Open Minds and Open Hearts

I’d like to open up this post with this tweet from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted earlier today: ‘On the occasion of Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi greetings to you all. May this festival deepen the bond of brotherhood & compassion in society.’ Given the large Muslim population in India, such a tweet is no surprise. Why have I mentioned it then? All shall soon be revealed; but first, also consider this article from NDTV news about a Hindu family in the USA who make a point of celebrating Christmas every year. Furthermore, I have seen many stories on social media about different faith groups assisting each other in times of hardship.

I’d also like to put forward what I believe to be three contrasting scenarios, for reasons which I will go on to explain. Firstly, US Republican politician and presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s view that Muslims should not be allowed to enter the USA following recent attacks there. Secondly, the Sultan of Brunei’s decision to ban public celebrations of Christmas within his nation, and thirdly, the decision of the Somalian government to do the same for that country.

What is the fundamental difference between these two sets of scenarios? I believe that the distinction is one of acceptance of the views and identity of others. Delving a little deeper, I wish to focus on two issues: religious pluralism, and the related idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the entire world is one family).

Religious pluralism

Pluralism within a religious context is the idea that any religion which one might follow is not the sole source of truth in the world, but there are truths to be found in other faiths as well. I feel it is best summed up by the shloka ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti, meaning ‘Truth is one; wise men call it by different names’. This form of pluralism is a central concept of Hindu dharma which promulgates an acceptance of all other faiths and their traditions, even if one chooses not to follow them. Prime Minister Modi’s tweet and the story about the Hindu family who celebrate Christmas year on year are both great examples of this in action; on the other hand, the Sultan of Brunei and the government of Somalia are both reluctant to embrace this view. Talk of following ‘-isms’, as I sometimes like to call them, can often seem lofty and unattainable, but I don’t think embracing pluralism is: all I feel it requires is that we accept the beliefs of others and do not condemn them as being ‘wrong’ simply because they may be different from our own beliefs.

Why is this of relevance now? In some ways, the world has never felt less pluralistic: cursory glances at the media tell us about the present troubles in Iraq and Syria, the devastating attacks in Paris in November, claims of growing intolerance in India. In the modern day, it is easy for controversial and acerbic views to spread easily, both through the criticism of mainstream media channels and the more direct expression of those views on social media. It is not inconceivable that these views may spread; the positive reaction from people in the USA to Donald Trump’s frankly abhorrent recent comments is a case in point. I’m fairly certain that most of you will agree that the spreading of such views isn’t a good thing. This inevitably raises the question about what can be done: I believe the answer lies in shows of tolerance, as the three examples at the top of this post show. As I have already suggested, embracing such a view doesn’t necessitate delving deep into other traditions, although I think there is no harm in this whatsoever, as it encourages us to think with a more open mind about how the views of others may be shaped. Just as intolerance can swell, so too can tolerance and pluralistic views, if we wish for them to do so.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

I feel at this point that it is most appropriate to move on to the idea that the whole world is one family, since this not only may stand as a concept on its own, but also has some links to how we may achieve a more pluralistic view in practice. Two of the words which immediately spring to mind when I think of this tenet are ‘brotherhood’ and ‘compassion’, both of which are coincidentally found in Narendra Modi’s tweet. Nor are these purely Hindu values: in his Christmas message, posted on Facebook this morning, UK Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the need for compassion as a Christian value towards those who are suffering at this time of year, and the Christmas carol God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen contains the words ‘And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace’. Compassion and brotherhood are universal values which I feel call us to put aside the differences in beliefs we may share with others to treat those with whom we come into contact as if they are one family.

At the heart of this idea, in my view, lies the idea of unity. With a basis of unity, we move a step closer to the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, and from there to the open minds and open hearts which the world seems to be crying out for at present. Unity entails a sense of brotherhood – I’m sure this view will be shared by any readers who attended the UK Welcomes Modi event in November – and when united, we are stronger, as countless examples throughout history have shown (see this earlier post on the matter). In troubled times such as those which we now face, divisions will lead to greater splinters and possibly even the formation of chasms. This is the danger of intolerant views to which I have referred above.

The world in which we live is currently fraught with tensions and conflicts; through unity will come compassion and brotherhood, through compassion and brotherhood a deeper acceptance of the multiplicity of beliefs in this world. Lofty these ideals may seem, but in practice, they are achievable; in fact, the mere coming together of people at this time of Christmas is one step along the way to achieving this. Whatever beliefs we may hold, I think this is one idea that we can take away from Christmas this year.

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