several decades (I’m in my sixth decade now!) I’ve attended numerous interfaith
dialogue meetings, in different parts of the world. A principal ostensible
purpose of many such events is promoting interfaith/inter-community harmony.
minor differences, almost all these events have followed the same pattern. A
group of people from different faith backgrounds gather together—in a
university or a hotel, in many cases (and sometimes, even in a luxury
resort!)—and talk theology, with ‘experts’ insisting that their respective
faiths generously accept and respect other religions and their adherents. If
only people understood their religions properly, they claim, there would be no
problem of interfaith/inter-community conflict.
not this point is valid is something that can be endlessly debated. Critics
might argue that such assertions can be very simplistic, to say the least. But
whatever the case might be, a question to be asked here, as far as the goal of
promoting inter-communal harmony is concerned, is whether such events (where
interfaith dialogue often comes to be reduced simply to ‘goody-good’,
superficial and one-sided talk about religion) do indeed make any positive
difference at the grassroots level in terms of how people perceive other
religions and their adherents. Also, do the practical outcomes of this approach
to interfaith harmony justify the time, effort and funds that are invested in
such meetings may be better than nothing at all. At least they afford a
platform for people from different faith traditions to gather together for a
while, to exchange a couple of words (even if it’s sometimes just pleasantries)
and to share a meal. But be that as it may, if such meetings are intended to
influence for the better the way ‘ordinary’ people, at the ‘grassroots’, from different religions relate to each
other, what difference do they actually make?
day, I attended one such interfaith dialogue meeting. The panel of speakers
included men (there were no women—something quite typical of many such
meetings) from four different religious traditions. The speakers made their
speeches, after which we were treated to lunch and then everyone dispersed.
There was no talk of any action plan, of practical efforts that we as a group
could do to promote interfaith/intercommunity harmony.
say such meetings are pointless as far as interfaith/intercommunity harmony is
concerned. But if you ask me if they are worth the money, time, effort and
energy that often go into them, I’d say that there is a much more effective way
to achieve their ostensible purpose. And what is that? It’s ‘little’ acts of
kindness and service for people from different religious backgrounds that can
unite hearts across religious barriers in a manner that possibly no amount of
theologising and syrupy talk of religion by (often self-appointed) religious
illustrate, shortly after I attended the interfaith programme mentioned above,
I was at a Christian-run centre, accompanied by N, a Muslim friend of mine. It
so happened that B, a Christian woman who worked as a cook at the centre,
needed to rush to her village (located several hundred kilometres away) because
her father had taken seriously ill. B had to pay for her ticket herself—which
must have been a big sum by her standards. When N learnt of this, she felt for
B. In a spontaneous act of compassion, N gave the head of the centre a sizeable
sum of money (perhaps more than what the ticket cost) to give to B for her
travel expenses. Later, B came to know of what N had done, and I am sure she
was very touched.
‘little’ act of ‘big’ kindness—a Muslim woman spontaneously reaching out to
support a Christian girl in need—helped build a bridge of love between the two
that possibly no amount of theological chatter about interfaith harmony spouted
by scholarly ‘experts’ at an interfaith event ever could have!
is all we need. And what is love? It is going beyond concern simply with
oneself or with the group one identifies with to embracing others and being
concerned about their wellbeing, this being expressed through practical acts of
compassion. And so, if you ask me what I think is the best way to promote
interfaith/inter-community harmony and solidarity, while I wouldn’t dismiss
formal theological discussions as happens in many ‘interfaith dialogue’ events
completely, I’d unhesitatingly vote for engaging in ‘little’ acts of kindness
and love in the service of people from diverse faith/community backgrounds.