Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 11, February 28, 2009 Apt Addition to Discourse on Religious Diversity
by Amna Mirza, 2 March 2009 Home page BOOK REVIEW
Inter-Religious Communication—A Gandhian Perspective by Margaret Chatterjee; Promillla & Co. Publishers, New Delhi; 2009; pages 200; price: Rs 425.
Religion in India is a realm where diversity clashes with faith and belief. A society exists when humans interact with each other for coexistence. The state is that realm with authority and regu-lation is sanctioned based on our consent. In this domain, religion is, first of all, a matter of personal belief, and then understood at its realm of operation within the larger society.
The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the right to freely preach, propagate, religion, as a fundamental right. The state cannot favour any religion nor discriminate against any religion. The country, which is home to more than a billion people, breeds heterogeneity and this in turn leads to the problematique of accommodation, co-existence and toleration in the interplay of operation of various religious views.
Within this framework, an apt addition to the philosophical discourse on religious diversity in India comes from the work by Margaret Chatterjee. She gives it a definite parameter by placing it under the Gandhian perspective. The book and its ideas have been judiciously spread over eight chapters to let us have a step-by-step under-standing leading to the larger conceptual grasp of ideas.
Religion in present times has become the thorny divide to cultivate the concept of Us versus Them. Communication needs a language, the diversity and highly volatile nature of faith adds to complexity in inter-religious communication. An inherent idea of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory comes across in her work which calls for an unhindered dialogue to understand the religious faiths of others so as to sow the seeds of an open society.
Chapter 2 gives an elaborate picture of religious pluralism and how different thinkers— Raja Rammohun Roy, Bipin Chandra Pal, Gandhi—dealt with it in trying to uplift the society and politics in India. In the chapter ‘Religious Pluralism and the House of Islam’, she upholds a teleological idea in the Gandhian tenor that all religions point to as also the faith towards an omnipotent being, which would shun non-violence, spread peace, benevolence. The broad agenda of Sufism, the idea of a formless Allah in Islam, the theme of Unity form part of good reading.
A comprehensive deliberative discourse is forced in the chapter ‘Do we need authority in Religious Life?’, where she invokes Hegel calling for authority based on morals, Bentham calling for utilitarian calculus. The idea of authority to manage and guide diversity aimed at promoting common good without fear or favour is her stand. This again would be a polemical realm based on what perspective we adhere to. Some may look upon it as a neo-Rousseuvian idea of coercion in the realm (religious here) to guide us towards maintaining freedom in the right spirit whereas others would find it smacking of something that leads to a slippery slope whereby the funda-mentalists would have a free play for moral policing.
The other chapters on Religious Language (Chapter 4) and Spirituality (Chapter 5) carve out a much wider picture of these concepts relegated not to ‘Almighty-talk’, but as embedded in poetry, images, music, dance, amongst others.
The book ends with a subtle message giving a glimpse of her scholarly approach towards the subject: she offers comparative insight into the works and ideas of Abraham Isaac Kook and Sri Aurobindo. They entrapped sources of learning from different cultural milieu and projected the need for integration for purification of our everyday sins by juxtaposing against everyday reality.
To conclude, a vast canvas is covered, though lucidly yet in detail. It sets the tone for more challenging debates as to how the Gandhian jargon of ‘Ram Rajya’ has been a cause for firing up the communal fangs when the nationalist struggle was on. Issues like trade-off between common law in a democratic polity and the tampering of diversity are certain other areas which also call for a thought. The reviewer is doing her M.Phil in Political Science in the University of Delhi.