The word ‘pluralism’ has come to mean an uncomfortable variety of things in both the political and the religious sphere. In reference to religion, it is most often used to mean the conviction that no particular religious tradition has the full or final truth: each perceives a valid but incomplete part of it. This sort of pluralist perspective implies that no faith can or should make claims for itself as the only route to perfection or salvation. In the political context, it can refer to at least two positions. The first is an analysis of the state associated with political theorists like Harold Laski and John Neville Figgis in the early twentieth century. According to this approach, we must think of the state not as the all-powerful source of legitimate community life and action but as the structure needed to organise and mediate within a ‘community of communities’, a plurality of very diverse groups and associations of civil society, ranging from trade unions and universities to religious bodies. And a second political meaning is the one given currency particularly by Isaiah Berlin in his writings on political liberty (see the essays collected in Liberty, edited by Henry Hardy, Oxford University Press 2002, especially the famous ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, pp.166-217). There is a genuine plurality of human goods, and they are not all compatible in any given situation: doing the right thing may involve the sacrifice of one desired good for the sake of another, and we must not deceive ourselves as to the cost, pretending that there is some ideal condition in which all genuine human moral goals are realised harmoniously. If there is such a diversity of human goals, the most realistic political aspiration is for a liberal state that does not seek to advance by legislation a programme for this or that specific vision of human improvement or self-realisation.
Diverse as these definitions are, there are clear areas of overlap. If it is true, as some claim, that no religious tradition possesses ultimate truth, no religious tradition can claim the right to be legally enforced. If the state has to broker relations between different communities, it must itself be ideologically neutral. If a religious body exists within a pluralist state, it must at least recognise that it cannot expect the state to legislate as though its religious and ethical claims were beyond dispute. It has to understand that, while it may still make the same truth claims, they are now open to scrutiny, rebuttal and attack, and cannot be taken for granted. And the interweaving of all these themes is perhaps more evident in India than in many places in our world. India, in declaring itself a secular state at independence, was making a clear option for a certain kind of public and political neutrality, acknowledging that to be a citizen in India could not be something that depended on any particular communal identity and that the state could not intervene in religious disagreements except insofar as they became socially disruptive. Furthermore, the religious context and history of India are bound to pose questions to any simplistic religious absolutism; and the oldest traditions of India have a good deal to say about the elusiveness of the divine as well as its revelation. Which is why modern India is such a fruitful context in which to examine understandings of pluralism ”“how they apply in practice and questions arising.
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