Religious leaders and theologians from across the country should come together to review the different faiths from the perspective of pluralism and social justice
Religion has emerged as a major source of conflict across the globe. Ideological strife has now given place to the “clash of civilisations” and it is felt that in the foreseeable future, religion will be a major source of conflict within and among nations. The possibilities of conflict are greater in countries such as India where different cultures and religions meet. However, such clashes can be prevented if appropriate strategies are formulated and implemented at an early stage so as to ensure religious harmony.
The United Nations (UN) designates the first week of February every year as the World Interfaith Harmony Week. All religions lead to the same God and differences among them are not essential. Indeed, the goal of every religion is the same. The spirit of the founders of the different religions was the same though rituals differ. All religions proclaim similar principles.
Mahatma Gandhi, who devoted a large part of his life to the study of religion and discussions with religious leaders of all faiths, affirmed that every scripture should be treated equally, that there is no justification for the claim of supremacy of any one religion and that we are all children of the same God.
He said, “What is needed is a living friendly contact among the followers of the religions of the world and not a clash among them in the fruitless attempt on the part of each community to show the supremacy of its faith over the rest.”
Swami Vivekananda asserted that all religions preach ethics, virtues and good character. Yet, all major religions, instead of uniting people often divide them due to the lack of understanding of the purpose of religion by their followers.
India has the largest number of religions and religious people in the world. In our country, we have millions of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. There are also Parsees and Jews. We have eight religions in India, the maximum number of religions and religious people anywhere in the world. Communal harmony is essential for peace and stability in the country.
Article 51A of the Constitution affirms that it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to promote harmony among the people of the nation transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities. Respect for religious diversity and interfaith dialogue are an essential and urgent need.
Some years ago, I decided to study the issues that affect inter-religious peace and harmony in the country. In this connection, I visited several States and held meetings with leaders and organisations of different religions. I spent the whole of September 2004 in the villages of Odisha, in the districts of Kandhamal and Mayurbanj, where Graham Staines and his two sons were killed some years earlier.
The purpose of my visit was to study and understand the open confrontation that has existed for long in that State between Christian and Hindu missionaries for conversion and re-conversion (ghar vapsi) respectively. I informed Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of what I had observed in those areas and he promised to take necessary action. Mainline Christian theologians see both the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology and Christian campaigns for evangelisation as having a fundamentalist attitude and an aggressive methodology to achieve their respective goals.
Proselytism is opposed on several grounds; it attacks other religious beliefs and practices and asserts that its own religion is the only way to moksha (salvation). It is often supported by financial resources and marketing techniques that make local religious activities seem shabby.
The Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) articulates its theological vision thus, “Asia is the womb of the great world religions. All great scriptural religions were born on Asian soil. The Church has to be in constant dialogue with the religions of Asia and to embark on this with great seriousness… There may be more truth about God and life than is made known to us through the Church. As such, Christians who take Jesus Christ’s injunction seriously must search for this truth in the various religions of the world.”
On the question of proselytism, the FABC says, “A phenomenon which continues to awaken the most resentment among the peoples of Asia is that of proselytism and conversion. In the minds of Asians, the Church’s primary objective seems to be to convert as many people as she can so as to increase her little flock. The Church’s expansion is also seen as a Western extension. The increase in the number of Church movements engaged in aggressive evangelisation (understood in the very narrow sense of the word) is certainly a cause for concern for our brothers and sisters of other faiths. Perhaps, it might be good to be reminded of the golden rule which nearly all religions speak of: Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”
The traditional way of teaching religion puts emphasis on theology and rituals ignoring the social dimension, namely the need for interaction and tolerance among the followers of different religions. Religious leaders and theologians from across the country should come together to review the different religions from the perspective of pluralism and social justice.
The following steps ought to be taken to ensure peace and harmony in India: Organised drives for conversion and reconversion should stop. They violate the Constitution. The Government should promote an agreement among the religious heads of all the major faiths in the country to stop proselytism. Given the positive mindset of theologians belonging to different religions, this is possible.
Combat all forms of expression which incite sectarian hatred and take action against dissemination of such material in the media.
Adequate training and awareness programmes about religion and religious harmony for young leaders at all levels and Government officials, particularly the police and other law enforcement agencies, judges, teachers and social workers must be held.
Introduce inter-religious education in schools as part of the curriculum so as to promote communal harmony.
Assure all victims of religious intolerance adequate support and speedy administrative and judicial remedies.
Provide effective access to all citizens, including religious minorities, to the decision-making process in society.
Counter social exclusion and marginalisation in particular by providing adequate access to all to education, health and employment. Pay specific attention to development of vulnerable groups such as tribals and other weaker sections and those who suffer discrimination on different grounds.
With this we will ensure peace that fosters inclusive development.
(The writer is a former Union Minister)