Upholding a Tradition of Tolerance
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — I was having dinner with a couple of French friends recently when the talk turned to burqas and veils and minarets. A French parliamentary committee had just called for a ban on the burqa in some public places. In Switzerland, a referendum had overwhelmingly approved a prohibition on the construction of minarets.
Our conversation spiraled quickly into discussions of immigration, tolerance, religion and European difficulties with multiculturalism. My friends were defensive. They cited the usual justifications: a sense of cultural invasion, security considerations, women’s rights, the need to uphold France’s long tradition of secularism.
We discussed, and argued, and then I pointed out to my friends that they, too, were immigrants, and they, too, dressed and acted in a manner that probably often offended the sensibilities of people in this area.
I live in a part of India that has absorbed a disproportionate number of Western immigrants over the last few decades. Pondicherry is a former French colony, a seaside town that draws expatriates to its clean streets and parks, easy pace of life and cheap beer. Auroville, at the edge of Pondicherry, is an international city with over 2,000 residents, more than half of whom are non-Indian.
I grew up around here, surrounded by farmers and fishermen whose worldviews are very different from those of the Americans and Germans and French who have trickled in since the 1960s. Life in the villages was — and, to a significant degree, still is — governed by rigid social rules and traditional norms that determine how people act, eat, marry and dress.
Ever since I was a boy, I have seen European women in tank tops and shorts drive motorcycles through villages where women wouldn’t even dream of wearing pants.
Down at the beach, semi-naked tourists sunbathe while fishermen oil their motorboats and women in saris sort through the day’s catch.
The juxtaposition of cultures has often been incongruous, even tense, but I can’t recall more than a handful of instances where it has broken out into overt hostility or cultural jingoism. I certainly don’t know of a time when a government official has proposed a law regulating how foreigners dressed.
It’s true that I live in an especially tolerant part of India, but I think it’s fair to say that India is an especially tolerant country. The Hindu teacher and mystic Vivekananda once said that pluralism was the “backbone of our national existence,” and that India stood for the “grand idea of universal toleration.” He was echoing a widely held view of India as a country particularly receptive to difference, capable of absorbing a multitude of faiths and cultures into its own society.
Indian tolerance has deep roots. The Vedas, a body of texts believed to be around 3,000 years old, proclaim that “truth is one; the wise call it by many names.” The Rig Veda, considered the oldest, similarly teaches that “good thoughts come to us from all sides.”
Indian tolerance has also manifested in the country’s society and polity. The Edicts of Emperor Asoka, who ruled much of north and central India in the third century B.C., are notable for their accommodation of other faiths — proclaiming, for instance, that “all religions should reside everywhere” and that “there should be growth in the essentials of all religions.”
India is also one of the few countries without a history of anti-Semitism, despite the presence of a Jewish community that dates back almost 2,000 years.
Indian tolerance is evident in more recent moral and political thought, too. Mahatma Gandhi, himself a committed Hindu, expressed admiration for Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and was a strong proponent of Hindu-Muslim comity. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was an ardent secularist who rejected the idea that India should follow in Pakistan’s footsteps and create a religious state.
For all its troubles, Nehruvian secularism is still the guiding principle of Indian political life. Its concept of equidistance among faiths, of state indifference rather than hostility to religion, is more benign (and tolerant) than European-style secularism, which positions itself aggressively against religion.
India has its intolerant sides, of course. The country has struggled in recent decades with a Hindu nationalist movement whose more extremist elements have promoted violence against foreigners and minorities. And, for all their acceptance of outsiders, Indians are capable of displaying remarkable prejudice against different castes and classes within the country. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that Indian tolerance is most evident toward — if not quite limited to — foreign immigrants and tourists.
But today, as the Indian economy surges, as its companies benefit from and become emblems of 21st-century globalization, I can’t help feeling that the nation’s openness, its ability to communicate and work with other cultures, are at the root of much of its success.
Conversely, I can’t help feeling that Europe’s stagnant economies, its sense of decline, have much to do with an attitude to the rest of the world that is defensive rather than engaged, that is expressed as fear rather than curiosity.
Shortly after that conversation with my French friends, I found myself in the fishing village of Periyamudaliarchavadi. At the edge of the beach, with tourists in bikinis and swimming trunks walking by, apparently oblivious to the ancient streets and cultures through which they were passing, I spoke to a 63-year-old woman named K. Rani.
She told me that, 40 years ago, when foreigners first started arriving, she was a little taken aback by the way they dressed. Now, she said, she had learned to accept their ways. “It’s their culture. We should respect it,” she said. “We don’t understand their ways any better than they understand ours.”
Later, I thought of what she had said. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the religious scholar who was India’s first vice president, once wrote that “toleration is the homage which the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the Infinite.” There was something of that wisdom in Mrs. Rani’s worldview: a recognition of life’s complexity, an ability to accommodate differences without needing to box them into a recognizable homogeneity. It is a wisdom that I find general in India, and for which I love the country.