Perspectives on pluralism


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The distinction between uniformity and diversity – between the one and the many as empirical categories and as essences – is one of the universals of human cultures. Evaluation of the one category or essence in relation to the other varies, however, not only from one culture to another, but also at different points of time in the same society. For discussions of cultural relativism, cultural pluralism, or multiculturalism in modern or modernizing societies, a reasonable point of departure is the homogenizing worldview of the European Enlightenment as it was elaborated in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This was the age of reason (of reasonableness rather than rationalism) and Kant, the typical philosopher of the Enlightenment, wanted humankind to dare to know so that, among other things, social institutions may be perfected here, in this world and in our time. An expression of the new confidence was the concept of social science. ‘To know,’ Comte proclaimed, ‘in order to predict, to predict in order to control.’ The bedrock of this confidence was the well and long established idea of ‘natural law’, flowing from the conviction that human nature was the same everywhere, irrespective of differences of time and place.



Cultural Relativism: The 16th to 18th centuries were also the time of exploration and travel, of the discovery of difference in its manifold manifestations – geographical, physical, linguistic, cultural and social. As Peter Gay puts it, the early social sciences and cultural relativism were ‘the bittersweet fruit of travel.’1 Among the travellers, anthropologists were particularly the describers par excellence of cultural difference – confessedly, even proudly, the students of ‘other’ cultures. Not to become adrift in an ocean of otherness and suffer from ethnographic dazzle, they nailed the slogan of oneness to their masthead. In the jargon of the late 19th century anthropologists, such oneness was spelled out as ‘the psychic unity of mankind.’ Comparative culture history was said to be one in source, one in experience, and one in potential.

In the light of the foregoing conviction, cultural difference was best located within the framework of social evolution (the Spencerian legacy), envisaging grades of culture (savagery, barbarism, civilization), even grades of mental endowment (prelogical and logical mentalities). As the English anthropologist E.B. Tylor put it: ‘The educated world of Europe and America practically settles a standard by simply placing its own nations at one end of the social series and savage tribes at the other, arranging the rest of mankind between these limits according as they correspond more closely to savage or to cultured life.’2

The message was that the ‘savages’ could be enlightened, for they were those that had remained backward rather than those that had (in the dominant version of Christian belief) become degenerate. The notion of psychic unity was thus married to, as it were, the prevalence of cultural diversity. Such diversity was, however, regarded as an inherently unstable state. Ultimately, civilization was the destiny (or fate) of all human societies.



It may be briefly noted here that the evolutionary framework was not the only one within which cultural diversity was located. Independently, the Enlightenment itself generated a counter-paradigm of pluralism. According to it, universal truths were not discoverable in the domain of human cultures. Thus, Herder maintained that human beings live in worlds that they themselves create, and that such creativity is characterized by uniqueness or historical specificity. According to this view, the postulation of universal laws (such as those of psychic unity or social evolution) distorted rather than facilitated our understanding of human institutions or predicaments. In the manner of social philosophers such as Vico and Montesquieu, Herder wrote about the distinctive spirit of cultures, as a consequence of which they become incommensurable.

If the ideals of each culture are equally valid in its own setting, an incompatibility of ideals may well stare us in the face. For Herder, this was welcome, as he dreaded ‘deadly uniformity’ more than any other cultural malaise. But he did not rule out inter-cultural communication. In Isaiah Berlin’s succinct summary: ‘What Herder calls Fortgang [‘advance’] is the internal development of a culture in its own habitat, towards its own goals; but because there are some qualities that are universal in man, one culture can study, understand and admire another, even though it cannot return to it and will only make itself foolish if it tries.’3 In short, Herder was a radical pluralist, and not in the cultural context alone but also in the ethical. His extremism points to the dangerous pathways that should be avoided but often are not. This takes me back to cultural anthropologists.

The evolutionary paradigm held out the promise of a common civilizational future – in principle – to all non-civilized (non-westernized) peoples. It not only implicitly castigated them for their present condition (recall the reasons that used to given for India’s economic backwardness), rendering their inter-cultural differences meaningless (the Orient embraced several civilizations), it also promised them a future (represented by the industrialized countries) whose ideals they were expected to accept unquestioningly. Such visions of the future may have passed muster in the late 19th century; they gradually came under critical scrutiny in the 20th.



Cultural anthropologists were already in the 1920s modifying the evolutionary presuppositions of their discipline through invocation of the importance of contextualization: particular institutions were now examined from the perspective of their social function within a cultural whole or configuration. Evaluation in terms of a cross-cultural scheme of values was held in abeyance but the notion of progress was not altogether abandoned. Thus, the primitive societies (so-called) of the 19th century were now redesignated as pre-literate and pre-technological, but the ideals of literacy and economic betterment continued to be affirmed. An exaggerated version of contextualization was the theory of cultural relativism that gained currency in the 1930s and ’40s.

Melville Herskovits, one of the best-known exponents of cultural relativism, adopted a position reminiscent of Herder’s, namely that there are as many expressions of Truth, Beauty and Goodness as there are cultures. This is so, he argued, because cultural and moral ‘judgements are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation.’4 The social character of individual experience is stressed: ‘The very core of cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences – of mutual respect. Emphasis on the worth of many ways of life, not one, is an affirmation of the values of each culture.’5



In other words, while affirming the presence of cultural universals, Herskovits denied that any particular form (of, for example, familial organization or morality) may legitimately be considered a cultural absolute. Doing so would amount to falling into the trap of ethnocentrism. Actual (historically given) forms are cultural constructions, bound to particular places, times and traditions (e.g. Toda polyandry or Victorian monogamy); it is therefore historically misleading and morally wrong to apply value judgements cross culturally for these cannot but be culturally rooted. By an ironical twist of the argument, no absolute values are admitted except the sole and supreme value of cultural relativism.

All values are by definition culture bound and each culture is bounded, that is, autonomous and closed. The possibility of establishing cultural absolutes through comparison (synchronic inference) or in terms of cumulative collective historical experience (diachronic inference) is ruled out ab initio. In short, relativism provides a much-needed corrective to the arrogance that underlies the notions of social evolution and cultural progress, but comes to grief by substituting a multiplicity of ethnocentrisms for the ethnocentrism of one particular dominant culture (e.g. the western). A genuinely pluralist position must identify cross-cultural absolutes which would thus be transcultural. This calls for meta-anthropological inquiry and reflection, not ethnographic enterprise. For the latter, the theory of cultural relativism proved to be a dead end, not the way out.



Cultural Pluralism: It has been claimed on behalf of a somewhat ambiguously defined Hindu cultural tradition (labelled neo-Hinduism by some scholars) that a solution to the foregoing problem is available within it. The claim may be examined in two contexts, namely, first, the intra-cultural context of moral pluralism and second, the cross-cultural context of religious plurality.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Hindu society is its internal stratification into four varnas and of each varna into numerous jatis, reflecting, among other differences, grades of moral worth. These grades are conceptualized in terms of gunas or ‘essences’ (sattva, rajas, tamas). A uniform human nature is denied and consequently the possibility of a generally applicable natural law also is ruled out. The Manusmriti prescribes different punishments or corrective measures for the same transgression, depending upon who the actor (patra) is, when the transgression occurred (kala) and where it occurred (desha). Using the late A.K. Ramanujan’s evocative phrase, Hindu moral judgements are ‘context sensitive’. Such pluralism is considered finely tuned rather than discriminatory.

This is not the place to go into the admissibility of the foregoing claim; I bring it up as an element of the larger claim that the Hindu cultural tradition is pluralistic. It must be noted, however, that the morality (dharma) peculiar to each varna or jati or family (kula, lineage) and each ashrama (stage of life) is subordinated to a set of categorical imperatives, or principles that are absolute: they are called the dharma uniformly applicable to everybody (sarvasadharan dharma). Ethnographic studies attest to the content of this core, comprising absolutes such as charity, chastity, truthfulness and respect for one’s parents. Negativity, lust, anger, greed, egotism, and so on are moral vices no matter in whom they are found. In short, Hindu morality is conditionally and not absolutely pluralist and, therefore, the claim that pluralism in an inbuilt element of Hindu ethics is only partly true.



The context in which Hindu pluralism has become part of a public debate is that of the religious plurality of India. At the empirical level, this plurality across religious traditions and within each major religious tradition is a well documented fact. In respect of Hinduism, it has been argued that what needs explanation is the emergence of an allegedly homogeneous ‘all-India’ Hinduism in the 19th century out of the welter of regional religious traditions, such as Vaishnavism in the west, Shaivism in the south, and Shaktism in the east.

If the coalescence of a large variety of religious traditions in the 19th century into (in Romila Thapar’s phrase) ‘syndicated Hinduism’ reflected the pressure of an emerging nationalism, the danger that such a homogenized all-India tradition would turn out to be hegemonistic and even intolerant was also recognized, at least implicitly. Vivekananda saw both the former possibility (of an all-India Hinduism) and the latter danger (of intolerance), and strove to promote the one and prevent the other. The method he adopted is of interest in the context of the idea of pluralism.



The impact of Ramakrishna’s teachings on Vivekananda was comprehensive. To understand the latter’s pluralist position, it is imperative that we begin with Ramakrishna, who had by teaching and personal example stressed the importance of realizing the oneness of the true religious quest. He not only affirmed the truth of all available paths of spiritual realization within the Hindu fold, but went further by suspending his Hindu identity for a while and trying to live in the meanwhile as an orthodox Muslim. Ramakrishna’s emphasis was on personal experience. In his younger years as a temple priest and religious devotee, he had shown a remarkable openness of mind in respect of the diversity of religious belief and practice, embracing the Vedic-Puranic textual and ritual traditions, Vaishnava and Shakta theology and worship, and the Tantric tradition.

With the passage of time, he became more selective and favoured the higher Brahmanical tradition combined with bhakti over other forms of religious faith. Further, he stressed that once a path is chosen, one should be steadfast in pursuing it. Ramakrishna’s religious quest drew upon the medieval, pluralist, Brahmanical doctrine of differential striving (adhikara bheda) and, indeed, had deeper roots in classical notions of social status-consistent (svadharmik) and personal nature-consistent (svabhavik) conduct. His familiarity with non-Hindu religious traditions was limited. In short, Ramakrishna was eclectically pluralist, but primarily within the Hindu fold.

It was Vivekananda who tried to firmly cross religious boundaries to construct a doctrine of pluralism. His message of religious pluralism and tolerance was addressed to the followers of all faiths, but it was given from a Hindu platform, as it were. One of his most frequently quoted pronouncements (made in 1894 in the USA) reads as follows:

We not only tolerate, but we Hindus accept every religion, praying in the mosque of the Mohammedans, worshipping the fire of the Zoroastrians, and kneeling before the Cross of Christians, knowing that all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of them marking a stage of progress.6



A close reading of the text, which at first seems to be an excellent statement of the pluralist position, reveals two serious shortcomings. First, it is not exactly an accurate account of the prevailing Hindu practices of the times: some Hindus were like what Vivekananda claimed on their behalf, some were not. The internal diversity within the so-called Hindu fold was and is too great for any such neat and uniformly applicable generalization.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is a frankly evolutionist statement in which some religions are higher than others (at different stages of progress). Indeed, Vivekananda’s references to the ‘lower forms’ of Hinduism (which he liked to denigrate as the religion of the kitchen) and non-Hindu religions were not flattering, they were even critical. Aspects of Buddhism and Jainism, notably the agnosticism of the former and the atheism of the latter, were criticized. The Buddha’s stress on nirvana was considered a curse. He expressed respect for the Prophet of Islam, but, apart from the social egalitarianism of the Muslims, found little to follow in it.7 The attitude towards Christianity bordered on the aggressive: he deemed it an inferior religion: ‘with all its boasted civilization, [it] is but a collection of little bits of Indian thought… a very patchy imitation [of] our religion.’8 Vedanta, he proclaimed, again and over again, was the universal religion for ‘the spiritually advanced’ person.



Vivekananda’s pluralism and his conception of tolerance, it is reasonable to conclude, were hierarchical: it was his considered view that Vedanta comprised all the highest truths of all religions, including those that had not yet been realized anywhere.9 It is obvious that his ideas of tolerance and harmony, combined with the ‘mission’ for the conquest of the world by Hindu spirituality, are more inclusive and synthetic than genuinely pluralist. Pluralism requires a transcendental referent in the absence of which either rank relativism will prevail, or hierarchy will rule. Vivekananda clearly believed Vedanta to be the transcendental religion: but surely a valid pluralist logic does not allow us to so elevate one among the many existing religions.

Gandhi understood the logic of religious pluralism better than anyone with whose thought I am familiar. (Maulana Azad’s pluralism was akin to Vivekananda’s, with Islam taking the place of Vedanta). Gandhi maintained that the religion that he considered the source of value was not Hinduism or any other known religion, but one that transcended them all. He did not name it, but one could describe it as a universal, spiritual (non-secular), humanism. He described Hinduism as the ‘most tolerant of all religions’ because it enables one ‘to admire and assimilate whatever may be good in other faiths.’10 Who is to judge such ‘goodness’? Gandhi rejected the authority of tradition even when it is regarded as revealed (without human authorship). Ultimately, the only guide is moral reason or the inner voice or ‘satisfaction’ (atmatushti): one chooses alone, as it were, hoping to be true to one’s ‘eternal self’. Needless to emphasize, one would have to construct a more generally realisable guideline than the foregoing.



Gandhi practised what he preached. He acknowledged the enormous influence – joyously received – of the moral content of Christianity on his own thinking, summed up best of all in the Sermon on the Mount in which, he declared, ‘Jesus has given a definition of perfect dharma.’11 Similarly, he considered Islam as having been supremely influential in the making of ‘India’s national culture’ through its emphasis upon the ‘oneness of God’ and ‘the brotherhood of man.’12 The influence of Jainism on Gandhi’s moral sensibility is well documented in the biographies and other studies. To conclude, then, the key idea in Gandhi’s religious thought is ‘participatory pluralism’, and it overcomes the limitations of the hierarchical model. He stated it in anguished (almost breathless) simplicity in Noakhali during that last momentous pilgrimage of 1946 when he told one of the small gatherings that used to come to hear him: ‘I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh... and so are you all (ap sab hain yeh sab kuch).’

Unless pluralism leads to the realization of composite oneness, which is to be distinguished from the atomism of relativism as also from the oneness of hierarchical inclusion, it remains merely a benign insularity that survives on respect for cultural distance, or an empirical togetherness that dissipates under pressure. Moreover, it is important to realize that participatory pluralism as a general, and not only a religious idea, requires material foundations. Gandhi thought about this essential requirement in terms of notions such as shared labour (group spinning was a key symbolic act) and ‘trusteeship’. It is obvious that we need to go much further than that. The first thing, however, is to acknowledge the potential of participatory pluralism.



Multiculturalism: The problem of cultural diversity is universal, and its experiences too are diverse. If it has manifested itself in India in terms of religious difference (Marx considered the apparent constitution of the history of the East by the history of religions as illusory, but I cannot take up that question here), it is present elsewhere as ethnic plurality. One of the most extensively and intensively discussed cases of ethnic plurality is, of course, that of North America, particularly the United States, peopled by native Americans (the so-called Indians), European immigrants, involuntary African immigrants, and others.

The diversity of national origin among the European migrants, while prized, was also softened by the collective experience of making a new nation. America, Emerson declared in 1845, was an ‘asylum of all nations’, where ‘a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature’ would be ‘constructed’.13 The emphasis was upon assimilation and the phrase ‘smelting pot’, which later became famous as the ‘melting pot’, was coined by Emerson himself. The emergence of American English as the common speech contributed enormously to this process. Across the border, French Canadians proved recalcitrant and their adherence to French became the key symbol of their resistance. The notion of multiculturalism (like the term) was born there in Quebec. It came to the United States only in the 1970s.



What does it stand for and what does it signify? In Nathan Glazer’s succinct summary: ‘It is a position that rejects assimilation and the "melting pot" image as an imposition of the dominant culture, and instead prefers such metaphors as the "salad bowl" or the "glorious mosaic", in which each ethnic and racial element in the population maintains its distinctiveness.’14 As for the significance: ‘Multiculturalism is the price America is paying for its inability or unwillingness to incorporate into its society African Americans, in the same way and to the same degree it has incorporated so many groups [including Asians].’15

American Blacks of Martin Luther King’s generation had a dream that they would eventually be like other Americans (with the same rights and privileges) though black in colour. The Civil Rights Movement, school integration, ‘busing’, mixed neighbourhoods, and the policy of affirmative action were all the means of realizing this dream. Much has been achieved, but the application of the ultimate criteria of absolute mutual acceptance, namely the abolition of racial barriers in the choice of spouse and place of residence, underlines the limitations of what has been achieved. On the rebound, the Blacks, redesignated by themselves as African Americans (or Afro-Americans) have chosen to emphasize their ethnic distinctiveness and the multicultural character of American society. The biggest victory of multiculturalists so far has been in the redesigning of school curricula, but efforts to change long established perspectives in other areas are afoot.

Multiculturalism in America today is not an original perspective on life but a reactive phenomenon. Whether it will acquire range, depth, and added dimensions of legitimacy, or will turn out to be a transitional phase of contemporary American history (as many Americans believe) remains to be seen. What is certain is that the specificity of American multiculturalism makes it instructive for us in India more in the limited but very significant context of relations between the Dalit bahujan and upper caste Hindus than that of interreligious and interregional differences.



This necessarily brief examination of selected perspectives on cultural pluralism was undertaken in the belief that, although the idea is not new, it has not perhaps been given the close attention that it surely deserves. Questions that are crucial remain unanswered because they are not properly posed (cultural relativism); too much is taken on trust without deep exploration (Hindu pluralism); or hasty comparisons are made that foreclose options (multiculturalism).

Most of the time, it seems to me, we make do with a thin pluralism that is mutual indifference disguised as tolerance (of the ‘I am okay, you are okay’ variety). It will not take us very far. There are other kinds of pluralism that are not for us, most notably discriminatory pluralism, which recognizes plurality only to advocate, at best, the incompatibility thesis (for example, the notorious ‘two-nation’ theory) or, at worst, cultural domination (of, for example, the Hindutva kind) and ethnic cleansing (as witnessed in Kosovo or Kashmir). And, in the end, our understanding of the ground reality in culturally plural settings is not merely a matter of information; it is critically dependent upon the clarification of the concepts we employ.



The notion of participatory pluralism that I commended above needs clarification as much as any other. Participation cannot and should not embrace everything. It is contingent upon intercultural communication, judgement, and choice, all three of which presuppose values, and these in turn raise the critical question about the distinction between relativism (all values are subjective) and pluralism (there are communicable objective values) with which I began.

Let me conclude by quoting Isaiah Berlin: ‘Pluralism is the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathising and deriving light from each other. Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes men human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them.’16



1. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Source of Freedom, Norton, New York, 1977, p. 319.

2. E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, 2 vols., John Murray, London, 1913, I:26.

3. Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind, Chatto and Windus, London, 1997, p. 410.

4. M.J. Herskovits, Man and His Works, Knopf, New York, 1948, p. 63.

5. Ibid., p. 77.

6. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. I, Advaita Ashram, Calcutta, 1972, pp. 331-32.

7. Ibid., p. 484.

8. Ibid., The Complete Works, vol III, 1973, p. 275.

9. Ibid., pp. 251-52.

10. M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 35, Publications Division, GOI, New Delhi, 1969, pp. 166-67.

11. Margaret Chatterji, Gandhi’s Religious Thought, Macmillan, London, 1983, pp. 41-57.

12. M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 58, 1970.

13. Nathan Glazer, We are all Multiculturalists Now, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997, p. 100.

14. Ibid., p. 10.

15. Ibid., p. 147.

16. Isaiah Berlin, op. cit., p. 9.