The consideration of the relation between religion, social harmony, and globalization marks out a sphere where there have been tendencies toward both universalization and differentiation. My initial response is to suggest that religion on its own is not something that can work either for or against social harmony because it cannot be divorced from economic and political factors and the day -- today commerce between persons. So in separating religion and social harmony for discussion, we are in fact isolating one strand in a very complex fiber. My second caveat is that people interact with each other and not religions per se, and that these interactions spring from a diversity of motives and contexts. Our tendency to identify people in terms of their religious affiliation is often misleading and moreover boundary‑building. In this connection I may mention two comments which recently caught my eye. Voltaire wrote: "­Enter the Exchange of London, that place more respectable than many a court, and you will see there agents from all nations assembled for the utility of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt."1 It has been said that this remark was influenced by Spinoza's high opinion of the city of Amsterdam and its economic freedom which he expressed as follows:


     In this most flourishing state, and most splendid city, men of every nation and religion live together in the greatest harmony and ask no questions before trusting their goods to a fellow‑citizen, save whether he be rich or poor, and whether he generally acts honestly or the reverse. His religion and sect is considered of no importance.2


     I mention these two rather startling passages not in praise of mercantile activity so much as to underline the point that amicable relations among people of different faiths seem to hinge on a focus outside religion itself, a healthy communication which prospers through trust, honesty and operations according to unwritten rules of fair dealing. Trade, over the centuries, has provided such a focus. So also have scholarly activities and interchanges. To suggest the mediated nature of amicable relations as I do contrasts with the current interfaith or dialogic alternative which tackles religion head‑on.

     In what follows, two thinkers hide behind my back as it were, urging me in contrary directions. They are a most unlikely pair: Alexis de Tocqueville and Mahatma Gandhi. They come to mind because, whereas de Tocqueville believed that family, religion and democratic political participation serve to moderate individualism in American life, Gandhi thought that certain elements in the religious impulse could serve to moderate not self-conscious individualism but its opposite, the incipient hostility of competing solidarities. This way of setting up the debate may be of some interest not only vis-à-vis the ongoing communitarian/liberal debate, but also in the context of controversy over the `privatization' of religion and the claim that privatization is the only way that religion and social harmony can be reconciled. In order to embark on these perilous waters the conflictual potentialities and actualities of religious life need to be faced squarely before we can proceed further.


Cohesive and Conflictual Roles of Religion


     At least two generations of sociologists have analyzed for us in some detail the role of religious adherence in promoting self‑identity and self‑affirmation and, on the other hand, providing a social nexus and social cohesion through establishing practices which bond groups. Religion, moreover, is seen to offer opportunities for life‑enhancing experiences both at the individual and group level. The religious community establishes a mode of existing that lies between the intimacy of dyadic relationship of the kind that Martin Buber wrote about and the more distant relationships belonging to the public realm. Put in this way, a religious community, at least of the ecclesia type, sits somewhere between the private and public domains. If it amounts to a voluntary association of a Rousseauesque or de Tocquevillean kind (and which as such cannot but have a legitimate place in civil society), a religious community nonetheless challenges both the private and public domains by reason of its claim to authority. Such authority, it must be said, may run counter to individual conscience or to state‑administered law. The diverse opinions that can be held regarding these possibilities depend on which reading of particular histories one favors. In any case it would seem that religion both links and separates people, but such separation may bear rich fruit. For example the rise of dissenting sects in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whether on account of infant baptism, or the varying dictates of scripture, individual conscience or ecclesiastical authority, bore a goodly harvest across the Atlantic. Out of affirmation of the right to dissent stemmed in due course a discourse of rights celebrated by Thomas Paine, to which, in our time, Martin Luther King could appeal in the civil rights campaign. Here we have an original religious stand passing over into the public domain, even becoming enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and thereby producing an indispensable instrument for producing social harmony.

     There was an additional twist to how matters of conscience were conceived and this became explicit in the eighteenth century. Not only should states not interfere with religious beliefs, but the state could not in fact succeed in doing so (even though they could restrict practice) since matters of belief were not controlled by the will. Rousseau's great contemporary David Hume had maintained that they were not controlled by reason. Given the faculty-psychology of the times, what remained were the "affections," a term used by both Jonathan Edwards and the Wesleys. Writing in the 1830s, de Tocqueville could use the phrase `habits of the heart' in the wider sense of mores, even so, the language chosen bears the mark of the period. For several decades the merits and demerits of `enthusiasm' had occasioned lengthy debate.3 Those who spoke against it usually did so from an anti-­Pietist, rationalist perspective, who, like Kant, warned against the transience of the affections. There was also, some thought, a certain unseemliness about dithyrambic behavior in places of worship. Hasids met similar responses from non‑Hasidic Jews around the same time and have since then. Could untamed passions perhaps spill over onto the streets? This may have been a passing thought in the minds of those who recalled the sansculottes.

     What I have said so far suggests that religious conflict, and indeed conflict of other kinds as well, can be contained and even tamed by a neutral state that shows partiality to none, and by due process of law, which can ensure that lawful property is protected and harm to others prevented. That harm can be done within isolated enclaves bearing religious labels, with the state either unaware of what is going on or committed to non‑interference by the Constitution. This was illustrated in recent years by events in Waco, Texas. The debatable harmony created in an ostensibly religious enclave resulted in disastrous consequences for all living there.

     This would suggest that the apparent social harmony attained in a religious microgroup is by no means self‑legitimating. An authoritarian leadership that excludes any possibility of inner dissension can bring about a social harmony, which on closer inspection is markedly Fascist. To see religion as indispensable glue, in other words, is far too simplistic. The Waco phenomenon shows a development contrary to what I earlier described as the development of an ethos of dissent into a secular discourse of rights to which all could appeal. It in fact indicates one possible outcome of dissent cut loose from the public domain, namely promotion of a lifestyle that abrogates rights enjoyed by those who live in the public domain.

     This points to two hazards. One is the hazard of isolation, of an in‑group religion becoming a collective private domain phenomenon. The other is the hazard involved, especially for minorities, if religion percolates the public domain, and most dangerous of all, enters the arena of state policy. This would be a dilemma if these were the only alternatives, but I do not believe that this is the case. For one thing it is wise to recall the variety of organizations deemed religious or quasi‑religious. But I shall not detail this here. It is time to examine individualism, cast as it often is in the role of bogey by those who seek to find in religion a prospect of social harmony.




     It cannot be any part of my limited agenda to say much about the libertarian/communitarian debate which ping‑pongs across the Atlantic. My comments must be selective. When F. de Lamennais uses the word `individualism' in 18294 he does so (and I paraphrase) to identify what he thinks destroys the very idea of obedience and duty and as such destroys both power and law. A no less vigorous defender of the ancient regime, Edmund Burke, with the rumble of gunfire audible across the Channel, speaks woefully of the dust and powder of individuality.5 De Tocqueville, musing on both individuality and individualism, laments the way both break the `woof of time' and `efface' the track of generations. That individualism has been criticized from the standpoint of conservative lobbies is evident. De Tocqueville's angle is perhaps more moderate, bearing in mind what he sees as the untrammelled growth of individualism in the context of American democracy. He looks upon religion as a tempering influence on what he regards as a tendency towards obsession with `well‑being,' a word which in recent times has been more extensively analyzed. By contrast, his contemporary John Stuart Mill can see the oppressive role played by those who sought to control the individual. Publicly approved `habits of the heart' can impact painfully if not disastrously on particular individuals whether in a small New England town or anywhere else. As an admirer of what he called `experiments in living' and one who had borne the brunt of public criticism of his own personal life‑style, Mill was well placed to defend individualism.

     Contemporary critics of individualism, who turn their fire on one or another of the many versions of liberalism available, target a variety of phenomena between which they often fail to discriminate. The ragbag includes features belonging to late-capitalist economies, urban life, employment patterns, (especially the entry of women into the work force), loss of authority, loss of values, and so forth. Frequent references to the pantechnicon term, "post‑modernity," surface in recent writing.

     The implied remedies are various. Fukuyama's latest analysis6 pinpoints loss of family life. Much of what he includes under this is really a lament that women now claim the individuality hitherto assumed by men. Those who idealize past rural communities forget that those communities were historically embedded in feudal economies controlled by unconstitutional monarchies. The intermediate institutions beloved of a Rousseau or a de Tocqueville and now strongly recommended by Amitai Etzioni are hard to promote when the locus of work, family and local community are all at a distance from each other. A fatigue‑driven society finds it difficult to find time or energy for the community-­centered activities of citizenship. Since they have no address they can scarcely be expected to identify with the very communities that marginalize them. Leaving these considerations to one side for the moment, I turn to the Indian scene.7


Individual and Society in India


     Hindu society is often regarded as communitarian to a fault. Grounds for such a view are usually found in kinship patterns and caste. Part of the analysis of these characteristics concerns the distinctive way in which religious traits are embedded in Hindu culture, Western analogies for which would have to be identified in the medieval period, especially in the guild system, i.e., in the idea of a non‑competitive economy.

     Until relatively recently one might have cited caste as a particularly successful example of religion, or rather more properly, of quasi-religious elements of a cultural complex, promoting social harmony. A parallel for such a view might be found in the idea of `my station and its duties.' In practice, caste organizations at their best, whether at the village level or otherwise, provide a social safety net, supporting individuals who, as happens increasingly these days, move from their places of origin, so that they are not without resource in unfamiliar surroundings. For example, a `Pahali' or human moving from the hills to a town in the plains will come with an introduction to the local `biradali' or brotherhood, which will help him to find work and a place to stay. Caste is playing an increasingly important role at election time, and while on the one hand this may seem to run counter to the individuality which the franchise celebrates, the difficulties of mobilizing opinion in a vast electorate are in fact met by an appeal to a range of interests of which caste is only one. Religious identities compete with a host of others, such as linguistic and regional affiliations.

     Some recent developments that have mitigated the importance of caste also need mention. First, there has been a flattening out of hierarchies consequent to a rise in the standard of living since Independence. A similar trend is noticeable in Britain where the power of money tends to be the chief marker of status. However, in the long run, old stratifications tend to be succeeded by new ones, but only over time. Legislative policies can supersede social boundaries and create new opportunities. These can give rise to new conflicts,8 some of which appear in the guise of religion but which on closer inspection are not really such. Secondly, the electoral mechanism plus the government policy of reserving a quota of government posts9 for the so‑called "Scheduled Castes and Tribes" have jointly led to the sudden promotion of those at the bottom of the social scale to positions of status.

     One might ask what religion has to do with this cluster of issues. To begin with, policies at the top, which seek to remedy injustices through legislation, often fail because of the lack of supporting facilities, such as training, to improve the qualifications of the underprivileged. Resentment is felt among other minorities, e.g., Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, if special privileges are accorded to a particular section of society. What results is only too often an unseemly competition in backwardness. The so‑called Dalits (meaning `the oppressed') mostly "Scheduled Castes" in south India, overlap with Christians; in fact a large number, especially in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are Christian. They are currently in a conflictual relation with caste Hindus, suffering as they still do from the prejudices of the latter especially in rural areas far from towns. Christians find themselves in an anomalous position in the country as a whole, a large proportion, whether in the South or in Orissa, Chhota Nagpur or the North East being originally of "Scheduled caste or tribe" origin. Qua Christians, they technically have no caste. However, they wish to claim the privileges of their original communities, including eligibility for the reserved quota of government posts.10 To this day the government has not seen fit to agree to any such request. While the truly able are absorbed into the coveted cadres on grounds of merit through open competition, the less able have to seek other avenues of employment.

     One obvious way out would be to make economic deprivation the criterion of positive discriminatory measures and to remove any hint of a religious or quasi‑religious element creeping in. The reason this has not happened so far is that the Indian Constitution singles out Scheduled castes and tribes (SC+ST) for special treatment. It is noteworthy, however, that the largest minority of all, the Muslims,11 have succeeded in making their way in the multicultural society without any such protection and without asking for any. There would in any case have been no rationale for singling out Muslims for special affirmative action since those who wanted any such thing went to Pakistan at the time of Partition. Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews likewise make their contribution to Indian society and compete for cadre posts on equal terms with everyone else.

     This rather long excursion into caste prefaces what I wish to say about individuality in Indian society, for as I see it, the Hindu life‑world lays particular emphasis on individuality in at least three ways. The first of these is provided by the concept of swadharma, literally one's own particular path of ethical living. This idea affirms and legitimates individuality to the extent of reconciling it with the institution of the guru, which might seem to pull in a different direction. A guru does no more than to set a pupil on a path of self-discovery, a path which he must discover for himself. Lest this be taken to amount to relativism, it must be said that the word dharma, from which swadharma is a cognate form, indicates what could be called "righteousness," as such. So like some strands in Greek thought, we find herein the notion of a conflation of path and goal and a value set on stability and equilibrium. Dharma is not regarded as a religious notion although ironically enough the only word that serves in any role like that of "religion" is dharma. Dharma, strictly speaking, operates at the level of samaj or society, that is the vyavahalika or behavioral level.

     The second way that Hindu life recognizes individuality is through the notion of istadevata which literally means one's own god. This neatly rules out trying to influence others to opt for a different god or convert to a different path. In fact the very concept of belief, as of conversion, sits uneasily within such a framework. What it does accommodate, interestingly enough, is multiple allegiance,12 and this is why in temples one often sees that the image of more than one deity installed. It is not uncommon in Bengal, for example, for a Vaishnava (a devotee of Vishnu) living in Calcutta to attend discourses at the Ramakrishna Mission, listen to recitations of the Ramayana or Gita in the local park and go for holidays at the Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry. All of these are quite compatible. It is as if the diversity of practices provided multiple entry points into a single mansion. Here is an example of choice, providing not an exclusive principle but rather an inclusive one. Such an approach sees truth as inexhaustible and recognizes that human attempts to enter therein are but partial and inadequate.

     The third feature of the Hindu way of life relevant to this part of our inquiry is the concept of moksa or liberation seen as an individual quest. There is a paradox here for the quest of moksa involves above all leaving the self behind. The successive stages of life move from the life of the young aspirant to knowledge to the householder stage, followed by withdrawal from the world and eventually the attainment of complete renunciation. These indicate the values appropriate at different times of life, mapping a journey, which passes through the phase of solidarity, seen in mid‑life as involvement in samaj (society) through the family. However the final stage is not to return to the cave where others dwell, but to enter into the cave of the heart.

     The paradox remains because the high point of the self comes when it loses itself. This is symbolized in the folk tale of the salt doll who longed to see the sea, but of course melted away as soon as she entered it. Put in a more academic way, the message is that stadhana is related to what one is, and so plurality of sadhanas is taken for granted. The appropriate question to ask a Hindu, therefore, is not what he or she believes, but what is their sadhana. Even this would be a strange thing to ask one who was not evidently following a particular ascesis (a sadhu for example), about which one wished to know more.

     What Gandhi does with what I have identified as individualistic elements in the Hindu tradition is to extend the soteriology of moksa into an understanding of liberation which includes transformation at the economic, social and political levels. The quest for moksa is traditionally embedded in a way of thinking which looks upon bondage in the shape of suffering as something which human beings inherently desire to get rid of. Gandhi's study of law and Western political thought enables him to graft onto this primal branch the concept of rights, especially the right to freedom on a national scale, and to forge the non‑violent weapon of satvagraha which enlists self­-suffering in order to reveal injustices at the collective level. The multiple solidarities at the level of samaj could in this way be mobilized in order to promote solidarity in the nation. A national struggle could become a vehicle for nourishing social harmony. This is why I initially suggested that while de Tocqueville might have had reason to speak of the restraining role of religion in the context of American individualism, Gandhi was concerned with a different need, the need to transform the individual impulse towards a transcendental goal into the desire to transform society, and furthermore transform competing solidarities into the wider solidarity of the nation. The latter aspect takes us to a new theme, that of multiculturalism and how very diverse religious heritages can contribute or fail to contribute to social harmony.




     In this present century, fast approaching its end, many countries hitherto unfamiliar with the presence of people from other places have awakened up to the fact that `strangers' are in their midst, not merely as visitors, but as those who intend to stay. Such `new citizens' may or may not look different. While such `otherness' may he exotic and attractive when one is abroad it can be a different matter when `otherness' intrudes in the form of strange smells and loud noises emanating from the third floor back and those responsible represent rivals in the job market. We need to distinguish, however, between the situations, (1) in India where the multicultural nature of society is a fact of history (2) in America as virtually a society of those who first came as immigrants (the original inhabitants remaining as drastically diminished enclaves and (3) in societies where the influx of immigrants in large numbers is a relatively recent phenomenon.

     Religion as a cultural trait manifests itself in the third example in the form of beliefs and practices cut loose from their previous moorings in territoriality. What, in the overall view, looks like a vast moving caravan of globalizing processes, is at the micro level, rather different i.e. an impinging of multi‑parochialisms upon each other. This is what one might expect when people confront the difference between immigration to an expanding frontier or to a densely populated urban center. The same is the case when we consider the diverse motivations for immigration, e.g., persecution in the country of origin, flight from famine and/or rural indebtedness, desire for economic betterment, or invitation of the host country. The religious component within such diversities can only be assessed on a case by case basis. I shall restrict myself to a few comments on what I have noticed about the contemporary situation in Britain.

     Since the last of the various motivations mentioned may be surprising, I shall say a little about Afro‑Caribbean immigration into the host country, for this took place at the invitation of the British government. The person charged with the task of recruiting a work force after the war in order to make up for sustained losses of manpower was Enoch Powell, who later became notorious for spearheading a "Go home" campaign which was at the center of a far-right, racist lobby that sporadically surfaces to this day. Several decades have gone by, and the new immigrants are no longer necessarily at the bottom of the heap. What is of interest in relation to our present discussion is the enormous proliferation of churches and chapels within the black community in Britain and the networking function that these provide. The charismatic style of worship predominates, and if the churches originally provided a `haven' in an often hostile world they now serve as foci of social life, but not in a culturally affirmative and provocative way. My impressions at this point are derived from what I hear from the students who come to study theology. As we would expect, residence in enclaves means that occasions of friction arise versus `others' on the fringes of the areas concerned. Moreover, Afro-­Caribbean religious life, a few cults apart, falls within the received `faith' of the host country. In the event of inner city violence, the church network is active in campaigning on behalf of the victims as is the case in America and South Africa. Church membership is rarely `mixed.' Most see herein a racism which Christian allegiance seems to leave untouched, while others see no harm in opting to be with one's own kind. Cultural `sampling' takes place when a black choir is invited to sing in a white church as a special event.

     The conflicting elements at the wider societal level are very familiar, e.g. economic competition with the factor of race added, housing shortages, over­reaction of the police, etc. No doubt religious institutions provide foci for community identity. At a more intellectual level rapprochement in pastoral or theological contexts is hampered by the fundamentalism prevalent in the churches concerned. However, this is not a matter confined to the black caucus churches. The degree to which church organizations are hierarchical or otherwise and also the interesting question of women's involvement in ministry are all relevant to `social' harmony but cannot be discussed here.

     My second example concerns Hindu communities in urban Britain. The immigrants from deprived rural areas, who came directly from the sub‑continent, arrived without their families. Those who came from East Africa, and who were relatively well‑off and had a more privileged background, came with their families. A large proportion of the latter were Gujerati who hailed from a variety of sampradavas or religious traditions. The need for establishing places for community worship or for social occasions became more pressing once the families of the former immigrants, in large part from Punjab, arrived. Without such centers, the womenfolk in particular would have had virtually no social life at all. Three matters catch the eye at the moment as far as Hindu life in Britain is concerned. First, the facilities used accommodate a variety of activities, e.g., havan13, recitations and discourses. Secondly, attempts are made to formulate14 matters of belief in the interest of satisfying adult inquirers and helping children to answer queries raised by their peers in school. The third feature is the presence of `white' converts to groups such as Transcendental Meditation, the Hare Krishna movement, and the Divine Light Mission. Family requirements and a variety of sources of funding can be detected on the scene both in India and in Britain. The large temple complex at Neasden in Britain is a showpiece for the community, its sectarian provenance (Swaminarayan) being no bar to the variety of devotees it attracts. The temple also reveals the extent of Hindu diasporic links without which the vast outlay could not have been met. While such a temple expresses cultural affirmation on a very conspicuous scale, what goes on in hundreds of converted flats, rooms and even former churches is perhaps more revealing.

     Although religious education in British schools is compulsory and world religions are taught, the government has ruled that Christianity has to have priority on the syllabus. The various Hindu meeting places fill a gap felt by Hindu families and serve a kind of Sunday School function in addition to their other functions, with a view to passing on their own tradition to the next generation.

     As far as the white followers of `Eastern traditions' are concerned they illustrate what it is like when practices are cut loose not only from territoriality but also from a whole cultural matrix. Boundary crossing is not just a matter of opting, but of being accepted. The presence in Britain of Western Hindus and Buddhists can be regarded as evidence either that these are `world religions,' which require no ethnic affiliation, or that the phenomena should be looked upon as features of `British religion,' along with `New Age,' paganism and the like. I cannot see any particular relation between these latter day phenomena and the promotion of social harmony. Compliments are returned with a vengeance, for example when an unused church in Golders Green is turned over to Hare Krishna devotees. In a mainly Jewish locality, a few interested observers watch processions go by, probably enjoying a splash of color on a grey winter morning and confirming their belief that Eastern practices are both exotic and quaint. Or should one regard the whole experience as an excellent exercise in toleration? It is to this latter and most difficult question that I must turn now.


Interreligious Conflict and the Ethics of Toleration


     Any treatment of our theme would be unrealistic if one did not take into account the highly conflictual role of religion, albeit in association with politics, currently playing in various regions of the world. It is ironic that at a time when there are so many kinds of `otherness' outside the sphere of religion -- culture, gender, race, distinctions between rich and poor and privileged and underprivileged, to take just a few examples, religious otherness should obtrude to the extent it does. The ways in which de Tocqueville's three areas, i.e., religion, family and democratic participation, can conflict are very obviously manifold. For example, the entry of women into the public arena can conflict with any religious tradition that requires that women be restricted to the domestic sphere. Women in Pakistan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Turkey currently fight for democratic rights and in the last two countries have achieved some small modicum of success. Theocratic states have shown themselves to be oppressive not only of women, but also of religious minorities. A very recent evidence of this is the failure of any punitive action being taken after the assassination of a Christian priest in one such country. Theocratic states can also subvert the family by forbidding women's entry into the labor market even though women may be the only earning members of their families. The examples could be multiplied. When toleration is advocated in such contexts, one encounters several difficulties which can be set out in a philosophical manner as follows.

     Tolerance cannot be an uncontroversial good because there is much that we should not tolerate, e.g. the abuse of children, the torture of prisoners, the marginalization suffered by millions in a large number of countries. What, after all, is the core conception of toleration? One suggestion is that `it amounts to a deliberate choice not to interfere with conduct which is disapproved.'15 Is disapproval always moral? If disapproval includes or overlaps with dislike, it could be said, quite possibly, to have a non‑moral element. Then another concept usually surfaces in the discussion, that of entitlement to respect. Yet what is it exactly that we are called upon to respect? Entitlement to respect is surely contingent and relative. The Gauleiter who has just turned on the gas in the concentration camp is not entitled to respect. Entitlement to respect is a contestable concept. Now we encounter a sheaf of arguments about the self and the elements that constitute it.

     For example, Sandel16 insists that the self is partly constituted by its attachments, and he would probably include sentiments as well. He further maintains that self and community are bound together in the `intersubjective self.' Taking both conditions together, on such a view the embedding of the self would be on a scale which precluded not only reflection or detachment, but also, even more seriously, precluded education.

     Toleration, it may be recalled, was honed as a concept in the context of sectarian strife. Have we added to our armory in any way since then? Negotiation and compromise, and, in the very long view, education, might be seen as alternatives, and sometimes seem to replace a discourse of rightness and wrongness. The `strategically necessary' is often offered these days as the only resource which can defuse a conflictual situation. Contemporary political discourse ranges between the practical realism that lies behind the concept of the strategically necessary at one pole and the dilemmas of autonomous choice at the other. As an illustration of the latter, how would one choose between a society that subordinated young women but provided security in old age, and one which did neither? The example is highly theoretical for not many people are privileged either to choose the society in which they wish to live or to change the one in which they do live. All in all, the long debate on toleration which comes to a head in the 18th century and winds into our own times hardly provides much guidance through the thicket of 20th century horrors and tensions. If the core conception of toleration is as Horton and Nicholson say,17 it can subvert positive intervention to stem practices which need stemming, regardless of whether they shelter under the cloak of religion or not. At this point in the discussion I would like briefly to turn to the thought and practice of Mahatma Gandhi who grappled for decades with the problem of reconciling religion with social harmony and for whom there were resources which could take us beyond the limited scope of the concept of tolerance.


Gandhi, `Otherness,' and Social Harmony


     Gandhi lived in a country which had been subjected to many invasions, especially during the last thousand years, and so was well aware of the way religious `otherness' was identified through sources of authority (including scriptures and institutions), traditions (including dress, food, festivals, and educational systems), and more specifically, beliefs. He could see also that there were different kinds of otherness that could be more obtrusive, e.g. that between rich and poor, the otherness of a colonial power, and sectarian differences within a single community. However, the obstacles set up by religions were to be taken seriously. I set out the major ones as follows:


     a. Doctrine, e.g., exclusivist accounts of truth, especially the notion of the Truth.

     b. Provocative vocabulary, e.g., `heathen,' `pagan,' `idolaters,' `infidels,' `unbelievers.'

     c. Provocative rituals: Does religious sentiment validate each and every practice?

     d. Provocative situations, e.g., processions, music before mosques, cow ­slaughter.

     e. Memories of catastrophic experiences, including inherited memories.


     Hindus have never defined themselves vis-à-vis others, as belonging to the majority as they do, there has never been a need to do so. The two most common strategies in India have been either assimilation or resorting to water‑tight compartments. However, over long periods of time, composite cultural phenomena have developed, and this is shown in the spheres of dress, food, music, architecture, and language.

     Common visits to shrines provide a particularly interesting illustration of the mutual accommodation of Hindus and Muslims in pre‑Partition rural India and even now. Social harmony, as Gandhi saw it, had always been there at grassroots level. What was needed was an understanding of why things went wrong from time to time and thinking out how conflicts could be prevented.

     Gandhi's experience in South Africa showed him how people from different regional and religious backgrounds who faced common disabilities could pool their talents and work together. His day to day campaigns brought Gandhi not only in touch with Hindus but also with Jains, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, and Jews. He found loyal associates among his Jewish friends,18 made a special friend of a Sufi saint for whom he undertook legal work, noted that Zulus who converted to Islam entered the brotherhood on equal terms, and was befriended by Christians of various denominations. However, he was not permitted to enter a white church when his friend Charlie Andrews preached there. In his responses to concrete situations one sees his ways of tackling the challenges listed.

     Gandhi's contribution to discussions about religious truth lies in his stress on the fragmentariness of human visions of the truth. He saw in this a very intelligible basis for democracy. Granting that each had a fragment of the truth, all had an obligation to strive for the larger truth, that is, the creation of a non‑violent society. The obstacles presented by various kinds of provocation received his constant attention. Non‑violence concerned speech, no less than action. On one occasion when Muslims complained about the noise created by Hindu processions passing outside a mosque his reaction was a revealing one. He took the Muslims to task, saying that if they were praying as they should they would not have even noticed anything happening outside. He also scolded the Hindus, saying they could easily have chosen another route for their procession.

     Here are examples of different kinds.19 When Gandhi went to East Bengal in the wake of communal riots, where Hindus had been at the receiving end, he told the remaining Hindus that they should not run away but should try to rebuild their lives in spite of what had happened. In another locality he set up joint peace‑keeping committees among those who were left. When he was criticized by some of his associates for choosing people from very lowly walks of life, he asked them, `Do you think they can be represented by those who have run away?' Gandhi always had a sense of situation and an awareness of whom he was addressing. In speaking to a group of Jain shop‑keepers, for whom the notion of purity would have provided a powerful metaphor, he suggested that when they criticized others they should be sure they had put their own house in order, in particular, that they should not adulterate their own products.20 To his close friend Herman Kallenbach, the architect, who had written woefully that his plans had been appropriated by a rival architect, he replied that he should `remember the lesson of last Yom Kippur.'

     But on a more general level, how could social harmony he brought about? First, Gandhi advised that our own imperfections must be recognized, as well as the imperfections contained in religious traditions. For example, if Brahmins had not traditionally done manual work, then that did not mean that they should not do so now. Since all religions were finite human creations, there was no ground for ranking one as superior to another. All people have unexplored capacities for good, especially capacities for self‑sacrifice. If the capacity for good rather than possession of the Truth, were cultivated, there would be no clash between adherents of different faiths. Just as the sense of ego was a barrier to humility, so also communities had a similar failing, believing that their own identities were defined by their traditions.

     Traditions were to be selectively appropriated, shedding much that, with new insight, could be seen to be not worth passing on to the next generation. In this respect, although Gandhi's appearance and demeanor may seem highly traditional to some, he was by no means a man who wanted to preserve a heritage unthinkingly. All were capable of growth: a further reason for looking to the future and planning for it. Free India would need Hindus who were better Hindus, Muslims who were better Muslims, and so on. It should also be said that, although as a national leader, Gandhi was anxious to enlist people of all religious persuasions. He did not see nationality as something which divided people from each other. Nationality was the basis of a free and equal polity of nations, in fact of an international order.

     Two further matters regarding Gandhi are worth noting. It was essential that grievances should be dealt with, including the grievances of neglected members of one's own community, e.g. the Untouchables as they were called in his day. Sympathy with Muslim sentiment and a desire to enlist the community in the struggle for independence led him to encourage pro‑Caliphate agitators. In this his judgment failed him, for encouraging Pan‑Islamic affiliation nurtured a separatism that culminated in the creation of Pakistan.

     The second matter takes issue with Gregory Baum over a misgiving he has whether solidarity with the oppressed can be said to be a genuinely religious activity, in that this might amount to a loss of inwardness, a loss in fact of the very fons et origo of the religious impulse. In Gandhi's own case, of course, any such criticism would misfire. His own ascesis included an attentive listening to the `inner voice,' a rigorous daily discipline almost Ignatian in its demands. I believe that Gandhi's way of relating religion and social harmony was to see in the sense of aspiration that there is in religion an impetus of priceless value that could be enlisted to bring about social harmony. This human endowment was not set apart from the ethical sense or its core, the will to non‑violence. When he locates his fundamental ontology in Satya (Truth), he virtually overturns the familiar vocabulary of Being and Becoming, putting in their place an understanding of dharma which makes it both the presupposition and goal of endeavor. The selfless individual would be an instrument of service, such service would resonate and this would bring about social harmony. Music, after all, was the art form which appealed to him most. The word dhvani, a key term in the Indian aesthetic of music, means resonance.




     There can very evidently be no conclusion about the relation of religion and social harmony during the course of an ongoing debate. Moreover, there are vast differences in the situations prevailing in various parts of the globe. A state may be secular and society, not. On the other hand, a state may have an established church while society may be on the whole secular. Social harmony is not impossible to attain in either of these. Perennial values centering on health, family and personal well being do not seem necessarily to hinge on any religious provenance. Some may wish to argue that even where this appears to be the case, the original provenance of such values may be a `social' capital deriving from an earlier religious source.

     Thomas Luckmann21 suggests that religion continues to be an important and indeed universal part of human life, but that there has been a shift in emphasis between `little,' `intermediate' and `great transcendences,' with religious significance now located in the intermediate transcendences of our relations with human beings and the `minimal' transcendences of `modern solipsism.' He describes such a shift in terms of a shrinking span of transcendence which evidences the privatization of religion. However, I tend to see the growth of moral conscience as a breaking into transcendence in the ethical‑religious sphere and to see this showing itself in concern for future generations and a sense of responsibility towards the animal world and the environment. Another feature of our times that strikes me is the way a certain religious ambiance can impart an unmistakable flavor to secular consciousness.

     I have referred to this as identifiable in the `mentalité' of the educated Jew and Hindu.22 An ambiance of this kind is reflected in values such as respect for elders or for the institution of marriage, observances that bond the generations and in a commitment to live justly. If such features of contemporary life appear to be a shift from ultimate reality to ultimate concern, there may yet be an intimate connection between the two.

     Finally, the aesthetic connotation of `harmony' built into the phrase `social harmony' prompts a concluding reflection. The aleatoric appears to be the keynote of postmodernity, ambiguous as this term is. The positive side of aleatoric music is its openness, its paradoxical implicit element of surprise, its improvisatory mode. Harmony after all came late in the history of music. The music of the spheres was probably never thought to be akin to the sound of the shepherd‑boy's flute. Nature, whether in Heraclitus or later writers, is recognized as accommodating contending powers. There is perhaps no better musical example of this than Debussy's La Mer. When Walt Whitman insisted that morality and religion were related to aesthetics, he was not, I believe, making a plea for naturalism as it may be understood today. The resources of religion are as wide as the ocean, and so there may yet be a hope that religion may make a contribution to the social harmony that has for so long eluded us.




     1. "Lettres Philosophiques," Melanges (Paris: Pleaide, 1961), pp. 17‑18.

     2. Theologico‑Political Treatise (Dover, New York, 1951), p 254.

     3. There is an odd chiming in of opinion on this in Patanjali's writings where, from a yogic standpoint, he speaks of the need to control `the wavelets of the mind.'

     4. Des Progres de la revolution et de la guerre contre l'Eglise. This appears to antedate by a small margin of time de Tocquevile's use of the word `individualism' in L'ancien regime et la revolution.

     5. Reflections on the Revolution in France, O.U.P., p. 96.

     6. In lectures in Oxford last year.

     7. I use this term since `communal' in Indian usage has a judgmental connotation, signifying abrasive and conflictual attitudes displayed by one community towards another. A `communal situation' means a riot.

     8. Analogous processes seem to be at work with respect to affirmative action in other countries too.

     9. This has caused great resentment among caste Hindus who tend to he more qualified but overnight find themselves at an enormous disadvantage in the job market. This, within my own memory of the university concerned, sparked the self­-immolation of a student in protest against what was seen as an unjust government policy.

     10. As a former member of selection committees for appointments to such posts, I have listened to arguments on both sides. The posts are coveted because of their favorable . . . service conditions.

     11. 120 million.

     12. Vide, `The concept of multiple allegiance' in my The Religious Spectrum (New Delhi, Allied Publishers 1984).

     13. Puja (worship), havan (a simple ritual involving fire).

     14. This has generated pamphlets and other basic literature often couched in the idiom of the host country rather than of the `tradition.'

     15. Toleration: Philosophy and Practice, eds. (John Horton & Peter Nicholson, Avebury, 1992), p. 2.

     16. Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

     17. See supra, p. 17.

     18. See my Gandhi and his Jewish Friends (London, Macmillan, 1992).

     19. I was told these anecdotes by Nilmal Kumar, anthropologist, who accompanied Gandhi on his tour of Noakhali which is a Bengali speaking area.

     20. His specific reference was to the adulteration of ghee or "unclarified butter."

     21. See his article `Shrinking Transcendence, Expanding Religion,' Sociological Analysis 1990, SC: 2pp. 127‑l3X.

     22. See my Studies in Modern Jewish and Hindu thought (London: Macmillan, and St. Martin's Press, 1997).