It’s not hard for us irreligious types to see the point of something like fundamentalist Islam (or fundamentalist anything, I guess) — a faith that insists it is the only true faith, and regards doubters with hatred, scorn, or pity. It’s much harder to see the point of this mushy it’s-all-the-same-thing-really ecumenism. Why bother to master a lot of complicated rituals, and affirm a lot of complicated doctrines, if some other set of rituals and doctrines is just as good? ~John Derbyshire
I tend to have the same problem understanding this sort of ecumenism, but then I assume that it really matters what theological doctrines you hold, which I have to remind myself repeatedly is not how a great many people approach religious life at all. Indeed, I would guess that religions that are focused most heavily on ritual are religions that do not seem to put, at least from the perspective of the everyday experience of the average believer, great emphasis on doctrine. Converts to Orthodoxy, in my experience, tend be rather fixated on doctrine (as some might say that I am) and have a much harder time with all the details of orthopraxy. You should understand that the distinction between the doctrine and praxis is essentially theoretical, in the same way that theology properly understood is first and foremost prayer. Of course, these religions may have teaching authorities or scriptures that are held to be authoritative and doctrinal definitions that are binding, but it is through the rites and customary practices that most believers would experience their religion. The question of superiority of one cultic practice to another would be almost beside the point: these are the rites of your family or your village or your people, and these are the rites you are obliged to keep. This logic can work one of two ways, depending on the circumstances: it can cause extreme hostility to conversion and proselytes (the anti-Christian violence in Orissa recently stems partly from opposition to Christian missionary work among Dalits) because it is upsetting the existing order, or it can mean that there is no particular rationale or argument for doing things a certain way or believing a certain doctrine. Which response you get will probably depend heavily on the surrounding society. In the case in question, Bobby Jindal’s conversion to Catholicism was less likely to cause tremendous problems with his community in Catholic Louisiana and would not be a cause for many problems in some parts of India, while it might very well have been a cause of tension where Christians are in the minority or are perceived, as they are in Orissa, of challenging or interfering in the caste system.
In Hinduism, from what I do understand, it is not usually a question of finding the optimal teaching or the best rite, but of fulfilling your duty. Hinduism, which is outsider’s shorthand for a bewildering array of religious groups and practices, has everything from the philosophical discourses of Vedanta to the ban on harming monkeys because they are sacred to Hanuman (which has combined with deforestation to create a massive influx of monkeys into major metropolitan areas, much to the frustration of the inhabitants). Some Vaishnavites have gone to far as to recognise Gautama Buddha and Christ as other incarnations of Vishnu, which at first seems like an ecumenical move and then you see that it is an appropriating and competitive one. It is because of the great variety of cults and sects within what we call Hinduism that henotheism and panentheism become very attractive explanations, which can then be extended to other world religions. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fierce sectarians and fanatics within this mix, as there are obviously are (Hindutva doesn’t come from nowhere), but even with a phenomenon such as Hindutva you see “Hinduness” being defined in opposition to non-Hindus, which tends to minimise or efface the differences among Hindus to a certain extent.