Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Religious Liberty in Contemporary India

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Religious Liberty in Contemporary India

Article excerpt

The Human Right to be Religiously Different

   India is not a nation but a complex secular civilization. Its demography
   tells part of its impressive story. The 687.6 million Hindus of innumerable
   sects, 101.6 million Muslims (making India the third largest
   Muslim-populated country), 19.6 million Christians, 6.3 million Buddhists,
   3.3 million Jains and 3.1 million people of other persuasions (according to
   the 1991 census) reminds us of the many splendoured diversity of our
   subcontinent (Rajeev Dhavan).

It was 5 a.m. on a Friday morning in Bangalore, India, many months ago. I was awakened by the familiar call from the mosque across from our apartment: "Allah O Akbar" it cried out, to remind me that God is ruler of all. I had begun to allow this call to remind me, a Christian, that God would be in control of everything through that day. This Muslim message never disturbed me; on the contrary, it made me religiously reflective and contemplative. But on that morning the mosque had its competitors. The Christian church on my street was having a convention. They wanted the community to be aware of their faith affirmation too. A lyric screeched out from a conical loudspeaker: "Jesus calls", it beckoned with much music and some noise. In a few moments the local chapter of the Shabiri malai devotees (a popular Hindu movement) joined in with their Bhajans (hymns of praise and devotion). They too would not be left behind -- and it seemed that they had managed to hire the most powerful amplifier. "Swami Sharanam Ayyappa" ("refuge in you, Lord Ayyappa") they sang with gusto to the rhythmic thudding of drums and clanging cymbals.

What had promised to be a strong though soothing call to remember the Creator turned into a grating experience. The harmony of spirituality was transformed into a cacophony because each religion sought to overpower the other's call. And then in my imagination I thought I heard another sound join this cacophonous chorus of competing religions. The dogs in the street could not resist howling in response to the divergent voices! Ironically, that which claims to evoke the noblest in the human soul had, in practice, awakened the most animalistic of instincts. In contemporary India religions are manifesting a disturbing tendency to intimidate one another, and the public arena in all its political, economic, social and cultural diversity is becoming the theatre of these less-than-friendly encounters.

In this essay I deal with the public face of religion, particularly in the interaction between Christianity and Hinduism, attempting to understand how religion is "used" in the public domain in India. This involves historical interpretation but I am primarily interested in discerning models of interaction between different religious identities which have implications for us in India far beyond the historical. I trace the manner in which colonialism utilized religion to homogenize India, noting what emerges from the colonialists' encounter with India: the capacity to construct a unitary and grand geo-political entity with an essential Hindu core. I also unpack the Christian theological presuppositions influencing this imperialist agenda: Christ incarnates into pluriform reality in order to initiate the process of moving towards one organic wholeness. Secondly, I link the nationalist movement with colonialist ideology. Even if the nationalist awakening is understood as a counter-movement against the imperialist mindset, it shared many of the philosophical tenets of its adversaries. And indeed, threads of this same philosophy -- the unitary one overcoming the multivalent others -- informs and directs the movement: against religious liberty in contemporary India. Thirdly, I argue for a model for understanding religious liberty that moves away from the conquering propensity of the unitary one, in order to advocate for re-membering plurifonnity. This argument presupposes that religion is a freely available resource through which various communities symbolically represent their own particularized identity. …

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