Interreligious Relations in Mumbai and Delhi
While on a sabbatical from Georgetown University, I visited Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), Vasai, and Delhi in January and February 2012. A number of my experiences concerned interreligious relations. Given the history of interreligious tension and of violent clashes, there are a number of efforts to improve interreligious relations in India today in which Catholics are involved.
In Mumbai I met with the leaders of The Bombay Philosophical Society of Bombay University, which sponsors a series of interreligious discussions, including a lecture I attended, “Religion for the Future: A Sikh Perspective.” Professor Davinder Kaur presented a Sikh vision of reconciling various religious perspectives into a harmonious, interreligiously welcoming harmony. Dr. Shubhada Joshi, a Hindu philosopher, is the chair of the Department of Philosophy of Bombay University; she has been involved in dialogues with Catholics, especially from the Focolare movement. One of her colleagues is Dr. Meenal Katarnikar, a Hindu woman who specializes in Jain studies. They have received a grant from the government to fund an interdisciplinary research project with the Departments of Sanskrit and Arabic on interpreting Hindu and Islamic scriptures in ways that support social harmony. They asked me to collaborate with them.
Professor Katarnikar invited me to a celebration of “Prophet’s Day,” honoring the birth of Prophet Muhammad, sponsored by the interreligious organization, Anam Prem (“Love Anonymous,” i.e., love beyond all names and boundaries). The celebration was held in the elegant Convocation Hall in the Fort Campus of Bombay University, built by the British in the nineteenth century. On entering the courtyard, one could imagine being at Oxford or Cambridge in England. The city outside is completely blocked from view and there are beautiful flowers and trees. The Convocation Hall is an elegant adaptation of English medieval style for an Indian context, with beautiful stained glass windows and, at the base of the arches, stone carvings with distinctively Indian faces, including long mustaches.
To honor Muhammad, Hindus acted out a number of short dramas from the Islamic heritage, including a story of Mullah Nasruddin and another story involving the Mughal Sultan Jahangir. There were Muslims and followers of other religious traditions in attendance. One Muslim speaker presented a discourse in Hindi, and another Muslim gave a shorter talk in English. I had not expected to see Hindus acting out short plays based on Islamic themes in front of Muslims in honor of Prophet Muhammad!
Interreligious Dialogue in India: Variety and Interest
In Delhi, I was welcomed to the India Islamic Cultural Society, which invited me to speak in a public conversation together with one of the leading Indian Muslim thinkers, Maulana Wahaddidun Khan, an author and the founder of the Centre for Peace and Spirituality. He has been one of the most prominent Indian Muslims in promoting harmonious interreligious relations and also in condemning terrorism as completely opposed to Islam. (See his book published in 2009 by Penguin Books: The Prophet of Peace: Teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.) There were a number of Muslim scholars present, including some younger disciples of Maulana Khan and Professor Irfan Omar from Marquette University in Milwaukee. Our discussion was reported the next day in an article in an Urdu-language newspaper. Later a Jesuit theologian told me that what would have been seen as newsworthy was a Christian scholar from the United States saying something positive about Islam and Muslims.
The next day I was welcomed to speak at the Indialogue Foundation, which is related to the Rumi Forum here in Washington, DC, and is part of the international movement, Hizmet, which in Turkish means “Service.” These are followers of the Turkish Muslim leader and author, Fethullah Gülen, who now lives near Philadelphia. They asked me to speak about my experiences with the Hizmet movement and the followers of Fethullah Gülen. What surprised me most was that this interreligious discussion was valued so highly that people flew in from various places in India to hear me speak. One member of Hizmet, Sinan, flew in from Kolkata (Calcutta), where I had met him four years earlier. Another man flew in from Hyderabad in the south of India. And most surprising of all to me, three men flew in from Mumbai, where I had been the last four weeks, to hear me! One, Fr. S.M. Michael, S.V.D., represents the Archdiocese of Bombay in interreligious relations; another, Dr. Homi Dhalla, a Zoroastrian, is president of the Waorld Zarathushti Cultural Foundaion; he was the only Zoroastrian to attend both the 1986 Day of Prayer for World Peace in Assisi, convened by Pope John Paul II, and also the 25th anniversary celebration last October hosted by Pope Benedict. The third person was a Mongolian Muslim who is associated with Hizmet in Mumbai.
I spoke about my experiences with the associates of the Gülen movement, ranging from Washington, DC, to Istanbul to Australia and India, and there were many questions, usually about broader issues. Saurabh Kumar Shahi, a news reporter from the India Times, was present and wrote an article, in which he interestingly garbled my description of St. Francis of Assisi’s visit to Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in 1219. I had mentioned this as a side comment in my remarks without going into much detail. According to the printed news story in the India Times, St. Francis was a member of the Crusader Army, who visited the Ottoman Sultan! Later that week I gave a talk to a small group at the Islamic Studies Association on Muslim Initiatives in Relation to Christians. These were mainly Catholic priests and sisters who have long been involved in Muslim-Christian dialogue.
Economic Changes in India
There are periodic interreligious tensions in India, especially in relation to the Hindutva movement of Hindu nationalists. I was told that often the interreligious conflicts are related to difficult economic circumstances, in which people look for someone to blame for their hardships. I attended a conference at the Jesuit Vidyajyoti School of Theology in Delhi. The conference focused on the economic changes in India during the last 20 years from the perspective of the poor. While many have been very successful, the changes have brought great hardship to many, disrupting their lives and leaving them in desperate circumstances.
One speaker, Professor Emeritus Amrit Bhaduri of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, noted that inequality is increasing on all levels in India; as corporations increase productivity, they cut jobs. While GDP growth has been 8-9%, the growth in employment was only 1-2%. The increase in efficiency does not help most people in India. There is a direct assault on the poor in India in terms of land, minerals, coastlands, forests, and all natural resources. The basic pattern is that the government takes from the poor and gives to corporations at low prices, and then the corporations contribute to Indian politicians. “The whole nexus is closed and is based on money.” Bhaduri warned that India is a democracy that is becoming a plutocracy; in the future, the danger is that it will have to rely increasingly on military power to maintain order.
Another speaker was a Hindu feminist leader, Madhu Purnima Kishwar, founder of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, who stated that in recent years 60 million people have been uprooted for industry, mining or development of highways or housing. Many farmers leave rural areas and go to seek menial jobs in the cities, arriving in such numbers as to overwhelm all attempts to construct proper residences for them. Kishwar noted that traditional artisans who make elegant jewelry or weavers are tragically paid less than the garbage pickers; they cannot afford to purchase the beautiful items they make. She charged that governmental bureaucratic regulations are a constant source of corruption.
In a similar vein, Bhaduri asserted the fundamental principal, “No political problem has an economic solution.” He insisted, “Corruption is a political problem.” Most people that I spoke to did not think the recent publicity regarding corruption would result in any systemic, long-lasting changes. My companions judged that all political parties in India want to benefit from corruption when they are in power, and so even when they are out of power they do not want to upset the system too drastically.
One filmmaker showed a short documentary film she had made about an adivasi community who live near a mountain in the state of Orissa. (The adivasis are the tribal, indigenous or aboriginal communities of India who were historically not integrated into the dominant Indian states.) A mining company came and began extracting bauxite from the mountain and polluting their rivers, which led to chemical damage to the people’s bodies when they used the water. The tribe was able to win a court case proving that the company was violating the law. However, my colleague and friend, Fr. John Chattanatt, S.J., an economist and ethicist who directs the India Social Institute, said that in the long run, the mining company will come back and will probably win. The victories for the adivasis and other poor groups are usually temporary amid the overall economic development for the sake of profit.
India today is a land of tremendous conflicts and rapid transformation. While many have benefited from the economic growth, many others have not. As a result, Indian Catholics face the dual challenge of witnessing to the Gospel in a world of many religions and of many poor. Despite the difficulties, my dominant impression was of the goodness and generosity of the Indian Catholics who welcomed me so warmly into their lives.
Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.