- A Fulbright Virtual Academic Exchange project reminded me of the importance of teaching young people across political and religious lines what this world truly is – one world, different religions and beliefs, all teaching them to be good global citizens with respect and love for all.
It was December 6, the infamous anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid, that something came across in my inbox and caught my eye. It was an invite to attend an online Zoom series of lectures — a U.S.-Pakistan Fulbright Virtual Academic Exchange — Collaborative Online Interactive Learning or COIL.
The sessions were part of the current Fulbright capacity-building project through UMT’s Department of Political Science and International Relations (DPSIR) and Florida International University. This series of lectures hosted a scholar from the United States with a Pakistani scholar who served as a discussant with students from both countries in dialogue. More about this later.
But first about Dec. 6 itself. Every year I relive that horrible year in Indian democracy when the more than 500-year-old mosque was demolished in 1992, by goons belonging to the extreme rightwing Hindu fanatics – think Jan. 6 insurgency at the Capitol here in the United States.
That one incident ignited communal violence across the Indian subcontinent with brutal results. It was the single most horrifying incident of my young adult life. A soul-crushing experience that remained within us all, even after the 2019 Indian Supreme Court decision granting the site over to the Hindus and “settled” the matter once and for all.
Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was built at a site believed by many Hindus to be the birthplace of Hindu deity Rama and thus a focus of a dispute between the Hindu and Muslim communities since the 18th century.
According to the mosque’s inscriptions, it was built in 1528–29 on the orders of Mughal emperor Babur. Many Indian scholars have disagreed about the mosque being built on an existing Hindu temple and many are convinced it was, thus the years of controversy and its ultimate besiege and destruction.
Back to the COIL lecture series. I was fortunate enough to get a hold of Iqbal Akhtar, a Fulbright scholar from the U.S. and now based in Lahore, Pakistan for the last two years, who was the facilitator of one of the series titled “Hinduism Today.” The two scholars who participated in this talk were Dr. Anjana Mishra from the University of Florida and Masooma Sabzwari, a scholar from Pakistan.
“COIL is an attempt and an ability to connect Pakistani scholars to the rest of the world, creating a two-way space between Pakistani and American scholars,” Akhtar told me via Whatsapp. It was past midnight in Lahore when we connected.
“There are a lot of negative perceptions about Pakistan in the United States and COIL hopefully will be able to present the other face of Pakistan which is highly scholarly as well as help scholars in Pakistan who want to focus on multiculturalism and pluralism for better diversity and inclusion,” Akhtar believes.
According to him, when he came to Pakistan two years ago, he found a society much different from what he perceived back in the U.S. “I find a lot of interest in young people to learn more about other cultures and the world – as well as learning more about the pre-Islamic heritage of Pakistan.”
I was able to catch some portions of the topic “Hinduism Today” with various other interesting topics such as “Jews of Cochin (India)”; “Dara Shikho and Sarmad”; “Inequality in American History; Religion & Nature.”
Dr. Anjana Mishra’s slides were mostly about the origins of Hinduism with special reference to Hinduism as a way of life. To me personally, it was a great leveler since I identify myself as an atheist. The talk compelled me to read more about my own religion which I was born into. I see myself as someone who respects all religions but strongly abhor the “my-way-or-the-highway” stance of religious fanatics from all sides of the aisle.
When I write about something that I see as unfair, it doesn’t translate into “because I hate Hindu religion.” Rather, it comes from someone who grew up with a strong sense of right and wrong, including the role religion plays in one’s life. My views have been formed seeing/experiencing religion firsthand (growing up in the Holy City of Banaras) and later being told by my very forward-thinking and religious mother that all religion is great so long as it doesn’t disrespect others.
I decided to give myself a bit of education once again in Hinduism and came across an interesting article that took a deeper dive into what Hinduism is. It is certainly not what the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) or the BJP (the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party) represent in India – hate, bigotry and Islamophobia.
Hinduism, also known as the Sanatana Dharma, or “Eternal Way,” is one of the oldest living religions, with over one billion adherents. Hinduism’s three pillars are temple worship, scripture and the guru-disciple tradition. Festivals, pilgrimage, chanting of holy hymns and home worship are dynamic practices.
Of the predominant nine beliefs of Hinduism, the last three caught my eye – 1. Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words and deeds; 2) Hindus believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice ahimsa, non-injury, in thought, word and deed. and 3) Hindus believe that no religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all genuine paths are facets of God’s Light, deserving tolerance and understanding.
This to me is the essence of what Hinduism is – the religion that my mother follows and that generations before her have. The COIL project reminded me of the importance of teaching young people across political and religious lines what this world truly is – one world, different religions and beliefs, all teaching them to be good global citizens with respect and love for all! A true utopian ending to this rather meandering article.
Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.