Being Religious and Interreligious in Multicultural Australia: Challenges for the Hindu Community

Shiva Vishnu Temple, Carrum Downs, Victoria

Prof. Des Cahill (Chair, Religions for Peace Australia) gave an address at Shiva Vishnu Temple, Carrum Downs, Victoria to the Hindu Community. The Hindu Community has nation-building strengths to impart to the community in Australia.

Being Religious and Interreligious in Multicultural Australia:
Challenges for the Hindu Community

Occasional Address given on 30th September, 2012 at the Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple, Carrum Downs

Religious Extremism and Religiously Inspired Violence

We continue to live in interesting times, not least for the global Hindu community and for the Hindu communities here in Australia, especially for those who have arrived from India itself, from Fiji, Sri Lanka and elsewhere whilst not forgetting the many Hindu followers born here. Hindus, more than mainstream Australians, understand how religious extremism and religiously inspired violence have the potential to destroy or severely damage the fabric of any civil, pluralist and democratic society in this unpredictable and less controllable world.

Exactly two weeks ago, I was staying in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur when I heard on the BBC news of the violent Sydney demonstrations triggered by the anti-Muslim film. I had just left Indonesia after speaking at a symposium sponsored by the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs on the role of education in creating a well-functioning religiously pluralist society and in countering Islamic radicalism. Our issues here in Australia are challenging but they are not nearly as serious as they are in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, where the religious moderates are working hard to counter the extremism of the radicals though one key problem is that the current Indonesian political leadership is not speaking out on behalf of religious minorities against the attacks on Muslim breakaway groups like Ahmadhiya and on Christian communities with the burning of churches and on Hindus in Bali.

My message to the Indonesians, as is my message today, was this: to be authentically religious in today’s contemporary world means to be interreligious. This is the interfaith message. And this is a message that comes easily to Hinduism because of its emphasis on the equality of all religions. Gandhi once said, “I believe in the fundamental truth of all the great religions of the world. I believe that they are all God-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that, if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of these faiths, we should find that they were at bottom all one and were all helpful to one another”.

Across the world, we keep receiving conflicting messages. In our complex global village where religion is still very much at world centre stage, the global eye fixates upon particular events. In the recent Olympic Games held in London in July 2012, the most memorable moment for me was, as the very final act of the athletics events in the Olympic stadium, the presentation of his second gold medal to the United Kingdom representative, the African Mohammed Farah. He was born in Mogadishu in 1983, grew up in Djibouti before migrating with his family as an eight-year child. At the moment, he is the world’s best long distance runner, having won the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races in London to the joy of the British public. The whole stadium in unison stood up to sing the national anthem, “God Save the Queen” as they saluted their refugee champion.

Lessons from Anton Brievik

This very positive moment was countermanded by another happening across the North Sea. At the very same time, over in Oslo, the lone-wolf warrior, Anton Breivik was languishing in jail, convicted but awaiting his sentence. His case gives us much to reflect upon. Described quickly and incorrectly as a Christian fundamentalist after Muslim extremists had initially been wrongly blamed, he does not fit the accepted description. He was raised in an upper middle class home, the son of a nurse and a Norwegian diplomat who deserted the family when Anton was one. He seems to have been raised in a religiously vacuous house before having himself baptised into the Lutheran Church at the age of 15.

Breivik viciously hated all Muslims and the Islamic religion. And in his 1500-page warrior manifesto, he expresses his hope to rescue Europe from feminism, multicultural pluralism and the Muslim religion. His ringing endorsement of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism is an embarrassment for for India occupies a significant part of his headspace in his cherry-picking from the complexities of Indian history. But he equally hated the political left, the young left, whom he slaughtered in great numbers on the Norwegian island of Utoya. Breivik’s massacring of innocent, idealistic young people has raised the issue of websites pouring out vicious e-blasts of hatred and religiously-inspired violence.

We need to recognize that his ideas were the vicious spawn of a rhetoric that flows freely in cyberspace that becomes a net of hatred. Ten years ago, Australia’s Hindu leaders were embarrassed that their website contained a link to the website, very anti-Islamic and which was generating hate propaganda such as that Pope Benedict is the great enemy of Hinduism – it was quickly removed and this was appreciated by interfaith leaders.

The Breivik tragedy gives us cause to reflect on the power not just of ideas, but of dangerous ideas, and the potential of the internet and the other new technologies to generate conflict and horrendous acts of violence. Since 9/11 and its aftermath, it was inevitable that focus switched to social cohesion in religiously and culturally pluralist countries, including upon combating homegrown terrorism. Religious and ethnic extremism has rightly come under the spotlight at a time when we have entered a religiously more competitive, if not conflicted, world. At the same time, religious leaders have come under greater scrutiny and accountability in how they respond to religious diversity and to the dangerous pathologies that may be embedded in their religious organizations. Religious leaders need to be well-educated and know how to operate in a multifaith society.

Hindus in Australia

Notwithstanding its complexities, the Hindu community has a generally positive image within the Australian community. There is an external perception that the Hindu communities could be better united though the same people realize their complexity and the difficulty of generating unity and cohesiveness. There is a saying in Sanskrit, The grass blades are feeble, weak and meek, but the rope that is made by putting them together becomes so strong that it can bind even a mighty elephant. Unshakeable solidarity produces big fruit.

For me, 2009 was a watershed year for the Hindu communities in Australia because it marked the highpoint of the Hindu movement to Australia which is continuing and it marked their participation in the Melbourne Parliament of the World’s Religions, the world’s largest interfaith gathering with 6,500 participants. This was especially so in the Convocation of Hindu Spiritual Leaders on the 8th December, 2009.

Convocation of Hindu Religious Leaders, Parliament of the World's Religions, Melbourne, 2009

A great Hindu advocate working against Hindu extremism and for productive interreligious cooperation was Shantilal Somaiya, the great Mumbai industrialist and philanthropist, who, as many of you know, “departed for his heavenly abode” here in Melbourne in the Alfred Hospital on the 1st January, 2010 from cerebral damage suffered in a fall from a taxi outside the Crown Plaza Hotel immediately after the opening ceremony of the 2009 Melbourne Parliament of the World’s Religions, two days after his 83rd birthday. His son and daughter have produced a beautifully bound volume of his major speeches. It is surely divinely symbolic that he should die on New Year’s Day as though his life had heralded a new day in interreligious relations, certainly in the relations of Hinduism with the other main religions.

The very last speech in the book is poignant. Entitled “Sharing Wisdom in Search of Inner and Outer Peace” which has become the title of the whole volume, it is the one he was to deliver at the Parliament but never did deliver. In the very last paragraph of his very last speech, never to be delivered, he quoted Swami Vivekananda in a 1893 speech at the first Chicago Parliament of World’s Religions, “Upon the banner of every religion there will soon be written: In spite of resistance, “Help, and not fight; “Assimilation and not destruction”, “Harmony, Peace, and not Dissension”” Thus we find that religious and spiritual wisdom can help in bringing peace and harmony if they help each other, cooperate with each other, not hate each other. OM, Shanti! Shanti! Shanti!”. These would have been his last public words.

The Emergence of Multifaith Australia

Since the release of the 2011 census figures on 21st June, 2012, our daily newspapers, those bastions of Australian secularism, have been telling us, if not shouting it, that Australia is becoming more secularized with the large rise in the “no religion” category. But the journalists’ story is in fact only half the story. They have forgotten the Hindus and the other non-Christian groups. It is true that the “no religion” category which now includes many of our Chinese Australian citizens who have emigrated from a communist, officially atheist country, has risen. But it is also true that the “not stated” category has fallen.

And this pattern is countered by the rise in the non-Christian groups and the evolution to a greater multifaith Australia. Paradoxically, Australia is becoming more religious but religious in a different way. In Australia, we are seeing a greater polarization between non-religionists, which includes some very vocal anti-religionists who think religion should be banished to the private forum of the home, and the religionists.

We are seeing a decline in the number of European immigrants, whether economic or refugee, as the European immigrants and refugees of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s pass on. But gradually they are being replaced by a slow but steady growth of skilled migrants from English-speaking countries and by refugees and other immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The mainstream Protestant churches continue to decline but not as rapidly as we had anticipated because of the increased migration from the English-speaking countries such as the U.K., Ireland, the U.S.A. and especially New Zealand and South Africa. Contrary to expectation, the Catholic population as the largest religious group has risen because of three factors: (1) the Catholic component of the migration from the English-speaking countries (2) the migration of the Asian Catholic minorities from countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka and (3) the migration of the Eastern-rite Catholics led by, in recent times, the Chaldean Catholics from Iraq and the Syro-Malabar Catholics from Kerala in India.

Hindu Temple, Auburn, NSW

The Australian Hindu Religious Profile

The numbers of those affiliated with religious traditions other than Christian have risen disproportionately so that now one in fourteen Australians belongs to such traditions. In the period 2006 – 2011, the Hindu population almost doubled and the Sikh population almost tripled. The explosion in the Hindu presence in Australia over the past five years not only in actual followers but also in temples – there are now at least 34 temples dotting the Australian landscape.

The Hindu population now numbers 275,536, just over one per cent of the Australian population. It is young and well-educated and will quickly become successful. Exactly three-quarters of Australian Hindus now live in the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne triangle; they are especially concentrated in NSW where 43.44% of Hindus live – the Helensburgh temple symbolizes this NSW presence. It is now the 9th largest religious group in Australia after the Catholics, Anglicans, Uniting Church, Presbyterian/Reformed, Christian Orthodox, Buddhists, Muslim and Baptists. In 1996 it was the fifteenth largest. In that 15 year period, the Hindu population has jumped 227.67 per cent. There are now more Hindus than Lutherans or Pentecostals or Jews. In the last fifteen years, the Indian-born population has grown by 281.01 per cent though this number contains many Catholics and Muslims. The numbers from the two other major source countries have also grown, Fijians by 53.58 per cent and Sri Lankans by 82.92 per cent. Three quarters of Hindu children are in government schools with about 12 percent each in the Catholic and independent schooling systems. Also, there are almost as many Hindu Australians as Buddhist and Muslim Australians in the 0 – 14 age range These figures are very impressive, and as well bode well for building up and strengthening the relationship between Australia and India.

Hindu Temple, Helensburgh, NSW

Helensburgh Hindu Temple, NSW

The Challenges for the Australian Hindu Communities

Hence the question becomes: As multicultural and multifaith Australia continues to emerge and grow, what is the role of the Australian Hindu communities? And what are the challenges?

In answering these questions, I want firstly to highlight the importance of religion for the individual and for the community and the role of local community leadership. Many educated secularists are too easily seduced by the easy and generally false argument that religions directly cause division and conflict whereas the reality is usually much more complex as we saw in Northern Ireland. Manfred Steger (2008) has shown how secularism as a very and perhaps peculiar Western phenomenon, far from being objective truth, is but a series of assumptions and truth claims. As Swami Vivekananda once said, “Every religion helps us to reach the Divine… I do not simply say I tolerate religions. That is an insult to God. I accept all religions. I worship all religions”.

In her outstanding recent monograph, Erin Wilson (2012) shows how the secularist bias has generally constrained public and political discourse within the West. And it is constraining the West’s capacity to dialogue with the African, Asian and Islamic worlds which are all very religious. This has been one reason why secular liberals have had difficulty accepting the generally positive effect religion has had on individual well-being and on the social capital or social wealth of a nation.

Secondly, Hinduism with its vast assembly of customs, rites, practices, festival days, swamis and gurus etc. have much to contribute to Australia. It is a complex myriad of communities which Australians have difficulty in grappling with and they do not always see the Hindu foundations of practices such as yoga. Whilst some Australians are somewhat nonplussed by the high rate of arranged or engineered marriages within the Indian community, the strong Hindu commitment to marriage and the family is demonstrated by its very low separation and divorce rate. The other contributions that Hindus can make to Australia is to continue its Australian path of religious moderation and eschewing religious extremism as seen in the recent Sydney riots not just from the young Muslim extremists but also from the white pride racist groups.

The third point is to highlight the interfaith aspect. In today’s world, to be religious is to be interreligious. If someone says that they are deeply religious and then refuse to dialogue and interact with people of other faiths or visit their places of worship and not to attend their functions on the grounds that “other religions are the work of Satan” or “down with the infidel”, then that person is not authentically religious. They act in contradiction to the deepest values of their own faith tradition, whether Buddhist or Christian or Hindu or Muslim or Sikh. As Gandhi said, “The tree of religion is the same”.

Fourthly, Hindu leaders need to be more assertive in proclaiming the message of the equality of all religions in the face of the many claims by some groups to religious superiority. Connected to this is their participation in interreligious dialogue. Currently in Australia, interreligious dialogue has been focused on dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths, namely, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In Hinduism’s dialogue with the other religions, there are many meeting points which can be built around bhakti in the pathway to God. One is the centrality of devotion and love in remembering the name and chanting the Divine Name. There is also the timeless and limitless gift of mysticism and the proximity of the Divine which has so impressed so many non-Hindus such as Dom Bede Griffiths. Part of this of course is the expanding of our internal consciousness so central to Hinduism and so needed by an non-religious Australian population.

The Challenges for Hinduism

The first challenge is to welcome, and to continue welcoming the Hindu stranger into our midst as well as other strangers. This is the tradition of hospitality of all the major religious traditions. Hospitality is making space for the other, the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee; it is offering them the space to be themselves and creating space where change can take place.

The second challenge is to build and continue to build the social wealth of the local community to ensure social cohesion nationally and locally. There is no agreed definition of social cohesion but generally descriptions revolve around a shared vision held by a well-functioning core group or community that acts in a continuous and interminable process of achieving social harmony. The research evidence suggests there are five key elements:

  1. creating a sense of belonging to a multifaith nation and to a multifaith community, proud of itself and incorporating shared values, trust and a sense of psychological identification. A local community’s first task at all levels is to create continuously a sense of belonging, including to the local area as well as to the nation.
  2. ensuring social justice and equity in accord with human rights observance and in terms of access to government services and funding. This second element is to ensure, firstly, that all citizens and residents, both permanent and temporary, are treated justly, with equity and equitably, including that the youth and the adult young receive their fair share of the local resources and are provided with multiple opportunities to develop themselves and their talents through training and education. Almost all suicide bombers have been young adults.
  3. encouraging democratic participation with regard to political and cooperative involvement. This third task is to ensure participation by all groups in civic and social life as part of creating this sense of belonging. Elected civic and administrative leaders as well as members of parliament need to attend the many varied ethnic and religious community functions as part of creating the sense of welcoming and participation that lie at the heart of social cohesion.
  4. bringing about acceptance of ethnic, indigenous, religious and sexual minorities and working against racism, discrimination and extremist ideologies based on literalist interpretations of sacred religious texts or ethnonationalist ideologies. Welcoming includes resisting racism, bigotry and discrimination through formal media and community education programs.
  5. forging a sense of worth for all incorporating people’s general happiness, life satisfaction and future expectations. People must all have a sense of their personal worth as individuals, generally happy in their personhood, generally satisfied with their lives and living and working with achievable and realistic expectations.

With five such elements, we can inoculate societies from being impacted by overseas events and dangerous imported ideologies and from the incubation of homegrown terrorism.

Activities for Local Hindu Community Groups

There are many interfaith activities that local Hindu groups can participate in or even lead. Some of these are participating in or leading

  1. Interfaith Theological, Meditation and Community Dialogues Sessions
  2. Formation of Interfaith Womens’ Groups
  3. Formation of an Interfaith Youth Group
  4. Multifaith Blessing Ceremonies at Official Openings or in Times of Tragedy
  5. Rostered Prayers for Council Meetings
  6. Multifaith Walks for Peace or Justice or whatever
  7. Multifaith Poetry Sessions
  8. Prayer Services for Peace
  9. Multifaith/Multicultural Bus or Car Tours
  10. Video/CD Productions
  11. Open Days of Places of Worship
  12. Multifaith Artistic Projects
  13. Multifaith Concerts
  14. Multifaith Sacred Spaces
  15. Information Kits for Local Distribution
  16. Social Justice Breakfast Meetings
  17. GreenFaith Events

Aside from its enormous capacity for a systematic and well-ordered immigrant and refugee settlement managed locally and nationally, Australia now is admired by the rest of the world. Emigration to Australia, because of the distance involved, has generally been the result of a careful decision with appropriate preparation. Every migration is a risk, individually and collectively, and the settlement of immigrants and refugees in regional areas contains higher levels of risk. In all immigrant and refugee groups, there is always a small group (0 – 6%) for whom the decision to emigrate ends in disappointment, if not disaster. Expectations may not have been met. The support may not have been enough. Opportunities may not have been available. The spectre of the defeated immigrant haunts all migration movements. They may not have had the psychological resources or the key adaptability attributes to cope such as personal autonomy, observational acuity, flexibility and emotional resilience to cope. The risk is of extreme loneliness, extreme marginalization and loss of control over their own lives as well as the mental health consequences of trauma. And the full consequences of any migration movement can never be fully foreseen no matter how well engineered by governments.

Arathi in Hindu Temple


In concluding, despite the Sydney troubles, despite Cronulla, despite the Indian student assaults, Australia is a wonderful healing place for ancient and less ancient hatreds. Religious leaders have played a key role in the defusing of these animosities. And that is why we are admired around the world. The Turks and the Greeks have lived in relative harmony for the past forty years as have the Serbians and Croatians even though there have been incidents along the way as at the soccer and the Australian Tennis Open. These are passing events as was Cronulla as will be the recent Sydney protest. It depends more on us as we broaden and deepen the great vision of a multicultural Australia which is built on commitment to Australia and equality of opportunity underpinned by cultural maintenance, the principles of access and equity and economic productive diversity. The managing and regulating of ethnic and religious diversity has taken on a new urgency. It has always been a process and it will continue to be a process.

In today’s unpredictable world, to be religious implies to be interreligious. Let us be reminded of a few lines from Tagore:

Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not
Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own
Thou has brought the distant near and made a brother and sister of the stranger.

Download Being Religious and Interreligious in Multicultural Australia: Challenges for the Hindu Community

Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM.

Prof. Des Cahill, OAM, Chair of Religions for Peace Australia has been an active participant in interfaith activities and has been the Chair of Religions for Peace for 11 years. He is also Professor at the School of Global Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne.

Educated in Australia and Italy, Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University, has been a world leading researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than three decades.

Prof. Des Cahill

Since the events of September 11th 2001, he has played a major role in researching and bringing together the various faith communities in Australia and across the world through his research and community activities. He currently chairs the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace International, the world’s largest interfaith organization, and represents Australia on the executive committee of the Religions for Peace Asia – in October 2008, he was elected its Deputy Moderator by the Governing Board representing the 18 member nations including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the two Koreas. He is a member of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO) and of the Victoria Police Multifaith Advisory Council.

In 2006, he led Melbourne’s successful bid, in competition against Delhi and Singapore, to host the Parliament of the World’s Religions during 3rd – 9th December 2009, the world’s largest interfaith gathering. As a consequence, he has been made an Ambassador for Club Melbourne, a group of 100 leading scientists and academics, to promote the image of Melbourne around the world.

In the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, he was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for “services to Intercultural Education and to the Interfaith Movement”. Professor Cahill is Chair, Religions for Peace Australia.

Source: © Desmond P. Cahill