(This article was first published in The Hindu.)

I was raised in a Jain family but my parents sent me to a school where I met Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. I was never forbidden from making friends with people of other faiths, and I feel grateful for that because I learnt to cherish diversity at a young age. My years at college and university broadened my exposure to traditions that were not part of my own community. Have you had similar experiences in the educational institutions you have studied at?

Earlier this month, a non-profit organization called Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), which is based in the United States of America, published a report titled ‘Friendships Matter: The role of peer relationships in interfaith learning and development.’ Its findings could have significant implications for us in India as well. It states, “Few other sources of influence make a greater impact on college students than their peers. Engaging a diverse peer group cultivates students’ understanding and appreciation of other cultures and reduces prejudice.”

My curiosity over the years has led me to books, shrines, talks and meditation retreats. Today, my spiritual practice is grounded in Buddhist teachings but I stay open to inspiration from Sufi and Bhakti poetry, Wiccan ritual, Jewish mysticism, and feminist wisdom. The last one might be a surprise for some but, for me, spirituality is deeply connected to social justice.

The IFYC report suggests that close friendships across cultural differences can reduce prejudice because “such relationships involve deep emotional investment and sustained interactions between the friends over time.” My life would have been bereft of beauty without friends who created learning opportunities for me by sharing their culture. What I have gained from tagging along to a gurudwara for langar, joining an evening of qawwali at a dargah, and participating in Durga Puja at a makeshift pandal, is a tremendous respect for pluralism which lies at the heart of Indian society.

Our ability to live in harmony is now under attack from divisive forces such as vote-bank politics, religious extremism and sensational media. This is a trend that is being observed in several parts of the world. The Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, the Easter Sunday bombings at churches in Sri Lanka, the militant attacks on Hazaras at a Ramadan procession in Balochistan, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in USA, and the bomb attack on a mosque in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan — are all recent examples of times wherein places of prayer became sites of murder and mourning.

This is terrifying. What can you do to quell this epidemic of hate? You can study, eat, socialize and make friends with people of other faiths. You can familiarize yourself with their values and belief systems. You can speak up in solidarity with people whose voices are muzzled. You can commit to navigating troubled waters through dialogue instead of choosing violence.

Writer, educator and researcher

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