The Importance of Being Different: A Q&A with Rajiv Malhotra

How dharmic approaches to “difference” offer a new and fresh approach to interfaith relations.

By Deborah Arca, February 20, 2012

Rajiv Malhotra


In the provocative new book Being Different, Indian-American scholar Rajiv Malhotra argues that the popular and widely affirmed Western concept of universalism is disingenuous—and actually dangerous to inter-religious understanding and dialogue. The book, the result of 40 years of practice and study, offers instead an invitation to view the West through the lens of the “other”—in this case, the dharmic tradition of Hinduism. Malhotra seeks to demonstrate how such a “reversal of gaze” can lead the way for a deeper and more informed engagement between dharmic and Western civilizations.

Recently, Malhotra spoke with Patheos about why “being different” is so important, the one person he hopes reads this book, and what his dream center for inter-religious dialogue would look like.

(Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism.)

The subtitle of your new book is “An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism.” Why do you feel it’s important to challenge the popular Western concept of universalism?

As Asia’s power rises rapidly, it is natural that India and China will reassert their worldviews and compete with the West on that level as well. It behooves liberal Westerners to understand where Asians are coming from philosophically, and not assume that the political power to project Western ideas as universals will continue. Secondly, many “Western” things are not of Western origin to begin with, but were appropriated from other civilizations including India; I deal with this in a future volume.

Your title implies that “being different” is a positive thing in inter-religious study and dialogue. Why is this important, from a Hindu perspective?

The cosmos is built on the principle of difference—in plants, animals, geographies, and even each moment in time is unique. So difference in culture, human cognition and worldviews—these are natural. It is interesting that westerners are so protective of the diversity of plants and animals, but the same emphasis is not placed on protecting spiritual diversity. Western religions have traditionally pushed for monocultures. Monotheism is more appropriately defined as “my-theism,” meaning that my idea of theism is the only valid one.

In Hinduism, sva-dharma is the path for a given individual, the “sva” prefix literally meaning “my.” It’s like “My Documents” or “My Favorites” on your computer. God made us unique individuals, each with a purpose based on past conditioning, including in past births, and each equipped to discover one’s sva-dharma. Besides, the Abrahamic religions’ history of imposing standardized canons, uniform beliefs and the like, is filled with some of the worst organized, large scale atrocities in world history. It is time we respected difference as a starting point in mutual understanding. In the book, I coin the term “difference anxiety” to refer to one’s anxiety that the other is different in some way—be it gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or religion.

What conversations do you want this book to inspire?

My conversation with the famous BBC correspondent, Mark Tully (and the one with Harvard Prof. and Jesuit Theologian, Francis Clooney) are good examples of the two-way street this can open up. I feel that the dharmic approaches to difference offer a new and fresh approach to interfaith relations, which till now have been pursued with little success, and mainly through the paradigms of Abrahamic religions.

Do you expect this book to change anyone’s mind? About what?

The book has already starting causing many Hindus as well as Christians to rethink their ideas about themselves and others. This is evident from the reviews, and from the professors who have shown interest in using it in class. It has encouraged not only Hindus but also many corporate leaders and academics to organize special events with the purpose of exploring dharmic approaches to a variety of human challenges—such as new approaches to education, environmentalism, governance, leadership.

What book, or which author, was your model for this book?

I have read extensively both Indian and western works, and the long list of influences is reflected in the large bibliographies of my series of books. The most profound original ideas are not from writers, but from my sadhana (spiritual practice), which is based on the principle that there is a huge reservoir of creative knowledge deep within each of us to be tapped and uncovered. These explosions of inspiration have to be supplemented with rigor in studying the thoughts across a vast canvass.

Name one person you hope reads this book. Why?

Tom Friedman. Because I critique his model of the world becoming “flat”. Yes, it’s flattening in certain areas where competition is only merit based. But there shall remain many important ways that non-western civilizations will contest various axiomatic assumptions of the west. China’s thinkers are developing and propagating what they call the “Confucian Ethic” and “Confucian Modernity” which they claim is superior to the Western equivalents, and there has been the claim of Islamic Universalism as well. The new rising powers will make the inter-civilization competition more intense, especially with exploding populations and demand for goods, combined with shrinking resources. Hence, my message of “difference with mutual respect” becomes important—rather than Friedman’s assumption that the flat world is being built on Western axioms of development.

You write that one of your greatest inspirations was Gandhi. What was it about his life that inspired you and this book?

One of the terms I coin is the “digestion” of one civilization into another civilization. Gandhi epitomizes the courage to be different, and to resist becoming digested. Non-westerners are either being digested or are being different. He was the latter kind.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Deciding what to leave out was very hard. My complete thesis on this specific topic alone would take over a thousand pages, and in fact at every stage I cut things out and filed them for future volumes. The second challenge was to decide the target reader segment. After a few dozen events in India and USA, I find three very different kinds of audiences: (a) spiritual individuals and groups that want to understand what is distinct about dharma compared to western traditions; (b) academics who want to prepare their students for a multicultural and pluralistic world; and (c) out-of-the-box thinkers looking for new paradigms in education, environmentalism, leadership, etc. This book has triggered interest in these three communities, but I did not anticipate this so clearly, and all along I continued to wonder who my reader would be.

If you could create a center for inter-religious understanding and dialogue, what would it look like, and who would be invited?

My dream center would be based on the principle that we accept the reality of difference as the starting point rather than hiding it or wishing it away. It would be like a United Nations with faiths as members rather than nation-states. They would debate issues very explicitly and challenge many of the cherished notions that pervade as a result of a few centuries of Western Universalism. Every faith group would be invited as long as they accept the principle of mutual respect – hence the Bin Laden, Hitler and KKK type personalities would be excluded because they would not be willing to respect others (and mere “tolerance” would not be good enough).

Often, the best book ideas come while you’re writing a book. Have you started the next one?

Actually, it was the other way around for a strange reason. This book came out the material that was removed from my U-Turn Theory book, which is not in the final stages. I was planning to publish that, having researched and written on it for twenty years. But the philosophical reasons for westerners doing what I describe as uturns became complex. Reviewers advised that I remove those sections to make the book flow easier. So the portions I removed are what became the starting point for this book. But there is another competing demand on me. Many persons want me to write two kinds of things based on Being Different: (a) Simpler and smaller mini-books and videos each with one key concept explained; and (b) a book on how the principles of dharma are useful in tackling world problems today. I will let the cosmos lead me wherever it wants to take me.


Deborah Arca


Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team after more than ten years managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of Christian Education and music/theatre programs for young people and has served as a music director for worship and special retreats.

Rajiv Malhotra’s Interview with Christian Post

Interview yet to be published by Christian Post.


Many months ago I was approached by a journalist named Myles Collier from Christian Post, who told me that their media wanted to interview me on BD. I asked that it be done by email, so that there is an accurate record and no misunderstanding later. This was accepted by his editors, and what followed was an email exchange in which I answered every question asked of me. Below is a complete list of all the questions and my answers.
As you can see from their questions, this organizations has deep rooted d ideas supporting Dalit Christianity. I was told that the interview would appear very soon and that I would receive the url. I never heard back after the interview was one. My prediction at the time was that once the senior editors saw my responses, they would not want to publish it, because one of my conditions was that any alterations in what I said required my prior written approval.

Rajiv Malhotra’s Interview with Myles Collierfrom Christian Post 

1.       Question: For those not familiarwith your work what is the main thesis of your book, Breaking India?

a)      Thebook explains the role of U.S. and European churches, academics, think-tanks,foundations, government and human rights groups in fostering divisiveidentities between the Dravidian and Dalit communities on the one hand and therest of India based on outdated racial theories.

b)      Itshows how outdated racial theories continue to provide academic frameworks andfuel the rhetoric that can trigger civil wars and genocides in developingcountries.

c)      The Dravidian movement’s 200-year history hassuch origins. Its latest manifestation is the “Dravidian Christianity” movementthat fabricates a political and cultural history to exploit old fault lines. Irefer to this as the “breaking India project”. Please see:


2.       Question: What kind of reception hasyour book garnered?


a)     The reception in Indian thinktanks and defensestudy networks has been very good. The book was launched by senior Indian retiredsecurity and military officials. See videos at:

b)      Therehas also been a very good reception among the general public in both India andthe US. The book has already gone through 5 print runs and become a nationalbest-seller. Breaking India was quoted during the recent controversialKodankulam protests.

c)      The latest jacket’s endorsements are also self-explanatory– please see:

d)      Ithas been translated into Tamil and the Hindi edition will soon be ready as well.


3.       Question: When specificallyconsidering the situation of the Dalit’s Dr. Joseph D’souza describes it as the”greatest human rights violation in history” — is this an accurate portrayal?

a)      Callingthe situation of the Dalits the “greatest human rights violation in history” isan example of the sensationalist pandering and politicization thatBreaking India explains. Anyone researchingatrocities objectively must examine the following ones: White EuropeanChristian conquerors of America against Native Americans and Australianaborigines, Spanish Inquisition against women and native faiths, PortugueseInquisition against Indians, Christian slavery of Africans, Christiancolonization of Asia and other continents during which hundreds of millionswere killed.  In fact, Christianity wasbuilt by the sword ever since the time Emperor Constantine hijacked it andturned it into a dogma for state theocracy.

b)      JosephD’souza is trying to help cover up this White Christian guilt of perpetrating manyof history’s worst atrocities. Non-White Christians like D’souza perform thiscover up for White Christians, and for this they earn funding and careeropportunities. I refer to such persons as `sepoys’, after the Indians whoserved under British rule and helped police and control other Indians. Thisrole is similar to that of the Anglo-Irishmen who were used by the English tocolonize Ireland.

c)       Ofcourse, all violations of human rights are to be condemned, and we must workhard to give dignity to every human across the globe. But one cannot distorthistory in order to open the door for Western interventions as has been theirstrategy for centuries.

d)      Thereis a long history of many Indian communities becoming poor and disenfranchised dueto dislocation under Islamic and British oppression, and many of them turnedinto present day Dalits. This is not a “Hindu problem” per se as is the fashionto call it in the Christian press. In fact, Dalit Christians have litigatedagainst the Indian Church for prejudices against them that areinstitutionalized within Christianity – including separate burial grounds, andbias in the allocation of funds.

e)     Most Christian nations that were formercolonies, such as the ones in Latin America, Philippines, etc. have far worseper capita statistics of crimes than India does.

f)       Also,the Church remains racially very much divided even in rich Christian countrieslike USA: That’s why there are separate Black churches, Korean churches,Hispanic churches, etc. Even among Indian Christians in USA there are separatechurches for Tamils and Malayalees, etc.

g)      Sohuman rights activism must begin at home – Christians must work withinChristian society to solve internal problems, rather than trying to exportcures for social maladies they are suffering themselves, and especiallydiseases they have spread elsewhere. The human rights record of atrocities by Christendomis woven deeply into the tapestry of world history.

h)      TheChurch has no moral authority to intervene in other countries using the pretextof bringing them human rights.

i)       India’s sovereignty and its internal institutionsfor improving the lot of all its citizens must be respected and strengthened.


4.       Question: There are manyorganizations dedicated to helping and empowering the Dalit’s, yet you havemade the claim that western influences actually hinder progressive movementsand contribute to an ever hostile social environment—why is this?

a)      India,like any former colony, has its own share of social injustices that need to becontinually addressed and resolved.

b)      Butseparatist forces supported and funded by external nexuses are constructing adangerous and fictitious anti-national grand narrative. This has been forgedspecifically to alienate Dalits from their own culture and country byexacerbating societal divisions. This is the latest version of the olddivide-and-rule strategy practiced by European colonizers everywhere.

c)       Alldemocracy-loving Americans should worry about the consequences of allowingnarrow-minded Christian organizations to undermine the largest democracy in theworld.

d)      Dalitcommunities are not monolithic and have extremely diverse histories and socialdynamics – so you cannot lump all of them in one box. Also, not all Dalitcommunities are at the same socio-economic level or homogeneously poor. Nor arethey static or inherently subordinate to others. Indeed, there are several Dalitbillionaires, top politicians and other leaders – a Dalit has even been the Presidentof India.

e)      WhileDravidian and Dalit identities were initially constructed separately, there is nowa strategy at work to link them in order to denigrate and demonize Indianclassical traditions as a common enemy. This, in turn, has been mapped on to anewly manufactured Afro-Dalit narrative which claims that Dalits are raciallyrelated to Africans and all other Indians are “whites.” Thus, Indiancivilization itself is demonized as anti-humanistic and oppressive.

f)       Thishas become the playground of major foreign players, both from the evangelicalright and from the academic left. It has opened huge career opportunities foran assortment of middlemen including foreign-funded NGOs, intellectuals and”champions of the oppressed.”

g)     While the need for relief and structural changeis immense, the shortsighted selfish politics is often empowering someindividual leaders rather than the people whose cause is being championed. The”solutions” often exacerbate the problems. See:


5.       Question: What is your currentfeeling as to the situation created by outside organizations and the impactthat has on the Dalit population?

a)      Genuinegrievances and injustices certainly do exist. There is no whitewashing here.

b)      Butthe book shows how such existing fault lines are used by transnational forcesto subvert India and brand Indian civilization as hopeless and in need of beingreplaced by a superior imported variety. This can make Dalits believe thattheir liberation lies in toppling India’s civilization and nationhood.

c)       PoliticizedChristianity in India maps Biblical notions on to a Marxist interpretation of”class struggle”, i.e. Liberation Theology, even though the American sponsorsdo not support such ideology domestically where they live. So they are pullingthe strings of society and politics half way around the world in an alien placewithout having any skin in the game. This is hypocrisy.

d)     My research tracked the money trails from theWest where funds are raised for “education,” “human rights,” “empowermenttraining,” and “leadership training,” but end up in programs designed toproduce angry youths who feel disenfranchised from Indian identity. Already theBaptists have created separatist movements in India’s northeast region byconverting the natives and shifting their loyalties.

e)      Similarinterventions by some of the same global forces have resulted in genocides andcivil wars in Sri Lanka, Rwanda, etc.


6.       Question: There has been a greatdeal of discussion over the role of Hinduism in India and its propensity tokeep “undesired” individuals oppressed, I was curious as to your thoughts aboutthe role of Hinduism and the Hindutva in India?

a)      Itis ironic that Christians are able to make such assumptions at a time when Hinduideas are being appropriated into Christianity to create a more benevolenttheology for Christianity. Hindu metaphysics and praxis have been digested intoChristianity for a long time, but very systematically for at least 200 years,into such diverse areas as: sacredness of the earth and the divine feminine;yoga and the human body as not being inherently sinful but being inherentlydivine; animal rights and vegetarianism; the inherent unity of consciousness asopposed to the dualism of Judeo-Christianity; etc.

b)      Iam writing a whole series of books on how major Christian thinkers have acknowledgedHindu sources for some of their most important rethinking on Christianity.Unfortunately, subsequent Christians like to dilute these Hindu influences andeventually forget them entirely, and replace them with Judeo-Christian sources,in order to hide the “Hinduism inside” that exists at the heart of much of today’sreinterpreted Christianity.

c)       So,on the one hand, we have this very frantic appropriation going on, and the Hinduorigins are being erased. Simultaneously, on the other hand, the very sameHindu sources are being abused as “oppressive”. How could Hindu ideas be usefulto liberate Christianity from Christianity’s own shackles, and yet Hinduism bebranded so vehemently as oppressive?

d)      Iam reminded of the way Greek thought was appropriated by St. Augustine andothers in order to start Christian theology (prior to which Christianhistorians admit that the Bible lacked philosophical content), and yet the verysame Greek society was condemned as “pagan” and finished off. I have referredto this as a form of arson: the arsonist robs the bank and then burns it downto hide the evidence. The Christian West has perfected this type of activityover the centuries: appropriate and simultaneously destroy the source.

e)      Iam amazed at the sweeping assumptions in your question. It is hypocritical forChristians to point fingers at the alleged “propensity to keep undesiredindividuals oppressed” in Hinduism, given Christianity’s track record onoppression of indigenous cultures, sexual abuse of children, persecution ofgreat scientists and thinkers who did not accede to Christian dogma of thetime, systemic repression of women and homophobia.

f)       Asfor Hindutva, that is a specific political movement and you will have tointerview its leaders for their views. I can only speak for Hindu dharma as anindividual practitioner-scholar, and not for any institution.


7.       Question: How do you respond tothose who would call the research found in your book sound, however claim thatyour interpretation and subsequent propaganda message is wrong?

a)      Thisstatement is too general to be possible to answer. There are many issuesdiscussed in my works, and hence you have to cite a concrete example of whattroubles you, so I may be able to address it. Breaking India exposes propaganda; it does not create it.  It is the result of a fact finding missionundertaken over decades and the result of rigorous analysis, not sloganeering.

b)      Ianticipated that my findings will trouble many persons who have a vestedinterest to defend a fabricated history, a fabricated grandiose notion of theirown religious supremacy and exclusivity, and who are in many cases alsosustaining their careers and lifestyles based on pushing ideas on behalf ofpowerful global nexuses.

c)       Ifany objections to my research come from persons who do not fall in thesecategories and are based on primary sources, I will consider them respectfullyand modify my views if necessary.


8.       Question: The Dalit Freedom Networkand Operation Mobilization are two groups that are building schools which offera English-medium education with a Christian world-view perspective while alsooffering vocational training to help abused and trafficked individuals inIndia. If local programs are not offering opportunities for marginalized peoplewhy would it be negative for Dalit’s and other lower caste members to exercisechoice and work towards a better future?

a)      MahatmaGandhi lashed out against Christian missionaries numerous times because theylinked their social work to conversion. I agree with his posture. Christianswho are genuinely motivated must provide unconditionalhelp from one human to another.

b)      Todenigrate another’s culture is a form of himsa (harm) and violates the dharmicprinciple known as ahimsa. Christians must learn mutual respect for others andnot use mere “tolerance” as a cover up of hatred. (For more details on myprinciple of mutual respect and how it differs from tolerance, please see:

c)       Regardingthe groups you have named, I oppose their political projects and my bookexposes what they are up to. DFN (with two directors from OM) uses the Dalitface to hide that it is a hardcore operational wing of American right-wing agendasin India. The Dalit label gives it the emotional appeal and aura of legitimacyto intervene in India’s affairs. DFN brings speakers and activists from Indiato testify before US government commissions, policy think-tanks and churches,with the explicit goal of promoting US intervention in India (Breaking India, pages 222-223).

d)      Whatmost of my American Christian friends are shocked to learn is that the kind ofChristianity being propagated in India is often similar to the radical,medieval Christianity that was based on performing “miracles” and on hatespeech. Most modern Christians in USA have rejected that Christianity, but theobsession for numerical growth in Christian population has become theevangelical obsession. The sole focus is on numbers, not quality or genuinereligiosity.

e)      Thereare also many good indigenous grassroots movements in India working for Dalit causes,which do not get the type of prominence or funding that Western-supported NGOsdo. They are sadly underfunded because they lack the sophisticated fundraisingand publicity machinery. Yet such indigenous organizations have a far betterefficiency in the use of funds for making a positive impact than the foreignones do.

f)       MyAmerican Christian friends are grateful to get informed about this, as itenables them to make better choices in philanthropy, and be more careful beforethey fund certain foreign missions. Since my book is beginning to impact theevangelists’ fund-raising in the US, they want Christian media like yours to poisonthe credibility of my work.

g)      Butany religious community must be open to external criticism and self-reflectionin order to improve its religious standards. Given Christianity’s long historyof abuses, it would be foolish for American Christians to fail to examine myfindings with a receptive mind.


9.       Question: Can you explain yourthoughts related to difference anxiety?

a)      Icoined the term “difference anxiety” to refer to one’s anxiety thatthe other is different in some way—be it gender, sexual orientation, race,ethnicity, age or religion. The alternative is difference without anxiety, and better still is celebration of difference.

b)      Toappreciate this very Hindu principle, one must start by observing that thecosmos is built on the principle of difference—in plants, animals, geographies,and even each moment in time is unique. So differences in culture, humancognition and worldviews are entirely natural.

c)       Itis interesting that westerners are so protective of the diversity of plants andanimals, but the same emphasis is not placed on protecting civilizational andfaith diversity. The reason is that Westerners are driven by the urge tocontrol externally – control over other humans, nature, etc. Homogeneity basedon fixed canonized norms helps one control; hence difference and especiallyflux are a cause for anxiety. Therefore, Western religions have traditionallypushed for monocultures.

d)      WesternMonotheism is more appropriately described as “my-theism,” meaningthat my idea of theism is the only valid one.

e)      InHinduism, sva-dharma is the path for a given individual, the “sva”prefix literally meaning “my.” It’s like “My Documents” or”My Favorites” on your computer. God made us unique individuals, eachwith a purpose based on past conditioning, including experiences in pastbirths, and each of us is equipped to discover his or her sva-dharma.

f)       Toprevent repetition of some of the worst organized, large scale atrocities inworld history that were committed for the sake of spreading a uniform theology,it is time we respected difference. Please see:



Indian Classical Music and Indian Philosophy

“It would be a great mistake to dwell upon the multiform nature of Hindu philosophy and miss the common theme running through the systems. Indian music is a helpful analogy of Hindu philosophy In classical Indian music, the musicians start with raga, i.e., a melody composed of notes in a specific order and with specific emphases, and a tala, i.e., an organized group of beats on which the rhythm structure is based. Raga corresponds approximately to scale in Western musical theory; tala corresponds to measure. The musicians are challenged to weave a woof consistent with the given melodic and rhythmic pattern.

Whereas a concert of Western music is a re-creation of an original creation, a concert of Indian music is a creation with the framework of the raga and the tala. Raga and tala constitute the invariable; the musicians supply the variable. Indian music thus is a revealing of the pluralities within oneness; it is the manifold manifesting of the Cosmic Oneness. So is Indian philosophy. The primary texts of Hinduism, the Vedas and the Upanishads, supply the raga and the talas. This is the speculative insight that reality is the integration of values.

In Indian music, creativity demands the deliberate variegation of the effects of beauty within raga and tala; variety with structure, freedom from law, liberation within discipline, plurality within unity, many-ness within one, diversity within simplicity, many-foldness within the single, finite within the infinite, relative within the Absolute, the informal within the formal, particularity within universality, unpredictability within predictability, pluralism within monism, variegation within evenenss, creativity within staticity, difference within sameness, change within the unchanging, flux within stability, novelty within the established, movement within the unmoved, alternation within the unalterable, jiva within atman!”

Troy Wilson Organ in The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man.

Quoted by Rajiv Malhotra in the book “Being Different”