Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lenten Reflections: Or why Inter-religious dialogues are a bad idea

Secularism has not meant in India the same thing that it did to countries in Western Europe. In those spaces, notably France, secularism meant restricting the direct say of the Catholic hierarchy over what was constituted as the space of the State. In India secularism has largely meant equal treatment to all religions, or the irrelevance of the individual’s religion to the State in public matters. The Indian State however, also inaugurated a social dimension to accompany this ‘political’ dimension of secularism. This dimension was to promote what we have come to understand as ‘communal harmony’, where Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai, can all live as bhai-bhai. Taking stock of the situation around us, we can safely say that this project has by and large not been a success. To sit in for this failure, we refer to those common gustatory experiences at Christmas, Eid or Diwali, where we eat food together, as evidence of communal amity and harmony.

This common gustation probably made sense in the context of the Indian freedom struggle, where to create the Indian, one needed to overcome the barriers of caste and get people to think of themselves, at least in the ‘public sphere’ as Indians. Caste distinctions were (and are) enforced through two methods; restricting the options regarding who one can marry, and secondly by restricting who one could eat and drink with. The first method was largely ignored since it fell within the so-called ‘private sphere’. The second method however most definitely fell within the public sphere, since eating together could bring people together in public, without unduly impacting on the axis on which the whole caste system turns, i.e. the control of access to women’s bodies. Eating together helped mobilize people to fight the British and in that context made sense. Beyond that, our eating together at festivals is now only a token reminder of the caste rules we are breaking when we entertain. In any case this sense of doing the guest a favour by feeding her is also a strong part of Indian hospitality. Why else do we have the famous come-eat-and-go norm at our wedding celebrations?

There is perhaps no clear-cut administrative method to ensure the social grounding of this Indian notion of secularism. However, as citizens of a secular republic we could encourage an ethic of inter-faith dialogue among ourselves to ensure this social grounding. I use faith as a conscious alternative to the phrase religious, since they mean two different things, at least in the context I seek to use them. Religion would refer to the more standard ritual practices of a sect or community, the communal practice of which grants them a definite identity as opposed to others. Faith would be the spirit that animates the individual to engage in these rituals for reasons beyond identifying with the group. Faith would be the spirit that makes the individual desire to transcend the immediate and the material in search of, and in support of, the underlying unity in the world.

It is when we make this distinction that we can engineer changes in the way we understand the inter-religious/faith initiatives that mark our times. The inter-faith dialogue is not a dialogue between two discrete monolithic social groups, say Hindu and Muslim, Muslim and Catholic, but between individuals, and more crucially between the individual and herself, i.e. an intra-personal dialogue. The inter-faith dialogue does not seek to capture practices and outward symbols, but seeks to capture an essence and then bring that essence into the practice of one’s daily life, whether religious or secular.

Allow me to elaborate. As a child growing up in a Catholic community that by and large had not realized the momentous changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, Lent was a time for the outward manifestation of sorrow and mourning. Don’t drink, don’t eat meat, don’t play Holi and don’t watch TV on Good Friday. Lent would have continued for me as a nuisance rather than a spiritually renewing season were it not for my encountering the spirit with which I saw Muslims embrace the month of Ramzan. Ramzan is not the time for long faces and despondency, but a time to joyously embrace. Fasting and the breaking of the fast, the prayers that are actively attended, all these are acts that brings the community together, in what one Catholic theologian has compared to the ‘communion of saints’ that we formally acknowledge in the course of the Creed.

Internalizing this attitude to Lent has subsequently radicalized the manner in which I view Lent. Lent is now a joyous period that allows me the opportunity to reflect, reconcile and spiritually renew myself. It is not as if this aspect of Lent is not emphasized by Catholic teaching. What I seek to emphasize is that my observation of Islamic practice has helped me to come one step closer to ideals within my maternal faith-tradition. Thus I am not required to imitate or replicate Islamic, Hindu or other rituals. I am not even required to participate in them. Inter-faith dialogue requires me only to respect other traditions enough to observe them and see what spirit I can take away from their traditions to enrich my own encounter with life, while not necessarily changing my identity.

Such an approach to dialogue is necessarily individual and cannot be boxed into the bureaucratic requirements of State projects. Despite the accepted common-sense that the State and society are two different entities, all too often, we actively imitate the State. We imitate the structures of the State, the manner in which the State goes about achieving its goals. We make committees and rules and constitutions and formal meetings and in the course of this process the spirit falls by the way side. Thinking of grounding secularism through inter-faith dialogues therefore could possibly be a way forward for us, in these troubled times.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 27 Feb 2009)

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