Indian Jesuit Agitates for Interreligious Understanding
By William Boyle
The words “theology of pluralism” flow readily from the lips of Fr. Vincent Sekhar (MDU), even as he speaks of the bloodshed that has made a theology of antagonism far more visible in his homeland of India. While in Washington for a lecture series last spring, he received news of a bomb blast inside a Hindu temple in one city, and the bombing of a mosque in another.
And the worst was yet to come: on July 11, a reported 186 people died and 700 more were wounded in serial blasts that struck commuter trains in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The bombers are believed to have been Islamic militants with links to Pakistan.
Do these remorseless acts suggest that dialogue and peacemaking among India’s religious communities are merely a pipedream of pluralists like Sekhar? Not at all, says the priest, who heads the Jesuit Conference of South Asia’s interreligious dialogue commission and conducts most of his reconciliatory work on the ground, especially among Christian, Hindu and Islamic youth.
Sekhar – who took part in a visiting lectureship arranged by the Woodstock Theological Center together with the Berkley Center for Religion, Politics, and World Affairs at Georgetown University – pointed to a remarkable thing that happened after the explosion inside the Hindu temple. The imam of the local Muslim community went to meet with the chief priest of the Hindu temple and apologized on behalf of Muslims. “Immediately there was an interreligious meeting, in public,” Sekhar related after learning of the events from press reports and colleagues in India. “The Hindu priest was greatly moved by the good gesture of this imam, and he wept as he talked to the audience at the public gathering.”
High-level gestures of reconciliation are rare among fractious religious communities in India, and press coverage of such peacemaking efforts is even rarer, according to Sekhar, who teaches philosophy at the Jesuit-run Arul Anandar College, an autonomous part of a public university in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
On the other hand, the imam’s overture was an instance of pluralism, an affirmation of religious diversity and co-existence through dialogue and peacemaking, which Jesuits and others are nurturing at the grassroots across India.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of interreligious prayer meetings being held, but nobody knows about it,” said Sekhar, also citing interfaith peace marches across the country.
In recent years, sectarian violence has returned to India along with the upsurge of Hindu nationalism, which has become an imposing force in the nation’s politics, in tension with the religious neutrality enshrined in India’s 1950 constitution.
For the past 50 years, the Society of Jesus has been at the leading edge of interreligious dialogue and cooperation in India, a mission that intensified in the wake of the 34th Jesuit General Congregation in 1995. The congregation called for the promotion of dialogue in its many dimensions, from everyday encounters among the faithful to theological exploration among scholars.
As both secretary of the Jesuit Conference’s dialogue commission and a university professor, Sekhar has been conceptualizing as well as forging practical ways of inviting young people into the circle of dialogue, a movement embattled by the forces of religious extremism.
“Sadly, the youth of India is the most vulnerable group, easily targeted for provocation and violence,” he said in a March 30 lecture titled “Encountering Differences: Engaging Youth in Dialogue – An Indian Experience,” presented as part of the Woodstock-Berkley fellowship program supported by Georgetown’s Jesuit community.
Even so, Sekhar and others have made inroads into understanding. Particularly promising, in his experience, has been the practice of holding interreligious prayer and meditation among young people from diverse religious communities. Jesuits have been able to facilitate such communal encounters through their colleges because their student populations are hardly mono-religious. At Arul Anandar College, for example, only a little over a third of the 2,000 students are Catholic and nearly all of the rest are Hindus.
Sekhar’s English-language book, “Religions in Public Life: A Practical Guide to Religious Harmony,” was translated into the Tamil language last year, and the reception given to this edition gave a glimpse into the promise of interreligious outreach in India as well as its perils. The book circulated widely among undergraduates at Arul Anandar, but raised the wrath of Hindu nationalists who complained to the chancellor about references to mob violence at the hands of their coreligionists. The text was pulled from classrooms earlier this year.
Although he is keen on both the practical and scholarly pursuits of interreligious dialogue, Sekhar is also mindful of the limits of these endeavors.
“Prayer meetings alone aren’t going to solve much,” he acknowledged during an interview at Woodstock’s Jesuit residence, which was his base during the threemonth fellowship that ended in June. “It [grassroots action] has to be made into a political process. Leaders of political parties have to come out in public and speak against this religious intolerance, instead of exploiting the sentiments of people to create enmity.”
It would help if more religious leaders were quick to extend gestures like the apology tendered recently by the imam after the temple bombing. “Things are happening, but it’s all at a low level,” Sekhar explained.
None of that is keeping this Jesuit from watering the grassroots.
In his “Encountering Differences” paper, he drew up a plan for “common retreats” that bring together students of different religious commitments for extended periods of prayer, study and spiritual discernment, as well as fellowship and relaxation. In his “Communal Politics” paper, he sketched the idea of neighborhood- based networks that respond to outbursts of religious violence with dialogue and disapproval across religious lines rather than with resentment and retaliation.
Behind these and other strategies is a theology of pluralism that emphasizes what Sekhar termed the “indwelling presence of God” in each person and each community, a presence that inspires trust and solidarity.
“People are different basically. They have different tastes, interests, needs, and aims,” he wrote in the context of neighborhood development. “Pluralism is the law and reality of life.”
Bole is a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Texts of Sekhar’s lectures are available at http://woodstock.georgetown.edu/berkleycenter.
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