Reflections on India's interfaith by a People to People delegate

Insights from our People to People Delegation to India

by Paul Madar

I got a real sense of the power and beauty of interfaith appreciation from a great representative of India. Our guide Pran’s ability to appreciate the commonalties of the many religions of India was impressive and encouraging. I got a sense of his broad knowledge and tolerance even on the first day when I found myself wondering what religion he was. He was speaking so highly of every religion sect that I had a hard time telling which he followed personally. Pran finally did reveal he was Hindu, but quickly he added that all religions teach essentially the same thing, that we are to seek union with our God and to lead a very good life and care for others on the way.

Each day, Pran gave us the essential tenets of each religion represented in India - Sikhism, Islam, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, Saddhu. There are so many, and each has sects within as well. I could tell his respect for each from how excited he would get at the different temples we visited and the people we met. After we met his boss, a Parsi, he gushed his great respect for their sect. At Akbar the Great’s Fatehpur Sikri palace he enthusiastically pointed out the details of the architecture, describing the ruler’s acceptance of Islam, Hindu, and Christian faiths. In the Sikh temple he would reverently explain all the elaborate ceremonies that go on every day. Once, seeing a band of Saddhu holy men, he pulled all the taxis over for us to get out and meet them. Back on the tour bus he would explain the details again of what we had seen, give us more background and history of the religion or sect, and tie it all in to the fabric of the many faiths of India by comparing the beliefs of one religion to others.

Many times I can remember Pran jumping up from his seat on the bus and pointing out the window to a temple and shouting, “Look, look! Do you see it?!” Then he would describe what faith was represented, the ways their practice related to some other group we had seen, and let us know of another place we would be going that would have something similar. There was a new temple built in Jaipur that we visited which symbolizes very well the interconnectedness of religions in India. Pran declared we “absolutely MUST go there” because of the harmony of all the religions of the world. It is a beautiful, all white marble structure with three domes, representing Hindu, Jain, and Islam. Outside the many pillars on the porticos were engraved with likenesses of religious figures such as Madonna with baby Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, Zarathurstra, Moses. Inside we all gathered by the completely ignored sign that said “Please keep Silent” and sat down in a row against the wall to meditate. Soon the very noisy, bustling hall grew quieter, and as we opened our eyes we saw several families and individuals had joined us in sitting in silence. Our gesture of respect for others’ faiths fit perfectly with the ideal of the temple, and people recognized this.

What really showed Pran’s interfaith approach was how interested he became in metaphysics and our School. On the bus he quietly read through parts of Permanent Healing and our 25th Anniversary Thresholds issue. Within a matter of hours he had quoted a phrase he had read in Permanent Healing, and had related it to his description of the Hindu ideas of interconnectedness. He asked as many questions of us and metaphysics as we did of him and his country and faith.

Pran was not the only embodiment of interfaith respect and tolerance in India. Our guide Priti, a Hindu, explained how the problems in the contested area of Kashmir are almost entirely political. In order to garner support for their respective agendas, the Hindus and Muslim whip up public sentiments against each other and fabricate, mistrust, and revenge. Priti said the people outside of those areas generally get along just fine, and she pointed out our Muslim bus driver who even had a couple of Hindu deities taped up in the cab of the bus.

Our Sikh guide, Harpreet, in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, explained how their volunteer kitchens made food for 30,000 people every day, regardless of their race or faith. The only stipulation for the visitors was that they ate together, not in separate groups. The Sikhs belive very strongly in equality of all people, and have been instrumental in dissolving caste barriers and gender discrimination. Their ideal of service to all showed clearly in how we were greeted and treated in the Golden Temple. Theirs was one of the few places where beggars were not a problem - they were invited in and taken care of by the Sikhs!

Interfaith respect and tolerance are alive in India, partly because of necessity, but mostly from an appreciation of common goals and ideals. Yes there are still skirmishes between factions here and there, but my overall sense, from seeing the Tibetan Buddhists and Iranian Parsis and Burmese refugees invited into the country, is that our guides, Pran, Priti, and Harpreet, are more representative of a striving for harmony between religions in India. We were fortunate enough to meet some people who are living the ideal, and showing others how to live together, too.

copyright 2002 School of Metaphysics

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