Indira Gandhi was walking towards the place of meeting where she was to be interviewed by actor Peter Ustinov. He talks about his aversion with organised religion and its many ills.

Peter Ustinov is a well-known name from yester years. He had acted in many films, including playing the role of Hercule Poirot in some.

But what keeps him forever alive in the Indian mind is the fact that he was waiting to meet former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to interview her for the Irish television. He saw her leave her home and walk towards the place of meeting. He was shocked to see her assassinated before she covered that short distance. Willy-nilly he became part witness.

A man with varied experiences must have something strong to say about religious fanaticism. Yes indeed, he has. “I must admit at once that I am one of those people who reach their conclusions about faith by a process of elimination rather than as a result of an opening of private heavens. I am aware that there are conventions which believe faith to be as blind and beautiful as love, and even if I cannot subscribe to this, I feel that people like myself, even if incapable of mystical frenzies, have the consolation of being far less dangerous to our fellow men…Organised religion as such depresses me, in that I can never accept the idea of the church as an agency of God, with different denominations as active in claiming the attention of the layman as are those corporations who jockey for position in the world of commerce…”

Ustinov won the Grammy for his recording for children in “Peter and the Wolf”. His empathy and understanding of children comes through as he says, “…Parenthood is not a selfish investment. It is a happy accident by which human beings can perform the miracle of creating a character, a conscience, and a mind, the whole served up with identifiable features. I believe that the parents’ function is to allow the young mind full rein, so that it may grow up with the dignity of doubt rather than with the servility of imposed convictions.” He says this in the context of not forcing religious beliefs on the child.

Talking of himself, Ustinov says, “I believe in doubt and mistrust conviction; I believe in liberalism and detest oppression; I believe in the individual and deny the existence of the so-called masses; I believe in abstract love of country and deplore patriotism; I believe in moral courage and suspect physical courage for its own sake; I believe in the human conscience and deny the right of fanatics or of those with self-created halos to impinge on its necessary privacy.”

Idea of conversion

Therefore it is that he does not like the idea of conversion, “I resent attempts at conversion by any slave to a sense of mission, be he political or divine. I have nothing against the hermetic mind so long as it is not allied to a moralising mouth. My grandfather, whom I never knew, was converted from Orthodoxy to Protestantism. I believe that had he not done so, I might easily have taken the same step, although, as I said, I find the habit of religion oppressive, and an easy way out of personal thought. It is, in any case, a temperamental difference in the believers which separates the churches, and not a religious difference….”

It is a tongue-in-cheek addition to the conversation when he says that he would love to call himself a Christian because he swears allegiance to all the virtues upheld by Christianity. Seriously speaking, he does not have a problem with the content of the religion he was born into, but more with the way it is held up to practice, “If I can’t put up with the interfering dogmas, I am prepared and proud to be called a Christian, because it is a convenient and beautiful adjective with which to label the grain of virtue latent in the human conscience.”

The essence of his beliefs comes as a quotable quote, “The mysticism of mortals is an attempt to colonize obscurity for the purpose of religious oppression, while a twinge of conscience is a glimpse of God,” declares Ustinov.