FaithWorld

from India Insight:

What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?

Last week, a college in Mangalore in India banned a student wearing a burqa from attending class. The principal told local media the college had a policy of not allowing symbols of religion.

The media did not say if there were students on campus with a 'bindi' (dot) on their foreheads or crucifixes around their necks or turbans on their heads, other symbols of religion one commonly sees in India, besides the ubiquitous "Om" scarves and t-shirts.

Mangalore, a cosmopolitan city, is no stranger to controversy; it was recently in the news for attacks on bars and women by a fundamentalist Hindu outfit that declared they were against Indian culture.

Nor is the controversy over headscarves and burqas limited to India. UK's Jack Straw sparked a heated debate when he asked Muslim women in his constituency to remove their veils to promote better relations between people.

Turkey last year lifted a ban on women wearing headscarves at universities, ruling it violated the country's secular constitution.

from India Insight:

Can you outsource God?

– Saritha Rai writes for the GlobalPost, where this article first appeared. –

It is dawn in Kerala, a palm frond of a state in India's South West. As the sun's first rays hit the church steeple, a Holy Mass is being conducted in the local Malayalam language.

Only, the prayer is dedicated to a newborn by his Catholic family half a world away in the United States.

from India Insight:

The Mormons in India

– Sonya Fatah writes for the GlobalPost, where this article first appeared. –

Their voices rang out, echoing in the nearby passageway. "Count your many blessings," they sang. "Name them one by one. Count your many blessings. See what God hath done." And so, the women, some 25 of them, members of the Sisters Committee at one of the six churches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in New Delhi, closed their Sunday post-service meeting.

"Let us all work together so we can have a temple here,” urged the chair of the meeting, eliciting head nods and verbal assents all round.

How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

how-god-changes-your-brainSome book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg‘s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

from Tales from the Trail:

U.S. criticizes India on treatment of religious minorities

A U.S. commission is criticizing India for its treatment of religious minorities and has added it to a "watch list," annoying the South Asian country.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (there are probably other commissions around town that people never knew existed) placed India on its "watch list" because of the "disturbing increase in communal violence against religious minorities" and the inadequate response by the Indian government to protect their rights.

Countries on the watch list require "close monitoring," and India is now in the company of Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

Religion, poverty and strife: what comes first?

An uprising by a radical Islamic sect in northern Nigeria may ostensibly have been about religion, but such bloodletting will recur unless underlying issues of poverty, unemployment and education are addressed.

West African Islam is overwhelmingly moderate and northern Nigeria is home to a powerful political elite, yet militant cleric Mohammed Yusuf was able to establish a cult-like following. Yusuf’s sect, Boko Haram, wanted sharia (Islamic law) more widely applied across Africa’s most populous nation. Its name means “Western education is sinful”.

But the support Yusuf drummed up — from illiterate youths to professionals who quit jobs and families to join him — came as much from frustration with what is seen as a corrupt and self-serving political establishment as from pure religious fervour.

Could gagged Mumbai confession do more good than harm?

hindux1A crucial part of gunman Mohammad Ajmal Kasab’s hindu-articleconfession at the Mumbai attack trial has been censored by the judge on the grounds that it could inflame religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India. After stunning the court on Monday by admitting guilt in the the three-day rampage that killed 166 people, Kasab gave further testimony on Tuesday that included details about his training by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant group on U.S. and Indian terrorist lists.

The front-page report in today’s The Hindu, which noted the judge’s gag order in its sub-header, put it this way:

Ajmal made some crucial statements on Tuesday as part of his confession. They pertained to the purpose of the attack as indicated by the perpetrators and masterminds and the message they wanted to send to the government of India. Ajmal also wanted to convey a message to his handlers. However, this part of his confession faces a court ban on publication.

Ex-nun urges Indian Catholic Church reform in tell-all book

amenA Roman Catholic nun who left her convent in India after 33 years of service has penned an unflattering picture of life within the cloistered walls in a book that may further embarrass the Church.

In “Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun”, published in India in English this month, Sister Jesme tells of sexual relations between some priests and nuns, homosexuality in the convent and discrimination and corruption in Catholic institutions…

“Amen” grabbed media headlines in February, when it was first published in Malayalam — the regional language of Kerala. With the new English edition and offers of a film based on the book, Sister Jesme’s plea for a reformation of the Church is now set to reach a wider audience.

Sikh temple project sparks dispute over copying holy sites

golden-temple (Photo: Sikhs pray at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, 17 Sept 2001/Rajesh Bhambi)

Are some holy sites so holy or so unique that they shouldn’t be copied? Should monuments like the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican or the Western Wall in Jerusalem have a kind of copyright so nobody can replicate them elsewhere?

It seems unlikely that believers of any faith would undertake such a project, if for no other reason that most holy sites are quite complex, with artwork that would be very expensive to reproduce. But some Sikhs in India are building what looks like a copy of the Golden Temple, their religion’s holiest shrine, in Sangrur, 265 miles (427 km) southeast of the temple in Amritsar. The project has sparked off a debate in the Sikh community and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which maintains gurdwaras in India’s Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh states, has protested against it and called on the religion’s five high priests to intervene. The Sikhs building the new gurdwara deny they’re copying the famous temple, simply giving a facelift to their dilapidated gurdwara.

As Mumbai’s DNA daily put it: “Imitation is sometimes not the most acceptable form of flattery.”

Islamic tone, interfaith touch in Obama’s speech to Muslim world

obama-speech-baghdadIt started with “assalaamu alaykum” and ended with “may God’s peace be upon you.” Inbetween, President Barack Obama dotted his speech to the Muslim world with Islamic terms and references meant to resonate with his audience. The real substance in the speech were his policy statements and his call for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with Muslims, as outlined in our trunk news story. But the new tone was also important and it struck a chord with many Muslims who heard the speech, as our Middle East Special Correspondent Alistair Lyon found. Not all, of course — you can find positive and negative reactions here. (Photo: Iraqi in Baghdad watches Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Mohammed Ameen)

Among Obama’s Islamic touches were four references to the Koran (which he always called the Holy Koran), his approving mention of the scientific, mathematical and philosophical achievements of the medieval Islamic world and his citing of multi-faith life in Andalusia. These are standard elements that many Islam experts — Muslims and non-Muslims — mention in speeches at learned conferences, but it’s not often that you hear an American president talking about them.

Two religious references particularly caught my attention because they weren’t the usual conference circuit clichés. One was his comment about being in “the region where (Islam) was first revealed” – a choice of past participle showing respect for the religion.