is somewhat clear in the logic of the play that Shaivite Tantrics shouldn’t be counted as mainstream parts of society—after all, the practitioners we meet are named “Crematory-Ash” and “Skeleton-Banner.” But things get more complicated when the government is called to mediate disputes between religious traditions not directly at odds with each other. The fourth act opens with a Vedic officiant complaining about the multiplicity of religious sects that has continued to persist even with the state’s prosecutions:

What an awful blow! I had one thing in mind and something completely different has happened. I had in mind that when all the extra-Vedic religions are censured, we’ll be able to enjoy the whole country. But what has happened is that the heterodox religions are still just as widespread as before. For:

Shaivas, Pashupatas, Pañcaratrikas, Sankhyas, Buddhists, Sky-Clad Jains and the rest: all of them remain as they were. Shame on the graduate’s useless learning!

At this point the scholar Dhairyaraṣi is brought in to resolve the dispute. Should the Pañcaratrikas be driven out as the Shaivite Tantrics were? Dhairyaraṣi presents a breathtaking series of arguments in favor of the reconciliation of strict Mīmāṃsāka Vedic notions of truth with Pañcaratrika deism and claims to authority. Ultimately he argues for the unity of God expressed in a multiplicity of ways, directly countering the Vedic officiant’s list of heterodox sects, quoting the Bhagavad-Gītā as he argues:

Though He is one, inasmuch as he assumes various bodies fashioned by His will and teaches all kinds of scriptures for the benefit of all beings, He bears all those diverse names, which are celebrated in all the worlds.

Shiva, Pashupati, Kapila, and Vishnu, the divine Sankārshana, the Sage Jina, the Buddha and Manu are one, only these designations differ, and maybe their bodies as well, but there is no plurality in the undifferentiated Supreme Self.1

Even if he is different from God, an extraordinary, eminent man clearly bears the Lord’s lustre. For thus taught Krishna:

“Whatever being is powerful, thriving or mighty, know that he has arisen from a particle of my lustre.”

In order to maintain a peaceful state, Dhairyaraṣi argues that the distinctions between different religious traditions are merely superficial. When the wheel spins backwards and appearances are undone, there is space for all entities he counts as “religious,” as they are all supporting the same fundamental project, one that can be subsumed within royal power.

About 850 years later, in the district neighboring Kashmir, the Sufi poet Bullhe Shah grappled with similar disputes between religious movements. Although they share many things in common, perhaps what Bhatta Jayanta and Bullhe Shah share the most is not something inherent in both works, but a simple fact of their receptions: they were both recently translated into beautiful English hardcover editions. Bullhe Shah’s Panjabi Sufi Lyrics has recently been translated by Christopher Shackle as a part of the newly established Murty Classical Library of India, published out of Harvard.

Like Bhatta Jayanta, Bullhe Shah lived at a time of social flux, witnessing the fading authority of the Mughal Empire as it was challenged by armed Sikhs and other local groups. This breakdown in social authority is reflected in Bullhe Shah’s poetry:

With everyone after their own thing, the daughter has robbed her mother and taken whatever she owns. The twelfth century has come with a gaping mouth.2

The door of doom and torment has opened, and Panjab is in a bad state. It has been struck by fear of the pit of hell.

As the state around him collapses, Bullhe Shah turns away from formal religious institutions. Things are not as they should be, but meaning can arise out of the confusion. “Different, topsy-turvy times have come,” writes Bullhe Shah, “so I have discovered the beloved’s secrets.”

As the state around him collapses, Bullhe Shah turns away from formal religious institutions.

At the heart of this poetry is longing for a God who is simultaneously hidden, distant and present. It is a poetry full of playfulness and paradoxes that the translator, Shackle, captures so well. “You are in all guises,” Bullhe Shah cries out to God, “you appear to me everywhere. It is you who are the wine and you who drink it. You are the one who makes you taste yourself.”

Essential to Bullhe Shah’s understanding of God as hidden is that God is expressed in all of the religious traditions he sees around him. For the Sufi seeking the fullness of truth, each religion is incomplete and insufficient on its own:

Sometimes as a mullah you give the call to prayer, sometimes you tell of religious duty. Sometimes you utter appeals to Ram, sometimes you put the tilak on your forehead.

In Bindraban you take the cows to pasture. You sound the conch when attacking Lanka. You come as hajji from Mecca. How amazingly your appearance is varied…

Now you are a Greek, now you are an African, now you are a European in a hat. Now you are a hashish addict in the tavern, now you live comfortably as a respectable married couple.

Unlike Bhatta Jayanta, Bullhe Shah is not able to rely on a powerful state to mediate religious differences. In its absence, he takes it upon himself to define and dissolve the limits of acceptable religious practice.

Ten years before Bullhe Shah was born, and some 5,000 miles away, a 38 year-old Baruch Spinoza surreptitiously published the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, a work that set out to expose the political implications of religious discourse. Like Bullhe Shah and Bhatta Jayanta, Baruch Spinoza was living in a time of religious and political upheaval. After the Reformation-driven Thirty Years’ War (and it’s concomitant in the Low Countries—the Eighty Years’ War) had been resolved in 1648, Holland entered into a period of perpetual conflict with both the British and the French, culminating in the mob killing and gruesome disembowelment of the Prime Minister Johan de Witt and the restoration of the aristocratic House of Orange.

Spinoza was also living at a time of growing cultural interaction between India and the Netherlands. With the rise of the Dutch East India Company, Indian goods, art, and ideas started to flow into the Netherlands, while Dutch people started to flow into India. As a result of these economic and political networks, Indian artists started painting Dutch figures (fig. 1), incorporating European artwork into their art (fig. 2), and basing pieces of art on Dutch works (fig. 3 & 4). In turn, a Dutch artist such as Rembrandt could sketch portraits of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan (fig. 5) and turn scenes of old Indian men into the meeting of Abraham and the three angels of Genesis 18 (fig. 6 & 7).3

Spinoza rarely talks explicitly about contemporary events, but at two key moments in the Tractatus he uses a trade deal between the Dutch East India Company and the Tokugawa shogunate to provide exemplary evidence for his arguments. Spinoza’s radical conception of religion and secular society does not come into being in a vacuum; rather, it is based on his understanding of Dutch colonial policy.

In 1638, a large number of Catholic Japanese Peasants revolted against the tax policy of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Dutch—as opposed to all other European powers—supported the Tokugawa suppression of the Christian rebellion, and were allowed to maintain trade outposts in Japan on the condition Dutch representatives not practice Christianity while there.

For Spinoza, the Dutch agreement not to practice Christianity in Japan proved that Christian ceremonies (and religious ceremonies in general) “were instituted only as external signs of a universal church and not as things that contribute to happiness or have any sanctity in them.” While rituals will have an impact on anyone who performs them, for Spinoza, one can “live a good life” without them. There is no inherent meaning in either rituals or words; rather, meaning—and the related concept of sanctity—arises as words are deployed in specific instances by specific people. “Nothing is sacred, profane, or impure,” Spinoza argues, “absolutely and independently of the mind, but only in relation to the mind.”

It is from this perspective—taking no religious ceremony to be inherently meaningful (or sacred)—that Spinoza argues for a radical acceptance of different religious traditions. For Spinoza, rights are natural when they are inalienable, that is, they cannot be separated from a person. A person has the right to freedom of thought simply because, try as it might, a government cannot stop her from thinking certain things. While governments can influence people’s thoughts in various ways—slogan campaigns, threats of violence, state-mandated education—they ultimately do not have the ability to stop thoughts, and any government that tried would look impotent and absurd.

From this it follows that governments should also refrain from limiting the expression of thoughts. In words that ring true today, Spinoza humorously remarks that “not even the most consummate statesman, let alone the common people, possess the gift of silence. It is a universal failing in people that they communicate their thoughts to others, however much they should keep quiet.” Any government that tried to suppress speech would be irredeemably violent, while continuing to fail in the actual suppression. And so Baruch Spinoza, excommunicated from the Dutch Jewish community that had itself been exiled from Spain, comes to the conclusion that all religions are to be accommodated in the state, not as a favor to the religions, but because it creates a more empowered state, one whose rulers cannot be challenged by religious figures. This cosmopolitan idealism is structured by the logic of colonial markets, and in many ways structures the logic of religious tolerance today.

Like Bhatta Jayanta, Baruch Spinoza argues that a government that doesn’t align itself with particular religious tradition, and instead grants multiple traditions the space in which to operate independently, is a stronger government. Multiple religious traditions are allowed to coexist by finding expression within the frame of reference that is that state. But their approaches are radically different from what we might consider the standard contemporary position: Instead of favoring tolerance, both Baruch Spinoza and Bhatta Jayanta seems to favor sympathy. To make this point they both make a rhetorical move that uses politics to go beyond politics, and is reminiscent of Bullhe Shah’s poetry, although there is no sense that an overarching state is needed to mediate the relation of religious traditions in Bullhe Shah’s thought. They both posit that they can see a unity behind the multiplicity of conflicting religious traditions around them. This unity does not wash away differences, but rather allows for their simultaneous existence.  Differences of time, place, and language separate these authors, but what is striking is that Spinoza’s alternative modernism, while insightful, isn’t unique. As we spin the wheel backwards, we can see the disunity of human experience, and the traces of multiple potentialities that have been created for dealing with it. icon

  1. A similar list of religious communities is found in the In the 1955 Hindu Marriage act, where the Parliment of India defined a Hindu as “any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms or developments, including a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj … any person who is a Buddhist, Jaina or Sikh by religion … and any other person domiciled in the territories to which this Act extends who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion.” Both are instances of state actors serving as the frame of reference that determines the boundaries of religious communities, although the lists are different at important points, and the implications and uses of such lists in the 20th century Republic of India and 9th century Kashmir couldn’t be starker.
  2. The 12th century of the Hijiri era corresponds to the 18th century CE.
  3. In the New York Review of Books, William Dalrymple recently discussed a remarkable Dutch mannerist painter named Cornelis Claesz Heda who took up residence in the court of the Indian kingdom of Bijapur, as well as the “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, currently displaying a number of the paintings referenced in this article.