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July 2020
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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Promotes Interreligious Harmony in Chennai, India

Religious Youth Service (RYS), which promotes the complementary ideals of interreligious harmony and public service, teamed up Indian athletes from the Interreligious Peace Sports Festival to clean and preserve 100-year-old sacred painting in a 2,000-year-old Hindu temple in rural south India.

In striking contrast to widely circulated stories about communal conflicts which often find top billing in both the Indian and international press and which serve to inflame intolerance, different faith traditions need not be a source of prejudice and conflict. Understanding the beliefs of others can actually reaffirm one’s own faith by rediscovering similar values through the eyes of others.

This process of reaffirming one's own belief by rediscovering similar values through other religions allows one to strengthen his or her own convictions, while at the same time to transcend them, by realizing that those values are universal—values common to people of all faiths. This is the hallmark of RYS.

But this service project in Chennai was unique, unmatched in the 21-year history of RYS. Participants were to wash century-old paintings with water and cloth, then apply a thin coat of varnish. The paintings covered the inner walls of the main Hindu temple in Sriperumbadur, Tamilnadu, in south India. The ink was vegetable dye.

Because there were many non-Hindus among RYS participants, it was not hard for the conference organizers to envision a potential communal uproar if the historic paintings were damaged or destroyed. Thus, this service project was approached with a good deal of trepidation.

Thankfully, those fears were unfounded. Temple curator, Mr. Ramadas, had already successfully tested his theory on several paintings which had been cleaned and varnished thirty years ago. Those paintings retained their quality and still looked beautiful. The Temple staff wanted to duplicate that success; not test a new hypothesis. This put everyone at ease, so the project could proceed.

Nevertheless, under the watchful eyes of two Brahman priests who later left to perform temple duties, the younger students removed cobweb and cleaned more than forty historic religious paintings. Older participants varnished nearly a dozen of the sacred relics. In all, 38 participants, ranging in age from 13 to 57, and coming from four diverse religious traditions, demonstrated that religious harmony is more than viable—it was exciting and educational. The power of serving broke down ages of ignorance and misunderstanding.

Many of the younger participants, some of whom had never been in a Hindu temple before, came from the State Bank Officers Association of Matriculation & Higher Secondary School. This school has over 5,000 students and has the best academic record of any secondary school in Chennai (formerly Madras). The Principal, Mrs. Rajeswari Menon, gave a presentation on “Goal Setting and Challenging Limitation” which was part of the accompanying educational program. Not part of the organized program, a surprise was waiting for the participants: it was the time of the new moon, the darkest part of the month.

Unplanned by Dr. N. R. Menon, educational director from the neighboring state of Kerela (unrelated to Mrs. Menon), this day was known as Maha Shivratri. On this auspicious occasion, devotees of Shiva hold long vigils during the night, fasting and chanting sacred texts; they ring bells, and make offerings to heaven of the five immoral foods: milk, clarified butter, curd, honey and sugar.

In the evening devotees of the Adikesava Perumal Bhashyakara Swami Devasthanam temple arrived dressed in their finest saris and suits—only to find RYS participants in their temple and obviously not part of the religious gaiety. “What were these youngsters doing in our temple on this high holy day?” were their obvious first thoughts. But the power of living for others is magical. It was evident the “intruders” were in the temple to serve: cleaning, brushing and shellacking. Moments after the suspicious first gazes, their faces changed. Temple devotees were grateful for the youthful energy of the RYS volunteers and gave nodding approvals with accompanying smiles.

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