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Prof. Madhu Khanna
Professor of Indic Religion and Director
Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions & Civilizations
Jamia Millia Islamia

Any dialogue on the interfaith question in India must be rooted in an in-depth understanding of our civilizational past. We tend to forget that almost 2,500 years ago, several unique notions to bring together people of all races and cultures were developed by seers, sages and philosophers. So we must recognize that the idea of living together in harmony is not a new concept. It is not an invention of modernity. In our times, communal disharmony is precipitated by the ceaseless violence on all fronts around us.

The idea of plurality and acceptance of the ‘other’ is embedded in the DNA of our Civilization. The composite Indic civilization is formed by several dissimilar streams: the pre-historic Harappan culture, the Vedic culture, the non-Vedic tradition of adivasis or primal communities and the Dravidian communities from the South. In due course of time the diverse groups had to come to terms with each other with their distinctive characteristics and devise strategies to promote compassionate and cordial relations between communities and nature. Parallel to the drama of history – the rise and fall, climax and catastrophe, that moved from age to age, there was a quintessential recognition of the ‘other’. There are innumerable passages in the oldest religious Scriptures of the world that extol the idea of tolerance and peaceful coexistence: Thus, we read in the Atharva Veda:

May the Earth that bears the people speaking in varied languages,
With various religious rites according to their abode, enrich me….
                                                                                                               Atharva Veda (XI.1.45)
And again:
May all beings look upon me with the eye of a friend;
May I look upon all beings with the eye of a friend;
May we look at one another with the eye of a friend.
                                                                                                              Yajur Veda (36.18)

These passages revalidate the multiethnic cultural identity that celebrates and embraces the diversity of race and class. There are many other gems of wisdom worth recalling here, namely the extraordinary notion of Satya (Truth), as self-reflective integrity and centre point of human existence, which had guided all along the life and endeavors of Mahatma Gandhi. The next valuable notion is of Rita, the inflexible Cosmic Order, responsible for maintaining the moral and social order.

The idea of bandhutva, the interrelationship of all humans and life, gave us the ethical norm of living as one extended family. Other ethical norms such as dharma (righteousness) or shila (personal ethics), propounded by the Buddhists, notion of Seva (service) to humanity, upheld by the Vaishnava and the time-honoured Jain ideal of Ahimsa, were evolved as early as the “Axial Age”. The Indic achievement during this period was something of an Inner Revolution, guided by thinkers, who gave us our human and spiritual values, based on justice and egalitarian principles.

Unfortunately, today’s agenda for modernity and its political, social and academic structures, offers no wisdom for living an integrated life where values of humility, compassion and peaceful coexistence are transmitted. India’s lifeline is its spiritual and human beneficence but there is no institutional forum that considers our past to be relevant for today.

This takes me to my next point. If there is to be a multi-faith dialogue, it should be complemented by inter-generational conversations between the custodians of faith and the younger generation. In this Colloquium, we are converting the converted. We have to move in all fronts. We have to introduce the younger generation and children to the values of peaceful communication and peaceful coexistence, based on the perennial wisdom of our civilization, so that India can retain autonomy of knowledge of its historical past and recover its lost dignity by inculcating a paradigm shift from revenge to reconciliation in our day-to-day thinking and practice.   

To revitalize the value of interfaith harmony in secular India, we must move together on all fronts, and present a road-map to the Parliament to adopt an agenda which could restore the age-old values.

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