Transcending differences, treasuring diversity

12 July 2017

NEW DELHI — Shiv Visvanathan visited the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. There had been an outbreak of violent communal riots, and over a thousand people had died.

That tragedy was a stark reminder that diversity, which should be regarded as a powerful resource for a community, is too often a source of conflict. Yet, according to Dr. Visvanathan, a prominent public intellectual and social scientist in India, we cannot simply appeal to human rationality to move past the tensions that give rise to violence. We need a broader conception of knowledge—one that draws not only on scientific inquiry and insights but also on knowledge systems that address the spiritual and mystical dimensions of life.

“It’s ironic,” said Dr. Visvanathan, reflecting on the tragic episode in Gujarat, “While people considered religion to be the cause of the problem, I found that religion taught you the power to heal.”

Dr. Visvanathan was the keynote speaker at the symposium, “Treasuring Diversity—The Role of Religion in Building an Inclusive Society,” organized by the Baha’i community of India on 29 June. Held on the grounds of the Baha’i House of Worship in New Delhi, the event gathered leading Indian academics and NGO representatives to discuss the relationship between religion and diversity and to explore new ways of conceptualizing both.

Around the world, the ties binding diverse groups are often proving too superficial to withstand the disruptive forces they now face—deepening injustice, a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, rising religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence, rural to urban migration, environmental crises, to name but a few. Diversity, which is a priceless resource for the enrichment of society, is being exploited to pit groups against each other and advance political and economic agendas.

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Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at the Jindal Global Law School and Director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, OP Jindal Global University. He was the keynote speaker at the recent symposium, “Treasuring Diversity—The Role of Religion in Building an Inclusive Society,” organized by the Baha’i community of India.

In 1994, Dr. Visvanathan had been an observer at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid had been abolished. He witnessed there that forgiveness became possible because of a profound Southern African spiritual philosophy, referred to as Ubuntu, which stresses the innate interconnectedness of humanity.

“You could not create unity without this religious consciousness,” he said. What he had come to appreciate about the perspective there was that diversity was understood as essential to a real sense of wholeness.

For the Baha’i community of India, it is very timely to open a space for thinkers and practitioners concerned with social harmony to bring their insights into one room and explore ways forward. An overarching conviction among those present was that religion has an invaluable part to play in helping people appreciate diversity, overcome prejudice and hatred, and work toward peace.

In the opening remarks, Arash Fazli, principal researcher at the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity in India, acknowledged the misuse of religion that has given rise to prejudice and blind imitation, both in the past and present. “Religious practices that cultivate hatred and prejudice are distortions and perversions of the true spirit of religion which aims to create unity,” said Dr. Fazli.

Binding the fractures that exist between diverse populations in a profound way, he argued, requires an evolving understanding of the crucial and unique role of religion in building unity, especially in a time when many societies are beset by forces of insularity and intolerance.

This poses a challenge for religious communities, Dr. Fazli said. “For religion to fulfil its responsibility, it needs to meet certain conditions: it should instill a profound consciousness of the oneness of humankind, should be in harmony with science and reason and distinguished from superstition and blind imitation, should promote the independent investigation of truth, and should acknowledge the oneness of all religions.”