The famous Rg Veda text (I.164. 46) “Ekam sat vipraha bahuda vadanti” “The One Being the wise call by many names”, is cited often by Hindus in interreligious contexts to minimize the significance of differences within and among religious traditions and to explain away these differences as entirely inconsequential and semantic. Such interpretations have resulted in justifiable criticism of the Hindu approach as one that fails to properly distinguish one religious tradition from another and that relegates differences to the non-essential aspects of religion. Hindus, many protest, make light of the unique character of each of the world’s religions and are not attentive even to intra religious diversity. What can we learn from each other, one may rightly ask, if we are all, in essence, proclaiming the same truths in different words? The extensive use of this Rg Veda text and the problems it presents for persons of other religions engaged in dialogue with Hindus require that we take a closer look at the text and its context.
The meaning and significance of the text will be appreciated better if we look at the entire verse in which it occurs, as well as the preceding verse (I.164.45).
Speech hath been measured out in four divisions.
The Wise who have understanding know them.
Three kept in close concealment cause no motion;
of speech men only speak the fourth division (45).
They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is
the noble-winged Garutman.
The One Being, the wise call by many names:
they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan (46).
Verse I.164.45 provides the context with an insight about the nature of human speech. It does so by presenting the totality of speech as consisting of four quarters. Human speech comprises only a quarter of the total speech potential. In describing the three quarters of speech as “kept in close concealment” and causing “no motion,” the verse suggests powerfully the language of silence and the ultimate inexpressibility of the One Being referred to in the verse following.
Hindu sacred texts and tradition remind us constantly that, in relation to God, our language is always limited and inadequate. God is always more than we can define, describe or understand with our finite minds and fragmented language. No representation of the divine in image or words can ever be final or complete. The implication is that we must profess our faith with humility and be open always to the possibility of learning from and being enriched by the ways people of other traditions have experienced and described God.
When we employ our limited language, a fraction of the total potentiality of language, to speak of the limitless One, our language will be diverse. With our finite words, we grope as in darkness as it were, to describe That which is linguistically elusive. As the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.4) puts it, God (brahman) is “That from which mind and speech return, having failed to reach.” We use many names (Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Yama, Matarisvan, Garutman) not because the gods are many, but because of the limits of human language and experience. The different names are not just names. Each name also points to a different way of imagining and understanding the nature of the One Being and each name and way of understanding implies its own peculiar limitation.
Acknowledging the diversity of human names and ways of understanding God, the Rg Veda text is unambiguous in its assertion that God is one (ekam). It is the one God that is called and imagined differently. Those who name and worship God as Indra, Agni or Varuna are not, in reality, addressing themselves to different beings but to the one true being. One name alone is not true and all others false, and one name does not include or represent all others. Each is a name for the One. The text rejects the existence of many gods and proclaims the truth of the One. At the same time, the One God is named and imagined differently within the diverse streams of Hinduism. Extended to other traditions, we may say that the text does not allow for a Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu God. It does recognize multiple understandings, while denying multiple divinities. We can speak in different, and sometimes even contradictory ways, about the One Being. The oneness of God is not compromised by the manyness of names or ways of speaking. This insight enables us to think of persons in other traditions, not as strangers with alien, false or rival deities, but as fellow beings whose God is our God.
Although acknowledging the limits of language and the multiple ways in which God is named, imagined and spoken of, the Rg Veda text does not, as is all to commonly assumed, insist that differences in speech are insignificant. There is no minimization here of religious differences or implication that all traditions are identical. In fact, one could make the argument legitimately that the comment of the Rg Veda text is limited to acknowledging the many names that are used for God and does not at all address different theological understandings. This however, is not our point of view, since each name also implies a different image and understanding.
Instead of underplaying differences, we may infer from the text the necessity for attentiveness to diverse ways of speaking about God. It is the wise (vipraha), after all, who speak differently. Theological diversity is not dismissed here as the consequence of ignorance. By attributing differences to the speech of the wise, the text invites a respectful and inquiring response to religious diversity. We must not hastily and arrogantly denounce the sacred speech of the other as undeserving of sincere and serious contemplation. Wisdom must not be identified solely with our way of speaking and we should not assume that wise persons always speak identically or that wisdom is manifested only in consensus. When encountering the ancient religious traditions of our neighbors, we would do better to assume that they endure because they speak wisely and meaningfully to the human predicament and ask how we could learn from and be enriched by their distinctive ways of speaking. We will not learn, however, unless our disposition to these traditions is humble. Humility is nurtured by the awareness that our ways of speaking are not exhaustive. Some of our deepest religious insights are awakened through our encounter with wise voices radically different from ours.
If our different ways of speaking about God are important, the Rg Veda text should not be read as affirming the equal worth of all ways of speaking. The words of the text will have to be tortured to make this inference. While the text identifies the one God as the common referent of diverse religious speech, it does not imply that each way of speaking is equally true to its referent. Today, we are much more aware of ways of speaking in the name of God that awaken hate and instigate violence towards others within and outside our traditions. Some religious voices can legitimize injustice and oppression even as others can liberate advocate for equality. It is naïve and dangerous to attribute equal validity to all religious voices. Even Mahatma Gandhi, a great advocate of religious diversity, found it impossible to grant equal value to all religious voices. The great Hindu sin, in Gandhi’s view, was untouchability, and he could not affirm interpretations of the tradition that sanctioned its demeaning practices.
What is the religious context that we may presume for this text? Given the age of the Rg Veda (ca.1500 BCE), the text is addressing an intra-religious situation in which the different names used for God were perceived as referring to different realities. It is also possible that claims were being made for the superiority of one name and form over another and communities saw themselves as religious rivals. By calling attention of the oneness of God, and describing those who use different names as wise, the text presents an alternative way of interpreting the diversity of divine names and forms. The God of the other is not false, non-existent or subordinate to one’s own, but a different way of naming and imagining the One. We choose from the many names and images of the One. It is problematic, however, when this text is lifted from its intra-religious context, where there is a significant sharing of beliefs and practices and applied uncritically to a new interreligious reality with more contrasting worldviews.
What then, one may rightly ask, is the value of the text, “The One Being the wise call by many names?” Its value is to be found particularly in the articulation of an overlooked implication of God’s oneness - the fact that my neighbor of another faith, who speaks a different religious language, and I are addressing and relating ourselves to the same God. Through differences of name, symbols, cultures and theologies, we comfortably clothe God with an identity that is similar to our own and fail to recognize the one God in other theological and symbolic dresses. Discerning the truth of the “One Being the wise call by many names,” is profoundly transformative. Thinking of my Jewish, Christian, and Muslim friends as being oriented towards the same One Being fills me with the joyous excitement of recognizing a new relationship. It enlarges my understanding of the boundaries of religious community that now includes all who understand themselves in relation to this One Being. It motivates me to build dialogical relationships with those who are awake to this One Being. I am eager to learn what my friends know of this One Being, about whom my tradition also speaks. I want to share my experiences of the One and to be enriched by their experiences. Like a lost and separated brother, who has suddenly discovered his identity with his siblings by finding their common parent, I am enthusiastic for a shared way of living. A single text that can awaken us to the limits of our language, expand religious boundaries and horizons, foster relationships of sharing and learning and help to overcome alienation among persons of different traditions has deep historical and interreligious significance.
Why do so many contemporary Hindu interpreters read this text in ways that minimize the significance of difference among religions and reduce these to a matter of semantics? The reasons are, in the main, historical. Although he diverse traditions comprising Hinduism engaged in vigorous debates, seeking to convince the other of the truth of its claims, these traditions shared many common elements and had no organized agenda or program to entirely replace the other. Religious diversity was not negativized and the reality of multiple ways of being religious was recognized. India’s long experience with religious diversity nurtured a spirit of religious accommodation and acceptance of difference. Christianity’s entry into India with its proselytizing zeal and its declared aim to triumph over India’s ancient traditions sounded a discordant note. In contrast to existing attitudes, it appeared aggressive, militant and arrogant. It articulated its theological claims as being unique, exclusive and different from India’s religions. Hindus responded to these Christian claims by representing the Hindu tradition as non-exclusive and as affirming the validity of all religions. They drew attention to what they perceived to be the common character of the world’s religions in contrast to Christian apologists who privileged Christian claims and were dismissive of other traditions in their entirety. In challenging Christian claims, however, Hindu approaches to religious diversity were simplified and many of its more challenging and relevant insights overlooked. The treatment of the famous Rg Veda text, “The One Being the wise call by many names,” illustrates well this historical simplification as well as the rich resources of Hinduism.
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