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Reality of Religious Plurality

J. Jayakiran Sebastian

By Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg 
Manohar Publishers, Delhi, 2005, pp. 181, Rs. 645.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

Recognizing the elusive and slippery nature of memory, where things taken for granted can not only be transformed but also obliterated within the lifespan of just one generation, the authors of this fascinating and significant book combine meticulous and detailed documentation with vignettes of the religious life practices of the Jews of Cochin. This miniscule community of people, forming yet another link in the vast mosaic of the Indian religious landscape, is a community on the verge of vanishing from India, not because of any inter-religious conflict, but because of the accelerated pace of migration to the land of Israel. The authors make it very clear that unlike several other contexts and countries where “Jewishness” was seen to be a sign of separation and apartness, in India, the Jews saw themselves as both Jewish and Indian. The hyphen (Jewish-Indian) did not drive a wedge between these two forms of identity configuration,1 but functioned as something that led to a happily amalgamated way of life. This way of life was not something experienced in an insular way, but was also true of the wider social matrix in which the community lived and worked. In this sense the Jews of Cochin are an example for what one perceptive commentator has said regarding the attitude of the vast majority of Indians to the reality of religious plurality: Contrary to the assumption of many modernists that religious faith is necessarily exclusive and therefore results in communal conflict, there is considerable historical and ethnographical evidence that the common people of India, irrespective of individual religious identity, have long been comfortable with religious plurality. They acknowledge religious difference as the experienced reality: they do not consider it good or bad. In other words, social harmony, or agreement, is built on the basis of difference.2   The main title of the book reflects the three realities that framed the life of the Jews of Cochin—their dietary laws and restrictions, their place in the social structure of Kerala, and their rich religious and mystical traditions. The authors are eminently qualified to write on this subject: Katz, amongst a host of writings, being the author of Who are the Jews of India?3 , a comprehensive description, based on extensive field research and the painstaking examination of documents and other artifacts, of not only the Jews of Cochin, but also the Bene Israel community living around Mumbai, and the Baghdadi Jews. ...

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