“All are Precious Jewels” – Accepting our Cultural Differences

Mary Pat Fisher | International conference “Spiritual Renewal is the Path to Prosperity and Harmony”, Astana, October 17-18, 2017

In the newly-formed Eurasian Peoples’ Assembly, we have started a project to share short videos from all Eurasian countries with spiritual, humanitarian, or inspirational content, for the sake of recognizing each other as brothers and sisters. It seems like a good cause. But from the outset, we have run into one major problem: cultural differences that viewers from other cultures cannot tolerate.

            Someone has sent us a video from a South Asian country which shows a man washing the feet of his elderly mother as she sits on a rope bed. Then, somewhat surprisingly, he goes on to drink the water from her footbath and wash his arms and face with it. After that, he and his mother embrace each other very affectionately. To South Asian viewers, this is a touching visual story. Our Forum’s Liz Augustat of Germany was so moved by it that she immediately called her own mother to see if she was okay. Liz has a warm heart and international perspective. But when she showed the video to other people in Germany, many found it strange and some were even disgusted. 

            On the other hand, if we were to show a video of Europeans and Russians frolicking in the nude on the beaches of Goa in India, many traditional South Asians would find the images very offensive, for their cultures expect a high degree of modesty in dress. If people cannot tolerate such differences, how can they recognize the others as their own brothers and sisters in our one human family?

            One solution is education about each others’ cultures, so that we are more sympathetic toward our outer differences. Therefore I wrote a short introduction for the footwashing video: “Footwashing is a traditional way of showing love, respect, and care for elders in South Asia. The son in this video goes even farther in expressing his reverence for his mother.” Liz thinks that her countrymen may be much more tolerant of the video’s contents after reading even this brief explanation.

            Similarly, perhaps we could explain to conservative South Asians that people from cold and cloudy countries have a deep craving for sun—such that they long to expose their whole body to it when they have the chance. At Gobind Sadan, the interfaith community where I live in India, some guests from colder countries want to take sunbaths in the garden in skimpy clothing.  We request them to go up to the flat roof if they want to sunbathe, so that they cannot be seen and will not offend anyone.  

            Reverence for elders is not common in the West, but is easily understood in South Asia because it is deeply ingrained in the cultures. Desire for sunlight is a physical need, for the body needs Vitamin D, but exposing the body to the sun is not readily understood by those for whom the hot sun is a problem much of the year and who have much greater love for shade. Thus we need to go beneath the surface to learn about the origins of behaviors we find offensive.        Why can’t we accept people as they are, without judgment? In describing the qualities of the Khalsa—the order of the pure established by Guru Gobind Singh to defend dharma—the Guru said that criticism of others is one of the first things that a member of the Khalsa renounces. By contrast, we take offense at the slightest thing—the clothes a person wears or doesn’t wear, the loud volume at which some people speak, music that we don’t like, someone’s strictness in insisting that we comply with rules, et cetera, et cetera.

On a broader scale, whole communities of people become intolerant of those whose habits are different than theirs. Indian-born Sikhs living in the United States and Australia have become targets of hate crimes because they wear turbans, which ignorant people have associated with terrorism. People have yelled extremely insulting abuses at them, likening their head coverings to “diapers” and “rags,” physically attacking them and trying to tear off their turbans. Little do these people know that Guru Gobind Singh ordered his Sikhs to live as God-oriented sadhus with naturally long hair, but bind it up in a turban for neatness in order to live in the world, helping the people. The turban was to be their distinctive symbol so that anyone could recognize them and seek their help in times of trouble.   

In addition to educating ourselves about cultural differences, we also need to educate and tame our ego. This requires deep inner spiritual practice. We need to recognize and do battle with our own weaknesses rather than finding fault with others. We need to relax our egos, to let the boundaries of our hard shells soften. If people are behaving in a way we find offensive, it is much easier to get along with them if we are relaxed rather than tense and defensive.

The deeper solution is to embrace our differences, going far beyond mere tolerance. Again, this requires spiritual practice and spiritual understanding. All prophets have taught us to love each other. Our teacher Baba Virsa Singh taught us that God did not send us here to judge each other; God sent us here to love and serve each other.

The Fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjun Dev, said,

The Creator is in the creation,

And the creation abides in the Creator.

Whom can we call bad,

When there is no one other than Him? [Guru Granth Sahib p. 1381]

Guru Granth Sahib, the universal Sikh scripture compiled from writings of Hindu and Muslim saints as well as Sikh Gurus, shows us that we can worship God in many forms and also beyond any form, for all paths lead to the same One God. There can be room in our heart for everyone, as they are, if we truly grasp that our Beloved resides in each and every person. The Sufi master Shaikh Farid’s guidance preserved in Guru Granth Sahib includes these lovely verses:

Do not speak even a discourteous word;

The True Master abides in all.

Do not break anyone’s heart;

All are priceless jewels.

The minds of all are priceless jewels;

To hurt them is not good at all.

If you yearn for your Beloved,

Do not hurt anyone’s heart.  [Guru Granth Sahib page 1384]

We should look for those inner jewels with the eyes of love, rather than seeing only the rough exterior. The more people you can embrace and love, the richer is your life. You see precious jewels wherever you look. Cultural differences become deeply interesting rather than offensive or strange.

            We have started this video project because we have a great longing to see the faces of our brothers and sisters everywhere, no matter how they manifest their humanity outwardly. God is blessing each and every one. May we look at each other with the eyes of God.