FaithWorld

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi steps down as head of meditation empire

British stamp of “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” 2006Now here’s a flash from the past — news about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The guru, who became internationally known when the Beatles journeyed to India to learn meditation from him during their psychedelic rock phase in the late 1960s, is now 91. He has just stepped down as head of his worldwide organisation promoting Transcendental Meditation.

His work is done and now he’ll be concentrating on the field of silence and dedicating himself more to pure knowledge rather than administrative matters,” said Benjamin Feldman, a close aide.

Read all about it in this report by Emma Thomasson, our chief correspondent in the Netherlands, where he now lives.

A Tale of Two Secularisms

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Taj Mahal, 26 Jan, 2008/Philippe WojazerFrance and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.

The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).

Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part Muslim protesters burn effigy of Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Sucheta Dasof the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.

Caste and politics mix in India’s Hindu “cow belt”

Hindu boy jumps into Ganges River at Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 18 Jan. 2007/Adnan AbidiA year can seem like an eternity in India, especially for a foreign correspondent discovering how complex the links between religion and politics can be here.

The last time I went from New Delhi to Uttar Pradesh was in January 2007 to cover the Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Around seven million Hindus and thousands of holy “Sadhus” descend on the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to pray and make offerings.

I stood where the two rivers meet along with thousands of poor Hindus performing their ritual baths. At night, whole families huddled together to keep warm on the river bank. Small paper boats with candles floated precariously down the river.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Rare spotlight on U.S. Baptist drive to convert Hindus

Indian Christians carry cross on Good Friday near Cochin, 25 March 2005On the world religion scene, one interesting trend concerns the growing number of Christian missionaries seeking to convert people in developing countries. Many are evangelicals from the United States or South Korea, often trying to convert Muslims. We usually hear about them when their work creates tension or leads to a diplomatic incident. It’s rare to see a lengthy report on what a mission is actually doing and how it is received.

The Commercial Appeal daily in Memphis, Tennessee has just published a fascinating report on a mission to convert Hindus in India that is sponsored by a hometown Baptist church. Bellevue Baptist in Memphis spends $5.5 million each year for missionary work around the world. The Commercial Appeal’s Trevor Aaronson visited the National Training Institute for Village Evangelism in Hyderabad, which Bellevue supports, to see what it does on the ground. These missions can be controversial. In several Indian states, Hindu nationalists have protested against missionary work and passed laws banning conversion from one religion to another. World churches are working on a code of conduct to help spread their faith without antagonising other religions.

Aaronson’s article is a zoom-lens look at one mission, its problems, its links to its American donors and the reactions of the Hindu nationalists. He presents the mission warts and all, which has sparked off a lively debate on the paper’s Web site. As Daniel Pulliam over at GetReligion notes, this is “an impressive journalistic endeavor for a local newspaper … the activities of churches often go uncovered, particularly missionary work.”

Kashmiri Hindus hold festival for first time in 18 years

Kashmir policeman guards Hindu religious festival in SrinagarSome international crises drag on so long that outsiders can forget what life in the area was like before the unrest began. Look at Kashmir, the beautiful mountain region split by war between India and Pakistan at Partition in 1947. The Muslim separatist unrest in Indian Kashmir flared up again in 1989 and led to clashes 10 years later that threatened to spark a full war between the two nuclear states. These years of unrest have fanned tension and suspicion between the majority Muslim population and the minority Hindus and Sikhs. But peace efforts in recent years have brought the violence down to the point where the Hindus could revive a religious tradition they dared not celebrate publicly for 18 years. The violence is not over, as our photo of the police protection for the ceremony vividly shows, but progress is being made.

As our Srinagar correspondent Sheikh Mushtaq wrote,

Hundreds of chanting Hindus burnt a huge effigy of a demon king to mark one of their biggest festivals for the first time in Kashmir since Muslim militants launched a revolt 18 years ago.

The celebrations late on Sunday came at the end of the nine-day Dusshera festival, which celebrates god-king Ram’s victory over the mythological king Ravana, symbolising the triumph of good over evil.