DHARMA-DHAMMA CONFERENCE ON HARMONY OF RELIGIONS WELFARE OF HUMANKIND
Baselios Marthoma Paulose II
In my primary school days, between little children, we used to play a wonderful game. In my vernacular language, the game was named as Unni-choru-vechu kali, which literally means, “little children’s game of preparing rice”. This is over the summer vacation. All the children in the neighbourhood will gather together under a tree. The group will be counted as one family. A father and mother will be selected among them. The rest of the children will be considered as the little ones of the family. Every single child will be bringing their little share of different raw foods and whatever household utensils they could. In the leadership of the selected ‘father and mother’ of the family, gruel and little side-dishes will be prepared. And, finally, when everything is ready, all of us will sit down under the tree and share the food, as if we are one big family. This game has contributed a lot to the happiness of our innocent childhood.
I grew up in a village where we have people of all the major religions of South India. And in our group, we had children from all these religions. We never felt any difference between us. We were certainly aware that we were from different religion. Yet, we felt that we are one family. This ‘dialogue of life’ is my humble foundation on the approach to other religions.
Alongside of this, my mother, who is my first spiritual guide in my life, like any of us, taught me to read the Holy Bible. In the Bible, I came across an unusual story of a Roman Army Officer, living in Israel in the time of Lord Jesus Christ. One of his servants has fallen sick. This man wanted to see his servant healed. He has heard of this teacher from whom one may get healed. He has asked the Jewish elders of his neighbourhood whether they could speak to Jesus on behalf of him. He does not want Jesus to come to his home, as he thought he is unworthy of a visit from Jesus to him. The Jewish elders when approached Jesus said, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” Jesus, seeing the conviction of the Roman official heals the sick servant. (St. Luke 7: 1-10). The Roman soldier here represents a tyrant foreign ruler who oppresses the country. He is approaching a group of people who does not belong to his ethnicity or religion. He considered himself as unworthy. But the people of the other religion counted him as worthy. Their testimony says that the Officer loved their people and he even built a worshipping place for them. And the Teacher valued the conviction of the man. This is a wonderful event I found in the Holy Scripture on how peaceful coexistence is possible between diverse religions. Amidst of this harmony, God’s mercy works.
Pardon me for this revealing of identity. This utmost cordial and welcoming environment compels me to narrate a little on what Church I represent. Our humble representation here is of a traditional Christian Church which has its history of twenty centuries in the Indian Sub-continent. We are not off-shoots of the ‘Western Missionary Movements’ of the colonial times. We, the St. Thomas Christians, hold the tradition of St. Thomas, the disciple of Jesus coming to the South-West coast of India in the first century C.E. We never advocate intimidating and forceful adaptations of religious ethos and beliefs. We do not believe in any kind of imposition of one religion on the other. We believe in peaceful co-existence of diverse religious traditions.
Religion and Religious Harmony
I would presume that, all of us could agree on the fact that ‘religion is an honourable sentiment’. It is an inspiring source of heroic sacrifice. It is of self-denial and of serving others. It is of mercy, peace and goodness. No matter to what different religion we represent, all the above mentioned aspects are applicable to all our religious traditions. Which religion has not presented self-denial and serving others as essential virtues? What religion is not presenting mercy, peace and goodness?
It is high time that we have to come to the reality that, practically speaking; there is no one religion for the whole of humanity. On the contrary, the truth remains that, there is only One Humanity for all the religions. In spite of all these, religion in popular terms can quickly turned into hatred. The wrong use of it can produce fanaticism. Thereby, it can propose and practice, the most irrational kind of cruelty. In expressing ardent loyalty to one’s own community or religious denomination, people can become intemperate and brutal. Why such a noble sentiment getting transformed to ‘irrational kind of cruelty’? I would humbly say that, it is predominantly because of the lack of mutual knowledge. Lack of mutual understandings is sometimes assisted with wilful distortions too.
It is quite obvious that we need religious harmony. The diverse spiritual traditions which propose a life of mercy, peace and goodness should come together in accord. If the destruction caused by the discord of religions is brutally intense, the restorations and life offered through the harmony of religions will be infinite.
Does that mean that one has to sacrifice one’s own religion and religious convictions? Certainly not! Knowing each other, exploring the goodness in others and mutual understandings will only help us to perceive our own religion in a better way. It will only equip us to know on how important it is to be compassionate and non-judgemental. Holy Bible says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37). We have no right to mutually judge but we have been asked to forgive each other.
Commonality of Texts
It is natural that there will be doctrinal differences between different religions. For every religion, it is important that it has to hold on to the doctrinal values of it. There is no need of forsaking of one’s own identity. Diluting the doctrinal values and neglecting the identity will only diminish the salvation proposed by the religion. What we need to explore are the common platforms and mutuality.
One such significantly potent platform is the commonality of the sacred texts. Religious academicians and organizations proposing religious harmony could bring out cohesive ideals from the sacred texts of different religions. I would like to humbly draw your attention to one simple common theme shared invariably in all the sacred scriptures. The call for compassion is common to all religions.
Obviously, Srimad Bhagavat Gita, Chapter 12, recites on the need of becoming benign and compassionate while highlighting on how significant is to abstain from ‘self-love’. Particularly, I would like to emphasize on the word used “karuna”- which obviously means becoming compassionate to others. This certainly includes, as several of the interpretations place it, ‘friends and enemies alike’. Again, in the same verse, two words “maitrah” and “karuna” are coined together. “Maitrah” is becoming benign and showing good will to all, both well-wishers and ill-wishers alike.
In similar terms, Daya, is the word used in Guru Grandh Sahib. One of the notable texts says, “If you have no compassion; the Lord’s Light does not shine in you. You are drowned, drowned in worldly entanglements.” (Page 903, Line 12). Holy Quran gives obvious statements as righteousness is not in the precise observance of rituals but in the acts of compassion and kindness. (Cf. Quran 2:178). Moreover, Al-Rahman, ‘compassionate’ is the name of God. For the Jewish religion, in the Hebrew Scripture, King David is praying to the great compassion of God to provide a contrite heart (Psalm 51). “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36), says the Bible.
The commonality of spiritual ideals is quite visible among the sacred texts. This could be a common platform for the religions in their quest for harmony.
A Panchsheel for Religious Harmony
It may be helpful for our religious communities to draw some ground principles for peaceful co-existence. I would like to humbly propose a Panchsheel, if possible, for us to deliberate on. I have gathered inspiration from venerable Paulose Mar Gregorios of blessed memory, who was my guru, in proposing these principles.
Reciprocal reverence or in simple terms, mutual respect is an inevitable need for the peaceful co-existence. One should know how to respect one’s own religion. Deeper knowledge of one’s own religion will help the person to have reverence to all. Fanaticism is the result of partial or disconnected knowledge of one’s own religion. There would be people who use their Scripture in advocating hatred and intolerance to other religions. Those kind of scriptural interpretations are the outcome of disconnected knowledge of their own Scripture. Breaking out a particular passage from its context to justify our actions is an act of irreverence to the Scripture. Here the actions are not formed on the basis of Scriptures. The action precedes and for the justifications one would look through the Scripture. In many cases, this would end up in plucking out verses from their contexts. It is important that one should maintain a greater coherence in interpreting the Scripture. By coherence I meant to have consistency with the rest of the Scripture. A passage taken out of context could be misinterpreted to our needs. Precisely, a deeper knowledge in one’s own Scripture will give us the moral ascendency in respecting other religions.
In practical terms, this reciprocal reverence could be initiated by teaching each person to respect other religions as well as one’s own and never to perceive or speak, hatefully of any religion. We need to encourage our people to learn what is best in each religion. It would be good if we have this kind of teaching schemes in our educational institutions. It could also be advanced through public gatherings organized, say once a year, by all religions together and addressed by their leaders.
It is a principle of our secular democracy that no man or woman shall be discriminated because of his or her religion. Religions should not impart fear in the heart of people. It should only assist the people in having a fearless life. Again, as it is already mentioned, a better interaction to one’s own Scripture and religion will only help us to be indiscriminate.
Sometimes we may feel self-sufficient in terms of our religious resources. We would normally think that what we need spiritually in our life is given to us through our Scripture. It is quite natural to think in this way. All the same, it should not make us judgemental. Is it possible for us to go one step further? If we are becoming open enough to learn from other religions, there is no doubt that, our understandings of our own religion will be transformed and deepened.
In the international scenario, initiatives of inter-faith dialogues do not have a long standing history. But the practice of learning from others was a noble tradition of India from the very ancient times. I have been deeply impressed and motivated with the Twelfth Rock Edict of Emperor Ashoka of India in the 3rd Century BCE. I would like to quote its major contents as it says:
“The essential message varies from sect to sect, but it has one common basis, that one should so control one’s tongue as not to honour one’s own sect or disparage another’s on the wrong occasions; for on certain occasions one should do so only gently, and indeed on other occasions one should honour other people’s sects by doing this one strengthens one’s own sect and helps the others. While by doing otherwise one harms one’s own sect and does a disservice to others. Whoever honours his own sect and disparages another’s, whether from blind loyalty or with the intention of showing one’s own sect in a favourable light, does one’s own sect the greatest possible harm. Concord is the best, with each hearing and respecting the other’s teachings.”
We would have failed to observe this ardently in the past. When we talk on the heritage of this call for harmony, it is our responsibility to revisit and practice.
The strength of this Edict is that it makes clear that dialogue is not forsaking of one’s identity, whereas it is the enhancement of identity. Dialogue will help us to know ourselves. (I take this opportunity in wholeheartedly congratulating the organizers of this Dharma-Dhamma Conference, as the mission statement of this event vividly upholds the call for this harmony. This is a call for dialogue, which will help us to know others and ourselves in a better way).
Further to this, we need religious leaders who are spiritually and emotionally secure engaging in dialogues. When it comes to dialogue, if we feel our faith is being threatened, that seems to be an indication that our faith is either insufficient or inauthentic.
Again, dialogue between religions will equip the religions to have a shared platform to engage in dialogue with the secular world. Dialogue between religions and secular ideologies will only help the welfare of humanity. If we are overlooking this aspect, for the majority who are standing outside the religious spectra our exercises will be felt as null and void. An inter-religious dialogue which neglects the welfare of the humanity will be defective and inadequate. It is an obvious truth that secular people are increasingly involved in the decision making structures and information media of the world. Inter-religious dialogues hence cannot afford overlooking the secular ideologies in the long term.
The possible dialogues between the religious and secular ideologies will help the nations in their peace building process. It will promote in formulating professional ethical standards in the midst of ever changing technological world. It will certainly bring an added fervour for the ‘caring for the life’. All the religions consider nature as the creation of God and one cannot ruthlessly exploit it. Hence these dialogues will only help the preservation of nature. (I am again happy that this Conference is precisely covering all those relevant topics).
It would be good if we have a national network of religious leaders committed to the ideal of religious and communal harmony. This body could be vigilant about the communal tensions in various part of the country. The body should take initiatives in organizing meetings of religious leaders in those localities where unfortunate conflict arise. It should aim in stopping any possible outbreaks of conflicts and fights. We could make the body a religious philanthropic panel, which has regional operations too. Volunteers could be promoted in spreading the good news of cooperation and harmony.
All religions invariably believe in the selfless service to the needy. The social or charity institutions run by the religions should not have any clandestine motives of conversion or agenda to proselytise. We may have practical reasons to run our institutions separately as our own. Having said this, it would be a great message to the world, if different religions could run, at least, a few institutions of service together. It would be good if we spare our resources together for some village development projects. Ways and means for joint service are worth exploring. This would be an enduring witness to communal harmony.
It goes without saying that religious harmony will only work for the betterment of humankind. In spite of odd events of communal hatred and disharmony, among the common people, there exists a dialogue of life. Religion or politics should not in any ways induce poison in the communities where this dialogue of life prevails. Instead, religions should become a catalyst promoting this dialogue of life. Religions should make provisions for its followers to develop reciprocal reverences. It should stand against any kind of discriminations. In every respect, we should welcome all possible dialogical openings. Religions should advocate peaceful negotiations in times of unfortunate clashes. It would be a good gesture if religions could collectively involve in serving the humanity.