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Celebrating Diwali in Downing Street

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IN a short speech after becoming Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak said that it was the ‘greatest privilege’ of his life to ‘serve the party I love and give back to the country I owe so much to’.

Sunak was born in 1980 in Southampton to parents of Punjabi descent. His grandparents were born in India and emigrated to the UK from East Africa in the 1960s.

He is our first Hindu prime minister. He says his ethnicity is Indian, both religiously and culturally, and he proclaims his Hindu identity with pride. He rarely speaks about his faith in public, but nor does he shy away from showing it. On being elected an MP in 2015 he swore his oath of allegiance in the House of Commons on the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s most sacred texts. He says the Gita comes to his rescue in tough situations and reminds him of his responsibilities. He and his wife recently performed ‘Gau Pooja’, a ceremony to show appreciation and reverence for the cow, seen as sacred by Hindu believers, cherished for its benevolence and generosity, and as a bringer of wealth.

Coincidentally, Sunak was elected by Tory MPs on Diwali, the festival of lights enjoyed by hundreds of millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains worldwide. Two years ago, when he was Chancellor, Sunak lit ceremonial diyas to mark Diwali on the doorstep of 11 Downing Street. On Wednesday night, he celebrated Diwali at a ‘brilliant’ reception at No 10. It is also reported that Sunak keeps an idol of Lord Ganesh on his table.

With its roots in India, Hinduism is the world’s third-largest religion, with more than one billion followers. Hindus believe in reincarnation of the soul, along with karma — the idea of cause and effect in the universe (with good things happening to people who do good deeds, for example). There is one supreme being in Hinduism, called Brahman, although the religion is polytheistic, with myriad gods; the many deities are sometimes said to represent different aspects of Brahman.

While most people think that Hinduism is a religion of peace, the Bhagavad Gita is actually about war. Hinduism is therefore not a pacifist religion; war is considered right when it is for a just cause.

It’s difficult to predict what influence Hinduism will have on Sunak’s policy decisions as Prime Minister, partly because the religion is seen as remarkably permissive. It has no founder or prophet, no prescriptive tenets and no divine revelation, no revealed word of God, in great contrast to Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

Because there is no dogma, there is no such thing as heretical thought. The result is a pick’n’mix religion with thousands of gods and which allows followers to live as they feel appropriate, within the overarching concept of dharma (duty), an important code which helps people to live morally.

Some Christians are concerned about the spiritual impact of having an idol-worshipping Prime Minister in No 10 (and another in the Home Office (Home Secretary Suella Braverman is a Buddhist, taking her oath of office as an MP on the book of Buddhist scripture Dhammapada). It indeed is breaking two of the ten commandments in the seat of government; namely ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ and ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol …’ (Ex 20:3-4).

Yet, while to Christians it may not be ideal, the question arises whether having a Hindu PM is really any worse than a hedonistic, adulterous PM who admitted it would be ‘pretentious’ to refer to him as a serious Christian (Boris Johnson)? Or than a somewhat agnostic PM who compared his faith to ‘the dodgy radio reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns’ – i.e., it comes and goes (David Cameron)? Or even the current most likely alternative, should a general election be held, of an atheist PM (Keir Starmer). 

In other words, is one who practises a faith other than Christianity all that different from one who has no personal faith at all? Aren’t both, ultimately, serving ‘other gods’? (Ex 20:3, Josh 24:15). Could it even be seen as a positive thing; a Prime Minister with a personal faith rooted in moral values, rather than one with none?

Certainly, there will be many believers who celebrate the fact that diversity of religion and ethnic background are no longer a barrier to the highest offices in the land, where, rather, merit and ability are noted as the determining factors.

At the same time, however much we have lapsed or are lax in our Christianity, the Judeo-Christian tradition is what underlies this country’s history of democracy, rule of law and respect: that we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord; all that we (used to, perhaps) value as civilised in the Western world.

Will Mr Sunak pay even lip service to Christianity, the religion to which still the majority of the people in this country regard themselves as belonging (some 60 per cent compared with 1.5 per cent Hindus)?

We need to see him make some public effort to understand and respect the Judeo-Christian tradition of the country he and his parents chose to make their home – of its ethics and moral code as well as, indeed, the Church of England, the established Church of the nation. 

We live in days where Christianity is no longer the default religion of our nation. We too need to pray for those in authority over us, just as the early Christians living under Roman pagan rule were instructed to do (1 Tim 2:1-2). This can, of course, include prayers for Jesus Christ to reveal Himself to our new Prime Minister. 

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Tom Lennie
Tom Lennie
Tom Lennie is executive editor of Prophecy Today.

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