Conditions in the world today are deeply troubling—wars between countries, profound social conflicts within countries, and almost daily incidents of terrorist acts. The shocking series of coordinated assaults in Paris on November 13, 2015—France’s deadliest attack since World War II—has Western nations on high alert. Attacks in Africa and Asia, while less publicized, are even more common, and equally devastating. The vicious hatred expressed by extremists toward those they seek to destroy dominates the news. Watching reports of these tragic events, we are reminded of how prejudice—and its big brother, malice—can change the world for the worse.
Attitudes of prejudice toward those of a different race, nation or religion can start simply as distrust, then deepen into dislike and fester into hatred, which can turn into an instinctive impulse to inflict injury. Are we born with such attitudes? Certainly not. As children, we are taught them at home, at school and, especially sadly, even in some religious institutions. Many people are raised to hate those of different ethnic groups, faiths or countries. Parents and radical teachers instill that hatred in the young innocents, often perpetuating centuries-old antagonisms.
The way in which our children shape the future will depend upon the qualities of character we cultivate in them. Therefore, in the long run, our most effective personal solution to violence in our modern world is to dutifully nurture what our children are learning as they grow up. My Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, spelled this out in a message he gave to 700 religious and political leaders in 1990 at the Global Forum for Human Survival, Development and Environment in Moscow. “We need, in the century ahead, to teach all children tolerance, openness to different ways of life, different beliefs, different customs of dress and language. We need to stop teaching them to fear those who are different from themselves, stop teaching them hatred for peoples of other colors and other religions, stop teaching them to see the world as a field of conflict, and instead instill in them an informed appreciation and a joyous reverence for the grand diversity we find around us.”
For too many nations, cultures and faiths this is easier said than done. Animosities built up over the decades between opposing groups are so entrenched that even peaceful coexistence seems impossible. Then there are factions who, believing their way is the only way and their enemies are disposable, justify and glorify their hatred and intolerance. Gurudeva explained, “When the fundamentalists of any religion teach an unrelenting duality based on good and evil, man and nature or God and Devil, this creates friends and enemies.”
Hinduism, with its long history of tolerance, can take steps to strengthen its exemplary commitment to nonviolence, and to set examples for others. Above all, we must not fall prey to the instinctive, reactionary fears and violent urges that are tearing apart so many nations, communities and families today.
Instead of teaching our children to be intolerant—to dislike and distrust, hate and inflict injury on those who are different—we must teach them to be tolerant, to like and trust, befriend and help. The quality we urge parents to develop in children is a prejudice-free consciousness, an open-mindedness that readily embraces differences in ethnicity, religion and nationality.
The central place to cultivate this virtue is in the home. Every father and mother is, in fact, a child’s first guru, teaching by example and explanation, giving advice and direction. Secondarily, this important attitude should be discussed and strengthened in classes at the temple and in school, and encouraged through community activities that expose children to diverse cultures.
Tolerance is nurtured through teaching children to appreciate the positive qualities of others, and by completely avoiding prejudiced remarks in the home against any race, religion or nationality. It is helpful to discuss with our children any bigoted comments they hear at school and elsewhere and be a gentle voice of wise correction. We must teach them to think of people as unique, divine individuals with an array of karmas and qualities that make them who they are.
Even positive stereotypes can embolden a sense of otherness and should be avoided. TV and movies can provide useful learning moments to discuss such matters with children, not leaving them to make their own youthful conclusions. Tolerance can be developed by having them meet, interact and learn to feel comfortable with children of other nationalities, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. Hindu organizations can be proactive by organizing culturally enriching activities and outings for the children of their members. Fortunately, fewer and fewer things are strange to the children of this Internet era. Their exposure to borderless knowledge gives them an innate sense of planetary citizenship. Sometimes we need only nudge them in that direction. One key lesson to pass on to the children is this: we need not feel threatened by our differences.
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Shri Shri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Kanchi, expressed this beautifully in Maithrim Bhajata, an ode to universal brotherhood, which was performed by MS Subbulakshmi at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1966. In English (translated by Lakshmi Chandrashekar Subramanian, who sings it here: bit.ly/MaithrimBhajata) it reads:
“Cultivate friendship, which will conquer the hearts of all. Look upon others as thyself. Renounce war, renounce competition. Renounce aggression on others’ properties. Mother Earth is abundant and ready to give us all that we desire. God, our Father, is very compassionate to all. So, restrain yourself, donate your wealth, be kind to everyone. May all people of this world be happy and prosperous.”
A few key Hindu beliefs provide the basis for millennia of Hindu tolerance. The first is embodied in an ancient verse from the Rig Veda (1.164.46): Ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti, “Truth is one; sages express it variously.” Hinduism has a wide diversity of traditions, but followers of the different paths respect one another and worship side-by-side in many temples. We have four major denominations. To Saivites, the Supreme is Siva. Shaktas refer to the Supreme as Shakti. Smartas call the Supreme Being Brahman; and to Vaishnavas He is Vishnu. However, the important point is that each Hindu is worshiping the same Supreme Being. The name is different, the tradition is different, but the same Supreme Being is being worshiped by all Hindus.
This statement from the Vedas can be expanded beyond Hinduism to include all the world’s religions. In fact, a Tamil verse often chanted in Siva temples states, Tennadudaiya Sivane Pottri; Ennattavarkum Iraiva Pottri. This translates as: “He who is praised as Siva in the South of India is praised everywhere else as God.” What this means is that people around the world worship the Supreme Being, and Siva is one of the many names of God. Gurudeva said it simply, “Saivites profoundly know that God Siva is the same Supreme Being in whom peoples of all faiths find solace, peace and liberation.”
He wrote: “Hindus also believe that there is no exclusive path, no one way for all. Religious beliefs are manifold and different. Hindus, understanding the strength of this diversity, wholeheartedly respect and encourage all who believe in God and do not seek to interfere with anyone’s faith or practice. Since the inner intent of all religions is to bind man back to God, Hindus honor the fact that ‘Truth is one, paths are many.’ Nonetheless, Hindus realize that all religions are not the same. Each has its unique beliefs, practices, goals and paths of attainment, and the doctrines of one often conflict with those of another. Even this should never be cause for religious tension or intolerance.”
Another belief that gives rise to Hinduism’s innate acceptance and open-mindedness is that all of mankind is essentially good, that we are all divine beings, souls created by God. Hindus do not accept the concept that some people are evil and others are good. The Upanishads tell us that each soul is emanated from God, as a spark from a fire, then begins a spiritual journey that ultimately leads back to God. All human beings are on this journey whether they realize it or not. Gurudeva noted, “This basic belief creates the attitude of sublime tolerance and acceptance toward others. Even tolerance is insufficient to describe the compassion and reverence the Hindu holds for the intrinsic sacredness within all things.” So when a Hindu sees a person who is performing horrible deeds, whom others call bad or evil, he thinks to himself, “This is a young soul, acting in terrible ways, but one day, in the course of many lives, he will realize his errors, atone and adhere to dharma.” By greeting one another with namaskara, palms held together to honor God within the other person, Hindus practice this truth on a daily basis. The Upanishads assure us, Ayam atma Brahma, “The soul is God.”
There can be no denying that we live in tumultuous times, with millions of people being forced to leave their homelands as refugees from terror, victims of bigotry and hatred. But let not the vicissitudes of politics and regional turmoil shake us from the basic truths on which Hinduism stands. Instead, let us bravely persist in passing on to the next generations the all-too-rare virtue of prejudice-free consciousness so that they may, as leaders of the future, shape the world into a more peaceful place.