Religion and the idea of India
As we celebrate the 75th year of India’s independence and count our achievements as a nation, we will need to appreciate how astonishing a feat it has been to achieve and preserve the unity of India as a political entity. When in August 1947 British rule over the sub-continent ended, bringing into existence two new nation states, the India that came into existence was a patchwork of territories formerly ruled by the British and 565 princely states ruled by maharajas and nawabs. India could easily have ended up as more than 500 different nations. But it was not just the fragmented political landscape that the leaders had to contend with. This new nation had large populations of people belonging to all the major religions of the world. Its inhabitants spoke more than a thousand languages recorded in over 66 different scripts. Further, this nation which was impoverished by centuries of colonial rule and by injustice had chosen to be a democracy. As a social and political experiment, nothing so bold and ambitious had been attempted in the world before. Not surprisingly, many western observers at the time had predicted that India would not survive as a unified entity. Winston Churchill famously remarked that the moment India passed out of British rule it would “will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.”[i]
And yet, seven and a half decades later, India stands tall in the family of nations as a young and energetic member that is the world’s largest democracy with one of the world’s largest, most dynamic and fastest growing economies. Over the decades it has emerged as a world leader in areas such as information technology and pharmaceuticals, it has largely/widely overcome the problems of food shortages and famine, more than halved its absolute poverty rate and made immense progress on a host of development indicators including literacy and health. To be sure, this journey has not been without its share of crises and even today India continues to face issues such as poverty, environmental degradation, corruption in institutions, separatist movements and sectarian violence. Yet, its unity as a federal republic gives it the strength and resources to endure crises with resilience, to learn from its collective experience and to continue to advance as a nation.
While there are many factors contributing to keeping India together as a nation, few can deny that a vital cohesive force that binds the nation together is the spirituality of its people. This spirituality finds expression in a culture that values human beings as the creation of the Divine, is open and accepting of people of all backgrounds, that views in all living beings the reflections of the sacred and therefore enjoins respect, gentleness and non-violence in all relationships as the ideal way of life. It is this spirit of an all-embracing oneness that is conveyed in the ancient Indian ethos of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family). This ethos implicitly envisages that the unity of the nation will be a stage in the process of the progressive manifestation of the spirit of oneness in the social and political realm; it reaches its fruition when the principle of the oneness of humankind is firmly established in the consciousness of people, and when India and is sister nations across the world unite as one family.
This spirituality of the Indian people is not a free-floating, amorphous, superficial condition, but rather a state of being that is rooted in the religious beliefs of its people. India remains a deeply religious nation where its peoples’ spiritual convictions have a strong bearing on the way they understand and carry out their civic duties. Thus, living together in peace and unity is viewed not just as an outcome of citizens fulfilling their formal obligations to each other in a social contract – but rather as the expression of the profound spiritual principles that govern interpersonal relationships where the individual finds joy and fulfilment in the well-being of the other. While religion plays a powerful role in India in strengthening the social fabric through its altruistic injunctions, it is a historical fact that from the time of India’s independence, religion has also been made into the cause of conflict and social tension in the country. Following the bloodbath that accompanied the Partition which led to the loss of nearly one million lives, religious differences continued to simmer as an undercurrent of unresolved tension erupting time and again in the form of communal violence.
Over the past few decades there has been a worldwide resurgence of religious fundamentalism. Voices that represent religious extremism and intolerance have increasingly entered the political and social mainstream and, in many countries, they now dominate public discourse. This has created an atmosphere of confusion around the concept of religion where its unifying and constructive role has been steadily obscured by the tendency to view it solely through an identity lens. India too, has not been immune to it and these challenges come at a time of great uncertainty in world history when the need for internal unity is vital to successfully navigate the waves of present and impending crises that can gravely undermine the nation’s progress including the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing geopolitical instability and war, economic recession, climate change, terrorism and a global food and energy crisis.
The need of the hour then is for a constructive discourse involving leaders and representatives of all religions in India on the role of religion in contributing to social harmony. The ground for such a discourse must be laid by clarifying the fundamental nature and purpose of religion as a system of knowledge and practice, and the common foundations of all religions. Such a discourse must show a practical path forward for inter-religious collaboration in contributing to the progress of the nation.
The Oneness of Religion
An analysis of the teachings of the major religions of the world and their impact on human society will reveal that they all share a common nature and purpose. The purpose of all religions has been to develop the spiritual potentialities latent in human nature and through such moral and spiritual development to provide a powerful impetus to the advancement of civilisation. The following quote elaborates on this:
Throughout history, the primary agents of spiritual development have been the great religions. …A vast literature, to which all religious cultures have contributed, records the experience of transcendence reported by generations of seekers. Down the millennia, the lives of those who responded to intimations of the Divine have inspired breath-taking achievements in music, architecture, and the other arts, endlessly replicating the soul’s experience for millions of their fellow believers. No other force in existence has been able to elicit from people comparable qualities of heroism, self-sacrifice and self-discipline. At the social level, the resulting moral principles have repeatedly translated themselves into universal codes of law, regulating and elevating human relationships. Viewed in perspective, the major religions emerge as the primary driving forces of the civilising process.[ii]
While every religion bears the stamp of the particular historical circumstances and cultural setting in which it appeared, the essential spiritual and moral teachings at the core of all religions are one. All religions enjoin upon their followers to develop qualities such as honesty, justice, truthfulness, uprightness, kindness, love and trustworthiness. The Founders of all the major religions exemplified to a superhuman degree perfection in these qualities and set for humanity an abiding example of moral excellence. Although the social teachings, laws and rituals of different religions have differed based on changing historical needs and circumstances, they ultimately can be seen to serve the same purpose of advancing humanity’s collective maturity.
At its heart then, inter-religious harmony is more than a mere expression of interfaith goodwill. Its basis is the oneness of spiritual reality itself to which all religions give expression. As the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the worldwide Bahá’í community, wrote in a letter to the world’s religious leaders:
It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one. This recognition arises not through a resolution of theological disputes, but as an intuitive awareness born from the ever-widening experience of others and from a dawning acceptance of the oneness of the human family itself. Out of the welter of religious doctrines, rituals and legal codes inherited from vanished worlds, there is emerging a sense that spiritual life, like the oneness manifest in diverse nationalities, races and cultures, constitutes one unbounded reality equally accessible to everyone.[iii]
A discussion on religion’s nature and purpose must also address the many harmful attitudes, beliefs and practices that are perpetuated in the name of religion and that have their basis in superstition, blind imitation and prejudice. Such beliefs and practices are not only inherently harmful because they stunt individual and collective progress, they can also gradually grow into a dense thicket of dogma and rituals that chokes the vivifying spirit of religion. When religion gets reduced to such beliefs and practices that are neither morally edifying nor amenable to reason, it is a short step away from turning into a source of prejudice, hatred and contention. In this context, the Bahá’í writings identify two conditions that true religion must fulfil if it is to be distinguished from superstition, blind imitation and prejudice. The first is that religion must promote unity and serve the social good. To quote the Bahá’í writings:
“Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth, give birth to spirituality, and bring life and light to each heart. If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act.”[iv]
The second condition is that religion must be in agreement with science and reason. To quote from the Bahá’í writings:
If (religion) does not correspond with scientific principles and the processes of reason, it is superstition. For God has endowed us with faculties by which we may comprehend the realities of things, contemplate reality itself. If religion is opposed to reason and science, faith is impossible; and when faith and confidence in the divine religion are not manifest in the heart, there can be no spiritual attainment.[v]
Communal Harmony as a lived reality
For most of India’s masses living in rural and urban areas, inter-religious harmony is a lived reality where people of different religious communities live side by side in friendship forged over generations. It finds expression in a syncretic culture where neighbours belonging to different religions participate in each other’s festivals, visit each other’s holy places and protect and honour the sacred traditions of each community as a part of their common heritage. A recent case study of two informal settlements in Indore carried out by the Bahá’í Chair for Studies in Development at Devi Ahilya Univserity illustrates these deep traditions of inter-religious friendship and tolerance. The study which was carried out in North Toda, a predominantly Hindu settlement, and Kabutar Khana, where the majority of the inhabitants were Muslims, explored how residents of these neighbourhoods drew upon their spiritual convictions of the oneness of humankind and their interconnectedness with nature in addressing common challenges related to water scarcity and flooding. In the process, it uncovers a richly-layered culture of fellowship. To quote from the study:
During the festival of Navratri, Muslims join Hindus in the traditional garba folk dance program in the public square. …During Raksha Bandhan, Hindu and Muslim girls tie (rakhis) on the wrists of their ‘brothers’ of the other background. On the days of Eid, for example, a steady stream of Muslim visitors from Kabutar Khana could be seen at the local medical shop belonging to a Hindu resident, wishing him on the festive occasion and celebrating together.[vi]
The story of these neighbourhoods is the story of countless villages, towns and cities in India. This friendship between people of different religions in neighbourhoods is cemented by the experience of facing common challenges and by sharing in a community’s social and economic processes. As a temple custodian and an owner of a small grocery shop in North Toda explained in the study:
The unity between us is a result of us growing up together, side by side. We have become used to one another. We love each other. If we don’t get along with each other, where else are we going to go? If something happens to me at night, I am not going to go looking for a person of my religion to help me. I turn to my neighbour for help—whatever his religion may be.[vii]
The study further reflected the many ways residents of different religious backgrounds helped each other in addressing the crisis water shortage or flooding. To quote from the study:
When it floods, they provide shelter and food for each other and help one another carry their belongings to safety. The well that is located in the Noori Mosque in Kabutar Khana provides water to Hindus and Muslims when the need arises. Similarly, a yogi in Kabutar Khana provides water from his bore well to Muslims in his neighbourhood particularly during the holy month of Ramadan when they are fasting and they need more water at certain times of the day.[viii]
While the participants in the study spoke eloquently of the inter-religious fellowship in their communities, they were also conscious that they could not take this unity for granted. They were conscious of forces in society that sought to divide them along religious lines. The way they countered these challenges was not by distancing themselves from their own religions to arrive at a neutral ‘secular’ space with the other but rather by countering narrow-minded propaganda that promotes divisiveness with a broad-minded reading of their own scriptures where acceptance of the other becomes an element of one’s own faith and serving the other becomes a duty enjoined by the recognition of their common humanity. The following extract from the study featuring voices of residents in these neighbourhoods captures the way their faith inspires them to overcome barriers and arise to help the other:
A member of a handful of Sikh families who lived in Kabutar Khana, emphasised, “Guru Nanak, our divine teacher, tells us that all humanity is one. There are no real differences between human beings. We have to learn to ignore the worldly differences between people based on caste or creed and serve all human beings.” Participants in this study mentioned that helping people learn to live together harmoniously and with mutual understanding was one of the main aims of religion. …“The purpose of life,” commented a man from North Toda, “is to do some good to those who are less fortunate than us, to be of some use to them, to be a source of happiness to them… Living for ourselves—this is something anyone can do. But to live for others—that is the key to life.” …Some Hindu participants in this study highlighted that the ‘dharma’ of a neighbour is to be a source of strength and support during difficulties and a joyful companion during all the happy occasions of life. The implications of this sense of duty towards one’s neighbour was discussed by a shopkeeper in Kabutar Khana: “Even if my neighbour wakes me up in the middle of the night, I will get up and go to help him. Whatever his difficulty may be—whether he has got into trouble with the police or has to be taken to the hospital—it is my duty to support him and help him.”[ix]
Religion in the 21st Century
Preserving these traditions of inter-religious fellowship and perpetuating them requires efforts from individuals, communities, religious leaders and institutions of society such as the media, the education system and the State. However, such efforts can close-in on themselves if inter-religious unity is considered an end in itself and is not viewed in the context of society’s needs at this moment in history. Unless united communities are driven by a common objective to contribute to the transformation of society and to ever increasing material and spiritual prosperity, unity can become a pretext for passive conformity with the status quo, with all its attendant challenges and injustices. The most secure basis of inter-religious harmony would thus lie in religious communities coming together to apply spiritual principles common to all religions for building a more united, just and prosperous world.
Addressing the complex and unprecedented challenges of the twenty-first century will require the masses of humanity to make deep changes in their patterns of thought and behaviour and a willingness to make profound sacrifices for the common good. The kind of structural and systemic changes that are needed to become more just, united and to restore our balance with nature will require selfless efforts from the masses of humanity on a scale and for a duration never before witnessed. History bears witness that other than religion no other power or man-made ideology has been capable of stirring the depths of human motivation and calling forth the spirit of nobility, sacrifice and initiative needed to achieve such an objective. The world today is in dire need of the power of religion to once again course through the veins of a beleaguered humanity and to stir a common and collective response to humanity’s challenges.
Religious leaders have a unique role to directing the attention of their congregations to the needs of the world. Many heartening examples of religious leaders coming together to rally their congregations around the national drive to address common challenges could be witnessed during the worst phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. In one noteworthy example, 25 religious leaders and representatives of interfaith movements in India issued a joint statement to the followers of all religions in India to “reiterate those principles common to all religions that have the greatest bearing on people’s response to the crisis.”[x] The statement which was issued as an initiative coordinated by the Baha’i community of India, called upon adherents of all religions to unite in a common commitment to four spiritual principles that have the most relevance to this crisis: recognition of the oneness of religion, the oneness of humankind, selfless and sacrificial service to the common good and the complementarity between religion and science. Although this was a modest effort, it illustrated the tremendous potential for positive social change that resided in the untapped spirituality of the masses which faith leaders could come together and channelize for the well-being of all.
In final analysis, it is the objective of religion to enable human consciousness to outgrow the tendency of drawing lines between members of the human family. It implies developing qualities of heart and mind that see the reflections of the divine in all human beings regardless of background and to love all humanity unconditionally. This is in essence the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The ancient sages of India who contemplated this vision as an ideal state of collective existence did not live in a globally interconnected world. This generation of Indians, on the other hand, has witnessed the physical interconnectedness of the human family through technological development and therefore can envision humanity as one family. The task ahead for this and coming generations of Indians is to work to translate that vision into a reality in all its fullness by harnessing the immense resources of faith that we all have access to. Let unity and harmony become our dominant narrative and become associated ever more strongly with the reputation and reality of Indian identity, relegating conflict and contention among the religions to an earlier and less mature stage of our history. Let us harness the edifying power of religion towards constructive endeavours that can bring about the spiritual and material prosperity of our nation. In this way India can truly lead the world morally and contribute to global peace and harmony, assuring its rightful place as a leader in spirituality and inter-religious harmony.
Author Brief Bio: Ms. Nazneen Rowhani Secretary-General of National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of India.
- ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Bahá’í Reference Library. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/paris-talks/5#089115387
- ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/21#981649643
- Bahá’í Chair for Studies in Development, DAVV and Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity. Hope and Resilience: The Application of Spiritual Principles to Community Life. https://bahaichairdavv.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/isgp_hope_and_reslience-pdf.pdf
- Churchill, W. Our Duty to India. March 18, 1931. Albert Hall, London. International Churchill Society. https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1930-1938-the-wilderness/our-duty-in-india/
- Office of Public Affairs of Bahá’ís of India. The Role of Religion in the Fight Against the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Joint Statement by Representatives of Various Religions and Interfaith Organizations. https://opa.bahai.in/role-of-religion/joint-statement/
- Universal House of Justice. Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders. Bahá’í Reference Library. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20020401_001/1#024035169
- Universal House of Justice. One Common Faith. Bahá’í Reference Library. https://www.bahai.org/library/other-literature/official-statements-commentaries/one-common-faith/1#525095225