Religious tolerance within democracy | Daily News
International Day of Democracy falls today

Religious tolerance within democracy

Buddhist monks
Buddhist monks

Democracy is practised in many countries across the world. Its unique feature is the right of the people to elect their government. Benito Juarez, the late President of Mexico opined, “Democracy is the destiny of humanity, and freedom its indestructible arm.”

I am not a student of political science, but I do understand that the freedom and right to worship in one’s selected faith is one of the fundamental rights of any democracy. The pursuit of spirituality are manifested in many forms across all religions globally, some project their faith moderately and some provoke others extremely. The latter has become a cause of concern.

Within all democracies we find some societies divided and even dominated by religion. When we look at world history religion has sadly been a cause for wars and militarized crusades. Religion is opportunistically used as a tool to divide people by politicians globally. People divided by religion, subsequently become divided on lines of ethnicity and language. For decades we have seen armed conflicts with terrible ripple effects across the globe, based on this diabolic division. On the contrary, all religions propagate peace, forgiveness, tolerance and brotherhood. Over the centuries the clarion call for inner peace, self-realization and spiritual liberation have perhaps been muffled by man’s selfish lifestyle and a plethora of unending material needs, which cannot satisfy the human abyss of desire.

A Hindu ritual

On September 11, 1893, the spiritual leader and ardent believer in the ancient Vedic scrolls Swami Vivekananda made an inspiring and challenging speech. He delivered his powerful words at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA. Swami Vivekananda was born as Narendra Nath Datta. He became one of India’s foremost religious philosophers. Internationally known for his humanistic approach to the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, Vivekananda provided a window to the Western nations to access the religion. He was a proponent of the Vedanta philosophy in the United States and England. Today, at a time when polarization and fundamentalism has gripped most of the world, Swami Vivekananda’s approach to Hinduism offers solace and liberty. By preaching universal tolerance, Vivekananda propagated Hinduism as a safe space that warmly accepts all religions and all nations of the earth.

I have taken part of this amazing speech, which we should all reflect upon on this International Day of Democracy. The wise sage said, “Sisters and brothers of America, It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects. My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of tolerance.”

“I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal tolerance, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my boyhood, which is repeated by millions of human beings: ‘As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee’.”

He went on: “The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: ‘Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me’. Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

Prudent readers will agree that these words spoken 125 years ago are apt to this present day, for all humans across the globe. History has shown us the violence and death affiliated with religious extremism and religious genocide, which some proclaim as freedom struggles under many flags in many pockets of planet earth. The truth is we all need inner peace, forgiveness, acceptance and hope for the future.

This is augmented by the words of American novelist Ernest Hemmingway: “We are all broken, that is how the light gets in.” The present Covid pandemic has killed people of all religions; it did not recognize one religion as supreme. This is evidence of how immature and ignorant are those people, who provoke and radicalize people using religion. Other religious entrepreneurs have made religion a mega dollar business. Maybe it was against this backdrop that decades ago Lenin said, “Religion is the opium of the masses.”

It is time that we began to respect the spiritual beliefs of all humans, though we may not appreciate or understand their traditions and rituals associated with divine worship. Using religion as a cover to hide or even enhance one’s image is a form of hypocrisy. Abraham Lincoln duly reminds us: “Character is a tree, and reputations is a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, but the tree is the real thing.” Sri Lanka is a nation embellished with bountiful natural resources. Our ethnic and religious diversity should further strengthen us as one resilient nation. The Dalai Lama once said, “Our own heart is a temple, the philosophy is kindness.” In the Bible, in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus reminded us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Let our desired faiths guide us to be better humans, who practise tolerance that we may sustain and cherish democracy across the world.

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