Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

Our Identity

Dr. Lalit Mohan Bahugun                 

HkkbZ tku! vki brus vPNs gSa fd vki fgUnw gks gh ugha ldrs” (Dear Brother! You are so good that you can’t be a Hindu at all)”. These were the sentiments of 9 year old Nikhat, daughter of my Muslim office colleague, who was of my father’s age. On his request, I often visited his house to help his elder daughter in English grammar, who was a student of class 10th. It was not, that there were no male members, who knew English grammar among his relatives, but the moment some male member entered his house, all female members would go into purdah. In other words interaction between male members and female members was restricted all together. This was an interesting experience for me. In this family there was cordiality and deep feeling of oneness with me, and I could feel it. Whenever some special dish was prepared in the kitchen of the family, the wife of my colleague would send her son for me. When boxes of mangoes would arrive from her father’s garden, I was always invited to share mangoes with them. When I went to appear in my BA examination, she would offer prayers for my success in the examination in her Namaj. When we look at these personal bonds between us, then who can say that we are different?

But then who had distorted the picture of Hindu in the mind of my friend’s innocent daughter? Obviously, she got this distorted picture of Hindu, in and around her neighborhood. And the picture she had made of a Hindu did not match with the Hindu, she first encountered. So the question is: what is different in us? Race is the same, color is the same, feature are the same, language is the same, dialect is the same, music same, culture same, dress same, reaction and responses towards events are same. But then what is different in us? I had asked the same question to my Muslim friend who happens to be a learned professor of his subject but the Gujarat riots had filled his heart with bitterness. No doubt these riots are a blot on the fair name of the country. And failing to act against the chief Minister of the state, the then Prime Minister had committed a serious offence. My Muslim friend after Gujarat riots had grown beard, so from a distance I could not recognize him because of his newly kept beard .I told him jokingly ““HkkbZ tku! vki ;s bCu&crwrk cus D;ksa ?kwe jgs gSa\ (Dear Brother! Why have you made yourself Ibn- Batuta? (I don’t know if Moroccan traveler had a beard. His answer was “Is it a crime to follow one’s religion?”

“You have been following your religion from the very beginning, but by growing this beard you have tried to show, that you are different from us”.

My friend had no answer, so he kept quiet.

I asked him-“what is different among us? Do you think that Muslims of this country have come from Turkey or Saudi Arabia? Most of them (and that includes Pakistanis also,) are the product of this land only. All have the same features, same blood and have the same cultural milieu. The only difference is that of the concept of worship.”

After some time when I met my friend his beard was gone. My friend is not a religious person, he is liberal, and enlightened one, but in a poisonous environment, the minds of the wise men are also get polluted.

Religion at one point of time in the development of human history, played an important role in organizing societies, it gave strength to face unseen misfortunes and disappointments. But today the same religion has become a curse for the civilized society in the hands of perverts and maniacs.

Religious monomaniacs consider their religion superior to all religions. In their reckoning God is male, he has a book and everything is written in this book. This maniac view of religion has become most dangerous for the world peace. In the name of religion, armies of terrorists are killing innocent people. Their inhuman acts are well known to day. The biggest cause of division among societies is religious identity, which is absolutely artificial and emotionally very potent. This artificial identity disappears and is replaced by the real identity that is cultural, when two persons, one from Pakistan and another from India meet in a foreign country In the year 1999 this author met a Pakistani national in a city of North America, who was working as a security guard, in a multi storied building, with an assumed name and had no legal documents for living in USA. This author was living in the same building and got this story from the mouth of the said watchman.

It was an off day for him, holding the paper cup of coffee in one hand he held me at the Tube Station, to narrate his story. He told me the story of his journey to the US. He was in Bangladesh, from where he came to India, to cross over to Pakistan but was caught in Jammu and put in jail. Some relative from Jammu came to his rescue, and got him out after three and half years of jail. In Pakistan after sometimes he started working in Peshawar. Once he was coming from Peshawar with some liquor, in his thermos flask. He was caught at the Islamabad air port. He told the police that liquor in Peshawar could be bought openly (though its sale is banned strictly by law in Pakistan). But the police won’t buzz. After great persuasion he got freedom, of course he had to part with, not only liquor but the flask also. He was not worried for the flask but was worried for his briefcase, which was full of cash. But the police was probably more interested in liquor than cash.

Tired of his vagaries, he made up his mind to try his luck in the wider world and somehow got in the USA through Mexico. How could he pour out his life story to a foreigner (An Indian was technically a foreigner for a Pakistani)? What was the basis of this confidence? It was our cultural affinity, our language and our common history. Our religious identity suddenly got disappeared. We were partners in our pains. We were communicating directly. He had invited me to his house but owing to last minute engagements I could not spare time to visit him. But he did come to see me off. He showed me the photograph of his wife and child, who were in Pakistan. His eyes turned moist, when he was showing me the photographs. He had given me the address of his relatives in Jammu. I don’t know what would have been his fate after the event of 9-11 in 2001.

All this shows that religious identity is an assumed identity, a fake one, and an acquired one, which becomes palpable by outward signs like tilak, beard or turban or similar icons. You can change your religious identity but can not change your racial identities, as you can not change the color of your eyes. So there is no solid basis for your religious identity. There are a sizable number of people in this world who do not associate themselves with any religious group. For them religious identity does not make any difference. But they still belong to a linguistic group to a cultural group. When ever there is a conflict between identities your cultural identity overpowers the other identities. I am reminded of an incident narrated by a Catholic priest of Kerala who had gone to Rome to participate in the Easter congregation which was going to be addressed by the Pope. Catholic devotees from all over the world had gathered to participate in Misa (prayer). All were supposed to join their linguistic groups, and arrangements were made language wise, for performing the rituals. There was no arrangement for Indian language groups, and all Indian devotees had to join the English speakers group, for this prayer. There was neither Malayalam nor Hindi for this Kerala priest. This incident made him aware of his national as well as linguistic identity, and he made up his mind to learn Hindi at the first opportunity. And this author had the privilege of teaching him Hindi in an Intensive Hindi Teaching program organized for the ecclesiastics by the Govt. of India.

Linguistic identity is part of a larger cultural identity and in practical life it plays a wider role. English by and large is a foreign language for Indians but when we are in a foreign land (where a different language is spoken) it becomes our linguistic identity. This author was working in York (UK) in 1987 when a German friend invited him to celebrate Christmas with her family. Thinking that I will have to communicate in German language I memorized some basic phrases in German, which were rarely used by me, as most of the time, I was accompanied by my friend, but whenever I went alone to the market I could experience the paranoia of a foreigner. But after one week, when I returned to UK, the moment I came out of the airport at Gatwick, I felt at home, though England is a foreign country for me by all means. Thus linguistic identity is of great advantage especially in a foreign country.

Language, race, ethnicity, color, culture, (that includes all art forms including music) are palpable constituents of identity and can be called the real identity to a certain extent. Religious identity is different from these identities though emotionally very powerful. The constituent factors of this identity are purely imaginary and it can be manipulated by crafty and cunning and sometimes by psychopaths.

We associate ourselves with some group in the society. Sociologists claim this to be the innate nature of human beings, but I would attribute this, to the vulnerability and circumstantial dependence of the newborn, on his or her parents. He or she learns to adapt in the family not by choice but by circumstances. So becoming social is his or her destiny and not the innate nature. Apart from well marked identities we do have temporarily acquired identities, such as, we experience when a group of tourists from different cultures and nationalities, get down at an eating place, when you are on a tour. We identify ourselves with the passengers of our bus, as opposed to the passengers of the other bus. Similarly at the international airports, passengers of various airlines belonging to different culture groups gather at the allotted corner to smoke. All such passengers acquire a sort of identity although very short lived one. These are common experiences of short time identities.

It is the issue of religious identity that is afflicting the whole world today. And we hear of the conflict of cultures which boils down to the conflict of religions. It is ironic that the religions that are in conflict, have identical basic frame and have broader affinity as they are different versions of Judaism. Though their followers Christian crusaders and Muslim Ghazis fought bitter wars among themselves during Middle Ages. These religions have so much in common. Both are monotheistic, both have a sacred book, both are faith based, both have strict laws of blasphemy, these sacred books are supposed to have been written by God’s inspiration, and whatever is written in these books is considered sacrosanct. There is no place for reason in these faith based religions. It is common sense that these books written by divine inspiration by saints were written keeping in view the then society and its milieu. Obviously they could not envisage present day information technology or for that matter stem cell research.

Religious fanaticism is an indicator of backwardness of a society. I always asked this question to my Muslim friends ‘how it is that translation of Greek secular literature brought renaissance to Europe in the 17th. Century and broke the religious slumber of Christian Europe, opening the door for science and technology leading to industrialization. Why this thing did not happen to Muslim nations particularly those who were highly advanced like Egypt, Syria and Iraq, when Europeans were far behind them.’ Aristotle and Plato were translated in Arabic long back and as a matter of fact some of the works were available only in Arabic translations and they were translated in European languages not from Greek but from Arabic. But the Arab world has been unaffected by these great works. This phenomenon can be attributed to anti reason stand of Islam. I have yet to get a convincing answer to this query. A asked this question to one of the famous and aged philosopher of our times. He attributed this anti-reason stand to a Muslim scholar of the medieval times known as Al-Gazali. But the story of Al- Gazali that I got from the internet, tells a different tale. Al-Gazali was very much influenced by Aristotle’s Syllogism. So one who is influenced by syllogism, how could he be anti reason? It will not be pertinent to say any thing for sure, in this matter, before studying the matter historically and chronologically.

One thing is sure that the appeal to faith based religions had been more prominent in societies of Africa, Europe and west Asia. The question is how Christianity and Islam became the religion of masses? It is just a guess that ancient religions in countries like India, Greece and Egypt were directed by Brahmans, Philosophers and Priests respectively. And they were the one who dealt with the God, and people in general, were concerned with the ritualistic side of God. This had made these societies stratified. At the top were Brahmans, philosophers and Priests. God and spirituality was their concern. On the other hand teachings of Christianity and Islam were simple and direct; easy to grasp. They had neither the conflict of dualism and non dualism nor that of Nous (divine intellect) vs. nous (human intellect). God’s directions and sermons are recorded in one book, thus making the legislation simplified. Reason was banished out of the kingdom of God .God becomes an autocrat. The first verse of Quran says: This is the same book (that was promised) which has no doubt and is a direction to those who fear (translated from ifo=k dqjku ¼lqxe fgUnh vuqokn), Without a detailed commentary it is difficult to give import of the original but I am reminded of a Mullah ji who had orally recited the first verse of the holy Quran and explained it: whatever is written in this book there is no scope for any doubt.

To accept a written word at its face value without applying reason is difficult for any enlightened person. . However taking into account the mentality of the warring tribes of Saudi Arabia in the 5th or 6th century this prescriptive Rule book makes sense. The biggest contribution of these books is that they brought together the warring tribes giving them an identity. I am reminded of a Mizo Education Officer, whom I met in Lunglei town of Mizoram (India). He showed me his village at the hill top in the range of Arakan hills of Myanmar and told me that there were different tribes living in that area. They used to kill each other and the person who had maximum number of heads, of enemy tribe, hung at the door of his house, was honored. It was a symbol of prestige among the tribe. He thanked Christian missionaries who gave them an organized religion that stopped the bloodshed among tribes. So this newly assumed identity becomes liberator of mind from the shackles of ethnic identity; although this religious identity becomes again a narrow concept not liberating but binding men and women in another frame of mind. We can see this tendency in the so called conflict of cultures.

 Christianity does have fanatics also in its fold. Who can believe, that there can be a state in the US today, that has taken out Darwin’s theory of Evolution from the school syllabus simply because, it contradicts the Biblical myth of Genesis. The name of this state is Tennessee and the bill was passed most probably in 2005. When the bill to this effect was placed on the floor of the house for vote, a lone voice of a woman representative went against this bill. But in the same country we have writers like Mark Twine, the famous satirist who ridiculed the story of Genesis in his famous book “Letters from the Earth” addressed to God. This book was first published in the year 1938 and was banned for some time. But later the ban was lifted. This is the difference between USA and Theocracies of the world. Recently Dan Brown’s book The Vinci Code also saw some rumblings of protest in some countries where Christians are mostly in minority but nothing of the violence that was generated by the publications of cartoons of Mohammad in some Danish news paper. In India we have a Hindi magazine which publishes rubbish about Hindu gods and goddesses; it brings out some demonstrations occasionally but nothing dangerous really. You find fanatics in each religion but their voices are submerged in societies that are enlightened and where moderates are in command. In Muslim societies also fanatics are probably in minority but their voices are louder than the voices of sanity.

Moderate voices of Islam are feeble and where moderates are drawn into the din of extremist propaganda. Muslim intellectuals have to make their voices listen. They have a great challenge before them. They need interpret the Qu’ran in the new light. In the west Muslims are seen with suspicion, although most of them are law abiding citizen. Muslim intellectuals have to make their voice heard among their communities.

My friend’s daughter must be a grandmother by now. It was in the year 1961 that she had uttered these innocent remarks HkkbZ tku! You are so good…I don’t know what would be the picture of an average Hindu in her mind by now, but if I could see her I would definitely ask her “When the waves of Tsunami were sweeping thousands of people from their homes, right from Indonesia to the coastal areas of Kenya, did she make a distinction between a Muslim, Hindu, Christian or a Buddhist? Those waves caused havoc with young and old, unborn or newly born, saints and sinners, law abiding citizens and swindlers alike. Did those killer waves make a distinction between these? Did it consider their religious identity? When the earth quake victims were admitted in a hospital did the doctor give different medicine to the patients of different religion? Did the doctor ask the blood donor his religious identity before taking blood? Did it not happen sometimes that the blood group of a Hindu did not match with the blood group of a Hindu victim and did match with that of a Muslim? There are innumerable situations in impractical life, when religious identity becomes meaningless.

The fact is that the God of human imagination is a fatherly figure in the image of his or her biological father under whose protection he or she felt totally safe. So in all religions God is perceived as Father. Freud calls this infantile fantasy. But I can say for certain a villager born in India, whatever his religion, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or a Buddhist can not think of a formless God. His or her God is a fatherly or motherly figure who will supposedly save him or her from unforeseen miseries and misfortunes. He or she cannot think of a God, that controls not only this universe, which in religious imagination, is made up of a solar system, but which controls millions of suns, huge galaxies, nebulas, milky ways and innumerable shooting stars. This astronomical God can’t be a God that religious leaders especially that of faith based religions make you to believe. That is why religions are divided into two classes faith based and wisdom based. A God that controls Astronomical universe can’t be either male or female. For an average Indian whatever his religion, God is a father and the moment you say father, the human image comes to mind. I witnessed this interesting phenomenon in the year 1975 at a convent in Hazaribagh town of Bihar.

There is a convent about five miles away from the town and this author had a chance to live in that convent in connection with an Intensive Hindi Teaching Program organized for the Christian missionaries, who had no knowledge of Hindi. There were a good number of foreign ecclesiastics also in that group. I enjoyed talking to those foreign missionaries. The convent was at a secluded place away from the humdrum of the town, and was surrounded by a forest. In the evenings I used to walk with an American priest (father Grib). Once when we were returning to the convent after a long walk I heard the tune of a Hindu devotional song. (Bhajan) “ Om jay jagdish hare” (vkWe t; txnh'k gjs) from the convent. Not only the words but the accompanying instruments and the musical notes were of this famous song. I was puzzled, how come; this Hindu prayer is being sung in this convent? When we reached the convent then I heard the actual words. They had replaced the word txnh'k  with [kh'r  (Khrist) that’s Christ. I told father Grib “father Grib! You have not converted these simple folk to Christianity; rather your Christ has become a Hindu deity”1 Father Grib had no answer. This event shows that religious identity is superfluous and becomes the part of cultural identity at psychic level. For a simple minded villager a monotheistic abstract God is simply not palpable, it has to be solid and perceivable.

In the present day world a world culture is developing. The need of the hour is that Priests, Pundits and Maulavies come together and highlight the common core of religions instead of stressing the conflict of cultures. Ultimately we are going to have our global identity. One can maintain one’s separate identity through arts, music, and dance and other cultural symbols, rather than outwardly signs of tilak, beard and turban.


   1.  This incident was reported in one of my articles in the Journal of Indian Philosophical Research under the title “ Does Grammar have any relation to Theology?” in Vol.18 April-June 2001 and the same has been recorded in World  Philosophers’ Index Ohio(USA) and permission to quote it was asked from this author.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati