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Out of India: The Interreligious Work of Vincent Sekhar, S.J.

By William Bole

published in Woodstock Report No. 85, June 2006

india1Vincent Sekhar, S.J.

Days after he arrived at Georgetown University in March to deliver lectures on interreligious dialogue and peacemaking, Father Vincent Sekhar, S.J., received a grim reminder of interreligious antagonism and violence back home in India. Word came of a bomb blast inside a Hindu temple in the city of Varanasi, killing nearly a dozen people, and suspicions turned toward Muslim extremists.

A few weeks into Father Sekhar's visiting lectureship, there was news of another bombing, this time outside the largest mosque in New Delhi. Presumably, Hindu nationalists were taking their turn in the accelerating cycle of religious revenge in India, a nation with an officially secular, democratic form of government.

No one died in that incident, but on May 1, The New York Times reported that 35 Hindus had been killed in two separate assaults by Muslim militants in the conflictridden Kashmir region.

Do these remorseless acts suggest that dialogue and peacemaking among India's religious communities are merely a matter of theory, confined to presentations and proposals like the ones Father Sekhar offered at Georgetown? Not at all, says the priest, who heads the Jesuit Conference of South Asia's interreligious dialogue commission and conducts most of his reconciliatory work on the ground in India, especially among Christian, Hindu, and Islamic youth.

india2Father Sekhar's Christian students visit a Hindu temple

Father Sekhar - who took part in a visiting fellowship program presented by the Woodstock Theological Center and Georgetown's new Berkley Center for Religion, Politics, and World Affairs, with funding from the Georgetown Jesuit Community - pointed to a remarkable thing that happened after the first of those explosions outside the Hindu temple.

The imam of the local Muslim community went to meet with the chief priest of the Hindu temple, and he apologized on behalf of Muslims. "Immediately there was an interreligious meeting, in public. The Hindu priest was greatly moved by the good gesture of this imam, and he wept as he talked to the audience at the public gathering," the visiting fellow related after learning of the events from press reports and colleagues in India.

This Hindu-Muslim encounter was remarkable in that high-level gestures of reconciliation are rare among fractious religious communities in India, and press coverage of such peacemaking efforts is even rarer, according to Father Sekhar, who teaches philosophy at the Jesuit-run Arul Anandar College, which is an autonomous part of a public university in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, the imam's overture was a reflection of the dialogue and peacemaking sentiment that Jesuits and others are nurturing at the grassroots across India.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of interreligious prayer meetings being held, but nobody knows about it," Father Sekhar said by way of example, noting also that interfaith peace marches are being held around the country.

Intolerance Revived

india3Hindu, Muslim, and Christian students learn yoga together

In recent years, sectarian violence has returned to India along with the upsurge of Hindu nationalism, which has become an imposing force in the nation's politics, in tension with the religious neutrality enshrined in India's constitution enacted in 1950. Hindus make up 82 percent of the population there, while approximately 12 percent of Indians are Muslim and a slim 2.3 percent are Christian, according to figures cited by Father Sekhar in his March 28 Woodstock-Berkley lecture titled, "Communal Politics and Abuse of Religion in Post-Independent India: Ways to Peace."

For the past 50 years, the Society of Jesus has been at the leading edge of interreligious dialogue and cooperation in India, a mission that intensified in the wake of the 34th Jesuit General Congregation, which was held in Rome in 1995 and called for the promotion of dialogue in its many dimensions, from everyday encounters among the faithful to theological exploration among scholars.

As both secretary of the Jesuit Conference's dialogue commission and a university professor, Father Sekhar has been conceptualizing as well as forging practical ways of inviting young people into the circle of dialogue, a movement embattled by the forces of religious extremism.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of interreligious prayer meetings being held, but nobody knows about it."

"Sadly, the youth of India is the most vulnerable group, easily targeted for provocation and violence.. They are mostly illiterate, unemployed, disoriented, and unorganized.. Religious sentiments of the masses are exploited, and the youth are the frontline fighters," he said in his March 30 Woodstock-Berkley lecture titled "Encountering Differences: Engaging Youth in Dialogue - An Indian Experience."

Even so, Father Sekhar and others have made inroads into understanding, and particularly promising, in his experience, has been the practice of holding interreligious prayer and meditation for young people from diverse religious communities. Jesuits have been able to facilitate such communal encounters through their colleges because their student populations are multi-religious. At Arul Anandar College, for example, only a little over a third of the 2,000 students are Catholic and nearly all of the rest are Hindu, reflecting the religious composition of the region.

india4Students engage in interreligious prayer and meditation

His English-language book, Religions in Public Life: A Practical Guide to Religious Harmony (Claretian Publications of India, 2004), is devoted in large share to prayers and reflections for cross-cultural occasions, drawing on themes such as gratitude, service, humility, and forgiveness, and deriving from the sacred texts of major religious faiths together with other traditions, among them Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Included under the heading of religious fundamentalism is a passage from the Hindu classic Srimad Bhagavatam that reads in part, "Truth has many aspects. Infinite truth has infinite expressions. Though the sages speak in diverse ways, they express one and the same Truth. Ignorant is he who says, 'What I say and know is true; others are wrong.' It is because of this attitude of the ignorant that there have been doubts and misunderstandings about God."

Religions in Public Life was translated into the Tamil language last year, and the reception given to this edition offers a glimpse into the promise of interreligious outreach in India but also the perils. After circulating among the undergraduates in Arul Anadar College, the book raised the wrath of Hindu nationalists who complained to the chancellor of the public university that includes the college, particularly about references to mob violence at the hands of their coreligionists. And so the text had to be pulled from classrooms earlier this year.

This year, the prolific Jesuit came out with another book, Practice of Interreligious Dialogue: A Formation Manual of Education and Training of Clergy and Religious, published again by the Indian Claretians in Bangalore and geared toward facilitators of dialogue. (He also had books published in 2002 and 2003 titled, respectively, Quest for Harmony: An Anthology of Religions in Dialogue, and Dharma: In Early Brahmanic, Buddhist, and Jain Traditions.) During his Berkley-Woodstock fellowship between March and June, Father Sekhar delivered, in addition to his two major lectures, presentations to several theology classes and small groups at Georgetown, including a talk about the varied images of Christ in India.

Limits and New Directions

Although he is obviously keen on both the practical and scholarly pursuits of interreligious dialogue, Father Sekhar is also mindful of the limits of these endeavors.

"Prayer meetings alone aren't going to solve much," he acknowledged during an April 20 interview at Woodstock's Jesuit residence, which was his base during the three-month fellowship. "It [grassroots action] has to be made into a political process. Leaders of political parties have to come out in public and speak against this religious intolerance, instead of exploiting the sentiments of people to create enmity." It would help if more religious leaders were quick to extend gestures like the apology tendered recently by the imam after the bombing of the Hindu temple. "Things are happening, but it's all at a low level," Father Sekhar explained.

None of that is keeping this Jesuit from watering the grassroots.

In his "Encountering Differences" paper, he drew up a plan for "common retreats" that bring together students of different religious commitments for extended periods of prayer, study, and spiritual discernment, as well as fellowship and relaxation. In his "Communal Politics" paper, he sketched out the idea of neighborhood-based networks that, among other common measures, respond to outbursts of religious violence with dialogue and disapproval across religious lines rather than with resentment and retaliation.

Behind these and other strategies is a theology of pluralism that emphasizes what Father Sekhar related as the "indwelling presence of God" in each person and the human community, a presence that inspires trust and solidarity.

"People are different basically," he wrote in the context of neighborhood development. "They have different tastes, interests, needs, and aims. Pluralism is the law and reality of life. Strong neighborhoods support the pluralism-withinunity in a spirit of accommodation."

He added, "The future lies in the continuous process of dialogue between [faith] communities in their neighborhoods."

Points of Dialogue

From "Encountering Differences: Engaging Youth in Dialogue - an Indian Experience," a paper presented by Vincent Sekhar, S.J., at Georgetown University on March 30, 2006:

In my little experience, I noticed that youngsters are baffled to share matters relating to their religion. They feel shy.. But once initiative is taken, the conversation becomes interesting and more involving. I have done the following group exercise several times: Students are divided in smaller groups. They introduce their religion, their basic religious signs and symbols, holy pictures and prayers, familiar scriptural quotes, etc. In such sharing, students eventually discover the oneness in thought pattern, which may serve as motivation for youth solidarity and youth engagement.

Students enjoy listening to the life stories of great gurus, sages and saints, or highlighting some extraordinary events in their lives. They are generally enthusiastic about festivals. They could as well share about their significance. They could be invited to gather in a particular family/religious site to elaborate in common their respective feasts and enjoy the festive hospitality.

And finally, one need not be afraid of critical questioning. It is their age to ask questions. Students want accurate knowledge and with reason. Hendrik Vroom [a comparative religion scholar] believes that a discussion that does not examine the belief of others is not a dialogue but a monologue by someone who is not listening. A dialogue should constitute a willingness to learn from one another. So, there could be sessions to clarify the doubts students have about their religious neighbor. In India, for example, people have strong opinions on certain religious practices considered devotional (some call them superstitious), and on issues such as conversion, purda (face-covering), jihad, cowslaughter/ protection, etc. There are deeper issues like religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, religious exclusivism, and the like, or systems like the caste, which is intimately linked to religion. All these could be critical issues for a collective search for answers.