Religious Pluralism and the Upaniṣads

Earlier versions of this essay were previously published as Kenneth Rose, “Religious Pluralism and the Upaniṣads” in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies 19:1 (Fall 2010): 23-48 and as chapter five in Kenneth Rose, Pluralism: The Future of Religion (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011). This essay is reprinted with permission of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

  1. Overview

One typical but currently out of favor response (among academics at least) to doctrinal differences separating religions has been to reduce the welter of contrary doctrinal formations to an essential teaching, a kind of ‘superdoctrine,’ such as “All religions are true,” or “All religions point to the Absolute.” But inclusivistic generalizations of this sort inevitably prove unacceptable because of their alienness to adherents of particular bodies of religious teaching. Another response, one favored by many scholars in the field of theology of religions in the last two decades, has been for the defenders of distinctive bodies of religious teaching to retreat into fideistic, inclusivistic, or confessional assertions of the favored tradition and to give up the quest for commonalities between religions. But this usually means surrendering the quest to discover the common intention or intentions that link religions, as well as surrendering the quest to discover a platform that can serve as a common religious defense against antireligious attempts to negate the intellectual basis for religion in general. In contrast to these failed attempts to account not only for the differences between religions but also their similarities, I will attempt in this paper to articulate a theory of non-exclusive apophatic pluralism that avoids both of these dead ends by looking to the Upaniṣads, among the world’s most influential mystical texts, for a solution. Specifically, I will argue that the interplay in the early Upaniṣads (in contrast to the doctrinal exclusivism of the later Vedāntic schools) between affirmative and negative modes of predication with respect to notions like brahman, ātman, and puruṣa provides a model for dealing nonexclusivistically with the particularistic and the pluralistic dimensions of the bodies of religious teaching and practice taught in the world’s many religions.

  1. Clarifications

Before articulating a non-exclusive apophatic pluralism in light of the Upaniṣads, which is the main purpose of this paper, a few terminological comments are in order.


The basic arguments of this paper turn on the ancient but always useful device of distinguishing between positive, or cataphatic, and negative, or apophatic, predication. The terms apophatic and cataphatic are derived from Greek terms that date back at least as far as Aristotle, where they are logical terms that mean “affirmation” and “negation.”1

These technical terms in Western theological and philosophical studies of mysticism and philosophical theology name the two most basic ways of talking about being or the divine. The affirmative approach (cataphasis) approaches the divine through analogy, metaphor, and the attribution of predicates to the divine, while the negative way (apophasis) systematically negates these expressions in order to open the way to an encounter with being or the divine free from the limited constructs generated by language, the mind, and culture. This distinction has been expressed in numerous ways in the West, such as the positive and the negative ways, positive and negative theology, the via eminentiae and the via remotionis, the via negationis (or negativa) and the via affirmativa (or positiva), thesis and aphairesis,2 as well as cataphasis and apophasis, from which the adjectives cataphatic and apophatic are derived. If, in this paper, I use words derived from the Greek apophasis and cataphasis to describe negative and positive predication, this is not out any sense that Western philosophy and theology are superior on this topic to Indian notions of negative and positive predication, but rather to the circumstance that these terms have a long history in Western studies of mysticism. Perhaps, the place of these terms could be complemented by a pair of terms from Indian philosophy, adhyāropa (or adhyāsa) and apavāda, which can be translated as “superimposition,” or “wrong attribution,”3 and “de-superimposition,”  or “wrong attribution.” These terms have similar but not identical functions to cataphasis and apophasis. (One significant difference is that the Greek terms lack the quasi-creative and quasi-destructive force of the Sanskrit pair, which involve adding to and removing from nirguṇa brahman the ultimately false but conventionally real attributes of saguṇa brahman.4) And, at least for now, to speak in English of adhyasic and apavadic modes of predication, which might be good candidates to replace or complement the Greek and Latin terms, seems unduly neologistic. This can change, of course, and such a change when dealing with Indian texts in Western languages, might be preferable to current usage.

The Tripolar Typology: Exclusivism/Inclusivism/Pluralism

Before turning to the Upaniṣads in search of its view of religious pluralism, a few words of clarification about the tripolar typology of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism may be helpful.5 Although the terms of the tripolar typology, which will loom large in this paper, are now familiar and virtually canonical, a few words of definition may still be helpful. Exclusivism may be defined as taking one of the many available bodies of religious teaching as final to the exclusion and even negation of other bodies of religious teaching; inclusivism may be defined as a weaker or minimal expression of exclusivism that takes terminology in the home tradition as the “final vocabulary”6 to interpret all religious phenomena; and pluralism (as a theological and philosophical stance rather than just as the reality of religious diversity) may be defined as the view that the existence of multiple self-consistent and internally plausible final religious vocabularies undercuts claims that a particular body of religious teaching is final, normative, or universally binding.

Against charges that this familiar typology is inadequate, Perry Schmidt-Leukel in a recent essay has provided a plausible and logically precise reinterpretation and reaffirmation of the typology.7 While I agree with his rejections of dubious views like Gavin D’Costa’s claim that “pluralism and inclusivism are subtypes of exclusivism,”8 I think that the typology can still be refined and simplified in the following ways. First, for the sake of brevity, I often include exclusivism and inclusivism under the one term ‘particularism’9, since both can be seen as stronger and weaker versions of the view that one particular body of religious teaching and practice is final and thus exclusively binding on humanity. This leads to a second possible modification: the simplification of the tripolar typology to a binary typology in which particularism is taken as the negation of ‘nonparticularism’ (i.e., pluralism). Thus, exclusivism and inclusivism would be seen as stronger and weaker expressions of particularism, while nonparticularism (or pluralism) would also distinguished into a stronger version that tries to construct a universal religious teaching or practice based on the many available religious traditions and a weaker version that holds that no contextually shaped body of religious teaching can justify a claim that it is final, normative, and universally binding.10

It is not necessary, however, to abandon completely the tripolar typology, since this last suggested simplification can be achieved by viewing each of the categories as located on a spectrum of positions with weaker and stronger versions that resemble the adjacent positions. Strong versions of exclusivism may hold militantly to the falsity of all other views than the favored one, a stance that can easily sponsor activities designed to insult or uproot religious others. Exclusivism can thus move beyond this spectrum of religious views altogether and justify policies of organized violence against religious others. Weaker versions of exclusivism may look for loopholes like divine mercy and grace or rightness of intention as occasions for the practical waiving of the need for belief in the unquestionable truth of the teaching held to be final and without peer. They thus begin to resemble inclusivism. Stronger versions of inclusivism may give a provisional value to other bodes of religious teaching by seeing them as deficient or incomplete expressions of the favored teaching. They thus resemble exclusivism by holding to the finality and normativity of one body of teaching while granting provisional value to religious teachings and practices other than the favored one. Weaker versions of inclusivism may allow that sincerity of intention without explicit acceptance of the peerless teaching or practice is acceptable, a view that resembles pluralism. Stronger versions of pluralism may be based upon attempts at constructing a universal religious teaching or practice, a strategy that resembles inclusivism and appears to be a holdover of the idea that there is one final religious teaching or practice required for all human beings. Weaker versions of pluralism may see the availability of multiple bodies of internally plausible but malleable religious teaching as negating absolute claims for any of them. These weaker versions of pluralism see the existence of multiple self-consistent and comprehensive bodies of religious teachings as necessitating modesty about claims that any one of them is final and binding upon the whole of humanity. This version of inclusivism may move beyond this spectrum of religious views altogether as it begins to resemble secular, historical, literary, and social-scientific approaches to the study of religion.

III. On the Necessity of a Pluralist Theology of Religions

Leading figures in contemporary Christian theology of religions (a sub-branch of comparative theology concerned with the theological implications of religious pluralism) began to move toward pluralism and the rejection of inclusivist and exclusivist theologies of religions under the lead of W. C. Smith, John Hick, Paul Knitter, and Gordon D. Kaufman in the 1970s. Yet, since the middle of the 1980s, leading theologians of religions, with the help of George Lindbeck’s postliberal, regulative theological methodology11, began to retreat from the edge of pluralism toward doctrinally centered inclusivisms. The progress of this reversal can be traced in the rise of revisionist interpretations of John Hick’s paradigm-breaking pluralistic hypothesis12 as itself just another version of particularism (i.e., inclusivism or exclusivism).13 This ironic reversal seemed to neuter Hick’s bold and productive approach and gave cover to the rise of antipluralist theologies of religions (despite the move since the 1970s to the default pluralism that is now taken for granted in progressive, liberal theologies).14

This ironic charge is supposed to end the debate over the soundness of pluralism by showing pluralists to be naive and cognitively imperialistic because they apparently are guilty of the particularism that they reject in others.15

This charge can, however, with equal irony be turned back against the antipluralists, who seem to argue that pluralists are in the business of replacing the teachings of the different religions with a singular, universalistic teaching. Thus, antipluralists claim to know better than pluralists themselves what pluralists believe, which is a sterile outcome that no pluralist would accept.16 This position also generally fails to recognize nuances in pluralist approaches by characterizing pluralism as a whole  as a universalizing monism or nondualism.

Despite the efforts of antipluralists to undermine the legitimacy of the pluralist approach, the circumstances that necessitate a pluralistic approach to the study of the world’s many religions remain unchanged: one is the finite, contextually shaped character of all bodies of religious teaching and practice; another is the incapacity of any body of religious teaching and practice to make a universally persuasive case for itself.17 In other words, no proselytizing religious community is able to persuade the unpersuaded of its own necessity and normativity because it is unavoidably grounded in the nonuniversal and revisable particularities of historically and culturally formed beliefs and practices. This pluralistic claim is not in the first instance a religious or theological claim, though it can—and will in this essay—be put to religious and theological use. It is, rather, a general observation about the nature and fate of religious communities and their teachings and practices, which is that the truth-value of finite cultural expressions, such as religious teachings, are finite and, consequently, revisable. It follows from this general principle that no particularistic view of a religious tradition can make good on its claims. Attempts to persuade or impose a religious tradition on the unpersuaded will inevitably fail.

Exclusivistic rejections of other religions will be negated by the inevitable passing of the exclusivistic religion from the scene as it morphs into or is replaced by its successor, and inclusivistic reinterpretations of other religions will fail to persuade anyone except those willing to be persuaded by these reinterpretations. Inevitably, then, a nonuniversalizing and nonsubstantive pluralistic interpretation of religions must remain as the only final truth in the theology of religions for the simple reason that no religious community can preserve its language against change and decay forever.

This can be borne out by a simple thought experiment: Suppose that an inclusivist theologian of religions returns after a millennium to survey the religious scene. Chances are likely that the ingenious theories that she devised to support the claims of normativity for her religious community will seem implausible in the changed religious and intellectual context of the future. Or it may be that her religion will have changed or morphed into its successor, thus invalidating any sort of particularist claim, inclusivistic or exclusivistic, for her religious community. Just as none of the religions currently practiced by humanity either existed or existed in anything like their current form four thousand years ago, so, should humanity avoid major catastrophe over the next few millennia, the currently dominant religions will either morph into new forms or they will be overtaken by their successors. This insight alone should turn every inclusivist into a pluralist, though it is unlikely to have this effect. In fact, it may result in more determined expressions of inclusivism, but these, as John Hick, has written, will turn out to be “historically short-sighted.”18 Inevitably, with the passage of time, one body of religious knowledge will give place to another, and the process of what I have elsewhere called “departicularization”19 will demonstrate that a pluralistic approach to religious teachings has wider explanatory power than inclusivism or exclusivism.

To the counterargument that might arise at the point that truth is truth despite our inability to articulate a universally persuasive justification for any of the teachings that claim to be the final truth, the answer must be that that is certainly the case. Indeed, it is a truism. But this is a merely formal observation that does not help us know which of the truth-candidates is actually the truth, if any. The circumstance that brilliant arguments can be produced for each of them and that each one has produced saintly followers only strengthens the dilemma of determining which of the truth-candidates is the truth. Thus, as a matter in which neither theory nor practice can help us, a theology of religious pluralism must hold that knowing which of the truth-candidates is the truth (if, indeed, any one of them is) is not necessary to participation in beatitude.20

Thus, the antipluralistic sophistry that pluralism is merely a veiled expression of particularism fails as a criticism of pluralism. It is nothing more than a dodge and holding maneuver without any logical or philosophical substance fails. It cannot stand, since the pressing issues about the ultimate significance of life that are raised by the existence of multiple, competing religious visions cannot be resolved by retreating into exclusivism, inclusivism, confessionalism, fideism, or apologetics.

The resolution of this problem, or at least the next constructive step in that direction, will not come through focusing on nonuniversalizable bodies of malleable teachings because it is impossible to find a common doctrinal foundation for the world’s diverse religions that is not subject to the charge of particularism. This impossibility invalidates from the outset as too narrow any doctrinal approach to religious plurality. Instead of looking for a doctrinal solution, a better approach to the resolution of the problem of diverse ways to beatitude is the cultivation of a non-exclusive openness to all religious possibilities, a stance that, influenced by Arvind Sharma, I call ‘non-exclusive pluralism.’21 This stance can point the way to a new conversation about the many religious visions of humanity, one that neither claims to be the only right way of talking about religious differences nor seeks to reduce the world’s religious diversity to a kind of essentialized superdoctrine about a universal substance.

  1. Hinduism and Religious Pluralism

Given the long experience of the religions of India with the demands of religious pluralism, I will look in this paper to Hinduism, and particularly to the Upaniṣads, for clues on how to proceed toward articulating a non-exclusive pluralism. The principle underlying non-exclusive pluralism is that of a non-exclusive both/and approach rather than an exclusive either/or approach, an approach that includes within pluralism the possibility that either inclusivism or exclusivism may be true and that pluralism may be false, a view brilliantly articulated as the central Hindu view of religious pluralism by Arvind Sharma.22 This stance is found throughout the Upaniṣads, and is broader than the exclusivistic apophaticism that is sometimes thought to be the final stance of these mystical writings.23As expressed in passages like BU 3.8.11, where Yājñavalkya uses a radically apophatic method to indicate through negation the unknowable character of the imperisha

  1. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1.1139a and Metaphysics 4.1107b. The Perseus Digital Library,,kata/fasis and (Accessed September 3, 2010). For an English translation of these terms in Nicomachean Ethics, see Introduction to Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Modern Library, 1947), 425.
  2. Aphairesis is opposed to thesis as negation is opposed to affirmation,” according to the Encyclopedia of Christian Theology, s.v., “Negative Theology” (by Ysabel de Andia), vol. 1., ed. Jean-Yves Lacoste, trans. Antony Levi (New York: Routledge, 2005), 1109. These terms, which are traceable back to Aristotle and Plato, are found throughout The Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius.
  3. Online Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary (2008 revision), (accessed September 26, 2010), s.vv. ”apavāda,” “adhyāropa”; Vedānta-Sāra 2.32 and 4.1. The two terms are defined as the “method or theory of prior superimposition and subsequent denial,” according to John Grimes in A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), s.v. “Adhyāropāpavāda.”
  4. See Eliot Deutsch, Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawai’i, 1969), 33, 41-42.
  5. The categories of the now canonical tripolar typology can be traced back to Alan Race’s Christians and Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982). The validity of the typology has recently been compellingly reasserted by Perry Schmidt-Leukel in “Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism: The Tripolar Typology—Clarified and Reaffirmed,” in The Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration, ed. Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 13-27.
  6. An evocative phrase used by Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 68 et passim.
  7. Despite his defense of the tripolar typology, Schmidt-Leukel quietly added one category to the typology: Atheism/Naturalism (19).
  8. Gavin D’Costa,  “The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions,” Religious Studies 32 (1996): 225 (quoted in Schmidt-Leukel, “Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism,” 19).
  9. Kenneth Rose, “Doctrine and Tolerance in Theology of Religions: On Avoiding Exclusivist Hegemonism and Pluralist Reductionism,” The Scottish Journal of Religious Studies 17:2 (Autumn 1996): 119; “Keith Ward’s Exceptionalist Theology of Revelations,” New Blackfriars 79 (April 1998): 171.
  10. A position that I have called “modest pluralism” in “Toward an Apophatic Pluralism: Beyond Confessionalism, Epicyclism, and Inclusivism in Theology of Religions,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, forthcoming in 2011.
  11. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), 46-69.
  12. Hick’s most detailed exposition of his position is in An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 233-296 (especially 239-240, 244-245, 249). He has continued to refine this philosophical hypothesis over the years in light of continual and intense criticism. See, in particular, “The Possibility of Religious Pluralism: A Reply to Gavin D’Costa,” Religious Studies 33:2 (June 1997): 161—166; “The Next Step Beyond Dialogue in Paul Knitter, ed. The Myth of Religious Superiority (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005) 3-12; “Exclusivism versus Pluralism in Religion: A Response to Kevin Meeker,” Religious Studies 42 (2006), 207–208; “A Brief Response to Aimee Upjohn Light,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44:4 (2009): 691; and personal correspondence with the author.
  13. Gavin D’Costa appears to have pioneered the claim that pluralists are anonymous exclusivists in “The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions,” Religious Studies 32:2 (June 1996): 223-232; see also Gavin D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 3, 19-20, 22, and Gavin D’Costa, Christianity and World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 10-12, 18. In this muscular reversion to inclusivism, he has been seconded by S. Mark Heim in Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 29-30, and The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 17. More recently, Aimee Upjohn Light has taken up the antipluralist criticism of Hick in “Harris, Hick, and the Demise of the Pluralistic Hypothesis,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44:3 (Summer 2009), 467-470. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2010).
  14. The rightward turn in theology of religions has happened even though most progressive theologians working outside the subfield of theology of religions accept pluralism as a matter of course, even as axiomatic. Thus Peter C. Hodgson rejects postliberal theologies of Christian inclusivism and, in the spirit a radical liberal theology “committed to religious pluralism,” declares that “[n]ow is the time to acknowledge that [claims about Christ as the only source of salvation for all humanity] are incompatible with a genuinely comparative theology, . . .” Peter C. Hodgson, Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 88, 89.

  15. The increasingly common rejection by postmodernist particularists of pluralist approaches like Hick’s as a form of the “liberal universalism” that grounds twentieth-century comparative religion and the older comparative theology is expressed, for example, in Reid. B Locklin and Hugh Nicholson, “The Return of Comparative Theology,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78:2 (June 2010): 480, 482.
  16. I argue this view at greater length in “Toward an Apophatic Pluralism,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, forthcoming in 2011.
  17. I have made a similar argument in “Toward an Apophatic Pluralism,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, forthcoming in 2011.
  18. See Hick’s response to my analysis of his position (Kenneth Rose, Knowing the Real: John Hick on the Cognitivity of Religions and Religious Pluralism [New York: Peter Lang, 1996]) in An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), xxxix.
  19. Kenneth Rose, “Interspirituality and Unsaying: Apophatic Strategies for Departicularizing Christ and the Church in Current Roman Catholic Mystical Movements,” posted at AAR Mysticism: The Mysticism Group of the American Academy of Religion, (accessed September 26, 2010); posted at The Edinburg Institute for Advanced Living, (accessed September 26, 2010); and “’Interspirituality’: When Interfaith Dialogue is but a Disguised Monologue.” Hinduism Today (October 2007), 54.
  20. This word, which is admittedly Western in origin, is useful because it largely uncolored by sectarian usage, allowing it to serve as a generic term for mokṣa, kaivalya, kevala, mukti, kevala, sōtērion, salus, nirvāṇa, nibbāna, salvation, liberation, enlightenment, etc.
  21. Arvind Sharma, “Can There Be More than One Kind of Pluralism?” in Knitter, The Myth of Religious Superiority, 59-60.
  22. Sharma, “Can There Be More than One Kind of Pluralism?” 60.