RELIGION AND SOCIAL HARMONY
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
IS INDIVIDUALISM A BOGEY?
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.
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.
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
Individual and Society in India
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE MULTICULTURAL SITUATION AND THE POSSIBILITY OF SOCIAL
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Interreligious Conflict and the Ethics of Toleration
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
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.
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.
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
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:
Doctrine, e.g., exclusivist accounts of truth, especially the notion of the
Provocative vocabulary, e.g., `heathen,' `pagan,' `idolaters,' `infidels,'
Provocative rituals: Does religious sentiment validate each and every practice?
Provocative situations, e.g., processions, music before mosques, cow slaughter.
Memories of catastrophic experiences, including inherited memories.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Lettres Philosophiques," Melanges (Paris: Pleaide, 1961), pp.
Theologico‑Political Treatise (Dover, New York, 1951), p 254.
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.'
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.
Reflections on the Revolution in France, O.U.P., p. 96.
In lectures in Oxford last year.
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.
Analogous processes seem to be at work with respect to affirmative action in
other countries too.
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.
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.
Vide, `The concept of multiple allegiance' in my The Religious
Spectrum (New Delhi, Allied Publishers 1984).
Puja (worship), havan (a simple ritual involving fire).
This has generated pamphlets and other basic literature often couched in the
idiom of the host country rather than of the `tradition.'
Toleration: Philosophy and Practice, eds. (John Horton & Peter
Nicholson, Avebury, 1992), p. 2.
Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge
University Press, 1982).
See supra, p. 17.
See my Gandhi and his Jewish Friends (London, Macmillan, 1992).
I was told these anecdotes by Nilmal Kumar, anthropologist, who accompanied
Gandhi on his tour of Noakhali which is a Bengali speaking area.
His specific reference was to the adulteration of ghee or "unclarified
See his article `Shrinking Transcendence, Expanding Religion,' Sociological
Analysis 1990, SC: 2pp. 127‑l3X.
See my Studies in Modern Jewish and Hindu thought (London: Macmillan, and
St. Martin's Press, 1997).