By Swami Agnivesh
India is a land of pilgrims and pilgrimages. But our pilgrimages have so far had two major limitations. In the first place, they have been mostly religious exercises peculiar to particular communities. They are rarely, if ever, shared inter-religiously. Every religious tradition has its own exclusive centres of pilgrimage. The idea of a multi-religious pilgrimage is unimaginable in our context.
Secondly, pilgrimages have been more or less individualistic. Each pilgrim expects to derive some religious merit for himself, either in this world or in the world to come, by undertaking pilgrimages. Pilgrimage, as a collective quest for truth and justice as integral to true spirituality is an altogether new phenomenon in the religious context anywhere in the world. In these respects, the multi-religious pilgrimage to Baripada and Manoharpur - where Graham Staines and his sons were burnt alive - signals a paradigm - shift in pilgrimages. On the 10th of March 1999 a group of 51 pilgrims drawn from diverse religious traditions that reflect our heritage of religious and cultural plurality, set out from Delhi on their pilgrimage. There were Muslim Maulanas, Hindu Maha Mandaleswars, Christian priests and nuns, Jain Munis and Sadhvis, Sikh Gyanis and scholars, Arya Sanyasins and Dalit leaders – all travelling in one compartment, eating together and singing bhajans together. They were moved by the inspiring demonstration of true spirituality in the life and witness of the Staines family, especially that of Mrs. Gladys Staines.
The pilgrims were all deeply devoted to their own religious traditions, without thereby being rendered narrow-minded. They shared a profound appreciation for the spiritual glow in the way Gladys responded to her personal tragedy as well as committed herself to the service of the victims of leprosy in continuation of her slain husband's work. This pilgrimage, therefore, points to a paradigm shift from the divisive potential of religion to the uniting and integrating role of true spirituality. This has profound significance today when religion is being abused for political gains and turned into an instrument of alienation and atrocities.
Everyone was deeply touched by Gladys Staines. She is a simple housewife, unused to the subtleties of theology and political strategies. Though modest and shy of publicity, she exudes the peace and serenity that result from simple faith and total devotion. She leaves an enduring impression on all people, prompting everyone to ask as to what comprises the secret of her spiritual strength.
We are not unfamiliar to murders and widows in this country. But rarely have we seen a lady responding with such fortitude and magnanimity to the kind of ultimate personal pain that Gladys has suffered. In our entire interactions with Gladys, there was no trace of complaint or grievance. Instead she was full of gratitude to people all over India, especially in Baripada, who stood by her in the darkest hour of her life. The extent to which she has identified herself emotionally and culturally with India, and her keenness to continue her husband's work rather than return to the affluence and security of Australia, cannot but strike everyone as refreshingly different from all that is familiar.
Gladys left us wondering about the spiritual foundations of human strength. Her willingness to spontaneously forgive the killers, and her prayer that God may touch and liberate their hearts through love, has proved to be incomparably stronger than the forces of hate that consumed her husband and sons. Through her spiritually enlightened reaction Gladys has been able to arrest the forces of irreligion, at the same time challenging us to respond constructively to the hurts as well as the opportunities of life. It is this spirit, rather than the cheap thrill of killing and vandalizing that India needs at present.
In her simple and sparse remarks to the pilgrims Gladys was emphatic that both in their life of service and in her spirit of forgiveness, the Staines family is empowered by biblical spirituality. For them religion involves a dynamic engagement with the given human context, addressing the needs especially of the neglected and the discarded. The role of religion is not to make us shun the world of realities. Religion, on the contrary, is the foremost resource we have for transforming human nature and society. But when religions decay and degenerate, this aspect is superceded by religious obscurantism and fanaticism turning religion into a liability rather than a source of light.
The pilgrims to Baripada and Manoharpur returned with the firm conviction that sound religiosity inspired by social spirituality is the foremost need of our country. The contrasting faces of the Staines tragedy - the shameful and the glorious - enable us to make an informed choice in this context. The politicization of religion that expresses itself through the cynical abuse and exploitation of religious loyalties to subserve vested interests has attained epidemic proportions in our midst. This is highly injurious to our social and national health. As common people we need to condemn and reject this spurious phenomenon. However, the task does not end here. The positive task is to nurture the people in the practice of true spirituality, aimed at social transformation and people's empowerment so as to build a nation that is vibrant and forward-looking. It is in this context that Gladys, despite her apparent 'foreign' identity can be a role-model that cuts across religious differences.
The outbreak of criminality and violence in the name of religion and the awakening of the fundamentalist spirit in all religions at the present time together point to the inadequacy of the secular paradigm. The rise of religious fundamentalism in the Indian context owes a great deal to negative secularism as an anti-religious ideology. This liberated politics from the confines of ethical guidelines. Cynically understood as the art of the possible, politics gradually lost sight of people's welfare as its true goal resulting in massive corruption. The national cause has been pawned to fatten the elite. Politics has thus, become a sphere of shameless self-seeking. Since all political parties are unmindful of the welfare of the people, the only way they can secure continued support is by manipulating religious sentiments. The grotesque face of this national curse is evident in the recent communal atrocities that include the murder of Graham Staines and the dalits of Bihar. The greatest disservice that the people of India can do to themselves is to condone this criminality in the name of religion.
The massacre in Manoharpur as well as Gladys' response to it leaves us with some basic questions. What is religion? Is it something that inspires service to people or promotes murder and mayhem? Who represents true religion? People like Gladys who refuses to hate, or the agents of hate who kill the servants of the poor in the name of saving their Gods? What is religion worth if it is not to nurture us in a sense of compassion and fellow feeling that denies us peace unless we practice justice and uphold the truth?
We have been praying for millennia and we continue to pray to be led from "darkness to light, falsehood to truth, and death to immortality". But the forces of darkness, death and deceit are progressively overwhelming us. The fault is not with the prayer but with us for not honouring the prayer by acting in its light. No one can say this Vedic prayer honestly without practicing social spirituality the like of which is exemplified in the Staines family. It is time we realized that true religion involves a fierce commitment to uphold truth, practice justice and to fight forces of evil no matter where they are found. All religions must find their common cause or shared responsibility in this context. Only then will the truth dawn on us that religions are not each other's enemies, but fellow pilgrims moving towards the shrine of human well being and social health. The tragedy in Manoharpur can be transformed into a national triumph if this paradigm shift in inter-religious cooperation is brought about. This was the vision that underlay the multi-religious pilgrimage to Manoharpur.