(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
There is a world of difference between being truly religious and letting our religiosity turn us into bigots. While the former attracts respect, friends and inclusivity, the latter earns bad blood, foes and exclusivity. While the former opens new vistas to tread on, the latter shuts many a door. The concept of Inter-faith harmony or, in other words, maintaining a harmonious relationship among different and ideologically-varied religions, as recent as it may sound, has been there for millenniums. Just a cursory glance at India’s history drives home the point! Among the emperors and kings, it was Ashoka who first set the bar of pluralism and peaceful-coexistence real high. His policy of ‘Dhamma’ was an exemplary effort in that direction, and went a long way in reconciling the differences among Buddhists, Brahmans, Jains, Ajiveekas and Charvakas. As an extension to his policy, Ashoka, and later his grandson, Dassaratha, even had the Barabar and Nagarjuna caves constructed for the followers of the Ajiveeka sect at modern day Gaya in Bihar. Agnimitra Shunga, a Brahmin emperor of the Shunga Dynasty, who has been immortalized by Kalidasa through his Sanskrit play ‘Malvikaagnimitram’, also went an extra mile in sending out a similar message by not just restoring and enlarging the then-dilapidated ‘Maha Stupa’ of Sanchi built under Ashoka’s patronage, but at the same time, constructing two new Stupas at the same place. Ajanta Caves – UNESCO World Heritage Site – has similar stories written on them. The Satvahanas and the Vakatakas, both Brahmanical dynasties, constructed most of the Buddhist caves at Ajanta. In fact, it was under the patronage of the former, and later its successor rulers called Ikshvakus, that sites like Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda, located in modern-day Andhra Pradesh, gained currency as prominent Buddhist sites.
Among the Delhi Sultans, it was Jalaluddin Khilji, who after having founded the Khilji Dynasty, minced no words in internalizing the fact that Hindustan couldn’t be ruled under the Shariah laws as most of the citizens were non-Muslims. His successor, Allauddin Khilji, made a clear-cut distinction between religion and state, and is even believed to have given Brahman scholars access to Islamic centres of learning like Madrasas. The famous Vijayanagara Empire of South India, often perceived as homogenous and opposed to Muslims, was instead extremely welcoming of motley of beliefs, lifestyles and cultures. The findings of the archaeological excavations at Hampi as well as a few travelogues bear testimony to that! The composite culture of that time, sprinkled with healthy doses of teachings of the Bhakti and Sufi Saints, also produced some of the finest genres of Hindustani Classical Music like Khayal and Sufi music like Qawwali, besides rolling out many important musical instruments like Tabla and Sitar. Even Urdu, unlike the common notion of it being a strictly Islamic language, was an outcome of the unbridled inter-mingling of cultures. Drawing much influence from the older Apabhramsa language, Urdu came to be widely spoken by the urban masses across many religions. As a matter of fact, such infectious was Hindustan’s heterogeneity that Amir Khusrau, one of the brightest names in the cultural history of South Asia, couldn’t help heaping praises on her people and lustrous atmosphere in his Masnavi (poetic composition) titled Nuh Siphir. Moreover, Sufi saints who came to India, especially of the Chishti Silsilah, borrowed many Hindu practices in order to gain acceptability among the masses. One of the most famous of those mystics, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, is said to have perfected the meditative and breathing exercises of the Nath Yogis to the point of being called a Siddha (perfect) by them.
Centuries later, Mughal Emperor, Akbar, perhaps wouldn’t be so successful had he not struck a harmonious relationship with all Rajput states, barring Mewar. His broadmindedness, sensitive approach and statesmanship gave him the kind of political stability not known thus far. He also had a hall called Ibadat Khana built at Fatehpur Sikri to hold inter-religious discussions, which might have goaded him into developing a syncretic code of moral conduct later – Din-i-Ilahi. Besides, the Emperor’s prolonged heart-to-heart dialogues with the Jesuit priests are well documented in history. So are his personal conversations with the Jain religious leader, Hiravijaya Suri. In fact, such deep was the impact left by the Jagatguru – a title bestowed upon him by Akbar – that Abul Fazl, court historian of the Emperor, included him among 21 most learned persons in the Mughal Empire. Even the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has today degenerated into a valley marked with fanaticism, paranoia and bloodshed, was once supremely famous for its all-round development under Budshah Zain-ul- Abedin. Setting lofty examples of coexistence and communal harmony, the progressive king not only invited the Brahmins, who had escaped persecution under the previous rulers, back to the valley, but also banned cow slaughter in honour of their sentiments. Much later, similar calls for Hindu-Muslim unity were made by the 19th century mystic and saint, Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansadeva, and after his death, by his erudite and zealous disciple, Swami Vivekananda.
All the examples cited above, by no stretch of the imagination, mean that the country was always outside the menacing shadow of communal tensions and frictions. Of course, India’s otherwise pristine landscape has occasionally been marred by such actions of disrepute, both under royalty and general public. But, nonetheless, it remains a fact set in stone that such clashes of interests are not the norm, but a mere exception. Moreover, we can’t afford to invite any more divisions when our planet itself is inching towards a cataclysm as per a latest UN report, and most world leaders, driven by geopolitical ambitions, are least interested to avert this. Natural phenomena and disasters like global warming, groundwater depletion, arsenic contamination, air pollution, plastic contamination, cyclones and earthquakes don’t make discriminations based on religion or caste before inflicting damage on us en masse. We can, of course, mitigate the damage by standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Therefore, in such trying and apprehensive times, observing inter-faith harmony is no longer a luxury, but an existential necessity!