The World Parliament of Religions, opened on September 11, 1893 in Chicago where Swami Vivekananda was the greatest figure, reminds us of the importance of religion in every sphere of human life. A nation is not just a conglomeration of people unrelated to any religion or ideology. Religion plays a significant role in shaping a nation. The Indian society has been religiously and culturally pluralistic for a long time, more than any other country in the world. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism originated and grew on the Indian soil. The Semitic religions of Christianity and Islam came to this country as missionary movements. The tribal and primal religious traditions have their own unique features expressed through oral traditions and distinctive cultural life.
Religions have played an ambiguous role throughout Indian history. Very often religions have hindered social and scientific progress by clinging on to outdated beliefs and practices, such as the ideas of fate and predestination. Religions have justified and legitimized structures of injustice and oppression such as caste discrimination and patriarchal system in our society. Moreover, religions allied with political power have caused communal tensions and conflicts.
But religions also provide visions, values and spiritual resources for purposeful living. They provide spiritual and cultural resources for the survival of different people in their search for identity and dignity. Religions provide strength and resources to fight against injustice in society and propose different solutions to human problems. The plurality of religions introduces an element of choice by providing alternative visions of reality and alternative ways of life. There are peace potentialities, liberating streams or prophetic voices in every religion. Another great advantage of plurality of religions, cultures, ethnic groups and languages is that it can be a guarantee against fascism because it will refuse to accept any ‘‘one and only’’ imposition of a religious or political ideology on all people.
The unity and integrity of our nation is of primary importance. There is a constant fear of terrorism, militancy and other divisive forces operating within and across the borders. For national integration, our first and foremost identity should be as Indian citizens, then our religion or region. For instance, an Indian Hindu should be dearer than a Bangladeshi Muslim to an Indian Muslim and likewise for an Indian Christian vis-a-vis a Christian in the West. Our religious convictions should not contradict patriotism which is inherent in all religions. A Hindu prayer says Om Shanti; Islam means ‘‘peace or submission’’; and a Christian believes Jesus as the ‘‘prince of peace’’. Thus, there is no reason why people of all faiths cannot work together for peace in society.
Historically, it is true that the gap between profession and practice in any religion has been almost unbridgeable and that religious fanaticism has caused untold harm to the society. All religions can play important roles in the process of national integration: by teaching each community to practise what is professed; to be tolerant and respectful toward other religions; to avoid fanaticism and fundamentalism; and then to collaborate with other communities in matters of social and humanitarian concerns towards the making of the nation. Moreover, interfaith relations and cooperation can foster communal harmony and remove misconceptions and prejudices of one community against other communities, thus building trust and fraternity among them.
The basis for interfaith relations should be the common concerns of all religions such as search for peace and justice in society, and unity and integrity of the nation in which religions can play a very vital role. This envisages certain issues that can be sorted out. The great advantage of religions playing significant role in our country lies in our secular democracy. Our secular democracy provides perspectives and challenges where people can enjoy religious freedom and equality and can come together for dialogue and collaboration to tap religious resources in bringing about greater communal harmony, to generate common action to correct social evils, and to work together for national reconstruction. Therefore, interfaith cooperation in this attempt is both disirable and inevitable in our country.
(The writer is the Pastor of Guwahati Baptist Church)