In these tense times when debates on religion address little else but concerns about its abuse, the speakers at the Third Dharma-Dhamma Conference in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, offered hope that from religion could still come a common sense of civilization and identity for all human beings. For three days, spiritual and political figures from around the world gathered to exchange ideas about what it means to strive for the "harmony of religions and welfare of humankind."
In the presence of Buddhists, Baha'is, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Jains, Hindus and others, I was reminded in passing of what it felt like on festival days in Prashanthi Nilayam, in those days when India was less globalized and the mere presence of spiritual seekers from other nations and religions conveyed the message of the oneness of spirit. The stage at the conference brought together a diverse and passionate set of voices that determinedly rejected the simplistic "clash of civilizations" sort of discourse about religion that has dominated politics and political discourse of late. Instead, an inspiring set of speakers exhorted the audience to consider the deep common core of spiritual wisdom that makes us human, rather than the superficial trappings of religious approaches that makes us suspicious and intolerant of each other.
The message of this conference, relevant as it is to the present moment, regrettably seems not to have made any headway into today's torrid media discourses about religion in India. The most effective response to concerns, real and exaggerated, about religious intolerance, after all, is not the kind of distorted and distracting drama we have seen of late, but to turn our attention to religious leaders who are extolling and embodying the right sort of message about the meaning of religion. After all, when a nation sees only fear spread across its media landscape, without even a spot of acknowledgment of the moments of hope too that exist still among its citizens for religious and world harmony, it can warp whatever possibilities still exist for religion as an influential cultural source of tolerance and acceptance in the world.
As a student of media and culture, I am concerned that the positive messages that many devout people derive from their religions still fails to find a reflection in the broader media culture. Given the relative absence of popular education in critical media interpretation from both secular and religious institutions, especially in India, those who believe in religion as a positive cultural resource often fail to counter the more dominant media myths and distortions they find in the media. One challenge today is that the dominant media culture, globally, and in India, has veered towards what scholars and religious figures are starting to call "religion-phobia." Although numerous religious organizations and figures have invested in their own media outlets such as TV channels and publishing imprints, the disconnect between mainstream media narratives about the self, culture, and nature, and religious and spiritual teachings about the same remains.
The key question that those of us interested in religion as a form of culture with great potential for human improvement must explore now is whether spiritual pursuit, even of the well-meaning, interfaith variety, can succeed without a common intellectual front against media discourses in an age of global consumerism and violence as spectacle. I proposed at the conference, as a starting point, that religious and cultural leaders encourage discussion of three broad themes in the media environment as a way of broadening critical media awareness to include positive religious and spiritual sensibilities:
First, we must critique media narratives about the self. Can we seriously expect children, or even adults, to cultivate spiritual insights about the self as something sacred and inviolably entwined with the other, when the entire media environment hammers home a message that the self is nothing more than the individual, desiring, acquisitive, competitive body?
Second, we must critique media narratives about identity. In everyday life, especially in India, we are accustomed to religious, linguistic and cultural diversity on a uniquely remarkable scale. However, media and especially news discourses about identity tend to barely reflect that everyday sense of diversity and harmony, and play up a sterile, academic notion of religion as identity-based conflict instead.
Third, we must critique media narratives about the naturalness and inevitability of violence. Several speakers at the conference addressed the importance of non-violence in their own traditions and as an inter-religious ideal. But non-violence will become more than a mere homily only when it is taught accurately as a form of critique in our curriculum, particularly in relation to narratives about violence we confront in our bloodlust-driven media culture today. We must learn to identify and reject popular myths about "survival of the fittest," and "might is right," and distinguish the artificially bloated world of media violence from the natural world in which violence has a much smaller part than what we commonly believe it to be.
Amidst the despair of our times about religious intolerance, we must also turn our attention to the efforts of people who have not given up on religion as a source of tolerance, peace, and non-violence either. The secular solution for religious strife, after all, has had a much shorter history than the spiritually rooted quest for co-existence that has protected humanity from itself for several millennia now. In this age of high violence in real-life and in our culture and our thoughts, perhaps we can turn once more to the hope that by conquering our own selves, we can still conquer the forces of untruth, violence, and divisiveness that plague our world, and to our hope that all that is good in nature will still prevail.
First published in The Hindu