Page 1

Religious Tolerance – An Achievable Utopia? Today our world is plagued by religious intolerance. The Taliban strikes terror in the hearts of people around the world. Religious extremists terrorize and desecrate institutions belonging to other religions. In August 2012, one such extremist attacked a Sikh gurudwara in Michigan out of sheer hate. Sikhs hailing from India were practicing their religion in his backyard – and he could not stand that -- how dare they? As a student at Chinmaya Mission in Houston, I notice the constable that stands outside the gates every Sunday. I see the gun on his belt and I know that he might have to use it to protect us from such extremists. It scares me. Religious intolerance is not a new phenomenon. It has beleaguered humanity throughout history. Wars have been fought and empires have been created and destroyed because of religious differences. Religious intolerance has often been used to exert control over people and over nations. For example, Shah Ismail established the Safavid dynasty in Iran by forcibly converting all the Sunnis to Shi’ism. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, a devout Muslim, persecuted his subjects in India who did not convert to Islam. He beheaded Sikhs, Christians, and Hindus alike. In the Middle Ages, fervent Christians tore through the Ottoman empire and sacked Constantinople in order to reclaim Jerusalem. In those times, the Catholic Church had an iron grip over all of Western Europe. The Church kept people intentionally illiterate so people would listen and look up to them; it became wealthy and controlled politics in Western Europe. Even the Ottomans, who did not forcibly convert their subjects, imposed a special property tax on non-Muslims called the jiziya.

Vidya Sivaramakrishnan


I am an American of Indian origin. Every year on Indian Republic Day, the nation celebrates with a bhajan (hymn) called “Ragupathi Raghava Raja Ram”. This bhajan was a particular favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of India, who was assassinated on January 30th 1948, a year after India gained independence. One of the lines in this hymn is “Ishvara Allah tero nam,” which means “O God! Lord Shiva (the Hindu God) and Allah (the Islamic God) are both your names!” This message is key to religious tolerance. Let me make a case for religious tolerance based on the scriptures in my own religion, Hinduism. In Hinduism, there is a belief that every living thing is an embodiment of pure, universal consciousness called Brahman. Brahman resides in every living being (whether Hindu or not) inside their Atman or soul. I went to a Christian elementary school, and one of the songs I learned there was “This Little Light of Mine”. I learned that song when I was four years old—I remember it being a fun song with a catchy tune. But now as I reflect upon it, I realize the Light inside is the Brahman inside us all. We may belong to different religions and cultures and practice different traditions, but in the end there is only one consciousness that we all share. If we, as a society, train ourselves, and our children, to realize this truth, religious intolerance will have no place on this earth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, all can cohabit in harmony. The city I often visit in India, called Chennai, is home to many Christians and Muslims due to British and Moghul influences. On the way from the airport, there is little shrine to the Catholic saint St. Thomas in a neighborhood called St. Thomas Mount. But next to the shrine, I’ve noticed a little Hindu temple. This is an example of how different religious beliefs can coexist in peace.

Vidya Sivaramakrishnan


Practicing religious tolerance does not mean abandoning one’s beliefs and practicing one common global religion. It would likely be as successful as Esperanto was as a common lingua franca for all of mankind. There are historical reasons for the diversity of religious beliefs that exist today. Over time, different traditions and norms have emerged in different parts of the world. Religions have been shaped by these differences. In my view, religious diversity is a good thing if people learn to respect each other’s beliefs. It adds richness and variety to life. I have been attending Chinmaya mission Balavihar for eleven years. While steeped in the Hindu traditions, the mission has always preached religious tolerance and understanding. I also go to a secular school where students are taught to accept and respect religious diversity. We celebrate important religious occasions as a group. These experiences make me extremely optimistic about a not too distant future in which there will be absolute tolerance. Even today, I believe most of us are tolerant. The Internet has brought the world together in ways unimaginable only a few short years ago. We are much more informed of each other’s religious beliefs and, more importantly, why we believe what we believe. We now know religious intolerance is practiced only by a few states that are under the firm grip of extreme religious fanatics. These extremists take advantage of the sorry economic conditions of their states by luring the young and the old using God’s name, and indoctrinating them with false values. Often, they brainwash them into making the ultimate sacrifice to simply maintain their own power. Isn’t it striking that societies and countries that are economically prosperous with opportunities for all are also the ones that are more religiously tolerant? This tells me that

Vidya Sivaramakrishnan


one sure way to eradicate religious intolerance is for economically developed countries to help lift others from suffering and poverty, and to give them education and economic stability. I would consider such aid more as an investment in the future rather than as charity, for it will hasten the attainment of the goal of religious tolerance. Education and economic opportunities will help people lead productive, happy lives. Happy and contented people find it unacceptable to kill others or to discriminate people in the name of God. Extremist elements in society will lose their appeal and their power base and fade away. I often wonder what a world with absolute religious tolerance and understanding will look like. I will feel welcome in a church or a mosque as much I feel welcome in my temple. I imagine all the wars that will not take place, and the wasteful loss of human life that will be avoided. I will not see young soldiers maimed by wars coping with their new prosthetic limbs, or with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Diwali will bring as much exhilaration and celebration to Christians and Muslims, as Christmas and Eid will to others. We will all be less driven by blind misconceptions about each other’s religion and appreciate that different religions simply represent different paths to the same goal. Imagine a world without religious extremists, and a world in which each person can practice their religion in public. Imagine a world where people are not oppressed and killed every day simply for practicing their faith. A world with religious tolerance would be a utopia -- a utopia that I believe is achievable. Let us start today by greeting each other with a “Salaam Aleikum” (“May peace be upon you”) or a “Namaste” (the Brahman in me salutes the Brahman in you)

Vidya Sivaramakrishnan


every time we meet, and by saying “Khuda Hafiz,” (May God be your protector) or “God bless you” when we part.

Vidya Sivaramakrishnan

Vidya Sivaramakrishnan, "Religious Tolerance - An Achievable Utopia?" 2014  
Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you