Half-way through his new book, Arvind Sharma, one of the world’s most noted scholars of comparative religion, makes this axiomatic statement: “Unity is not uniformity.” It seems counter-intuitive at first glance, but it’s an idea that many of us are familiar with in another form: Unity in diversity.

Phrases like these acknowledge the incredible diversity of India, but the truth is that the current politics of ethno-nationalism is hardly tolerant of differences. Often, it demands homogeneity through campaigns like “One nation, one language”, and bandies around broad terms like “Indian culture”.

But religions, like languages in India, are many and one need not prevail over the others for a nation to be united. In Religious Tolerance: A History, Sharma tries to demonstrate this point over and over again with examples from the major faith systems of the world. The book is an important addition to Sharma’s formidable scholarship in the area, and timely too, considering the sway of majoritarian forces the world over.

The book is divided into three main parts: “The Abrahamic Religious Traditions’, which deals with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “The Indic Religious Traditions”, which covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and “The East Asian Religious Traditions”, which looks at Confucianism, Daoism and Shintoism. Each section is appended by a chapter that offers an overview of the faith group and is useful for those who may not want to get into the specifics.

Sharma writes the respective histories of these faiths using a framework popular among scholars of religion. This framework comprises a triad of approaches that exist in all religions – exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Exclusivism is when a religion asserts that it is uniquely valuable and is intolerant of other faiths; inclusivism is when a religion makes space for the practices of other faiths in its vicinity while maintaining that it is the truest one; and pluralism is when a faith recognises that the next one is as good as itself.

The potential for pluralism

Citing from scripture and history, Sharma shows how every religion has all three tendencies. A useful example would be that of Islam, which is largely thought to be an orthodox and fundamentalist religion in a post 9/11 world. Indeed, the Quran’s sword verse (9:5) and provision for punishing apostasy by death are infamous.

But it might surprise many non-Muslim readers to know how it is said in the Quran that There is no compulsion in religion” (2:257) or that the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said ikhtilafu ummati rahmatun li al-nas” – “Difference of opinion in my community is a mercy”. Islam recognises differences and diversity as valuable for social construction.

Historically, rulers like Zain-ul-Abidin, the sultan of Kashmir (15th century), the Mughal emperor Akbar (16th century) and prince Dara Shikoh (17th century) have been known for their inclusive attitudes. Today, the Ismailis, under the leadership of prince Karim Aga Khan, are recognised as one of the most tolerant denominations of Muslims, as Sharma points out.

Similarly, every religion has the potential for pluralism, and the book provides plenty of examples for each case. However, Sharma notes how the State has a huge role to play in determining which strand of the majority religion gets activated. Basically, he says, “the state of religious tolerance is determined by the State.”

In the past as in present, the State continues to exert a great influence over the attitudes of people towards religious and ethnic minorities. Religious conflict and politics continually dominate headlines, even as presidents, prime ministers and even terrorists order the building of walls, the persecution of communities, the demolition of religious structures, or the creation of concentration camp-like facilities.

Beyond the differences

But there are solutions now, as there have always been. The same religions that are used to justify violence can be used to foster peace. It is especially useful to study how the East Asian nations historically found ways to accommodate Confucianism, Daoism, Shintoism and Buddhism rather seamlessly.

Sure, there were periods of upheaval and differences, but there is a basic recognition of the unity of all faiths and their respective functions. This is reflected in the Japanese belief that “Confucianism is responsible for ‘the laws and institutions which are forever to be relied upon’, while Buddhism and Daoism ‘invisibly assist the network of gods and spirits, benefit the world and banish suffering’.”

This East Asian approach indicates that the boundaries between faiths are in fact porous, with traditions from one seeping into others. Multiple religious identities are not uncommon even today in countries like Korea and Japan. Sharma posits that it is perhaps the Western notion of religion, which presupposes hard boundaries, that is at the root of the problem of the discourse of divisive religions.

After all, as the 18th century Japanese philosopher, Tominaga Nakamoto said, “If goodness is the main feature, why limit it to three teachings?”

Religious Tolerance: A History, Arvind Sharma, HarperCollins India.