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Interfaith Dialogue ( 17 Nov 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Punjab Notes: Space for Religious Diversity


By Mushtaq Soofi

November 14th, 2014

Punjab has historically been one of regions in the sub-continent that was most tolerant of diversity and supportive of plurality till recent times. It is here that we first encounter the phenomenon of ethnic, religious, social and cultural diversity clearly testified by ancient literature -- religious and secular.

The first verifiable source of what created conditions for the growth of immense diversity was the contact between urbanised Harappa people and nomadic Aryans way back in time. The mythopoeic description of the historical interaction between the civilised Harappa people and the unsophisticated Aryans is a narrative signifying the beginnings of a new society as diverse as the natural world that surrounded it.

Contrary to the prevalent notion of Aryans as ferocious war-like tribes invading the Indus Valley, they came here in waves as wandering nomads in search of shelter and food, argues Professor Malti. J. Shendge with the evidence from her painstakingly collected historical material. They were initially treated as refugees and were given lands and shelter at the periphery of their cities by the Harappa people. It is only when the Aryans got settled to an extent and acquainted themselves the weaknesses of their hosts that started employing cleverly crafted strategy of external aggression and internal sabotage to overpower the very people who had welcomed them on their soil. The outcome of the conflict resulted in the ascendancy of the newly arrived and birth of a new society comprising both the victor and the vanquished i.e. Aryans and Dravidians. The Dravidian religion though pushed to the periphery co-existed in the forms of folk-practices with the newly evolved Vedic religion that had significant borrowing from the former as can be seen the worship of Goddess Kali, Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna who carry unmistakable marks of their Dravidian origins.

Mahatma Buddha who appeared on the stage of history in 6th century BC challenged the very foundation of Vedic religion based the so-called inviolable caste distinction. His teachings, originally free of metaphysical dead wood, had great impact on the large swathes of the subcontinent, including Punjab, paving the way for what we call Buddhist way of life. After the Alexander’s invasion when emperor Ashoka embraced the Buddhism it became a dominant religion in the sub-continent. The flourishing of Buddhism found its finest expression in the rise of Ghandhra culture in Punjab and Swat valley. Some of the greatest minds like Chanakya Kautilya (author of Arth Shastra, the first elaborate book on the state craft) and Panini (the author of Ashtadhyayi, the first book of grammar in the recorded history) came from the famous Taxila University, situated close to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The state not only tolerated the religious differences but also showed equal respect to all faiths. The Buddhism co-existed with the old Dharma inspired by Vedas.

A sort of folk-religion based on the ancient Dravidian rituals also continued to be practiced by subaltern classes. Even after the decline of Buddhism and revival of Brahminical order People of Punjab maintained their liberal attitude towards religion in terms of not strictly following the caste rules to the chagrin of Pundits from the Gangetic plains that demonised them for their ‘religious waywardness’.

Punjab underwent another religious transformation from 8th century to 11th century in the aftermath of Arab invasion from the South and the Turk intrusions from the North. Large segments of the population, especially those who suffered the disadvantages of caste and class accepted Islam as their new faith that at least theoretically espoused the notion of equality as the basis of social existence. Muslim rule had its moment of glory during the reign of Emperor Akbar when faith whether of the ruler or the ruled was not allowed to interfere with affairs of the state. Before Akbar Baba Guru Nanak, a true son of the soil and a great seer, emerged who while combining the finest elements of Hinduism and Islam challenged the ritualism of the both. His teachings and practice inspired a new faith now known as Sikhism. The followers of the Guru Nanak had to bear the brunt of Mogul wrath due to the perceived political challenge they posed. But there was also a section of Muslim political and religious elite sympathetic to the Sikh cause which included luminaries such as Hazrat Mian Mir, Prince Dara Shikoh and Bulleh Shah.

Sikhism had its moment of political glory during the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century. Ranjit Singh, like Ashoka and Akbar, tolerated religious diversity and did not persecute the other faith-based communities in the Punjab. After the annexation of Punjab by the British colonialists in 1849 we see the emergence of yet another faith based community, the Christians who are by now significant in number. The converts came from the most oppressed segment of Punjabi society. No surprise that they saw a ray of hope in Christianity, the religion of the colonialists that apparently held the prospect of a better socio-economic life for the wretched of the earth.

Punjab has been and still is home to many a religion. Religious diversity is not the problem per se. It is the stance of the state that creates or eliminates the space for religious diversity. Lack of tolerance for a multi-faith society in Punjab reflects the state policy that has created conditions where bigotry is flaunted as virtue causing the spiritual asphyxia. —