Inter-Religious Approach to Communal Harmony – by M.R. Rajagopalan

While there are many causes of violence, religious differences have been historically one of them, in spite of their teachings of love, compassion and service to humanity.

As empires arose in different parts of the world, the kings claimed divinity and the priest class facilitated the process. Thus the link between religion and polities has continued all through history and religion has been in part an integrating or stabilising factor.

In India from the days of Ramayana (probably around ioth century BCE) kings claimed divine origin — either Surya (sun) or Chandra (moon) Vamsa — both sun and moon are gods in Hindu mythology. As the Pallava and Chola empires arose in south India around 7th century CE, the Bhakti cult also emerged and huge temples were constructed. The emperors often assumed the name of the presiding deity of the greatest temples. For the masses the king was indistinguishable from God.

At least in India the kings and society at large showed tolerance towards different faiths. Perhaps this was inherent in the ‘tenets’ of Hinduism itself. Though one of the oldest religions in the world, it does not have a single god head or a gospel or a single institution. Atheism was also born in India – the Charvaks who were atheists posed a challenge to the priestly class. They were tolerated. The word ‘Hinduism’ was born around 8-9th century and was used by the Arabs and Persians for those living beyond the river Indus. Prior to this, expressions like Sanatana Dharma, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shakti cult and so on were used.

Buddhism was just 2-3 centuries old during the reign of Asoka. After his victory in the Kalinga war in the 3rd century BCE he gave up violence and embraced Buddhism. His edicts enjoin that other sects deserve reverence. It is important to note that although Asoka became a Buddhist he did not announce Buddhism as the state religion. Hinduism and Jainism, which also arose around the time of Buddhism, flourished in Asoka’s empire.

In the south both under Pallavas and Cholas, Buddhist viharas and Jam temples were part of the town’s landscape along with the Hindu temples. There was freedom to choose one’s religion. The Bhakti cult that arose with the Nayanmars and Aiwars around the 7th century CE became over whelmingly popular in Tamilnadu, and Buddhism and Jainism started to decline. Perhaps these religions could not match the sagacity and popularity of the wandering minstrels singing the praises of the Hindu gods!

Akbar’s Divine Faith

An attempt was made by the great i6th century mogul emperor Akbar to integrate the different religions. Though he was not a man of letters – in fact he was illiterate — he established a library in his capital Agra and arranged for works like Ramayana and Maha Bharatha to be translated from Sanskrit into Persian. He acquired a deep and thorough knowledge of the religions of his time — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism by arranging recurring dialogues with scholars of these faiths. Akbar liked to reason about particular components of each multi-faceted religion. He was sceptical of the rituals of Jainism but he liked and opted for vegetarianism from that religion. Taking the essential elements from different faiths, Akbar founded a new religion — Din-e-ilahi, meaning ‘Divine Faith’ or ‘Religion of God’. He did not manage to popularise it among the masses; it remained academic. Yet its importance should not be underestimated. That the greatest emperor of his times devoted his time and energy to the study of religion and came up with the idea of a common religion is a landmark in human history. No king either before or after Akbar showed this constructive attitude towards religions.

Tolerance by other Muslim rulers

There is a popular belief that under Muslim rule conversions to Islam took place at the point of the sword. Since Hindus continued to be the majority population in the mogul capital Delhi and all over the empire even after five centuries of Muslim rule this cannot be true. In truth millions of Hindus especially Dalits and some classes of artisans who were denied entry to Hindu temples, embraced Islam since it offered brotherhood and inside the mosque all are equal before Allah.

Spain came under Muslim rule in the 1oth century and ruled the country for five centuries without forcible conversion. Today Muslims number less than five percent of the population of Spain.

The same religious tolerance was prevalent under the Ottoman empire which flourished from the 13th till early 20th century. Especially between 1500 and 1920 the Turks ruled over not only Arabia, central Asia and Greece but also the Slavic nations, and in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and so on a Christian population lived in peace.

Gandhiji’s views on Religion

In January 1935 Dr S Radhakrishnan asked Gandhiji three questions:

  1. What is your religion?
  2. How are you led to it?
  3. What is its bearing on social life?

Gandhiji’s reply was:

“My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is religion of humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me. I take it that the present tense in the second question has been purposely used instead of the past. I am being led to my religion through Truth and Nonviolence, ie love in the broadest sense. I often describe my religion as religion of Truth, Of late, instead of saying God is Truth, I have being saying Truth is God, in order more fully to define my religion. I used at one time to know by heart the thousand names of God which a booklet in Hinduism gives in verse form and which perhaps tens of thousands recite every morning. But nowadays nothing so completely describes my God as Truth. Denial of God we have known. Denial of Truth we have not known. The most ignorant among mankind have some truth in them.

The bearing of this religion on social life is, or has to be, seen in one’s daily social contact. To be true to such religion one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of all life. Realisation of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in and identification with this limitless ocean of life. Hence, for me, there is no escape from social service; there is no happiness on earth beyond or apart from it. Social service here must be taken to include every department of life. In this scheme there is nothing low, nothing high. For, all is one, though we seem to be many.”

In his famous constructive programme, communal unity occupies the first place. In Gandhiji’s words: “Unity does not mean political unity which may be imposed. It means an unbreakable heart unity. The first thing essential for achieving such a unity is for every person, whatever his religion may be, to represent in his own person Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jew, etc In order to realise this, every person will cultivate personal friendship with persons representing faiths other than his own. He should have the same regard for the other faiths as he has for his own.”

The situation in the 21st century

Gandhiji would have derived great comfort and happiness about one significant aspect of the Indian situation today. With more than 8o% of the population being Hindu, India has a Prime Minister (Man Mohan Singh) from the Sikh religion, a President (Abdul Kalam) who is a Muslim, and the ruling party, Congress, being presided over by a woman from a Christian background (Sofia Gandhi). I wonder whether such a situation has ever existed in any other country with a democratic form of government?

A real danger in the world today is the tendency to segregate and identify people on the basis of religion. Almost every country in the world has become multi-ethnic and is home to people from different faiths. To segregate them as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists etc could create complications. We have to understand the reality that we have multiple identities based on language, religion, nation, gender, profession etc. The use of religious identity alone as a rubber stamp is improper and dangerous.

Nevertheless, we have to face the reality that after 11th September 2001 Muslims have to some extent become suspect. How do we overcome this situation? The word Jihad in the literal sense means effort, or a striving. Islamic scholars say that the Quran and Hadith ascribe two meanings to the term: ‘al-Jihad al Akhbar’ and ‘al-Jihad al Asghar’.

The former means the ‘greater warfare’, which is against one’s inner demon, while the latter means the ‘lesser warfare’ against infidels. The perception of jihad in the former sense is subjective and has moral implications. It involves a way of life in which fleeting temptations have no place. Individuals become discerning subjects who comprehend that worldly temptations are ephemeral and have to be fought. It is also the ability to suffer virtuously the afflictions caused by the foe by following the commandment of Allah and to preach, through education, art and literature, the precepts of Islam.

The second meaning of jihad is the religious war against ‘oppressive occupiers’ of the homeland of Islam, Dar-al-Islam. The jihad is a defensive act: it is a war of last resort dictated by circumstances and compulsions confronting Muslims. Yet unfortunately some Maulvis and Maulanas are obsessed with the politics of communal power and preach false interpretations of jihad as the fight against non-believers.

An agenda for peace and harmony

How do we ensure communal harmony and peace in this strife-torn world? The ball is in the court of the Gandhians and all social groups which stand for peace and harmony and above all — responsible leaders of different religions. Religious leaders have a tremendous responsibility. There is no religion in the world that does not speak about love, compassion and service to society. We have to go back to the days of Akbar and draw inspiration from his wisdom of bringing out the Religion of God. We cannot create a new religion and unify the population. But we can learn to tolerate and respect other religions. We have to sit together and draw up an agenda for peace and communal harmony. This agenda should take its cue from Gandhiji’s doctrines of Truth and Nonviolence.

M R Rajagopalan is Secretary of the Gandhigram Trust in Tamil Nadu.

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Categories: South Asia, Spirituality & Religion

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