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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Acharya Sadhvi Sri Vrndaji Chaitanya
Strategies for Positive Interactions among Different Cultures and Religions

Religion is meant for human beings –a cow does not care to belong to a congregation. A cow also has no desire to bring other cattle within its fold, or to enter into inter-religious dialogue. So long as it is allowed to live its life, a cow is happy being what it is. The need for self approval and the need to belong seem to be the human lot. If I turn to religion to seek some relief from the relentless self-judgement and the need for self-approval, it should offer me solutions in the here and the now, not just in promises of some kind of an afterlife. The promise of an afterlife cannot bypass life and its problems.

As long as religion is meant for human beings, then it implies that it should serve the universal need of humans in the present . But looking at the established religions in the world today, it sometimes appears that the case is the other way around –that human beings are meant for religions – the religious infrastructures seemed to be geared to be focussed more with the selling packaged versions of the "hereafter" to seekers, rather than dealing with concerns of the present. The Vedic vision, one of the most ancient religious and spiritual traditions that arose in India offers a unique insight into the universal human predicament of self-judgement, and the need for self-approval and self-adequacy. It tells us that the solution for the self judgement does not rest in heaven, or any other conception of the hereafter, but is available right here and right now, for the self happens to be totally adequate, totally approvable, and limitless. In fact, we go so far as to say that the self is the only thing that there is. The Vedic tradition is unique in another respect in that it unfolds the ways to live in harmony with one's environment, with all that there is --both known and unknown. The Sanskrit word for this is "jagat," which includes everything --even this body-mind-sense complex. It is this aspect of the tradition that I wish to share with you all today, as it addresses our pressing need to relate to the jagat in a way that is symbiotic and peaceful.

As we look towards strategies for developing positive interactions among different traditions, we have to remember that all religions are not equal –I mean this in two senses of the word: they do not lead to the same goal, and --in the present day-- they do not enjoy equal visibility, power and monetary backing. Before we even talk of developing strategies among different traditions, we first have to first ensure that there are different traditions that are existent for us to engage in something more than –as another speaker eloquently put it earlier— an interactive monologue. When we look at human history, we find that there were numerous religious traditions that existed and thrived in different parts of the world that have become endangered or extinct. The Mayan tradition, for instance, whose practitioners built great temples in Peru has disappeared without a trace. The temples stand as relics of a forgotten glory. For the most part, this process of extinction has not been accidental, but has been the unfortunate result of the combined forces of colonization and globalization. The need to expand, to own territories, resources, and people, and to bring them within certain political and religious belief systems, has come at the cost of the loss of diversity of people, cultures, traditions and ways of being that are inextricably linked to our survival as a human race.

To ensure positive interactions among different religions is not just desirable, but is extremely necessary for our survival and well being. In the frenzy of expansion and globalisation, we appear to have forgotten the wisdom of our ancestors embodied in the various indigenous religious and cultural traditions of the world. The time seems to be ripe for the reclamation of this wisdom. To a certain extent, it is happening in several parts of the world. Everywhere, indigenous groups are emerging, and trying to resurrect their practices and philosophies. In Europe, too, there is the rise of those cultures that were earlier dismissed as "pagan" or "pantheistic" I am happy to learn about the people reclaiming the Basque language and culture. But this wisdom of living in harmony with the earth and her resources cannot be found or upheld in a vacuum, without upholding and ensuring the survival of those that profess and practice it. In other words, there can be no culture without people. Without people, cultural forms and religious norms are dead. They become empty shells –mere relics that can be at best preserved in museums.

In my talk today, I would like to focus on two aspects that arise from the Vedic tradition, which is the indigenous tradition of India, and which may be helpful in forging a “new covenant” among the practitioners of different religions. The first is the understanding of everything as sacred, and the second is dharma, the universal matrix of norms.

Emphasis on the concept of secularism has been at the forefront of exacerbating the separation between notions of the socio-cultural and the sacred. I think that this distinction is very artificial and this world view is gradually silencing indigenous voices. I say this because although we live in a “secular” world, I find that it is not so at all, even at the day to day level. When we say that today is the 13th of December, 2005, it is a religious statement. It is not a secular statement. It has its moorings in the Christian calendar. In the Indian lunar calendar, today is dwadashi, shukla paksha, which means that it is the twelfth day of the waxing moon. When we lose touch with indigenous calendars, we lose more than a different reckoning of dates and times --we lose a vast repertoire of knowledge that helps us to live in harmony with our surroundings. The Mayan calendar, for example, carries within it certain astrological prophesies that help humankind to anticipate and overcome collective challenges. Likewise, the so-called secular ideologies of private property, intellectual property, even certain forms of governance –all come from a specific religious background now masquerading as secular.

Survival of cultures and traditions in the world today urgently calls for the re-examination of the secular, and its effects on the erosion of religious and cultural diversity in the contemporary world. Along with the erosion of this diversity, and the carriers of this knowledge, comes the loss of ways of relating to one another and to one’s environment that are geared towards preservation and social justice. In the Vedic tradition, the Hindu religion, which is the indigenous religious tradition of India, for example, no such distinction between the secular and the sacred exists. It is a religious culture, where everything is sacred, because it is made by the creator. In this vision, the creator is not removed from the creation, but is non-separate from the creation. The maker and the material are one and the same. The maker of everything, including time and space, cannot go anywhere to borrow the material, unlike you or me, who can go borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbour to make a cake. In the vision of most ethnic and indigenous religions, nothing left out for the realm of the secular. Everything is sacred; everything is non-separate from what we call "God." Therefore, trees, rivers, oceans, animals, plants, and people that we are created with are sacred. They have a right to live. By their very being they sustain us, and we sustain them through our being, and our actions. This is cosmic ecology, and has its resonance in nearly all ethnic and indigenous traditions of the world.

In this world view, there is no room for dominion or subjugation –it is more of a partnership –a trusteeship-- with everything that flies, crawls, walks, swims. In this world view, there is no room for destruction or subjugation of any force of nature or any thing within it, because of the understanding that everything is given, and that there is no other; there is no separation between nature and human nature. Human nature is but an extension of nature. Everything is given to us –starting with this body, right up to the galaxies—is an integral non-divisible whole. How can we possibly comprehend this? The Vedic tradition gives the example of the dream –when you dream of having ice cream under the stars with some friends, everything in the dream is you –the stars are you, the friends are you, even the ice-cream is non-separate from you. It is a similar situation with all that is here including one’s body-mind-sense complex. Everything is, and everything is given. What is given is evident because it is knowable, and we have the capacity to know, to objectify everything around us. Nature is not separate from human beings, in destroying the one, we invariably destroy the other – in polluting the environment outside, we pollute our own lungs, in desecrating the rivers and streams, we endanger our own survival.

Therefore, we need diversity –religious, cultural, social, political, ecological, and biodiversity so that we can together reshape human destiny from the disastrous potentials that it seems to be headed towards, and use our combined resources to learn to live in harmony with one another, and symbiotically with our surroundings. We need to expand our parameters of what is sacred to include all things that we know, and all things that we do not know --that we are yet to encounter, so we can be mindful of what we are about to destroy. When something is considered to be sacred, there is less of a chance that it will be destroyed.

In the search for this harmony, we require a common language, and a shared experience for interacting with one another, so that we can come to the dialogue with a spirit of mutual respect and a common set of values and norms. The second concept from my tradition that can be useful to set the parameters for positive interactions and dialogue among people is dharma. Dharma is a very important goal in Hindu philosophy –the art of right conduct and harmonious living. Dharma is a universal matrix of norms and values that we already sense. What are these norms? How did they come about? Are they God's mandates?

No one, regardless of which religion or culture she-he belongs to, wants to be hurt, cheated, maimed, stolen from or destroyed. If you ask people living near the North Pole if they want to be hurt, the answer will be “no.” If we ask the same question of some people living near the South Pole, even though they may be poles apart, the answer to this question will still be “no.” No one wants to be hurt, lied to, cheated, or stolen from. Even if someone was to take away your BMW, and then it was stolen from that person, the person who stole it would be very indignant. This is dharma – the universal matrix of values and norms, which is a basic prerequisite for any kind of interaction in human beings. This is something that we sense, just like we sense the force of gravity. It is there, it is invariable, and therefore it is a law. It does not have to be taught, because it is already given. The human being can sense it implicitly. Even as one does something that one ought not to, one knows that it is not correct.

Religions can reinforce dharma –they cannot actually teach it. In fact, they need not teach it. Just as the baby monkey senses the force of gravity and hangs on to its mother for dear life without being taught about gravity, so too the human being senses dharma, without having to attend Sunday School. When we do something right, there is a sense of harmony with what is, a freedom from conflict. Dharma –the matrix of values and norms—is not a mandate of the creator –it is a manifestation of God –if everything is god, then dharma is also god. To encourage positive interactions among different traditions, we need to be guided by dharma. We must cultivate a spirit of mutual respect, listening and understanding that goes beyond lip-service to religious and cultural diversity. This cannot be accomplished in an atmosphere that is rife with expansionist tendencies of major religious traditions at all costs, where often the means are sacrificed for the ends.

Philip Jenkins’ excellent work called the New Christendom, the Rise of Christianity in the Third World documents the different approaches of Christian denominations in the west and the non-west. He tells us in this study that the Christian denominations in the non-west are often more coercive, proselytizing and aggressive than in the west. In the west, there is an increasing trend of people moving away from the Church, therefore the churches are becoming more progressive and liberal. What Dr. Jenkins' found in his research is that the same Christian denominations that are losing ground in the west, have redoubled their efforts by developing an increasingly aggressive stance towards other religions in the non-western regions, and by openly discrediting them. I mention this so that we as a body can be aware of this fact, and come to one another’s aid, each time we encounter or hear about the use of violence, or force, or the suppression of indigenous religions and spiritual traditions. Yesterday I read a troubling letter. Archbishop Nikon of Moscow (Russian Orthodox Church) recently wrote an open letter condemning Krishna, one of the incarnations of God for the Hindus. In this letter dated the 29th of November, he talks of Krishna as a black demon, and uses some arguments to oppose the construction of a Krishna temple in Moscow. Archbishop Nikon said that in the Sanskrit language, the word Krishna means “black.” The devil is black, therefore Krishna is also black. The second reason he gave for coming to this conclusion was because Krishna danced on a serpent, and the serpent in the orthodox Christian tradition represents temptation. It was the serpent in the Garden of Eden that made Adam and Eve eat the forbidden apple and get banished from paradise. The final argument of the Archbishop was that Krishna declares himself to be God in the 4th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. Only Jesus is God, and Jesus told in the Bible, that anyone else masquerading as God can only be the devil. The devil often masquerades as God to confuse the people.

Living as we do in this multicultural world, we cannot afford to let such statements go without responding to them. Such statements hurt a lot of people and commit violence to their core sentiments. We have to be able to counter them effectively. In other words, we have no choice but to engage with the orthodoxy, to make them understand that if they continue to be dogmatic in their approach, they lose out in the end --they alienate their following, and their allies, and they are in the unenviable position of having to keep on playing "catch up" with the sentiments of the people. It is one thing for Hindu organisations to protest this letter. That is one important dimension. However, it is quite another level of engagement if the top level Clergy present here were to write a letter to educate the Russian Archbishop. If this can be done, then there is a great deal accomplished. It sets a precedent, where no religion can be openly discredited causing hurt to its followers, because we follow the universal matrix of norms, the dharma of ahimsa or non-injury. This intra-clerical and inter-clerical dialogues and interventions are extremely important to reshape the normative standards of religious engagement in the contemporary world, if we are indeed to go beyond paying lip service to the issue of inter-religious dialogue.

In this way we can stand together as a body to discredit practices and believe systems that come in the way of fostering mutual respect and spirit of open dialogue. I cite this example of the Archbishop’s letter, not to target the practitioners of any religion but to show how we can come together and aid one another to coexist peacefully, and, if we constitute a strong indivisible body, that represents religious diversity, we have the collective responsibility to take care of this body. I borrow the organic example from my illustrious teacher, Swami Dayananda, to whom I owe this whole talk. In another context, Swami Dayananda said that if anything happens to the little finger, then the whole person hurts and is in pain; one cannot say that it is not one’s responsibility. It should be the same way with regard to all religious traditions. This attitude can be cultivated only when we are willing to understand that the so called “other” no only has the right to exist, but that upon the existence of this "other" is dependent my own survival, and well being. Only when there is survival, can there be the question of living together peaceably, and thinking about reshaping an alternative “covenant” based on what is just, what is fair, and what is ultimately good for the whole. Thank you.

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