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A Return to India

posted Jun 24, 2012, 11:27 AM by Interfaith WS

This is the sixth installment in our look at “Acts of Faith,” a book written by Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core. 

 

Chapter 5 -- Acts of Faith:  An American in India

 

Only six years separated Eboo’s previous trip to India from the current journey, but it was like a lifetime.  He had acted like a spoiled child on his previous visit, spoiled by what America had done to him – forced him “to sacrifice my true heritage in a devil’s bargain for acceptance, and then laughed viciously when it slowly dawned on me that I would never be anything but a second-class citizen there.”

 

He had returned to India to visit the Dalai Lama, but he also was there to reconnect with family in India.  It was not the India he anticipated.  His family still had slaves.  The slaves never used the same bathrooms as the family and didn’t drink from the same mugs.  It was conventional wisdom that some people were destined to be second-class citizens here.  The young men wore blue jeans, not traditional Indian clothes.  Eboo shared the bus with caged chickens and small goats. 

 

“Every interaction in India was a lesson in class structure….My American-ness was starting to stare me in the face in India: not the America of big-screen televisions and Hummers, but the America that, despite its constant failings, managed to inculcate in its citizens a set of humanizing values – the dignity of labor, the fundamental equality of humanity of human beings, mobility based on drive and talent, the opportunity to create and contribute.”

 

The experience brought recollections of American novelist James Baldwin, who wrote about class distinctions in Western society from the perspective of someone whose ancestors had been slaves.  Baldwin said that “love between people of different identities was not only possible but necessary, and that we had to insist on it.  Here was a black man who had been chased out of restaurants because he had the temerity to ask for a cup of coffee from the front counter, rejecting separatism in favor of the hope of pluralism, a society where people from different backgrounds worked together, protected one another, sought to achieve something meaningful for all.  Here was a man who viewed identity as a bridge to the possibility of pluralism.

 

“I realized that it was precisely because of America’s glaring imperfections that I should seek to participate in its progress, carve a place in its promise, and play a role in its possibility.  And at its heart and at its best, America was about pluralism….In a strange way, Baldwin’s writing helped me understand my relationship with India.”

 

But, back to the reason for the visit to India:  the Dalai Lama.  Eboo’s meeting with the Dalai Lama reinforced a message that Brother Wayne had been preaching:  “that studying other religions should first and foremost have the effect of strengthening our understanding of our own.”  Eboo’s friend, Kevin, found that his practice of Buddhist meditation and his readings in other religions helped him embrace his Judaism more fully.  Although Eboo considered himself a failure at Buddhist meditation, he found that it had brought him back to Muslim prayer that was part of his youth.

 

Kevin and Eboo talked with the Dalai Lama about how the Interfaith Youth Core hoped to bring young people from different religions together to serve others.  “’This is very important,’ the Dalai Lama said, suddenly growing more serious.  ‘Religions must dialogue, but even more, they must come together to serve others.  Service is the most important.  And common values, finding common values between different religions.  And as you study the other religions, you must learn more about your own and believe more in your own.’”

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