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Report on Interfaith Conference and Visit to Local Widows in the Area:
Can One World Help the Other?

By D. V. Mohini Giri

On the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Jamboi in West Bengal, two great rivers meet. Their colours spilling into each other but at the same remaining distinctly apart- the water too reflecting like a mirror, the society which it traverses through. The haves and the have nots. Those for whom like the Ganga the water flows pure and white, and those for whom there is only the murky brown of the local stream.

REPORT ON VISIT TO MAYAPUR TO ATTEND INTERFAITH MEETING & NAVADWEEP(29TH NOVEMBER- 4TH DECEMBER,2008)

I had the fortune of visiting Mayapur and Navadweep for an Inter Faith Conference organized and arranged at the large and modern ISKCON facility in Mayapur. Spread over hundreds of acres, it has all the facilities of any large commercial center in a metropolitan city- conference rooms, halls, guest rooms, kitchen dining rooms etc. There were thousands of foreigners there, all converts into Krishna's devotees, wearing Indian clothes and chanting prayers throughout the day. The cleanliness, sense of hygiene and peace there was exemplary. Even as I praised their sense of duty and their bhakti, I wondered how they could really do God's work and achieve so much more for the common man and woman in their area, if they transformed their prayers into service, poverty alleviation programmes and active strategies for emancipation of the downtrodden just outside their gates.

The districts of Mayapur and Navadweep are both cut off from the world, with little means of communication, hardly any newspapers and no television. How can progress be attained when one is not in contact with the reality? As the country allegedly makes progress on the economic front, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens increasingly.

But peace without justice, without real social change, is not such a good deal for those outside the gates. Those of us on the main stage sometimes seem to say that religious violence is caused by lack of understanding, by ignorance and hatred that can be dispelled or transformed by the kind of creative process at which interfaith exists. Most of the world is poor, and it is easy to assume that it is benighted.

Braving a boat ride along with cycles, scooters and 200 people, as well as a rickety riksha ride, I went to visit Navadweep with a Bangladeshi escort and Ms. Maria Corazon Ponteres, a young woman from Philippines in order to see the condition of widows there. Years of work in Vrindavan had allowed me to understand that most of the widows in U.P come from certain districts of Bengal. The situation was nearly the same as U.P. but the condition of the widows was marginally better due to several reasons. Living in their hometown made them feel at home and not out of place and lost. They were comfortable in their clothing, in the food they ate, as well as the language that was spoken around them. However, one thing remained the same- the white sari, colourless and shroud-like, the shorn hair and the yellow mark on their foreheads. Despite the fact that they were in familiar and comfortable surroundings, their thought process and beliefs were centuries old and backward.

There were Bhajan Ashrams there as well, and I visited three of them. To my utter surprise, as I entered the first one many women recognized me and came to me saying "Giri Ma, Giri Ma" and touched my feet. It astonished me to find that the Guild's work in Vrindvan had reached the ears of these women far away. In one of the ashrams I even encountered Basanti, a widow who had worked for the Guild of Service for 4 years before returning to Bengal. She was delighted to see a familiar face, and expressed a desire to return to us.

Within the Bhajan Ashrams their plight was only slightly better than those in Vrindavan. They still sang for a few rupees, but many of them also got shelter there. Most of the widows however, were asking for alms on the streets and lived in makeshift shacks. Even getting alms and bhiksha was easier in Bengal because even the local populace was familiar with the culture of widowhood.

I asked some of them why they still chose to come to Vrindavan, as it was so much better for them to remain in their own hometown. I think that rather than facing the added trauma of displacement, marginalized widows should be allowed to remain in their hometowns, and poverty alleviation and empowerment strategies should be implemented there itself.

It was a truly eye opening experience for me, despite having worked in the area of widows' empowerment since the last two decades. Despite the diversity due to regional differences and geography, widows and single women were crumbling under the patriarchal norms that relegate them to a life of begging and dependence on strangers, even as there are grand and palatial temples and organizations saying prayers in the name of Krishna.

At Mayapur, in conversations, conducted person to person and in workshops and smaller meetings that acknowledges that religious violence is about real things: land, resources, ethnic survival and other socio economic and justice issues. In a Workshop attended by me and facilitated by Mr. Erik Schwartz and Nancy Moore, we delved on many aspects of social change. People are fighting not because they are less enlightened than we are but because they have so much less than we do, and conflict holds out the hope of winning a future for themselves and their families.

I felt that unless the interfaith movement addresses these realities, it will remain an activity of elites and may begin to look like an international social club for religious liberals. Until interfaith plays a significant role in creating positive change on the ground, we shall not touch the lives nor engage the hearts of most of the world.

We should balance our approach to peace building by attending to and resourcing the work of the on-the-ground change makers in our midst. Their work is not simple charity, though it does not eschew charity: it is complex social action and entrenuership generating a justice-based interfaith dialogue that is layered, challenging and rewarding. It is actually and not ideationally transformative. This interfaith approach is being pioneered in the developing world, and it directly touches and empowers poor people that is to say, the majority of the world. And the pioneers can bring great gifts of innovation and action to affluent societies, which also contain much poverty and social injustice.

The Interfaith groups will have to enlarge the circles of debate so that it matters to the ones not so privileged. We have to become change makers.

 

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