The World Council of Churches at Geneva in Switzerland is an umbrella body of churches belonging to more than 300 institutions from more than 100 countries. After Vatican, perhaps this body is the most powerful one for the Christians. Interfaith dialogue is one of its major exercises.
?At the dawn of the 21st century, religion plays a central role in public life, and has become a significant identity marker. In our increasingly pluralistic societies, more inter-religious dialogue and cooperation are needed if conflict fueled by religion is to be constructively addressed. Spiritual and religious traditions are a source of values that can defend dignified life for all; these traditions need to be explored. We need new ways to understand particularity, universality and plurality; we must learn to live our faith with integrity while respecting and accepting each other?, it declares.
This statement, on the surface of it, is quite laudable although the experience in various countries with its member churches has been the opposite.
The WCC organised an important international seminar on ?Human Rights and Human Dignity? from May 26-31, 2008. It was a surprise for me to receive an invitation to speak on ?Human Rights and Human Dignity?Hindu Perspective?.
Human rights slogan has become a political weapon for some forces in the world. What surprised me was the interest of the church on this issue. The Geneva seminar was a good opportunity for me to understand the position of various religious beliefs on the question of human rights and human dignity. Besides, it has given me an opportunity to peep into the church? mind too.
Although not big in size, the seminar was nevertheless significant. There were speakers from various religions?Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, Russian Orthodox Church, Protestant and Catholic. They came from different countries and carried their native experiences besides the religious and theological knowledge of the subject.
It is interesting to note that the eastern religions?including Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, besides Hinduism?place more emphasis on the concept of duties whereas in the semitic religious discourse it seems to be absent. However it is the concept of ?Love? that dominates the semitic discourse.
It is a favourite pastime for many in Christianity to abuse Hinduism in the name of caste and this seminar too was no exception. Comments betraying ignorance were flying around that caste is a horrible reality in India and an integral part of Hinduism; and Hindus can never attain salvation since they practice casteism.
In my paper I explained the scriptural position on Varna Dharma and how it was totally non-discriminatory. I also highlighted the fact that the Hindu scriptures never sanctioned any discrimination on the basis of Varna. I also mentioned the fact that while none can deny that caste discrimination did exist in the last few centuries, it is also a fact of history that Hinduism has produced a number of social reformers from Buddha and Mahaveera to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar who dedicated their lives to eradication of certain social evils that have crept into the body-politic of Hindu society.
Interestingly today, caste is no longer practiced by Hindus alone. Caste discrimination is as much rampant in Christianity in India as in Hinduism, if not more. I cited the latest incident which took place at the end of March this year in Pondicherry where a Christian parish has been split into a Vanniyaar parish and Dalit parish and in the ensuing violence two Dalits lost their lives. By the logic of some friends in the seminar no Indian Christian can ever attain salvation since they too practice casteism.
The seminar has also highlighted the fact that each religion is struggling with its own discrepancies and evils. Woman'srights constitute an important part of the human rights and it was clear from the discussions at the seminar that the eastern religions are far ahead in women'srights when compared to their semitic counterparts.
The question of ordaining women as priests is still an unresolved one in Christianity with many Christian denominations including the orthodox and Roman Catholic ones flatly refusing to grant that right to women. Only in Protestant church some experiment has been made to ordain women as priests. I highlighted the fact that in Hinduism, the most prominent religious and spiritual leaders today are women and this has been the traditional place of respect that women enjoyed in Hinduism.
While these differences on the perspective of various religions on the question of human rights and human dignity are a matter of academic discussion, there is another dimension to this discourse where all religions of the world are on one side and the protagonists of human rights causes at the international forums like the UN are on the other. These human rights-wallahs, for whom human rights issues are bread and butter issues, want that religious leaders be kept completely out of this discourse. They are especially miffed with the overbearing presence of the Pope in the UN and his orthodox position on the question of unbridled human rights.
There are issues like capital punishment, abortion, and gay rights etc, that have been the source of a major conflict between the religionists and human rights activists. This also underscores the importance of cultural and civilisational values in this discourse. The realisation that human rights discourse cannot be totally a universal discourse and it has to have culture-specific connotations is another major point that has emerged out of this interesting international seminar that was held in a picturesque locale of the WCC on the banks of a huge lake at Bussy, about 20 miles from Geneva.
(The writer is a member, National Executive, RSS, can be contracted at Keshav Kunj, Jhandewala, D.B. Gupta Marg, New Delhi-110 055 India e-mail: [email protected])