The last of 100 multiple choice questions in the Bhagavad Gita competition was as follows: What does Radha do when she sees Krishna? The options were dance, sing, smile or none-of-the-above.
Radha is the beloved of Lord Krishna, revered by Hindus around the world.
Mariyam Asif Siddiqui, a 12-year-old Muslim girl, ticked off the right answer: Dance.
"It was my favourite question," she told HuffPost India. "I loved learning about their story."
Siddiqui, a class VI student at the Cosmopolitan High School in Mumbai, spent this winter studying for the inter-school 'Shrimad Bhagavad Gita Champion League' competition organised by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON).
The Bhagavad Gita is 700 verses of Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit, which form part of the Mahabharata, the world's longest epic. These verses are a discussion between Krishna and the warrior Arjuna on the eve of an apocalyptic battle. Arjuna hesitates to kill his family members on the other side, but Krishna, his charioteer, advises him to do his duty (dharma).
Participants in the Gita competition, which has been organised in Mumbai for the past four years, come from diverse economic, social and religious backgrounds, said Anand Caitanya Das, an event coordinator with ISKON. "We are not so concerned with the religion of the winner. Our goal is to share the wisdom and spirituality of the Gita with all children," he said.
Siddiqui, a dark-haired girl, whose spectacle frames appear too large for her thin face, pored over a book of Bhagavad Gita stories, which ISKON provided to almost 5000 students from the fifth to the tenth grade in more than 100 competing schools in the city.
She won in the sixth grade category.
The victory of the Muslim girl in a competition about Hindu holy scriptures has been widely reported by the media, and shared by the public, over the past few days. Her story especially resonates against the backdrop of heightened religious anxieties stemming from a slew of incendiary statements by politicians, the Sangh Parivar's ghar wapsi or reconversion programme and attacks on churches.
Even politicians have noticed her surprising achievement. Siddiqui was honoured by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly this week and she will soon head to Uttar Pradesh to meet Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, who wants to felicitate her as a symbol of religious harmony.
A father's advice
Siddiqui's discovery of other faiths began several years before this competition. "We are Muslims. But ever since I was kid, my parents pushed me to learn about religions other than Islam. The curiosity has grown since then," she said.
Siddiqui recalled how quickly a fight on the playground divided children along religious lines. Her colony friends were a mix of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, but when they had a spat, she said, girls of the same religion would stick together.
"Hindu would be with Hindu, Muslim with Muslim and Christian with Christian. I would tell all of this to my father and he would reply that it is unacceptable to make friends or take sides based on religion," she said.
Asif Naseem Siddiqui, her 34-year-old father, told HuffPost India that he encouraged his daughter to enter the competition on one condition. "I told her that she should take part to learn about Hinduism, not to cram for a competition," he said.
During the phone interview, Asif, a 34-year-old editor of a Hindi magazine, pondered for a few minutes over a question on why he made the unusual decision for his daughter to enter the Gita competition--why it wasn't enough to just tell her to respect other religions.
"Have you read the Koran? Well then, how can we have an informed discussion if you don't know about its verses," he said. "I want my daughter to have genuine knowledge about all religions so she can think for herself and no one can ever mislead her."
It isn't likely that Siddiqui will be misled. The sixth grader, who plans to be a lawyer, said she has already learned two life lessons from the Bhagavad Gita stories: "The path to the truth is non-violent and no one should insult anyone else."
Change begins at home
While recalling instances of communal violence in the past two decades, Asif said he was trying to make a difference in the one place where seeds of intolerance are first sown: Home.
"I can't control what is happening in Mumbai, Maharashtra, or India, but I can make all the difference in my own home. If everyone does the same then there is real chance for peace," he said. "Mariyam's education is very important because she has to set an example for her younger siblings."
When this reporter asked Siddiqui whether she had a message for children in India, the 12-year-old said she was too young to dole out advice, but she encouraged them to think for themselves. "Most Indians respect all religions but some say damaging things. I would just say 'you must listen to your parents, but if your parents and teacher tell you to discriminate against others, then don't listen to them,'" she said.
After making her first forays into learning Hindu scriptures, Siddiqui plans to continue her study of the Gita, this summer. But the challenge isn't too daunting since she finds the Gita echoes many of the teachings she already knows.
"The Gita is the same as the Koran. They both came from the Gods. They have different stories but the same principles," she said. "Swacch means the same in both: Clean."Suggest a correction