ABUL MOMEN, poet-essayist from Bangladesh, and Bhutanese writer-poet and agricultural scientist, RINZIN RINZIN, in conversation with RANJENI A SINGH, at the recent South Asian Festival of Sufism and Buddhism, New Delhi, on how faiths can help promote world peace
In times of rising fundamentalism, can Sufism and Buddhism help bring about sanity?
■ Abul Momen: Religious thoughts and practices absorb local flavour wherever they go.When Arabian Islam came to Bangladesh — which is an agrarian country with bountiful greenery — it took a different hue. In Bangladesh, the agrarian community reveres nature. Rivers and trees are seen as living entities — a sort of pantheism, which is against codified orthodox Islamic tradition. Sufism spread in Bangladesh because it allows you to go outside the codified Sharia, where you can be more liberal, more humane and open to accepting other beliefs. So Sufism suited people in Bangladesh and they developed their own style of rituals.
The problem arose when in the 1970s, the local people went to Saudi Arabia for employment,where they were exposed to Arabian Islamic practices. They brought back the strict Sharia code, established madrasas in their own line and started preaching Sharia Islam, saying that the practices that the local Bangladeshis were following were against the tenets of Islam. Slowly, the fundamentalists became stronger and started asserting themselves. Powerful, orthodox Islamists are challenging the traditional, rational, liberal and humane Islam that Bengali Muslims so far practised. So our society is going through transformation.There is a tussle going on between liberal Islam and conservative Islam.
We hope that ultimately liberal Islam would win as they have the strength of Sufism. The indigenous trends of spiritual practices are always there.
As the 14th century Vaishnava poet Chandidas said, “Shobar upor manush shotto tahar upore nai — Above all is humanity, none else”, it is the human being that is most important in Bengal’s spiritual ideology. In this tussle,we hope that people will soon realise that if we toe the orthodox line too much, it will give way to militancy, which will ultimately lead to destruction.
■ Rinzin Rinzin: Any religion must be tolerant.If a religion or dharma is being followed by people who do not respect others’ faith,then obviously there will be trouble. Buddhism is a very tolerant religion.You will never hear of militancy,about Buddhists taking up arms to spread Buddhism.This is one of the reasons that Buddhism disappeared in its birthplace in India.Because it never defended itself,never tried to proselytise or expand its dharma. In fact, Buddhism was never a religion.The Buddha never said it was a religion; he himself was born a Hindu. Buddhism is a way of life,of dharma. It teaches you how to lead your life.
Sufism and Buddhism complement each other, both propagate peace, tolerance and compassion. Both faiths are tolerant of other faiths. This is exactly what is required in the world today. Most problems that the world is facing today, are because of misinterpretation of religion.
■ Momen: In many countries, the Buddhists are also becoming nationalistic.Take the example of Myanmar, where the nationalistic Buddhists who rose to power,want the Rohingyas out of their country.In the process,they are violating the teachings of the Buddha.
■ Rinzin: Exactly.The followers are bringing a bad name to the religion and for the spiritual masters, by becoming nationalistic.When politics wins, dharma gets sidelined. Buddhism picked up during the Buddha’s time because the prevailing caste politics drove people to opt for a Buddhist way of life as the Buddha preached equality. But over time, ‘Lamaism’ took root — where the Buddha’s teachings were interpreted with a narrow vision — and Buddhism almost vanished from India, whereas it flourished in Tibet.
In the 21st century context, Buddhism becomes even more relevant. Economies are struggling to figure out if growth should be solely based on GNP or should it include GNH (gross national happiness).Economic growth, after a while, becomes stagnant. So you have slowdown and financial crisis.At that time, happiness and contentment is what counts.
Well-being has to be taken seriously.We,in Bhutan,are trying to balance economic growth with well-being of the people. Globally,if we pursue a sustainable way of living, by considering the well-being of the planet as a whole, the human race will progress.
Since Buddhism is a way of life, It is easy to include the happiness quotient. All that Buddhism propagates is taking care of oneself, taking care of the family, taking care of the community, being tolerant and compassionate, sharing and caring so that well-being of the people can be taken care of.We also have the concept of Ahimsa, where other lives have to be respected.You cannot kill anything that has life.
As a writer, how can you contribute to promoting Buddhist and Sufi philosophies?
■ Rinzin: I don’t want to talk strictly in terms of religion and faiths, but as a rational thinker, I would like to propagate humanistic concepts like tolerance, empathy and friendship. We have to spread awareness that it is because of man-made borders that we are not moving forward; instead, we are moving backwards as a human race. We are not progressing spiritually.I always say let us do away with the borders of nationality,borders of hate,borders of colour and of gender. Because we are creating so many borders, all kinds of problems are erupting. Every time you create a border, you are either inside it or outside of it.
Isn’t a borderless world a very utopian idea?
■ Rinzin: It sounds strange,but if we all work with unity,it is possible to narrow down the differences.
■ Momen:As Jawaharlal Nehru said, India has unity in diversity, it is possible.We can take it to a larger platform and try and bring the change. At the moment,the differences are widening. People are becoming illiberal and intolerant.As the worst in us is coming out, maybe soon, we may see better times. Scientist Martin Rees said in 1995 that the 21st century is the final century for humans. Since ancient times,we have seen that we have men who manipulate the differences between people to their own advantage. We see that happening now in the US, in Pakistan, in Kashmir, in Myanmar and many other places.
■ Rinzin:This is happening because of people’s greed for economic and political power.Politicians think that they have to target some group to remain in power.There will always be casualties of war. It is the moral responsibility of writers and saner voices to promote peace and compassion. Differences are good, but we must look at the beauty of diversity and use it to enhance well-being and happiness of human society.
■Momen:We have to nurture basic human values which are common to all — peace, love, compassion — and these have to be brought out.We are living in a competitive world, where there is too much pressure to excel. This is suppressing our humaneness, so we are becoming insensitive to others’ feelings.We need to balance competition and cooperation,especially in our education systems,so that we produce better humans.
■ Post your comments at speakingtree.in