09/04/2017 10:18 AM IST | Updated 17/04/2017 2:09 PM IST

How I Learned Secular Values In A Religious School

Faith without bigotry.

World Parliament of Religions

I was born 22 years after India gained independence from British rule. (Not exactly the "Midnight's Children" generation, but the one right after.) There are two things I remember clearly about the 70s, the decade I grew up in. One, the air was cleaner. And two, the prevailing sentiment in public spaces was secular. It was actually considered boorish and regressive to wear your religion on your sleeve. If you were a good Indian, you didn't go on about how your religion was superior to the rest, even if you came from a religious family or school.

As a matter of fact, I did my primary schooling from a small school that was basically religious in nature. It was called the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Nivedita Vidya Mandir. (Quite a mouthful for a kid when asked, "Beta, which school do you go to?") It was run by sanyasinis (nuns) called pravarajikas who shaved their heads, wore saffron robes, lived in a community within the school premises and were absolutely dedicated to their mission of teaching children. They possessed a genuine concern for our academic, social and emotional well-being and my primary school days were happy ones.

It is high time for those who have appropriated Vivekananda... to further their own rigid and non-nuanced view of Hinduism, to actually sit down, read and understand him.

The pravarajikas also ran a Sunday school, much along the lines of Christian ones, where, for two hours, interested students were given religious instruction from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Attendance was not compulsory but I ended up attending it for a few years, primarily because my parents made me. I would much rather have stayed home on Sunday mornings and watched TV.

All said and done, I'm glad I attended it. I learned a lot. But what I remember even more than the content of what was taught is that while my teachers had their own clear religious leanings, none of them ever demeaned other lines of religious thought. In fact, they encouraged us to find our own spiritual path. That stance of pedagogical and spiritual openness probably contributed more to my outlook on religion than all the shlokas and speeches I was asked to memorise and recite at my school's annual functions.

Speaking of speeches, the one I still remember substantial chunks of till this day, was Vivekananda's famous address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. I don't think the content of that historical address has ever been more relevant than it is today (emphases added):

"Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.

Much has been said of the common ground of religious unity... But if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, "Brother, yours is an impossible hope." Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid.

The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant. It develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant.

Similar is the case with religion... Each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.

If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart."

My teachers were a good example of the values enshrined in the speech.

It is now 70 years since India gained independence. The air is no longer clean, and the prevailing sentiment in an alarmingly large number of public spaces is no longer secular. Perhaps it is high time for those who have appropriated Vivekananda (amongst others) to further their own rigid and non-nuanced view of Hinduism, to actually sit down, read and understand him.

It might do them—and the rest of us—a world of good.