Hindu-Muslim unity through religion?

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

For democracy, all secularists agree, secularism is a must and unity in diversity in countries like India is possible only through secular polity. Religion, in secular democracy should be at best a private affair and religion should have no role as far as politics and affairs of state are concerned. And Nehruites also maintained that schools supported by the government should not teach religion and education should be strictly secular.

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Of course Gandhians had different viewpoint from this. Gandhians do not de-emphasize religion while supporting secularism and secular democracy. Rather they believed in promoting religious values with a proviso that one should respect all religions equally. Then there are those who reject religion altogether and for them secularism means atheism and religion, for them, should have no role in any sphere of public life. Thus these are different shades of secularism i.e. Nehruvian, Gandhian and atheistic.

However, it appears none of these models seems to be succeeding. Nehruvian model should have been more successful as it partly meets the Gandhian approach and partly the atheistic. However, the way political class is behaving i.e. only interested in power, not in principles and values, it failed as it neither remained Nehruvian in spirit nor Gandhian much less atheistic. In traditional society like India Gandhian model should have had greater chances of success but even Gandhians unfortunately did not follow Gandhian principles and though did not oppose them but never practiced them.

What is now happening in the name of religion is purely communalism, gross misuse of religion for political purpose. The Sangh Parivar, (i.e. those belonging to the family of BJP, a saffron party) taking advantage of majoritarian ethos politicized Hindu religion and communalism infiltrated not only in political but also in educational institutions and deeply polarized society on religious basis. Hindus and Muslims and other communities who had lived together for centuries and had influenced each other, began to lose warmth of relationship or even began to hate each other. Thanks to vitriolic propaganda by the Sangh Parivar even Christians, who gave so much to modern Indian society, are under attack from Hindu fanatics and are, like Muslims, are feeling intensely insecure.

Masjid and Mandir in Shivajinagar, Bangalore

It is in these circumstances that my elderly friend Mr. Prakash Narain is passionately advocating revival of religious values and spirit in modern India, the religion of tolerance and compassion. I wonder at his passionate efforts at this age (he is more than 90 years old) to infuse true spirit of religion, especially Hinduism, among people and revive brotherly and sisterly relations between Hindus and Muslims.

He wants religion to be taught in schools so that people develop truly the spirit of humanity. He is against atheistic secularism and wants his message to reach large number of people. He has written a book whose tentative title is Indian heritage –Oneness in Masses of Hindus and Muslims through Vendanta, Vahdat and Vivayka. He tried his best to get the book published but for variety of reasons did not succeed. He has now put it online and wants Hindu and Muslims masses to read it.

He has been in touch with me for a long time. He lives in New Jersey, USA and corresponds with me through e-mail. We met once briefly in New Jersey when I happened to go there for some lectures. I found him quite sincere and enthusiastic. He is sincerely engaged in promoting his mission. He approached number of people seeking support for his project and still continues to do so. I fully endorse the spirit of his efforts and it is of immense value today in contemporary India wherein communalism is being injected in public life.

Prakash Narian’s efforts is like those of Darashikoh in 17th century India. Darashikoh, who was appointed heir apparent by Emperor Shahjahan wrote a book majma’ul Bahrayn (Co-mingling of two Oceans Hinduism and Islam) and tried to show that Hinduism and Islam are complimentary and not contradictory to each other. Since he was himself a scholar of Sanskrit and of Hinduism in addition to that of Islam, he compared teachings of both the religions to prove his point. He also translated Upanishads into Persian and called it Sirr-e-Akbar. He would have proved a great boon for India had he succeeded to the throne of India. But it was not to be.

Mr. Prakash Narain who is making herculean efforts to promote unity between Hindus and Muslims in contemporary India, may not be scholar of Islam as Darashikoh was of Hinduism but he had the benefit of studying under a Muslim teacher during fifties of last century and certainly imbibed the true spirit of Islam and learnt Urdu and Persian as students in those days had to learn. That infused into him the right spirit of Hindu-Muslim unity. That partly explains his passionate commitment to his project.

He complains that Nehruvian secularists banned study of religion is schools and thus deprived Hindu students of knowledge of true Hindu religious spirit. But, on the other hand, Muslims showed the wisdom of teaching their children Islam through network of madrasas. Hindus, on the other hand, in their enthusiasm for ‘secular’ education, closed down all their pathshalas and deprived their children of religious education.

Mr. Narain, therefore, passionately advocates that Hindus also be given chance of studying their religion in schools and thus chance to imbibe true spirit of their religion which in turn would help strengthen spirit of Hindu-Muslim unity. I think he says so under the strong influence of his vision of religion as a means of strengthening Hindu-Muslim relations. But even if Hindu religious studies are introduced, real question is who will control it? Will it be controlled by noble souls like Prakash Narains or those who want to promote Hindu-Muslim animosity through misuse of religion?

Is religion, as rationalists often maintain a source of conflict? Or a resource for peace as persons like Prakash Narain feel? I have my doubts that given the contemporary situation in India where majoritarian rather than democratic ethos prevail thanks to communalization of politics, teaching of religion would indeed help. Had it been so Gandhism would not have failed. Most of the Gandhian institutions, though not communalized, but certainly have been Hinduised completely loosing Gandhian spirit of equal respect for all religions.

The RSS today has much greater control over most of the educational institutions, in many cases even over professional institutions than the governments. What Prakash Narain says was advocated by profound Gandhians like Pandit Sunderlal and Bishambarnath Pande whom I had privilege to know and had worked for several years for promoting communal harmony with Bishambarnathji. Both Pandit Sunderlal and Bishambarnathji were profound scholars of Islam along with Hinduism. Both Sunderlal and Bishambarnath were passionately committed to Hindu-Muslim unity.

But unfortunately they could not produce any other Sunderlal or Bishambarnath as Muslims could not produce any other Maulana Azad or Zakir Husain. Both Maulana Azad and Zakir Husain were soaked in Islamic tradition and yet were great champions of Hindu-Muslim unity. As Sunderlal and Bishmbarnath had imbibed best of Hinduism, its tolerance, its universality, Azad and Zakir Husain too represented best in Islamic values. However, subsequent generations lost these traditions.

Today, as Prakash Narainji would also agree with me religion is being used to promote political benefits and such politicized religion can never represent best of its tradition. But one may argue, and rightly so, that Nehruvian secularism too lost its real spirit and secularism itself has been reduced to ‘psuedo-secularism (though I am not using it in the sense in which L.K.Advani of BJP uses it. Indeed secularism too has lost its secular spirit. Secularism, like religion, itself has been ‘politicized’ in the wrong sense.

Reasons are many. In this age of globalization and consumerism to talk of values and principles, is to be outdated. Today’s generation is achievement-oriented and is naturally obsessed with achieving whatever the cost. Both politics and capitalism are highly competitive and competition unfortunately is not to excel but to achieve and achieve at other’s cost. Now not only individuals compete but also communities and castes.

Our education system is itself part of the problem rather than part of solution. The education system controlled by politicians infuses conformism, on one hand, and competitiveness on the other. Also, education system is being used to create sense of belonging to one religion and one particular caste and then identities so created are used for promoting identity-based politics. Education system, if it has to be really education in true sense, must create a critical rather than conforming mind and spirit of cooperation and compassion rather than competition.

In this achievement-oriented age who will think of values like compassion and cooperation? Prakash Narain can succeed in his objective only if our education system is transformed and is used to promote best values in religion. His Vedantic vision can come into being only when our politicians first change their own vision and accept vision of persons like Gandhi or Azad or Pandit Sunderlal or Prakash Narain.

The prevailing atmosphere in the country and the way our education system has been tempered with and controlled by powerful vested interests, negates all such expectations. However, one should not despair and I believe to despair is to be disbeliever (kafir). We must keep us hope and strive in keeping with our conscience and it is in this sense I admire Prakash Narain’s efforts. His optimism in his vision and his efforts to realize what he thinks is worthwhile for humanity is indeed very valuable.

I would now like to throw light on what Prakash Narain believes could help promote Hindu-Muslim unity in India. Firstly, I must say Prakash Narain is a devout Gandhian. He writes in Author’s Note “My above experience made this book necessary to reach Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual India of 400 million (now over a billion) of eight religions that alone can save India. Mahatma Gandhi’s India secured us freedom. We must get rid of our avivaykee and bideshi (i.e. unwise and foreign-oriented) mind in just three years. We can start replacing this with a powerful vivaykee mind as that of Mahatma Gandhi by the defined and detailed strategy in chapter 5 of this book.”

What the author means by vivaykee mind is wise spiritual mind based on Vedic values and well aware of spiritual heritage of India. He considers Nehruvian model of secularism as bideshi and Gandhian secularism as swadeshi (of Indian origin). Nehru according to Prakash Narain was under western influence and he preferred western model of secularism over Indian model and hence was avivekiya and must be rejected.

One may find it difficult to agree the author all the way as everything foreign may not necessarily be bad and so rejected. Similarly everything foreign is not good to be uncritically imitated. I think Nehru was not among those who rejected everything Indian and accepted everything Indian. A critical reading of Nehru would show that he too was very much Indian in ethos and was proud of Indian spiritual heritage but was certainly impatient with empty ritualism and superstitious approach to religion. Nehru was also Gandhian in his own way. Gandhi considered him more suited for Prime Ministership than Sardar Patel and others as he combined both modern scientific approaches with what is spiritual.

Anyway one may not delve deeper in this controversy as the book written by Prakash Narain is much more than this. Prakash Narain is also fervent advocate of religious education for Hindu children in schools of which they are being deprived in independent India. According to him it is necessary to teach Hindu children Vedic teachings to empower and spiritualize their minds. For Prakash Narain feels, “Without knowledge of dharma for conviction in faith in the reality of God as our constantly available succor no Hindu has the only reliable security a human being has to encourage him to live in love and virtue.”

Well, many would agree that our education needs more spiritual content in the form of values so that we can produce students with strong foundation of values like tolerance, respect for other faiths, proud of Indian composite spiritual heritage, truth and compassion for fellow human beings. These values can be imparted through teaching of one or also through comparative religion to inculcate respect for other faiths as all religions stress more or less same values.

But in government funded schools in a secular democracy no single religion can be taught as it would lead to legal and constitutional questions. Either those desirous of teaching one religion like Vedic religion or Islamic education separate privately funded schools can be established or essential teachings of all religions through carefully drafted syllabus could be taught. I agree with Prakash Narain that today our education system is too competitive and materialistic totally ignoring spiritual aspects of life promoting values.

Also, there has to be emphasis on creative and dynamic relationship between reason and wisdom. Reason is a double-edged sword and can be used both for creative and destructive purposes. Wisdom, on the other hand is based on combination of reason and values and is superior to reason. Also, reason is more theoretical and deductive whereas wisdom is more practical based on years of human experience. Our education system is more reason than wisdom oriented. We must relate our reason to our values and collective spiritual heritage and in a way it amounts to marry Nehruvian model to Gandhian one.

That Prakash Narain is not a bigoted Hindu but a man with universal outlook is amply borne out from his book. The very essence of this book is unity of all religions, a theme so necessary for our polarized country today. We are more divided along religious lines as never before thanks to sectarian politics being pursued by a section of politicians with great gusto. Apart from Dara Shikoh referred to above Maulana Azad also devoted first volume of his commentary of Qur’an to the theme of unity of religion (wahdat-e-Din). Prakash Narain has made similar attempt from Hindu scriptural point of view.

I think the most valuable chapter of the book is 4 in which the author discusses commonalities between Tulsidas Ramayana and the Qur’an. It is quite a detailed chapter. The purpose of the chapter in author’s own words, “This chapter is based on the search in the Holy Qur’an for quotations that accord with the basic in Sanatana Dharma for understanding and mutual respect between Hindus and Muslims.

The whole chapter is full of quotations from Ramayana and Holy Qur’an. Of course since Prakash Narain does not know Arabic he has used Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s English translation while quoting from Hindu scriptures in original in Sanskrit. Since Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation is universally accepted by Muslims one can accept what the author quotes from the Holy Book of Islam.

He makes a significant observation which will help dispel many misunderstandings. He says, “With these handy definitions we realize that Dharma is roohaneeyat or spirituality and not religion. Religion also includes rituals, individual, family and social regulations, customs and visible practices. These have no bearing upon roohaneeyat (spirituality) in our religion. Religion is mazhab not roohanyyeyat alone.

Maulana Azad too makes distinction between Deen and Shari’ah which differs from religion to religion since Shari’ah depends on cultural values and practices, customs and traditions. I do not know whether Prakash Narain has read Maulana Azad or not – most probably not – but he too draws similar conclusion and makes distinction between Dharma and religion. Dharma, according to him is pure roohaneeyat.

If one develops this kind of understanding we can greatly reduce our differences and easily build bridges between polarized religious communities in India. It is not only the question of reading this book. It is important to read this book along with Maulana’s volume on wahdat-e-Deen. If read together it can really be much more effective. But even more important is to refashion school syllabi on these lines.

In these days of hate politics it is increasingly important to read such works which try to build religious unity on the basis of religious scriptures. Yes, there are other interpretations of religion and many who have aversion to religion or consider religion as root of all evil may deride such an approach. Well they may do so. But those who can indeed make distinction between Dharma (Deen) and ritualized religion, can appreciate the efforts to build unity on the basis of spiritualism.

This work was done in medieval ages by Sufi and Bhakti saints and they greatly succeeded in building bridges across religions. They also richly contributed towards our composite culture. What we need is to re-emphasize these efforts. An attempt is also being made through our constitutional secularism but it is not enough. Constitution is after all a legal document based on certain modern fundamental rights.

We also need to supplement these efforts through promoting spiritual values as our people are soaked in religious practices and traditions. We need to make multi-dimensional efforts to keep our people united. After all our democratic polity is competitive and in multi-religious countries like India religion provides the fault line of division and competition takes place along this fault line. In secular democracy religious and cultural diversity should provide enriching public experience but political competitiveness has reduced it (diversity) to our weakness rather than our strength.

However, books like these are usually written in English and reach only a few chosen people whereas there is great need to make them available in Hindi, Urdu and other Indian languages so that they have much wider reach. That is however, another problem. What is important for me is that still we have people like Mr. Prakash Narain around who can try passionately to promote unity among the people of diverse faiths.

I congratulate Prakash Narain for writing this book and trying to promote it, not to make profit or earn name and fame but fulfill a mission in life. I am in touch with him for few years now and I have seen his passion, his restlessness to get across this message of unity. Though we may differ on some points here and there but that is least important. His passion for unity of Hindus and Muslims is something to be experienced. And I am his great admirer in this respect.

I can only pray for the success of his mission as this is my mission also in life. Inspired by his passionate desire to promote unity and spiritual values I have joined hands with him in my own humble way.



[Photos by Mark Pritchard]