Saturday, September 21, 2013

MILAP initiative: shared responsibility for a harmonious India
Victor Edwin SJ

Asad Mirza, Muslim Outreach Officer with the British High Commission (New Delhi) invited a number of religious leaders, students and research scholars on religious studies to discuss the importance of Interfaith dialogue from the perspective of our responsibility towards building a more humane and inclusive India as citizens and religious believers.  At the outset a few leaders from different religious communities spoke on the need of interfaith dialogue. This was followed by a short fruitful discussion. This short note highlights both the salient points of the presentations and significant features of the discussion.

Rev. Dr M.D. Thomas, Director, Institute of Harmony Studies, New Delhi spoke on harmony between one and the many. He stressed that ‘plurality’ and ‘difference’ is a positive reality. It needs to be nurtured and shared. Drawing on from his experience of working with people of different religions, Dr Thomas noted that it is rewarding and mutually enriching when one becomes a bridge-builder between different religious traditions.  He emphasized the focus of interfaith relations is to remove some of the human made borders that alienate one from other. He laid out three beautiful biblical images: human person as image and likeness of God, Man/woman temple of God, and all are children of God. That enables human person to build a harmonious world.  It should be mentioned that there was a tinge of syncretism when he used the image of brooks (tributaries) gushing towards the river and the river flowing towards the sea. Such images have its limited value.  In a deeper theological sense this image does not honor ‘difference’ and specificity of each religion.

Janab Iqbal Mulla, the assistant secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami insisted on the necessity of interfaith meetings. He said such gatherings give a learner an opportunity to clear the prejudices he/she has about the faith of others.  He said that the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad are God’s gift to the whole humanity. Interestingly he touched upon a very relevant issue between Christians and Muslims: religious freedom.  It appears that he seemed to have in mind the freedom to worship in a particular way. The impression this present writer gathered was that he was not taking about the ‘freedom to choose a religion according to one’s conscience’. It is important that this issue should be reflected upon in depth and see whether Indian Muslims and Indian Christians could give a response that is born of our living together in harmony for centuries. The West may have another experience.

Swami Nikhalanand Saraswati, the director of Chinmaya Mission called for a deeper experience of God in order to live a life of honesty and integrity. He observed that the knowledge of God and knowledge of Ethics come from God and found in the Vedas. If God does not reveal, man and woman cannot have the understanding of who God is and what should one do or not do.  In other words, human cannot have access to the mind of God through his intellect.  Some Indian systems, it should be noted, do recognize the human ability to discern which is good or bad /what should be done and what should not be done. Swami Saraswati noted that God is the final goal of every path.

Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, Rabbi of the Delhi Synagogue stressed that humanity is the true religion and tolerance for differences and respect for human rights are essential aspects of living in a plural society.  He also emphasized that we need to highlight the commonalities between religions with a sufficient and proper understanding of differences in interfaith fellowship. He advised his listeners that reading the holy scriptures of various religions will help one to respect the diverse religious beliefs.

Prof. Akhtarul Wasey who chaired the proceedings emphasized that plurality is God’s design for the world. Indian Muslims have learnt to live in harmony with the majority Hindus in India. Muslims are in India for the last fourteen hundred years and have fully participated in the ups and downs of this great nation.  The secular democratic setup of India gives Muslims freedom to practice and propagate their faith.  He also stressed that the era we live in is an era of dialogue. We are not living in an era of debate and polemics, he said.
Interestingly, in the discussion followed after these presentations, a number of issues that affect everyone were highlighted.  It is worth mentioning them here: abuse of women and children, moral degradation of youth and human rights violations were noted as major challenges of the present day Indian society. The participants felt that they should face these issues jointly as concerned citizens and religious believers. The change for good must start from me and from my family as the first step, affirmed the participants. Working together for change in society is only the next logical step.

To sum up: this meeting was something special in a sense; it did not stop with waxing eloquently about the religious teachings of each religion. It brought to the awareness of the participants common responsibility for the good of the society at large. It went much deeper to say that we need to change ourselves, first. This change that comes from within will produce the critical mass that is needed for societal change. Secondly, meetings such as this remind everyone that our future is a shared future. The harmony of this shared future is ensured when everyone does his/her bit to build that shared harmonious world. Except Dr Thomas and the present writer there were no other Christians in the meeting. Often this been the case, it would be profitable if many Christians participate and share and learn from such initiatives. It will be an eye opener for many Christians and discover that there are a lot of kingdom builders, out there, among people of other religious traditions. Is not our future a shared future?

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