Religious Pluralism as Ideology in India

After reading this article you will learn about religious pluralism as ideology in India.

The diversity or plurality of religions in India at two levels. These were, first, the global level, at which the major religions, whether indigenous or of foreign origin, were in focus and second, the intra-religious level at which sectarian or quasi-sectarian movements operate.

We have seen that a naive distinction between pluralist Indie religions and homogeneous (fundamentalist) Indian religions of foreign origin is wholly misleading. It is obvious that whenever a religious community comprises many regional cultural groups and also has considerable numbers, running into millions, internal plurality becomes inescapable.

But whatever is present empirically may yet be denied or deprecated ideologically.


The question, then, is, has the long history of religious diversity in India produced serious arguments supporting and justifying the phenomenon? In other words, has plurality generated pluralism?

Contemporary ideologues of secularism, understood as religious pluralism, speaking on behalf of or within the Hindu tradition, often claim that pluralism is as old as the oldest Veda. It is recalled that the Rig Veda proclaims that ‘the Absolute is one, although the sages have given it different names’.

Similarly, it is pointed out that the Manu Smriti resolved the problem of conflict between contradictory revelations by laying down that they are all valid and must therefore be respected.

Although revelation enshrined in the Vedas and other sacred texts is respected, it does not follow that it is widely known among Hindus, like the Bible is among the Christians or the Quran among the Muslims.


In the absence of a single core text—the Bhagavad Gita has come to acquire such a position in relatively modern times—or a single founder, or a set of irrefutable fundamentals, or the practice of conversion from other religions, it is not surprising that the Hindu religious tradition has, from its earliest beginnings, been marked by pluralist tendencies.

These have been in consonance with the pluralist social organization based on the institution of caste and are essentially inegalitarian in character.

Such pluralism as is present has its roots inside the Hindu tradition and is only derivatively applied to other religious traditions. Hinduism tolerates difference by incorporating and hierarchizing it: Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are all considered inferior varieties of Hinduism.

Moreover, conflict has not been altogether absent, as the record of the persecution of Buddhists and Jains by various Hindu groups, or of inter-sectarian conflicts between, say, the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas, shows.


One can say, however, that the traditional Brahmanical notion of the legitimacy of the right of a group to its own way of life (svadharma; adhikara bheda), without conceding that the different ways are of equal merit, is a form of pluralism.

In modern times, the Bengali mystic, Ramakrishna (1836—86) and his renowned disciple Vivekananda (1863-1902) are credited with promoting the ideology of religious pluralism by word and deed. Ramakrishna was no intellectual, but in his quest for spiritual experience he practiced a simplified Islamic life for some time, withdrawing completely from his Brahmanical observances.

He also disregarded sectarian differences among the Hindus. Vivekananda formulated an ideology of pluralism, but it was based on tolerance of other religions rather than their acceptance as equals of Hinduism. In fact, within Hinduism itself, he raised Vedanta above all other creeds, calling it the mother of all religions and truer than any other religion. He was explicitly critical of Buddhism and Christianity.

While Bengal witnessed these developments, Punjab was the scene for the flowering of the Arya Samaj movement, founded by Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83) in Bombay in 1874.

He not only rejected post-Vedic forms of Hinduism as erroneous, and condemned what he called ‘blind faith’ (such as idol worship) and ‘harmful customs’ (such as the practice of caste and gender discrimination), but also denied that Christianity and Islam could be considered divinely inspired religions.

He made derogatory observations about them as well as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The teachings of Arya Samaj represent the exclusivist strand of Vedic Hinduism, anticipate later explicitly fundamentalist developments (notably the thesis of Hindutva, or Hindu identity) and militate against pluralism as an ideology.

In the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) put forward the most explicit formulation of religious pluralism when he announced on 30 May 1913 that, in his opinion, ‘the world as a whole will never have, and need not have a single religion’.

By acknowledging his indebtedness to Christianity and Islam, Gandhi implied that Hinduism could be enriched by incorporating in it some of the truths discovered by other religions. While he maintained that all religions were equally true, he added that because of the limitations of human intellect, they were also equally imperfect.

He refused to hierarchize the relationship between different religions, and thus moved in the direction of a genuine religious pluralism.

Islam is, as we have seen, the second major religion of India. Except in Indonesia and Bangladesh, there are more Muslims in India today than in any other country. The attitudes of Muslims to the phenomenon of religious plurality are therefore of great importance for the future of the ideology of pluralism.

Given the fundamental Muslim belief that Islam is the most perfect of all divinely revealed religions, and that the Quran is the Word of God, any attempt to project pluralism has to honour these beliefs. A careful reader of the holy book of Islam will find many passages on which an ideology of religious pluralism can be based. To give but one example: ‘To you your religion, and to me mine’.

In the mid-seventeenth century, Dara Shikoh, heir to the Mughal throne, disciple of a Sufi master and a Sanskrit scholar, made a close study of the Upanishads and even translated some of them into Persian. He concluded that they were revealed scriptures anticipating the divine message of monotheism elaborated in the Quran.

He described Vedantic Hinduism and Islam as ‘twin brothers’: for this he was declared a heretic by the ulama, and beheaded on the orders of his brother, the emperor Aurangzeb, who had usurped the succession.

In the twentieth century, the most celebrated effort to argue for religious pluralism on the basis of the Quran itself was made by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), profound scholar of religion and distinguished political leader. His many-stranded argument focused on, among other issues, the attributes of God and the true nature of divine revelation.

He maintained that the manner in which ‘divine providence’ (rububiyat), ‘divine benevolence’ (rahmat), and ‘divine justice'(adalat) are defined in the Quran, it is obvious that Allah is God of all creation and that the oneness of humanity is derived from the oneness of God.

As for divine revelation, for it to be itself, it must provide guidance to everyone without distinction. Like Dara Shikoh, he detected significant common truths and insights in Islam and Vedantic Hinduism on the foregoing and other key issues.

His effort, in the form of an exegesis of the Quran, ran into difficulties with the ulama who detected in it many serious flaws, including an alleged devaluation of the intermediary role of the Prophet and of the importance of formal prayer. In the event, Azad never brought his monumental undertaking to its conclusion.

Pluralism as an ideological stance within the Hindu and Indian Muslim religious traditions recognizes and respects plurality, but stresses the oneness of the ultimate goal of different expressions of the religious quest. It is an invitation to coexistence, dialogue and even syncretism.

Religious devotionalism (bhakti) of the medieval period in northern India, expressed through ‘the voice of the seekers of the truth’ (sant vani), was echoed by the ecstatic mysticism of the Sufis. Nanak, the first Sikh guru, was a unique representative of the sant tradition.

He sought emancipation from all external formalisms (rituals, customs, social distinctions) through a valorization of the inner spiritual quest. He dismissed the meaningfulness of the prevailing religious distinctions.

More than a reconciliation or synthesis, his teaching presented a transcendent third path. The last of the Sikh personal gurus, Gobind, also declared that the true Sikhs or the Khalsa (‘the pure’ or ‘the chosen’) would have to be different from both Hindus and Muslims in physical appearance (unshorn and uncircumcised) as well as moral fibre (expressed through a code of conduct beginning with formal initiation or pahul).

He too pointed to a higher path transcending not only the divide between Hinduism and Islam, but also the inner polarities of the former (for example, domesticity versus renunciation). Like the Hindu and Indian Muslim perspectives on religious pluralism, the Sikh vision is also hierarchical.

The task of developing a well-argued ideology of religious pluralism on the basis of the religions of India awaits serious and competent attention. The emergence of state-sponsored religious plurahsm, summed up in the slogan sarva dharma samabhava (equal respect for all religions), and presented as Indian (in contrast to western) secularism, does not go very far in strengthening inter-religious understanding and appreciation.

These values are more profound than a working strategy of passive tolerance and will have to be promoted by men and women of faith themselves. As Gandhi pointed out, the task of the secular state is to leave matters of religion to the people.

Contrary to the assumption of many modernists that religious faith is necessarily exclusive and therefore results in communal conflict, there is considerable historical and ethnographical evidence that the common people of India, irrespective of individual religious identity, have long been comfortable with religious plurality.

They acknowledge religious difference as the experienced reality: they do not consider it good or bad. In other words, social harmony, or agreement, is built on the basis of difference.

The traditional elite of the nineteenth century were familiar with this folk pluralism, but considered it as no more than the ignorance of unlettered masses. Today’s modernist intelli­gentsia have opted for the ideology of secularism, which seeks to drive religion into the privacy of people’s lives, if not altogether eliminate it.

This ideology envisages a pluralism that is a concomitant of structural differentiation in society Needless to emphasize, the two pluralisms— the people’s and the intellectual’s—are different in several crucial respects.

For example, and most notably, the former is wholly spontaneous—the lived social reality—but the latter is ideological and in that sense self-conscious or constructed; the former is based on a positive attitude towards religion, but the latter is sceptical. Indeed, there is a hiatus between the two pluralisms, but this has not been so far examined with the seriousness it deserves.

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