Chapter 1: Common Life in the Religiously Pluralistic India, by M. M. Thomas

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 1: Common Life in the Religiously Pluralistic India, by M. M. Thomas

(M. M. Thomas was the former Moderator of the World Council of Churches.)


I have known Dr. K.C. Abraham for many years. He belongs to a group of Christian thinkers and activists who have risen to ecumenical leadership through the Youth Movement of the Central Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India. We were colleagues on the staff of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society before he was called to be the Presbyter of St. Mark’s Cathedral congregation in Bangalore. He was, for a period, Director of the Ecumenical Christian Center, Whitefield, before he was called to be Professor of Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, and now he is holding the eminent position of director of the foremost institute for higher theological education in Southern Asia. As Chairman of the Association of Third World Theologians he has ventured into the new fields of theological-ethical thought and has shown tremendous creativity in promoting the theology of liberation in the context of the struggles of the peoples of the non-Western world. He is at his best when communicating his ideas whether in the class room or before the congregation or the public. The fact that he and his wife had to take care of a handicapped daughter has molded their character in a quality of tender love in all their relationships which I have always found to be marvelous. I have a special reason for gratefulness to him since he was perhaps the first person who thought of taking a doctorate based on my writings on social ethics from which I learned what my ethical methodology was. I take this opportunity of his completing sixty years to wish him many more years of creative and meaningful life and work.

I feel honored by being asked to contribute a paper for the Volume being produced in his honor on this occasion. Ethics of pluralism is a topic in which he is deeply interested. Since the time given is short, I thought I would contribute a paper which I presented at a seminar at the Centre for Christian Studies on Culture of the University of Kerala which has not been published elsewhere on that topic. It is addressing the situation of religious and ideological pluralism in India.

Pluralism is different from mere traditional plurality which was a coexistence of communities largely isolated from each other. Vice-President K. R. Narayanan, in his recent speech at the Indian Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi, spoke of Indian society even now as a ‘coexistence society’ rather than a single society;" he defined coexistence society as "many groups, castes and religions living together but interacting among each other only at the margin". He added that "what we have achieved through years of social reforms and economic changes is that the degree of this marginal interaction has been progressively enhanced" (Address by K.R. Narayanan, ISS 1994). Secular ideologies which have brought a new sense of selfhood to all communities and the rights of that selfhood for full participation in the centers of power which determine the meaning-content and goals of life in society is also a basic factor in this pluralism with parity. As religion has been constitutive of the self-identity of several traditional communities in India, the situation may be spoken of as a pluralism of religions and secular ideologies. The only path available today is, either the domination of the majority religion or secular ideology as the established framework of the state suppressing the rights of others using state coercion or open democratic secularism in which a consensus is sought regarding the values and directions of the common life of society and the state policy related to that common life, through peaceful but active dialogue among religions and ideologies. My topic deals with some lines in which the transition from coexistence to democratic secular existence in a single society may be constructively pursued.

This open secularism should not be interpreted as the common acceptance of any one common secular or religious faith. That will be a denial of plurality. The common unity should be sought at the level of Values of secular living and not at the level of Ultimate Truth. The traditional understanding of separation between Vyavaharika versus Paramarthika levels of truth is important. But the separation of the two levels should not be considered in any total sense. People’s faiths (truth affirmations) have their implications for the values for secular living to which they commit themselves. Faith and culture, faith and morality are different but closely related. But it is possible to hold to different faiths and support a move towards a more or less consensus about cultural and moral values through rational dialogue among faiths, and reinforce that consensus from different faith-standpoints. What does this mean in practice?

Democratic secularism should not be interpreted as a common denial of belief in a transcendent religious ultimate, as when scientific rationalism or Marxism is made the state ideology. That would be making a secularist ideology the established "religion" of the common life. It would only make for a religious vacuum in the life of the people leading to the rise of religious fundamentalism and communalism to fill the vacuum. Of course it is one thing for individuals and groups having faith in a philosophy of secularism that denies the transcendent ultimate, but it is a another to make it the established faith of the whole society or state. Indeed, one may even argue that atheists are necessary in any religiously oriented society to correct corruptions and criticize superstitions in religion; they play the prophetic role when prophets who attack false religion in the name of authentic religion are not available.

Similarly no one religious faith or religious conception of the ultimate reality or even any one doctrine about the relation between religions should be made integral to open secularism. The idea that equality of religions is integral to secularism is a characteristic of the mystic approach to reality that denies any ultimate reality to nama and rupa of religions. This approach is different from that of the Semitic religions which is based on the self-revelation of the ultimate in history in unique particular nama and rupa. Here again, there will be peoples affirming the mystic or revelatory approach to reality, but any one approach cannot be made basic to democratic secularism, though there is no harm in discussing the relative merits of each in relation to the ethic of common living. No doubt equal respect for persons holding different faiths in sincerity and equal respect and serious consideration for whatever faith held by any person in sincerity are essential to democracy. But this should not be confused with religious belief in the equality of religions. Freedom to "profess, practice and propagate" religion makes sense as a fundamental right of persons only on the basis of the recognition of this difference. The right of religious propagation given by medieval theocratic religious states was only for truth recognized as true by the established religion and state. It was different from the present democratic freedom of persons to pursue truth as dictated by one’s reason and conscience and to propagate the truth to which one decides to commit him/her-self. Even in States which had the ideology of communism as established truth, as formerly in Russia and China, it was only the truth in its established sense that was originally given the right to freedom of propagation; it was a purely medieval theocratic idea in its reverse secularist form.

The crucial question is whether a plurality of religious and secular faiths, each of which had developed its own traditional culture, that is, philosophy, morality, ideology and legal system of corporate life, can, through inter-faith rational discourse, create at least the basic framework of a common culture or common direction and scheme of values for peoples to build together a new dwelling, like the national community. That is, will the faith-communities while keeping their separate identities be prepared in the present historical situation of pluralism, to interact with each other bringing their respective religious and/or ideological insights on the conception of the human so as to build something of a consensus of cultural and moral values on which to build a single larger secular community. While their distinctive cultural traditions will have to be renewed, can they do it and feel that their traditions have found fulfillment through that renewal? I submit that we can.

Let me spell out two very clear ideas about the nature and destiny of humanness. First, all religions and ideologies post love as the ultimate moral law of human perfection and, a community of love with its harmony is the final goal of human and cosmic relationships. Second, nevertheless all religions and ideologies do have a sense that humankind, as they are today, is in some kind of self-alienation which makes the fulfillment of that perfect law impossible and corruption of power inevitable. Therefore while keeping love as the essence of humanness and, therefore, the criterion and goal of all human endeavor, human society today has to eschew utopianism and organize itself as power-structures based on a sense of the moral law of structural justice and utilize even the coercive legal sanctions of the state to preserve social peace and protect the weaker sections of society in a balance of order, freedom and justice. That is to say, all realistic social morality requires keeping the relation between power, law and love in tension, till the sources of human self-alienation are overcome and loving relation which has spontaneity as its character is possible.

Thus in biblical thought, there are two divine covenants with humanity operating in the face of evil created by human self-alienation from God -- one, the covenant of redemptive grace with Abraham which ends in the Messianic Kingdom of Love and the other, the covenant with Noah of protective law of reverence for life and later with Moses of the Ten Commandments for the preservation of rough justice in society. In Christianity, Jesus’ Sermon of the Mount expresses the character of the ethic of perfect love characteristic of the community appropriating the reconciling Grace of God in Jesus and this is to be consummated in the Kingdom of God to come. Since this unconditioned love is impossible of practice in a world where unredeemed sinfulness must be considered the general characteristic, common civil society and its individual members as well as institutions like the family, the economic order, nationality and the state necessary for the preservation of humanity are to be ordered according to the moral law inherent in their nature. Such laws are ordained by God in their creation and not destroyed by sin and therefore called Law of Nature understandable by reason in the Catholic tradition. In the Protestant tradition sin has perverted the moral law of creation more radically and, therefore, takes a more pragmatic approach to the laws needed in different historical situations for the preservation of civil society, its individual members and its basic institutions. But the idea of two distinct and interrelated levels of morality, the ultimate ethic of love and the relative ethic of law, are clearly laid down in the Christian system of ethics.

The two levels of morality is found in Marxist ideology. Feuerbach in his Essence of Christianity interpreted theology as only a form of anthropology and explained the human belief in the God of Love as an affirmation of love as the essence of being human which is denied in human existence. Marx and Engels accepted this interpretation but strongly criticized Feuerbach for assuming that this essence can be realized in human existence by moral willing of it. Engels says: "But love, -- with Feuerbach love is everywhere and at all times the wonder-working god who should help to surmount all difficulties of practical life -- and that in a society which is split into classes with diametrically opposite interests. At this point the last relic of its revolutionary character disappears from his philosophy, leaving only the old cant: love one another; fall into each other’s arms regardless of distinctions of sex or estate -- a universal orgy of reconciliation" (quoted by Bastian Wielenga, Introduction to Marxism, p.353). Love is not realizable until the social alienation of human beings in a class society is overcome and classless society emerges, for which, of course, the ethics of power-politics of class-struggle with its denials of love is to be followed. In fact Marx would say that just as selfishness is natural in a class society they need not be interpreted in moral terms. Both are natural necessities of social conditions, one of social alienation and the other of its being overcome. It looks that only they do not even interpenetrate now; they come one after the other in history. It is this that Fidel Castro and the Che Guevara have questioned, "let me tell you, at the risk of looking ridiculous, that a true revolutionary is led by great feelings of love" (ibid., p. 354).

Hinduism also has this two-tier morality of perfect love and relative law. It speaks primarily, not of love but of unitive vision as the final goal of human life. But, as Vivekananda has maintained, the two are ethically the same; only the Hindu system of ethics uses, not the personalist but the more philosophical language. He says, "There is no limit to this getting out of selfishness. All the great systems of ethos preach absolute selflessness. Supposing this absolute unselfishness can be reached by a man, what becomes of him? He is no more the little Mr./So-and-so; he has acquired infinite expansion. . . . .The personalist when he hears this idea philosophically put, gets frightened. At the same time, if he preaches morality, he after all teaches the very same idea himself" (Works, vol. I, p. 107). While striving for this end, the natural goals (the secular purusharthas -- artha, kama, and dharma -- pursuit of wealth, happiness and duties of one’s social station) of civil society are organized according to the laws of sadharana dharma of ahimsa, varnasrama dharma of four social vocations and the asrama stages of individual life. Of course the dharmic laws of civil society got absolutized when separated completely from the final goal of unitive vision, and as a result their historical situational character was lost until neo-Hinduism took up the cause of social reform. That is another matter. The point is that the perfect ethics of nishkama for the self-realized and the relative ethics of artha, kama and dharma of the world of plurality, were both posited in traditional and modern ethical systems of Hinduism.

India’s Socialist Secularism worked out within the ethos of traditional Hinduism, pursues this two-tier absolute-relative system of ethics. For instance, Asoka Mehta writing on democratic socialism said that a thoroughgoing moral relativism would bring about chaos or tyranny. So while recognizing that there are historically conditioned morality like feudal morality, bourgeois morality and proletarian morality, there must be an absolute moral criterion to evaluate all moralities. Elsewhere he said, "There undoubtedly are aspects of ethics that are relative but men’s deeper responses are to the absolute ethic, that nostalgia of man’s deepest ultimate triumph over all limitations". The absolute is the "achievement of self-harmony and acceptance of the rights and reality of other persons," that is, harmony is self-realization in a community of interpersonal love. For him it is the final fruit of all efforts and the end of all quests. It provides the "touchstone to judge and improve the historically conditioned morality. To deny validity to absolute ethics is to rob the ship at sea of its compass (Report -- The Congress Socialist Party, 1950). Ram Manohar Lohia interpreted the relative-historical and perfect-eternal dimensions of his socialist ethics by relating Marxism to Hindu spirituality. He wrote. "Every moment is no doubt a passing link in the great flux, but is also an eternity in itself’, and added, "The method of dialectical materialism informed by spirituality may unravel the movement of history; the method of spirituality informed by dialectical materialism may raise the edifice of being" (Marx, Gandhi and Socialism, p. 373-4).

Islam, with its central emphasis on the unity of God and God’s moral sovereignty of the world, sees the universe as "teleological, growth-oriented and destined to evolve towards perfection" in which the unity of all humanity will be realized. God has "created the potential for it through divine hidaya and revealed the values which would ensure growth." God called human beings to be vice-regent of God and entrusted him/her with the burden of responsibility for the future of the universe. But human beings have betrayed the trust through shirk, that is, by associating creatures with God. The Qur’an declares, "Verily I proposed to the heavens and the earth and the mountains to receive the trust (amanah), but they refused the burden and feared to receive it. Man alone undertook to bear it, but has proved unjust, senseless." It is in this situation of human alienation from the path of perfection that the laws of social living which took the form of shariat were ordained to call human beings to God and to their vocation of witness to divine justice and mercy. Here too, there seems to have an ethic of perfection and an ethic of the alienated situation (Asghar Ali Engineer, Islam and its Relevance to Our Age, 1984).

A.A. Fyzee in his Modern Approach to Islam (Bombay, 1993) says that the shariat is analogue of the Torah of the Jews and the Dharma among the Hindus. One could add that they are analogues to the Christian ethic of law of nature, to the liberal ethic of individual freedom and to the Marxist law of class struggle. They are all ethics of empirical historical situations alienated from the essence of humanity, in one sense witnessing to, and in another sense waiting in hope for the realization of, the ethic of love. And one could further add Engineer’s comment about shariat to all of them. He says, "Law is empirical and vision is transcendental. The balance between the two is lost if either is de-emphasized." Once the ethic of law is totally separated from the relation to the transcendent or the futurist vision of perfection, it loses dynamism and becomes static and gets absolutized and made irrelevant to new historical situations. When that happens, there is absolute conflict between them or they join hands in defending ethics of reaction against all new conceptions of justice in law as shariat and natural law did in the recent Cairo World Conference on Population.

My thesis is that the many visions of perfection are more or less the same or at least analogical, and therefore if each faith keeps its ethics of law dynamic within the framework of, and in tension with, its own transcendent vision of perfection, the different religious and secular faiths can have a fruitful dialogue at depth on the nature of human alienation which makes love impossible and for updating our various approaches to personal and public law with greater realism with insights from each other. This will help to make our different ethics of law expressive of our historical responsibility of building a common civil society for adherents of all faiths.

Recently at a meeting in Kozhencherry (Kerala), E.M.S. Nampoodiripad advocated cooperation between religious believers and Marxists at the action-level for the good of humanity, without interfering at the level of each other’s beliefs or basic ethics. Personally I think the cooperation in action requires some conversations on each other’s anthropology for the sake of arriving at a measure of consensus on an adequate common approach to what constitutes the good of humanity in the present situation and to the nature of the ethic of struggle and action needed to realize it. This remains true for cooperation between religions and between religions and secular faiths. For a situation of ethical pluralism, that is the only way in which a more or less common mind on empirical ethics relevant to the contemporary situation can emerge. Only then can law become an instrument of humanizing the technological culture of the global village and of meeting the demands of social liberation of the dalits, the tribals and the women whether in our separate communities of faith or at large in the country.