History & Culture

Inter-faith Relations Part 4: Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists
Date Uploaded: 
Thursday 1st May 2014

by Zaki Cooper, Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews

One of the features of the 2011 census was the increase in the number of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists in Britain. There are now more Sikhs (423,000) than Jews (263,000) and three times as many Hindus (817,000) as Jews. The Buddhist community, which is more ethnically mixed, numbers 248,000.

There are fundamental difficulties in engaging with these faiths in a theological dialogue. Unlike Judaism, they are not monotheistic, and their theological outlook is completely different. There are also halachic difficulties in entering the Temples of these religions.

However, in a practical way, these communities, with their origins in India, have a lot in common with the Jewish community. For example, they are geographically concentrated and place an onus on the importance of family and education. For this reason, dialogue on non-theological matters can often be fruitful. The 20th century educator Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (d. 1992) wrote about the dichotomy of inter-faith dialogue. On the one hand, there are “improper topics for dialogue” but on the other, “when we move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavours, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential. We are ready to enter into a dialogue on such topics as war and peace, poverty, freedom. . . the threat of secularism, technology... and civil rights”.

It is interesting that, historically, the Jews thrived in India. Although never numbering more than 20,000, the Indian Jewish community contributed significantly to commerce and public service. My grandmother, who hailed from Calcutta, would often say that India was the only country without any anti-Semitism. By its nature, Hinduism can accommodate pluralism of different faiths more easily than most other religions.

Furthermore, under British law, Sikhs and Jews are both defined not only as religions but also as ethnic groups. They also have a strong attachment to a distant land, the Punjab in the case of Sikhs.

Meanwhile, the world’s most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, has professed himself an admirer of Judaism, joking that Jews must be a very holy people because so many of his best followers are Jews! In his book The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamanetz writes about a historic meeting between the Tibetan spiritual leader and a group of American Jews. The Dalai Lama remarked that his people might have something to learn from Jews, whom he labelled “survival experts”.

Notwithstanding the difference in theology, there is often a close kinship between Jews on the one hand, and Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists on the other. In the UK, the Indian Jewish Association provides a formal channel for this relationship. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has also embraced this, initiating a formal dialogue with the Hindu leadership in India in 2007. Pursuing good relations with like-minded citizens from these communities may have certain restrictions under Jewish law, but there is still space to engage within the realm of “darchei shalom” – the paths of peace.