In the words of Raimon Panikkar a Spanish theologian, “birds sing in the sky and they fly, they don’t defend their beauty and their singing”. Those of us who are interested in inter-religion dialogue we can all learn from the birds. The root cause of intra and inter-religious conflict is a belief that whatever one believes is the absolute truth and then we try to defend it.
Dr. M. Christhu Doss
Dr. M. Christhu Doss is a Professor of History at Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi and a scholar of Secularism, Christianity and Communal Politics
My father is a Mualana and he studied in Deoband. He used to be a Imam in a mosque in Delhi for sometime. Adjacent to that was a temple, the priest of the temple was a good friend of my fathers. They used to decide informally the timings of the Azaan and prayer so they did not have it at the same time. They used to go and eat their meals together, while they used to eat in separate thalis but eat together nevertheless. There was an understanding but a respect for boundaries. That is the maturity we need nowadays.
Ms. Farha Iman
Ms. Farha Iman is a founding member and general secretary of Sarva Dharma Samvaad (SDS). She has also worked as a researcher for Arigatou International and UNESCO
Ms. Upasana Dhankhar
Ms. Upasana Dhankhar is the Founder and CEO at Melodypipers Services. She is a scholar of Ancient Indian History, Hindu law, Gender studies, Gita Studies and Sanskrit literature. She has worked with the University of Delhi for close to 7 years as Assistant Professor.
One of the ways youth can promote religious harmony is by breaking barriers and by experiencing the world, experience world cuisine, different cultures. Having a diverse friends circle will also be very helpful. All of our philosophers have said we will not know our culture until we know someone else’s. The youth need to keep doing, keep learning and keeping their mind open.
India is the only multi religious country in the world, no other country, there are 9 religions in India out of 5 of them have taken shelter in India from a foreign land. Jews have been living in India for 2000 years, never faced anti-semitism and persecution. These 9 religions have been living in harmony. We must all realise we are Indians first and our identity comes after that.
Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar
Head of the Jewish community in New Delhi. He is the Honorary Secretary of the Judah Hyam Synagogue in New Delhi. Former Deputy Registrar with the National Human Rights Commission in India.
If there one thing a person can do to promote harmony is to seek out differences as much as possible. Different ideas, different food, ideas, music, we need to seek them out. Seek it and understand it fully, that’s when one starts to empathise at a fundamental level. Empathy is much better than tolerance and mere open mindedness which has been abused to an extent.
Mr Simon Kuany
Mr Simon Kuany is from South Sudan and is part of the UNESCO MGIEP team in India. He handles the #YouthWagingPeace and the Talking across generations on Education program.
"Y4RH" The Event Gallery
Religious Harmony: What is the situation in India today?
Has India changed with respect to tolerance and religious harmony over time and what do you think is the situation of the country today? What do you think are some of the reasons for this change?
Dr Christu Doss
We the people of India have a vibrant securalism, pluralism and a composite culture with cultural diversity. No other country in the world has this. In the words of Raimon Panikkar a Spanish theologian, “birds sing in the sky and they fly, they don’t defend their beauty and their singing”. Those of us who are interested in inter-religion dialogue we can all learn from the birds. The root cause of intra and inter religious conflict is belief that whatever one believes is the absolute truth and then we try to defend it.
I teach a paper on cultural diversity in Delhi University and asked my class of students two questions, how many are interested in inter-religious dialogue and second what is the biggest stumbling block. They said they are all ready and interested in inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. They also said the stumbling block is the political class. The moment we get the birds in the sky perspective we can find solutions
Ms Farha Iman
In India our values and philosophy of life is changing. We think that politicians are corrupt, but I feel everyone is corrupt. The vegetable vendor, the autorickshaw driver they are all out to make a fast buck. People like me are also to make stories to get extra discounts. Our politicians represent us and since we have changed they have changed too.
With regard to religious pluralism, I would like to share a personal example, my father is a Mualana and he studied in Deoband. He used to be a Imam in a mosque in Delhi for sometime. Adjacent to that was a temple, the priest of the temple was a good friend of my fathers. They used to decide informally the timings of the Azaan and prayer so they did not have it at the same time. They used to go and eat their meals together, while they used to eat in separate thalis but ate together nevertheless. There was an understanding but a respect for boundaries. They used to discuss their religious and theological issues but with respect. Nowadays when we discuss religion we start discussing politics.
Today we take our religion as an identity and not the truth, so we need to defend it and not just be satisfied with it, that is the issue.
Ms Upasana Dhankhar
Change is an eternal thing which happens all the time. The question here is, is the change for better or for worse. There has been diversity in the past and now and there has been accommodation in the past and now. There are stories of gory violence and many stories where we stand up for each other, so it is difficult to measure this change. Religious harmony is a world issue too not only in India.
World Economic Forum has identified four critical skills for 21st century, Critical Thinking, Computational Thinking, Empathy and Global Perspective. The moment we start building global perspective, the moment we start seeing things beyond violence between one religion vs another, we can start nuancing conflicts. In Indian history, there have been Mughal-Maratha war or Rajput warfare, these can be categorized as political warfare, but if one looks below the superficial, we can start understanding if this was identity politics, religious warfare, or were other reasons for the strife
There is now research on the reasons for strife and violence in history. A perspective on underlying motivations for the strife is building. This now will feed the debates of the future.
I believe dialogue is increasing everywhere. The number of inter-faith marriages are increasing. Diversity at the workplace, in educational institutions is unprecedented. Hornbill festival in Nagaland is of interest to me and I would travel there to experience it. I don’t even know which tribal culture or religion is represents but I am interested. Holi is now an international festival. We have a lot of intensity in people to travel the world and barriers are broken when that happens. Change is happening and there is good there.
Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar
India is the only multi religious country in the world, in no other country, there are 9 religions. Five out of these nine have taken shelter in India from a foreign land. Jews have been living in India for 2000 years, never faced anti-Semitism and persecution. These 9 religions have been living in harmony in India. We must all realise we are Indians first and our identity comes after that.
I would like to quote from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem in Gitanjali
“Do not go to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the Fragrance of love...
Do not to the temple to light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin from your heart...
Do not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer,
First learn to bow in humility before your fellow men...
Do not to the temple to pray on bended knees,
First bend down to lift someone who is downtrodden.
Do not to the temple to ask for forgiveness for your sins,
First forgive from your heart those who have sinned against you!”
In the past about 20 years ago, I used to say that Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are offshoots of Hinduism. Today I cannot say that, each of these religious groups have a separate identity. That is a change.
What is religion? It is not the rituals or observances we follow. Religion is thinking, awakening, promotes righteousness, brings serenity to mind.
I would like to say a quote in Hindi
“Hum kya banana aaye the, kya banaa bethein, kahi mandir bana liya kahin masjid. Humse to ache parinde hain, kabhi mandir pe beth jaate hain kabhi masjid pe”
(Translation – What had we set out to do and what have we done? We have built temples and mosques. Birds are more fortunate than us, they sit on the roof of a temple sometimes and mosque at other times)
Role of Media - since its a key influencer in forming opinions today
-Has the media played a role in this change in the Indian context? (Newspaper, TV, social media)
-Is the focus of the media often too much on negative incidents and disharmony and too little on inter-religious harmony
Dr Christhu Doss
There is a paradigm shift in the language used in the newspaper and mass media, a few decades ago versus now. Usually the identity of a religion is highlighted. Nowadays breaking news is important which was not the case in 1970s and 80s. Probably as an audience we are in need of sensational content. Commercialisation of religion, communalisation of cultural practices, politicization of religious slogans, these are some of the trends. This cuts across all religious communities. People get provoked a lot by watching content on media. These issues need to be addressed
Ms Farha Iman
Media is an unofficial pillar of democracy, all other democratic institutions are accountable but media is not. Our values have changed and so the values of media has changed too. There is mainstream media and social media and both need to considered. From social media we get a lot of news which is not being covered by mainstream media. There are negative aspects of social media as well. We need an authority which checks and monitors media also. Currently I find media very disturbing.
When news channels invite scholars on a show, they do not want people who understand the philosophy, but they invite people who will say what they think people want to listen to. Media prefers sensationalism since that makes the show interesting. Once when Maulana Wahiduddin Khan was called by a news channel and asked to comment on the fatwa on Sania Mirza’s (A successful tennis player from India) skirt, he said he did have any comment on that, the next time he was not invited as a panelist.
Media is showing what the people want to see, the values and the people are changing and therefore media is changing
Ms Upasana Dhankhar
Media and politics probably have an unholy alliance. I would like to quote Allama Iqbal in Urdu “Jamhuriyat woh tarze hukumat hain jisme bando ko gina karta hain, tola nahin karte”
Government and media are both businesses, TRPs for channels and votebanks for politics are based on numbers and identity. This identity if common for more people means there is more connect with people. We understand this market exists and it exists based on grabbing your mind share. It is a mental game. We do need to have responsible conduct by both.
The question is where should the censor be? How do we get issues to the mainstream but be responsible as well. I believe in decentralized authority, I think between censorship and education, I lean towards education. We need to prepare our mind to accept and reject content then we will make people act responsibly. I believe the solution lies with us.
Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar
Currently each newspaper and news channel have lost their independence. Media does not show the philosophy behind each festival but will show trivial aspects of festivals. For example for Bakri-id, they will not show the philosophy behind the festival that Abraham took his son Ismail for sacrifice. The media will focus on the goat which is being sold in Jama Masjid which was fed with dry fruits for three months the cost of that is 3 lakhs of rupees.
Youth and their role
- Do you think youth can play a role in creating a more integrated India going forward and how?
- What is your opinion is something the youth can do to promote inter-religion harmony and make a meaningful difference?
Dr Christhu Doss
The youth need to be historically conscious. Swami Vivekanand said in 1893, “awake, arise, stop not, till you reach the goal.” His speech was the first step into inter-religious dialogue, he said in his speech, I love all religions, I worship all religions. How many youth are aware of this? How many young people are aware of Gandhiji’s passion for communal harmony? The person who lived and died preaching that.
The youth need to take note of three Ts as part of thinking out of the box rather than follow what the parents say. Transcending, Transforming and Transmitting. Transcending boundaries, transforming or re-discovering themselves. Transmitting their cause to other youth and making this a movement.
Youth can express themselves using cartoons and social media. Another aspect is that government must have in the curriculum of schools and colleges inter cultural and religious courses. There is no such course. I have seen societies, who conduct street plays at bus stops and schools, colleges on religious harmony, that is another useful medium to spread awareness.
There are schools which do cover other religions. The issue exists with quality of teachers and whether they are able to do justice to this thought.
I would like to share my experience in the Batla House encounter, I live in Zakir Nagar. After the encounter I noticed a change in the youth, since that is a Muslim majority area. There were some young people who were not religious, they had never been to the mosque, or maybe only visited the mosque during Eid. They started growing their beard. They wanted to flaunt it to the world that they are Muslims.
On the day of the encounter took place it was quite life changing. As a young person one is very passionate, one gets angry quickly, one is emotional. My own three brothers, the older one has joined several whatsapp groups discussing religious issues. Some people have started visiting mosques just to know what is going on. There are some who used to pray five times a day, they had a beard, they shaved it and started becoming more discreet. They wanted to look more secular and did not want people to know that they are Muslims. There were two extreme reactions to the same situation.
I myself have been through many phases in my identity. Earlier I was a Muslim, there was a time when I was doubtful. This was around Godhra riots and 9/11, media was filled questions about Muslims. I started reading about Judaism and Christianity, but I found issues with that. For me personally I thought I do believe in God but not the institutionalized concept of God. I used to pray but I did not know how to connect and reach God. Afterwards, I read more books about Islam and I thought I have found the answers, I came back to Islam.
As a young person, you receive information from media, politics plays a role in that, that information is very confusing. For example on the Balta House encounter day, a media person came to me and asked, how do you feel to be a Muslim? Before that I never thought about being a Muslim. My answer was “I feel normal.” I go to college, I eat and sleep, I did know before that being a Muslim is such a big thing.
Youth have a lot of information but they do not have the wisdom and do not have the time to process that information. We need to provide them with guidance today.
Ms. Upasana Dhankhar
The youth have to fight and get independence of the kind of rhetoric and discourses that are imposed upon us. We need to rise above all of this.
In my view, every person wants to be human to live life and if suddenly a religious identity is imposed on us it makes people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the idea of believing in something has been relegated to the back seat. Religion is somewhere believing in something. Its only when you believe in something, then you can look beyond this identity, this situation, this scenario. With believing in religion one can have values like patience, understanding and empathy. That is when you can take a long view of things. If one has to react to a small incident which is at a small scale, you will definitely assume a certain identity. When you realise there is life beyond this, people beyond this, reactions are different. The short view and long view is important.
That I feel is even more challenging for the youth today, our attention span is declining to just 3 seconds. When I was getting into college psychological reports used to say the human rate of concentration is 20 minutes, nowadays it is down to three seconds. We need to nurture to take a long view of things in the youth.
If we are being told to stay within our groups and despise the other, we should not do that. We should break barriers and try and understand everyone. Experience the world, experience world cuisine, different cultures. Having a diverse friends circle will also be very helpful. From Sanskrit literature to philosophers like Wittgenstein have said we will not know our culture until we know someone else’s. The youth need to keep doing, keep learning and keeping their mind open.
The question is should we have an idea of syncretism, in my opinion need not. All of us have been in love, not necessarily with a person, could be with something. There is no one way to love, sometimes you want to dominate, sometimes relinquish, sometimes you want to play around. Same way there is no one way to follow God, sometimes people can meditate for years if they want to. Sometimes people want to celebrate one important festival, stay connected in that way. In order to have flexibility, fluidity and acceptance, when you nurture these three values, either through education or through socialization, then we can reach that state. The responsibility of the youth is to grapple with all of these things without having the pressure of an identity, or a moment when you have to prove something. Take things easy, keep doing and keep learning and keep your mind open.
Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar
I wanted my daughter to be a Rabbi, but she moved to Australia. Then I thought my son would be a Rabbi. But he never came to the synagogue, he does want to be a religious person, he wanted to be a spiritual person. I asked him, what he means by being a spiritual person. He told me, he has been doing Vipassana from childhood, he has been doing yoga for his body, pranayama for his mind and meditation for his soul. He is also a charitable person. As a school going boy, he used to spend his pocket money and feed stray dogs. Now he is a musician and his charitable nature continues. That he says is religion for him. When he was born there was an article in the newspaper that a Brahmin has taken birth in the family of the Rabbi, he is strictly vegetarian, does not eat outside food. He does wear leather.
Today India needs intra-faith dialogue more than inter-faith dialogue. There is no harmony within the community. Youth can read the holy scriptures of other religions. Visit holy places of worship of all religions.
In Jewish Tora, it is said whatever is hateful and hurtful, do not do to others
As per Rig Veda, there are four debts on any person, Devrun, Rishirun, Pitrrun, Manavtarun (duties towards humanity). These are the concepts youth need to learn about.
I don’t like the word tolerance, it means that a person is tolerating the other, we need to say we accept. These are the concepts youth need to learn about.
Experiences of religious harmony
-Can you give us a real-life example or personal experience related to inter-religion harmony?
Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar
In the Synagogue in 1990, I started interfaith study center and kept the holy scriptures of all the religions. Rig Veda, Sam Veda, Yajur Veda, Upnishada, Bible – Old and New Testament, Quran, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism. Try to find the similarities and differences, differences should be respected.
My daughter being a Jew studied in Jamia Milia Islamia, there was a hue and cry in the community but I did not care, She received very good education there.
I have conducted 50 inter faith marriages. Last wedding I performed in Calcutta of a Jewish boy from New York with a Sikh girl from Calcutta. I encourage the people to not convert, I also tell them follow your faith
Dr Christhu Doss
On a personal note, I am from a remote village in one of the districts of Tamil Nadu, till my Masters and Mphil, I was part of a conservative family. There were many restrictions, I could not go to a temple or mosque. That was my earlier state, I had no interaction with other religions. When I moved to New Delhi to do my PhD, I was exposed to so many ideas and different religions. JNU gave me a platform to understand and learn about communal harmony. In my family life, I fell in love with a person from another faith. My parents initially opposed it but then agreed afterwards, I was able to transcend these boundaries only due to the education I got.
Ms Farha Iman
We need to be mature enough to handle differences, are you ok that I eat meat. Are people of another faith ok that they worship idol?
Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar
In the university of Allahabad I had offered to take a course on similarities between the Bible and the Vedas, word by word these are the same
Ms Upasana Dhankhar
The exceptional case I would like to talk about is July 2016 Bangladesh attack, a restaurant where a group of youngsters was partying. Farhaz Hussain, under 20 years of age, he was awarded for academic excellence by President Bush. When the terrorists came they asked if he could recite the first verse of Quran. He was a Muslim, he knew the Quran and he had the chance to leave, he stood by his friends. People like Farhaz Hussain are the people we are looking for today. The other institution, The Indian Army, we have had awardees like Abdul Hamid, single handedly crushing six Pakistani tanks. He stood much beyond the ideas of faith, religion and community, he stood up for an issue believing that aggressors should not be allowed.
Closing remarks Simon Kuany
Personally within the UNESCO I do not do much work on religious harmony, I have been a product of religious dis-harmony (if there is a word like that). I was born in the Sudan during the civil war. North Sudan is Islamic and in the south it is African animist and Christian, they were at war for 200 long years and some of us ended up in refugee camps in Kenya. At the back of my head I grew up with these questions, of course there was politicization, as well as resources but religion was fundamental in the entire meeting of all these causes into an epithet, a song which was used to justify. I studied Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism in trying to make sense of why would somebody actually on the basis of this go out and kill the other.
There are lot of similarities, one would see across religions. As people we all must study some of the major religions. The question is if we have all these commonalities why are we killing each other for the small differences? To answer that question you will have to explore human nature, you will have to push back, to fields like evolution and biology. it’s usually is evil and good, inherent deep down in nature, it boils down to the environments we have curated over time. The ideas, myths and stories we have curated over time and the values that they produced. The question is which one gets the upper hand, the good or the bad. When we say we have to do something, it also means we have start thinking critically about these stories, these myths and fundamental values we have all curated over time and ask the question, have they been producing “good”?
The importance of identitarian ideologies especially political, most times to get people to unite behind something you don’t reason with them. If you reason with them there is high chances they will not unite. Any rational person will always exist in dissonance, not sure which side, until one is presented with good evidence, the person is not able to decide. That dissonance is expensive, its torturing, its anguish. If you want people to be behind you for anything, you will have to invoke their emotions, their kinship. Invoke belonging, invoke tribal instincts which are very inherent in every human being.
What can you do? At a personal level, if there only one thing a person should do every single day, it is to seek out “the different” as much as possible. Different ideas, different food, music, we need to seek them out. Anything you define as different from you, needs to be understood. Seek it and understand it fully, that’s when one starts to empathize at a fundamental level. Empathy is much better than tolerance and mere open mindedness which has been abused to an extent. Open mindedness means, “Hey, I have my position, its sorted, its cemented, but I am willing to have a discussion with you” That is not really open mindedness. I believe it is open mindedness, when I have my position but I am willing to change it, if you present me with something that is rigorous and contrary to my position.
But how do we build that in a young person, when education systems are still thinking about building the best workforces. Workforce and good human being need not mean the same thing. The fact that somebody knows how to get some things done, does not actually mean that person knows how to live or co-exist with the other person. It is good to re-think education fundamentally. That is a systemic change for a young person within the system, he or she is mostly paralysed, maybe even become cynical. The education system is big and they cannot change it. Therefore the importance of the change at the individual level which is to seek the different.
As much as possible we need to flatten hierarchies, power is peculiar and it cuts across a lot of things especially some of the relationships we hold together. As a parent, flatten the hierarchy, between yourself and your child, if you are privileged person flatten the hierarchy between you and the under privileged.
Young needs to be empathetic but also critical, then there is high chances that even the median is taking of themselves. If they are critical then, they can say this not true and I not going to share with my five hundred friends. Or this politician is just a rhetorician therefore I will not side with him.
Hopefully UNESCO MGIEP will find ways of connecting you with a lot of young people to make this a movement. The youth can turn the old entrenched system which we need to revisit, so we can change some of things we have been perpetuating unconsciously.