I’m developing a new respect for the role of religion in India, in spite of the terrible misuse of religion among fundamentalists. In India, we have a current federal government that plays with fundamentalism to get votes. Various leaders promote Hinduism as the national religion and push for policies that favor Hinduism over Islam, Christianity, and other religions. In this atmosphere, violence occurs. (Sound familiar? Sound like a certain President and government in the US?)
Fortunately, Tamilnadu has a long history of peaceful religious co-existence, and a deep antipathy to central government control. We don’t see the kind of “communal” violence here that often takes place in other regions. (Sadly, Tamilnadu does see caste violence- more on that later!)
There is only minimal separation between church and state here, probably because the two have been combined for so long. In the US, the founders opposed this marriage and put together a constitution that strictly limits religious activities or preferences by the state. In India, public figures routinely bless buildings with Hindu ritual, adorn their offices with pictures of gods, and the government actually oversees the operations of the largest and wealthiest temples in the land. There are separate marriage laws for each faith, and currently, one cannot marry outside their faith without converting.
I’ve been impressed, though, with the sincere religiosity of most people here. Hindus regularly pray and worship at home and at small and large shrines and temples; Christians attend church; and Muslims attend mosque. Indians have a LOT of holidays, embracing the traditions of all three religions. Colleges do the same. (I think we need more holidays in the US.)
American students at both public and private colleges would be horrified if they were required to stand while prayers were sung over the intercom each morning. Here, it’s a routine matter. Last week in Villapuram we stood every morning for Hindu prayers. At Catholic and Protestant colleges, Christian music and prayers are said each morning and all stand at attention. I began to feel a sense of holiness, commitment, quiet, and wonder at these short morning moments- what a great way to start the day! Why not start the day with a reminder to live with a spiritual focus? No one objects, no one says they’re an atheist, no one refuses to stand because the song or prayer is not of their own faith. This inclusiveness is quite touching.
The chapels that American missionaries built are often quite lovely and peaceful. The WCC chapel was designed by a Quaker. It’s open air- very simple- features arches and soft feminine lines- can be entered from all directions.