The Struggles Of World Religions: How Tolerance Became A Virtue

The Struggles Of World Religions: How Tolerance Became A VirtueThe cover of Professor Arvind Sharma's 'Religious Tolerance: A History'.
  • The book provides an overarching framework of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.

    It is a must-read for everyone who engages in civilisational and inter-religious dialogue.

Today everyone talks about religious tolerance. It is a virtue. Of course, it has been pointed out that one can go beyond tolerance and go towards acceptance.

Yet religious tolerance is a basic common virtue demanded in a civilised society of any religious group.

Every religion today wants to show itself as tolerant. But this has not always been so. Every major religion in the world has struggled internally and with other religions to come to the point where tolerance has become a virtue.

Prof Arvind Sharma
Prof Arvind Sharma

Professor Arvind Sharma, a lifetime scholar of comparative religions with a strong inhouse knowledge of Dharmic religions, has come with a history of religious tolerance as it evolved in every major world religion in his book ‘Religious Tolerance: A History’ (Harper Collins, 2019).

He has explored three families of religions: Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) , Dharmic (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh) and Sino-Japanese (Confucianism, Daoism and Shintoism).

He has exhaustively gone through the history of each of these religions. It is not all a feel-good analysis the book presents. It brings out the hard path each religion has walked because of inherent human tendencies to alternate between liberal tolerance as well as orthodoxy and fundamentalism.

This is a fascinating and a challenging book, particularly if one has set notions on the subject.

This is an intense book that challenges various set notions one may have about the ‘other’ religions.

Right at the beginning of the book the reader is introduced to three crucial terms which inevitably have to surface along with the term ‘religious tolerance’ — exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.

Historically, these terms "came into play once the Christian world began to come in closer contact with the rest of the world after the rise of the West in post-Columbian era and Christian thinkers tried to define relationship of Christianity to the other religions of the world" (Page 8).

Western academic studies of religions naturally predicated dominantly on Christian colonial and post-colonial experiences, which have moved beyond the boundaries of Christianity in application of this ‘triptych’ and into world religions.

It is quite interesting that the author uses the term ‘triptych’ as it is a term closely associated with Christian altar art framework.

Expulsion of Adam and Eve: [Left] from Jewish Encyclopaedia [Right] 15th century Christian renaissance depiction (Masaccio)
Expulsion of Adam and Eve: [Left] from Jewish Encyclopaedia [Right] 15th century Christian renaissance depiction (Masaccio)

Starting with Abrahamic trio, Judaism comes first. Prof Sharma points out that the banishing of Adam and Eve from Garden of Eden does not involve an interpretation that "posits a relationship between sexuality, death, sin and Satan":

Indeed, the Jewish interpretation seems more conducive to religious tolerance, than does the Christian; the more depraved our conception of human nature, the less likely we are to grant it religious latitude.
(Page 17)

The book discusses the evolution of Judaism with emphasis on the Rabbinic phase, the conceptualisation of relationship of Jews to the non-Jewish ‘idol-worship and polytheism’.

Rabbi Johanan (second century) speaks of non-Jews approaching G_d of the Jews through the signs of nature while Jews through revelation given to them, a view that "in effect made pagans polytheists in practice but monotheists in theory" (Page 19).

This is just a glimpse of how detailed the study of tolerance in each religious tradition has been made in the book.

Kabbalistic imagery of tree of life: [left] tradition [right] a modern ‘new age’ rendering with Yogic chakras superimposed on it
Kabbalistic imagery of tree of life: [left] tradition [right] a modern ‘new age’ rendering with Yogic chakras superimposed on it

The section on Judaism shows how Kabbalism facilitated acceptance of the validity of other religious experiences but without compromising the principles of Judaism. He also points out that the popular Kabbalistic imagery of tree of life.

The author explains how the Kabbalistic notions of emanations and attempt made to ‘reconcile‘ these with Biblical doctrine of creation led to developments which allowed Judaism to view Christian Trinity as ‘channels for approaching one eternal God’. (Page 41)

Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204); Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677); Martin Buber (1878-1965) : Some of the Jewish  philosophers, mystics dealt in the book
Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204); Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677); Martin Buber (1878-1965) : Some of the Jewish  philosophers, mystics dealt in the book

Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was of course a major phenomenon in any discussion of religious tolerance and pluralism.

As the author rightly points out Spinoza "is an important landmark in the development of religious tolerance both within Judaism and in its relation to other religions and cultures" (Page 48).

He further notes that unlike the in ‘biblical and Rabbinic Judaism’ for Spinoza "God was not a transcendent but an immanent reality" (Page 48).

The author through a quote (Cohn-Sherbok) conveys that "his pantheistic ideas implicitly presuppose a form of religious Pluralism". Is this pantheistic as the Western categorisation suggests? Actually in the earlier pages on Kabbalistic concept of divine emanations (sefirot), we read:

These sefirot... although individuated... are in a state of unity with Ayn Sof at the moment of creation. All these are thus considered emanations from the deity and the deity considered immanent in them.
(Page 40)

It would have been quite interesting to see if in Spinoza we find Kabbalistic threads as deep inspiration.

Destruction of Jerusalem Temple, Spanish Inquisition expulsion, Nazi Holocaust: three traumatic events that shaped Jewish historical experience 
Destruction of Jerusalem Temple, Spanish Inquisition expulsion, Nazi Holocaust: three traumatic events that shaped Jewish historical experience 

Spanish Inquisition is another historical event that shaped Jewish responses to religious tolerance but it is dwarfed by Holocaust.

Holocaust is an important traumatic event for humanity at large but it also has serious religious implications for believing Jews.

Going through the Holocaust as a Jew and because one was a Jew has left its mark permanently in the spiritual heritage of Judaism almost as any major biblical event.

The book deals the way Jewish philosophers and Rabbis dealt with this and its implications for religious tolerance. The sheer diversity in Jewish response to Holocaust is a testimony to the ability of the infinite to burst forth spontaneously into myriad blooms even through the darkest experience.

Particularly interesting is the response of Arthur Cohen whose response was built on the ‘experience of tremendum’ (Page 74). Prof Sharma writes:

It is interesting that Kabbalistic notions, developed after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, were being drawn upon to make sense of modern day events.
(Page 75)

More often than not we tend to view Judaism through the lens of Christianity. This blinds us to the inner riches and complexities of Judaism.

The entire section on Judaism should be made a must read for Hindus who enter into a dialogue with Jews for inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues.

With respect to Christianity, internal and external tolerance are studied in terms of heresy and tolerance respectively (Page 85). There is a lot of interesting scholarly historical data that illuminate the evolution of these two aspects of tolerance.

St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas

For example, how heresy moved from being a neutral term in pagan world to sin and then a crime to be persecuted and punished with as Christianity assumed state power:

Heresy apparently was a neutral term outside the New Testament in its Greek (Hairesis) and Roman (Haeresis) incarnation. In Greek it signified ’choice’ and could mean both the opinions and the philosophical schools or sects professing them. It retained this meaning in Latin. In the New Testament however it acquires a pejorative connotation, as when it is listed in Galatians (5:20) ‘as one of the works of flesh’, along with idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, sedition and so on. … Thus ‘the New Testament authors tended to conceive of heresy … as the fomenting of divisions and sects among Christians through the propagation of false and evil opinions.’ … the New Testament never enjoins coercion in dealing with heresy; it recommends admonition and rejection if necessary, perhaps involving expulsion, but not coercion. … The position of Christianity vis-à-vis other religions underwent a sea change in the fourth century, which marked a decisive transformation both in the position of the Church and its attitude to heresy. This great change - Christianity becoming the official religion of Rome - meant that heresy could now result in persecution and ‘… the first execution for heresy in the history of the Church was that of the Spanish bishop, Priscillian and his six followers ion 385 CE by Maximus co-emperor of western part of the empire.
(Pages 90-91)

Later we learn that Thomas Aquinas would take it even harsher and he required that the heretics to Church doctrine "not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication but also to be shut off from the world by death" (Page 102).

The book also contrasts between the Jewish aversion to and Christian intolerance of ‘idolatry’:

‘Christianity considered idolatry more ubiquitous and the pagan gods demonic. Thus one could say that the Christian identity was formulated in contrast to Jewish identity, exclusively in religious, and not ethnic terms.’
(Page 96)

But the spirit of inclusivism was faintly visible even during the dark ages according to the author and he gives the example of Nicolas of Cusa (1401-64).

He hoped to achieve religious peace "by showing the to Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others that their religions either presuppose or implicitly contain the truth of all the essential doctrines of Christianity" (Page 108).

There are two doctrinal points which can be derived from such a stand points out Prof Sharma: one is non-dilution of core Christian dogma and second is acceptance that the Christian core being compatible with many kinds of rites.

This, Sharma says, is important in the context of religious tolerance.

[Left] Nicolas of Cusa  [Right] Martin Luther 
[Left] Nicolas of Cusa  [Right] Martin Luther 

Then as the reader goes through the period of European ‘enlightenment’ phase, the secularisation of Christendom, the Protestant rebellion and colonisation, she gets an overall understanding of many dimensions of the dialogue Christianity had with the process of secularism and also in managing the differences within its own boundaries, colonial expansion of the West and the missionary activities in the colonized societies and so on.

Prof Sharma concludes:

In Christianity then given its urge to reach out, the praxis has always tended to run ahead of theory. This tendency endows Christianity with unforeseen powers for contributing positively to the discourse and practice of religious tolerance.
(Page 163)

Next comes Islam.

There is a surprising statement from Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, where the differences of opinion in his community he accepts as the manifestation of divine mercy — a mark of internal or in-group tolerance.

While there have been intense differences between various schools of Islamic theology, they rarely became violent conflicts.

As a prologue to the discussion of tolerance in Islamic tradition, the book offers an archeological discovery wherein an excavated shrine for Virgin Mary shows ‘a mihrab’ or a prayer niche pointing to Mecca and a mosaic containing three palm trees related to the Islamic tradition of Mary seeking shelter under a palm tree.

The place known as ‘Kathisma of the Virgin’ or the place where the pregnant Mary on her way to Bethlehem is believed to have rested on a stone, became a sacred place where Muslims and Christians were praying together in their own way (Page 166).

Kathisma - Church of the resting rock of Virgin Mary: Shows Muslim prayer room: palms depiction is in accordance with Islamic tradition of Mary resting under palm trees.
Kathisma - Church of the resting rock of Virgin Mary: Shows Muslim prayer room: palms depiction is in accordance with Islamic tradition of Mary resting under palm trees.

With respect to Al Aqsa mosque built on the site of the Temple in Jerusalem the book presents the Islamic point of view: the overtaking of "the ascendancy of Islam over Christianity" and that Umayyad authorities allowing the Jews to light lamps in the Al Aqsa mosque but also point out that despite such gestures the very same people were also aware of ‘the Quranic verses that Muslim extremists now use to justify intolerant attitudes towards other religions’ (Page 168).

Al-Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem : quite a few riots in India have happened with rumours of its destruction
Al-Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem : quite a few riots in India have happened with rumours of its destruction

There is also a detailed discussion on the religious tolerance that were intermittently practised by Muslim rulers in India as well.

For example, Zayn ak-Abidin who ruled Kashmir from 1420 to 1470 embraced religious tolerance by calling back the expelled Brahmins and even made Brahmins undertake an oath that they would act in accordance with Hindu sastras etc (Page 172).

The pages on Akbar make quite an interesting reading. The author seeks to find a Quranic source for the stand of Akbar in allowing the return to their ancestral religion of Hindus who were forcefully converted to Islam.

On the authority of historian Aziz Ahmad, Prof Sharma traces it to "let there be no compulsions in religion".

However, a study of Akbar’s own life through the primary sources reveals more a humanising Indian influence than Quran.

Mughal emperor Akbar’s royal court
Mughal emperor Akbar’s royal court

There are certain historical facts which are contrary to the images we have today.

For example, the Jews and Christians who faced denominational persecution often found Ottoman Sultanate a better place of tolerance and sought refugee there from Christendom. Is it because Quran "has a more tolerant approach to previous monotheistic religions … in comparison to other faiths?"

As the author himself has approvingly pointed out earlier quoting Dr Vincent Cornell, a scholar of Islamic Studies: "The idea that either the ‘problem’ or the ‘solution’ of a particular faith may be found primarily in its scripture is not a historical proposition" (Page 168).

As one goes through the section on Islam, one finds with equal academic rigour also a scholarly eagerness to break the current stereotypes of Islam.

Whether it is jizya or death penalty to apostasy or Jihad the author tries to explain the historic context and then an explanation given by a modern scholar.

So jizya should be seen as a historic development of protection-taxes on alien groups levied by Arabs. Khaled Abou El Fadl at the University of California is quoted saying that "if the Muslim state was incapable of extending such protection to non-Muslims, it was not supposed to levy a poll tax" (Page 234).

One wonders how this statement would be taken by a Hindu whose historic experience of jizya was that it was a humiliation he had to endure and also an economic burden.

It also begs the question why then liberal Muslim ruler like Akbar removed such a "poll tax collected by Muslim polity … in return for the protection of the Muslim state"?

Now the book comes to Indic religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

With respect to Hinduism the author starts with Vedic period and follows the typical conventional Indological model: Harappan as pre-Vedic Harappan and then Vedic to Upanishadic (1500 to 400 BCE).

He finds "the three attitudes of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism already on display in the earliest stratum of the Vedas, the Mantras or Samhita portion" (Page 248).

He gets into the binary of Aryans and the Dasyus as based on religious differences on the authority of Dr B R Ambedkar. This is highly debatable to say the least. The Vedic attitude towards the non-Vedic tribes even is reminiscent of "the early Israelites when they entered Canaan and exterminated the tribes there…" (Page 249)

Though acquitted honourably by archeology regarding ‘massacre at Mohenjo-Daro’ still Indra faces the prejudices caused by invasionist schools.
Though acquitted honourably by archeology regarding ‘massacre at Mohenjo-Daro’ still Indra faces the prejudices caused by invasionist schools.

This is typical invasionist scenario by another name, without mentioning the invasion.

The problem is that the Dasyus look more like in-group deviants than a separate ethnic or religious group. They are not said to perform different set of rituals or worship different gods. Rather they are said to not perform the Vedic rituals.

Given the metamorphic nature of terms like Yajna there is a strong possibility that the reference may not be to actual religious difference but to a universally anti-social behaviour like relinquishing of one’s duties, unethical selfish behaviour etc.

It may be that the enemies of the hymn-makers were labelled so. But there is no way to make that into an ethnic or religious difference.

This Vedic Statement harmonizes theo-diversity in a profound way.
This Vedic Statement harmonizes theo-diversity in a profound way.

Then he comes to the famous "the Truth is one and wise call it by many names" (Rg Veda 1.164.46) as the response "paradigmatic for much of Hinduism".

In between, there is a claim that in terms of Saiva Siddhanta "Saivism is claimed of as an independent religion, and not as part or any sect of any larger entity which might be called Hinduism" (Page 260).

In this, he actually quotes another scholar of Hinduism Richard Davis. But again this is dangerously misleading.

Thiru Gnana Sambandar : Chozha bronze
Thiru Gnana Sambandar : Chozha bronze

Thiru Gnana Sambandar (7th century CE), the foremost of Saivaite Tamil mystic seers, clearly places Saivism as a ghat by the Vedic stream.

While due to Aryan-Dravidian narrative of colonial times some Saivaites did speak of Saivism being a non-Aryan non-Hindu separate religion, even pathetically trying to morph it into a form more like Protestant Christianity, traditional Saivaite Adheenams have always identified Saivism as part and parcel of Hindu Sanatana Dharma.

Saiva Siddhanta places religions in concentric circles — calling those religions which do not accept Vedas as authority as outer and those which accept Vedas but not Shiva as the principal and primal deity as inner-outer and those which accept Vedas and Agamas and also Shiva as the principal and primal deity as inner religions.

As one goes through the development of Hinduism as seen through the framework of author which is "exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism", we also find the author deal with the famous verse one finds in many medieval (twelfth-thirteenth century) Hindu temple inscriptions:

‘He whom the Saivas worship as Siva; the Vedantins as the Absolute (Brahman); the Buddhists as Lord Buddha; the logicians, great demonstrators, as the Creator; those following the teachings of Jaina as the Arhat and the ritualists as Sacrifice, may that Hari the Lord of all the three worlds, give us the desired fruit.’

Prof Sharma adds:

Hanuman Nataka or Mahanataka where the verse was found and Belur Chennakesava temple where it was inscribed.
Hanuman Nataka or Mahanataka where the verse was found and Belur Chennakesava temple where it was inscribed.
It has been proposed, in modern times, that another line be added to this invocation as follows … that is to say whom the socially active Christians call Christ, and the Muslims Allah.’ This would have the effect of making the invocation even more comprehensive in its eclectic embrace, as it would also bring Christianity and Islam within its catholic reach.
(Page 264)

Pointing out that the original verse comes from eleventh century Mahanataka and was attributed to Hanuman, he moves to the verse from Sivamanhimnastava, which became quite famous with its recitation by Swami Vivekananda in the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

The text though should have been older comes from an inscription dated 1063 CE on the banks of the river Narmada.

As we move into the post-Islamist invasions phase, we do find the obligatory quote from Al-Biruni. But Prof Sharma provides also the passages from the quotes which usually get left out by the progressives.

Hindus differ among themselves as to which of these castes is capable of attaining liberation: for, according to some, only the Brahmana and Kshatriya are capable of it, since the others cannot learn the Veda, whilst according to the Hindu philosophers, liberation is common to all castes and to the whole human race, if their intention of obtaining it is perfect. This view is based on the saying of Vyasa: ‘Learn to know the twenty-five things thoroughly. Then you may follow whatever religion you like; you will no doubt be liberated.

The author then goes on to give quite a lot of long passages from the observations of many foreigners that attest to the fact that "such soteriological pluralism did manifest itself in religious tolerance in public life" during the medieval period (Page 271).

Quite interesting is the take on Dara Shukoh. Here it should be noted that while Shukoh is mentioned in the chapter on tolerance in Islamic tradition, it is under Hinduism that he is discussed elaborately.

Sharma considers that for Shukoh both Upanishads and Quran emanated from the ‘Mother Book’ (umm al-kitab), which he considers is a "more pluralistic orientation" (Page 276).

Here he differs from Aziz Ahmad who states that Shukoh considered Upanishads as the Mother Book. But a deeper look into the worldview of Dara Shukoh gels more with the stand of Aziz Ahmad than Prof Sharma.

Dara  Shukoh
Dara  Shukoh

Prof Sharma also brings the focus on Sri Vaishnavism of Sri Ramanuja.

Here he sees a "movement towards pluralism within Hinduism" with the focus being the question of the kind of relation between the Sanskritic Vedas and the sacred body of devotional literature mainly in Tamil.

He sees Sri Ramanuja’s tradition emanating from dealing with this question.

So, Sri Ramanuja according to him "evolved a new option tat of placing the two bodies of literature on par and thus displayed a truly pluralistic response" (Pages 277-278).

The reality is a bit different and may actually shed more light on the approach to pluralism in Hindu tradition. The acceptance of diversity in manifestation of the divine is a Vedic vision that has also been present in what can be considered as proto-Bhakti literature of Tamil Sangam period. In Paripadal we find the lines about the nature of Vishnu:

In the Banyan and the Kadamba trees
In the lonely islets middle of streams
In the windless solitary mountain peaks
With very differing names in each of these places You abide
And worship everywhere reaches only You.

A similar acceptance of theo-diversity as the manifestation of Vishnu or the Ishta-Devata of the devotee is seen in the hymn of Nammazhwar:

Each through what each one knows
Shall worship one’s own (preferred) Deity
To Each, each one’s Deity is devoid of any deficiency
Each shall attain what each by being steadfast in each own tradition

Nammazhwar is called in Sri Vaishnava tradition as ‘the one who made Vedas into Tamizh’.

So, the understanding displayed here is not the literal translation of the Vedas but the Vedic worldview and value system at the heart of which shines the understanding of diversity as the manifestation of an underlying divine unity.

Tradition in Tamizh right from Sangham age to Aazhwar hymns show a remarkable consistency with Vedic harmonizing of theo-diversity.
Tradition in Tamizh right from Sangham age to Aazhwar hymns show a remarkable consistency with Vedic harmonizing of theo-diversity.

Moving into modern period (1800 to the present) the book deals with Hindu encounter with colonial Christianity and modernity through the same framework of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.

Definitely the interaction of Hinduism with modern age is a strong point of the author and he is able to put a lot of things in perspective.

He points out for example even Swami Dayananda of Arya Samaj who formulated exclusivist response to Christianity in terms of Shuddhi was also in favour of a moral universalism and pleaded for "harmony among religions".

The author makes a crucial difference between Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda:

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda 
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda 

If the teachings of Ramakrishna may be reduced to the motto "individual preference but no exclusion", the teachings of his disciple Vivekananda may be reduced to the motto "Advaitic preference but no exclusion".

In other words, in the context of modern Hinduism, the attitude of Ramakrishna may be described as pluralistic while that of Vivekananda may be described as inclusivistic.

This kind of classification is problematic. There are instances where Sri Ramakrishna could be categorically considered as ‘exclusivist’ — for example when he heard about the over emphasis on sin by Christian theology.

This happened after his ‘Christ’ experience — when he was immersed in bliss after seeing the picture of baby Christ held by Madonna.

Similarly, Vivekananda too spoke high of the spiritual qualities of Jesus but was against proselytising Christianity.

With his classic statement of "Hindu becoming a better Hindu and Christian becoming a better Christian" etc, the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda can be source of textbook definition of pluralism.

At the same time Gandhi’s signature Bhajan line ‘Iswar Allah Tere Nam’ can be taken as classic example of inclusivism rather than pluralism.

Then he also comes to Hindutva.

Despite strong differences Veer Savarkar and Mahatma Gandhi agreed on core civilizational issues 
Despite strong differences Veer Savarkar and Mahatma Gandhi agreed on core civilizational issues 

The author distinguishes between the Hindutva of Savarkar and Gandhi’s Hinduism. Here also there is a problem.

Hindutva of Savarkar and Gandhi’s concept of Indian nation actually share a few basics like the oneness of Indian nation through cultural and spiritual core.

Their methodology differed completely though again in matters like preventing conversion, abolition of untouchability and Hindu nature of tribal communities both Gandhi and Savarkar did not differ.

In fact, with Savarkar accepting the separate nationhood of pan-Islamism as against Indian nation predicated on Hindu values (for both Savarkar and Gandhi) and Gandhi rejecting it, Savarkar could be arguably pluralistic and Gandhi tends to be an ‘inclusivist’.

The book then moves on to Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

The Struggles Of World Religions: How Tolerance Became A Virtue

In the case of Buddhism, he explains how Buddhism has been both a religion of tolerance and also simultaneously a missionary religion.

He also points out emergence of some exclusivist tendencies in Sri Lankan Buddhism particularly with respect to Christianity.

However, it would have been even more comprehensive had the author included Pope John Paul’s criticism of Buddhism and ‘Eastern’ meditative practices in his best seller ‘Crossing the threshold of faith’ (1994).

Quite relevant to the current book under review is the rejoinder to this papal criticism written by Hindutva thinker Ram Swarup titled "Pope John Paul II on Eastern Religions and Yoga: A Hindu Buddhist Rejoinder" (1995).

In the case of Jainism, the Syadvada and Saptabangi with its underlying ‘avyakta’ creates quite an inherently tolerant spiritual system. Being mostly a minority spiritual path the Jain monks have always assisted by the royal patronage. They also actively sought it.

A separate Jain temple could be found even in the predominantly Vedic-Saivaite-Vaishnavaite Vijayanagara temple.

Yet Prof Sharma points out there is at least one Jain monk who actually wanted the monarch to take an agnostic neutral stand and to take a stand of equal patronage to all religious traditions — stand "remarkably like the relationship between the state and the religious communities outlined in Indian Constitution" (Page 377).

The section on Sikhism has very interesting details. Describing in detail the lives of the gurus including the supreme sacrifices Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Govind Singh did for religious freedom, we move to how Khalsa rule was in practice.

Usually a religion persecuted while it had no state patronage when it comes to power, it becomes the persecutor of its religious rivals.

One sees this in the history of both Christianity and Islam. But Sikhism is markedly different. He explains how non-sectarian and secular Maharaja Ranjit Singh was.

After Maharaja Ranjit Singh captured Afghanistan "the colours were carried by a Muslim colonel in the victory parade in Kabul".

Then writes the author: "It should be added, however that he forbade the slaughter of kine and the sale of beef in Afghanistan after the conquest, in keeping with Hindu and Sikh sensitivities about the sanctity of the cow" (Page 397).

In conclusion, he points out that the environment in which Sikh Panth arose — an environment ripe with "theological exclusivism on the one hand and social exlusivism on the other" — shows how a movement for pluralism can arise from such a milieu.

So in such a tradition too 'exclusivistic tendencies' might start developing "when such pluralism has to contend with the friction generated by the intersection of politics and religion" Page 399).

The Struggles Of World Religions: How Tolerance Became A Virtue
Temples of Confucianism, Daoism and Shintoism

The third group of religions consists of Confucianism, Daoism and Shintoism.

Hindus will find relevant the way both Daoism and Shintoism have reacted to the encounter with proselytising religions.

For example, Japan had no concept of ‘religion’ in the Western sense of the term. The Japanese had to resurrect the term Shukyo for translating the Western term 'religion'.

Then Buddhism and Christianity came under this term "but the Meiji government insisted that Shinto was a national teaching not on par with but above Shukyo" (Page 476).

Coming to the nineteen century Meiji persecution of Buddhists and earlier persecution of Christian converts, Prof Sharma says that these "counter examples in religious tolerance in Japan" were "both reactions... ultimately provoked by... Christian proselytization in one case and imperial gun boat diplomacy in the other" (Page 477).

Here, Prof Sharma touches a very subtle but very important and a more vitally relevant point to India:

One wonders to what extent the opposition to Christianity was based on the fact that when one converts to Christianity one does not merely convert to another religion but to another concept of religion itself, namely exclusive religious adherence, which runs contrary to the Japanese religious ethos at that time.

One wonders if similar feelings were felt by Dr Ambedkar also when he stated that a person from scheduled community converts to Christianity or Islam, he gets 'denationalised' and his imagery of getting converted to Buddhism as moving from one room to another in the same house while moving from Hinduism to Christianity was like moving to another house altogether.

What emerges from this section is an imagery how fluid religious identities with porous boundaries often became tributaries and distributaries in national life of China and Japan with various social factors including the political and economic playing their own roles:

Thus Confucianism is responsible for ‘the laws and institutions which are forever to be relied upon’ while Buddhism and Daoism ‘invisibly assist the network of gods and spirits, benefit the world and banish the suffering.’
(Page 483)

The author cites the work of Tominaga Nakamoto an eighteenth century Japanese scholar (son of a wealthy merchant) to show "the way in tandem with other elements".

Nakamoto says: "I am not a follower of Confucianism, nor of Dao, nor of Buddha. I watch the words and deeds from the side and privately debate them (Page 484).

As we move towards the end of the book, the author distils this monumental survey spanning 495 pages into three important insights:

  • The first is the moving away from the mechanistic cartesian secularism of the dry separation of 'state' and religion and move towards a more organic position by consciously promoting the study of world religious traditions in such a way as to make the individual realise the inclusivist and pluralist dimensions of the world religions are brought into focus.

  • The second insight pertains more to Abrahamic religions. This is in this reviewer's point of view problematic. He states that while our liberal impulses move us towards pluralist options, the inclusivist options should also be fully kept open. In the inclusivist options he includes what he calls 'supercessionist claims'. This can be actually dangerous as personally this reviewer knows the kind of propaganda strategies, proselytisers forge and launch against Hinduism through supercessionist claims. Here one should also point out that Hindu inclusivism which has no 'supercessionist claims' and when the belief in the possibilities of rebirth seasons Hindu inclusivism then the latter becomes almost indistinguishable from pluralism.

  • The third and the final insight is the Western category of religion and the limitation in applying it so forcefully and compulsively on non-Western spiritual traditions. He points out that this has resulted in an abridgment of 'religious freedom' as this idea is understood in these cultures, namely, as the freedom to align oneself with more than one religious tradition without any sense of contradiction (Page 495). Perhaps, to understand this point we may go back to a particular observation the author makes with respect to the situation of Sikh panth in India: "The British insisted on maintaining the distinct entity of Khalsa in their recruitment and this helped crystallize Sikh identity as distinct from the Hindu" (Page 398). From this initial point stochastic chains historic events powered by politics, sectarianism and fundamentalism, would ultimately create enormous human misery and the most shameful event in post-Independent Indian history — the 1984 Sikh holocaust. The fluid nature of identity between Hindus and Sikhs would be insisted upon in a big way without the former swallowing the later to get over this tragic phase of history.

This long review of this book is needed because this is an important book. It is an exhaustively scholarly book.

It has no agenda other than studying the phenomenon it has taken as its subject matter. There are quite a few points where the reviewer strongly disagrees with the book, as have been hinted at in the review. But this is a must read for every modern student of Hinduism and Hindu polity.

Just as how we do not want us to be viewed as monolith and stereotyped monolith at that, similarly we cannot view or caricature whom we consider as others as monoliths. Human condition and spiritual reality always gravitate towards diversity.

In fact, the very unique nature of Hinduism is that it realised this becoming of many as the fundamental basis of life — and celebrates it. While opposing the expansionist monocultures of the mind and monopolistic worldviews, we cannot allow ourselves to become the dragon we fantacise to slay.

In the book, the author provides an overarching framework of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Inclusivism in the deepest and sincerest meaning of the term naturally acknowledges pluralism.

Hinduism acknowledges pluralism as a fundamental fact of existence. If true, then every human society should naturally move towards a more pluralist position as it matures and as from, time to time divine sparks emit light in them.

No society can be an exception, irrespective of what religion it adheres to. The frequency of course will differ.

The book actually validates this truth. So whether one differs with the author in specifics and even with regard to certain perspectives, the book is a must study for everyone who engages in civilisational and inter-religious dialogue.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.