South Asia

We are one

In an era of religious polarisation, Hindus, Muslims and Christians gather at the Samkeesha Ashram in Kerala. Father Sebastian Painadath, a Jesuit priest, has made the Ashram a forum for dialogue.
Statue of St. Thomas  who is said to have brought the Christian faith to Kerala in 52 AD. Sean Sprague/Lineair Statue of St. Thomas who is said to have brought the Christian faith to Kerala in 52 AD.

In Kerala, members of different religious faiths are living together peacefully. What circumstances make that possible?
Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews share centuries of common history in Kerala. We all speak the same language, Malayalam. Our history was marked by authors, poets and political leaders from all religious communities. Moreover, economic interdependencies foster cooperation. The Communists who often ran the state government have promoted a secular, socialist way of thinking. Even the caste system was put in doubt very early on in Kerala. At the beginning of the 20th century, Narayana Guru, a social activist, led a strong liberation movement of the lowest castes.  

What is the foundation of India’s peaceful diversity?
It is the cultural mindset. It is part of our psyche to accept and even appreciate our great diversity of languages and cultures. In north India, Hindus visit the shrines of Sufi saints. In south India, Hindus worship Mary in Christian churches. In Kashmir, I saw Muslims on pilgrimage to Hindu shrines I think it is wonderful that the people at the grassroots normally live together in peace. All too often, it is theological dogmatism and politics that pit them against one another.

What dogmas separate religious faiths?
Well, the dogmas of the fundamentalist exponents of all religions do so. These people want to tie people to their doctrine, and they declare their own religion to be the only true one. Things become dangerous when one faith tries to win over other people. Once religious sensitivities are hurt, cruel responses become likely. On the Christian side, ultra-conservative preachers are causing problems. In Orissa for instance, some missionaries bad-mouthed Hindu gods. On the other hand, some fundamentalist Muslim groups are guilty of terrorist attacks. Among the Hindus, there are also radical groups. They want India to be a nation state for Hindus, and some are ready to resort to violence.

Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat, is an exponent of Hindu nationalism. Is he abusing the faith for political purposes?
Yes, he is, and his goal is to win votes. As chief minister of Gujarat, he has become a symbol of modernisation because the state’s economy has flourished under his rule. In 2002, however, he simply allowed the mob to go on rampage during communal riots that involved Hindus and Muslims. According to official estimates, 2000 people were killed. Most of them were Muslims. Human rights organisations later accused Modi of failing to intervene. He resigned from office, but his party, the BJP, soon after won the state elections, so he is still in power today.

What was the riot’s theological background?
Well, I don’t think it was about theology at all. It was about business interests. In many parts of Gujarat, Muslims were the most influential members of the business community, and Modi’s party wanted to dominate the economy. Accordingly, they triggered the violence. The historical background was the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya ten years earlier. Radical Hindu groups tore down the Mosque stating it was the birth place of Lord Rama in 1992. The immediate consequence was communal violence and bloodshed in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. When a train was set on fire ten years later in Gujarat, Modi’s followers used that to occasion to start violence against Muslims and grab economic power.

When did Hindu nationalism emerge in India?
Political activism with the goal of making Hinduism the foundation of an independent Indian nation started in the 1920s. In 1947/48, during the independence struggle, radical Hindu organisations were responsible for communal riots that killed thousands of people. Even Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic because Gandhi’s attitude towards Islam was tolerant. In 1964, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – VHP for short – was founded, and the BJP emerged from the VHP environment in the 1970s. It still enjoys VHP support. The VHP supports youth clubs, trade unions and other organisations. Their members tend to agitate against Muslims, and lately they have begun to agitate against Christian institutions too. In Orissa in 2008, Hindu fanatics set a church ablaze and attacked Christian congregations.

Is Hindu nationalism stoked by the special rights minorities enjoy in India?
There are some privileges for the Christian and Muslim minorities. When we run a Christian school, for instance, we choose the teachers. However, the school has to be open to members of all faiths. These rules are generally accepted, but some Hindus question them. There have been legal concessions to Muslims too. In laws regarding the family and women’s status, legislators have passed special rules in order not to lose the votes of the Muslim community.

It seems odd that Hindus demand to dominate. Hinduism is normally a rather tolerant religion.
Yes, that is true. Hinduism is indeed quite open-minded, tolerant and respectful of other religions. Hindu nationalism, however, is a political expression of the faith. Its followers argue that India is the only predominantly Hindu country on Earth. They complain that, because of aggressive missionaries, Christianity is growing. They also claim that Muslims are crowding out Hindus  ...

...  stating that Muslims have more children because Muslim men are allowed to have up to four wives.
Yes, but that is obvious nonsense. Most Muslim men only have one wife, and only about 50 % of the Muslim population is female. In any case, Muslims are portrayed as an economic and political threat, whereas Christians are considered a cultural and international threat because they get support from Europe and America.

Why do some Indians choose to become Christians or Muslims?
Well, Hindus from downtrodden communities gain a new sense of self-esteem and new social liberties when they become Christians or Muslims. However, one cannot entirely escape the caste system, because this system is a social and not a religious phenomenon. Some of the traditionally high-ranking Hindus feel threatened by conversions nonetheless. Ultimately the caste system has become a means of oppression that has been theologically sanctioned by Hinduism. The reason you belong to a low caste is that you were a bad person in your past life. That kind of religious doctrine is very destructive because it marks people’s psyche.

Will the caste system last?
In urban settings, you can see it slowly breaking down. If you belong to the lowest castes but manage to get a good education, you can rise quite fast. From 1997 to 2002, India even had a president, K.R. Narayanan, who belonged to the low caste. That would have been unthinkable only a few decades earlier. Ten percent of all posts are reserved for members of the lowest castes in all government agencies as well as in schools and universities. It is illegal to run separate schools for separate casts. All schools must be open to all children, and that has made a huge difference.
What significance does the caste system have for the Hindu identity?
The caste system is certainly not the foundation of the Hindu identity in any religious sense. Even the term “Hinduism” is not a Hindu term; the word was coined by others. The religious base of Hinduism is “sanatana-dharma”, the “eternal foundation”, which is about an eternal, divine harmony or cosmic order, to which a person must open up. Doing so is a process, and it allows for great spiritual liberty. This is one of the main ways Hinduism is different from Christianity, a faith which has more limits and dogmas in belief issues, but allows for more social mobility. I see great opportunities in a creative exchange between Hinduism and Christianity, and my Ashram provides space for religious cross-fertilisation.

What theological controversies do you have in the Ashram?
It is generally assumed that Hindus and Christians disagree fundamentally on re-incarnation, but in the Ashram, that is not really an issue. We simply say that Christians believe in one life and Hindus believe in multiple lives. Hindus are quite open-minded in theological terms, and they don’t mind Muslims believing in one single God, Allah. On the other hand, Muslim monotheism cannot appreciate the multitude of Hindu gods, nor does it appreciate images of Christian Saints. Christians believe in the Trinity. In the Ashram, we tolerate the differences, however, and say they reflect different ways of thinking. What we share, however, is that we all try to fathom by different means the unfathomable mystery of the Divine. “Ekam sat, vipra bahudha vadanti” – the Divine is one, and sages call it by many names – is a statement from the Rig Veda (1200 before Christ). It summarises the Hindu mind-set. No matter how you call the Divine – Father, Allah or Shiva – it will always be unfathomable. We have in common our awe in view of the Divine.

What is inter-faith dialogue about in your Ashram?
We focus on the values we share, such as human dignity, justice, charity, peace, support for the poor and the integrity of creation. We focus on our shared striving for harmony, and we implement our values in practical action. We have environment circles that campaign for forest protection, a healthy river and a clean city. We ask ourselves what is it that makes us – whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim – to become engaged for humanity. We pray together to make it clear that, ultimately, we are all praying to the same God. Respect for the prayers of another faith is a very authentic form of dialogue. Praying invokes the faith in its deepest sense. In my Ashram, people from different religions feel welcomed and respected. This is the place where we can communicate across all divides. Spirituality is where all religions meet. At the mystical level, we are all one. Questions by Sophie Appl.

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