Achieving the Impossible--Tolerance is an absolute necessity for rebuilding a grossly fragmented world
Reflections on United Nations International Day for Tolerance 2023
-- Dr. A. K. Merchant* :
In1896 in England, Swami Vivekananda declared that India was chosen by Providence to give a new civilization to the world and India had been doing that for ages. He asserted that India will conquer the world with her spirituality. We, Indians, have no other alternative—we have to do this or die. India or Bharat with its clarion call of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (One Planet, One Family, One Future) was powerfully showcased during the year-long presidency of G20. For the vast majority of the population in the country our confidence level is high. “The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch…” Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, a contemporary of Vivekananda, had proclaimed over 150 years ago.
When the United Nations was established on 24 October 1945, it made three promises: (i) That it would try to stop nations from going to war, prevent fighting; (ii) That all human beings would be treated fairly and justly, whether they are weak or strong; (iii) That nations would work together to help each other have better and happier lives.
Sadly, all of humanity has failed to live up to even one of the three promises. When will we learn and grow up!p pUnited Nations proclaimed 1995 as “The Year for Tolerance” and adopted the declaration: “Tolerance is respect, acceptance, and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” For the promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence, UNESCO created “The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize" in the amount of US $100,000 in 1995.
The prize is awarded every two years to individuals or organizations at International Tolerance Day. In 2022 Franca Ma-ih Sulem Yong from Cameroon, President of the NGOs #Afrogiveness and Positive Youths Africa received the prize. As a journalist she worked hard to change peoples’ perception in the way mental illness is viewed and represented in society. Trained in art therapy and psychology, she became the founder and president of two NGOs: Afrogiveness Movement (#Aforgiveness) and Positive Youths Africa (PYA).
Their ambition is to enable traumatized survivors of interfaith and intercultural conflicts in nine African countries to heal from their trauma through the universal language of the arts. In the months that followed due the wars in Europe and the Middle-East the world has become even more traumatized and violent. What truly harmonizes India is her spiritual and moral culture—it is the only thing that can keep us together in the face of divisive forces.
As explained by Swami Vivekananda, spirituality was not a mere epiphenomenon of larger historical developments. Rather, it had to be an instrument for the “transformation” that would come from a fusion of Eastern wisdom with practical Western pluralism that contrasted spirituality with materialism, tolerance with intolerance, transcendence with instrumentalism. He further warned his disciples: “The idea of caste is the greatest dividing factor... all caste either on the principle of birth or of merit is bondage.” The Baha’i writings emphasize that a country can progress only if each and every citizen can progress. Law or government cannot ensure the progress of society. It is always society that has to get working for its own welfare.
The recent Bill ensuring one-third women representation in the Parliament is a historic achievement. Some of the tools for achieving tolerance in different settings of the society as developed in the worldwide Baha'i community may be described as: (1) Collaborative study for transformation—The transformation of the individual is not an isolated process, neither ascetic nor centred wholly on one’s self-fulfillment. Study circles open to all people are useful spaces for eradicating situations of intolerance. (2) Spiritual education of children—children are potentially the light of the world. Hence it important to assist children to acquire moral values and a good character. (3) Empowering youth—youth programmes aimed at providing them with a sense of purpose, building their confidence, enhancing their capacity for listening and problem solving, and making responsible choices. (4) Devotional gatherings—turning to the Divine in prayer gives inner strength and solace from the tests and trials of life. Two more lines of action that reinforce the four core activities are: undertaking services for the poor and needy, and participating in public discourses.
These are all the lessons that provide resilience and teach the importance of tolerance. And who knows, such initiatives could become a solid framework for establishing world peace as a consequence of the awakening of masses of humankind and fusion of all sections of the population regardless of caste, creed, class, nationality, race and religion.
*The author is a social worker, independent researcher and an active member of the Bahá’i Community of India.