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Prof. (Dr) Tahir Mahmood
Former Chairman, National Minority Commission, GoI
Former, Member Law Commission, GoI

Man has always lived and is still living under two parallel social-control mechanisms – religion and law. The guidance for all aspects of human life is found in one or the other of these systems, often in both. Both are equally significant for the theme of this morning’s Colloquium. Paradigmatic precepts, exhorting people how to live together in peace and harmony, despite their different religious affiliations, are found in the age-old faith traditions and the national and international laws of the time. I will briefly sample here relevant provisions of both. Being a law-man, ignoramus in matters of religion, I will begin with law, first.

The fundamental legal norms, enjoining people to live together in peace and harmony and in unity in diversity are found in the twin principles of religious tolerance and non-discrimination. These are enjoined by all general human rights documents, beginning with the basic Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. There are also specific instruments which are meant to discipline interfaith relations, like the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance and Discrimination 1981, and the 1992 Declaration on the rights of religious and other minorities, both mandating all nations of the world to establish a society free from religious inequalities.   

These international human-rights law norms have been incorporated in most of the national Constitutions of the world. Here in India, in recognition of our age-old India's religious-cultural pluralism, the Founding Fathers of the Constitution adopted secularism as the foundation of our Nation's political and social structure. But the kind of secularism which we have embraced does not mean irreligion and profanity for spirituality, as it is in case of many other countries. It only means an absolute equality for all religious faiths and for their followers in the eyes of the State and no privileged status for any of them under the Law. The Constitution gives all citizens a Fundamental Right to religious freedom but subjects it in the same breath to their Fundamental Duty "to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood, transcending religious and sectional diversities." This constitutional balancing of people’s rights and duties in respect of religion is meant to ensure a complete interfaith harmony in the country.  

Centuries before the world legal systems enjoined such norms for interfaith harmony, various religions had come out with similar precepts for regulating interpersonal relations. No religion is just divinity and spirituality, or rites and rituals. The great celebrities of history whom we see as founders of various faith traditions were not just prophets or avatars, messengers or incarnations of God; they were indeed great social reformers of their times. They did not teach only how to worship God, but also how people should conduct their lives in a way that is conducive to human happiness and ensures living together in peace and harmony. All our great religions emphatically tell us that piety and godliness lie not in rites and rituals but in mutual respect and love, compassion and sympathy, and respect for one another’s religious beliefs and practices. Divinely ordained proclamations to this effect may be found in abundance in the scriptural treasures of all religions of the world, such as, in the Dhammapad and the Sutrakritanga of Buddhists and Jains, the Holy Vedas, Puranas and the Bhagwad-Gita, the Old and New Testaments, the Qur’an and Hadees, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Kitab-e-Aqdas of the Baha i` faith, and so on.

Undoubtedly, the basic teachings of all religions are more or less the same and their commonalities surpass their dissimilarities. The Gayatri Mantra of the Rig Veda and the Sura-e Fateha of the Holy Qur’an are remarkably the same in essence. The Upanishad prayer Tamso ma jyotir gamaya and the Quranic prayer Ihdin-as-sirat-al-mustaqim are not different in their meaning. Both invoke divine blessings for learning to tread the right path in life. The underlying message of Vasudeva kutumbakam and Al-khalq-u ‘ayalillah is clearly identical. The difference between these prayers and precepts of the ancient Indian and the Islamic concepts is only of language. Ignoring this, people unfortunately stress the dissimilarities in various religions and focus on self-created conflicts, leading to undesirable tensions.

Most people regard their own faith as the only true, or at least the only rightful religion of the part of the world they live in. The Jewish, Christian, Parsi and Baha i` faiths were all born in the Middle East but the Middle East treats all of them unfavourably and regards Islam as its only natural religion. This is unfortunate. On the other hand, neither Christianity nor Islam originated in the West but the West regards Christianity as its natural religion, and Islam and all other oriental faiths as alien to its culture.  This is equally unfortunate.

Stereotyping of religious communities is another source of religious tensions everywhere. People are unable, often unwilling, to obtain accurate information required to make fair judgments. Established stereotypes allow them to fill in the blanks and the society goes on perpetuating this state of affairs. The roots of stereotype formation are embedded in what people read in books and magazines, see in movies or television, or hear from friends and families. Spread by propaganda and inflamed by demagogues, prejudice passes on from generation to generation. Globalization of the human world is now globalizing these stereotypes too, leading to religious conflicts and tensions worldwide. People miss the divine essence of the lessons of the sages, prophets and seers and kiss the “holy nonsense” of “my religion right or wrong” and “my religionists alone to me belong.” In this vulgar degeneracy, humanism dies and the common religious values of tolerance and compassion perish unnoticed.

Coming to India, our country is indeed a mosaic representing a synthesis of different religions and cultures. Religious-cultural pluralism is India's past, present and future, is its heart and soul. No religion is foreign to India, nor is India a foreign land for any of them. Ancient India's great religious figures -- Rama and Krishna, Buddha and Mahavira – preceded by centuries, to the birth of the two global religions of today, Christianity and Islam; and neither of them has ever denied India's spirituality. The Christian theological Trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit has no conflict with the Indian mythological triangle of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. Islam's accredited chain of Prophets does not clash with India's galaxies of avatars, rishis and munis. By proclaiming Li-kulli-qaumin haadd" – all peoples have had their Spiritual Guides – the Qur’an recognizes all religious figures of the entire world. The Holy Book declares in no uncertain terms that Prophet Muhammad was preceded, over the centuries, by a large number of other divine messengers – clarifying that although only some of them are mentioned in it, there is no difference between those mentioned and those who are not mentioned. Prophet Muhammad had also told his followers that Adam, the very first in the galaxy of divine messengers, had descended on the holy soil of India. His statement had put India on a high pedestal in Islamic teachings, which he had further glorified by announcing that he smelled a "spiritual fragrance" coming from India.

This religious-cultural affinity between India and Islam is highly significant and has always been promoted by the sufis and aulia and by scholars and poets. The great Urdu poet Dr Sir Mohammad Iqbal, the immortal composer of one of our national songs “sare jahan se achchha” – had eulogized all religious figures of India. Describing Buddha as an extraordinary jewel in India’s crown, he lamented that the light of Buddha illuminated not India but many other foreign lands:

Qaum ney paigham-e-Gautam ki zara parwa na lei
Qadr pahchani na apne gauhar-e-yak dana ki
Barhaman sarshar hai ab tak may-e-pindar mein
Shama-e-Gautam jal rahi hay mahfil-e-aghyar mein

Paying tribute to India’s most popular religious figure Lord Ram, he called him the “Spiritual Leader of India” and a “Lamp of Guidance making India’s evenings brighter than mornings elsewhere”:

Hai Ram ke wujud pe Hindostan ko naz
Ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain usko Imam-e-Hind
Ejaz ous chiragh-e-hidayat ka hay yahi

Raushan tar az saher hay zamaney mien sham-e-Hind

Remembering Guru Nanak as a “‘Perfect Man, who awakened India from the deep slumber” he had written:

Phir uthi akhir sada tauhid ki Punjab se
Hind ko ek Mard-e-Kamil ne jagaya khwab se

And in more recent times, an illustrious follower of the Great Guru Nanak, an eminent Urdu poet, Kunwar Mahender Singh Bedi, exclaimed that Prophet Mohammad belonged to everybody and the Muslims could not claim monopoly on him:

Hum kisi deen ke hon saheb-e-kardar tou hain
Nam leva hain Mohammad ke paristar tou hain
Ishq ho jaye kisi se koi chara tou nahin
Kuchh Musalman ka Mohammad pe ijara tou nahin

In these very meaningful poetic thoughts is inherent a noble message that spiritual figures of all religions must be equally respected, rather revered. The key to interfaith peace indeed lies in an unconditional acceptance of all religious faiths, prevailing on the globe, as a common spiritual heritage of mankind.

In conclusion, I would assert that religion should be seen and practiced only as a uniting and never as a divisive force. Diversity of religions cannot be wished away, but all plural societies having religious diversity, must be humanized. Comity of denominations, not a zoo of savage faiths, must be the governing code of religious pluralism in the human world.

Humanity must be regarded as the biggest religion and it should be placed over and above the traditional rites and rituals. The rules of prayers and fasting, church service and pilgrimage, puja and namaz, prarthna and dua are not an end in themselves but the means to infuse discipline in people’s life and in the society they live in. Let me wind up my submissions by reciting in my imperfect English translation some verses from a long poem I had once composed with the title “Mera Dharm” (my religion):

The plight of humanity makes me cry
No pundit or mulla nor a saint am I
The spirit of my faith I do hold high
Reaching closer to God I otherwise try

Prayer in the mosque if I fail to say
A weeping kid I make smile on the way
Unable to fast on a hot summer day
Bread pieces to the hungry I give away

No chadar I offer on shrines of any kind
But present it to the poor there I find
The pathway to hell when passes my mind
For crossing the roads I assist the blind

For puja I don’t pluck flowers each morning
But thorns from people’s way I keep removing
The sacred name of Ram I don’t keep uttering
But the commitments I have made I try fulfilling

Such values of humanity constitute my religion. Let all of us embrace them, I humbly petition.

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