With the laying of the foundation stone of the Ram mandir reopening the debate on the role of religion in India, a new book has suggested that the traditions of all its religions can provide the grounds for religious tolerance.

At Independence, there were three perceived options for Indian nationhood. There was what has come to be called Nehruvian secularism, which opposed any connection between religion and nationhood . One reason the Congress has declined is that secularism is perceived as having no place for Hinduism. It can all too easily be portrayed as actively hostile to religion. The second option was Hindutva, which believes the Hindu religion and culture should be the primary element in shaping Indian nationalism. At Independence, there was a third way, the Gandhian way which gave a prominent role for Indic religions and, at the same time, promoted religious tolerance. The Gandhian option faded away, leaving the field open for the battle between Congress secularism and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Hindutva. Now, Arvind Sharma, a former IAS officer who has become a renowned scholar of comparative religion and is currently teaching at McGill University in Canada, has just published a book called Religious Tolerance: A History which adds a new element to this debate. His book is an attempt to explore the possibility that “religious tolerance could be placed on a firmer basis if grounds for it could also be found within the various religions themselves.”

Evidence of tolerance can be found in all major religions as well as evidence of intolerance. A difference between Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is that Hindus have tended to give prominence to their tolerance, even taken pride in it.

Sharma quotes Swami Vivekanand’s historic speech at the World’s Parliament of Religion in Chicago in which he said , “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.”

Sharma also has an answer to those who argue that it takes two hands to clap, that, in the Indian case, Hindu tolerance has to be met by tolerance from Islam and Christianity. For instance, he points out that it was Christian circles who first called for interreligious dialogue in modern times. Of Islam, he says, “…there is considerable evidence of tolerance in its long history.” There is considerable evidence of tolerance in Sufism which has played such an important role in the development of Islam in India.

Why should a State want to have religious tolerance? Well, let one answer come from a source many might consider surprising , Swami Dayanda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj movement.

He wrote, “The differences of learned people (of all religions) aggravate the differences among the common masses with the result that miseries increase and happiness is lost.”

Another reason is that differences between religions drown out their voices when it should be heard. In his book on the climate crisis, writer Amitav Ghosh says, “If religious groupings around the world can join hands with popular movements they may well be able to provide the momentum that is needed for the world to move forward on drastically reducing emissions.” But, unfortunately, they don’t join hands with each other

Who is to promote religious tolerance? Sharma ‘s reading of history has led him to conclude that it is only a slight exaggeration to say “the state of religious tolerance is determined by the State.”

So, he suggests it’s up to the State to adopt policies to promote religious tolerance drawing on the evidence of tolerance in the history and beliefs of all the religions in India.

The views expressed are personal

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