Not too long ago when a Jewish colleague of mine said, “I love the holidays,” I responded, “You mean Christmas?” She retorted, “I don’t celebrate Christmas! I am not Christian; it’s the holidays for me.” When I said, “I would like to visit your synagogue,” she looked surprised. “Sure. But you will have to seek permission from the rabbi. Maybe get a letter?” I was taken aback. All I wanted to do was learn about a religion I didn’t grow up with. Why the automatic assumption that I was up to something?
When I said to a friend recently, “India is truly a secular country,” she looked confused. Being an American, she knows that America was built on religious freedom. How could any country beat that? I told her that religious tolerance and acceptance were not really the same thing.
Unlike India, there aren’t many countries where people are involved in inter-faith holidays: Muslims in India celebrate Holi and Diwali. Hindus await platters of biryani and sevai on Eid from their Muslim friends. I remember my mother baking cookies for Christmas and hanging stockings for Santa to leave us presents. The finger-licking food at gurudwara was to die for. And most of us grew up visiting gurudwaras, churches, and temples. Despite all the other political and inter-faith chaos, when it comes to festivals, Indians don’t care which faith you are born into.
In my yoga studio, a South Korean place focused on breathing and energy balancing, there are laminated charts depicting the significance of each chakra. One of the yoga postures requires everyone in the class to turn their body at an angle. And it so happens that turning at that angle ends up in you bowing to the laminated chakra illustrations. Frankly, I didn’t notice anything unusual on the wall until two middle-aged women refused to complete the asana. When the yoga teacher asked them the reason, they said, “We can’t pray to the God you have on the wall.” Amazing how someone shows up for yoga without knowing what “chakras” mean! But in any case, can you argue with someone who believes that appreciating another faith makes you less loyal to your own?
I wonder if religions in the US, in their quest of being exclusive, forget to become inclusive. We might have carved out a place for different religious faiths on paper, but have we made room in our hearts for them? We have been so busy, for generations, preserving traces of our own heritage that we never truly learnt to accept someone else’s. And tolerating and embracing are not the same thing!
Celebrating Diwali or Eid or Chanukah won’t make you any less Hindu or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or Christian, but it will make you more open-hearted and compassionate. It can bring you closer to a culture other than your own.
The other problem is that we sometimes give each other a little too much space. We are too different and have too many differences of opinions on God. But we fear asking the wrong questions and offending people. Curiosity is the foundation of growth. This obsession with “I,” “Me,” and “Myself” ideology is manifesting misconceptions and stereotypes. End result: The distance between dissimilarities is growing at a rate faster than closeness through similarities.
Look at the mess we are in today. How can a nation truly emerge victorious from an emotional and religious crunch unless it teaches its citizens the true meaning of acceptance?
The first time I watched Saturday Night Live and one of the late night (Maybe Jay Leno or David Letterman) news show in New York, the then president of the country was being made fun of. I was shocked and impressed in the same breath. I had never seen anything like that in India. Sure, in the movie “Roja,” the female protagonist alluded to the 1989 kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed and her release in exchange for five terrorists. But that was the extent of it.
You must have read about the latest brouhaha consuming India. Author-activist Arundhati Roy might be facing “sedition charges” for backing Kashmir’s independence. BJP suggests that Roy should be hanged because she said, “Jammu and Kashmir was never an integral part of India and that British imperialism was replaced in 1947 by Indian colonialism.”
Roy might be arrested for voicing her opinion? I am baffled. I bet she’s not the first person to utter anti-government and pro azaad-Kashmir words. So, why her? Because she is a woman and a famous writer, so it’s easy to single her out and attack her?
People don’t have to agree with what Roy has to say. Hell, they don’t have to like what she says. As a person of Indian origin, I don’t fancy Roy’s stance or necessarily agree with her. But one can express our disagreement in a civil way. How can anyone deny her the freedom of speech—something that India guarantees its citizens? How can anyone suggest silencing her? Isn’t that against democracy? As Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”
New and Renewable Energy Minister and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah said there was 'too much freedom' in India, which is being misused to 'destroy' the nation. Umm, interesting. Instead of worrying about what one person has to say, shouldn’t Abdullah be anxious about the one billion people behaving as dimwits? Shouldn’t he be concerned that in a country of above-average academic intelligence, the majority lacks the innate willingness to evaluate and process information thrown at them?
I am given the argument that freedom of speech and responsibility go hand-in-hand. But I ask a basic question: How much is “too much” freedom? And who decides the limits of liberty? Politicians with only their personal interests at stake? Writers who want their voices heard? Or millions of people who wear goulashes of callousness?
I am sorry, but a nation that doesn’t permit its citizens to say what’s on its mind can never truly progress. One man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr. If Raja Ram Mohan Roy had chosen to be silent like the rest of the society, Hindu widows in India would still be following the heinous practice of sati! If activists hadn’t spoken against dowry and bride burning, dead women would adorn the streets of India.
The younger generation needs to be taught to examine and interrogate. We are so blinded by our day-to-day lives that we forget that our brains can accommodate more than math problems, Bollywood dialogues, and cricket statistics. Parents and teachers need to encourage inquisitiveness not shun it. Questioning the older generation doesn’t mean you are disrespecting them. Disagreeing with adages doesn’t make you any less of an Indian.
The changes have to be brought at the grassroots level in both India and the United States. To quote a friend, “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers. Pity the nation that's afraid of dissent.” I will add to that: Pity the nation that practices selective democracy. Pity the nation that is afraid of opening its heart and mind.
More until next time,
Copyright © 10.28.2010
“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” – Oscar Wilde