India's spiritual entrepreneurs
By Katherine Marshall
FAITH IN ACTION
When British businessmen and civil servants arrived in India in the 19th Century, they were flummoxed by the extraordinary diversity of the religious landscape. It still exists today. Fakirs, swamis, mullahs, imams, monks, nuns, dadis, and brothers are everywhere. When new religious movements emerge in India, they mobilize millions, not thousands, of devoted followers. This rich mixture, one person suggested at a meeting in Delhi on religion and global civil society last weekend, is so endemic that it's even in the curry.
The nice distinctions that we think we can draw in the United States between church and state make little sense to people in India. Religion there is about life in all its dimensions. And, as Amartya Sen, wise scholar, has argued, multiple identities are deeply intertwined, especially for the elites. Many people balk when they sense that they are being pigeon-holed into one simple category, say Hindu or Muslim.
Religious violence is the topic that flummoxes people today. What has transformed a land where religious communities lived side by side for thousands of years into a place of sectarian strife? In recent years, India has been plagued by violence in Kashmir, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, successive waves of communal violence in different parts of the country--and much of the violence is carried out in the name of religion. Even the growing pattern of Maoist or Naxalite violence has some religious dimensions.
Manipulation of religious identities by politicians is fingered as the main culprit for communal violence. With the aim of winning votes, and playing on deep-seated fears and resentments, leaders can transform a peaceful community into one where grievances take on a religious character and anyone who is of a different faith is the enemy. Another commonly cited culprit is globalization. The pressures of social change--urban migration, the erosion of traditional values--shake long-standing habits of tolerance. The result is a combustible mix.
Religious exclusivity, violence, and intolerance were no strangers in India's past. But there is a sense that things have changed for the worse. After a history of bitter conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, India prides itself on its secular constitution and ideal of tolerance. Yet religious politics remain stubbornly alive, threatening understanding and respect. Interfaith efforts abound, but still the image persists of religion as a powerful, often dangerous genie barely contained within its bottle. All this puts a new spotlight on the work of revitalizing India's traditions of non-violence and of inter and intra-faith harmony.
If these threats grow out of religion, maybe the answer is also to be found in religion. In a landscape so diverse, with vast inequalities between genders and castes, there is a crying need for the kind of spiritual clarity and energy that Mahatma Gandhi personified. True, no one leader or group of religious leaders holds a recognized position of authority. But amid the vast array of religious voices, there are many that command deep respect. There is a promise therefore both of soothing violence and tensions and addressing the deeper problems that lie underneath.
Social entrepreneurship is the latest trend in understanding what it takes to bring about change in today's world. The idea is that social causes can be better achieved with some of the spirit of creativity, entrepreneurial pizzazz and discipline that are the hallmarks of business. The social entrepreneurship movement tends not to focus much on religious forces, but the drive and social passions of social entrepreneurs are also qualities that power some great religious movements. After all, Mahatma Gandhi was in many eyes the ultimate social entrepreneur.
In considering the potential of religion in a complex society like India, the ideals of social entrepreneurship offer a path and some insights that deserve more attention. Take issues like female foeticide and child marriage, ancient ills starkly apparent in the modern era. India's traditional religious world and its newer religious movements could be a major catalyst of change. These leaders should be part of the conversation about social entrepreneurship and reform, as well as about non-violence and peace. It's worth a try.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
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