Being Different

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Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism
Author Rajiv Malhotra
Country India
Language English
Publisher HarperCollins Publishers India a joint venture with The India Today Group
Publication date
Pages 474
ISBN 978-9350291900
OCLC 769101673

Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism is a 2011 book by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian-American author, philanthropist and public speaker, published by HarperCollins. The book reverts the gaze of the western cultures on India, repositioning India from being the observed to the observer, by looking at the West from a Dharmic point of view.

About the book[edit]

Malhotra explains that he seeks a dialogue where the world civilizations are not merely seen from the viewpoint of the West but by placing them side-by-side and allowing the other side the opportunity to take its own view.[1] Malhotra summarizes his rationale for treating Dharmic traditions as a family, contrasting the family of Dharmic traditions with Abrahamic religions, and viewing their differences from the perspective of the family of Dharmic traditions (hence reversing the gaze).[1] Malhotra clarifies that he is not replacing a West-centric view with a Dharma-centric view by proposing the reversal of gaze.[2] Malhotra explains why this gaze from the other side benefits the West.[3] Malhotra calls for mutual respect as a higher standard for pluralism than tolerance. Mutual respect does not call for acceptance of beliefs held by others, only to have genuine respect for difference, because, beliefs are not facts.[web 1]


Malhotra states that in Being Different, he "hopes to set the terms for a deeper and more informed engagement between dharmic and Western civilizations."[4]

Malhotra states that in Being Different, "'Dharma' is used to indicate a family of spiritual traditions originating in India which today are manifested as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. I explain that the variety of perspectives and practices of dharma display an underlying integral unity at the metaphysical level...."[5]

Malhotra explains that in contrast to Dharmic traditions which rely on adhyatma-vidya, Abrahamic religions rely on God's interventions in human history. [web 2]

Malhotra identifies four core dimensions that he argues clearly show irreconcilable incompatibilities between Dharmic traditions and Abrahamic religions. Malhotra argues that understanding these four core dimensions is crucial to recognizing the fallacy of facile sameness arguments and to understanding senselessness of inculturation efforts. The four core dimensions are:

  1. History-centrism
  2. Integral versus synthetic unity
  3. Order versus Chaos
  4. Specific semantics of non-translatable Sanskrit words

Difference 1: History Centrism[edit]

For followers of history-centric (Abrahamic) religions, truth-claims based on history are more significant than the scriptural message itself. History-centric dogma such as original sin and resurrection become critical beliefs and no compromise can be made on their acceptance. This explains the centrality of Nicene creed to all major Christian denominations. Followers of history-centric religions believe that the God revealed His message through a special prophet and that the message is secured in scriptures. This special access to God is available only to these intermediaries or prophets and not to any other human beings.[web 3]

Dharma traditions do not hold history central to their faith. Gautama Buddha emphasized that his enlightenment was merely a discovery of a reality that is always there. He was not bringing any new covenants from any God. The history of the Buddha is not necessary for Buddhist principles to work. In fact, Buddha stated that he was neither the first nor the last person to have achieved the state of enlightenment. He also asserted that he was not God nor sent by any God as a prophet, and whatever he discovered was available to every human to discover for himself. This makes Buddhism not History-Centric.

Malhotra explains how history-centrism or lack of it has implications for religious absolutist exclusivity vs. flexible pluralism: "Abrahamic religions claim that we can resolve the human condition only by following the lineage of prophets arising from the Middle East. All other teachings and practices are required to be reconciled with this special and peculiar history. By contrast, the dharmic traditions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism -- do not rely on history in the same absolutist and exclusive way. This dharmic flexibility has made fundamental pluralism possible which cannot occur within the constraints of history centrism, at least as understood so far."[web 4]

Difference 2: Integral vs Synthetic Unity[edit]

Both Western and Dharmic civilizations have cherished unity as an ideal, but with a different emphasis. Here, Malhotra posits a crucial distinction between what he considers a "synthetic unity" that gave rise to a static intellectualistic Worldview in the West positioning itself as the Universal and an "integrative unity" that gave rise to a dynamically oriented Worldview based on Dharma.[6] While the former is characterized by a "top-down" essentialism embracing everything a priori, the latter is a "bottom-up" approach acknowledging the dependent co-origination of alternative views of the human and the divine, the body and the mind, and the self and society.

Difference 3: Comfort with Order and Chaos[edit]

Dharma philosophical systems are highly systematized in their approach to understanding ultimate reality and in carefully addressing what one can know through various means of knowledge. However, this rigor does not restrict their freedom in being comfortable with social organization. Indians exhibit remarkable openness to self-organization and decentralization. Malhotra explains the basis for this openness:

Hinduism weaves multiple narratives around the central motif of cooperative rivalry between order (personified as devas) and chaos (personified as asuras). A key myth shared by all the dharma traditions — the 'churning of the milky ocean,' or 'samudra-manthan' — shows the eternal struggle between two poles. The milky ocean is the ocean of consciousness and creativity, which is to be churned in order to obtain amrita, or the nectar of eternal life."[web 5]

Dharma actually recognises the need for both Order and Chaos to co-exist in the universe. In the story[7] Prajapati attempts to create the Universe keeping Order and Chaos in dynamic balance. His initial attempts fail because they're too 'Jami'/homogenous or too 'Prthak'/different. Finally he gets the combination just-right by using the principle of 'Bandhuta/Bandhu' i.e. binding together dissimilar things by what is common across all things in the entire creation.

Difference 4: Sanskrit Non-translatables[edit]

Malhotra identifies various non-translatables in Sanskrit that have been mapped into Abrahamic religious concepts. These mis-translations then are used to draw sameness arguments or to denounce Hinduism. Malhotra explains that

In the fashionable search for sameness in all religions, Holy Spirit in Christianity is often equated with Shakti or kundalini in Hinduism. However, these terms represent different, even incompatible cosmologies. Christianity assumes an inherent dualism between God and creation. This necessitates historical revelations along with prophets, priests and institutions to bring us the truth. But Shakti, being all-pervading, obviates dependence on these; its experience can be discovered by going within through yoga.[web 6]


Several reviews of Being Different have been published in academic periodicals, that include reviews by Campbell,[8] Wiebe,[9] Rai,[10] and Rukmani.[11] A special issue of the International Journal of Hindu Studies was dedicated to discussing Being Different,[12] and included articles by Nicholas F. Gier,[13] Shrinivas Tilak,[6] Gerald James Larson,[14] Rita M. Gross, [15] Robert A. Yelle,[16] and Cleo McNelly Kearns,[17] as well as a nearly 40-page response by Malhotra.[18][note 1]

In February 2012, Patheos Book Club hosted a discussion of Being Different on their website. [web 8]

International Journal of Hindu Studies[edit]

Gerald James Larson[edit]

Gerald James Larson is critical of Malhotra's presentation of "differences". According to Larson, Malhotra ignores the differences, to arrive at a "integral unity" "that is little more than a Neo-Vedanta or Neo-Hindu reading of the Bhagavad Gita documented with numerous citations from Aurobindo." Larson calls this the "Brahmin imaginary",[note 2] the standard Brahmanical view of Indic religion and philosophy in its Neo-Hindu understanding.[20] According to Larson, the "Brahmin imaginary" is an imagined "integral unity" that is adhered to only by a cultural elite, with very little reality "on the ground", as it were, throughout the centuries of cultural development in the South Asian region.[20] Larson also criticises the use of the term "Dharma traditions" or "dharmic systems", which ignores the differences between the various Indian religions.[20] Larson ends his review with the recommendation to move toward a future in which "being different" really reflects the "differences' in Indic religion and thought, "in a manner that challenges but also learns from the ongoing interactions with "the West.""[21]

Robert A. Yelle[edit]

Robert A. Yelle is highly critical of Malhotra's approach. According to Yelle, "there is little, if any, original scholarship in the book. It is the work of a polemicist," who uses western scholarship when criticizing the West, but ignores this scholarship when he presents his own nativist vision of "dharmic traditions." According to Yelle, Malhotra's vision is a mirrorimage of Orientalism, namely Occidentalism.[22] Robert A. Yelle also criticises Malhotra for his use of the term "dharmic traditions".[23] According to Yelle, Malhotra ignores the differences that exist among and within the various traditions of India. According to Yelle, Malhotra presents a thoroughly homogenized ideal of Hinduism, based on a limited choice of aspects from Vedanta philosophy and Yoga.[24] Yelle ends his review with the remark that there has been a gradual improvement in Western scholars’ knowledge of Indian traditions. To come to a real dialogue, Indians must also be willing to look in the mirror, and be open to self-criticism.[25]

Nicholas F. Gier[edit]

Gier criticizes Malhotra for ignoring profound differences between Dharmic traditions in seeing an integral unity. Gier notices that Malhotra himself admits that there are ‘profound differences in theory and practice’ in the Dharma traditions. According to Gier,this undermines Malhotra's principal claim that these philosophical schools are "integral".[13]

Cleo McNelly Kearns[edit]

According to Kearns, Malhotra puts forward a valuable challenge to Christian theology.[26] She also notes that Malhotra himself adds to the "binary thinking" which he rejects.[26]

Rita M. Gross[edit]

According to Gross, Malhotra has located "one of the most urgent tasks for human survival", namely the ability to accommodate diversity without judging one culture over another as superior or inferior.[27]

Shrinivas Tilak[edit]

Tilak is appreciative of the "counterreading"[28] that Malhotra offers. According to Tilak, Malhotra "gives voice to Indic subjects who have been silenced or transformed by nineteenthcentury and contemporary Indological filters.[28] Tilak uses the term Dharmacatuskam, "House of Dharma with Its Four Wings (Dharmas)",[29] to denote the sense of integration that underlies the Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism traditions.[29] Tilak points out that Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism offer various approaches to dharma, which are "not unitary but composite".[30]

Other peer-reviewed reviews[edit]

Brian Campbell[edit]

In the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Brian Campbell wrote that the book succeeds in fulfilling only one of its four goals. According to Campbell, it gives a simplistic view of modern colonialism. It also fails to reverse the gaze, and to apply dharmic categories to Western socio-cultural reality. According to Campbell, Malhotra does succeed in tracing the difference between Western and Oriental thought.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The publisher of Being Different also quotes comments about the book from John M. Hobson, Francis X. Clooney, D. R. Sardesai, Don Wiebe, Makarand R. Paranjape, Kapila Vatsyayan, Satya Narayan Das, Rita Sherma, Sampadananda Mishra, and others.[web 7] In addition to appearing on the book website,[web 7] quotes appear in the opening pages, in a section entitled "Praise for the Book" that precedes the title page, from Gerald James Larson, Don Wiebe, Marakand R. Paranjape, Cleo Kearns, Kapila Vatsyayan, Satya Narayan Das, Shrinivas Tilak, Rita Sherma, and Sampadananda Mishra.
  2. ^ Doniger: "It is often convenient to speak of a Brahmin-oriented quasi-orthodoxy (or ortho-praxy [...]), which we might call the Brahmin imaginary or the idealized system of class and life stage (varna-ashrama-dharma). but whatever we call this constructed center, it is, like the empty center in the Zen diagram of Hinduisms, simply an imaginary point around which we orient all the actual Hindus who accept or oppose it; it is what Indian logicians call the straw man (purva paksha), against whom argues. The actual beliefs and practices of Hindus - renunciation, devotion, sacrifice, and so amny more - are peripheries that the imaginary Brahmin center cannot hold.[19]


  1. ^ a b Malhotra 2012, p. 371.
  2. ^ Malhotra 2012, p. 375.
  3. ^ Malhotra 2012, p. 373.
  4. ^ Malhotra & 2011 2.
  5. ^ Malhotra 2011, p. 3.
  6. ^ a b Tilak 2012.
  7. ^ "Order, chaos and creation - The Times of India". The Times Of India. 
  8. ^ Campbell 2012.
  9. ^ Wiebe 2012.
  10. ^ Rai 2013.
  11. ^ Rukmani 2011.
  12. ^ Springer 2012.
  13. ^ a b Gier 2012.
  14. ^ Larson 2012.
  15. ^ Gross 2012.
  16. ^ Yele 2012.
  17. ^ Kearns 2012.
  18. ^ Malhotra 2012.
  19. ^ Doniger 2010, p. 29-30.
  20. ^ a b c Larson 2012, p. 313.
  21. ^ Larson 2012, p. 320.
  22. ^ Yelle 2012, p. 337-338.
  23. ^ Yelle 2012.
  24. ^ Yelle 2012, p. 338-339.
  25. ^ Yelle 2012, p. 346.
  26. ^ a b Kearns 2012, p. 349-368.
  27. ^ Gross 2012, p. 323-334.
  28. ^ a b Tilak 2012, p. 306.
  29. ^ a b Tilak 2012, p. 291.
  30. ^ Tilak 2012, p. 295.
  31. ^ Campbell 2012, p. 225.


Printed sources[edit]


  1. ^ Rajiv Malhotra. "'Tolerance Isn't Good Enough'". Huffington Post. 
  2. ^ Rajiv Malhotra. "Problematizing God's Interventions In History". 
  3. ^ Rajiv Malhotra. "Problematizing God's Interventions In History". 
  4. ^ Rajiv Malhotra. "Dharma and the new Pope". Huffington Post. 
  5. ^ Rajiv Malhotra. "Order, chaos and creation". The Times Of India. 
  6. ^ Rajiv Malhotra. "'Holy Spirit' is not the same as 'Shakti' or 'Kundalini'". 
  7. ^ a b Being Different website (accessed 8 April 2013)
  8. ^ "Patheos Book Club - Being Different". 

External links[edit]

Being Different

Rajiv Malhotra