What does it mean to be a good human being? Can one be a good human being without having any religion?
Religion is a means to be a good human being. It means respecting fundamental human rights. A virtuous life leads to inner coherence and outward harmony.*
Recently I attended a programme on inter-faith dialogue (IFD). It was felt necessary, the compere said, to have such initiatives in the light of the atmosphere of distrust engulfing the nation.
At the IFD three religions were represented. The most persuasive speaker, a poet, did not speak of religion at all. He spoke in Konkani and warmed our hearts with his words. He said when we were born we did not have any markers distinguishing ourselves as belonging to any particular faith. We were as Kahlil Gibran would say, ‘arrows from the quiver of life.’ When the sun rises, he continued, it does not differentiate between who it will shine on. It shines for everybody. The speaker’s inclusive mysticism -- like Thomas Merton’s -- emerging out of his poetic practice, made a deep impression.
‘Who bombed Hiroshima?’ the second speaker demanded to know. He said he was pained that when he asked a student the question a particular community was named incorrectly. The speaker went on to say that nowadays it is common for the common person to lay the blame for all ills at the feet of a particular community – even when evidence proves to the contrary. He cautioned us not to rely on the media and to be aware of the many cases where people from one community have been falsely implicated.
The third speaker said the message of religion is to care for the downtrodden. He recalled the murder of an aged priest in Paris by a radical outfit. ‘They are all followers of Satan,’ the speaker thundered, quoting Pope Francis.
Somewhere, I was thinking the very purpose of the IFD was being undermined by this toxic rhetoric. Though all speakers solemnly lit the lamp before the programme (to a snatch of borrowed western classical music), it seemed they used the stage, tacitly, to expose each other’s folly.
We need to beyond half-hearted attempts like these. To begin, why are not persuasions like the Parsi faith or Buddhism represented? Always harping on the predictable, visible faiths only empowers the dominant discourse while alienating the rest. The practice should precede the preaching. I often muse over the fact that my second volume of poems was unwittingly a collaboration of a Hindu, who did the artwork, a Muslim who did the maps and me, a Catholic who wrote the poems.
*Epictetus (55 A.D. – 135 A.D.), ‘Why be Good?’ Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday 25 September 2016