Understanding Conflicts through Differing Belief Systems


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Ravi P Bhatia7 Sep 2016 – There are large scale conflicts, tensions, misunderstandings that lead to violence in contemporary times. Often we see not just violence but terrorism which is a more brutal form of violence that entails kidnappings, bombings, killings and other form of atrocities and brutalities on human beings.

The violence and terrorism are not confined to any particular region of the world but are being witnessed in several parts of Asia, Africa, Middle East countries etc. Apart from poverty, social inequalities, political ideologies etc, religion or rather religious differences are important factors leading to conflict and violence and killings.

It is not that conflict and violence were not present in earlier times; in the Hindu tradition, Mahabharat is a beautiful and abiding account of the series of conflicts faced by its principal actors and how they tried to address and resolve them. Its principal section, the Bhagwad Gita meaningfully and comprehensively deals with the battle both physical and ideological that is waged between two sets of cousins in the battle field in Kurukshetra. The message of Gita delivered by Lord Krishna is an essential part of Hinduism. According to the well known journalist Siddarth Vardarajan, “The Gita is one of India’s – and the world’s oldest and greatest philosophical texts, and the range of ethical, moral and ontological questions it raises are as relevant to humanity today as they were to the ancients”.

But the scale and level of brutality and violence being observed now have vastly increased largely due to advance in technology and modern means of warfare including bombings in air, on land and even below the seas. Nuclear bombs have also come into the aresenal of some countries including India and Pakistan.

Conflict is not only confined between nations but is present in homes, in communities, in academic and political institutions, at workplace, etc. We see domestic tension and conflict between husbands and wives, between parents and their children. Even in schools we have problems between teachers themselves and between teachers and students with occasional use of corporate punishment by teachers on students.

In this article we confine ourselves to conflicts and violence between communities, between nations and especially between differing religious groups of people. There are many ways of analyzing conflicts and means of reducing and mitigation of conflicts. However we confine in this article to the role of belief systems to understand how conflicts arise and how they can be reduced and avoided. We discuss below the meaning and implication of belief systems and how they lead to conflict.

Belief Systems

As the name suggests, belief systems are beliefs that are imbibed at an early age and built upon a community’s history and life styles. Examples of a community’s ways of living include rituals of birth, marriage and death. While Hindus cremate (burn) their dead bodies, Abrahamical peoples and Christians bury them. What to eat and what not to eat, how to dress are also intrinsic to different communities. Respect for the elderly or for women also differ from community to community.

These habits and views are cherished and believed firmly by the people belonging to the community and guide them throughout their lives. As the noted peace researcher Gavriel Salomon had written “Intractable or stubborn conflicts are rooted in long and painful memories that are central in a society’s life.  …”.  A society or community is unable and unwilling to change these firmly held beliefs and practices.

If we analyze various types of common conflicts we realize that they arise due to different factors – social, economic, linguistic etc but are also due to serious differences and disagreement over deeply held beliefs, values and practices. These differences lead to conflict in various spheres – domestic, workplace, institutional and of course religious. In a family conflict may arise because the father may want the child to work hard for his examinations and a career, but the latter feels that he should be allowed to enjoy himself with his friends and be able to race down the roads in his bike. In this case the son feels that his father is old fashioned and does not understand a young man’s freedom.

Similarly in matters of dress modern young women want to wear jeans and tops and not be burdened by the older styles or fashions. If the mother or any one else protests they feel that their freedom is being compromised. Of course the Khap panchayats in the state of Haryana in India oppress their children in bestial and cruel ways and even murder their own daughter if she marries according to her own wishes and not as her parents desire.  A conflict in a factory can ultimately be seen to arise as a result of conflicting view of the management who want to maximize products and sales and the contrary views of the workers who feel cheated since they feel that their owners are not paying them proper wages and denying them other benefits due to them.

On a serious level, religious, political and ideological conflicts arise due to differing belief systems. The conflict between Israel and Palestine, the conflict between Pakistan and India over the Kashmir issue and the relatively recent conflict between China and India over their crossing the international border and the dispute over the status of Arunachal Pradesh which they claim to be Chinese territory, are a result of strongly held beliefs that each country are right and the opposing nation is wrong whose conduct and policies are provocative and unjustified. The belief systems lead parties and nations to remain inflexible and unyielding to the opposing side and entail conflict and tension.

The origins of any religious group – be it Christianity, Islam, Sikhism of which historical records are easily available, led the adherents of these faiths to live and struggle in different ways that were antagonistic to each other. Christianity was born out of the struggles with the Jewish faith; similarly Islam came out of struggles in the Arab lands. Muslims the world over  generally maintain their practices of living and belief in Allah even today without much change in their life styles and approaches to life. Even the way that both the men and women dress today show the impact of the earlier dress code in the time of birth of Islam more than fourteen hundred years ago. Sikhism also originated out of struggles against the Brahmanical orthodoxy.

When two communities or peoples of two (or more) differing faith interact with one another, there is a difference of and disputes arise between two opposing belief systems or collective narratives that are opposed to each other and are rooted in different, often traumatic memories. Not only are the narratives and underlying belief systems mirror images of each other as Gavriel Salomon writes, they often delegitimize each others’ goals, history,  humanity and sufferings. Conflict is thus inevitable.

Thus we can understand the conflict that arises between (say) Sunnis and Shias in Islam all over the world. There is also a sect called Alevi in Turkey that is at odds with the dominant Sunni sect of Islam in that country. Similarly in Pakistan the sect of Ahmadiyas is at odds with the Sunni majority and they have been barred from practicing their faith as per the dominant group – the Sunnis. They are not allowed even to call their place of worship as Masjid or mosque. In Israel the problem of Palestine and the Gaza strip is a persistent one that is nowhere near solution due to differing social and economic issues but ultimately because of differing and antagonistic belief systems.

The long term rivalry between Germany and France was resolved of course by the statesmanship and leadership of de Gaulle of France and   Konrad Adenauer – the latter being the first post-war Chancellor of Germany from 1949 to 1963,   But basically both the countries had similar belief systems and faith in Christianity and their religions and cultures were not radically different. The relatively minor differences that persisted were subsumed under the direct role of USA for bringing these two nations together for economic and political union. Other nations which were opposed to each other earlier have also joined the European Union.

To reduce or mitigate the ensuing conflict we have to understand each others’ histories and belief systems and work around the differences by dialogue and mutual understanding. In India credit for this goes principally to Gandhi who practiced not just truth and non violence but tried to bring different communities to understand each other and to live together harmoniously.

Gandhiji believed in religious harmony and amity between different faiths and worked all his life towards bringing about understanding and goodwill between different religions, and in particular between Hinduism and Islam. He admired the good features of all religions and said that we must keep our minds open for learning from each others’ faiths. He had this open attitude not only towards Islam but also Christianity which he felt was doing good work in the fields of education and healthcare. His admiration for different religions was exemplified by the prathna sabhas (religious discourses) where he clearly talked about the good features of all religions. The ashrams that were built by him and in which he spent a considerable part of his life along with other devotees had large windows symbolizing the openness of his mind towards other religions although he himself claimed several times that he was a Sanatani Hindu. Gandhi’s religious eclecticism was largely inspired by his mother who was a devout person with equal respect for  different faiths and regularly fasted for spiritual benefit.

In conclusion we can say that differing beliefs and attitudes have their own legitimacy – they arise as a result of a community’s historical past, its struggles, its cherished memories and ways of living.  Conflicts arise when differing approaches and belief systems come in contact. We must respect these differing perspectives of life and act judiciously and sympathetically towards them. Gandhi worked endlessly to build bridges between different communities and promote peace harmony and goodwill. The path followed by Gandhi is as relevant today as it was when he was alive.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.  ravipbhatia@gmail.com


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Sep 2016.

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