Sunday, February 26, 2006

I have learnt

Dear Nangi, Malli, cousins, nephews and niece,

Seven months have passed since the last time I was in your midst – I don’t know whether you have been counting the days, but I have. I hardly had the time or inspiration to write one or two of my long letters to you since I came here, and I have wondered whether I was doing a good enough job at being the elder cousin. This time, despite the constraints of time, I felt compelled to share with you a lesson from my daily experience that I feel bears an extremely important and timely message.

I am sure most of you hear the phrase “God is great” repeatedly few times almost every week. Most people find this phrase very uplifting and motivating – and certainly I am also one of them. However, that is also the translation of the Arabic phrase that the hijackers of four planes on September 11th, 2001 shouted in order to intimidate and subdue the passengers. I need not remind you what happened after that. Those most heinous acts – like many before them - were also motivated by people’s ‘faith’ in God. Perhaps you are astounded right now that faith in God could lead someone to commit the gravest of all crimes. (Maybe I started off by making too strong a point – but I will try to explain as I go along. Please read on to the end with an open mind.)

Wars and violence based on religious differences have plagued our world right from the beginning of this new century- like they did many centuries before during the crusades in Europe and central Asia and elsewhere in a lesser degree. We need not go to Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, or Afghanistan to find violence motivated by religious beliefs, when we have seen such dark days with our own eyes in our beloved country not so long ago. These are the evils of religious fundamentalism which exists everywhere whether or not we like to admit it. Religious fundamentalism seeks to destroy competing beliefs. Religious fundamentalists are a very small minority who attract a disproportionate amount of publicity because of their radical views so we should not make the mistake of thinking that all religious people are also ‘fundamentalists’. ‘Religious’ people are usually those who uphold the true values of a religion and indeed we should all be religious. Fundamentalism on the other hand usually runs against the core doctrines of all religions and makes slaves of the minds they occupy. For example, fundamentalist Christians believe that all other religions of the world are attempts by Satan at deceiving humanity – so they have embarked on a campaign to evangelize the whole world. This is however contradictory to the image of a God of love and compassion as much as it is also resistant to logic and reason. Similarly, Fundamentalist Muslims have claimed that "there is no God but Allah," proclaiming all other religions as false. A vociferous few among them have declared a "holy war" against non Muslims whom they brand as the manifestation of Satan. Likewise, Buddhist fundamentalists have burnt down churches in our country and fundamentalist Hindus have destroyed lives of many Muslims and their mosques in India.

I want you to understand however that news of such violence get more publicity than they deserve in a profit oriented media environment which is blind to their social responsibilities and ethics and therefore thrives on creating opportunistic sensationalism. I urge you therefore to pay more attention to the many good and positive news that go unreported as a result – of how each of us in our daily lives, enjoy the company and warmth of friends and relatives from many different faiths and how our lives are enriched by them. We should all do our part to actively support and add momentum to the work of many of our religious leaders of all creeds who are working together to promote trust and goodwill among different religious and ethnic groups of our divided nation. Let me remind you that our generation is laden with the responsibility to heal those wounds of violence and mistrust that the previous generation had inflicted on or nation and on the world. Therefore it is our noble duty to open our hearts and minds to the truth and heal those wounds of anger, hatred and mistrust with love, goodwill and our faith in the goodness within us all.

Be conscious of your thoughts and actions and try to always preserve your faith in what is good so you will find it easier to resolve differences and bridge the gaps that divide us – instead of submitting our hearts to such evil acts and allow them to destroy the goodwill and unity we share with our friends. Do not let the wickedness of selfish men and women who burn down churches and destroy temples and Buddha statues divide us even further as a nation, but let us all wage a war of non violence against such evil. Let love and goodwill be your weapons in the armoury of your hearts and minds. Destroyed Buddha statutes and burnt down churches can be repaired – but it is far more difficult to mend broken hearts and rebuild the trust we share with others. The intention of those people who commit such atrocious acts – no matter which religion they belong to - is to break down friendships and our faith and trust in the goodness within every human being. What I am trying to say is; the worst thing anyone can do to you is pollute your hearts with anger and hatred.

I should warn you again, not to let news of such acts of violence put hatred, anger and mistrust into your hearts. You will find this task easier if you could keep in mind the noble preaching of Jesus who said “But I tell you, do not repay evil with evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”. There is a similar lesson from the life of Buddha in the Akkosa Suthra which most of you may not be familiar with. On one occasion, the Buddha was invited by the Brahmin Bharadvaja for alms to his house. As invited, the Buddha visited the house of the Brahmin. Instead of entertaining Him, the Brahmin poured forth a torrent of abuse with the filthiest of words. The Buddha politely inquired: "Do visitors come to your house, good Brahmin?" "Yes," the Brahmin replied. "What do you do when they come?" asked Lord Buddha, "Oh, we prepare a sumptuous feast." was the reply. The Buddha asked "What do you if they refuse to receive the meal?" and the Brahmin replied "Why, we gladly partake of them ourselves." "Well, good Brahmin,” said the Buddha “you have invited me for alms and entertained me with abuse which I decline to accept. So now it belongs to you." The Buddha did not retaliate but politely gave back what the Brahmin had given Him. Retaliate not, the Buddha advised. "Hatred does not cease through hatred but through love alone they cease."

We have grown up with reverence and faith in our own religious beliefs. In a few years, you will walk into a world where you will make many friends who have grown up with different beliefs and use different names and words to describe the source of all goodness and love - which we call ‘God’. Among them will be a few who will try to convince you that what they believe is truer and nobler than what you believe. I pray that you will not be like that, but instead learn to uphold and respect each person’s right to follow their own path towards peace and meaning in life.

Look at the rainbow. Notice that it has not only the seven colours that were mentioned in your science books but so many shades and hues in between. There are no black lines dividing those colours but instead they blend perfectly with each other – yet all the while remaining themselves. Red does not become any less ‘redder’ just because it blends in with Yellow… and yellow does not loose its uniqueness even though it blends harmoniously with red and blue… Yet, together they create countless other brilliant hues and variations which make the entire rainbow a most magnificent sight in the sky. Likewise, you need not compromise your beliefs and should not expect others to compromise their beliefs to agree and respect one another’s beliefs.
Also your science books will tell you that all moving objects obey the three laws of physics proposed by Sir. Isaac Newton. This is true for a cricket ball or a car, but tiny atoms however do not obey the laws of Newtonian physics – but the principals of “uncertainty” as described in Quantum theory. Planets and stars on the other hand, do not obey the laws of Newtonian physics or quantum theory but the principals of the Theory of Relativity proposed by Albert Einstein. All three principals of physics are true in their intended environment and application yet they are opposites in principal. This is another lesson that nature is teaching us – that seemingly opposite principals can also be true at the same time. So just like the theology behind your faith is true for you, the philosophy of Buddhism is true for most of your friends. Since each of our beliefs are true despite being different, there is no reason why any of us need to compromise our beliefs in order to agree that we are all on the “right path”.

Recently, I experienced for the first time in my life, how a simple and honest conversation about different faiths could sometimes lead to hurt and a slightly dented friendship. Such dents are only temporary because friendship is about understanding one another and learning to respect our differences and mending such dents that are often inevitable among best of friends. In the healing process, our friendships often grow stronger and become more meaningful. However, I felt that it would be foolish to loose the lessons that such experiences teach us despite the hurt and pain they may sometimes cause in our hearts. That is why I thought I should share with you the lesson I learnt.

I trust that all of you are well. I hope this would be a reminder to you all, that you are all in my daily thoughts and prayers. Be reminded also that I am waiting to hear from you too.

Smiles and laughter,
(Haren) Ayya

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