Friday, March 31, 2006

Dr Lehmann's article on Polytheism and Tolerance

I have known Professor Lehmann's work since about 1977 and greatly respect the work he has done in Japanese studies and, more recently, in business and management.

However, in his article on Polytheism and Tolerance in this week's The Globalist, he is stepping into an area where he knows little. His basic argument is that monotheistic religions have made for intolerance, while polytheistic India is tolerant. Therefore polytheism must make for tolerance!

This has some face value and some superficial validity.

However, the fact is that tolerance in India was not built by polytheism.

Polytheists killed each other just as effectively and massively as monotheists did.

It was secularism that created a safe space for people of different views.

This happened in a sort of passive way under "Hindu" and Mughal rulers earlier in our (Indian) history.

However, what one may call "active secularism" started only under the British who for the first time in our history actively disregarded the religious views of people in terms of employment and in terms of where they lived in the new urban spaces the British created (cities such as Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and New Delhi). The British were interested only in whether the people they employed were competent, and in whether people had the money to live in the wealthier areas.

Up till the time of the British, employment and residence were dictated by one's religion and one's caste (they are still dictated by one's caste, in all Indian villages and pre-British towns).

Perhaps my point becomes clearest when one compares another polytheistic country (Nepal – the only officially Hindu country in the world) with India. Nepali polytheism did not lead to any tolerance (there was no religious freedom for people to move from one religious system to another even within "Hinduism", let alone outside it; people who did so had no civil rights at all, and were killed, imprisoned or beaten up in order to persuade them to return to their traditional social group and so preserve the stasis of Nepali society).

Basically this was because Nepali polytheism was and is part of a religious system that oppresses the common person (that is why there is such a strong Maoist movement in Nepal, responsible for the current political stalemate with the King).

British India, however, building on the work of William Carey from the eighteenth century and of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Group in the nineteenth century, created the sort of political space which not only gave equal respect to all religions, but also the political context in which the excluded classes could be (gradually) included in economic and human progress.

Had it not been for British education, for British values, and for training offered by the British to Indians in modern administrative methods from the late nineteenth century, it is doubtful if India would have been able to survive as an independent secular country till now.

Professor Lehmann is perhaps not aware that there is now a strong "Hindu fundamentalist polytheist" movement in India, which wants to take India back to our "previous Hindu" values. This movement has in fact nearly come to political power recently (it was the senior partner in the coalition government previous to the current one).

If this Hindu fundamentalist polytheistic movement does come to proper political power without depending on coalition allies, the future of India is an open question from a political and social point of view – though, in India, those have till now been a separate matter from the economic progress of the country.

I do not see many threats to India economically if the politicians keep themselves to themselves.

Regretfully, fundamentalist politicians rarely keep themselves to themselves and usually insist on using state power to browbeat (and sometimes physically attack) people who disagree with them. Under the government which included these Hindu fundamentalist polytheists, we saw plenty of evidence of both browbeating and physical attacks against not only Muslims and Christians but also against the excluded ("lower" or "dalit") castes and against "upper caste" Hindus who disagreed with the polytheistic fundamentalists.

I conclude that tolerance in the public square arose and arises neither from monotheism nor from polytheism. The first movers for political tolerance of religious and intellectual differences were the "Radical Reformers" in sixteenth century Continental Europe, then the Clapham Group in nineteenth century England, and their spiritual and intellectual heirs, initially in the United States and now of course in the whole world.

However, in the whole world now, we are facing a new intolerance against debate, against genuine intellectual disagreements, and against the monotheistic religions.

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