More than a decade ago, in 2001, this columnist attempted to arrange a visit of Sri Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, to China. After some hesitation, the Chinese hosts agreed to almost all the requests made by the Shankaracharya’s nephew (who was deputed as his representative to finalise the logistical and stay details of what would have been the first-ever visit by a Shankaracharya to China, a country which successive Popes have yet to succeed in getting invited to). They, however, drew the line at the suggestion that the WCs at the Zhongnanhai State Guest House in Beijing be replaced with squat commodes so as to suit the preferences of the saint’s party, although agreeing to cooks and vegetables being brought in from India for providing Sri Jayendra Saraswati’s fare. In order to meet the traditional prohibition of a Shankaracharya travelling over water, the Chinese hosts agreed to a special aircraft flying entirely overland on its journey from Chennai to Beijing. The saint would have been welcomed with the almost same panache as though he were a Head of State, the way the Pontiff at Rome is by protocol the Head of State of the Vatican, which is technically a country independent of Italy. Those were the years when an increasing number of Chinese, now that they were well off, were looking beyond the materialism of Marxist textbooks and delving into the world of spiritualism, especially into Christianity and Buddhism. Had the Shankaracharya’s visit taken place, Sanatan Dharma would have been a third option for such individuals. However, criticism from the orthodox ensured that Sri Jayendra Saraswati cancelled his visit at the last minute, thereby depriving not only the Chinese people but the global community of the spectacle of a religious leader being welcomed into the world’s largest communist state, for there is little doubt that international news channels would have found such a trip impossible to ignore.
It is not only in China, but across other parts of the globe — principally in the US and within much of the EU — that presumed champions of Sanatan Dharma have missed out on an opportunity to showcase the philosophy of a faith which reflects the liberal and eclectic values of the 21st century better than many others. Indeed, by its clarity on the reality of each faith being a pathway to the divine, Sanatan Dharma can be extant even within communities of those professing faiths that postulate only a single pathway to the divine and characterise as heresy any alternative formulation. Indeed, it is theologically possible to be a Sanatani, even while being followers of faiths other than Hinduism in those where there is an acceptance of the rights of others to follow a different path, and an abhorrence of violence as the means towards the achievement of goals. Rather than expend energies on seeking to prevent conversions in India, what is needed is an international competition between faiths, and the underlining of free choice to individuals to adopt the faith of their choice, or to move away from all such constructs. Within the US, China and the more advanced parts of the European Union in particular, there is a hunger for knowledge of faiths other than what have been the tradition in their lands, and it is certain that the philosophies embedded in the teachings, which have originated millennia ago within this country, are strong enough to ensure at least a respectful hearing among tens if not hundreds of millions of seekers. In such a context, both the Shankaracharya of Kanchi’s opting out of a possibly historic China visit as well as the near-exclusive focus on preventing conversions in India conflicts with the adoption of a global perspective on the lines advocated by Swami Chinmayananda and now by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. A narrow approach, in contrast, springs out of a dogmatism in thinking and behaviour alien to the Open Skies philosophy of Sanatan Dharma.
The months following the assumption of national office in Delhi of the BJP-led coalition have been on far too many occasions marked by incidents and approaches — including sometimes by those in ministerial office at the Centre or in the states — which are contrary to the universality and tolerant spirit of the fundamentals of Sanatan Dharma. It bears repeating that such a liberal spirit is witnessed also in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, as well as in the ubiquity of the qualities of mercy, compassion and benevolence found interspersed within the Holy Quran. Rather than seek to prohibit lifestyle choices and opportunities through the bludgeon of law the way authoritarian countries do, what is called for from a government, which promised to raise the country to 21st century codes and standards, is to respect freedom of choice, enlarge the flow of information, and ensure security for liberty and property, while extending opportunity to the disadvantaged. Unless such a move away from the colonial state be carried out, it would be a travesty of truth to claim that the contrary policy — of restrictions and prohibitions which enforce monochrome choices on the people — is in any way reflective of Sanatan Dharma.