Live and let live!

We have seen a great amount of religious intolerance in the last few weeks in India. In the midst of all this insanity, I thought it would be a good idea to share once again an episode that I had shared earlier on January 04, 2014 as ‘Religious fanatics?’

Abdul, who owned a small readymade garments shop in a metropolitan city in India, lived with his wife and two sons in a small cottage on the same street as my friend. The incident described below was narrated to me by this friend.

Abdul’s was the only Muslim family on that street, while there were two Christian families and seven Hindu families. All the residents, including Abdul and his family, enjoyed cordial relations with one another, but most of the others were a bit uncomfortable about the fact that Abdul had a long beard and wore a skull cap, and sacrificed a goat in his compound every Bakri Id.

Ram, an officer in a nationalised bank, lived with his wife, daughter and mother two cottages away. While he had purchased his cottage 11 years earlier like all the others, Ram and his family had not lived there for 9 years since Ram had been posted in other cities. If Abdul was visibly Muslim, Ram and his family were visibly Hindu! They always wore huge ‘caste marks’ on their foreheads, visited temples very regularly and were very vocal, almost fanatical the others felt, about their religion. This caused some discomfort among the others in the neighbourhood.

As mentioned earlier, all the residents in the neighbourhood enjoyed cordial relations with one another. Ram’s elderly mother, as the oldest resident, was fondly addressed as Mausi (Aunty) by all the adults and as Daadi (Grandmother) by all the children.

One morning, when they happened to meet as they were both leaving home for work, Abdul asked Ram why Mausi had not been seen for the last few days. Ram replied that she was slightly unwell, nothing to worry about.

A week later, Abdul overheard Ram’s daughter telling another girl that Daadi was extremely upset about the goat sacrifice at Abdul’s house during Bakri Id. She had stayed at home from the day the goat had been brought to Abdul’s house and had started coming out only a couple of days after Bakri Id. In fact, she had shut the windows of her room since she could not bear the sound of the goat bleating.

Abdul was shocked! He rushed to Ram’s house and asked Mausi why she had not spoken to him about the matter. Mausi replied that, while the goat sacrifice upset her terribly, she thought it would not be right for her to comment on Abdul’s religious practices, especially since he was doing it in his own compound.

Abdul immediately replied, “Mausi, you are like my mother. I cannot see you upset. From now on, I will conduct the goat sacrifice during Bakri Id in some other place.”

A staunch Muslim and a staunch Hindu had shown that persons who are fiercely proud of their religion are not necessarily religious fanatics! They had shown respect for each other’s religious beliefs without compromising their own religious beliefs. They had resolved in no time a matter that could have caused a communal riot elsewhere!

Can’t we resolve our differences in a non-confrontational manner like Abdul and Mausi did? Of course, we can!

If we want to, it’s not so difficult to “Live and let live!”

Is ours really a liberal and tolerant society?

The outrage expressed and being expressed by public and private individuals and organizations over the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 may lead one to believe that ours is a liberal and tolerant society.

Most of us love to proclaim: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Wikipedia reports that these words are “often misattributed to Voltaire.” They were actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall “as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs”.) But, in reality, how many of us actually respect the rights of our fellowmen to have thoughts, beliefs, customs and practices that are different from our own?

Some people are openly intolerant. Many more wear a mask of tolerance in public, but the mask comes off in private. This applies mainly to religion, but also to caste, food habits, gender, language, skin colour, economic status, educational background, profession, state of residence, political beliefs, etc., etc.

Read this report in THE HINDU about Sanjay Salve, a teacher, whose increments were withheld by the school he worked for only because, being an atheist, he refused to “fold his hands during prayer time”.

Is it so difficult to be tolerant? Let me share two examples.

An elderly family friend, an ardent devotee of Sri Raghavendra Swami, once happened to describe the inconvenience faced by him while booking train tickets for his wife and himself for their annual pilgrimage to Mantralayam. When I pointed out that he could easily book the tickets online, he said he couldn’t do it as he was ‘computer-illiterate’. I immediately offered to book his tickets, prompting him to ask me whether I, a totally non-religious person, would be comfortable helping him go on a pilgrimage. I replied, “The purpose of your journey is not important. I am happy that I can help you avoid the inconvenience of personally booking train tickets.” When my friend met me after returning from Mantralayam, he hesitatingly offered me a packet of sweets, saying, “I hope it’s OK for you to accept this ‘prasadam’ (food blessed by the deity).” I readily accepted the packet, saying, “You are offering me ‘prasadam’. I am accepting sweets!”

In another incident, the CEO of a small IT company received a request from a senior manager that employees be instructed not to bring non-vegetarian food to office because most of the employees were vegetarians, who found the smell of non-vegetarian food unpleasant. The CEO replied that, while he sympathized with the vegetarian employees, he could not issue such an instruction because he believed that it would violate the right of non-vegetarian employees to eat the food of their choice. What is noteworthy about this incident is the CEO is himself a vegetarian and was equally inconvenienced by the smell of non-vegetarian food!

As these examples show, it is easy to be tolerant in some situations, whereas it is not so easy in other situations. However, it is not that difficult.

What is it that makes some people tolerant and many others intolerant?

What should we do to change people from intolerant to tolerant?

Unity in religious diversity?

Some years back, I had a colleague who had married a person from another religion. My colleague and his wife were both quite comfortable with their different religious beliefs. Some ‘well-wishers’ advised them that one of them should convert to the other’s religion, but both my colleague and his wife were clear that neither would convert to the other’s religion just for the sake of satisfying anybody, even their own parents.

A few years after they got married, my colleague’s wife’s was diagnosed with a life-threatening disorder. Despite receiving the best available medical treatment, her condition steadily deteriorated and she passed away within a couple of years. On receiving the news of her death, a few colleagues and I rushed to my colleague’s residence. Seated next to his wife’s body, my colleague was torn between grief at her death and relief that her suffering was finally over, but he was quite composed. After spending a few minutes with him, we told him we would wait outside.

There were a few persons outside. I saw my colleague’s sister speaking with another person. She was gloating about the fact that, a few hours before her death, her brother’s wife had voluntarily expressed her desire to convert to their religion, and that they had managed to get a priest to the hospital in time to do the needful. I was shocked, not only by her gloating about the conversion, but also that she seemed almost indifferent to her sister-in-law’s death at a young age, and to her brother’s grief.

If I see something similar happening now, I would not be shocked. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised. Today, obsession with religion is all over the place. Most people display this obsession only in private, but some people wear it on their sleeve. Unfortunately, this obsession is often accompanied by hatred for, and blind intolerance towards, some other religions.

I was fortunate to have grown up with neighbours, friends and schoolmates belonging to many religions. I was even more fortunate to have parents, elders and teachers who, while being wholehearted followers of their own religion, impressed upon their children and students that equal respect should be shown for all religions. Hence, for me, a person’s religion, caste, etc. is incidental. But I am painfully aware that intolerant obsession with religion is prevalent among all cross-sections of society, and urgently needs to be drastically reduced.

This is what Mahatma Gandhi said on the subject:
“I came to the conclusion long ago … that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu … But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.” (Young India, 19 January 1928)

I’d like to change that to:
Every person should be a better person, irrespective of her/his religious beliefs or lack of them.

How can we make this happen?