INTER-FAITH DAILOGUE: APPROACHES AND MODALITIES
The Patna branch of the Institute of Objective Studies, situated in New Delhi, and the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna, organized a one-day seminar on Inter-faith Dialogue: Approaches and Modalities, at the Khuda Bakhsh Library on Sunday, 12th August 2007. The Inaugural Function, scheduled from 10 a.m. until 12 noon, actually began at 10:15 and finished at 12:50. The Director of the Library, Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad, began by stating that there was a crying need for dialogue. Justice S.S. Nayyar Husain, of the Patna High Court, pointed out that all groups had their fanatics, but also their spiritualists, and the latter needed to work together for promoting peace and concord.
Swami Tadgatananda Ji Maharaj, local head of the Rama Krishna Mission Ashram, spoke about the basic welcoming nature of his Mission, and how people from various religious backgrounds came to live in their ashrams, not merely people from a Hindu background. He then stressed the various types of social works undertaken by the Mission. It has also played an important role in various flood-relief and other programmes, and this has earned the Mission a good name. He gave an example of how a Muharram procession made way for him when he was recognized as the person who had provided relief for flood victims the previous year. He spoke in English.
The next person to speak was Maulana Syed Nizamuddin, Amir-i Shariat, Bihar and Jharkhand. He is also the Secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. He spoke about the basic belief in One God and how the whole Islamic way of life flowed from this central belief. He also spoke about the rights of people, as found in the Shariat, and the duties incumbent on those who believe in God, as also found in the Shariat. He then went on to point out the need to help those in distress. He could proudly refer to the efforts of the members of his Institute to help out in all sorts of disasters, not only in Bihar and Jharkhand, but even in far-off Gujarat. Even as he spoke, his people were providing relief to the flood victims of North Bihar. His delivery was that of a practised speaker. It was in Urdu.
The next speaker was Acharya Kishore Kunal, Administrator, Bihar State Religious Board Trust. He is a prominent Hindu in Patna, well known for having built a large temple near Patna Junction and funnelling funds from it to various charitable institutions, such as a modern Cancer Hospital at Phulwari Sharif, just outside Patna. (This is also where the Imarat-i Shariat is located, along with its Technical Training School and Hospital, as well as the Institute proper, devoted to the Shariat, the term for Islamic Law.) Acharya Kunal gave the example of a Hindu religious leader who supported the Khilafat Movement in 1924, which was a purely Muslim movement, and was jailed for his trouble in supporting his Muslim fellow-citizens. While pointing out the need for an objective study of history, he concentrated on the need to understand and respond to the needs of the people. His words carried weight because this was exactly what he was doing in the cancer hospital and other enterprises initiated by him. He spoke with considerable emotion. His talk was in Hindi.
Fr. Paul Jackson was the next to speak, but we shall return to his talk later on. He was followed by Bhai Iqbal Singh, Jathedar, Takht Sri Har Mandir, Patna Saheb. The Gurdwara in Patna Saheb ranks second only to the Golden Temple. Iqbal Singh is an important Sikh religious leader. He spoke quietly, but with measured dignity, in a simple Hindustani that all could understand. He spoke of the egalitarian nature of the teaching of Guru Nanak, with his emphasis on addressing others as 'Brother.' He spoke of the need to prepare oneself to receive God. This would bring us happiness and, when we are happy, we are able to bring happiness to others. We all have a common Father and, in so far as we have received Him into our lives, His love will inspire and make it easy for us to reach out to others.
If we pause to reflect on these talks for a moment, we notice a striking similarity. While affirming their particular religious belief, and sharing, in varying degrees, what its members believe and practise, the great thrust was on how their religion inspires them to reach out to help those in need. It was consoling to hear them speak, with obvious conviction, in this vein. It would seem that this was their understanding of Inter-faith Dialogue.
Dr. Manzoor Alam, Chairman of the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, gave a talk. Although he could easily have spoken in Urdu, he chose to speak in English. This surprised a number of people. He spoke about the need to remove discrimination based on religion. He spoke about the need for Peace, Progress and Prosperity. He maintained that education must be for the service of humanity. He criticized the word 'tolerance' and what it implied, and said we must move beyond it to a concept of brotherhood. He gave the impression that this was a set speech which he gave in English and was thus able to speak about "peace, progress and prosperity" and criticize the word 'tolerance.' His speech was really about the thrust of his Institute, which is doing commendable work in providing information about various dimensions of the lives of Indian Muslims. .
It is now time to speak about the talk given by Fr. Paul Jackson, S.J., the present writer. To begin with, no speaker had come with a written talk in hand. Kishore Kunal made a few notes from a Hindi book he had with him while early talks were being given. On the other hand, I came with two typed pages in hand. My talk had a specific title: The Catholic Experience of Christian-Muslim Dialogue. It spoke about the approach of the Jesuit fathers at the court of Akbar and then of Jahangir. It spoke of mind-sets and presuppositions. It then touched very briefly on a different approach, that of Fr.Victor Courtois, S.J., as exemplified in his Notes on Islam, published between 1946 and 1960, the year of his death. It spoke of the essential change in the mind-set brought about by Vatican II as far as the Catholic Church was concerned, and how the Catholic Church in India has tried to act accordingly in promoting interreligious dialogue. It has proved to be difficult with Muslims, but anything to promote mutual understanding has to be greatly welcomed. Moreover, when I saw the composition of the audience, I actually gave my talk in simple Urdu, so that everyone could follow what I was saying. The whole purpose of giving the talk was to communicate, not be word perfect, as I would have been if I had read it out in English.
As is obvious, this talk dealt with a particular experience of Inter-faith Dialogue. It spoke of actual approaches. One is inclined to think that the word 'modalities' has been added to the general topic because it sounds impressive, not because it really adds anything to the word 'approaches.' In addition, the expression 'inter-faith' seems too narrow for what is meant, as it formally deals only with beliefs. The common term, 'interreligious,' being more inclusive, is generally considered more appropriate.
It is important to recognize the fact that these religious leaders all spoke positively about the human commitment of their particular religion. Nevertheless, they spoke as religious leaders. They are used to speaking authoritatively about their religion to their followers. They are also heavily involved in many practical matters that they have to deal with from their position of leadership. Not one spoke about specifically reaching out to people of another religion at the religious level. These few remarks clearly indicate that the whole area of interreligious dialogue is, one might say, in its infancy in Patna. This does not mean that nothing has been done in this area. 'Hum Log,' for example, brought together people from different religions. It faded away and a new group, 'Harmony,' has taken its place. Both groups have organized programmes to promote religious understanding by giving people opportunities to participate in collaborative functions. They have proved to be few and far between, since they are considered peripheral to the main task in hand of the various leaders.
It does not seem at all feasible to propose that such leaders study some other religious tradition in depth. They don't have time to do that, and they have to keep up with emerging issues in their own tradition. It would be of immense benefit, however, if the religious leaders could mandate some promising young scholar to study another tradition. They would have to support and encourage him. We see such efforts in the Catholic Church in India after Vatican II. Although numerically few in number, such people have proved to be of great assistance to the Church in reaching out with understanding to people of other religious traditions and, in varying degrees, in promoting and encouraging interreligious dialogue.