This book identifies frameworks to foster peace, not violence, through diverse religions. A scholar of comparative religion explains how there are possibilities of pluralism in all faiths, despite how much at odds they seem with one another.
Half-way through his new book, Arvind Sharma, one of the world’s most noted scholars of comparative religion, makes this axiomatic statement: “Unity is not uniformity.” It seems counter-intuitive at first glance, but it’s an idea that many of us are familiar with in another form: Unity in diversity.
Phrases like these acknowledge the incredible diversity of India, but the truth is that the current politics of ethno-nationalism is hardly tolerant of differences. Often, it demands homogeneity through campaigns like “One nation, one language”, and bandies around broad terms like “Indian culture”.
But religions, like languages in India, are many and one need not prevail over the others for a nation to be united. In Religious Tolerance: A History, Sharma tries to demonstrate this point over and over again with examples from the major faith systems of the world. The book is an important addition to Sharma’s formidable scholarship in the area, and timely too, considering the sway of majoritarian forces the world over.
The book is divided into three main parts: “The Abrahamic Religious Traditions’, which deals with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “The Indic Religious Traditions”, which covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and “The East Asian Religious Traditions”, which looks at Confucianism, Daoism and Shintoism. Each section is appended by a chapter that offers an overview of the faith group and is useful for those who may not want to get into the specifics.
Sharma writes the respective histories of these faiths using a framework popular among scholars of religion. This framework comprises a triad of approaches that exist in all religions – exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Exclusivism is when a religion asserts that it is uniquely valuable and is intolerant of other faiths; inclusivism is when a religion makes space for the practices of other faiths in its vicinity while maintaining that it is the truest one; and pluralism is when a faith recognises that the next one is as good as itself.
The potential for pluralism
Citing from scripture and history, Sharma shows how every religion has all three tendencies. A useful example would be that of Islam, which is largely thought to be an orthodox and fundamentalist religion in a post 9/11 world. Indeed, the Quran’s sword verse (9:5) and provision for punishing apostasy by death are infamous.
By Urmi Chanda.