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13 May, 2007

Religions akin to a confluence of rivers, all flowing in one direction

Originally Published: 13 May 2007

When Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, delivered the keynote address at the South Asian Inter-Faith Harmony Conclave last month, he said: “Nations and societies that seek to impose uniformity will give way to those who embrace and celebrate diversity. Every nation will have to learn to deal with the political, cultural and social consequences and implications of this growing phenomenon of diversity.”

In an era of tumultuous change, ranging from the “uniformity” of globalisation to the “diversity” of social, cultural and religious heritage, Dr Singh’s speech had much to offer. It was also significant in the light of the fact that Dr Singh is a Sikh, whose people only a few decades ago were carrying out significant acts of terrorism, including the October 1984 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in pursuit of a separatist state. Today, a mere 23 years later, a Sikh is the country’s Prime Minister.

On May 10, India also marked the 150th anniversary of the rebellion against the occupying British forces, often described as the “first Indian war of independence”, which gathered enough strength in the following decades to see India become an independent state in August 1947, exactly 60 years ago. As with most revolutions, there was much bloodshed but in the end, it was a preacher of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, who led the country through to freedom.

For all its global recognition as an economic powerhouse and the world’s largest democracy, India is still struggling to “embrace and celebrate diversity.” Dr Singh began by recalling the words of Indian spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda at the World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago way back in September, 1893: “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

Said Dr Singh: “This is a simple but exceedingly important idea. It was not religious “tolerance” that Swamiji valued, as much as religious “harmony”. Of course, harmony requires tolerance, but harmony is more than mere tolerance. There can be tolerance of an unequal, but there can be harmony only among equals. Harmony requires mutual respect. One can be tolerant of another, without being respectful. This cannot produce harmony. True harmony, I believe, is based on mutual respect and regard. Hence, I prefer the concept of religious harmony rather than just religious tolerance.”

He said he agreed with Swami Vivekananda that “what makes our civilization great is the fact that it is based on the idea of the co-existence of faiths – Sarva Dharma Sambhava. This notion implies that we have equal respect for all Dharmas, for all faiths.”

Dr Singh noted that Swami Vivekananda had used the metaphor of many rivers flowing into one mighty ocean, quoting from an ancient hymn: “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, sources in different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

“This universal worldview is the foundation of our composite culture,” Dr Singh said. “India has been home for centuries to all great religions of the world. But we have not merely tolerated each other. We have not merely learnt to live and let live. We have in fact learnt to live together, grow together, learn together. Even as each one of us remains devoted to our own individual faith, we have learnt to respect the faith of another. This has been the basis of our nationhood.”

India’s “saga of building a modern nation on the foundations of our social and religious diversities has great significance for the world we live in. Nations big and small will have to come to terms with their growing internal diversity. No modern and open society can be a monolith. Nations and societies that seek to impose uniformity will give way to those who embrace and celebrate diversity. Every nation will have to learn to deal with the political, cultural and social consequences and implications of this growing phenomenon of diversity.”

Noting the need to “learn from the wisdom of our great teachers, our great social and political leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru, to preserve and nurture this great quality of our ancient but living civilization,” he called for inter-faith gatherings to “reach out to every citizen and inculcate and reinforce these values in every daughter and son of our Republic and thereafter in all countries of South Asia.”

Dr Singh said this effort “gains urgency at a time when the forces of bigotry and communalism are trying to tear apart this fine fabric of our composite culture. Attempts to divide society along religious lines deserve to be condemned with contempt. What is worse than religious intolerance is the deployment of such intolerance for narrow political gain. Any political formation trying to incite people in the name of religion, whatever religion, is in fact betraying both religion and our civilization.

“Our Constitution is based on equal respect for all faiths. When we say our Constitution is secular, we mean that it espouses the separation of religion from politics and governance. Equally, it means that the Constitution accords equal status to all religious faiths. The idea of equality is important.

“When we talk of majority community and minority community, these numerical notions are based on political and social concepts. They are not spiritual categories. They are not based on a value judgment. In a discourse like yours concepts like majority and minority have no meaning. All religions are equal, just as all human beings are equal. When we view each other as equals, we try to live in harmony. When we view each other as unequals, we try to practice tolerance.”

Dr Singh said inter-faith conferences “have relevance in the times we are living” and need to “reinforce in our people this mutual regard and respect for one another’s faith, so that we can all live in harmony. India has been home to all the great religions of the world and will always remain so. But it is necessary for each generation to re-affirm its commitment to these values of co-existence and celebration of our diversity.”

That is exactly what the United Nations is trying to do. At the time of writing, the UN General Assembly had just convened for an informal debate on the impact of religions and cultures on global peace and security bringing together academics, commentators and political leaders to discuss issues of responsibility of the media, religion in contemporary society, the use of the arts in bridging gaps between cultures and respect for cultural diversity.

According to the UN, “The main objective is to explore the reasons behind the growing level of mistrust between people of different religions and cultures; and to examine how and why cultural and religious differences increasingly fuel, and are used to justify, conflicts.”

Further information about the UN debate can be found at www.unaoc.org