The path to greater religious tolerance and social harmony

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India is the beloved homeland of practitioners of all major religions of the world. Indian culture accepts the diversity of religions and beliefs. Religious harmony and social cohesion are two essential elements of progress and development. In the words of KM Munshi: “Indian culture is a living force. It absorbs foreign elements when necessary but transmutes them into a new seamless pattern of wealth. It is therefore a formidable force of power and beauty that has made us what we are today in the world; and will make us who we want to be in the world tomorrow.

There are, however, worrying developments regarding the maintenance of religious friendship. Since time immemorial human beings have continually practiced division on one ground or the other. Religion was shamelessly used to divide people, although there were several other factors like color, race, caste, untouchability, etc. who have had a divisive influence in society. Over the past three decades, most suffering has been inflicted on humanity in the name of religion. Nani Palkhivala, a brilliant mind of the 20th century wrote: “A man can study or practice religion. But if he is a fanatical fundamentalist, he deserves to be considered a religious illiterate, regardless of his formal education. The words of TS Elliot come to mind: “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning. A religious bigot may have studied theology but, by definition, he did not understand the true meaning of religion. “Fanatics have their dreams,” said Keats, with which they weave a paradise for a sect. Every true religious understands, based on the tenets of his or her own professed religion, that the ultimate goal of all religions is the same, that only the paths are articulated in various ways. Hatred and violence against other religions are generated and created by misinterpretations and misinformation by ill-equipped minds who have smaller gains in view and who might be called religiously illiterate. Such people are severely devoid of this basic human instinct for compassion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to his mother as his compassionate teacher – a simple, uneducated village farmer with unconditional kindness. Most of us could remember such experiences in life, which have always sustained religious friendship.

Compassion is at the heart of every religion. In 1954, at the age of 11, I joined a new school in Kannauj, UP. My new school had two drinking water tanks, the larger one for the Hindu children and the smaller one for the Muslims. Completely ignoring this division, I opted for the smaller one. When I finished, about twenty students surrounded me: “Muslim tanki men paani piya!” I was very upset. I was raised in a village and saw Hindus and Muslims working and socializing together. My mother appreciated that a maulavi sahib came to the house to teach me, prepared snacks for him every day, but served in special utensils, which she cleaned herself without any hesitation. That evening, my father could tell from my ashen face that something must have gone wrong. At first I denied it, but when my mom wasn’t within earshot, I told her everything. He told a story of a lady throwing rubbish at Hazrat Muhammad Sahib every day and cared for by him when she fell ill which led to the end of the daily routine. My father, a devout Hindu and no scholar of Islam, used to say that such a person who helps even his tormentors can only be a divine person, and deserves all respect. All practices of separation are a consequence of ignorance and will disappear as education develops, he told me. My horizons widened that day.

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No one can deny that outside elements, pursuing the policy of inflicting a thousand cuts on India, are active and exploiting vulnerable elements. The basics of Indian culture are acceptable to all communities, even illiterate Hindus and Muslims are also convinced that every temple and mosque deserves equal respect. True scholars of all religions must rise to the occasion; reach out to people and educate them on the essential unity of all religions. Once they are convinced, the black sheep will become visible even in the darkest corners. For world peace, social cohesion and religious friendship are fundamental requirements. We would like to recall what Chhatrapati Shivaji wrote in his famous epistle to Emperor Aurangzeb: “Islam and Hinduism appear as opposite terms; but these are various pigments which the divine painter uses to fill his picture with the whole human race. If it is a mosque, the call is sung in memory of him; if it is a temple, the bell rings remembering him alone. To show bigotry towards the beliefs and practices of any man is tantamount to altering the words of the holy book. To draw new lines on a painting is to criticize the painter.

We the people of India must strive to generate compassion, strength, sincerity and commitment to ensure India’s safety and security. The great dialogical tradition could be rejuvenated and trusted. A solution would certainly not be far away.

(The writer is the former director of NCERT and works in the field of education and religious cohesion)

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