Challenges of Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Today

Posted: 05.08.2015
Updated on: 06.08.2015 occupies an important place in human life.  Each religious system stands for certain precepts propounded by its prophet, seer, divine avatar or Tirthankara.  These precepts are supposed to be scrupulously followed by the lay persons according to their beliefs.  It is said that religious beliefs came into vogue with the advent of human civilizations and evolved gradually.  The main aim of religion is to enable an individual to live a good moral life based on truth and justice but when we look back and examine the role of religion during the last three millenniums of recorded human history, we are shocked to discover that most wars were fought in the name of religion.  Our beliefs result from our social and cultural environment.  No two persons think alike hence it is natural that there will be different beliefs, different languages, different dresses and different cultural, moral and social values.  Conflicts arise when these beliefs are forcibly imposed on others.  There were attempts to create divisions in human society on grounds of religion and conflicts did flare up but they were confined to specific regions and were resolved by rulers and social reforms.  Despite occasional tensions humans have so far co-existed.

Though religious conflicts didn’t manifest themselves globally till the advent of the 20th century religions in different countries did create an environment of discord and hatred and the people in that region suffered miserably.  Disillusioned by the role of religion the noted Irish satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote, “We have just enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another.”  When we look at the world today we realize that what he had uttered about the Irish society in the 18th century is true in respect of the whole world today.  In UK Christians continued to flight in the North Ireland till recently when the conflict was resolved politically.  In the Middle East Muslims fight Muslims in Iran and Iraq.  In India the Hindu-Muslim conflict resulted in the partition of the country in 1947 and communal tensions do exist in different parts of India even today. 

The challenges of interreligious and intercultural cooperation for peace today are extremely complex and formidable because religious aspirations have been mixed with political aspirations and instead of a being a personal ethic religion has now been institutionalized and politicized and is being used as a tool to fulfill political aspirations of a few individuals in each religious community.  Religious loyalties are being exploited giving rise to fanaticism and terrorism. 

In the wake of the growing religious tensions across the world many sensible persons in civil society gave a serious thought to this question and pleaded for interreligious dialogues to bring the alienated religious groups together.  The last six decades are marked by such meaningful interfaith dialogues initiated by civil societies (NGOs), governments and various agencies of UN across the world.  There are many actors of interreligious cooperation and each ‘actor’ is making its own contribution today.  They include civil society as well as government and UN agencies.  They are trying to reconcile divergent ethnic, cultural and religious groups by persuading the tension-gripped groups to sit together at a table and resolve their conflicts nonviolently.  In almost all major religious traditions there are interreligious committees which are active in this direction.  At UN and government level too there is a realization that they can work more effectively if civil society is involved.  By a main actor I mean an organization which is exclusively dedicated to the cause of interfaith harmony.

I will designate the civil society as the ‘main actor’ of interreligious and intercultural cooperation.  Prominent among these actors are Acharya Mahapragya’s Anuvrat Movement and Surat Declaration in India, John Pope Paul II’s initiative in the form of annual interreligious global assembly, Pax Christi and Quackers (Christian Peace Movement), Parliament of World’s Religions, World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) and United Religions’ Initiative (URI).  They are creating an environment of reconciliation and many joint action plans are being implemented which include poverty elimination projects, employment generation schemes and development of such villages which are steeped in poverty and illiteracy.  These actors have been organizing highly successful global interfaith assemblies and thousands have come forward to join the global campaigns.

When the followers of different faiths - Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs sit together in fellowship as people, they find they have so much in common.  Hindus are not Hinduism, Christians are not Christianity, Jains are not Jainism and Muslims are not Islam.  Our beliefs and doctrines will bind us in all kinds of knots - they can become a dreadful tyranny to us so that we look at people through ‘doctrinally trained eyes’ and we arrogantly think that we have the right to pronounce quick judgements on them. But Buddha, Jesus, Mahavir, Mohammad, Sankara never did this.  Would that we would all follow the spirit of our spiritual teachers?   Our doctrines and beliefs as Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains are very different.  They are bound to be because they have developed in different cultures.   When Christians, Jains, Hindus, Muslims meet together in faith all the superficial differences quickly fall away and they become one in universal love.  There is a difference between faith and belief.

            Earlier these modalities were in the form of small dialogue groups at local level but with globalization global interfaith councils sprang up.

Outline of the remaining speech

(i)        The problems faced by actors are

  1. Economic disparity
  2. Religious discrimination at government level
  3. State terrorism
  4. Growing intolerance

(ii)       Measures to tackle

  1. The Jain Anekant approach (Lord Mahavira) which advocates non-absolutist attitude i.e. avoiding dogmatic insistence that only what one says is true. Anekant philosophy emphasizes that truth is many-sided so we must not insist dogmatically on our views.  If the Jain Anekant approach is followed there will be no conflicts.
  2. Propagating and highlighting common eternal truths

(iii)      Relations between culture and religion

Religion and culture are interwoven.  It is difficult to separate the two.  But customs, social practices, myths and legends may not be a part of a religion too.

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