A secular choir in Bombay, one of the oldest in India, suddenly had a piquant situation. They were invited to sing for a program which was in praise to a particular god. The committee immediately accepted with the exception of one lone member who said that his community, which formed the major part of the choir, but was represented in a miniscule way in the committee, could not sing.

“Why?” one of the committee members asked, “We sing in your churches don’t we? We sing your hymns and classics?”

“Yes, that’s because your religion doesn’t forbid you to do so, mine does!”

“We are a secular choir, so we should sing anything!” they said.

“Secularism,” he replied, “Doesn’t mean that we all believe in the same thing. On the contrary secularism means understanding other religions and existing together knowing and following a common minimum program, where the beliefs of others are not trampled upon, and where the commonality is celebrated together!”

We need to understand this in a multi religious society like our country.

I have two close friends, one a Muslim and the other a Brahmin. We love each other’s company and go out for a meal quite often. One doesn’t eat meat, the other doesn’t eat pork and I eat most anything. Now just because I can eat a vegetarian meal and a meal with pork, doesn’t mean that I tell them that they also should eat what I eat, which means everything? No, we go to a restaurant, where none of us feel uncomfortable, and what benefits is, is our friendship.

When we don’t understand this method, and make judgements only based on what we do, or how we adjust, then begins the crumbling of relationships, crumbling of a choir, crumbling also of a country!

But now I’m going to move even deeper. Even as we need to study the religions of others, we need to study that of our own. I was amazed to see a few people in that same choir who were practising the penances and sacrifices of Lent, showing their willingness to sing in praise of a god that was forbidden in their religion.

“It doesn’t matter!” they said, looking painfully hurt, because they had fasted the full day, “I am secular!”

“No,” I said in my mind, “You are a hypocrite, plain and simple!”

And just suppose they had heard me, I’m sure they would have asked, “How am I one? I am just doing this so that I am not labelled a bigot!”

“You will never be labelled a bigot for following what your religion teaches you to do,” I would have said, “But when you can practise, your beliefs within the closed doors of your home, and practise another set of beliefs with a group so you will be accepted, then you are a hypocrite, aren’t you?”

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