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A Study in Interfaith Relations – A Sikh Perspective –

Gurnam Singh Sanghera*

The objective of this work has been to make an extensive study of the inter-religious relations in the present-day world marked by religious and cultural diversity. To realize this objective, we have tried to recognize, elaborate and analyze the past and present situations and discuss the challenges and new issues emerging as a result of the diverse faith-communities having to live together and act and interact on daily basis. This includes an endeavour to study their mutual relationship, the past attitudes of one religion towards the other faiths, shift in the attitude, the reasons behind it and the Sikh attitude towards this plurality of religions.

We have accepted the present-day cultural and religious plurality as existential social reality. A corollary of this reality is the coming together of diverse communities, their interaction with each other and ‘the effect of this on mutual relationships. The social fabric of world population and especially of the European and North American countries has been transformed during the past few decades. In the past, people lived in their own tiny and isolated socio-religious camps, least concerned with the issue of plurality of religions and the allied theological and social problems. We have discerned that in the situation we are placed today, we cannot run away or wish away the social reality of religious plurality and the social and theological issues arising from it. Although the different faiths exist side by side and different faith-communities live within the same geo-political unit, yet they live separately and as aliens. Their mutual relationship is also not always very cordial and harmonious.

The problem of inter-religious disharmony and strife is not new. History stands witness to many intra-religious and inter-religious schisms, controversies and conflicts leading to stigmatizing the other factions/faiths as heretics and extremely dangerous. There are examples of one faith trying to force itself upon others either through allurement or force. In the Indian context, we have seen conflicts between sects of Hinduism, between conservative-exclusivist Brahminism and the relatively liberal-humanist sramanic tradition. Then there were attempts by Christians and Muslims to seek conversion of people of other faiths. Both of them in their own times used the political power to achieve their objective. Similarly, in the Christian-dominant West, people of India, Asia were discriminated against when they went there.

It is evident and widely recognized that no faith or faith-communication can live in isolation today. India had been since ancient times religiously plural. The population movements that followed the breakdown of the colonial era and the inflow of migrants and the influx of refugees from ex-colonial countries and from countries suffering from conflicts and civil wars or from poverty and deprivation have contributed to the emergence of multi-religious and multi-racial societies in Europe and North America. However, life in this new social scenario was not harmonious and peaceful. There were instances of discrimination on religious and racial counts. Pogroms and jihads have also been launched against the other faith-communities. This hatred and violence were caused by the fact that each faith-community tried to underrate the faith-beliefs of the other by comparing the truth of its tradition with the practices of the other, by claiming monopoly over truth.

These mass migrations, flood of knowledge about the variety of religions, easy and fast means of communication and transportation and such other developments have made man re-think his earlier exclusivistic attitude. The global interaction of economics and the worldwide interdependence of political systems have also helped in this rethinking and redoing of theologies. Man has come to realize that his religion is not the only but one among the many religions of the world. This has resulted in bringing about a shift in the attitude.

Religion has been used in the past and also in the present to create distrust and discord. It can also be used for conflict resolution. We are familiar with the former but the latter is far too little tried. Harmony in human relations, social as well as religious, is possible only through proper understanding of religions. Inter-religious understanding is a vital component of peaceful and just world order. Efforts in this regard have been made from time to time. In the recent times, a movement was initiated in 1893 through the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago where representatives of major religions met together to discuss issues of mutual concern. Since then, many other inter-faith organizations have come up to highlight the need of rejecting the earlier attitude of exclusivism and instead adopt an attitude of acceptance and tolerance so that different faith-communities live in peace and harmony.

A growing number of religious leaders as well as philosophers and theologians now recognize the importance of inter-religious understanding and cooperation, and are seeking to justify it from their respective perspectives. They are also emphasizing the moral values held in common and are pondering how religious people may act more effectively to meet the critical challenges to our world society. Religions need not make wars, riot on each other, but on the giant challenges of religious or inter-religious conflicts, injustice, inequality, poverty and diseases.

This study begins with a humble attempt to discuss different attitudes of a faith/faith-community towards the other faiths/faith-communities. This includes a survey of all the different attitudes from the earlier exclusivism to the modern-day pluralism. Herein we have tended to agree with Alan Race’s classification of these attitudes into Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism: it is this classification which theologians like John Hick, Paul Knitter and even Wilfred Smith also gave their approval.

Alan Race seems to hold that religious experience is the quest for ultimate reality or truth - understanding it, realizing it or being one with it. In the pursuit of this quest, adherents of different religions often tend to have an inherent drive to claims of uniqueness and universality for their faiths and prophets. They exhibit an inner tendency to claim that their religion is the only true religion, it is their religion which offers the true revelation, is the only and the true way leading to man’s spiritual emancipation and their prophet or spiritual preceptor is the only saviour to lead man on the way to salvation: ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ is their usual refrain. Such an attitude, which Alan Race categorizes as exclusivism, is not limited to anyone religion: there are people holding on to this view in many traditions. Such people fail to accept the expression of ultimate reality or truth by any religion as authentic except what their own religion has to say on this: rather, to them all other faiths are inauthentic and invalid, and other faith-communities as pagans. They assure a place in heaven for the “faithfuls” and condemn to ghetto the “pagans” and the “infidels”.

In the second category called inclusivism, Alan Race includes those who are somewhat tolerant of other religions, but still feel that truth is limited to their faith only. They favour dialogue with other religions, but, understandably, the result of the dialogue is pre-determined in their favour. This shift represents a change from one’s all-knowing ‘let us teach you’ attitude to ‘listening to whatever wisdom comes from the other tradition’. This is aptly summed up in the outcome of the second Vatican Council (1963-65) which says that “the faith that I have in Christ and his good news is so important that I am compelled - necessity is laid upon me - to share it with all people. But I trust I can listen to your story and respect your integrity, even though having listened I may still want to present to you, as to all, the claims of my Lord.” (stress added). People of other faiths are no more looked down upon as pagans but at the same time their religion is not taken as equally valid and true, and the ultimate truth lay only with their own faith and that salvation was also possible only through their faith.

Of course, the votaries of this point of view, found mostly among Christian theologians, agree that there should be no attempt to pressurize or manipulate, for that itself would contradict the spirit of the gospel. In fact, there must be a persevering and painstaking effort to communicate, the aim being to help the people really grasp the message of God’s love and mercy in Christ, and to respond to it as free persons.

Though pluralism is the need of the day yet it has several social and theological implications. Religious pluralism rejects exclusivism, Christ’s uniqueness, salvation only through Jesus, theory of God’s son and monopoly over truth by any religion. It also dismisses inclusivism, meaning salvation of non-Christians only through Jesus Christ – thus ‘anonymous Christians’ having patronage of Christ. Religious pluralism represents a call for greater understanding and appreciation of religious diversity. It represents in this way a non-acceptance of a particular religion-centrism, ethno-centrism and cultural-religious superiority complex. It propounds that the different religions present different images of God; they represent different experiences of the Ultimate Reality spread widely in history and culture. It has been labelled as Unitarianism, individual religious identity assimilation, undermining of homogeneity, and modification of the existing particularities of religious affirmations. But pluralism does not oppose any religion, rather it talks about equal validity of all and invites equal participation of all. It leaves the different doctrinal systems intact within their own religious traditions, but on the other hand it proposes that these traditions, as complex totalities, are different human responses to the Real. All different paths are considered valid and authentic. So pluralism not only accepts the variety of religions but also accepts their significant differences that they cannot be reduced to a system or common essence, or common ground. Pluralism does not dilute any faith but transcends it. We are of the view that pluralism will help in reducing racism, discrimination, inequalities and conflicts based on religion, culture and ethnicity, etc.

We have tried to observe pluralism in India as well as in the West. In the Indian context, we have discussed inter-religious relations prior to the arrival of the Semitic religions as well as after that. In the former, we have discussed intra-religious relations within Hinduism and also relations between Brahminism and sramanic tradition. In the latter, we have discussed the encounter of Islam as well as of Christianity through colonialists and Christian missionaries. The Christian missionaries and colonialists came to India from Europe, especially Britain and Portugal. The attitude of Christian West towards Indian religions especially Sikhism has been discussed both when the Western Christians came to India and when the Indians/Sikhs migrated to the West.

The French and Portuguese encounter with India remained confined to the south-western parts of India, and they had very little impact on Punjab and/or Sikhism: the only French contact with Punjab was the appointment of some French officers in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The first significant contact between Britain/Christianity and Punjab/Sikhism took place during the regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was around this time that Christian missions began to be set up both in the cis-Satluj and trans-Satluj Punjab. The Christian missions in Punjab and India were often identified and linked with imperialist expansionism. This resulted in attitudes of superiority and supremacy. Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” was the justification for the British imperialism and its policies in India. The viewpoint and perspective of colonialism, hegemony and Christian exclusiveness engendered and instigated racism and antagonism against other religions and feelings against the colonized. The beginnings of a change in attitude can be perceived around the middle of the 20th century when a British Member of Parliament said, in 1948, in the British Parliament: “No civilized government ever existed on the face of this earth which was more corrupt, more perfidious, and more rapacious than the government of the East India Company.”

Later on, the same attitude of superiority, however, persisted against the migrants and immigrants, especially Sikhs from ex-colonial countries, presently settled in Britain, Canada, USA and other European countries. The British domineering attitude and the British Church missionaries’ campaigns to convert Indians to Christianity were tolerated in India (though protests were made by both the Sikhs and Hindus) because of the British imperial power and in the West because of the Christians being in power and in majority. The racist bias and prejudices against non-Christian religions continued to exist and to be given vent to. Such attitudes continued to poison the human community even after the Colonial order had collapsed, and it remained a powerful element in the mindset that produced and maintained them. When people from India migrated to the Colonizer’s land, they faced religious and racial discrimination because of the Christian exclusive attitude.

However, racial and religious attitudes have undergone a sea change due to the reasons discussed earlier. The presumption of Christian superiority has receded prudently into the background and the ex-Colonizer’s governments have enacted various laws and established commissions and taken certain other affirmative actions to ensure religious and racial equality and human rights. But these wide ranging changes and achievements have happened due to prolonged and sometimes intense struggles by the immigrants/Sikhs as well as to the help rendered by some mainstream people of those countries. However, there still exist several discriminations (for example, the turban issue in France and again the turban issue in the lumber industry and for longshoremen in Canada) and a lot needs to be done.

In the religious history of humankind especially in India, Guru Nanak (1469- 1539), the founder of the Sikh faith, has been one of the earliest, if not the earliest, examples of advocating an attitude of religious tolerance and acceptance: Sikhism favours appreciation of all faiths as paths leading to the same objective. However, the Sikh acceptance of other faiths is not passive, rather it is critical. It accepts the revelatory truth in all religions, i.e., the Semitic as well as the oriental scriptures as true, but criticizes and condemns those who do not reflect on them or those who follow practices not in conformity with the message contained in these scriptures. Sikhism is especially critical of those beliefs and practices which support the hierarchical division of mankind and which help let a political authority use religion as a tool to oppress and exploit a certain section of society.

The Guru Granth Sahib is the most outstanding and magnificent specimen of religious pluralism and inter-religious dialogue. It contains hymns of some holy men coming from both Hindu and Muslim traditions, apart from those of six of the ten Gurus. All the hymns put together constitute the Word (the Sikh scripture) which enjoys the status of Guru in Sikh tradition. All the hymns, may they be of Kabir, Farid, Ravidas or Guru Nanak, enjoy the same status and reverence of the Sikhs. This implicitly means that truth is not the monopoly of any particular religion or community and that revelation is not specific to any caste or creed. There are also hymns in the scripture which proclaim acceptance and validity of other faiths. The Sikh advice to all humans is to be true to one’s own self; if one is a Muslim, he should be a true Muslim, and if one is a Hindu, he should be a true Hindu. Guru Nanak also says that there is only one way of reaching at the truth, and that is dialogue -with one’s own self and with others. One must first listen to the other and respect other’s view point. As long as we are in this world, we should listen and then speak: that is the only way to reach truth, says Guru Nanak in one of his hymns.

Guru Nanak provides direct and indirect references to various prevalent religious traditions and various religious paths which, he says, owe their existence to the same One Creator. There is no place for proselytization and forcible conversion in Sikhism and everybody has the choice to follow the faith of his choice. Guru Amar Das, the third spiritual preceptor of the Sikhs, declares in one of his hymns all religious traditions as equally valid for realization of the ultimate objective. Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru, prays to God in a, what we might call in modern-day idiom, pluralistic tone when he seeks the grace of God to rain over the whole world. Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth spiritual guide and the compiler of the Sikh scripture, supplicates to God for the welfare of the whole humankind: “Be merciful, O God. Keep all beings in your care. Let grain and water be in plenty; shatter their suffering and penury, and ferry them across the Ocean of Existence (Guru Granth Sahib, p 1251).

In the Sikh tradition we find Guru Nanak having dialogue with the holy men of different religious traditions during his preaching journeys. This was perhaps the first example of inter-religious dialogue with a view to understanding and appreciating the other religions and their beliefs and practices. The Sikh scripture is also quite emphatic in stating that “man throughout his worldly existence must seek to converse with others by first listening to others’ view point and then putting forward his own, for this is the only way to attain truth” (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 661). The best example of interfaith dialogue in the Sikh scripture is Guru Nanak’s Sidh Gosti. The Sikh Gurus broke down the barriers of hostility and prejudice between religious communities and Guru Arjun Dev pronounced that “None is our enemy, nor is stranger to us. We are in cordial accord with one and all” (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1299).

Sikhism is a way of life and the Gurus lived it and exhorted others to live that while leading a householder’s life. The Gurus participated actively in the community life, stood for and with people especially the subaltern class, performed extraordinary and exemplary services, created history and established ideals and traditions by their remarkable deeds. Some of the devoted followers of the Sikh Gurus and gurbani also became legends by implementing gurbani in their practical lives. Gurbani states that truth is the highest but higher still is truthful living, thus recommending an ethical and righteous life, full of filial and social obligations. The Sikh Gurus and the Sikhs suffered and sacrificed so that others could enjoy the freedom of faith. Guru Tegh Bahadur laid down his life to protect the religious freedom of man. One of the most moving Sikh affirmations of the validity of other religions can be found in Bhai Kanahaiya who perceived the same divine light in all the wounded soldiers, no matter what their religion. Later on we have discussed the pluralistic trends which prevailed during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He did not rule in his own name, rather did so in the name of Sarkar-i-Khalsa: he preferred to be called Bhai Sahib or Singh Sahib instead of being addressed as His Highness. His reign was also known for its impartiality and generosity towards all faiths and faith-communities. We have also explored the definition of tradition and its significance and have provided numerous examples from Sikh history and tradition which testify to the Sikh view of tolerance and acceptance of other faiths, and appreciating the otherness of the other.

The Sikh Gurus lived their precepts and were engaged in dialogue and towards building harmonious and loving inter-religious relations. The lives of the Sikh spiritual teachers, the message of the Sikh scripture, and Sikh tradition and history all stand witness that Sikh religion rejects exclusivism and inclusivism and supports pluralism. It favours inter-religious dialogue and engagement so as to relate to one another and heal the mutual antagonism; and opposes the absolute truth-claims by any tradition because such claims can easily be exploited to incite religious hatred and violence. The Sikh Holy Book is, as we already said, an excellent specimen of pluralism – containing the hymns of six of the Gurus, alongwith some of the holy men belonging to both Hindu and Muslim traditions.

If we want a world free from the prevalent distrust and disharmony, oppression and violence, we must improve inter-religious relations and see people from other traditions as our brothers and sisters. The acceptance of other faiths could mean, at least to some, following a theocentric approach which involves searching for a common God dwelling within different religious communities. We do not agree to this, rather we have favoured pluralism which, on the other hand, stands for an engagement with other faiths with a shared commitment to promoting eco-human welfare. It involves globally responsible dialogue. In such a dialogue and inter-religious relations no one will dominate or assimilate or stand in judgment over the others; it is an egalitarian approach which has salvation or well being of humans as the starting point and common ground for our efforts to understand other faiths. Religiously pluralistic attitude has a vital role to play in inter-community peace. The Sikh teachings are at the core of this pluralism and can play a significant role in this process.

 


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