07 Jan Brown And Gold:Religious Diversity At Woodstock
As well as being a diverse community in terms of countries represented, Woodstock boasts a rich religious diversity. Woodstock chaplain Brian Dunn is now in his third stint at Woodstock and explains the joys of living and working in a community of such religious diversity, and explains how this impacts on the teaching of Religious Education.
What we have at Woodstock is not just tolerance of other traditions from a distance, but proximity. Proximity in the sense that you have a Hindu student and Buddhist student living together, rooming together, growing up together and growing to love and respect each other as friends.
You might not have had any idea of what is a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, but then you get to know and care for someone from one of these traditions, and you change how you feel about their tradition. It’s a truism to say we protect what we love.
That’s where Religious Education (RE) comes in. It gives an academic background for these relationships and the proximity which we already have in our social life at school, and creates a space to discuss it.
Recently we were discussing the implications of Krishna’s message in the Gita and there was a real freedom for people from all traditions to say what they felt about it. Students are taught concepts and texts and sometimes this leads us to a very necessary discussion where they can process their ideas. I really enjoy these lessons when I see real engagement, and hearts engaged too.
Students respond very passionately and can oppose or agree with things. A lot of what I am doing is teaching and modelling an approach of respectful engagement and an environment where people are free to respond and process.
In my world religion class some students said they don’t want to learn about the development of Hinduism because they are a Christian or Muslim. But during the course of the year in a very practical way they learn to accord the respect to someone else’s tradition that they would want for theirs.
We also have the proximity of traditions all around us in India, we can go to Dharamsala or Rishikesh, and this is one of the reasons I came back to India, I love being in the midst of plurality.
At Woodstock we approach RE from the perspective that all traditions have wisdom to share, although not at the expense of our truth claims. This is important because we need to bring this wisdom to the table to try and solve the world’s problems, such as issues like climate change or social injustice.
There is also a complementarity between our RE classes and chapel services. Chapel represents the Christian position of the school with teachings about Christ, but we have students from all backgrounds and traditions present.
There’s a freedom for students to participate or just observe, to metaphorically “take their shoes off at the door” as if they were visiting a mosque or temple, and show respect and model “do unto others as you would have them do to you”.
A recent exercise by two Woodstock students as part of their RE class highlighted the school’s religious diversity. Students Rhea and Tahhira interviewed Woodstock staff members Naz Nagarwalla and Shonila Chander. Below are some excerpts from the interviews which make interesting reading.
What does your religious tradition mean to you?
Naz Nagarwalla: I think for me religious tradition is important because it gives me a basis for the values and various commitments I have in life, and being a Zoroastrian, one of the oldest religions in the world, it has very simple things, doing good words and good deeds, it’s fairly easy to follow. My religion is very important for me.
Shonila Chander: Religion is very personal as far as I’m concerned and it is also a source of strength for me, because whether I’m happy or sad, I always go back to my roots and my religious understanding, and try to get back to my normal self.
What teachings of your religious tradition do you preach?
Naz Nagarwalla: Within a person there’s always good and evil, and we should be always there to fight evil, and not let that overtake the good in any circumstances. So basically we should be living a life of good thoughts, good words and good deeds – that’s the religion I follow.
What were the origins of you joining your religious tradition?
Shonila Chander: I am a Christian, my grandfather was a Sikh, and he became Christian. I know most things about Sikhism though. My mother’s family come from a Muslim background, and my grandfather from my mother’s side became a Christian, as well as my paternal grandfather. I have always been a Christian.
Our parents when bringing us up never differentiated between any religion, we had neighbours from all religions, we were not told “so and so is Sikh, so and so is Hindu…”, we were brought up like all Indian children should be. We prayed every morning as a family in a Christian way and also at night.
Do you think women have been treated equally in your religious tradition?
Naz Nagarwalla: We don’t know for sure if the Zoroaster preached inequality to women, but how it’s come down the ages, and especially when we came into India (the Zoroastrians in India are called Parsis), and there were certain rules and regulations we had to follow, that was over 1300 years ago so we don’t know if those imbalances came up then to keep a check on all the promises we made to the Indian rulers. The major inequality is if a girl marries outside the community their children cannot take on the religion. But things are changing and in the family context women are treated equally.
What are your thoughts on Sikhism and young people today?
Shonila Chander: I personally feel that since 1984 and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination there has been more fundamentalism that has grown among Sikhs. I have seen it and experienced it, although Sikh friends have been very kind and very good to us, but generally they have become more strict. Earlier when I was growing up you could question things in the Guru Granth but now you can’t, it’s been made infallible which it wasn’t when I grew up, which I think is a shame because unless you investigate and read things you are just blindly following.
How does being a Christian affect your daily life?
There are certain things that are expected of a religious tradition and I want to live up to that. People always say if I’m a Christian I must be honest, so I want to live up to that, I won’t lie and I don’t like lying at all.