I attended recently an inter-faith dialog on topic of “the concept of God in Hinduism and Islam in the light of sacred scriptures,” sponsored by a Muslim educational group. In a loosely structured debate, Dr. Zakir Naik of the Islamic Research Foundation, a prominent Muslim scholar and orator, and Nobel-prize nominated Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (heh! what a great name!), well-known for both his Hindu leadership and international aid involvement– he’s the founder of several international NGOs.
It was a huge event– widely promoted in Bangalore, and televised internationally. I estimate that there were perhaps 100,000 people in attendance, mostly Muslims. Dr. Naik, from the Islamic perspective, spoke first. In short, he was remarkable: to stood and spoke forcefully and convincingly for fifty minutes in front of a crowd of 100,000 people. He quoted the Qu’ran in Arabic, before translating into English, and quoted the Vedas in Sanscrit, before also translating to English. He was exceptionally well-organized, using quotes, properly cited, from international sources and the sacred scriptures to support every point. He was very easy to follow, and commanded one’s complete attention. He a balanced view of both sides, in a thoroughly scholarly manner– and did it all without notes.
Unforunately, he wasn’t well matched. Although Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is an impressive individual– one with exceptional heart and compassion, he’s not a scholar, and his response was only marginally related to the topic, rather rambling and disorganized, and actually made very little mention of the sacred scriptures, except to quote them occasionally (heh, and NOT translate them into English). But one thing he said, in particular, stood out in my mind. “Thirty years ago,” he told the crowd, “religious tollerence was the goal. But tollerence is a feeble word. You tollerate something you don’t like. We need to go beyond tollerence and learn to love. We must see the commonness in everything, and celebrate the differences.”
Heh. I was much ammused: at one point, someone near the front of the crowd stood up and looked behind him, as though something interesting was happening at the back of the event. Like doing the wave, people behind him stood up and did similarly, and it spread its way to the back of the crowd– people standing up to see what everyone else was looking at. Which, of course, was nothing, but people are curious like that. =)
Most outstanding was spending an entire evening at a psedu-religious event, and never once was money mentioned. No mentions of donations, or support. No mention of tithes, or giving, or of god being poor. That impressed me, a lot.
But most poigniant– and perhaps one of the startling moments since my arrival in South-East Asia was the realization, after two hours of sitting in the crowd, that there was not a woman in the crowd! Or, rather my part of the crowd– the event had been entirely segregated by gender. ALL of the women who had come were seated in a walled-off section on the left-hand side. Proportionally, there were probably only 20,000 females (mostly vieled) in a crowd of 100,000, but… I don’t even know how to describe my reaction. HOW had I sat in the crowd for two hours and NOT noticed the complete absence of women? It wasn’t until the question and answer session began, and the chairman was explaining the position of the microphones– two for men, and two for the women– that I realized that the women were all in the partition to the left.
I can’t describe the effect this had on me. There’s been a number of cultural elements in India that have challenged my western notions, but most I had been at least partially prepared to deal with. I knew, for example, that many marriages in India were arranged. I didn’t understand that, for all intents and purposes, all marriages are arranged– and many are arranged entirely according to arbitary placement. In short, society randomly joins pairs of stranges, and bids them to be happy and multiply. I’m still trying to come to terms with that. But it wasn’t totally unexpected. But being at a huge, public event, and suddenly realizing that it was completely segregated by gender– that was genuinely startling. I’m sure I fail to convey the immensity of the event– how much space 100,000 chairs takes up (it was held outdoors, in the huge, open Palace Grounds (although from what they gain that appelation, I don’t know), and just how stark the division was. Not a woman in the crowd– all the women protected from the probing eyes of men by a tall, white cloth barrier. And by their veils– covering them from head to toe, save their eyes, hands and… toes.