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Acceptance of Diversity a Catalyst for Peace, Understanding

Issue Date: 10/15/2004

Dr.Bal Ram Singh

Reaction to my previous opinion piece on why it is wrong to describe India as tolerant was, in private e-mails at least, strong and varied, and hence this follow-up. Tolerance is a good beginning for those civilizations which lack memory of their ancestral culture, a collective wisdom integrated over a long period of time and space. Voltaire once said tolerance "is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly - that is the first law of nature." As you can see, this idea of promoting tolerance has been going on for about 300 years now, and the happenings of the world today and gustoes of tolerance from George W. Bush and Tony Blair do not exactly spell optimism. While it is good to be forgiving, tolerance in itself does not, in the long term, invite progressive interaction in a society.

Acceptance of differences is a key factor to further progress and ultimate enlightenment. Why? Because differences are the most natural thing around us, and one does not need to scale the walls of a seven-story library to understand this. Acceptance of differences ensures one's own existence. It removes our insecurity and distrust about others. And, consequently, it makes us less vulnerable to manipulation by priests as well as political pundits. For true acceptance, however, a series of things needs to happen. Acceptance is a mutual action with utmost sincerity to create mutual understanding. Mahatma Gandhi once said, "It is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others' religions as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world's religions is a sacred duty."

In practical terms, sympathetic and friendly studies need to have noble goals. For example, pursuit of truth brings scientists from varied fields to study and collaborate with each other, with enormous interest, efforts and respect. Most funding agencies in the United States outline the need of multidisciplinary approach clearly and consciously. Pursuit of the truth can be the ultimate uniting factor for the people of this world. And the Indian concept of "ekam sat viprah vahudha vadanti" ("truth is one, sages call it in various ways"), is light years ahead of today's concept of might is the right way to enforce "truth." At the same time, acceptance is not painless for the accepting and the one being accepted.

Acceptance involves knowledge of others. Considering the vast number of people one has to know, it is generally done by profiling the general characteristics of a group to identify and label. Despite many valid arguments against profiling and labeling, I strongly believe that profiling and labeling precede acceptance. It is only natural and inevitable. However, acceptance does not mean adoption of other's way of life or living.

Humans are too unique to be treated accurately with strict common rules. Freedom is required and diversity is its innate expression. For the concept of acceptance to work though mutual respect, trust and dependability are required. As an example, acceptance of the different ways of life is nowhere more visible than in India, where there are about 68,000 "jaatis" (also referred to as castes). Many in the media and intellectual circles mistakenly consider "jaatis" of India as a curse, but in reality "jaatis" are the result of acceptance of the ways of life for different groups of people. While "jaatis" in India may belong to same faith, their lifestyles, including mode of worshipping, marriage, food and social habits are quite different. Acceptance of them as such provides them the freedom to live their way of life, and in many ways contribute to the society at large.

The culture of acceptance practiced in India for millennia is equally applied to people of different faiths, especially in rural India. For the rest of the world, those who propound just one way of life have been responsible for major oppression and exploitation through colonization, slavery, imperialism and communism, snatching the freedom of the people at every step.

Multiculturism being displayed in the 21st century is a great acknowledgement of the need for differences to exist in the interest of the society's progress. Mark Twain remarked, "It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races." However, multiculturism must be practiced based on acceptance as in acknowledgement of another's way of life, rather than tolerance. Then only, one can learn from another's experiences with open arms, an approach most beautifully expounded by Gandhi-ji: "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stifled. I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."

Bal Ram Singh, the director of the Center for Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, may be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.

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