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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

Universalism and Social Equality: Relevance of the Brahmo Samaj Today

Monday 26 December 2016


by Malavika Nagarkar

The following is the address by Malavika Nagarkar, the President of the Brahmo Conference, at the inaugural session of the 126th All India Brahmo Conference (New Delhi, November 12, 2016).

I feel truly humbled as I stand here today to address this august congregation, in a position earlier held by some very highly eminent and venerated citizens of this great land, scholars and members of the Brahmo Samaj, and of society at large—persons who contributed to the advance-ment of Indian society and thinking, to bring us on par with the developed, modern world at a time when Indians were lost in a slumber of medieval darkness, superstition and false beliefs. I feel the burden of a weight my all too weak shoulders are well-nigh incapable of carrying—the burden of this responsibility of being where all-time greats strode with humility, glory and dignity. I earnestly request the present congregation to bear with my shortcomings and allow me to express my thoughts—naive though they may seem.

As I commence, I ask for blessings and inspiration from all our leaders of the Brahmo Samaj to guide and bless me so that I may express their ideas and interpret them in the changing times without doing injustice to their insistence on faith in the Almighty and rationalism. And, I cannot continue without seeking the blessings of the Almighty, the ekamevadvitiyam, the Creator and Preserver of this universe.

When we talk about Raja Rammohan Roy, the Father of Modern Renaissance in India, it is common to hear it being said that this great visionary, who totally revolutionised the thinking of Indian society, was a man far ahead of his times. May I make so bold as to say that when we look at the dire state of present-day society across the globe, and in India in particular, and the obsolete, obscurantist and outdated beliefs, and the self-centred, narrow, selfish, superstitious and highly condemnable behaviour of the people who make up this society, we have to admit in shame, that even if Rammohan Roy had been born today, he would still have been considered far ahead of these times? Where is today the courage of this unique personality? In how many today can we identify the thinking and vision that was demonstrated by this rare human being? And how many of us today have the conviction, not only to speak out our ideas, but also to live by the beliefs that we hold as true, and to propagate them relentlessly, in the face of all opposition, because we believe that these ideas are in the interest of the progress, well-being and health of society and of the nation?

One after the other the Brahmo Samaj was fortunate to have had leaders of the rare calibre and scholarship of Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, Acharya Shivnath Shastri and Brahma-nand Keshub Chandra Sen, and equal greats in other parts of India, and yet we have not been able to rise to their strength and stature, and have sometimes allowed the trifles of the world around us to overtake and overpower us. This is where one realises the courage it requires to hold on, at all costs, to one’s beliefs, and rise above the meaningless din of ordinary life, knowing the value of what it is that you hold dearest to your heart.

Did something go amiss along the way? Did we, indeed, go wrong? The fact that we have gathered here is evidence enough of our faith in our Faith. It is also eloquent of our trust that this faith in the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man can, and will, ultimately reign supreme as the faith of all humanity, by all humanity and for all humanity. May be this Conference is a time when we can all, as a congregation, introspect and exchange our ideas to find a way that will ensure that this ‘satya dharma’ becomes a way of life, not just for all of us who have been born into this faith or have accepted it later, but for our families, including the younger generation, and for more right-minded people who value peace and progress for all mankind.

Sectarianism of all kinds, divisions of all kinds, and hate of all colours and shades are doing a devilish dance in our country today. The Constitution of free India has granted us equality and special privileges where required, to ensure that we develop as an unbiased society and use the freedom and democracy we achieved after centuries of enslavement and feudalism, for our national benefit and advan-tage. The reformers of the nineteenth century ensured that our nation took an Olympian leap from the “dreary desert sand of dead habit” to the light of hope for a “heaven of freedom” as envisaged by the sage poet, Rabindranath Tagore. Our ancestors carried the torch of enlightenment, brotherhood and equality further and handed it over trustingly into our hands.

Science and technology marched ahead and communication improved. We were exposed to the world outside like never before. Given our faith in the equality of all mankind, no one was better prepared than us to accept these dramatic and drastic changes and assimilate them, and into them, without any discomfort or culture shock.

I wonder if our numbers made us feel insecure or apologetic about our path of truth and humanity. But then was it not Rammohan Roy who told us that a truth is a truth regardless of the numbers who adhere to it? Why are we then hesitant in expressing our truth? Why are we sometimes desperately trying to hide our belief? There is no need to flaunt it, but can we not carry our belief, so assimilated into our everyday life, with conviction, with confidence?

Our faith and our everyday life are not water-tight compartments. Our every prayer— whether in solitude, in family or in congregation, takes us closer to understanding the qualities we must imbibe and express in our dealings with people and with ourselves, as we live our routine lives. We reiterate God’s qualities every time we recite “satyamdnyanam...”, we remind ourselves of the glory of that Eternal One who is there with us at all times to protect us, to show us the way in life, to give us the strength to walk that path and to give us kindnessin our hearts so that we can think of others and live lives that are not self-centred but are others-centred. With every hymn we render we understand the Almighty, His presence in the universe, in nature and also His relation with us. We do not say our prayer as habit but with a repeated understanding of our place and our role on this planet and in this universe.We do ask from God, but what do we ask for? Increased faith in Him, the blessing to live by our drop of the divine qualities—living with love and kindness for the good of all, not allowing our weaknesses like our ego, our jealousies, our selfishness to rule us, and, above all, with every passing moment to be patient in all our trials and tribulations, recognising all the good that He has blessed us with. We pray that He gives us the good sense to use our qualities and our strengths to achieve what we dream of. We do not ask that He gives us a job, that He passes us in our exams, that He gives us a foreign trip, a child, a car, and all that unending list of our desires in life. We do not bargain with God or tempt Him with our useless worldly gifts, bringing God down from His glory to that of a self-seeking human being with all our frailties. We pray that we work diligently, and with integrity, to achieve what is needed, and seek the strength to value what we have earned through our sincere efforts, without allowing pride to creep into our hearts and minds. Who are we to offer other worldly trifles to Him, who is the Creator and Preserver of this universe?

As John Milton says in his famous sonnet, taking the essence of these lines:

“God doth not need 

Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In our prayer: Yaeshasupteshujagarti..., are we not saying something similar?—He is the one toiling day and night, even as we sleep and rest, to produce for our survival and sustenance. There is no doubt that He is the One Supreme.

I feel a deep sense of pride when I see Brahmos who are even now living their lives with this faith, humility and prayer, with not a touch of false pride to destroy their essential humanity, and wholeheartedly fulfilling all their household and societal responsibilities. These are the people who have understood their faith as ‘religion of the householder’. You and I have seen family members having the courage to take the downs with the same patience they have for the ups in their lives. Neither disturbs or dispossesses them. This is the impact of true prayer and faith in the Almighty—our Father and our Mother.

You and I grew up in Brahmo homes, where prayers, humility, faith in His kindness in all situations, family values and love of all mankind have been the supporting pillars. This has inculcated in us a respect for human beings, for life, for society and for the institutions established for the smooth functioning of society, and further the country, and still further, the world. If this is so ingrained in us, what stops us from inculcating these values into the next generation, and also into those we come in contact with? Let me clarify here—I mean by example. Prayer is a pause to reiterate these values of humanity, to feel within us a deep sense of gratitude for what we have received with His benevolence and a time to re-under-stand our relation with Him and with all human beings so that we live the path God wishes His children to walk upon.

As a teacher it is my duty to live the talk. Only then will my students believe me, trust me and live their lives similarly. It is the duty of every parent in every home to give some time to meditate on the Eternal One, sometimes in solitude and on specified days and at regular intervals as a family and to then live by that prayer.

The world and our surroundings are changing, so where is the time to pray? This brings to my mind the poem: “Letter from God”, in which God addresses man who has no time to pray in his frivolous activities in the morning. Then at lunch the man is embarrassed to pray as people are looking. Then the evening is busy. By the time man returns home he is too tired to pray. The poem concludes with God saying that He has patience and He will wait because He knows that some day man will “surrender his strength to God’s will”.

And even before this happens, God continues to be with us and guide and protect us.

God has patience, but it is prayer that will cultivate patience and balance of approach in life in us. It will help us to see all as brothers having an equal right to live their lives as we would like to live ours.

But then why are we unable to live respecting the rights of others? With the world coming so close is it not necessary to understand this?

In his film, The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin makes a speech in the concluding part where he talks of the essential nature of man:

May I read out a part of that speech?

“We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness—not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there’s room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.

The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls —has barricaded the world with hate—has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man—cries for universal brotherhood—for the unity of us all.”

And yet, even as we interact across the continents, and fly from one end of the world to the other, we seem to only notice the differences. Why can we not see the similarities? Why do we not understand that the earth can provide for all?

Khalil Gibran cautions us in The Prophet when he talks of the rich earth and why we should be just in our dealings with others:

“For the master spirit of the earth shall not sleep peacefully upon the wind till the needs of the least of you are satisfied.”

When we look around today we realise that we are living in an imbalanced society where the ‘haves’ have everything and the ‘have-nots’ can only envy the ‘haves’. We have at present a world that is once again “broken into narrow domestic walls”, not understanding that, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it,

“When we put restrictions on others we put restrictions on ourselves as well.We have made the world today into a dreadful and fearful place to live in. It is no more our home -a home is where we are secure, safe. We live in a world where danger seems to be lurking round every corner, and yet, we little realise that even the perpetrators of this violence and intolerance could well become the victims of their own rash actions.”

The famous 17th century poet, John Donne, had said:

“No man is an island entire unto itself. Each is a part of the main.”


“Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you. For when one man dies a part of you dies as well.”

I think it is this that even Rammohan Roy meant when he shook us out of our long slumber to understand his concept of “universal brother-hood”.

Our conference is a time for us to think and understand once again the relevance of the path that Rammohan Roy showed the world. It is for us to comprehend that today the internet and the mobile phones—and the whole of technology—have brought us into a highly inter-related and inter-dependent world in which no man or group can survive in isolation. And more than ever before it is now that we need to understand, imbibe and live by the principle of Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of mankind.

May I end with a poem by James Kirkup that echoes the same thought?

No Men Are Foreign

              —James Kirkup

Remember, no men are strange, no countries foreign.

Beneath all uniforms, a single body breathes

Like ours; the land our brothers walk upon

Is earth like this, in which we all shall lie.

They, too, aware of sun and air and water,

Are fed by peaceful harvests, by war’s long winter starv’d.

Their hands are ours, and in their lines we read 

A labour not different from our own.

Remember, they have eyes like ours that wake

Or sleep, and strength that can be won

By love. In every land is common life

That all can recognize and understand.

Let us remember, whenever we are told

To hate our brothers, it is ourselves

That we shall dispossess, betray, condemn.

Remember, we who take arms against each other,

It is the human earth that we defile.

Our hells of fire and dust outrage the innocence

Of air that is everywhere our own.

Remember, no men are foreign, and no countries strange.

Thank You.

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