With its remarkable variety of religious practices, India is an effective microcosm of today’s international, interreligious stage. The country is the stadium for the evolution of many world religions. Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism originated in India. Additionally, the country is home to the largest population of Muslims outside the Middle East, and Christianity is nearly as old in southern India as anywhere else in the world.
India, therefore, is an incredible subject for studying interactions between these religious traditions. Sharing bus seats and classrooms, shop-queues and sari-tailors, people practicing a variety of religious traditions are observed interacting quite literally every minute of every day. A Hindu temple exists peacefully next to a Muslim shrine; a Muslim jeweler fashions glass bangles for a Hindu wedding; a Sikh welcomes people of all faith traditions to his Golden Temple. These relationships – ranging from neighborly to economic to evangelical in nature – break down webs of prejudice that tragically keep a person from engaging with someone about whom they know very little.
India’s inevitable interreligious relationships therefore foster daily understanding between many people of different faiths. Those who interact peacefully have come to know each other as brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues and coworkers instead of as an “Other,” as religious groups are at times portrayed in one-sided conversations or popular news media coverage.
This type of relationship is interreligious nonviolence in its most basic form: a fearless meeting with one another of different religions in a spirit of respect. It is this raw connection that obliterates stereotypes, while embracing and affirming the real presence of a human being in his or her own quest for meaning.
Violence, then, is the direct opposite of this dialogical relationship. In considering India’s long history of interreligious violence – such as the genocide of more than 2,000 Muslims in communal riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 – it is evident that those who have attempted to justify physical violence with religious motives have relied upon intense degrees of communalization. Parties like the engineers of Gujarat’s violence assert illusionary stereotypes and adopt hate-mongering slogans to manufacture the fear that effectively alienates Hindus from their Muslim friends, Christians from their Sikh coworkers, Buddhists from their atheist brethren.
The simple answer to this violence committed in the name of religion – which is just as real in the rest of the religious world as in India – is nonviolence. Nonviolence demands a real knowledge of the “Other” instead of blind prejudice. A nonviolent attitude requires a right understanding of religion that regards healthy concern for others as ultimate decree. It necessitates a deep appreciation of diversity and, perhaps above all, commands engaged dialogues instead of stubborn monologues.
And this nonviolent lifestyle is not reserved for the theology or philosophy students, nor for those who can speak the language of the “activists” or can keep up in circular conversations with fast-chatting politicians. It is, instead, a universal lifestyle based on the few values that can be dubbed absolutely true about our human nature: honest communication, real relationship and radical interdependence.
Leah Todd is a senior studying philosophy and journalism at Marquette University. As a Szymczak Peacemaking Fellow, she researched religious violence and interreligious unity in Rajasthan, India.