Truth (about all religions) is a pre-condition for harmony

Quest For Harmony
by Valson Thampu
18 May, 2003

The stark truth is this: communal harmony is a logical impossibility. Otherwise, we would have attained it by now; or, at least, made some progress in that direction. Instead, we seem to be going from bad to worse. As a matter of fact, the idea of"communal harmony"seems to be a logical contradiction. Harmony can never be communal; for communalism — the word"communal"being the adjective in the Indian context — is necessarily disharmonious. What we ought to seek is not"communal", but"spiritual harmony.”

Harmony among religions is possible, provided we are willing to shift from religion to spirituality. The seed of communalism is inherent in religion as religion. One indication is the inner decay of religions indicated by the growing gulf between their scriptural ideals and the norms that shape the lives of religious communities. Our practical life contradicts the spiritual ideals we endorse in theory. The spirit of negativity dominates the inter-religious space and shapes religious attitudes. It is this that leads us to mistake our neighbours to be the enemies of our faith. Though all religions recommend values such as generosity, selflessness and charity, increasingly people resort to religion only to secure limitless and unmerited advantages in this world and the next. It is this covetousness that fuels corruption in public life and communalises politics. Selfishness is the source of injustice, cruelty and exploitation. Today the more religious zeal a person has, the more selfish and heartless he is apt to be.

Only those who are at the wrong end of the communal stick care for communal harmony. That, in itself, proves that we do not deem harmony among religions to be basic to our spirituality. It is only an indulgence in nice sentiments in times of difficulty. Come normality, it is business as usual; and all it matters is that we must thrive at all costs and every game plan, communal or otherwise, that helps is welcome. Our commitment to inter-faith harmony remains unconvincing. For all our sentimental endorsement of this ideal, it is doubtful if anyone is willing to make any adjustment to attain it.

There are two essentials for spiritual harmony. The first is to spiritually renew and reform religions. This involves bridging the gulf between scriptural and spiritual values on the one hand, and the practices, values and goals of the religious communities concerned, on the other. Secondly, the practitioners of a religion have to develop adequate sensitivity and due respect for the religious practices and sentiments of others. Rather than glory in our differences as the markers of our superiority over others, we need to handle our spiritual heritage with humility and self-denial. There is an urgent need to evolve an inter-religious code through mutual consultation, within a framework that can accommodate the genius of each religion and minimise the offence of what is unique and different.

India has been a confluence of religious plurality for over two millennia. But we are still far away from developing an integrative, inter-religious spirituality. Each religious constituency has remained until recently self-enclosed, except in respect of festivals. The rise of rabid communalism now threatens to disrupt even this modicum of religious interaction. The time has come for us to work earnestly towards evolving a shared spirituality as consonant with the demands of a secular democracy blessed or burdened with religious plurality. The alternative to this is the slow but steady communalisation of the State apparatus, with unthinkable consequences for all citizens, especially the minorities. The bulwark again the communalist collapse of Indian democracy is the spiritual renewal of all religions, which has to be a prime inter-religious agenda.

It is customary, in interfaith exercises, to play up commonalities and to sweep differences under the carpet. This is escapism and self-delusion. Differences are as significant and valuable as the sameness we share. The specific business of spirituality is to enable us to accept and, at the same time, transcend differences, which is the opposite of glossing over them. within a framework of spirituality, differences cease to be stumbling blocks and become a source of stimulation and enrichment. The problem is not in diversity or differences; the problem is in being infected by the communal spirit of negativity that disables us from relating to diversities harmoniously. The ability to welcome and celebrate differences is a sign of spiritual robustness. Unless this is achieved, the foundation for religious harmony cannot be laid.

The task of paving the way for spiritual harmony has to address also the need to regenerate our culture of governance. Communalism is the alternative to good governance. It implies a reductive redefinition of the political discourse in terms of communal loyalties in order to deflect the attention of the people from their basic needs and to make them turn against their own welfare. It is when a political party fails in respect of good governance that it resorts to the desperate remedy of playing the communal card. What is involved here is the prostitution of bhakti (spiritual devotion), which is the most sacred sentiment humans are capable of. Because of the decay in religion, people mistake bhakti for blind devotion. Blind devotion makes people vulnerable to manipulation by the religious and ruling elite. This is the logic for the marriage between the political and religious vested interests, and communal discord is the monstrous birth from this marriage of convenience.

The more our culture of governance decays with the result of aggravating human desperation, the more the people succumb to manipulation by political and religious demagogues. What makes communalism explosive is the psychology of mass-desperation that creates the ideal climate for inventing scapegoats and hypothetical enemies. It is in such an atmosphere that minorities are easily portrayed as the enemies of the nation and of Hinduism. In this respect, the Sangh Parivar is quite right in saying that facts do not matter. It is a total culture of negativity and the anxiety contrived within it that clinches the issue.

It is because of this that caricaturing the image of other religious communities is basic to every communal agenda. In this, not only the aggressive ideologues of majoritarian communalism but also the propagators and salesmen of minority communities too are to blame. Sweeping statements have been made in the past about other faiths, especially Hinduism, without trying to understand them in depth and in truth. The tendency to play up one's faith by playing down the faiths of others must be resisted at all costs. This is not a legitimate exercise of the right to propagate one's faith, but an abuse of it. We must practise the basic courtesy of speaking the truth about each other, without which the goal of spiritual harmony shall never be attained. Truth is a pre-condition for harmony.

Quest For Harmony
By Valson Thampu

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