India celebrates religious diversity

By Catherine Torbey:

As the Indian sun burns brightly, the heat forming balls of sweat on the foreheads of those travelled near and far, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs pray side by side in harmony. In light of recent global events, the gathering of thousands of people from different religions, all in one place, might be expected to be one of grief, despair and violence. This, however, is far from the case.

The location is Raj Ghat, the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi, India, where crowds have gathered to celebrate the birth of the iconic peace leader. His tomb is covered with beautiful orange marigolds, with an eternal flame burning brightly nearby. Gandhi’s mission was to promote religious harmony in India, something that was severely suffering with the rise of Muslim nationalism in the 1940s. Ultimately, Gandhi gave his life in the fight for religious peace. Today, India is the home of many different religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Sikhism.

Gandhi's memorial at Raj Ghat

Gandhi’s memorial at Raj Ghat. (Photo by Gabi Paterson)

Gandhi's tomb, commemorating the place of his cremation. (Photo by Kate Nutting).

Gandhi’s tomb, commemorating the place of his cremation. (Photo by Kate Nutting)

The religious secularity and spiritual significance of India is apparent as soon as you step into its bustling streets. Sacred temples and mesmerising mosques can be found within minutes of each other, filled with locals for their daily worship. Shrines and religious decorations frequently appear on cars, rickshaws and walls throughout the roads and narrow laneways. It is immediately evident to a foreigner’s eye, that religion is very much a part of the Indian culture.

Doctor Amit Ranjan, a Fullbright Fellow at Florida International University who is teaching Hindi language and Indian culture studies agrees. “Religious, racial and linguistic diversity is built into the Indian fabric – much before the modern idea of ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘melting pot’ came into being. In day to day life, for a common man, religion is very cultural. Holi and Diwali which are Hindu festivals are celebrated by Muslims as well, while Eid iftaar parties are thrown by Hindus”.

It is this strong culture and diversity that Doctor Ranjan speaks of that is both a surprising and comforting characteristic of the Indian people, and one that is perhaps misconceived by the western world. According to Doctor Ranjan, “India is still a land of elephants, levitators and snake-charmers for an average westerner excited about tourism to India. Many westerners come to look for spirituality and look in all the wrong places – they run to phony babas and ashrams, and get cheated or co-opted”. This idea that the western world has formed a stereotypical view of religion and spirituality in India, is reiterated by Rahul Saxena, who grew up in India and is now a graduate of Business Studies at The University of Queensland. He says that, “Indian religion is not one religion, and every religion has different forms in every different 100 kilometers of travel. So there’s a global misconception created through the media, that we are very narrow minded or very superstitious. Which may be true in certain areas, but it’s not the reality”.

A census of religions in India conducted in 2001 found that Hindus make up 80.5 per cent of the population, followed by Muslims at 13.4 per cent, Christians 2.3 per cent, Sikhs 1.9 per cent and Buddhists 0.8 per cent. Despite the significant difference in numbers, and difference of belief in whom they worship or what they believe in, there is a common understanding and respect to love one another and to be a good person.

Ezekiel Malekar, the Honorary Secretary and a rabbi of the Judah Hyam Synagogue in New Delhi (the only synagogue in Delhi) is a prime example of this. Born and raised a Jew in India, Ezekiel is a qualified attorney, however devotes his life to the synagogue. The Jewish community is microscopic in India, with only around 5000 Jewish people and only ten Jewish families in Delhi. However, although Ezekiel is a devoted rabbi who wants to “keep the light of Judaism burning brightly” in his part of the world, he also has a strong passion for interfaith studies, something that is quite unusual for a rabbi. Ezekiel says that, “I would never criticize other religions, I never say my religion is superior. I will say that my religion, is my religion. I say follow one, but respect all. Find the similarities, don’t criticize.”

Ezekiel Malekar shows a student photos from his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Ezekiel Malekar shows a student photos from his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

This strong belief in the importance of interfaith understanding is a significant part of Ezekiel’s daily life. He opened the interfaith center at the synagogue, has studied the holy scriptures of many different religions, has performed several interfaith wedding ceremonies between Jewish and non Jewish people (believing that he is one of the only people who dares and has the courage to do so), and even met the Dalai Lama during his visit to India in 2014. Ezekiel also performed prayers at Raj Ghat for Gandhi’s birthday on October 2nd. He passionately argues that we need interfaith dialogue, however believes that harmony must be found within your own ‘home’ first. He says, “First, see that there is peace and harmony within your own community. Then, think of others”.

Despite the strong religious secularism in India, with citizens such as Ezekiel openly celebrating every religion as well as his own, this diversity has caused some problems within society. Religious extremism will always exist in such a large and diverse country, and whilst there have been tensions between Hindus and Muslims throughout history, Hindu fundamentalism has been on the rise since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, in 2014.

Doctor Saugata Bhaduri, a Professor at the Center for English Studies School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, and the Associate Dean of Students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, believes that although it is not the norm, there are those who wish to convert Hinduism from a boisterous plural and contradictory set of material practices into a monotheistic, uniform, organised and austere ‘religion’. He argues, “These self-proclaimed Hindu fanatics, who are actually the antithesis of the very concept of Hinduism, have to be comprehensively rejected to not only make the country more peaceful, but to safeguard the very essence of Indic religious practices, which are rooted in dissent, tolerance, polymorphity, materialism and corporealism, and enjoyment”

According to Doctor Ranjan, this rise in fundamentalism is largely due to the rise of globalisation and technology. “Social networking tools are used by political parties for propaganda, for disseminating lies and half-baked knowledge, to fan hatred.”  He also argues that although diversity can be problematic, it also leads to a multi-colour, multi-layer view of the world, giving Indians tremendous adaptability and tenacity.

Religion is an intrinsic facet of India and its culture. You will not find one without the other. Despite any tensions and struggles that may exist, to understand India is to understand, respect and celebrate its religious secularism.

Gandhi said, I should love all the men–not only in India but in the world–belonging to the different faiths, to become better people by contact with one another, and if that happens, the world will be a much better place to live in than it is today. I plead for the broadest toleration, and I am working to that end.”

It is Gandhi’s struggle for religious tolerance in India that has helped it to become the vibrant and diverse country that it is today, with those of all religions able to pray, side by side, in harmony.

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