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Learning to Appreciate South Asian Religion

By Paul Chaffee


What the Middle East is to Abrahamic traditions (particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), South Asia is to Dharmic traditions (particularly Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism). And while life is a messy mix of the good and the bad for all of us, historically the Dharmic religions have a much better record of interreligious tolerance and mutual respect and appreciation than do the Abrahamic traditions. 

This painting was done by three Pakistani girls, ages 10, 11, and 12, at the Funkor Child Art Centre. – Photo: Funkor Child Art Centre

This painting was done by three Pakistani girls, ages 10, 11, and 12, at the Funkor Child Art Centre. – Photo: Funkor Child Art Centre

Indeed, the worst religiously related violence on the subcontinent came from the invasion and eventual domination by Muslims starting in the 8th century and Christians in the 16th century, generating conflicts which painfully continue in our own times.

Perhaps the most dramatic interreligious story ever is of a blood-thirsty, mighty Indian emperor nearly 2300 years ago, who converted to Buddhism and ended his warring ways. Ashoka went on to two amazing religious achievements. First, without ever using coercion, he spread the Buddhist tradition East into Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia; and West all the way to Egypt and the Middle East into Italy. Simultaneously he made his empire a fully interfaith-friendly environment where all religious, spiritual traditions were encouraged and supported. That vision faded after his death, but his achievements remind us of how much older Asia is in its history of building healthy relationships among different traditions.

As usual, the thematic content this month is but a brief sampling of the many chambered world of interreligion in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Butan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. One of the unexpected discoveries in this survey was the problem of coercive Christian conversion strategies, particularly over the past 15 years – “predatory proselytizing.” It is explored in several articles, most specifically in Murali Balaji’s survey of the current debate in India about “conversion and reconversion.”

Most of the stories this month, however, are remarkable tales about what can happen in South Asia when diverse people of faith and practice reach out to each other and begin to collaborate for a better world.  Special thanks needs to go to four United Religions Initiative global leaders who contributed stories – Kiran Bali, Liam Chinn, Abraham Karickam, and Sally Mahé. URI has 236 Cooperation Circles in Asia dedicated to interfaith work.

When TIO launched in September, 2011, we featured a wonderful painting by three girls at the Funkor Child Art Centre in Islamabad, Pakistan. This month we return to this remarkable Centre and its founder, Fauzia Minallah, in a profile by Vicki Garlock. You’ll find the painting above.