Sixth Response; Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue: A View from India

Article excerpt

I want to begin my response to Eboo Patel's thought-provoking paper with a vignette about an event I attended in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. The event was a day-long "fast against communalism" organized by political, academic and artistic leaders of Kerala who asserted that religious violence was foreign to the tradition of religious pluralism intrinsic to Kerala culture. One of the key speakers was a singer called Yesudas, (1) a famous Christian musician in Kerala. Yesudas is also a devotee of the Hindu God Aiyappan (2) to whose temple he makes a yearly pilgrimage and in whose honor he has composed and sung many beautiful devotional songs. As a religious man who in many ways embodies the very pluralism he asserts is part of the heritage of the state, he managed to convey to a mixed audience of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and indeed atheists present, the importance of mobilizing around the issue of pluralism despite the important differences that might exist between them.

Yet this is not the whole story. Yesudas is absolutely correct in suggesting that Kerala has had a long tradition of religious pluralism. It is a state that has the oldest traditions of Islam and Christianity in India and is known for the relative harmony that exists between the various religious groups. Historically, there have been many instances when refuge has been provided to religious groups seeking freedom from religious and political persecution. However, it is also a state which has recently seen a great deal of violence between its Hindu and Muslim populations which testifies to the fact that clearly not all of Kerala subscribes to this pluralist path, not all share the same vision of religious unities.

What can we learn from this story? Despite the multiplicities of viewpoints that exist in Kerala, the organizers of the fast against communalism were able to bring together people from a wide variety of religious groups and political persuasions and in doing so were also able to spread their vision of religious pluralism as the "authentic" heritage of Kerala.

There are two points about inclusion that are important here. First, clearly, the Hindus and Muslims responsible for instigating the violence were not present at the event. Only those who shared a particular vision, including myself, were present on an entirely voluntary basis. Yet, I believe, the lesson to be learnt here is that we need to capitalize on the diversity of viewpoints that exists in any group and bring people together around issues that they can believe in. Second, while many of those present may have disagreed on a number of issues such as putting on a hijab or cow slaughter, they still came together because of issue based politics. They may not see unity on other aspects but on this point they were willing to be present in large numbers--fasting on what was an exceedingly hot and humid day. What is central here is that they were willing to put aside their differences and unite together because of their common commitment to religious pluralism.

Religious ideas and theologies have historically been affected by politics. Things are no different today. While, as Eboo Patel suggests, we might hesitate to challenge the theologies of some, I would hasten to add that while there are indeed many paths to the divine, there have always been important movements for social justice that have critiqued elitist religious ideas. One example would be the strong critique of caste discrimination and religious dominance in Hinduism that has come from those who have had to suffer such discrimination or those who have simply refused to accept such a world view. Those belonging to these movements, such as Kabir, are today held up as models of religious pluralism despite, or perhaps because of, their stringent critique of the political implications of elite religious worldviews.

This is all to say that interfaith struggles are necessarily implicated in politics and must ultimately take a political stand in order to be effective. …