Some Thoughts on the Dichotomies of Our Times
This international conference is focused on the life and teachings of an iconic personality, the founder of a faith who was a model of emulation, a mediator between the divine and human realms who devoted his life to bringing hope to anxious human beings in a period of turmoil and despair.
The simplicity and power of his teachings, endowed with practical common sense rather than high philosophy, is compelling. It is based on the acceptance of one God, present in every object of His creation. Baba Nanak advocated brotherhood of all humans, espoused the cause of the downtrodden, and advocated what in modern terminology is called interfaith dialogue.
Faith, as we know, is a powerful motivator in human behaviour. It manifests itself in different ways: as a source of spiritual power that brings forth the noblest in human character; the same adherence to faith however can do the reverse when it emerges as a motivator for lesser objectives. The challenge for humans at every stage of history has been to promote the former and control the latter.
Religious faiths today tend to get involved with contemporary global conditions and in our collective imagination of what our values are and what we deem to be a society that fosters human well being.
An eminent strategic thinker had observed towards the end of the 20th century that it was a century characterized by arrogant assertions of total righteousness and imagined Utopia, resulting in a period of organized insanity and deaths on a massive scale. He had expressed the hope that the 21st century would bring forth a corrective by making humanity overcome the crisis of the spirit.
A quarter of a century later, we have to admit that this expectation was misplaced even if his diagnosis was accurate. If anything, the situation globally has deteriorated. Lost in the process among other things are the teachings of promoting peace, harmony and human happiness that were the essence of Baba Nanak’s message.
The challenge today is to revive them, and find common threads in the teachings of all faith systems.
How is this to be done?
It is evident that many societies today are victims of two pandemics that impact their behaviour patterns. One is ‘religiosity’ and the other ‘strident nationalism.’
Religiosity is defined as extreme religious ardour denoting exaggerated embodiment, involvement or zeal for certain aspects of religious activity enforced through social even governmental pressure.
A scrutiny of historical record would show that the founders of faiths and religious systems themselves did not exhibit religiosity nor did they place any right or duty above the basis moral precepts. Their followers may have done so and diluted or corrupted the teachings.
Nationalism means identifying oneself with a single nation placing it beyond good and evil, right or wrong, suspending individual judgment, and recognizing no other duty than of advancing its perceived interests. It is often confused with patriotism and used interchangeably. Both are words of unstable and explosive content and so need to be handled with care since they differ in meaning and content.
Nationalism in its strident form is inseparable from the desire for power. It is an ‘ideological poison’ that has no hesitation in transcending and transgressing individual rights. Record the world over shows that it at times takes the form of hatred as a tonic that inspires vengeance as mass ideology.
Decades earlier Rabindranath Tagore had called nationalism ‘a great menace’, described it as ‘one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented.’ He had expressed himself against ‘the idolatry of the nation.’ Albert Einstein considered it ‘as infantile disease.’
Patriotism, on the other hand, is defensive both militarily and culturally. It inspires nobler sentiments but must not be allowed to run amuck since in that condition it ‘will trample the very values that the country seeks to defend.’
Thus humanity can be saved only if both pandemics are evaded to overcome the global crisis of the spirit and replaced by human behaviour in the light of our collective experience and seek moral guidance directed at achieving common good.
We therefore have to begin by proclaiming a new triad that (a) religion is not politics, (b) that religiosity is not religion and (c) that peace, harmony and happiness can emanate only from adherence to principles of justice in human dealings with each other at the individual and group levels – local, national and international.
Similarly, a world full of sovereign state entities espousing strident nationalism cannot but propel them to violence or threat of violence and result in a fragile framework that would not be in consonance with the global order we are seeking to build on agreed principles of cooperation and mutual benefit for humankind.
The conclusion is unavoidable that both religiosity and strident nationalism are undesirable. Alternatives to both are within human reach. We are thus driven to accept the logic of the teaching of all religious personalities that salvation of humanity and of human happiness lies in the promotion of peace and harmony through tolerance, dialogue, accommodation, and acceptance.
Tolerance is a virtue but insufficient unless accompanied by acceptance of the ‘other’. Without it, accommodation is unachievable and in our plural polity the ‘Other’ has to be none other than the ‘Self’. Any derogation from it is detrimental to its core values.
For an effective dialogue, we need to appreciate the force of traditional cosmological models and the force of the sense of participation in an order greater than the individual. In such a dialogue the religious practitioners need to share a language of understanding that draws on cultural values both parties agree to name, namely a framework ensured by the modern, secular state and developed within a framework of human rights.’
This is the universal message of Baba Nanak that must be reiterated.