India: Key tenets of Interfaith Education

In a globalised interconnected world, conflicts are bound to rise manifold if not countered. Education is the key to create a global family that accepts equality of all faiths and religions. We must nourish our children


Now that the infamous Aryan invasion theory stands busted scientifically, there should be no hesitation in acknowledging that the ancient Indian culture and religion were civilised and advanced enough for people of different ethnicity, linguistic backgrounds and faiths who arrived at the shores of India. Murray Hugh’s book, ‘Historical account of discoveries and travels in Asia: From the earliest ages to the present time’ (Vol.2, p.20) gives the impressions of Abdul Razak about what he saw in the State of Calicut: “The people (of Calicut) are infidels; consequently, I consider myself in an enemy country, as the Mohammedans consider anyone who has not received the Koran. Yet, I admit that I met with perfect toleration, and even favour, we have two mosques and are allowed to pray in public.”

Razak effectively reveals how the concept of “infidel”, which he had learnt earlier, contrasts to the “acceptance of otherness” he experienced in India. It is this aspect that could create a harmonious and peaceful society in the present day world. The core elements of the ancient Indian civilisation have so clearly been articulated by the Dalai Lama: “Sometimes I describe myself as a modern-day messenger of ancient Indian thought. Two of the most important ideas I share wherever I travel — the principle of nonviolence and interreligious harmony — are both drawn from ancient Indian heritage. Though I am of course a Tibetan, I also consider myself to be, in a sense, a son of India. Since childhood my mind has been nourished by the classics of Indian thought…So I am very happy to share and promote this Indian understanding of secularism, as I believe it can be of great value to all humanity.”

The rich tradition of acceptance of otherness inherited by India bestows it with the singular responsibility to guide nations that are experiencing the influx of people from other countries with differing worldview, faith, language, ethnicity and culture in significant proportions. India can do it only when its own house is in order and people from outside appreciate it as a practical reality.

In this globalised and interconnected world, conflicts can acquire greater proportions in future if not countered seriously. India’s responsibility will increase manifold with rising global expectation, which is expressed in the words of D Arnold Toynbee: “…At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”  To those who raised questions, Toynbee’s answer was: “Here we have an attitude and spirit that can make it  possible for the human race to grow together in to a single family — and in the Atomic age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves.”

 The only possible strategy is to nourish and educate our future generations on the universality of the ancient Indian thought and practice.  Education is the key to create a global family that accepts equality of all faiths and religions. All religions are equally true — all have the same goal, and all are striving to reach it following different paths. The gravity of the growing challenge before humanity is enormous. Inclusive growth and progress is unfathomable in a world without peace and harmony.

A major aspect of this challenge is the presence of elements who still believe that their  religion, language, tradition, practices and culture alone are superior to that of others, taken together or separately, and, hence, their task is to bring everyone under a single umbrella, somehow. It must be accepted that the major chunk of violence, terrorism and insecurity inflicted on mankind arises out of ill-conceived religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.

Elements that inspire and encourage ignorant, impressionable and vulnerable persons to plunge in the erasing of the presence of other religions deserve no place in the global society of the 21st Century. The silent and suffering majority must now become vocal and assertive. Simultaneously, every step must be taken to ensure that the children are saved from their machinations and ill-intentions.  The only way out is to have a relook at the systems of education, formal, social, cultural and informal. The essence of futuristic education systems that could lead to a world of peace and cohesion would be woven around the respect for life in its different forms and acceptance of otherness.

Man’s most precious possession is life. Indian tradition eulogises the oneness of atman and paramatman. From this emerges respect for all forms of life. Ancient Indian culture, its scriptures and traditions accord divinity not only to every human soul but also to birds, animals, trees, mountains — all that exists as His creation. The man-nature mutuality has been extensively described in scriptures, clearly mentioning that it is the responsibility of the man to maintain this sensitive link.

The scenario so established presents an inspiring ambience to comprehend the essential unity of human beings.  The ancient Indian theory of evolution — Dashavatara — manifests the continuity of the cycle of life. It is tough even for the rationalists to ignore it. As one looks beyond the Indian concept, man being amritasya putra (child of God), one finds different religious and cultural traditions articulate the nature of man, his responsibility and connection with the Almighty. Zoroastrianism declares, “The Wise one created the man to be like Him”, realise the symphony it creates with the Jain tradition: “Man is a creation of God, made in the likeness of God.” In Sikhism, “God is the soul of man, His eternal nature”; which appears to reverberate in Christianity’s assertion, “Man is God’s workman on earth.” Does it sound much different from the Islamic contention? “Man is God’s viceroy on earth.” A very pragmatic and inspiring description comes from Confucianism: “Heaven has made man good; his original nature is good…”

Even these simple, rather peripheral descriptions would indicate clearly that man has the potential to move towards perfection. To understand how, recall what Swami Vivekananda meant when he said, “Education is manifestation of the perfection already in man.” Why should children not learn how human existence is viewed and visualised in different religions? After all, as they grow up, they have to live in a multicultural and multi-religious society. Human beings are blessed with the gift of power of ideas and imagination. They love their freedom. Their thinking power, analytical capacity and creative skills need nurturance and guidance.

In the absence of such learning, the young ones could be brainwashed to become a fedayeen. It is all done in the name of the Almighty, the ultimate truth and hope of a smooth transition to the Heaven. The uncouth, ignorant and uncivilised succeed in their nefarious designs amongst those deprived of receiving the right education in initial years.

For ages, efforts have been made by men of eminence, wisdom and knowledge to show the right path to all human beings but the impact has all long been partial. Education is still the ray of hope.  The world of today and tomorrow needs education that is imbued with interfaith values. Eminent interfaith scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan put it in simple terms: “The Truth is that for the attainment of disciplined behaviour, it is essential for one to be convinced of the existence of a power far superior to himself, a Being who is aware of man’s activities at every moment; who can reward and punish man, and from whom it is impossible to escape.”

Every religion acknowledges and accepts the presence of God who alone would fit in this expectation and description. From this logic — some may disagree — could emerge contours of the content and process of education. Swami Vivekananda elaborates: “We want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded and by which one can stand on one’s own feet….The end of all education, all training, should be man-making. The end and aim of all training is to make the man grow. The training, by which the current and expression of will are brought under control and become fruitful, is called education.”

Character-building and development of personality are the two pivots on which the entire process of teaching and learning must evolve. The traditional Indian education system judged an individual not by the riches accumulated but the knowledge acquired and values practiced in life. 

(The writer is the Indian Representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO)




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