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Religion in India: Rhetoric & Practice in the World’s Largest Democracy

14th Jul 2014 by Maria Charles - , (0) Comment

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Guest post by Simone Spera (UWC USA 2014). Simone attended UWC Mahindra College’s 2-week Short Programme ‘Religion in India’ over this summer. For more information about this programme and other offerings please visit our website or email [email protected] 

I had just graduated from UWC-USA this May, and in attending UWC Mahindra College’s Religion in India Short Programme I was looking forward to experiencing again a little bit of the teamwork and the exposure that are to me the most important part of the UWC movement. So it happened: even though we had never met each other before, my group spent nights cooking Indian food, dancing, singing while sipping hot chocolate, and above all discussing the experiences of each single day and reflecting upon how they changed and surprised us. The most valuable aspect of programmes like this is that you all come from different starting points and places, and you are placed in a specific cultural setting; and you let this shape yourself as much as you let the others, who came there as strangers, shape you. 

Religion in India showed and proved to me the existence of a different model of diversity than the one I saw elsewhere. I am talking specifically about religious diversity. Previously, the way I saw people deal with it follows a pattern of this kind: when I discover that there are worships different than mine, either my God is true and yours is false, or both are completely fictitious. In case I believe my god is the true one, I either tolerate your fake worship or incriminate it. The way to peaceful coexistence is always tightly secular: I lose my faith or lessen it in such a way that the “secular” part of me tolerates the “other” and I confine my faith to a private business.

Western media mostly portray the “East” as a territory of intolerance and religious feud. It is clear that they only tell a small part of the story. What surprised me of India is that the possibility of religious diversity is found inside of religion itself and  not through secular “tolerant” and “critical” thinking. This is something I learnt in discussions and explorations about Gandhi or the mystic Sufi and Bhakti movements as well as among people met along the journey: Hindus praying inside of mosques or burning flowers in accordance with their traditional practices in Catholic churches, Sikh communities who receive anyone in their ‘langar‘ (community kitchen) with a welcoming meal, irrespective of their religion. In India, religion is not a relic from the past to be either statically conserved or rejected in the name of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’, it plays a vital role in contemporary social and political battles. For even when we went to a hidden village in the lush Kolvan valley, we found a village of dalits or ‘untouchables’, who had all converted to Buddhism as a way to reclaim their dignity.

I want to thank all the people I met in this incredible journey and those who made it possible. And I’d like to end with a short anecdote, the interpretation of which I will leave open. During our travels to Goa, we interviewed people about what God meant to them. I guess that my attitude appeared like that of a foreign secular journalist who is ‘curious’ about ‘exotic’ beliefs and practices. That’s why I just love the answer a woman – I think she was quite annoyed – selling scarves in a street gave me: “What do you mean? God is… God!”

– Simone Spera (UWC USA 2014)

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