Is India the True Home of Religious Liberty for All?

November 10, 2013 at 1:56 pm

In India, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians live side by side.  All the religions overtly and unashamedly practice their religions and frequently discuss their faith traditions with one another.  On the surface, there does not appear to be any religious tension.  In the workplace, cubes are decorated with religious artifacts.

The few Catholics have pictures of Mary, Jesus or crucifixes.  The Hindus have pictures or statues of their idol Ganesh.  There is a man who died in the early 20th century whose picture is frequently displayed.  Whenever I ask who he is, there is generally a long pregnant pause and then I am told that he is God.  You do see Buddha in South India, but not many Buddhists from what I can tell.   I do not see much Islamic displays.  I am not sure if this absence is a reflection of their creedal position of having no graven images of God or if we just have fewer Muslim employees.  In the workplace, folks are happy to discuss religion which is so different from the US.

On a recent conference call, we were mentoring some of our counselors in the US who coach our Indian employees and we encouraged them to ask about the various religious festivals so that they connect with the lives of our people in India.  The Indian HR representative made it clear that it is not an issue to discuss such matters.  I did not think it would be since one of our lobbies has a depiction of the Buddha.  For some reason, in the US we leave religion at the door.  Our common religion has become a secularism of toleration that treats displays or expressions of faith as an imposition on us.  We do not want to offend anyone.  It is unbelievable to me for example that in France, Muslims are not allowed to wear their religious garb and Christians cannot wear a crucifix in public.  I did read that in the newspaper.  I hope that it is inaccurate.

Does India show a different way to approach religious liberty than the West?   I certainly appreciate the openness and toleration that I am seeing and experiencing. My Muslim driver respects our Catholic faith and always asks how my prayer time was after I attend Mass.  He takes time for the 5 calls to prayer that we can hear over the loudspeakers.  He freely shares what he knows about the Hindu faith that he has learned from his colleagues.  (Drivers have a lot of down time and hang out while they wait for expats who are at meals, bars, events, etc.)   When there is Hindu festival, they invite all their Christian and Muslim friends to parties to exchange gifts, sweets, as they say, and generally have a good time.  When the Muslims break fast in the evenings during Ramadan, Hindus frequently enjoy eating the special high protein food that is served only during Ramadan.  The Catholic Mass that I attended today had an intercessory prayer that all of us would live in peace and harmony.

Perhaps India  shows us a better way.  If it does, it is clearly a work in progress.  There remains undercurrents of tension that express themselves in violence from time to time.  I am not sure how to see things as they are.  Can one even generalize? The version of the degree of toleration that exists in India likely depends upon to whom you talk.    History demonstrates that our human nature is prone to divisiveness and violence.  The Indian politicians are not below using religion to demagogue.  The challenges with Pakistan and the terrorism that originates from there can be problematic for harmonious relationships.

May the saints of all the religions present here in India show the way.   As Benedict XVI stated ” It is the great multitude of the saints — in whose lives the Lord has opened up the Gospel before us and turned over the pages; he has done this throughout history and he still does so today.  In their lives, as if in a great picture-book, the riches of the Gospel are revealed.  They are the shining path which God has traced throughout history and is still tracing today.  The saints are the true reformers.  Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world.”

Perhaps you find it odd that  the above paragraph talks as if the saints of other religions can display our Gospel.  Catholics do believe that God wishes the salvation of all as demonstrated in the life of He who was the friend of Samaritans and the marginalized. We do believe that Christ makes salvation possible for those who have not heard of Christ, yet embrace His Light and come to knowledge of God through Him whether or not they use those words or our words.  As our Muslims friends say  ” May the Peace of God be upon you.”