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In God’s own country

Religious extremism will only be defeated by religious liberalism, not by secular homilies that are often quoted by the nation’s elite, writes Amish.

columns Updated: May 31, 2014 18:54 IST
shiva,atheist,communal riots

I am a Shiva devotee. And I’m as devoted as they come. It’s no surprise therefore that in my puja room at home, I have an idol of Lord Shiva in the centre. But I also have idols of other Hindu Gods, like Lord Ram, Lord Krishna, Lord Ganesh, Lord Kartik, Durga Maa, Kali Maa, Parvati Maa, Saraswati Maa, Lakshmi Maa, amongst many others (we Hindus have many Gods!). Equally importantly, I also have holy pictures of other religions in my puja room — pictures of the Ka’aba, Mother Mary, Jesus Christ, Gautam Buddha, Guru Nanak, Prophet Zarathustra, the Star of David, among others. I worship all of them regularly.

Some people have told me, in jest, that I’m hedging my bets; that I’m trying to ensure that I am blessed by ‘God’ regardless of whichever religion turns out to be the ‘true religion’! That’s obviously not true. I’m only following the culture of my great country. A culture I learnt from my family.

I was an atheist for many years. The repeated communal riots of the early ’90s had turned me against religion. My devout father tried to explain to me that religious extremism cannot be combated by secular extremism, for any form of extremism is harmful. Countering religious extremism with secular extremism only replaces one monster with another. I didn’t understand my father’s words as a teenager. I do now.

The answer to religious extremism is not secular extremism, but religious liberalism. This leads one to the obvious question: what is liberalism? For in modern Indian public debate, the definition of liberalism has been distorted. Being liberal is very often misconstrued as being leftist. But I have met many leftists who are as illiberal as the right-wing extremists they oppose.

The best definition of liberalism is brought forth in a statement that has been popularly, albeit incorrectly, credited to Voltaire (it was actually written by Evelyn Hall): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

How does this translate into religious liberalism? I have my true religion and you have your true religion. I will respect your right to follow your truth and you must respect my right to follow mine.

Liberalism has to be enforced by the elite (and at times mandated by the constitution) if the society is, at its core, bigoted. This has been the case in many societies. Not so in India. We are, at our core, a society that believes in religious liberalism. In fact, we go beyond Evelyn Hall’s definition of liberalism. We don’t profess to ‘tolerate’ religions that we actually ‘disapprove’ of; we actively respect religions that are different from our own.

The Rig Veda, the oldest scripture of Hinduism, has this beautiful Sanskrit line: ‘Ekam Sat Viprah Bahuda Vadanti’ — Truth is one, but the wise men know (or speak) it as many. Before anyone assumes that liberalism is only a Hindu trait in India, allow me to cite a few more examples. Consider the case of the Muslim Manganiyars who sing devotional ballads based on the Ramayan; they don’t feel they are being any less Islamic in doing so. Consider the Mount Mary church in Mumbai, where Christians welcome Hindus as well, allowing us to pray in our own way. Consider Ajmer Sharif, the tomb of a Muslim Sufi saint, visited with devotion by Hindus and Christians.

This is what needs to be cherished in India: the ability not just to respect but celebrate other religions, while being proud of one’s own. We have to realise that religious extremism will only be defeated by religious liberalism, not by ivory-tower, secular homilies from our elite. But that is not the only benefit of religious liberalism. We are faced with many social problems today; a result of centuries of societal decline. I believe that religious liberals — especially those who remain fiercely apolitical — can help solve many of these problems. People will change their regressive social attitudes when they realise that their religion tells them to do so.

Women should not be empowered? Really? Listen to the magnificent tales of Shakti Maa and change your mind. Women should not conduct religious ceremonies or be a part of spiritual discourse? What nonsense! Read the conversation between Maharishi Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi Devi in the Brihadaranyak Upanishad and realise how wrong you are. Women should not work? Then how does one explain the fact that Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Khadija al-Kubra, was a businesswoman and the Prophet worked for her before he married her. The caste system based on birth is divinely ordained and cannot be challenged? Rubbish! Read the tales of Maharishi Satyakam and Maharishi Valmiki, learn from them and attack the caste system as it exists today. You are not supposed to question religious instructions or ancient traditions that don’t make sense? Not true. Read the deeply profound 18th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita and use your brain to make decisions, as Lord Krishna instructs you to. Honour your elders, even if they are wrong? Our scriptures say something different. The Taittiriya Upanishad clearly states: “Honour those who are worthy of honour”.

We religious liberals can solve many of India’s social problems. And we are a vast majority in our country. Unfortunately, we have abdicated public discourse to secular and religious extremists. We religious liberals must rise. We must speak loudly. We must bring out the liberal interpretations of our respective religions. It is our patriotic duty!

Amish is the bestselling author of the Shiva Trilogy.
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jun 06, 2013 23:13 IST