(First published on OurStories.org.in in January 2016)
Tolerance cannot be prescribed. It has to be felt. It has to radiate out of a deep conviction within. Can there be real plurality, diversity, tolerance or any other liberal value, without an honest and uncompromising scrutiny of the self? Is there another way to come to these values than (ironically) a divisively ideological one?
Perhaps a precious space is lost when we divide ourselves into camps where, on the one hand, all spiritual claims are handed over to an extreme ideology of religion and, on the other, no strand of faith, feeling or reverence is entertained in favour of a strictly secular and ‘rationalist’ mode of thinking. Perhaps we need to reclaim ideas such as ‘adhyatma’ (self-inquiry) and ‘bhakti’ (reverence), which speak to us as a people and bring us to a shared set of values.
Can we go beyond the idea of ‘tolerance’ into a more rigorous demand made of the human subject — to know the nature of the self? Perhaps then one arrives at the knowledge and the experience (not an idea) that the ‘other’ (Hindu, Muslim, secularist, fundamentalist, liberal, etc) is the same as oneself. Such a rigorous self-study might equally shock us with the recognition that whatever evil one finds in the ‘other’ is in some way or measure also contained in oneself. Then could anyone seriously afford to be self-righteous?
Bura jo dekhan main gaya, bura na milya koi
Jo tan khoja aapna, toh mujhse bura na koi
I set out in search of evil
I found no one bad
When I looked into my own skin
No one more evil than me
One of the strongest and most consistent strands of the Indic tradition has been self-inquiry. This inquiry into the nature of being human has always been in the bloodstream of our country, through music, poetry, dance, sculpture, art, argument, philosophy as well as schools of meditational and spiritual practice.
It is true that today a certain ethic and fabric of our society is under attack by forces that seek to pass under the garb of religion. It is equally true that a lot of religious understanding and practice is shallow and corrupt. But does this mean that the only positions available to us are either to be a religious hardliner or a secular liberal? What if one wants to be neither? Is there no other way to approach this question, more rooted in the best values of our own tradition? Can we somehow reclaim and refashion this discourse? The basis of adhyatma is a rigorous and profound self-interrogation and self-study. It is far from the vague and airy notions usually conveyed by the word ‘spirituality’.
What is the curious relationship between this spirit of inquiry and the deep feelings of reverence which spontaneously spring up in me as a result of this search? Is there something greater than my ‘rational mind’ (which is actually not rational at all in its actions) to which I can open, and which will not mean losing or letting go of either my intelligence or of the values that I hold dear, but in fact would mean a more solid grounding of myself in them?
Can we speak the language of reverence rather than tolerance? Reverence and genuine respect for other faiths, beliefs, ideologies and practices follows from reverence for life in general and for all forms of human expression. How can I feel this in my bones?
Kabir kuaan ek hai, panihaari hain anek
Bartan sab ke nyaare nyaare, neer ek ka ek
Kabir says, the well is one
Each vessel is unique and different
But the water in them is one
This is a land of feeling. The debate over tolerance and plurality cannot be won only on ideological grounds. Fortunately we have other, powerful homegrown grounds on which to also fight this battle. That the spirit of inquiry and feelings of bhakti are not at all divorced from each other can be seen in our entire spiritual heritage, from the Upanishads to our bewilderingly rich epics down to all our Bhakti and Sufi poets. It can be seen in our myths, our music and our art. They are rich with feelings of devotion, reverence and love, and at the same time deeply interested in the human subject and the problems of evil. It can be felt in the poetry that is on the common person’s lips.
Chaakho chaahe prem ras, raakho chaahe maan
Dou khadag aur ek miyaan, dekha suna nahin kaan
Either delight in the drink of love
Or keep your precious pride
Two swords in a single sheath
Is unheard of
Kabir soi peer hai, jo jaane par peed
Jo par peed na jaane, so kaafir be-peer
Kabir, that one is a saint
Who knows the pain of others
One who doesn’t feel others’ pain
Is an infidel, a lost one
Nirgun bhakti poetry, for instance, speaks truth to power and trenchantly critiques social structures, at the same time as launching a deep and intense inquiry into the self. This forms the basis for both a deep, abiding and overarching attitude of love as well as providing the moral grounding for an unflinching criticism of social evils, power structures and injustice.
Hindu mue hain Raam kahi, Musalmaan Khudai
Kahe Kabir so jeevta, dui mein kadai na jaai
Hindus die muttering Raam
Muslims die chanting Khuda
Kabir says that one really lives
Who never enters into duality
Oonche paani na tike, neeche hi thehraaye
Jo nar ooncha ho raha, vo pyaasa hi mar jaaye
Water doesn’t stay in high places
It runs to lower ground
He who holds himself too high
Dies of thirst
Sometimes words mislead us. Words like ‘tolerance’ are generating a lot of noise, but perhaps little clarity.
Let us parallely reclaim words like adhyatma and bhakti, self-inquiry and reverence — they represent that which is the best of us. In our sometimes dry, secular and rationalist worlds, perhaps we need to reclaim with subtlety and nuance the solace and soul-enriching feelings of reverence, ananyata (un-other-ness) and satya (truth).
The case is not against the current modes of struggle for diversity or plurality. It is for opening another front, an additional or alternative paradigm of resistance.