Recently, I had an endless stream of workers trouping in and out of my house as I finally shook myself out of my reverie and decided to get the apartment painted and a few niggling repairs looked at. While all this was being done, I had placed an order for two shelves to be made. I had found the perfect wall that would hold all things ‘spiritual’ of various faiths that I had collected through my travels. I am not religious at all but I keep the faith alive.

With the shelves aligned and painted, all my memorabilia was displayed and arranged evoking a sense of peace and harmony. Later, when the painters and workers landed up to finish odds and ends and clean-up, I saw them gazing at the shelves in wonder and one of them remarked, “You have Gods and Goddesses of all faiths and religion in one place…a Cross, Tibetan prayer beads, a Taweez engraved with a verse from the Holy Quran, a beautiful rosary, a silver lamp… I am so amazed.”

I had smiled then and replied, “Yes, they all live together without any problems and don’t mind that I am blessed by people from different religions who keep gifting me such beautiful pieces. Guru Nanak is blessing me in the same way as Lord Ganesha or Mother Mary. They don’t care what religion I follow or don’t follow – they protect my loved ones equally because of the faith I entrust in them and the respect I give them.

“I have to tell my wife about this,” the carpenter told me. “I have learnt something very important today…” he went on. My explanation to them was simple… I have been to temples/churches/mosques/gurudwaras/ monasteries and felt comfortable in all of them. I keep the faith alive through the souvenirs I collect or are gifted to me.

There is a word called ‘Omnism’ which defines the recognition and respect of all religions; those who hold this belief are called Omnists. That purely means that you believe in all religions. In my case, I respect all religions and feel that everyone has a right to practice the religion of their choice in the sanctity of their house and not broadcasted to the world. Of course, you have the right to be an Atheist too!

Most people are perplexed by the all-too-frequent difficulties that tend to arise between human populations identified with differing sects, religions or faiths in sustaining peaceful coexistence and mutual toleration. As per my modern and typical ‘fauji’ upbringing – I was taught to respect all religions and it felt natural since we come from a family where different religions are weaved into one. In fact, we are quite ‘unreligious’ in a good way!

Over time, I did become vaguely aware that there was such a thing as religious disagreements and conflicts which I could never understand for if you interpret the teachings of any religion, they teach love, compassion and peace. We need to learn to see people with the same humanistic spirit, respect the innate divinity of each individual as well as the right for each individual to form their own viewpoint or follow another religious principle, even if we feel it is incorrect.

In my own experience, it is often the case that aggressive religious attitudes are cured by scrutinising the person’s own beliefs in the same way that they are doing to others. I always tell people that ‘God has no religion’… Some argue that all religions lead to God; I argue that no religion does. I only welcome the idea of religious and cultural tolerance, which has to be balanced with trust and faith.

There are a few good spiritual leaders both within and outside religious organizations. I have met men and women who are ministers, rabbis and imams who are highly educated and skilled. Some leaders have done a lifetime of study in religion and have much to teach. But these are the exceptions. Many who present themselves as leaders appear to me to have little background. I hear them ranting and raving and stirring up a hornet’s nest.

The only answer lies in adopting a policy of religious tolerance, and respect for other people’s convictions. Everyone is entitled to follow what they think is best and profess their belief in it. But this should not prejudice our opinions about other’s beliefs. There should be mutual respect for each other’s faiths.

Mutual recognition of religion might not be practical, but mutual respect certainly is. Secularism remains the only viable rational option for our multi-faith, multi-lingual country. Abandonment of secularism can only lead to more conflict and suffering for its people. Ending this violence is the responsibility of all the religious leaders and the government and they all need to work towards a peaceful solution. While different faiths have long had an intolerant attitude toward each other, they now need to return to their religious teachings and methods of reconciliation, otherwise any country will crumble. The survival of secularism in India depends on how successfully we set up systems of cooperation within ourselves.

Tolerance is an integral part of our country’s tradition. India has a long history of a culture of tolerance and must remain a multi-religious society. This is the identity of India. Therefore a formula for maintaining religious harmony is—follow what you wish but please respect all. Peace is the only religion for both!