India’s Pluralistic Ethos

Dr. Mike Ghouse   July 5, 2021   Comments Off on India’s Pluralistic Ethos

Preface: This is one of the most comprehensive articles on Pluralism. I have written fairly similar articles. It is an article on pluralism. ie. If we can learn to respect the otherness of the other and accept the given uniqueness of each one of us, then conflicts fade and solutions emerge.

Mike Ghouse

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Representational image | A security personnel and performers pose for the camera during the 73rd Independence Day celebrations in Srinagar | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Composite culture must reject mono-cultural domination, and reaffirm the value of pluralism of India. Tagore had said that the best way to union is to honour separateness.


Manoeuvres for power, privilege and unabridged hegemony remain a grave impediment in the march towards an equitable polity. India has passed through many phases of chaos and anarchy, which, in hindsight, reveal an alarming pattern of destabilisation of the polity. The silver lining being an egalitarian democratic system, supported by a large mass of people — with courage and hope.

The emergence of a distinct pattern of national integration seems to be in an unhealthy competition with the composite culture of India. At one level, the two are different processes, but at a more meaningful level, they represent jointly a design of congruence.

A culture, rooted in heritage and critically appreciative of it at the same time, can alone become an effective medium for national integration. The vast variety of religion, caste, community, language, race, custom, dress, climate and living style, makes India the greatest museum of living cultures.

A laboratory of intermixing 

In 1889, William Comer Petheram, then-Chief Justice of Bengal, in an address at the University of Calcutta, said: “Above all, it should be borne in mind by those who aspire to lead the people of this country into the untried regions of political life, that all the recognised nations of the world have been produced by the freest possible intermingling and fusing of the different race stocks inhabiting a common territory. The horde, the tribe, the caste, the clan, all the smaller separate and often warring groups, characteristic of the earlier states of civilisation, must, it would seem, be welded together by a process of unrestricted crossing before a nation can be produced.”

A few years later, in 1911, Rabindranath Tagore observed: “The fact of the matter is that their separateness is a reality, a blind attempt to wipe it out in order to secure advantage of the large unit is not in consonance with truth. A suppressed separateness is a terrible explosive force. The best way to union is to honour the separateness of what is really separate.”

Historically, India has been one of the greatest confluences of cultural strands, a laboratory of racial intermixing, of cross-fertilisation of religious ideas and secular thought. Sixteen major languages, about 2,000 dialects, a dozen ethnic groups, seven religious communities fragmented into many sects, castes and sub-castes inhabiting India’s 68 socio-cultural sub-regions within the seven natural geographic regions have given birth to a vivid and vibrant scheme of unity in diversity. India’s survival and continuity for more than 3,000 years of recorded history, and possibly 2,000 years of prehistory, makes it the world’s oldest, largest and most tenacious plural society.

The migration of primordial hordes of ethnic group from central, south-central and north-eastern parts of Asia into the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains, moving southwards to the alluvial Deccan Plateau, inhabited by the indigenous people, provided the first pattern of inter-ethnic mixture.

The Dravidians, the Aryans, the Semitics and the Mongoloids provided the ethnic substratum of Indian civilisation. The Aryans, followed by the Sakas, the Yue-chi, the Kushans, the Bactrians, the Scythians and the Huns made inroads into Bharatavarsha. Muslim migratory clans, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Tajiks, Iranians, Turanians, Afghans and Pathans made Hindustan their homeland.

Making of the ‘composite culture’

In terms of culture, the two most profound influences on the making of a distinct Indian civilisation, are those of the ancient Indo-Aryan and the medieval Indo-Muslim segments. The former contributed to the flowering of Vedic cultural streams, which, over the centuries, have continued to fertilise the body politic of the ancient land and even today remain the subsoil of acculturation. The latter has weaved strands into the fabric of India, creating a rich design of ‘composite culture’ by intertwining the threads of the ‘Bhakti Marg’ with the ‘Islamic Sufi’ (mystic) traditions.

One needs, therefore, to understand that the composite culture of India originated in an environment of reconciliation rather than refutation, cooperation over confrontation, coexistence and not mutual annihilation. Between the 12th and 16th century AD, a continuous process of fusion took place in the Indo-Gangetic plains between heritages originating in three geographically determined cultural belts: the Arabian, the Iranian-Turanian, and the Indian. Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, each in turn subsuming, with innovation and mutation, the ancient Judaic, Manian and Vedic-Vedantic traditions, respectively.

Composite culture must represent the rejection of uni-cultural regimentation or mono-cultural domination, and positively reaffirm the value of pluralism and syncretism. Composite culture is a product of borrowing, sharing and fusion through a process of interaction, for such cultural symbiosis has greater vitality over mono-culture.

Towards national integration

In the wake of the encounter with European civilisation, when explorers sailed into the shores of India, the concept of composite culture has widened in its dimensions and includes much more than its original medieval form. The composite culture of India, called ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeebin common parlance, embraces seven streams of influence.

The Vedantic Vision, imbued with tolerance and respect for the many paths to truth, and the essence of Bhagavad Gita, that salvation is through action, and action is duty well done without expectation of reward.

The traditions of the Bhakti Marg, where the emphasis on ‘love’ is the axial principle of life, for the attainment of liberation.

The humanistic concepts of Islam, which include fraternity of human beings and charity towards the have-nots. Emphasis on the beneficent (Rahman) and the merciful (Rahim) attributes of God.

The Sufi message of ‘Sulhe-kul’: peace for all; ‘silsilahs’: mystic orders.

The elegance and ethos of the syncretic Indo–Islamic cultural values, which are manifested in social relations, professional ties, etiquette of daily life marked by deference towards elders, concern for the younger, compassion towards dependents and refinement in tastes.

The cosmopolitanism of modern urban development, due to migrants from the rural hinterland, increasing in the cities; and caught up in the vortex of change due to industrialisation, coupled with the rise of urban professionals.

And then there’s the heritage of the freedom struggle, which was perhaps the most broad-based, anti-colonial mass movement. It was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-regional, non-xenophobic and forward looking, stretching its hands to other liberation movements in Asia and Africa. The finest element in the struggle for independence of India was the value of humanism and human fraternity.

Let us comprehend the basic thrust of national integration for India. The five major segments of our continental plural society have to be coalesced in a pattern of unity in diversity. These are the segments of religion, caste, tribe, language and region. Thus, in the semantics of functional politics, national integration means, and ought to mean:

Cohesion but not Fusion,
but not Uniformity,
but not Merger,
 but not Assimilation,
but not Regimentation.

Let us not forget that the three pillars which ensemble India, viewed from the perspective of history, are continuity: notwithstanding change; assimilation: not precluding conflicts; and syntheses: not overlooking the polarities of theses and anti-theses. There is a causal linkage between the three. Continuity is the result of the triumph of assimilation and synthesis; assimilation and synthesis, in turn, have been the two dominant processes of India’s society.

The author is former Chief Justice of Bombay and Rajasthan High Courts. Views are personal.