This year is the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to India, which he described as one of the most concentrated and eye-opening experiences of (my life).” A few weeks ago, Secretary of State Clinton sent an august American delegation including Martin Luther King Jr III, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and musician Herbie Hancock off to India to commemorate King’s tour.
SPAN, a State Department publication, did an excellent piece on King’s experience in India, and the lessons he brought back to the United States. It discusses King’s dinner with Prime Minister Nehru, the parallels King saw between the treatment of blacks in the United States and Dalits in India, and of course the profound connection he had with Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to social change.
I am off to India next week on a State Department tour as well, and I’ll be focusing on a different part of King’s connection to the land of my birth: religious diversity. King of course knew that the inspiration for Gandhi’s “satyagraha” (or soulforce) movement came from his Hindu faith, but he had no idea how religiously diverse Gandhi’s movement – or indeed India itself – was. In fact, King was so in awe of this dimension of India, that when he returned to his pulpit in the provincial southern city of Montgomery, Alabama, he gave a sermon which included these words: “O God, our gracious heavenly father. We call you this name. Some call thee Allah, some call you Elohim. Some call you Jehovah, some call you Brahma.”
My schedule in India includes speaking at a conference of religiously diverse young people on the shared faith value of service, visiting a Muslim college interested in launching an interfaith program and meeting with leaders of different faith communities in three cities.
I’ll be writing from India next week, a nation that I think shares a great deal in ethos with the United States. Both nations have a history of opening their doors to persecuted communities – India’s welcome to Parsees, Tibetan Buddhists, Jews and Baha’is parallels our American narrative of the land of freedom, the melting pot.
The dream of India is the dream of pluralism, the idea of different communities retaining their uniqueness while relating in a way that recognizes they share universal values. It is the American dream also.