Opinion: Why Religion Cannot Be Kept Private In The Indian Context

“Majid, my mother told me, Muslims can have four wives,” said my schoolfriend. “It’s not mandatory, it’s optional,” I replied. “Will you have four wives?”, he asked. I said ‘no’ abashedly. I was in the eighth standard back then.

Religion is an integral part of an Indian’s upbringing.  It has cast its influence on the way we dress, our culinary preferences, our matrimonial choices, etc.

Religion, whether manifested culturally or spiritually, is a breathing idea in India, unlike some Western nations, where it has been relegated to the private space of an individual. Most Indians today identify themselves with a religion.

To understand an individual or a community, then, is easier if we have knowledge of the religious beliefs of that individual or that community. This understanding is essential to build mutual trust, and without trust between its people, no country can prosper. 

Some modern ideas believe that religion is an obstacle in the path of development and so it should be kept private. This idea is not valid in the Indian context. Representational image.

I believe there is an acute lack of inter-faith dialogue in this country. This lack of dialogue has engendered misconceived monologue. Religious communities here suffer from a trust deficit and this trust deficit is displayed during communal tensions.

I don’t mean to say, for example, that Christians and Hindus don’t trust each other. If that would’ve been the case, Kerala wouldn’t have progressed the way it has done. They do trust, and other communities do too.

But, what I mean is that inter-communal trust is limited, and its limits have been drawn by misconceived inter-communal notions.

Some modern ideas believe that religion is an obstacle in the path of development and so it should be kept private. This idea is not valid in the Indian context.

No, here, religion is not something private, for the simple reason, that it has penetrated deeply in the minds of masses, and it’s difficult for them to detach themselves from the religion (or the religious idea) they were brought up in.

When I was in school, a junior of mine, who used to go with me to school in the same transport, once told me as a matter of fact, that the Black Stone at the Kaaba is actually a Shiva Linga.

My next question was, “Who told you this?”.  He replied, “My uncle”. I informed him that it is just a coincidence that the Black Stone has the same colour as that of a Shiva Linga, and I gave a common-sense example.

I said, “Look, there are many people in the world who are dark-coloured, does that mean they are Shri Krishna”. The boy smiled and nodded, perhaps in agreement.

I feel happy that my junior told me this, and I had the opportunity to proffer him a counter-opinion. But there is something startling in this. This means that forget adults, even young girls and boys have seriously incorrect ideas about other religions passed to them from irresponsible adults.

Social media has exacerbated the pace of such propaganda and both children and adults are being affected by it.

I spent a year in Rajasthan, with my mother, living in a rented flat, in a mainly Hindu locality. The owner of that building was a venerable gentleman.

My mother soon made good friends with other ladies of that building. Some ladies, with sincere intention, used to send prasad consisting of sweets after a puja at their house.

My mother used to accept it quietly, perhaps with a smile, but she never used to eat it nor give it to me. This prasad actually was disposed of. The reason for this non-eating was not that my mother was prejudiced—she used to invite these very ladies to our house for snacks and go to theirs when invited by them—but prasad was an offering to idols and Islam doesn’t allow Muslims to eat anything that has been offered to idols. 

This is “not” a minor event of some sweets being disposed of. This shows a lack of religious understanding between average Hindus and Muslims. Why didn’t my mother  decorously tell those ladies not to trouble themselves?

Why didn’t those ladies, well-educated, themselves, enquire why she accepted the prasad? My mother didn’t refuse because she thought that she’d be labelled as ‘communal’ and those ladies didn’t enquire because, as I venture to think, they didn’t know the eating habits of Muslims.

If an average Hindu and Muslim cannot discuss openly and confidently such small matters, how’ll they discuss other sensitive matters of national importance!?

The problem that the “keep your religion at your home” idea has caused is that it has decreased the space for inter-faith discussions by ordinary individuals, for the fear of being labelled as communal/ anti-Hindu/ anti-Sikh/ anti-Muslim, etc. 

We, the youth of this country, can do a lot in bringing in the needed change. We can organise group discussions in our colleges and universities and discuss issues that are related to religion.

And no, we don’t need to rope in a pandit, a maulana and a pastor. We need educated and courteous youth, who can tell us how they construe their religion, and that of their neighbours, and through these constructions, their idea of India.

At a personal level, we can start to discuss such issues initially with our trusted friends and try to seek a positive conclusion from them. The earlier we start, the better. Until we get involved in this, I’ll have to keep saying, “It’s not mandatory, it’s optional”.

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