This brief paper is a study of how religions have gradually been working towards social transformation in various countries of Asia. On most occasions, the clergy themselves have realized the need of society in which they live and have risen to the occasion. In the process, significant social changes have taken place which would have been very difficult to implement a few decades back. Besides the clergy, social activists too have played a crucial role in this transformation. A few examples are cited here in the fields of ecological sensitivity, political awareness, judicial activism, education and health care.
The Swadhyaya Movement is a Hindu spiritual movement which was started by Pandurang Shastri Athavale, the 1997 winner of the Magsaysay Award for community leadership. This movement has become a formidable force in the Indian States of Gujarat and Maharashtra. It has established a number of educational institutions, pioneered many ingenious wealth distribution measures and several social welfare schemes in over 80,000 villages.
The concept that God is within every human being is the cornerstone of the Swadhyaya philosophy. Swadhyaya literally means the study, knowledge or discovery of the Self or Atman which makes the individual a part of the cosmic self and the manifestation of God within. There is an interdependence between the individual and humanity, and ultimately with the universe. The emphasis is on man working selflessly within a group and to transform Indian society at the grassroots level. Individual transformation gradually leads to social change. Athavale’s purpose is “to create a new man who pursues the divine mission in which God is at the centre”. Bhakti (devotion) can be turned into a social force.
Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka
The island of Sri Lanka was plagued by a 26-year-long civil war which claimed about 80,000 lives. It was only on May 17, 2009 that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conceded defeat and guns were silenced. All throughout this dreadful period, the healing touch was provided to this country by the Sarvodaya movement.
Winner of the Magsaysay award and the Gandhi Peace Prize, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne had launched the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka in 1958 to build a spiritual and non-violent society cutting across ethnic borders and religions. This movement is rooted in Buddhist and Gandhian principles of non-violence, truth and self-sacrifice. The organisation works towards multicultural integration and reconciliation. By carrying out projects in over 15,000 villages for the social betterment of all communities, Dr. Ariyaratne believes that the minds of people could be influenced. Meditation camps for thousands of people are held and participants have been urged to pursue non-violent ways and also to cultivate the art of forgiveness.
Bhutan’s experiment with GNH
Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck first coined the term GNH (Gross National Happiness) when he ascended the throne in 1972. It signalled his commitment to building an economy based on the Buddhist values of right livelihood, compassion and sharing. Over the last three decades, Bhutan slowly evolved GNH as a guiding principle. At its core, GNH is a vision of civilization that is anchored in non-material values such as living in harmony with nature, social equality and the spiritual quest for higher levels of being. The four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance.
In the 1990s, many international agencies asked Bhutan to share its unique approach to development with the rest of the world. In February 2004, over 82 scholars and experts from 20 countries gathered in the capital, Thimphu for discussion on ‘Operationalizing GNH”.
Countries as diverse as Canada, Ireland, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Mongolia have established well-being indicators. This kernel of Buddhist wisdom is increasingly finding an echo in international policy and development models, which seek to establish scientific methods for finding out what makes us happy and why.
Saffron revolutions of the Buddhists in Thailand, Tibet, Myanmar and Korea
Activism has become common in Asia’s Buddhist societies as they oppose oppressive rulers, foreign domination or injustice. Monks and nuns are leaving their quiet monasteries to face tear gas and guns in the streets. Samdhong Rinpoche, the Ex-Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile had said, “There is the responsibility of every individual, monk and lay people, to act for the betterment of society”. Christopher Queen, a Buddhist specialist at Harvard University says that this movement is known as ‘Engaged Buddhism’. “Engaged Buddhists are looking at the social, economic and political causes of human misery in the world and organizing to address them. The role of social service and activism is growing in all parts of the Buddhist world”.
In 2006, followers of a Buddhist sect demonstrated in the streets, which led to the overthrow of the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra. Over the years, Tibetan monks have openly protested against the oppressive Chinese rule in Tibet.
In Myanmar, also suppressed hatred against the military’s 45-year rule exploded in mid-August 2007, after the price of fuel was increased by 500%. This led to about 10,000 Buddhist monks to march through Myanmar’s second largest city Mandalay chanting ‘Democracy, democracy’. As the demonstrators gathered momentum, many were killed or detained.
On August 27, 2008, Korean Buddhist monks held a prayer service at a park in Seoul during a rally to protest against President Lee Myung-Bak’s alleged pro-Christian bias. 50,000 monks had gathered at this rally and they demanded an apology from President Lee.
Islamic preachers help Pakistan fight AIDS
To create awareness about AIDS, the government has organized meetings of religious preachers to attend the Pakistan’s National AIDS Control Programme (NACP). Hundred of preachers throughout Pakistan regularly deliver sermons which carry the AIDS awareness message. Preachers from Pakistan’s minority groups viz., Christians and Hindus have also been targeted for these awareness programmes.
Introducing birth control measures to Afghan mullahs
A seminar was held for Afghan mullahs (clerics) on a sensitive subject of birth control. It was held in Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2009. The subject made them uncomfortable as they stared silently at the screen and shifted in their chairs. The instructor said that “A baby should be breast-fed for 21 months and that milk is safe inside the breast”. The seminar was attended by ten Islamic religious leaders from the city and its suburbs. The message was simple --- babies are good, but not too many. The mullahs, like leaders of other faiths, consider children to be blessings from God and usually are the most determined opponents of having few children.
The seminar was organized by a non-profit group viz., Marie Stopes International. The high birthrate places a heavy burden on a society where the average per capita income is about $ 700 a year. It is also a risk to the life of mothers. Afghanistan is second only to Sierra Leone in maternal mortality rates, which run as high as 8% in some areas.
The mullahs were quite reluctant to attend the seminar but they came as they were paid to do so. After the seminar, the response of most of them was quite positive. Massoom, the mullah trainer stated that “This is an Islamic country. If the clerics support this, no one will oppose it”.
(Tavernise Sabrina, “Broaching birth control issues with Afghan mullahs”, DNA, Mumbai, November 16, 2009)
Religious leaders unite against female foeticide
In order to counter the scourge of female foeticide, leaders of the different religious communities have united to launch a campaign against this social evil. This important social campaign was inaugurated on February 20, 2008, by Vice President Hamid Ansari in New Delhi. He said that female foeticide could not be countered only by law. “It’s not a problem, but a disease. No law will help. Instead, look into a mirror and ask yourself when it began and how can it be cured”. Religious leaders continue their efforts to this day in different parts of India to fight this menace.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in a documentary about global warming
In June 2008, Indian spiritual Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar made his screen debut in a documentary about global warming entitled ‘Vasundhara’. This seven minute documentary educates people about this global problem and the techniques which may be used to save the earth. ‘Vasundhara’ will also be screened by the United Nations during their climate change programmes and other gatherings.
Religious leaders exhort conservation of electricity in Kerala
In a campaign to save the southern state of Kerala in India from power cuts, the Government urged the religious leaders to spread the message of conservation of electricity. In many churches, temples and mosques, announcements were made and leaflets were distributed highlighting the need to avoid excessive use of power.
The Dawoodi Bohra community of Mumbai to have eco-friendly mosque
The Dawoodi Bohra community of Mumbai is in the process of building the first eco-friendly mosque in the city. It is the brainchild of the community’s spiritual leader, Dr. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. The primary focus would be on harvesting rainwater and a diminished consumption of electricity. It will be a blend and fusion of Mughal, Indian and British architecture. Green lawns will border the mosque which would help in bringing down the temperature.
Fr. Naikam sends wards of lepers to higher education
It is thanks to the persistent efforts of a humble Catholic priest, Fr. Naikam, that helpless children can see the light of education. The movement started in 1992, when he persuaded two parents to send their children for education free of cost. Soon there was a flood of requests. Following a basic education, these students expressed the wish to become doctors, teachers, engineers and more. The students have been admitted to reputed schools run by Christian missionaries in various cities of the Indian state of Orissa.
Tribals trained as priests in Kerala
In October 2008, a landmark event took place in the southern Indian state of Kerala when some priests broke centuries-old caste barriers as 22 children from different communities including scheduled tribes were trained to become temple priests by a Hindu organization. The shortage of trained priests in temples of northern districts prompted this move. The programme was initiated by the Kerala Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti (KSS) with the help of Vedic scholars, priests and Hindu religious educational bodies of the state. This project was structured in such a way that it did not disturb the secular education of the students. They were taught Sanskrit, mantras (sacred prayers) and the way to perform rituals. This practical training in the temples was organized by the KSS with the guidance of experienced priests.
Pakistan clerics assert that suicide bombings are unlawful
About 300 religious scholars in Pakistan’s restive North Waziristan tribal region have declared suicide bombings as ‘haram’ or forbidden by Islam and condemned all forms of terrorist activities in the region. They have also asked all foreign militants hiding in the area to stop such attacks. The scholars strongly condemned all those involved in recruiting and training suicide bombers.
The meeting of the prominent ‘Ulema’ of North Waziristan was held in June 2011 in a madressa at Eidak, a town in Mirali area.
(“Suicide bombings are unlawful: Pak clerics”, The Free Press Journal, Mumbai, June 22, 2011)
Saudi clerics oppose child marriages
In the past, there has been an increasing trend of child marriages in Saudi Arabia. The media has reported this and Saudi human rights groups have also criticized this practice. Clerics have emphatically stated that such unions are harmful to children and trivialize the institution of marriage. Sheikh Muhammad al-Nujaimi has been a vehement opponent of these marriages. He and other clerics as well as writers have persuaded the government to pass legislation fixing the minimum age for marriage.
Muslim clerics refuse last rites to terrorists of Mumbai massacre
The 60-hour massacre unleashed on Mumbai on November 26, 2008 has been unanimously condemned by not only Muslim intellectuals but also by the Imams. Effigies of the terrorists have been burnt in New Delhi. In Mumbai, the Imams urged Muslims to stand up and be counted as Indians. At Dharavi mosque, the Imam declared “Humanity is the biggest religion”. Noorur Rahman Barkati, the Imam of Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata, whilst condemning terrorists stated “They are evil and must be destroyed”. Many thousands of devout Muslims across the country wore black armbands to protest the attacks.
Muslim clerics of Mumbai reiterated their stand of not offering prayers or performing the last rites of the nine terrorists who were involved in the massacre in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The clerics stated that the terrorists do not deserve the last rites of Islam. Maulana Mushkeen of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema maintained that “those involved in this heinous act do not deserve the Islamic last rites. Let the police treat them the way they treat unclaimed bodies. They are not Muslims”. Moreover, Maulana Mufti Asadullaha from the most respected school of Deoband stated that “The Hadith does not allow namaz-e-janaza to one who has committed a robbery. These nine were involved in a much bigger, heinous crime”.
Christian and Muslim clerics and leaders deplore the call to burn the Quran
In September 2010, an extremist pastor from Florida had urged people to burn the Quran on the ninth Anniversary of 9/11. Consequently, Muslim and Christian religious leaders deplored his action. Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Centre, a fringe Christian group in Florida, seems to have forgotten Christ’s exhortation to ‘love thy neighbour’.
Both Muslim and Christian clerics as well as scholars maintained that burning the book is certainly not the way to remember the victims of 9/11. Shia scholar Maulana Zaheer Abbas Rizvi stated that “The Quran never asked the 9/11 plotters to plough loaded planes into the Twin Towers. They were the misguided merchants of death and their heinous crime should not be blamed on a book which Allah revealed as a guide not just to Muslims but to humanity”.
The Archbishop of Vasai (Mumbai), Felix Machado who worked at the Vatican in its interrrelgious department, has read the Quran. He said “The Quran was revealed for the guidance of God’s children. I can’t imagine a man who claims to follow Christianity ever thinking of burning a holy book”.
Cardinal, Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai, called a meeting at his home in September 2010 to oppose Jones’s appeal.
(Wajihuddin Mohammed, “How can you burn a HOLY BOOK?”, The Times of India, Mumbai, September 5, 2010)
India’s Anglican Church does not accept homosexual priests
The Church leaders in Mumbai have criticized homosexual priests and stated that they would not be accepted. Moreover, they assert that homosexual are people “not of sound mind”. Rev. Prakash Patole, Bishop of Mumbai had stated in July 2008 that “We are not comfortable with the idea of gay priests”. Rev. K. I. Dyvasirvadam of St. Stephen’s Church, Bandra had stated that “The Church of North India (CNI) and the Church of South India (SNI) have accepted women priest but we have not got to the stage of welcoming homosexuals”.
(Henderson Barney & Dutt Vijay, “Homosexual priests not acceptable, say Indian’s Anglican Church”, Hindustan Times, Mumbai, July 2, 2008)
High Court of Bangladesh bans punishment in the name of ‘fatwa’
A landmark verdict was issued by the High Court of Bangladesh in July 2010. The Court ruled that handing down of punishments like caning or beating women in the name of ‘fatwa’ or Islamic decrees is a criminal offence. A two-member bench comprising Judges Syed Mahmud Hossain & Gobinda Chandra Tagore said “Any person who issues or executes such an extra-judicial penalty must be punished for committing a criminal offence”.
(“B’desh HC bans punishment in the name of ‘fatwa’”, DNA, Mumbai, July 10, 2010)
Kerala High Court order favours women entering priesthood
A. Pinniyakkal of Nalluthevanpatti in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu State (India) has been waging a battle against obscurantist forces. She had been performing rituals at the temple ever since her father Pinnathevar “assigned his ancestral pujari rights” to her because of his old age and failing health. Problems started for her after his death on November 12, 2006 when she became the “de facto trustee” of the temple. She faced a number of hurdles and legal complications before a High Court order was passed in her favour.
In his Order, Justice Chandru said neither any provision of law nor any scheme prohibited women from performing puja in the Durgai Amman temple. He also pointed out that the claim that only a male member could be a pujari had no legal or factual basis. “It is ironical that when the presiding deity of the temple was ‘Amman’, in a female form, objections are being raised against a woman in performing pujas in such temples. Even in Vedic times, it is recorded that women had performed pujas and rituals”. This High Court order sent a clear message against attempts to prevent women from entering priesthood, which has hitherto been a male bastion.