(An edited version of this article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English. It was commissioned by Matthew Douglas.)

I had just concluded my guest lecture at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, on a beautiful afternoon when the trees were alive with the colours of fall.

My audience on that campus in the United States of America was made up of close to 30 students, all of whom had signed up for a course titled ‘Culture and Identity’. They were curious, intelligent and thoughtful young people who were a delight to talk with.

As a speaker, my brief was to offer them an introduction to conflict and peacebuilding in the context of India and Pakistan — two South Asian neighbours linked by centuries of shared heritage, and decades of barbed wire fencing. It is ironic, however, that most Americans would hardly be able to tell the difference between an Indian and a Pakistani by looking at or listening to them.

Still from Nina Sabnani’s animation film ‘Mukand and Riaz’

After we watched and discussed an animation film related to the conflict, and I had a chance to share some glimpses of my own learning journey, one of the students asked me what aspect of my identity had inspired me to work as a peacebuilder. I thought that was a perceptive question, and one that merited an authentic answer. I confessed to being someone who tends to resist identifying as belonging to a particular group or community because I, like the poet Walt Whitman, believe that “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Narrow frameworks of affiliation and allegiance often feel suffocating to me because they foreclose the possibility of inhabiting a more expansive sense of self. They try to compel me to be a type or category instead of honouring the multi-faceted person that I am.

One of the things I love most about being born and raised in India is the all-pervasive experience of cultural diversity. I do not think I can ever stop being amazed by the sheer variety of languages, cuisines, religions and art forms that we have in our country.

I feel deeply nourished by this legacy, and the numerous opportunities I have to participate in, learn from, celebrate, and share it. There is something utterly special about living in a country that is perhaps better described as a patchwork quilt rather than a melting pot.

I grew up in a family practising Jainism, perhaps one of the oldest religions in the world, which seems to be little known outside of India. I rarely identify myself as Jain. It has informed my worldview but I am not defined by it. What speaks to me most powerfully in Jainism is the unrelenting emphasis on non-violence.

My parents decided to send me to a Roman Catholic school in Mumbai. While their intention was to get me to speak fluently in English, I also ended up getting to know about the life of Jesus Christ, and the appeal to ‘love thy neighbour’. It is a lesson that makes sense in a variety of settings even today, including that of India and Pakistan.

At the Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala (Photo credit: Charnita Arora)

As I began to acquire greater autonomy as an adolescent, and eventually an adult, I found myself getting drawn to Buddhism. I would attribute it largely to the possibility of developing a spiritual practice that could be compatible with one’s political convictions. It was refreshing to see how inner work and activism could thrive in each other’s company.

Living in India, I did not really have to make much of an effort to learn about Hinduism because it is the majority religion, and knowledge about it is just quite easy to access. However, some independent reading helped me appreciate how Hinduism includes a plethora of beliefs and practices, and there is room for seekers to find their own personal way of exploring the sacred.

Outside Shovabazaar Metro Station, Kolkata

Somewhere along the way, as I indulged my interest in faith traditions, I also got exposed to Sikhism and Sufism — the mystical path associated with Islam. What I found absolutely beautiful in both was their use of poetry and music to express both the pain of everyday living that one seeks liberation from, and the ecstasy of discerning the divine in one’s own heart through devotion and service.

There is something of value in each of these religions, and people who draw their identity from their religious affiliation are often able to recognize the common ground they share. I know of many people in India who joyously partake in festivities that are associated with a religion that they do not practise.

This is why it is hurtful to see our rich cultural diversity being abused by miscreants who aim to gain from inciting fear and hostility among people. It is not uncommon to come across politicians, religious leaders, journalists, and other influential people who spread misinformation and prejudice, creating a climate of suspicion and animosity that often leads to violence.

Faith offers, to numerous people, a motivation to work for peace, harmony and mutual well-being just by the way in which they navigate their daily lives, and how they treat the individuals they encounter. It is tragic, therefore, to see it being twisted and manipulated for devious ends.

When I feel dejected, and am looking to restore my hope, I usually find refuge in the words of itinerant mystics whose spiritual practice may or may not be grounded in a religious tradition but it is most certainly anchored in moving beyond the superficial and the peripheral to the very heart of things. That is where all divides cease to exist. There is little to protect or defend. One is broken open, and that is okay.

Me with Shabnam Virmani at Kabir Festival Mumbai 2012 (Photo credit: Satyen K. Bordoloi)

Writer, educator and researcher

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