Dr. Balmiki Prasad Singh is a scholar, thinker, public servant and an author. Prominent among his books are Bahudha and the post 9/11 World and The problem of change: a study of North East India. These are his insights on this concept.
The Bahudha approach has interesting origins. At the time of 9/11 catastrophe in the USA, I was Executive Director of the World Bank, at Washington DC. In the aftermath of the tragedy, it became fashionable for every think-tank to discuss two questions: ‘What went wrong?’ and ‘Why people hate us (Americans)?’ I happened to attend one such meeting during September itself. The gathering was impressive; I was seated almost opposite the Chairperson. The guest speaker had concluded on the sombre note of the need for building a coalition of nations against terrorism. He also spoke of the radicalization of Islam, values of religious pluralism, and the need for tolerance. The presentation over, the Chairperson asked for comments and looked at me. She said that India may have the answer in view of its heritage of pluralism and originality of mind, and gave me the floor. I was not prepared. I recall having said then that ‘while India may have the answer, I do not’ and went on to narrate my experiences in handling terrorism in India. I was aware of the inadequacy of my response. For the real question was: What could we do to achieve harmony in a world so globalized, yet with nations so unequal, living in mutual distrust, fear and worse terror?
Since then I was contemplating this theme with a view to exploring an enduring framework for a global public policy – a policy for harmony among different peoples and societies in the post 9/11 world as seen through the lens of the Indian civilisational experience. India is not only home of different faiths and belief systems; it has been continuously facing state sponsored/supported terrorism from Pakistan since 1980’s. Yet it never abandoned the path of dialogue at the level of two governments and among the people of two countries.
I would like to call the approach I am suggesting Bahudha. This comes from my personal attachment to an attitude that has greatly contributed to the enrichment of harmonious life in India: ‘respect for another person’s view of truth with hope and belief that he or she may be right’. This is best expressed in the Rigvedic hymn that enjoined more than three millennia ago.
Ekam Sad Vipra Bahudhā Vadanti
The Real is one, the learned speak of it in various ways.
Pluralism is the closest equivalent of Bahudha in English. But Bahudha denotes much more than pluralism as dharma conveys more than religion.
The Bahudha approach recognizes that there is a distinction between plural societies and pluralism. Pluralism is an inevitable ingredient of democratic societies. The role of religion, language, and ethnicity is very significant in plural societies. Pluralism in this context is an imperative for both developed and developing societies.
Pluralist societies are necessarily multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multilingual societies. In such societies, there are various boundaries: racial, linguistic, religious, and at times even ideological. The Bahudha approach does not believe in annexation or transgression of boundaries or assimilation of identities and propagation of a simplistic world view. It merely facilitates dialogue and thereby promotes understanding of the collective good. The realization of one’s own identity may sustain boundaries and yet, at the same time, understanding of other identities may help formulate a public policy of harmony. The Bahudha approach is conscious of the fact that societies without boundaries are not possible.
The culture of Bahudha is deeply rooted in the inculcation of a special attitude from an early age. Dialogue requires a state of mind where one can strongly believe in one’s own way of looking at issues while simultaneously accommodating another’s point of view. It is this mental discipline that makes one willing to consider the validity of other person’s view point.
In short, the Bahudha approach is both a celebration of diversity and an attitude of mind that respects another person’s point of view. Democracy and dialogue are central to this approach.
Diversity celebrates different religions, gods and goddesses and belief systems. It also promotes a feeling that the world would be a dull and over-uniform place if there was only one religion, one god, one language, one folklore and one folktale. The human species cannot be all of one belief or faith or system – humanity is diversity – something we too often forget.
In my view, the problem lies in over-emphasizing the commonly shared belief among believers of various religions that there is only ‘one truth’. There may not be any problem in supporting this view so long as it relates to the quest for truth. However, problems arise in its practice. Most of the religions have a single ‘god’ and a single ‘scripture’. The believer of such a religion thinks that their ‘god’ is supreme and that their ‘scripture’ contains all the truth. The fundamentalist groups go on to insist on scrupulous adherence to every tenet of the scripture notwithstanding enormous changes in ground realities based on new discoveries negating age-old beliefs and prescriptions. A scripture is a man-made document formulated by a saint in his state of enlightened consciousness. Such a document cannot be applicable to all times and to all people. It may not contain answers to all human problems of an inter-dependent world.
Several questions have been raised. Whether the Bahudha approach will apply to both believers and non-believers? Whether Bahudha’s role is limited to being only an instrument of harmony among different faiths? I see relevance of the Bahudha approach both for believers and non-believers. In fact, I have consciously taken it out from the religious closet of conflicts among religions and conflicts within a religion to the secular realm. I see efficacy of the Bahudha approach in dealing with differences of opinion among the sects of various religions. For instance disputes between, Shias and Sunnis of Islam, has got prominence in the 21st century. Dialogue is also essential to resolve differences of views pertaining to geo-political issues like territorial disputes or even to arrive at a conclusion about the role of the State in affairs of citizens.
In making Bahudha an instrument of public policy, I would like to emphasize two aspects. First, tolerance is a common feature of all great civilizations (Sinic, Christian, Hindu-Buddhist, Islamic and Judaic) and second, that we need a genuine and mutually sympathetic inter-faith dialogue. The purpose is to understand the differences and find common grounds for peaceful coexistence. It implies that leaving religion out of the public debate would be a grave mistake; it will deprive us of a critical source of establishing social harmony and mutual understanding. Bahudha can become a guiding principle in education, national politics and international organizations.
A secular society must allow religious pursuits as it is being done in a number of countries. Accordingly, I hold the view that the Bahudha approach could facilitate the quest of truth in a religious order and secular behaviour in society simultaneously. The need is to understand and respect all religions and at the same time to uphold the rule of law.
The Bahudha approach could be secured particularly through (i) religious harmony; (ii) educational programming; (iii) strengthening of international political architecture: the United Nations; and (iv) the use of military power in terms of the UN Charter.
The Bahudha approach, I believe, can flourish when decent and ethical people that include a large segment of the global population both among believers and non-believers support it. For the Bahudha approach is relevant to all those persons who believe that one can be a good person as well as a good citizen both with and without being religious.
The number of people who see in the Bahudha approach the potential of opening a series of opportunities for resolution of conflicts and for building a harmonious society and a global order as against the widely publicized theory of the clash of civilizations is on the rise.
Click here for the lecture – PEACE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Click here for some glimpses of the lecture – PEACE IN THE 21ST CENTURY