Thought for the Day
5th March 1996
Good morning. Today is Holi. That is, it is the Hindu occasion of Holi - the festival of colours. It’s a day for bon-fires and coconuts and, providing you wear your old clothes, you can enjoy the exuberant sprinkling of coloured dyes.
And today, one million pilgrims will visit Mayapur in West Bengal, the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who revitalised devotional spirituality within the sub-continent.
His birth in 1486 coincided with the Reformation in Europe. Interestingly, the circumstances in India were similar. Caste brahmanas maintained a monopoly on religious rituals and the Sanskrit scriptures. Chaitanya successfully liberated the religion from this stranglehold and brought it to the people. He vigorously opposed the caste system and personally refused any social designation.
He also would have shuddered at how religious identities have defined the divisions in modern-day communal disputes in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the Middle East and India. He claimed that there is only one religious identity - “to be the servant of the servant of the servant of the Lord.”
Chaitanya’s followers do not like labelling him merely a Hindu saint for his message avoided sectarian dogma. It was an open invitation to awaken pure love of God regardless of one’s caste or creed. Perhaps, referring to any saint in terms of a particular faith demeans his or her contribution. The world’s fragmented religions converge in the character of our saints.
In the current educational debate, multi-faith teaching is charged with promoting a hodge-podge of ideas with lowest common denominator values. The lives of saints can address that concern by exemplifying the highest expression of religious values.
Sri Chaitanya enumerated the essential saintly qualities as compassion, humility, tolerance, truthfulness and kindness to all. His personal prayer was: “O Lord, let me be more humble than the straw in the street and more tolerant than the tree.”
In terms of religious education, Chaitanya would certainly concur with those who assert that morality must be born of spiritual principles. We desire a moral society. Therefore, it seems, we must provide an education which inculcates spirituality. Can we teach saintliness? And can we do it without retreating into our respective faith divisions?
Chaitanya claimed that moral character and religious mysticism are accessible for all - through what he called sankirtan - the congregational singing of the names of God. “The Supreme Lord has many names,” he said, “and each name of God is the incarnation of the Lord in sound. Singing His names allows us to experience the presence of God and arouses pure devotion within the heart - devotion which is the foundation of true saintliness.”
© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.