The Sound of Music in Bengali! (videos and commentary)

The scenic Swiss Alps, a church, a group of nuns playing their instruments and singing — in Bengali. What could be more natural? Nothing, as it turns out…

Do you believe in serendipity? Only last night I watched The Sound of Music for the first time. I was touched by some of the scenes, and by a world which arguably doesn’t exist anymore. (Oops! The YouTube video doesn’t exist anymore, so here’s the film trailer from DailyMotion):

I had been familiar with the music, especially the John Coltrane version of “My Favorite Things” recorded live at Newport, which hangs like a moment frozen in time in my imagination:

Then today, I stumbled on this video:

It’s the girl group Mountain-Silence performing a medley of songs at a church in the town of Zermatt, nestled at the foot of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. Everything is very monastic and nunlike, but if you listen carefully you’ll realize that the nuns are singing in Bengali! They’re students of the late Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy, who composed the songs. The third song in the medley (at 4:00) is “Jishu Avatar,” a song honouring Jesus and Mary.

There’s an old joke that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide things into categories. 🙂

While some people are busy defending their categories, others create a synthesis based on what they believe and feel, and what their intuition tells them is a truth worth living. As the world has grown bigger and become borderless, the Neo-Vedanta philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda (which is also embraced by Sri Chinmoy) has become a blueprint for innovation. This is a world view which is non-sectarian and sees oneness in diversity. It therefore gives people the freedom to synthesize forms of spiritual practice which combine the ingredients they need. Sri Chinmoy writes:

My personal opinion of Jesus Christ is that he is God’s Son. If you feel that he has not achieved anything, unfortunately I cannot see eye to eye with you. On the strength of my own realisation, I know that he is a real Son of God and a real world-Saviour. He was God-realised and fully illumined. He had a heart full of compassion; his heart was a flood of compassion. He was, he is and he will always remain a Saviour to mankind.

— Sri Chinmoy, from The Avatars and the Masters, Agni Press, 1979

When I look at Mountain-Silence, I see souls who are drawn to meditation and Eastern philosophy, but who also have tremendous devotion to the Christ. This is reflected in their music and pure lifestyle. They’re a living embodiment of what religious freedom looks like, for they could not exist in a world which is rigidly secular, or rigidly Christian, or rigidly Hindu. Religious freedom is ultimately the freedom of the soul to express itself with subtlety and grace.


Special thanks to videographer Kedar Misani and to Mountain-Silence. The song “Jishu Avatar” is from their album Christ-Songs. Listen online for free at Radio Sri Chinmoy.


Maggie Simpson Says “I Want My Hijab!”

In the spirit of religious tolerance and total non-violence, I offer this Photoshopped image intended to make you think:

Simpsons-Hebdo-I-Want-My-Hijab-v14b-newI had buried this image in a long post where few would see it, but wanted to give it some signal boost since it could spark debate about the ethics of using cartoon characters to sell an idea or product, and broader issues. Some key points are:

  • Combining the Maggie Simpson and Je Suis Charlie icons (as FOX did) should raise a few eyebrows.
  • For some I Am Charlie refuseniks, throwing total support to the magazine is too simplistic an answer to complex problems.
  • One of the best articles highlighting the contradictions is Scott Sayare’s here in The Atlantic.
  • The ultimate answer lies in insight, religious tolerance, and balancing freedom of speech with freedom of religion, freedom from vilification, and respect for the dignity of each person.
  • The Islamic extremist message gains traction from the free speech extremist message, and vice versa. The reasonable middle becomes harder to locate.
  • When free speech is balanced with wisdom and compassion, it’s easier for people to eke out a middle ground where they begin to hear each other. Neither Islamic extremists nor Charlie Hebdo represent that fragile middle ground, though obviously the terrorists who killed people perpetrated an infinitely greater wrong than the cartoonists who provoked them.
  • The controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but rather against a backdrop which includes the French law banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in some places.
Hijab is the headscarf worn by many Muslim women.

Hijab is the headscarf worn by many Muslim women.

  • I am neither French, nor Muslim, nor female, but I know of no one who favours religious tolerance who thinks the French ban on headscarves is enlightened social policy. Rather, it tends to create hurt feelings and an anti-assimilation backlash.
  • The distinctly French view that the entire public space must be secularized through rigid laws banning religious garb and religious expression is an extreme view which is ultimately incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • While not everyone is religious or spiritual, those who are contribute much to the beauty, wisdom, and colour of the world we live in, and also have a role to play in finding solutions to society’s problems.
  • Spirituality is a natural part of life. Although it’s often convenient and appropriate to distinguish between the secular sphere and the religious sphere, the boundaries between them should be fluid, like the shoreline and the sea.
  • Religious freedom means the freedom to live life integrally and not be forced to doff one’s hijab, yarmulke, or sari for fear of being arrested, ticketed, or refused entrance to a public facility.
  • These are differences which need to be worked out peacefully through respectful dialogue.

In closing: I sometimes feel guilty about repeating certain themes, such as the need for religious tolerance. But this message needs to be repeated a thousand different times in a thousand different ways, because it’s key to building our future world.

Religious tolerance isn’t the end of a conversation, it’s only the beginning of one! Religious tolerance comes through insight, and this insight is achieved through education, study, and soul-searching. That’s a little harder than choosing a prefab opinion from Column A or Column B, but the results are worth it!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

See also: “In solidarity with the French people and all people”