Writing in his weekly journal, Young Indian, in 1920, Mahatma Gandhi stated: "A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free. A sincere prayer can work wonders. It is an intense longing of the soul for its even greater purity. Purity thus gained, when it is utilized for a noble purpose, becomes a prayer."
As followers of the world's second largest religion, Islam, end their month of fasting and prayers, it is this cleansing of the body, mind and soul that gains significance in a world now grappling with the fear over a virus. Humankind is united in this fear, but deep down, fears and apprehensions about one another exist still which continue to manifest in the form of violence between races, religions, castes, nations or any differences that can be imagined.
The latest evidence of this is the violence in the Gaza strip. A nurse from Kerala, 32-year-old Soumya Santhosh, lost her life to violence even as she was on a video call with her husband.
As the world celebrates Eid-ul-Fitr, it is time also to ask what the way forward for the great religions of the world is. How do we conduct ourselves so that coexistence and cordiality prevails? How do we prevent hatred and destruction at least in the name of God and religion? (The roots of hatred could lie elsewhere also, apart from religion).
Swami Vivekananda, the greatest exponent of the essential unity of all religions, spoke on this theme during a lecture titled "The Great Teachers of the World" at the Shakespeare Club, Pasadena, California on February 3, 1900, on his second visit to the United States.
"Mohammed by his life showed that amongst Mohammedans there should be perfect equality and brotherhood. There was no question of race, caste, creed, colour, or sex. The Sultan of Turkey may buy a Negro from the mart of Africa, and bring him in chains to Turkey; but should he become a Mohammedan and have sufficient merit and abilities, he might even marry the daughter of the Sultan. Compare this with the way in which the Negroes and the American Indians are treated in this country! And what do Hindus do? If one of your missionaries chance to touch the food of an orthodox person, he would throw it away. Notwithstanding our grand philosophy, you note our weakness in practice; but there You see the greatness of the Mohammedan beyond other races, showing itself in equality, perfect equality regardless of race or colour."
In this speech, he refers to other prophets/messengers of God too and makes out a case for acceptance of the fact that there is "no race born to alone enjoy the world. None dare say no. Each race has a part to play in this divine harmony of nations. Each race has its mission to perform, its duty to fulfil. The sum total is the great harmony."
He had dwelled upon the need to find common ground among religions in a letter dated 10th June, 1898 from Almora, soon after return from the historic Parliament of Religions visit to Chicago.
"Whether we call it Vedantism or any ism, the truth is that Advaitism is the last word of religion and thought and the only position from which one can look upon all religions and sects with love. I believe it is the religion of the future enlightened humanity. The Hindus may get the credit of arriving at it earlier than other races, they being an older race than either the Hebrew or the Arab; yet practical Advaitism, which looks upon and behaves to all mankind as one's own soul, was never developed among the Hindus universally. On the other hand, my experience is that if ever any religion approached to this equality in an appreciable manner, it is Islam and Islam alone.
"Therefore I am firmly persuaded that without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they may be, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind. We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonising the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of "The" Religion, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best.
"For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam — Vedanta brain and Islam body — is the only hope."
It is this "junction" that Swami Vivekananda spoke about that should guide the leading voices from within the respective religions. Islam currently is in a tremendous state of flux with extremist voices gaining ground from within its fold all over the world. There are violent and extremist impulses which are evident in other religions too, the difference being only in degree/intensity.
As we look from Kerala, which has continued to stand out as an example of the peaceful coexistence of practitioners of different religions, we can also hark back to the words of our Governor, Arif Mohammed Khan, a great scholar and a veteran observer of Indian sociology-political developments. In his commentary on Islamic philosophy titled "Text and context", he writes that the "underlying spirit (of Ramadan and Id) that permeates the fasting and festivities is Taqwa (God-consciousness), inspiring kindness and compassion for fellow human-beings, particularly those who lack adequate material resources to live a life of dignity"
Let this "Taqwa" unite people of all religions with the thread of brotherhood and harmony as we celebrate Id.
(S. Adikesavan, a Chief General Manager with State Bank of India, believes in inter-faith dialogue. Views are personal.)