What amazing contrasts!
The Hindu Shree Sanatan Mandir (Temple) was sparkling bright with a host of shrines dedicated to various aspects of God through sculptures of figures like Hanuman, Ganga and Ganesh, all adorned in a beautiful marble setting.
The Orthodox Jewish Synagogue seemed a more familiar place, the setting more like a church. In the centre was a large pulpit area and at the front the sacred area housing the Hebrew Scriptures. Our host here emphasized the ancient character and the long history of Judaism.
Guru Amar Das Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) was a simple, relaxed, comfortable hall dominated by the shrine holding their holy scriptures with musical instruments used in worship in another area.
The Muslim Mosque on Avenue Road was spotless but austere, the only decoration a few words of scripture inscribed on the plain walls. Here we were addressed by the recently appointed Iman in a concise lecture setting out the central tenets of Islam. This Mosque belongs to the Ahmadiyya Community established in the nineteenth century by Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who claimed to be the Mahdi and Messiah of the latter day.
These were the four different religious centres we visited recently, in a very full day, organised by Beryl Kirtland and Barbara Keene through the auspices of a group called ‘Christians Aware’ and the kind invitation of Surrinder Singh Sandu. The warmth of welcome we received at all four places was striking and the women and men we met at each location were very pleased to share their understandings of their faith with us.
Central to all four religions was their worship and there was a great variety of practice. When we arrived at the Mandir a group of men and women seated in a group on the floor were enthusiastically singing religious songs accompanied by the constant ringing of a bell. Although there are organised occasions of communal worship, men and women feel free to come and go and make their own special devotions at any time. This was true at the Gurdwara too where qualified men and women can lead worship. In both the Mosque and the Synagogue where worship is lead both men and women sit in separate areas. In the Synagogue we had the opportunity to briefly see the Mikvah used for baptisms particularly of women at significant times of their lives. Our hostess posited the thought that baptism was probably well established before the times of John the Baptist.
For all four religions, the various scriptures are central to their faith. Various texts like the Rig Veda are important to the Hindus and the Sikhs, the Qur’an for the Islamists and the Torah for the Jewish community. It was made clear to us how meticulously Muslims and Jews follow the words of their scriptures. All four also stressed that there is only One God. In the case of the Hindus, although they have many shrines, the figures there speak about specific attributes of the One God. The Vedas, likewise, point to one God as do the Sikh scriptures.
Many aspects of the four faiths overlap or are held in common: prayerfulness, contemplating God’s presence every day, working for peace and equality, preaching love, sharing their material gifts, charitable work, practicing tolerance, working hard…. The list goes on. One thing they all espoused was that there should be no pressure to convert other people. Especially interesting was the Iman’s words about Jihad. He spoke about the distortion of this concept by extremists in word and deed, and the frequent prejudices and misinterpretations of the media. Like so much during our visit, this was a topic that would have been helpful to have discussed at greater length. For now, Jihad is summarised in one of the Mosque’s publications as, “striving in a noble cause to enjoin goodness and remove harm and evil for the sake of Allah.”
The Sikh community provided us with a delicious curry lunch. Their kitchen is open at all times offering food and hospitality to any visitor and every Saturday night they visit the centre of Leicester to offer a free meal to anyone who wants one…as long as they are sober and not on drugs! We also learnt at one point that boys and girls are given the same names. In response to puzzled looks it was explained that the boys will add “Singh” to their name and the girls “Kaur”.
This was a wonderful stimulating experience, one that merits much more discussion and understanding of the four religions. It was also a humbling experience to see their adherents sharing an openness and mutual affection and tolerance that is striking at a time when our wider society is exhibiting so much social discomfort and prejudice. The Leicester group working to develop multicultural and interfaith understanding, our host, ‘Christians Aware’ (which I understand belongs to a wider international society) truly is a shining light in much darkness, a leaven in the lump of contemporary society. Just two short quotes from their approach to their witness give a good insight to the way they work. “Do not try to teach anyone anything until you have learnt something from them.” “Peace is born of love. Love is born of understanding. Understanding is born of listening. Listening leads to justice and peace.”