The reinvention of Hindutva

 by Arvind Rajagopal


Whatever your political views, the spectacle of a populist upsurge confirms the vitality of Indian democracy, whether that upsurge is for the Aam Aadmi Party, or for Narendra Modi and the BJP. But populism is not democracy.

From the context of comparatively stable political loyalties and predictable electoral results, we now have elections where a relatively small number of non-committed voters can swing outcomes decisively and reward parties with disproportionate victories. Victorious parties may thus claim a mandate for their programs based on seat majorities as if these represented popular majorities, though they seldom do. Similarly, party ideology may be modified to appear more widely acceptable. For example, Hindutva, the ideology of the Sangh Parivar, is changing into Hindu populist politics. There is a new relation between publicity and politics here, one that makes older political distinctions inadequate.

Criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as being anti-Muslim has been muted of late because the BJP is supposed to have moved beyond its Hindu ideology, by adopting a more inclusive and developmentalist stance. In fact, the BJP’s transformation of its Hindu nationalist ideology into Hindu populism has allowed the party to further some of its old aims in a new and relatively uncontroversial way. At the heart of this success is Hindu populism’s claim to be the product of democratic procedure, and to express the will of the majority. But a ruling party without a single Muslim Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, in the second largest Muslim country in the world, is choosing to interpret its majority in a partisan way.

Hindu Populism in international context

The term populism refers to a kind of political reasoning where popular mobilisation serves as its own justification. As such, populism can support liberal, revolutionary or even authoritarian forms of government. The political theorist Ernesto Laclau has argued that populism can emerge with a democratic fervour and end up installing dictatorships, as has happened across Latin America. In the U.K., Margaret Thatcher remade the Tories as an authoritarian populist force, winning over Labour Party supporters and refashioning Conservative ideology to have mass appeal. Somewhat similarly, in India, the BJP redefined Hindu identity as both aspirational and nationalist in the face of new challenges from caste democratic forces. As late as the 1980s, many experts used to dismiss the chances of the BJP based on its tiny vote share at the time, and its more upper caste leadership, but the party has clearly changed.

The party’s populist transformation has been assisted by the explosive growth of the media. The mediated spectacle of the crowd affirms and reinforces the motives for participation, whether in a demonstration or a political rally. For the media industry, today’s spectators will be tomorrow’s consumers; investment in populism seems to make good business sense. Mass gatherings used to raise law and order concerns; today such events present opportunities for astute political strategists.

Until recently a category such as Hindu populism was hard to imagine. But Hindu nationalism has reinvented itself, combining pro-business policies with the rhetoric of lower caste empowerment. Today nationalists can claim that capitalism and democracy are thriving in India.

While this is an important achievement, it is also in part, the result of a Cold War era strategy of the U.S., which saw India as a frontline state in the battle against the Communist threat. The Cold War’s end, as we know, signalled the defeat of Communism. Religion began to become much more influential directly thereafter in many parts of the world. However, U.S. governments had historically tended to regard religion as an ally against “godless communism.” It was also seen as a stabiliser in the transition to modernity. No surprise then that influential studies conducted regarding the RSS by U.S.-based scholars regarded it benignly, as an ascetic form of socialism, as Gandhian volunteerism, or as Hindu revivalism. Their stoking violence as a means of organising Hindus was thus ignored, and the martial character of the organisation was seen as ornamental to essentially pietist tendencies. Violence was ignored because it pertained to local issues, while the optic these scholars brought was shaped by U.S. concerns during this time. Further, Hindu nationalists were reassuringly anti-Communist. They did not appear to pose any threat to U.S. interests.

Beneath this perception was a long-standing assumption that religion could not be politically viable. The post-Enlightenment separation of church from state had led to the belief that religion did not have a place in modern politics.But religion in India has had a different history, and that has unavoidably influenced the shape and direction of modern politics.

Those wishing to promote Hindu identity had a problem that was the reverse of Enlightenment-era Christianity. They first had to assert the existence of a common religion and create the sense of a shared identity that was, at best, weak. For example, Hindus historically did not all share what was supposed to constitute a religion, such as creed, deity, ritual, or text. During the colonial period, however, Hinduism gradually became codified and subject to juridical intervention. It also became a means whereby lower castes claimed public rights they previously did not have.

The limits of Hindu populism

After a long hiatus, amid the political crises of the late 1980s, Hindu identity began to be used openly again, and yielded electoral dividends in electoral campaigns. It helped win the small but decisive “non-committed vote,” as L.K. Advani called it, boosting the BJP’s share of seats exponentially. Political Hinduism has grown since then, aided by the Congress’s decline. Then how is Hindu politics different from any other religious politics?

In the Hindu tradition, reality is beyond words and the truth has no essence. There is, in fact, no religious doctrine as such to challenge. Hinduism as conjured for the political process today surpasses dialectical materialism; it is the most expansive ‘philosophical system’ conceivable. In such a context, the category of religion presents an opportunity rather than a problem: to be “Hindu” is an artefact of publicity rather than an expression of ancient mores. It is no surprise that Arun Jaitley has stated that Hindu nationalism is an opportunistic issue for the BJP, a “talking point” rather than a core ideology.

The electoral process has sanctioned a new language of political theology for the BJP. In his Madison Square Garden speech in New York, Narendra Modi referred to the people as sovereign and their verdict as divine. He declared: “Janata Jan Janardhan.” But Janardhan is not a secular term for “ruler;” it refers to Lord Krishna. Electoral success provides the supreme redemption in this understanding, negating merely juridical verdicts. It implies divine power in the figure of the elected ruler, who is like the king but sanctified by a formal democratic process.

Political authority is the end towards which this new kind of religious identity is created, applicable across caste groupings that not long ago were excluded, prominently the former Untouchable castes that constitute about a quarter of the population. No previous party has come to power by excluding Muslims so completely. Meanwhile the situation of Muslims has steadily worsened over the last 30 years.

The exclusion of Muslims from political visibility is accompanied by the increasing political visibility of Dalits. The new basis for Hindu unification is the exclusion of Muslims, alongside the formal subsumption of Dalits. The register of exclusion shifts in the process, from untouchability to invisibility. Media expansion enables more coordinated and extensive forms of exclusion than were previously imaginable; political dynamics have both anticipated this development and furthered it. If Hindu populism is to deepen its democratic character, these are issues for it to reckon with.


This piece has previously been published in The Hindu Op-Ed and the Communalism Watch blog. Arvind Rajagopal is the Professor of Media Studies at New York University.

Freedom of Speech – Maya indeed.

Akhila PR replies to Devdutt Patnaik’s Op-Ed article – In maya, the killer and the killed – which appeared in The Hindu, 14th January 2015

Mr. Devdutt Patnaik has written in The Hindu that – in essence – if you mock anything, especially a religion, you should be prepared to pay the cost for that decision on any terms suitable to the offended; e.g. being mowed down by Kalakshnikovs. This differs a bit from the usual expectation of someone being responsible for what they produce in a legal or even moral sense. Dialogue and views on the motivation of the creator is out the window and the offended person’s feelings (valid or not) reign supreme, blotting out all else.

Mr. Patnaik, begins by citing an extract from one incident in the Mahabharat which is rather out of context . This is Krishna cutting off Sishupala’s head after Sishupala insults him a 100 times, with the explanation “The limit of forgiveness was up”, implying that ‘God’ as he was, even Krishna had to retaliate after such a barrage of insults. However, the context of the Krishna-Sishupala story is:

It was fore-ordained that Sishupala would die at Krishna’s hands. Sishupala’s mother, Krishna’s aunt, then begged Krishna to spare her son. Krishna promised that he would forgive Sishupala 100 times but would then kill him.

This introduction, then, is particularly poorly chosen, unless the author wishes to imply that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is part of a larger Cosmic plan where the killers and writers had made a pact in a previous birth to kill and be killed in this life and was not only significant of the inability to not be offended.

The Amar Chitra Katha Version

He then goes on to postulate the interesting, but slightly obfuscating point, that it is Neo-Brahminical to expect everyone to employ language in the way the elite writers do, and that to term ‘barbarians’ those who resort to bullets rather than prose is a priggish, ivory-tower world-view.

To state right off the very obvious counter to this: would Mr. Patnaik be as implacable in his demand for the right to ‘equitable rather than  equal response´ if I were to barge into his place of work toting a gun –  or to be culturally sensitive – a pistol, a kukri, an aruvalu or a flaming torch, because words failed me and I saw no other means of response to his writing?

Let’s put Charlie Hebdo in a bit of cultural perspective: I was rather surprised at Charlie’s hard-line mockery of religion and the State. But I realized how much my thinking was conditioned by my growing up in India, a country where religion and state are as hard to separate as several balls of twine knotted together –not impossible, but requiring aeons of work, burnt fingers and perhaps, ultimately, resorting to snipping off bits that just wouldn’t untangle. From my perspective, Charlie really was playing with fire.

But in France, the separation of State and Church is not only a constitutional guarantee, but one that many publications ensure is kept up through the use of free speech to talk out against all institutions that wield power (religion and state prime among them).  Charlie came up in a time of political censorship and vigilance. It was initially shut down for joking about Charles de Gaulle’s death. The paper re-opened as Charlie Hebdo, determined to speak out against the forces that had muzzled it. While much of the humour is, perhaps, in bad taste (that is to say, not to mine), it is a lively instrument for gauging how committed the State remained regarding the freedom of expression.

1969 cover of Hara-Kiri Hebdo making fun of Charles De Gaulle

To reiterate, Charlie was meant for France – a country where this freedom was welcomed and response in letters was traditional. It is not really Charlie’s doing that in the decade following its rebirth, the world changed dramatically through the wider adoption of neoliberal economic policies and the creation and installation of the godhead of the Web. When Charlie went beyond the borders of France as easily accessible material, it was seen as an attack on their religion(s) by those outside France. And people who had and have no conception of the cultural context in which Charlie was created and read, made it their business to shut it down, a desire which then permeated the country of its creation.

While Charlie is a conundrum that many in religion-bound countries like India will find hard to square with their conscience, there is another example of physical coercion triumphing over the written word much, much closer home: Perumal Murugan.

Mr. Murugan is a Tamil writer with several books behind him. Then came the English translation ‘One Part Woman’, which has been burned and bullied out of existence by a group of religious enthusiasts (to be charitable).  The book, whose Tamil version came out four years ago with no protests surrounding it, is about a childless couple and their attempts to have a child. One of these attempts is a consensual sex-rite at the Ardhanareeswarar temple, a rite where a woman has sexual intercourse with a man who is not her husband, in order to get impregnated.

Yes, a consensual sex-rite in a temple, in a country where temple-architecture regularly depicts orgies and, as that beaten-to-death drum gasps out, whose Kamasutra remains an important, perhaps unparalleled, contribution to the world of sexual relations.

But all this is really quite irrelevant. Mr. Murugan has access to a large and rich world of fact and fiction – the world he creates in his head. This world is answerable to no one and as long as he is not shoving his writing down the throats of everyone in this country (which would constitute several violations of Rights) there is no force, moral or legal, that should stop him penning his thoughts down whether we are known for the Kamasutra or the re-installation of Section 377 of the IPC.

Forces have, nonetheless, succeeded in doing this by burning the books and convincing Mr. Murugan that the safest path was complete retreat. He has recalled all the books from his publishers (the English version published by the much-harassed Penguin), promising to compensate them for any copies unsold and, further, has taken on a vow of silence. ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead’, he announced.

When writers are silenced for fear that anything they write will be offensive to someone out there and when the saying ‘the Pen is mightier than the Sword’ is taken as justification for picking up the sword, there lies the death of the author, free speech and human interaction.

Mr. Patnaik states that in today’s world the right to words is being privileged over the right to military action. The self-serving blindness of this statement, penned in a time when there are daily military engagements (state-sponsored and privately-funded) around the world and increasing demands for censorship, should be an indicator of how laughable his basic premise is. Indeed, even the examples he puts forth, citing mental violence, are ridiculous:

So, one has sanction to mock Hinduism intellectually on film (PK by Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan) and in books (The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger), but those who demand the film be banned and the books be pulped are brutes, barbarians, enemies of civic discourse, who resort to violence.”

Laughable though they are, his contentions, which will be taken up by many, are dangerous. His argument that the ‘offended’ can only respond with violence is in itself an offensive polarization of thought and action. Surely somewhere a contradictory point of view can find middle ground between writing and murder? In India itself we have a reasonably vast variety including, of course, burning things (posters, books, effigies – not actual land-property like houses and places of worship). These acts can be seen as a legitimate expression of protest. However, that is where freedom of expression STOPS.

You can protest.  But no legal force on earth should ensure that your choice to be offended trumps someone else’s thoughts’ right to exist.

And this is where his argument about PK and Wendy Doniger runs into a brick wall. Protesting isn’t barbaric. But to demand that your protests be heeded “or else..” is to become an enemy of civic discourse.

And while it is an undeniable fact that language-based hegemonies exist the world-around, stemming from several complex causes, it is fatuous to suggest that because someone cannot write like a Charlie Hebdo or a Murugan, they should promptly take physically coercive measures to silence them.

Writers and ‘artists’ in general tend to stand out because  of the something different they bring to any field of human existence. The sad little fact is that not everyone is a Voltaire or Kalki or Tagore. My inability to respond in Tamil prose is not reason enough for me to ban Kalki being read if something in his writing offends me.

And, interestingly, many of these doers who are so bereft of words that they must needs resort to violence, belong to groups that are led and inspired by immensely articulate individuals who know and milk the power of the Word: Bal and Raj Thackeray, Laden, even Hitler, Gandhi, Obama, Jayalalitha… So the ‘hegemonic power of the Word’, it would seem, is only railed against when it goes counter to one’s beliefs.

Finally, from talking about taking offence and how it can be measured, the author brings up the closing conceit of this article: everything is Maya.  Maya, commonly interpreted as relating to the transient and ephemeral world, which is only a part of the larger, unfathomable universe,  is interpreted here as the world of the measurable and tangible.

Mr. Patnaik’s claim is that physical violence is condemned because it is measurable and emotional abuse (read: offence) is dismissed because it is not measurable; a farcical argument in this case: in a work of art, your engagement with it is your responsibility and your choice.  If something offends you, you do have (among several others) the option of moving away and not engaging further**. Neither of these conditions holds true for the majority of abusive one-on-one relationships in personal life.

Maya is also a leveling concept. One cannot posit that everything is Maya (‘Killer and Killed’, the title states) but go on to imply that some things are more or less worthy of being ‘Maya’ than others, as with the approving tone when talking about the ‘offended’ and the opprobrious tone when talking of the ‘offender’ laughing to the bank.

Everything is subjective, including our experience of the world of Maya, we are told. But if everything is subjective, should everyone remain ensconced in their cozy little construct without engaging outside it for fear of offending someone whose construct might be different? Mr. Patnaik’s article seems to imply that we hold back from ever expressing views which may differ from another’s, since these views fall outside the purview of the other’s person’s experience of reality. An extreme extension of this article would ban education itself as an Other being imposed on my native understanding of the world.

Yet, contradictory schools of thoughts clashed and then became entangled over centuries to create new thoughts and new beings. As seen in Mr. Patnaik’s own popular writings on myth and interpretation, religion itself is in constant recreation and reinterpretation. In the sense of a transient, illusory phenomenon, religion itself is Maya. So if you want to go down that path, what is offence? What is belief? What is sacred?

Large parts of the Mahabharata offend my perhaps Westernized sensibilities and my internalized Indian concept of Guru-sishya reverence. Drona’s warcraft ensured the Kauravas didn’t lose the battle of Kurukshetra, so the Pandava Yudhishtira  (revered as Dharmaraja) lied to his Guru about the death of his son to get him to ‘off himself’. And this was done on the advice and with the able abetting of the ever-present Krishna, whose act of silencing Sishupala is the opening piece of this article. Even in its out-of-context form, isn’t this story, like all stories in all mythologies pertaining to god, just a means of showing that Krishna, an avatar of a God, is not perfection himself? If Krishna were perfection, why the Vishwaroopam++ on the battlefield? Is his conduct (especially as seen in the Mahabharat!) really something to aspire to, especially in this instance?

As if the author himself squirms over this quandary, the closing paragraph of the article goes out of its way to explain Krishna’s act within the framework of the Jay-Vijay myth. But if words are so psychologically damaging and if only actions are allowed to speak, Sishupala’s taunting Krishna is surely more than enough justification for Krishna to lose his head (and ensure Sishupala loses his too)? Why tie yourself into knots to show that Krishna was, really, only part of a larger game? Because, somewhere, Maya or not, there is in inherent recognition of the crude brutality of Krishna’s act and the need to explain it beyond and better than just the desire to avenge offence.


++On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when Arjuna begins to agonise over the pointless bloodshed, Krishna reveals himself in the ‘divine’ form, of which he is just a physical manifestation, to reassure Arjuna that it is all for some greater good that Arjuna’s conception of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ cannot contain.

Islamophilia cannot be an effective answer to Islamophobia

re-posted from Huffington Post, Huffpost Students UK, by Karthick RM, 23 December 2014.

islamophobiaThe recent siege by an Islamist in Sydney has raised all too familiar debates about Islamophobia. The general right-wing argument, of course, is that such acts of terrorism are justified by a hard-core minority of Muslims and that downplaying the role of Islam is potentially harmful. On the other hand, the general liberal-left argument is that expecting all Muslims to condemn such acts is bigoted because a whole community cannot be held accountable for the actions of a few ‘deranged lunatics’.

Central to both arguments is an unstated belief that the Islamic identity is central to all Muslims, and while the former despises it, the latter preaches a patronising tolerance of the same. And both are wrong.

We have to look at Islamophobia as the tendency to blame Muslims as a whole, without any differentiation of nation, culture, class, gender, and political orientation for terrorist acts committed by Islamists.

Likewise, we have to look at Islamophilia as the tendency to exonerate Islam as an ideology from the crimes that are committed in its name, as the belief that the Muslim identity is good in itself and is central to an adherent of the faith.

Reality, if anything, shows the contrary. Proponents of the two sides are unlikely to remember that the first state to declare itself officially atheist in the world happened to be a predominantly ‘Muslim’ country – socialist Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, the state banned religion and religious preaching, shut down mosques, and tried to achieve gender parity in all services. In practice, the ‘Muslim’ Hoxha was the most rabid Islamophobe of the previous century. Incidentally, it was precisely those western governments – who are now accused of harbouring Islamophobia – who railed against Hoxha for curbing religious freedom for Muslims.

Several other examples could be given. The Indonesian Communist Party led insurgency, the Kurdish movement in the middle-east, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (Turkey), the Communist Party of Iran – all militantly secular movements led by ‘Muslims’ – have faced brutal repression from variants of Islamism. It would be a brutal illogic to say that the murder of thousands of individuals from these movements had nothing to do with the Islamic ideology that the states they challenged upheld.

Why is this important? Drawing parallels from other cases, can we say that the Inquisition’s slaughter of tens of thousands of heretics at the stake was just an act committed by a few ‘deranged lunatics’ and that the ideology of the Church had no role to play in it? Can we say that the discrimination against Dalits, the lowest castes in the Hindu hierarchy, owes to a few bad individuals and is not a structural problem in Hinduism? Can we say that war crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamils were just acts of bad soldiers and they can be divorced from the genocidal intent of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism?

Similarly, we cannot excuse the Islamic ideology from the terrorism and violence that is committed in its name. There is a lot in political Islam that justifies violence against non-Muslims, sexism and terroristic acts and those Muslims who have been fighting it for long have written the best testimonials. For liberals in the West to ignore this and to engage in downright immature acts, like wearing a hijab to convey solidarity with Muslim women, is tantamount to mocking those progressives in Muslim communities who resist the cultural diktats of political Islam.

A more critical approach to political Islam is needed. Commenting on the Rotherham child abuse scandal, which saw the sexual abuse of over a thousand white, mostly working class, children by men of Pakistani-Muslim origin, Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that raising questions about inherent sexism and violence in these communities is neither racist nor Islamophobic. Rather, it is this questioning alone that can guarantee an authentic co-existence.

Liberals and leftists in the West are right to condemn the bigotry of the majority community, but the fundamentalism of the minority community cannot be spared from criticism. If those identifying as left and liberal fail to criticise the dangerous trends of Islamism, the right will step up for the task. That is a future no one wants and political correctness can do little to fight it. Maybe one can start by expressing critical solidarity with those progressive movements from within the Muslim communities that are willing to think beyond narrow religious identities and are willing to challenge the bigotries in Islamic ideology.

***

Karthick RM is a PhD student and Graduate teaching assistant at University of Essex. He blogs at Unceasing Waves. Some initial further readings –

+ A Glance in to the Archives of Islam by Slavoj Zizek. Lacan.com – “One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted “between the lines,” through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition…”

+ When does criticism of Islam become Islamophobia? Pandaemonium – “Islamophobia is a problematic term. This is not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly it does. Islamophobia is a problematic term because it can be used by both sides to blur the distinction between criticism and hatred. On the one hand, it enables many to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’.  On the other, it permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. In conflating criticism and bigotry, the very concept of Islamophobia, in other words, makes it more difficult to engage in a rational discussion about where and how to draw the line between the two.”

+ Islamophilia by Douglas Murray – “For the record I don’t think everybody needs to spend their time being offensive about Islam. Not only is there no need to be offensive all the time, but most Muslims just want to get on with their lives as peacefully and successfully as everybody else. But there is an unevenness in our societies that needs to be corrected.”

Mughal Miniatures on Inequality

Aarthi Parthasarathy takes Mughal Miniature paintings and turns them in to contemporary comic strips. We really love simple ideas that get twisted around like this. Read more of them at scroll.in.

Royal Existentialists 001 On Inequality

Sofia Ashraf on The Self

One of the annual stars of Justice Rocks, Sofia Ashraf, tells her brief story of shedding expectations and shackles, and embracing her heart in her brain. Power to her and all of us.

The toughest part about following your heart is the trail of broken ones you leave behind. Standing up to society doesn’t mean picket fences and tear gas. My Tiananmen Square was hearing my grandmother plead, with tears in her eyes, for me to accept Islam again while I refused to give in. My hunger strike was seeing the pride my family had in me slowly drain away. My hemlock was willfully accepting that my mother could never truly accept the person I have become. But I am too brutally honest to lie to myself. I did it for 22 years and I couldn’t do it anymore… …I am not the same girl who left home 4 years ago and yet I am still her. That girl was rebelling against pop culture by wearing her convictions on her sleeve. This girl has a whole new revolution to sustain. That girl couldn’t experiment with her clothes, so she expressed herself through her hair. This girl still loves to take scissors and colours to her hair. I mean, I went bald for heaven’s sake. If haircuts are therapy, that right there is rehab! That girl may not relate to this one nor vice versa. But I think the two can respect each other. They both believed in something.

Read the full story on Homegrown

The Compassionate Global Community

What is compassion? Is it sympathy or empathy? Or is it a more personal and ever growing journey? Is it a way we can learn to love the world and share it with every other living being? Are humans even capable of this?

Early in 2008, Karen Armstrong, a provocative and original thinker on the role of religion, won the TED Prize to launch her project: the Charter for Compassion. After great amount of study and genuine interactions with leading thinkers around the world, a common document was drafted, which transcends all religious, ideological, and national differences. When she made her TED Prize Wish, she said:

‘When I look back on my life the last thing I ever wanted to do was write, or be in any way involved in religion. After I left my convent, I’d finished with religion, frankly…. But then I suffered a series of career catastrophes, one after the other, and finally found myself in television…And I was doing some rather controversial religious programs. This went down very well in the U.K. where religion is extremely unpopular. And so, for once, for the only time in my life, I was finally in the mainstream. But I got sent to Jerusalem to make a film about early Christianity. And there, for the first time, I encountered the other religious traditions: Judaism and Islam.’

After her trip to Jerusalem, where Karen witnessed the meshing and clashing of three interconnected religious traditions, she became highly curious and began studying the different religious doctrines and traditions all around the world. Quite contrary to how she had grown up with the idea of religion, she became interested in the commonality between these various doctrines. She continues at TED:

‘Instead of deciding whether or not to believe in God, first you do something. You behave in a committed way, and then begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice is given to compassion.’

Spinning from this, with the help of TED, she brought together many leading thinkers on compassion and the role of religion to come together and shape this charter, something open and personal whatever their religious views anyone can commit to as a statement of life. It reads:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Over the last three years, Karen Armstrong’s wish for a common platform based on the principle of compassion, began to shape up with the contributions of over 80,000 people from around the world. Various cultural and scholarly initiatives have helped in exploring compassion and deepening the journey of this charter. For instance, we think the six short talks by Tenzin Robert Thurman, Robert Wright, Rev. James Forbes, Rabbi Jackie Thick, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, and Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf conducted by the Council are a must watch. They explore in detail and with such eloquence, the importance and beauty of compassionate living. We are in a need of a world where you, me, the man down the road, and everyone can stand next to each other; and not just be tolerant of each other.

The final charter was drafted after carefully reading hundreds of contributions by the Council of Conscience, a multi-faith and multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders brought together by Karen Armstrong. Learn more about the evolution of this Charter and browse through the brilliant collection of resources that further this dialogue.