This article first appeared in The Tablet and has been posted here by kind permission of the Editor, John Wilkins.
Prince Charles had asked that during his visit to India he should meet representatives of the country’s many different faiths to discuss how religion can contribute to a harmonious society, and avoid the strife which gives it a bad name. He has spoken about the ridicule heaped on people in the West when they talk about a sense of the sacred or sometimes even mention God, and so was aware that this meeting could well be ridiculed. The meeting, therefore, did not appear on the official schedule and there was no press briefing. Nevertheless, because I was to chair the meeting, it was agreed that I could report it for The Tablet.
Before the meeting started Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, a Hindu scholar well known internationally for her writings on different religious cultures, asked me how I was going to prevent the various representatives merely stating their faith’s position on religious pluralism. I replied, ‘As we are all believers, perhaps I should leave it to God. But actually I am putting you in the firing line.’ So I started the meeting by asking Kapila: ‘Is there something special about Indian culture, and is it still relevant today?’
Among many things Kapila said, I was particularly struck by her emphasis on the lack of absolutes in Indian religious thought. That has always seemed to me the key to a religious tolerance which has allowed all the different religions represented at the meeting to make homes in India. Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, the secretary of a Delhi synagogue, pointed out that his faith had existed in India for 2,000 years without ever experiencing anti-Semitism. The Parsi representative, Mrs Piloo Jungalwalla, a wonderfully sprightly 90-year-old authority on Zoroastrianism, said her community had survived peacefully in India for 1,000 years.
But how did this lack of absolutes fit in with Catholic belief? One of the two Christian representatives, the Jesuit Fr Samuel Rayan, pointed out that Catholics were no longer taught the absolute belief that there was no salvation outside the Church. He noted that Fr Jacques Dupuis, whose book on religious pluralism had caused concern in the Vatican, had lived in India. Yoga now helped many Catholics ‘to meditate and meet God.’ India with its stress on orthopraxy or right practice, he said, was providing a contrast to the West’s emphasis on orthodoxy or right doctrine.
The Indian tradition is often accused of encouraging cafeteria religion, taking bits from here and there accoredding to taste and jumbling them all together. It was the Muslim representative, the scholarly Maulana Wahid-ud-din, who pointed out that this was not the Hindu tradition, nor indeed the tradition of his own faith. He quoted the nineteenth-century Hindu teacher, Vivekananda, who made such an impact in the West, as saying ‘Follow one, hate none.’
Prince Charles asked the Maulana why Sufi Islam was not more influential. The Muslim scholar explained that it had been very influential in the spread of his religion in India but that had changed during the colonial period. Then Islam was overcome by a sense of defeatism and so the attention of its leaders turned to politics. They believed that if they were politically weak, Islam would be weak. Today’s rise of jihadis—believers in religious war—was also linked to defeatism, according to the Maulana. He deplored the jihadis and the misuse of religion for political purposes. That, said the Sikh scholar Dr Mohinder Singh, was to blame for the violence which had erupted in Punjab.
Prince Charles listened for an hour and a half to a discussion which demonstrated the variety of Indian religious pluralism, the different emphasis for instance between the Maulana and Dr A.K. Merchant of the Baha’i faith who believed that children should be educated to transcend specific religious identities, while P.K. Jain, a follower of an outstanding Jain leader of our times, argued that we should adopt what is common in religions and ignore differences.
Summing up, Prince Charles appreciated that truth differed from person to person but was keen to emphasise the similarities in religious experiences too. This was demonstrated by the near-death experiences of people of various religions. But he believed in ‘unity in diversity rather than a multi-cultural soup. ‘He practises one religion, Anglicanism, but respects all, as he demonstrated at this meeting. The Prince suggested that good leadership was needed if the good name of religion was to be restored, respect for a sense of the sacred in human life revived, and a balance found between science and religion. What a pity the ridiculing of his religious views in the press prevents the leadership he provides being more effective.