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Philosophy, Religion and Toleration

Par Sudipta Kaviraj
Publié par Clifford Armion le 22/01/2015
Religious faith connects strongly held ethical ideals to the belief that these are the commands of God, or a power above human reason. This can make people of hard religious belief to be intensely intolerant. How can we easily accept those who violate or dismiss principles that we consider the foundational to the moral order of the universe? Thus it is quite possible that religious people might be pious inside their own religion, but hateful towards others. Though most religious faiths set down often similar principles of moral conduct, and encourage adherents to live by principles of fellowship, kindness, and love, these injunctions often get circumscribed by the larger idea of their religion being the only ‘true’ religion...

Sudipta Kaviraj. All rights reserved.
 
Sudipta Kaviraj (India), political scientist and specialist of South Asian politics, is Head of the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. His research centers on 19th- and 20th-century political thought in India, on modern Indian culture and literature, and on an historical sociology of the Indian state.
> Boundaries of Toleration (dir. A.Stepan et C. Taylor) (University Press Group Ltd, 2014)
> The Trajectories of the Indian State: Politics and Ideas (Permanent Black, 2012)
 

 

 

 

Religious faith connects strongly held ethical ideals to the belief that these are the commands of God, or a power above human reason. This can make people of hard religious belief to be intensely intolerant. How can we easily accept those who violate or dismiss principles that we consider the foundational to the moral order of the universe? Thus it is quite possible that religious people might be pious inside their own religion, but hateful towards others. Though most religious faiths set down often similar principles of moral conduct, and encourage adherents to live by principles of fellowship, kindness, and love, these injunctions often get circumscribed by the larger idea of their religion being the only ‘true’ religion, and others false creeds. The combination of these two aspects in religious doctrines can lead to a situation of internal fellowship and external hostility. Deep faith that the principles of one’s religion are ‘the word of God’ however does not always resolve all problems. Religious principles are often enunciated in highly abstract form; and whether a particular precept applies to a specific case, and how exactly it is understood crucially depend on human interpretative reason. In India, the sociology of religious diversity was constructed rather peculiarly because of the specific character of Hinduism. Initially, Vedic religion was the predominant form of religious practice. But it was challenged in some of its fundamental features by the rise of Buddhism. Through the conflict between Buddhism and Vedic religion gradually a large number of separate sects emerged. Thus, social thinkers had to respond to the problem of a diversity of religious faiths from a very early period in Indian history.

We can find an interesting trend of religious thought which sought to deal with this problem of diversity and potential conflict by suggesting that the great variety of deities found in Vedic religion, or the deities worshipped by different sects were all different manifestations of a supreme single God, often named Iswara. This supreme deity, is sometimes given individualized names: Siva, Visnu and Sakti are worshipped as the forms of this supreme God who stands above all the deities found in common Hindu religious practice. Serious differences – about sacrifice and vegetarianism – and other significant religious questions persisted; but this was a way of reducing differences and conflict. In an example of this trend, a Sanskrit poem says:

Yam saivah samupasate Siva iti brahmeti vedantino
Bauddhah Buddha iti pramanapatavah karteti naiyayikah
Arhannityatha jainasasanaratah karmeti mimamsakah
Sa vo vidadhatu banchitaphalam trailokyanatho harih
[He, who is worshipped as Siva by the Saivas, as Brahma by the Vedantins, as Buddha by the Buddhists and Arhat by those follow the Jaina path, as karma by the Mimamsakas [followers of the Vedic religion], let that Hari, the lord of all that exists in the three worlds, grant you all your wishes.]

This is an interesting theoretical move, but with limitations. It seeks to produce a form of religious amity by accepting the status of different deities as co-equal, by treating them as different names of God. Yet, there is a remaining sense that these are different names for God whose true form is captured only in conceiving him as Hari/Visnu – the God of the Vaisnavas. However, there is no doubt that this is a significant move towards toleration. It abandons the claim that there is one true religion, and all others are competing falsities whose ideas must be condemned, and whose adherents forced to come to the true path. It is also quite different from another line of thought which states that although the ways of other religions are repugnant, they must be tolerated – using this term with the meaning of bearing something that is unpleasant. This opens up a conceptual refinement in discussions about toleration by showing at least two meanings of the term. The first sense of toleration sees diversity as static – in the sense that positions A and B consider some practices of the other repugnant – like Muslim repugnance for images or music in a religious place, while these are central to Hindu worship, or the Christian abhorrence of idolatry which again is central to Hindu faith – and not something from which each can learn anything. Practices of the other are repugnant and deplorable; but the position calls upon A to exercise restraint, not to interfere with those practices, and bear them stoically. The self-involved in this situation is an unchanging self. The second meaning of toleration handles the question of diversity differently. It acknowledges a kind of perspectivality in its view of God, and can admit that there can be other meaningful ways of seeing God, truth and a moral order – the central concerns of religious life –different from one’s own. Implicitly, there is an acknowledgement of finitude, and a logical space from which an argument for respect for other religious paths can be built. In pre modern India, which, despite the presence of major religious communities, avoided religious wars, the predominant argument of toleration followed this line of reasoning. Muslim Sufi saints actively promoted tolerant practices, fortifying them by the argument that if other major religions exist in the world, it must be because the Almighty intended it; and to be aggressive towards them is to go against the injunctions of their own religion.

In modern times, there have been several approaches to religious toleration as religious diversity continued to persist as a major political problem. Broadly, there are two major arguments about toleration stated by modern Indian thinkers. The first argument is unsurprising to a Western audience. This was advocated with a fierce reforming passion by modernist Indians – especially liberals, socialists and communists. This view saw religion as a pre-modern moral system that made obeying ethical laws conditional on the existence of God; but additionally, they regarded the social structure of Hindu society as being sanctioned by their scriptures and implicitly, God’s sanction. The doctrine of karma assumed an omnipotent and just God who rewarded individual human beings exactly according to the quality of their acts in their next life. This meant that all social iniquities, especially the inequalities of the caste order were seen as just punishment for acts in a previous life. Such beliefs made it hard to contest social injustices in this world. Thus, modernists believed that Indian society required coexistence and toleration between its religious communities; but religious thought, in itself, could not sanction or defend this toleration – because of the innate tendency in all religious faiths to regard its own precepts as inviolable, and the others’ repugnant. The task of philosophical reasoning was therefore to critically reject religious faith, and unite all inhabitants of the society and the state on the non-religious ground of a common secular citizenship.

The most serious challenge to this modernist view came from Gandhi who derived a theory of tolerance from religious belief itself. Two of his arguments are especially interesting. The first is his firm belief that despite their differences, at bottom, all religious faiths have the same message – compassion, fellowship, honesty and similar values. Gandhi wants religious people to recognize that underlying the rituals, forms of social organization, styles of priesthood, other religions urge their followers to practice very similar human values. All paths lead to God. A second argument maintains that it should be obvious to every religious person that it is essential for him to practice his own religion unimpeded by others and by political authority. All that is required, in an environment like India, is a realization that there are other religions besides one’s own. It would be clear to a person of faith that the unimpeded conduct of religious life must be equally important for others. The principle of tolerance can be derived from this simple social fact of religious plurality. Of the two, the second argument suggests that even if religious faiths have serious differences, followers of one path should tolerate those of others. The first however reaches out towards a more fundamental, and therefore more durable, basis to toleration by claiming that the central teachings of all religions are the same. All religions are parallel expressions of a common human faculty to seek an ethical good life – which is the essence of a search for God.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Sudipta Kaviraj, "Philosophy, Religion and Toleration", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2015. Consulté le 23/09/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/philosophy-religion-and-toleration