June 29, 2017

Not in My Name - There is But One Religion

Today morning my flat mate came to my room and even as he apologized for disturbing me, began talking of how disturbed he was himself by the atmosphere in the country. There is such uneasiness, he said, in public spaces. The in-your-face symbolism of one religion is everywhere. We need to do something, he said, or else our country will change forever and there will be no coming back.

Today in several cities across the country there were protests against the lynching of sixteen-year-old Junaid Khan. This happened a week ago, on 22nd June when he was on his way home from Delhi to Ballabhgarh in Haryana after shopping for Eid.[1] Apparently arguments broke out over seat sharing on the train and a group of men targeted him and his companions, accused them of carrying beef, called them anti-nationals and physically assaulted them with knives, until Junaid died. Despite the train being packed, nobody stopped this from happening, and nobody yet has come forward as a witness to identify the attackers. At Jantar Mantar in Delhi today, people came out to protest, that the killings were ‘Not in My Name.’ The stage had a backdrop of a Lynch Map of India highlighting places where people, largely of one minority faith, had been randomly, viscously and publicly lynched since 2015.[2]

In an act of serendipity, today I found online an essay by my great grandfather, Bhai Sher Singh, presented at the World Fellowship of Faiths, in Chicago in 1933. Apart from being completely overwhelmed by the weight of family history, I marveled at his erudition and humour, with references ranging from the Philosophers Stone, to Shakespeare and Tennyson, while he spoke lightly of his 40-centimeter beard.

The paper titled, “If Guru Nanak Came To America, What Would He Do, Say and Advocate? There is But One Religion[3],” puts forward a proposition for a true religion as the spiritual core, which all religions seek to achieve, if interpreted correctly. He argues clearly and persuasively for an essence that transcends space and time, which he calls ‘Nam’ and which is alternatively called ‘Logos’ in Greek and the ‘Word’ in English. “Above All,” he says, “this is the solvent of all castes, creeds and distinctions, and those who are fellows of this weird-world possession are no longer cut off by any artificial partition such as caste, colour or continent.”

He then moves onto an ambitious hypothesis of what Guru Nanak would say, if he was here today (in 1933), to Americans, to World Delegates, Missionaries, Aryan Hindus, Christians, Confucians, Taoists, Buddhists, Mohammadans and Parsis.

“Had Guru Nanak come over today to America, he would I think, do the same what he did when he went to Mecca. He slept with his feet pointed straight towards the Holy Ca’aba. The high-priest and others were offended and called him to account for what they called a heinous sacrilege, i.e. turning one’s feet towards the House of God. It is said that Nanak told him to turn his feet in the direction that God was not, and the whole of Mecca turned as Nanak’s feet revolved. I repeat therefore, that if Nanak had come today to America, he will sleep with his feet turned towards Mother-America, clad in stars and stripes, and he would not rise even though White-America were offended, until he was assured that this New World was as much open to Black Races as to the White Ones. That would be his first act and an eye-opener to the modern world obsessed by colour prejudice.”

This was said in 1933. Lynching’s of African Americans in America was common then and would continue for more decades to come. In 1934, the Costigan-Wagner Bill was being debated in the country, which required local authorities to protect prisoners from lynch mobs. This was blocked by all Southern Senators and ultimately did not get passed. Six years later, in 1939, a Civil Rights Section was created in the Justice Department, which started prosecutions but the first conviction was only in 1946.[4]

It’s 2017 now, and while the last recorded lynching of an African American man was in 1981, as per various estimates between three hundred and five hundred unarmed African Americans have been shot and killed by police departments in America over the last two years.[5] In India, the last large-scale riot was in 2002 in Gujarat. However, just this year, there have been at least fourteen recorded and publicized cases of Muslim men being lynched, with the number increasing every month. The scale of our violence is staggering.

Coming back to essay, to 1933, “Had Guru Nanak addressed the leaders of religion today, he would have said, “Above all, remember that True Religion is one even as the sun is one, buts its reflections in the oscillation sea of maya are many. When we shut up this religion in watertight compartments, we get out of the broad expanse of the ocean, and skulk in little stifling whirlpools, which we ourselves have raised. Remove then these barriers, these impediments, these colour and caste distinctions, and become one even as the Universal-Spirit ye adore is one.””

Today, eight four years later, I take heart from my grand grandfathers words, “Nothing great was ever achieved without proportionate effort. Rome was not built in a day, nor radium discovered in a daydream.” While his words were referring to the slow growth of seeking transcendence, they are as true for worldly matters. Clearly, the right to equality, to justice, to dignity has been hard won for several generations of people, across the world. Unless we assert and exercise our rights, to ask for, to fight for, equality for all people, we will never be able to live in peace, with the oneness that has been alluded to. In India, our constitutional and democratic rights came to us after great struggles. It’s going to take an even greater struggle to protect them.