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.


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