Institute of Harmony and Peace Studies, New Delhi, organized a Round Table Discussion on 'Meeting Points in Religions' at Malaviya Smriti Bhawan, New Delhi, on 24 June 2016. Dr M. D. Thomas, Founder Chairman and Director of the Institute, chaired and moderated the session.
The objective of the discussion was exploring common grounds among believers of diverse traditions, strengthening the composite culture of religions and advancing harmonious living among them. Accordingly the theme of the discussion was to be understood in terms of scriptures, ideologies, traditions and communities of diverse affiliations.
Prof. Reeta Bagchi, Former Professor, Jamia Hamdard Deemed University, New Delhi, and Prof. Amrit Kaur Basra, Deputy Dean, Foreign Students Registry, University of Delhi, New Delhi, initiated the discussion, in line with the objective of the discussion, as the nominated experts in the session.
At the outset, the Chair introduced the Institute as one that is committed to interfaith perspectives, universal values, social ethics, inter-community relations, national integration and social harmony. Therefore, the Institute organizes seminars and discussions, publishes books and articles, guides students in field-based projects, addresses social concerns and engages in extension activities.
By way of introduction, the Chair, relying on his experience of some 30 years in the interfaith sector, drew the attention of the audience to the infant status of the large majority of the believers, who are attached to their faith, like a baby to its mother. He proceeded to affirm the dire need of believers becoming enlightened adults and grown-ups, according to their age and education.
Applying the 'one and many' dynamics of life to faith, he underscored that god, faith, spirit, spirituality, world, humanity, etc are one, but with many dimensions. Therefore, the humans have just one destination, but many paths to arrive at it. He affirmed that all religious traditions are gift of the same Creator and are the common cultural heritage of the human society. They can never be divided.
He proceeded to state that the diversity of religious traditions has to be understood not as same but, similar and different. Difference is not a dividing factor, but an enriching factor. The different traditions are not contradictory to each other, but are complementary and together they make a better sense.
Quoting Henry Miller, 'one's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things', the Chair invited those present to engage in evolving an inclusive way of conceiving faith. He situated the discussion as an exercise that is oriented to make a difference and requested the speakers to rise above the childish way of speaking for one's own tradition and to arrive at a larger definition and model of faith.
The dynamics of the discussion was required every speaker to present a comparative analysis of two religions on a certain point, along with its message of unity, in a to-the-point manner, within 5 minutes. The exercise was oriented to unearth the nuances of difference between the respective traditions as well as highlight similarity between them.
Prof. Reeta Bagchi compared Vedic Religion and Christianity and stated that Vedic tradition believes in the immortality of human beings, while Christianity affirms that human beings are created in the image of God. She furthered the comparison between jeevanmukti (emancipation/liberation) in Advaita Vedanta and salvation in Christianity as 'the kingdom of God is within you'.
She also quoted the Bible 'love your neighbour as yourself' and compared with Vedic Religion that states 'in truth your neighbour is your very self and what separates you from him is mere illusion'.
Prof. Amrit Kaur Basra viewed comparatively Vedic Religion and Sikhism. Adi Granth of Sikhism proclaims 'ek omkar' (one supreme reality) whereas Vedic Religion asserts that ‘the entire humanity is one'. Further, she made a parallel view of 'naako hindu na musalmaan' (neither hindu nor musalman; everyone is the child of God) of Guru Nanak and 'human beings are created by God' of the Vedic tradition.
Prof. Shashi Tiwari drew a similarity between 'ahimsaparmo dharmah' (non-violence) in Jainism and 'don't hurt the other' and 'sarve bhavantu sukhinah' (welfare of all) in Vedic Religion.
Dr Chand Bharadwaj mentioned similarity of the idea of 'light' in Christianity, 'jyotiswaroopa' (Rig Ved 10.48) in Vedic Religion, 'noor' (Quran 24.35) and 'noor' (Adi Granth) in Sikhism. He also compared the idea of 'naad' in Vedic Religion, 'kalma' in Islam and 'word' (Bible, John 1.5) in Christianity.
Ms Reeta Dar underscored festivals as occasions for people of different faiths to come together and brought to light how Muslim families during Eid share uncooked food with Vedic families and how Vedic families reciprocate the same during Shivratri. She also shed light on the life-sharing phenomenon of organ donation that is beyond religion and elaborated instances where it became a reality between Muslim and persons of Vedic grounding.
Mr Asif Iqbal narrated that the month of 'ramzaan' and 'roza-iftar' in Islamic tradition has similarities with the 40 day season of ‘lent’ in Christianity. While in Islam the regulations on fast is rigorous in general, fast in Christianity has a more person-centred approach, with a strong stress on one's conscience, the Chair added.
Mr Asif also took up the example of inter-faith marriage, which is increasingly becoming a recognized reality in either religion. Dr Thomas added a supplementary note that the Catholic Christian tradition, on account of its universal (catholic) outlook, travels an extra mile to recognize the reality of interfaith marriage in view of being abreast of the time.
Mr Amarjeet underlined meeting points between Arya Sammaj and Vedic Religion, in the area of 'gurukul tradition and brahmacharya in student life'.
Mr Naveen Jha showed up similarity in the notion of 'divine trinity' in Vedic tradition and Christianity. Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh of the former resembles with Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the latter. Dr Thomas added an explanation of the dynamics and the nuances of the idea of trinity in Christianity and how it entails the entire life of all human beings as well as Christians in its higher and larger implications,in comparison to the ideal of 'vasudhaivakutumbakam'.
Mr Sushil Jain explained the notion of 'anekantvad' in Jainism. The Chair supplemented a comparison of the same with the concept of 'interfaith' in the Christian tradition. While anekand stresses diversity in a relativist sense, interfaith crisscrosses the diverse traditions of faith and dovetails them in a complementary fashion.
After one round of thrashing out meeting points in different religious traditions by the participants, the Chair took up certain related points that emerged during the course of interventions, by way of adding further clarity to the notions.
The first point was the oft-repeated contentions about the origin of the interfaith movement. In spite of the fact that there are meaningful and very well articulated insights in the Vedas and that Swami Vivekanand highlighted Vedic Religion in the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, these are not the basis of the interfaith engagement of the present day times.
Further, there have been positive efforts by Emperors Ashok and Akhbar in having scholars of different religions in their courts as well as 'deen ilaahee'. There were also efforts of Vaikunda swamikal of Kerala who organized the first inter-caste dining in India and of Sree Narayana Guru who declared 'whatever be your religion, it suffices if you are a good human being'.
All the same, the current wave of interfaith is grounded in the Second World Council of the Catholic Christian tradition in Vatican in 1964. It is a mark of the becoming of age of the Christian community in faith. This inclusive perception of faith grew in western countries and spread to almost all countries. The current engagement of interfaith in India is an extension of that realization, though in more or less dimensions and degrees.
There was some discussion on the propriety of the word 'hindu' as a religious tradition. The word emerged from 'sindhu' and had an inclusive implication at that time. It had nothing to do with any religion then, as well. But, the 20th-21st century made an exclusive application of the word. The politicians polluted the word further. Today, there is a lot of confusion about what the word stands for, especially because there are various sects and sub-sects, even one contradicting the other.
Some suggested 'sanatan' in the place of hindu, while some observed that it can apply to any tradition, on account of its reference to the character of being ancient. The phrase 'dharmic religion' also applies to more than one tradition. The phrase 'Vedic religion' received more approval, on account of its clear base on the Vedas.
Mr Susheel Jain mentioned the importance of vegetarianism. Since there was no discussion on the issue, the Chair concluded the point by saying that righteous and humane living, fellowship, mutual collaboration, and the like, deserve more importance than preferring a certain food habit to another.
Towards the end of the discussion, a few insights came up connecting religion and humanity. Humanity is part of religion, humanity is the essence of religion, humanity is religion, religion is part of humanity, humanity first, religion second, etc. The Chair concluded the point by stating 'religion is not the centre of life, but life is the centre of religion; religion has to be at the service of life'.
Unity of God, oneness of the humanity, respect for the dignity of others, unity and diversity, equality of religions, scientific temper in religion, surpassing conservative practices, etc were mentioned as some of the common elements that bring all believers to the same platform. The Chair affirmed that 'being a good human being' is the most common denominator in all religious and other traditions.
By way of concluding remarks, the Chair observed that the discussion on 'meeting points in religions' brings us to the realization we are very much ignorant of the traditions of the other as well as shallow in the understanding of our own traditions. We require profusely learning from all traditions, in order to imbibe a religious sense that is larger and more relevant.
He continued, scholars have a greater duty to spread enlightened ways in the religious sector. They have to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Situating the relevance of the current exercise, he quoted Mother Teresa who said, 'we ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop'.
The gathering was composed of 12 selected prominent persons from different communities, like Prof. Reeta Bagchi, Prof. Amrit Kaur Basra, Dr Chand Bharadwaj, Prof. Shashi Tiwari, Ms Reeta Dar, Mr Sushil Jain, Mr Asif Iqbal, Mr Amarjeet, Mr Gajender Singh Thukaral, Mr Dhreeraj Sachdeva, Mr Naveen Jha and Dr M.D. Thomas.
The discussion went on for three hours between 10.30 and 13.30 hours. What was special about the round table discussion was the honest effort to get connected with the similar points of the so called traditions of other believers and to find oneself in a common boat with the other. The shared realization that emerged was that 'we, as believers, have to travel together and head towards the pilgrimage towards the same divine'.