Inter-religious Attitude





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       =======  Understanding Hinduism  =======

Inter-religious Attitude

Religious Harmony and Disharmony
Or Religion Divides or Unites?
By Swami Brahmeshananda, Belur Math

Inter Religious Attitude
By Swami Nikhilananda
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, New York

An essay on
Inter-religious Attitude
By Swami Nikhilananda
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, New York

From the time of the Vedas, the earliest recorded history of India’s spiritual culture, to that of Ramakrishna (1836 to 1886), the prophet of modern India, Hinduism has shown goodwill and respect for other religions. Despite sporadic instances of sectarian intolerance, the history of India is singularly free from religious strife. Even before the Christian era, India afforded shelter to a Jewish group, which was given freedom to pursue its own form of worship. Thomas, one of the apostles of Christ, came to India to preach the gospel of his master, and established a church in South India, which is still functioning. Most of the Parsis, when persecuted in their homeland came to India, where they are living today as the remnant of the grand ancient Zoroastrian faith. Hindu kings, frequently helped the Moslems to build their mosques, in spite of the fact that the Moslem rulers of India destroyed Hindu temples, disfigured Hindu images, and converted the Hindus to their faith often by ruthless methods. The religious clashes between Hindus and Moslems that have occurred during the present century (20th century) have been inspired largely by political factors, religion being used merely as a pretext.

The respectful attitude of Hinduism toward other religions can best be understood in terms of its philosophical basis. As has been explained earlier, ultimate reality, according to Vedanta, is Brahman, or the spirit, which is devoid of name, form, or attributes; and in the relative universe the highest manifestation of Brahman is the Personal God, who is worshipped under different names and forms by Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Moslems. A passage in one of the Hindu scriptures says: ‘Though without parts or attributes, Brahman assumes forms for the welfare of the spiritual seekers.’ The Personal God leads devotees to the realization of the spirit. Though Buddhism does not officially recognize the Person God, yet in actual practice the attitude of Buddhists towards Buddha is not very different from that of the votaries of other religions toward their respective prophets or saviours.

A religion which regards ultimate reality as impersonal truth, and at the same time recognizes the validity of its concrete manifestations for the benefit of struggling aspirants, cannot but admit the validity of all religious ideals and show them respect. The situation is quite different with those for whom the Personal God is the ultimate reality. To accept the doctrine of exclusive salvation and develop the concept of ‘either-or’ are natural for them. Hinduism has never developed the theory of a jealous God or exclusive salvation; the idea of a chosen people is alien to it. In the Hindu monotheism all other deities are either absorbed in the Supreme God or accepted as parts of Him. Whereas in the Semitic monotheism they are not tolerated. The Bhagavad Gita says that people under the compulsion of desires, following their own natures, worship other deities with suitable rituals. The supreme God does not frown upon such worship; on the contrary, He deepens their faith in their respective ideals and enables them to obtain the object of their desires. The ultimate fulfillment of desires, however, comes from Him alone who is the real dispenser of the fruits of worship. To a disciple who criticized the questionable rituals of a certain Hindu sect, Sri Ramakrishna said that the members of that sect, too, if sincere, would enter God’s mansion- it might be by the back door.

Christ proclaimed that in his Father’s house there are many mansions, and to emphasize the statement, added that he would not have said so if it were not true. Vivekananda said that a man does not progress from error to truth, but from truth to truth- more correctly, from lower truth to higher truth. It cannot be that among sincere devotees of God some are in total error and some completely right. A man’s spiritual life and method of worship are determined by his inner evolution. The Bhagavad Gita warns that the wise should not unsettle the understanding of the ignorant, but should instruct them, coming down to their level.

It is good to have been born in a church, but one should not die in a church. Religions as human institutions cannot be absolutely perfect, but God is perfect. Religion is not God, but shows the way to God. The teachings of any organized religion deviate somewhat from those of its founder. It is said that Satan was once asked how he would tempt a possessor of pure truth, and he replied that he would tempt him to organize it. As clocks should be corrected from time to time by the sun, so also religions. The correction is made by saints, who directly commune with God, and not by theologians, who are only interpreters of the scriptures.

As already stated, Hinduism, both at its source and during the period of its subsequent development, exhibits a remarkable spirit of catholicity. As early as the time of the Rig-Veda it was said: ‘Reality is one; sages call it by various names.’ We read in the Upanishad: ‘May He, the One without a second, who, though formless produces by means of His manifold powers various forms without any purpose of His own; may He from whom the universe comes into being at the beginning of creation and to whom it returns in the end- endow us with good thoughts.’

Again: ‘As flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their names and forms, so a wise man, freed from names and forms, attains Brahman, who is greater than the great.’

One cannot distinguish a Hindu from a Moslem, or a Christian from a Jew, when they are absorbed in the infinite spirit. One sees differences only on a lower level, but from the summit all distinctions disappear.

That the non-dual spirit is worshipped under different names is reiterated by Hinduism. Here is a text from a Hindu scripture: ‘May the Lord of the universe, the remover of evil- whom the devotees of Siva worship as Siva, the Vedantists as Brahman, the Buddhists as Buddha [and we may add, the Christians as the Father in heaven, the Jews as Jehovah, the Moslems as Allah], the followers of the Nyaya philosophy who are clever in logic as the Divine Agent, those devoted to the Jain doctrines as Arhat, the ritualists of the Mimamsa Schools Karma- grant us all the desires of our hearts.’

That all paths lead to the same goal is emphasized in the following hymn: ‘Different are the paths laid down in the Vedas, in Sankhya, in Yoga, and in the Saiva Vaishnava scriptures. Of these, some people regard one and some another as the best. Devotees follow these diverse paths, straight or crooked, according to their different tendencies. Yet, O Lord, Thou alone art the ultimate goal of all men, as the ocean is the goal of all rivers.’

Hinduism itself provides for more than one divine incarnation. A good Hindu shows respect to them all and to those believed in by other religions as well. It is related that when at one time Arjuna extolled Krishna, who was of a dark complexion, as the unique avatara, Krishna asked his disciple to follow him, and they entered a forest. Krishna pointed out to Arjuna a big tree and asked him if he knew what kind of a tree it was. After observing it, Arjuna said that it was a blackberry tree with clusters of berries hanging from it. But coming nearer, Arjuna discovered that they were not berries at all, but innumerable Krishnas hanging from the tree of the Absolute. Krishna, Buddha, Christ, and the other incarnations are so many waves in the ocean of existence – knowledge-bliss-absolute.

One day Ananda, the foremost disciple of Buddha said to his master that Buddha was the greatest of all the prophets of the past, present, and the future. Thereupon Buddha asked the disciple whether he knew of all the prophets that had been born in the past since the creation, and of all the prophets that would descend on earth in the future till the world came to an end, and even whether he knew of all the godlike men who were living in different parts of the earth at the present time. Ananda was ashamed of his dogmatism.

According to Hinduism, no prophet is unique in the sense that he is the greatest of all. All receive their message from the one source and present it to men to suit their particular needs. In the teachings of Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, and Moses one may see apparent differences due to the peculiar requirements of the people whom these prophets taught. But in their communion with reality they all experienced the same goodness, beauty and truth. The common inner experiences of prophets are not noticed by their followers; the apparent external differences in their teachings account for much of religious quarrelling and controversy.

The harmony of religion found its most vivid expression through the spiritual experiences of Ramakrishna. This saint of modern India practised all the dualistic and non-dualistic disciplines of Hinduism and always arrived at the same state of God-consciousness. He pursued the teachings of Christ and Mohammed, and attained the same spiritual goal. One noticeable feature of his spiritual practices is that when he followed a particular path, he became completely absorbed in it and forgot everything else. While pursuing Islamic disciplines, he ate, dressed, and acted like a Moslem, removed the pictures of the Hindu deities from his room, and stopped going to Hindu temples. Thus he taught from actual experience, and not from mere book knowledge, that all religions are but different paths to reach the same goal. He also taught that a devotee of any faith need not give up his own rituals or beliefs, for he will certainly realise God with their help if he is sincere.

One of his favourite songs was the following:

I have joined my heart to Thee: all that exists art Thou.
Thee only have I found, for Thou art all that exists.

O Lord, Beloved of my heart! Thou art the home of all;
Where indeed is the heart in which Thou dost not dwell?

Thou hast entered every heart: all that exists art Thou.
Where sage or fool, whether Hindu or Mussulman,
Thou makest them as Thou wilt: all that exists are Thou.

Thy presence is everywhere whether in heaven or in Kaaba;
Before Thee all must bow, for Thou art all that exists.

From earth below to highest heaven, from heaven to deepest earth,
I see Thee wherever I look: all that exists art Thou.

Pondering, I have understood, I have seen it beyond a doubt:
I find not a single thing that may be compared to Thee.

To Jafar it has been revealed that Thou art all that exists.

Ramakrishna often described different religious experiences as different melodies of music. One day, as he listened to a concert, he said to a religious leader who was intolerant of religions other than his own: ‘Do you hear how melodious that music is? One player is producing only a monotone on his flute while another is creating waves of melodies in different modes. Why should I produce only a monotone when I have an instrument with seven holes? Why should I say nothing but, "I am He, I am He"? I want to play various melodies on my instrument with seven holes. Why should I say only, "Brahma! Brahma!"? I want to commune with God through various relationships- sometimes regarding myself as his servant, sometimes as His friend, sometimes as His mother, and sometimes as His sweetheart. I want to make merry with God. I want to sport with God.

On another occasion, addressing some members of a religious sect who believed only in a formless God, he said:

We are all calling on the same God. Jealousy and malice need not be. Some say God is formless, and some that God has forms. I say, let one man meditate on God with form, if he believes in form, and let another, if he does not believe in any form, meditate on the formless Deity. What I mean is that dogmatism is not good. It is not good to feel that my religion alone is true and other religions are false. The correct attitude is this: my religion is right, but I do not know whether other religions are right or wrong, true or false. I say this because one cannot know the true nature of God unless one realizes Him.

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Hindus, Moslems, and Christians all seek the same object. A mother prepares dishes to suit her children’s stomachs. Suppose a mother has five children and a fish is bought for the family. She does not prepare pilau (rice dish) or fish curry for them all. All have not the same power of digestion (food requirements of an infant are not the same as for the grownups). But she loves all her children equally.

Do you know what the truth is? God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times and countries. All doctrines are so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths; with whole-hearted devotion. Suppose there are errors in the religion that one has accepted; if one is sincere and earnest, then God Himself will correct those errors.

If there are errors in other religions, that is none of your business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that. The view that you hold is good indeed. You describe God as formless. That is fine. One may eat a cake with icing, either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way.

But dogmatism is not good. You have no doubt heard the story of the chameleon. A man entered a wood and saw a chameleon on a tree. He reported to his friends, ‘I have seen a red lizard.’ He was firmly convinced it was nothing but red. Another person, after visiting the tree, said: ‘I have seen a green lizard.’ He was firmly convinced it was nothing but green. But the man who lived under the tree said: ‘What both of you have said is true, the fact is, however, that the creature is sometimes red, sometimes green, sometimes yellow, and sometimes has no colour at all.’

God has been described in the Vedas as both with form and without form. You describe Him as without form only. That is one sided. But never mind. If you know one of His aspects truly, you will be able to know His other aspects too. God Himself will tell you all about them.

The harmony of religions, as preached by Ramakrishna, fulfils a pressing need of the times. Due to science and technology the world has shrunk, as it were, and human beings have come closer together. Since religion is a vital force in men’s lives, how can there be peace in the world unless the different religions show mutual respect and work for the common good of humanity? In the past religions have produced both good and bad results. On the one hand, they have contributed greatly toward peace and progress, building hospitals and charitable institutions, promoting art and literature, and conferring many other blessings upon humanity; on the other hand, in the name of religion people have waged war, persecuted their fellow beings, and destroyed monuments of human culture. There are enough religions in the world today to give men the incentive to hate one another, but there is not enough of the religious spirit to inspire them to love one another. Indeed, religious intolerance has made many turn away from religion and seek solace in an ethical life, or in philanthropic work, or in the study of science and the humanities. Nevertheless it is not religion that is responsible for hatred and cruelty, but human bigotry and narrowness. And despite all the intolerance, there has always been an undercurrent of eagerness to promote inter-religious amity. In discussing the Hindu attitude in this matter, we may briefly consider the following questions: Why are there so many religions? Where do they agree? Where do they disagree? What is the universal religion?

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Let us take up the first question:

Why are there so many religions?

Different religions are differing forces in the economy of God; all working for the good of mankind; as we cannot destroy any force in nature, so we cannot destroy any of these spiritual forces. Different faiths are necessary to suit the diversity of human temperaments. Some men are emotional, some rational, some introspective, some active; again, there are those who wish to contemplate an abstract ideal, and those who wish to worship through concrete symbols. If there were only one religious discipline, there would be no hope for those who did not respond to it. Hence it is fortunate that there are many religions instead of only one, as many would prefer to have it. The greater the number of religions, the more chances people will have to satisfy their spiritual hunger.

If there are different restaurants in a city, everyone will have an opportunity to choose the food that is most suited to his taste and requirement. People can get the same nourishment from rice, bread, or potatoes; the same illumination comes from lamps of different shapes, and the same white milk from cows of different colours. Religion will not have fulfilled its mission until every man has evolved his own religion, revealing to him his unique relationship with its Creator. If only one religion remained in the world, religion would be dead; variation is the sign of life, and always will be. Thinking beings must differ; difference is the first sign of thought. A thoughtful person prefers to live among other thoughtful persons, for the clash of thought stimulates new thinking. The very fact that all the great religions have survived till today proves that their utility is not gone. The religions of the world are not really contradictory or antagonistic; they are complementary. There is, in fact, no such thing as your religion or my religion, your national religion or my national religion; there is only one universal religion, of which all the so-called different faiths are but different manifestations. God is often described in Hinduism as the wish-reflecting gem. In Him everyone finds a reflection of his own ideal of truth, goodness, and beauty.

The different religions emphasize different facets of the supreme reality. Islam, perhaps more than any other religion, stands for the brotherhood of men among its own devotees. With the Moslems there are no social distinctions. It is inspiring to read about the pilgrimage of the Moslems to Mecca. There hundreds of thousands of the faithful discard their differing dress, whether of prince, ordinary citizen, or beggar, put on the seamless white garment which makes the chieftain indistinguishable from the shepherd, and proceed to the holy shrine to declare their surrender to almighty Allah. Before God all Moslems are equal.

With the Christians the central idea is: ‘Watch and pray, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ – which means, purify your minds and be ready for the coming of the Lord. And one cannot but admire the love of God, which innumerable Christians show through love of men, to whose service they devote their time, energy, and material resources. The idea of ‘sharing’ is perhaps the most striking feature of Christianity in practice.

Judaism has clung to the idea of God’s power and justice, and the Jewish people with dauntless patience have faced the ordeals and sufferings through which they have passed for two thousand years without losing their faith in God’s power and justice.

Buddhism teaches how to attain peace through renunciation and service. In these days of selfishness and competition, it is a joy to see Buddhist monk serving people with infinite love and infinite compassion, as taught by their prophet.

Hinduism makes the realization of God, who is both within and without, the central fact of life. Thousands of Hindus are willing, even today, to renounce everything- including the world itself- to experience the reality of God.

Thus the different religions are like different photographs of the same building from different angles; but all of them are genuine pictures. Though people with vessels of different sizes go to a lake and carry away water, which takes the form of the vessels, it is all the authentic water of the lake. And after all the vessels have been filled, the lake still appears to contain the same amount of water. None can exhaust the infinite power, beauty, love, and goodness of God.

Where do religions agree?

In so far as religions belong to the realm of men’s inmost soul, there are many remarkable similarities between them. The inner experience is the same everywhere; only the outer expressions are different, as determined by time and place. The end and aim of all religions is the realization of God, though the methods of realization may differ. The scriptures of the different religions merely point out different means to the attainment of freedom and universal love. All religions, in the words of Vivekananda, from the lowest fetish-worship to the contemplation of the Absolute, are so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association- and each of these marks a stage of progress; every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength, till it reaches the glorious sun.

All the great religions, whether evolved in the regions of the Arabian Desert or on the fertile banks of the Ganges, are founded on strikingly similar principles. They all believe in the existence of a soul which does not die with the destruction of the body, and in the reality of a God who is above nature and without beginning or end. Both Hinduism and the religions of Semitic origin believe in the original perfection of the soul; they also believe that men, by their own actions, have made themselves imperfect. But they all admit that souls will regain their perfection through knowing God. Saints and holy persons are objects of worship and veneration in all religions, and the Golden Rule is both implicit and explicit in all. All religions consciously or unconsciously exalt God’s holy name and all claim to show the way out of the prison-house of this world. All exhort their followers to practise such spiritual disciplines as faith, prayer, self-control, and contemplation. The idea is implicit in the teachings of all prophets that the human mind can, at certain moments, transcend the limitations of the senses and of reasoning based upon sense data, and come face to face with truth, so in many fundamental matters religions show striking similarity.

Where, then, do religions disagree?

Here we must take into consideration certain fundamental factors, which constitute an organized religion. Though the realization of God, or the attainment of perfection or freedom, is the ultimate goal, yet this can be achieved only by stages. At one stage religion emphasizes ritual, at another stage mythology, and at a third stage the doctrines and disciplines which constitute its philosophy. Ritual, mythology, and philosophy may be considered the three important constituents of a well-organized religion. Mythology is the concretisation of philosophy. It seeks to explain philosophy by means of the legendary lives of men or supernatural beings. Ritual is still more concrete. Bells, music, flowers, lights, images, and other concrete objects are freely used in ritual. But no agreement among religions can be established with respect to philosophy, mythology, or ritual.

Ritual has often been condemned by Protestant Christianity and Islam. Hinduism, the Mahayana Buddhism, and Roman Catholic Christianity recognize its importance, especially for beginners. A symbol, by the law of association, brings to mind the abstract ideal for which it stands. Music, it is well known, helps to concentrate the mind. Ritualistic worship, as described in the preceding chapter, helps to develop a devotional attitude. Some of the greatest saints of the world have been produced by religions rich in ritual and mythology- both of which have also contributed to the development of art, literature, and music. The stories of the fall of Adam and Eve, and of the Deluge, have important philosophical implications. Through various myths the scriptures try to explain abstruse truths. God’s omnipresence, infinitude, or omniscience can scarcely be grasped by beginners in religion. And in spite of our intellectual attainments, most of us are only beginners.

Ritual, mythology, and philosophy, are necessary factors in religious growth. Like husks, they protect the kernel of religious truth. The kernel is the essential part of a seed, but without the husk it cannot germinate. When the sprout appears the husk drops away. As one begins to dive deep in search of God, the non-essentials of ritual, mythology, and philosophy are discarded.

There is, however, no such thing as pure religion. All faiths are conditioned by the three factors already mentioned, and all religious disagreements arise in these three fields. There cannot be any universal philosophy acceptable to all religions. When the followers of a religion regard its doctrines and disciplines as universal and desire others to accept them, a refusal on the part of the latter arouses ill feeling, and sometimes human beings act like wild beasts. The same is true of mythology: when a religion claims that its myths alone are historical fact while those of others are pure superstition, misunderstanding and friction arise. In the field of ritual, the disagreement is just as pronounced: the followers of one religion may regard its own ritual as particularly holy, while declaring those of others to be arrant nonsense. Thus religious fanatics quarrel about non-essentials, fighting as it were, over empty baskets while the contents have slipped into the ditch. Yet these non-essentials are necessary and must remain until men are firmly grounded in religious experience. As long as these exist different temperaments and needs, it will be impossible to find a universal philosophy, a universal mythology, or a universal ritual. Yet a universal religion is the dream of people who want to eliminate religious friction. What is this universal religion? Where does one find it?

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What is the universal religion?

Attempts have been made in the past to create a universal religion. There are the instances of Christianity and Islam, some of whose zealous leaders hoped to make their own faith into a universal religion. In order to impose it upon others they employed not only force of character, but more often bribery, persuasion, the sword, or a combination of all these. This desire in one form or other still persists, though history shows that a universal religion can neither be created nor imposed upon others in this way. Then people tried to formulate a universal religion on an electic basis, by gathering together the non-conflicting ethical and other elements from the different faiths and eliminating those factors, which give rise to friction. This intellectual method met with no better success, because religion is not a product of the intellect, but rooted in the direct experience of God by prophets and seers. Devoid of any roots, an intellectual religion withers away quickly, though it may look beautiful, like a bouquet of flowers of different colours picked from various plants. Attempts are often made to promote religious goodwill by means of interfaith breakfasts and luncheons or by symposiums and discussions. All these functions stimulate the mind, but they do not go far.

As we have said, the universal religion already exists and needs only to be discovered. We do not see it because we emphasize rituals, mythology, and philosophy and ignore the basic truth. It is like universal brotherhood. We do not easily recognize this brotherhood because of our emphasis on racial and national prejudices. If we hold these in check we can see our brothers everywhere; but if we keep these prejudices intact and at the same time start organizing to promote human brotherhood, we only succeed in making confusion worse confounded. Human beings differ from one another in size, shape, and colour of skin, but an underlying humanity is common to all. One may not be able to lay one’s finger on it, yet it exists all the same. Likewise the universal religion, in the form of God-consciousness, runs through all faiths, whether primitive, ethical, or highly mystical.

The Lord says in the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am the thread that runs through the pearls, as in a necklace.’ Each religion is one of the pearls. Through high philosophy or low, through the most exalted mythology or the most primitive and superstitious beliefs, through the most refined ritualism or the most stupid fetishism, every sect, every soul, every religion, consciously or unconsciously is struggling upward, toward God and freedom. Every vision of truth that a man has had is a vision of God and of none else. The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, are so many pages in the scriptures of the universal religion, and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded.

The universal religion does not imply a set of universal doctrines or disciplines, or a universal ritual. Such a religion would be impossibility, because of the diversity of human nature. The universal religion has no location in time or space. Its area is infinite, like the god it preaches. Krishna, Christ, Buddha, and Moses all have honoured places in it. Its sun shines upon all spiritual seekers: Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, or Moslem. In its catholicity this universal religion embraces in its infinite arms savages and civilized people, saints and sinners, philosophers and lovers of God, active men and contemplatives. There is no room in it for persecution or intolerance. Recognizing the potential divinity of all men and women it devotes its entire force to aiding men to realize their true divine nature. The real universal religion is not a creed or a doctrine; it is an experience. It is God-consciousness.

How are we to promote the universal religion? Let us recognize the fact that religions are complementary and not competitive. Saints and mystics have flourished in all religions; some such men have not belonged to any organized church. It is absurd to imagine that God is solely or even chiefly concerned with religion. Let us discard the idea of toleration, which carries with it a sense of superiority. Let us think of other religions in terms of respect and positive acceptance. A believer in the universal religion feels equally at home in a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or a temple. He sees his brother’s face in a Moslem, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu. He salutes all the prophets of the past, bows down before all godlike persons who are working today for the uplift of humanity, and keeps himself in readiness to show reverence to all the prophets of the future.

Let us encourage every man to dive deep into the mysteries of his own religion, and, provided he is sincere and earnest, he will one day discover for himself the universal religion.

In a circle with many radii, the farther we move from the centre, the greater will seem the distance between one radius and another. As we move toward the centre the distance will narrow down. At the centre all radii meet. The radii represent the different religions, and the centre is God. The farther we move from God, the greater will seem the difference between one religion and another. The nearer we are to God, the closer we shall feel toward other religions. In God we all meet. In order to promote religious harmony; let us deepen our religious consciousness. Let us come nearer to God by following our respective faiths, and not by jumping from one faith to another. Let the Hindu, the Moslem, the Christian, the Jew, emphasize the spirit and not the letter of their scriptures, and all religious quarrels will stop. Our religious edifice should keep all its windows open so as to permit fresh air from outside to come in; but we must not allow the wind to sweep the edifice off its foundation. The enemy of Islam is not Hinduism; the enemy of Christianity is not Judaism. All religions are challenged today by a common enemy: the rising tide of skepticism and secularism. If the religions do not hang together, they will hang separately. A Christian, to paraphrase the words of Arnold Toynbee, can believe in his own religion without having to feel that it is the sole repository of truth. He can love it without having to feel that it is the sole means of salvation. He can take Buddha’s words to heart without being disloyal to Christ. But he cannot harden his heart against Krishna without hardening it against Christ.

In order to promote the universal religion we must not destroy other faiths. When a so-called civilized religion destroys, in the name of enlightenment, the beliefs and practices of a primitive people, it destroys something of their soul; religion is a part of the soul. We must not exterminate any faith, however crude it may be, nor superimpose our beliefs upon others; there must be no proselytism. By our own ardour and sincerity we may try to deepen people's faith in their own religions. Take a man where he stands to give him a lift.

To be sure, there will always remain differences in the non-essentials of religion. The world is a complex machine with intricate wheels. Let us try to make it run smoothly; let us lessen the friction by greasing the wheels, as it were. How can this be done? By recognizing the natural necessity of variation. Truth can be expressed in a hundred thousand ways, and each of these ways is true as far as it goes. And this expression of truth need not always be through a conventional theological God, but may use the medium of science, or art, or philosophy, or consecration to duty.

The preachers and ministers of religion have a tremendous responsibility in the promotion of world peace through the harmony of religions. It is to them that people look for guidance. How uplifting it will be if every church observes the holy days of other faiths! How effectively respect for other religions can be created if, for the scriptural reading, a minister selects passages from scriptures other than his own! How impressive it will be for the congregation if he tries to prove a point in his sermon by quoting from the words of prophets other than his own! People will then realize that religious experiences are universal phenomena and not the exclusive property of any one faith.

This idea of exclusiveness always creates suspicion. A man with a sixth toe may be unique, but he is certainly not normal. When we begin by claiming superiority for our own religion, we end by asserting the superiority of our own interpretation of it. As Dr.Radhakrishnan has said, we start with the statement that Christianity is the best of all religions. Next we say that Protestantism is the best form of Christianity. Next, that the High Church is the true Protestant church. And lastly, that our own interpretation of the High Church is the best interpretation of the Christian religion.

Humanity is stricken today with a serious malady. This malady is essentially spiritual; political friction, economic unrest, and moral confusion are only its outer symptoms. Man is not at peace with his neighbours, with nature, with himself, or with his Creator. Greed, lust for power, and anger are abroad. Ill will and suspicion are poisoning the very source of inter-racial and international relationships. The challenge of aggressive evil, which is undermining human society, can be met only by aggressive good. A drastic change in our thinking is imperative. Human nature shall have to be transformed. But this transformation can come neither through psychotherapy nor through science and technology, nor through military, political, or economic pacts. It is religion that can contribute in a large measure to bringing about the change. The great faiths of the world owe it to humanity to rise to the occasion.

As there are many dangers ready to engulf humanity, so also there are infinite possibilities to create a glorious world. Distance has been annihilated and men are now in a better position than ever before to compare notes with one another regarding their achievements and failures. Everyone has access to right knowledge and everyone can learn to make free use of it. In this fateful hour it is the duty of the religions to act as pointers to the goal of peace and freedom. Let them give tired humanity a song to sing. And let these mottoes be emblazoned on their banners: ‘Not destruction, but fulfillment,’ ‘Not condemnation, but acceptance,’ ‘Not dissension, but harmony.’


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Religious Harmony and Disharmony
Religion Divides or Unites?

Swami Brahmeshananda,Belur Math

Religion has been one of the most potent forces of union and integration and also, unfortunately of conflict and disintegration. Apart from the history of religious persecution and wars which the world has seen through the centuries, the present national and international scene provides ample evidence of quarrels caused by religion. It is not surprising, therefore, to find many sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, peace-loving and well-intentioned people, who prefer to remain aloof from religion, and become agnostics. Nor is it to be wondered that quasi religious movements with various names like secularism, Marxism, positivism, scientific humanism, nationalism etc. backed by strong ideological foundations and based on materialistic, non-religious values have sprung up and have spread all over the world. In the socialist and communist countries religion has no place. In western capitalistic societies religion has only a marginal role, being simply allowed to exist as one of the many institutions of society. Except in purely Islamic countries religion is not expected to play any major role in social or national life.

Causes of Conflict

The secularists and non-religious humanists lay all the blame for the inter-faith conflicts on religion. They view religion as an unavoidable compulsion in man and scornfully consider it as a social evil, which unfortunately, cannot be eliminated. It is an illusory comfort for man in distress, they say, which must some how be accommodated shorn of its unhealthy tendencies like fundamentalism and militancy. These secularists, however, forget that they themselves have contributed no less to the present day uprising of fundamentalism. Men dealing with politics and economics are no less responsible for the problems for which they blame religion. In a grossly inadequate social system where social injustice and gross economic imbalance prevail, divisive forces of religion are bound to erupt. The deprived and oppressed sections of society withdraw into the protective safety of pristine tradition, which is fundamentalism. When these social injustices prompt the faithful to unite and fight for their rights, the same urge becomes political. And these two, fundamentalism and politics, soon form an explosive combination.

This does not mean that religion is not to be blamed. Every ideology whether religious, political or socio-economic, howsoever noble when first conceived, invariably gets degenerated into rigid dogmatism and leads to mindless destruction. Secondly, when religious beliefs get institutionalized and become the collective property of a specific group, they degenerate into rigid doctrines, and become potentially dangerous. Vested interests keep alive socially irrelevant dogmas to maintain their hold on the masses. Ambition and lust for power of the leaders spoil the pious atmosphere of religion.

Religion as a Uniting Force

But there is another side of the picture too. If religion is said to have caused conflicts here and there, it has also promoted global peace. In fact, intensest love that humanity has ever experienced has been generated by religion. The noblest words of peace the world has ever heard have come from men who have been truly religious. If religious motives have caused cruelty and bloodshed, they have also brought into existence many hospitals and asylums. Religion has inspired men to take care not only of human beings but even of the lowliest of animals. Nothing makes us so tender as religion. Religion is neither an escape for the masses nor the opium of the society. It represents essentially an ennobling urge, inherent in man, designated to fulfill higher purposes of human life. It is a tremendous force of personal and social integration. In fact Dharma the Sanskrit word for religion means exactly that; the factor or force which is capable of uniting, integrating and harmonizing society.

Although religion is considered a unifying force, the only instance in Indian history when it was effectively used as such, was when Shankracharya achieved the remarkable feat of uniting all the various branches and shades of Hinduism. But in doing so, he had to defeat jains and Buddhists to Hinduism or the Vedic Sanatandharma. But now things have changed completely. Van-quishing in debate or war or conversion by force is now impossible. Moreover, during Shankra’s period religion had much deeper roots and played a major role in the life of the individual and the society. In other words people were far more religious.

There are a number of factors in society, which adversely affect the integrating function of religion, and unfortunately many of them are active in India. Religion loses much of its integrating function:

1. In societies where more than one religion are practiced.
2. When the established expectations of a group are frustrated. Those who are frustrated become ‘more
religious’ and use religion to express their sense of separation and as a weapon to fight for their rights.
3. When society is sharply divided into classes, which is felt as an oppressive fact.
4. When social change reduces appeal to rituals and belief systems.
5. When mobility from society to society is great.
6. When outside pressures split the society.

However there is another hopeful sociological phenomenon. In the face of these disintegrating influences there is a tendency in religion to recover or discover some unifying religious theme. Various forces start working to give force to this unifying, integrating and harmonizing function of religion. The inter-religious conferences, debates and exchange of ideas, polarization of liberal religious forces, which we see in India, are a part of the same phenomenon. Let us, therefore, search for the unifying theme in this medley of disarray and disharmony of various religions.

Search for a Unifying Force

It is pointless to speculate on the possibility of one religion for all. Nor can a world religion emerge and become acceptable to all, from an agreement among a group of well-intentioned individuals. It is often suggested that what is common to the existing religions must be emphasized, rather than the differences. But in this attempt we cannot proceed very far. There cannot be anything common so far as mythology and rituals are concerned, which differ widely and are related to the distinctive cultural traditions. Unity in the basic philosophical doctrines and spiritual message can be sought, but only upto a point, because there are irreducible differences in the doctrinal core of each religion. There may be a broadly similar ethical basis, but there is much more to religion than the ethical principles. It is primarily a question of faith, which may not shake hands with ethics or philosophy.

Instead of searching for common points among religions therefore, we must try to seek unity in diversity i.e., to accept diversity itself as the essential ingredient of unity. Just as no two individuals can be similar in constitution and temperament and can yet live harmoniously together, so also all these religions with their sects and sub-sects can be accepted as so many valid means of reaching the same goal, serving the same individual or social function. We must learn that the truth can be expressed in different ways, just as the sun seen from countless different angles and distances can appear differently.

Another way in which unity may be sought is by considering these religions not as contradictory but complementary. Each religion has its own specialty, a peculiarity not found in another religion. Each religion takes up as it were a part of the great universal truth and works it up. Thus they are not contradictory, but complementary. It is addition and not exclusion. Each religion with its peculiarity satisfies the minds of a different group of individuals. All these systems are different forces in the economy of God, working for the good of mankind. Our watchword must be acceptance, not merely tolerance.

Unfortunately these rationalizations to arrive at a harmony between various religions cannot go deep into the highly emotive roots of religion, embedded in the unconscious, except that they may create better understanding at the higher levels of society. It is doubtful whether intellectual understanding and even propagation of ideals relating to religious harmony through the mass media of communication
percolate down to the masses.

Practical aspect of Religion

Religion is not politics or economics, which may grow or spread through symposia or conferences, lectures and articles. It is life, it is realization, it is being and becoming. If anything, it is practical living. It moves and spreads with conduct and example. Hence far more important is to set examples of ennobling religious values in actual life. Spiritual realization radiates faith and goodwill in ever widening circles. That is the way to strike at the root of strife and achieve unity.

Now this living the religious life must be done at two levels: the inclusive and the intensive. Inter-faith unity sarva dharma samabhava have two words; sarva which points to man to man relationship, the social dimension, the welfare of the world, the love for the neighbor the jaga-hitaya aspect, while the dharma or the faith aspect stresses man to God relationship, the love of God, one’s own salvation or atmano mokshartha part of the matter. Both are inter-related and interdependent. Our personal spiritual life must be made deeper with the help of prayer, meditation and other spiritual exercises. At the same time it must be widened with the help of service, charity, compassion, and giving of what little we can to our neighbor. This is how we can truly become religious.

Now, the question is, can we make religion more dynamic, make it play a greater role, in the day-to-day life of the average citizen? This is what almost each of the galaxies of great religious reformers born in India has tried to do. And if we want religion to play a major role in uniting the nation – which it must do, because it is the only lasting and deeper way of achieving it – then what we need today are not religio - political or religio - social leaders, but real saints, the religio - spiritual leaders.

We may conclude by making some practical suggestions:

1. There is a great need today for a theoretical or ideological research within each religion to discover and highlight the universal aspects, relevant to the present times. Even re-defining and re-interpreting the fundamentals of one’s own religion is needed. Let me explain what I mean with the help of some examples. Swami Vivekananda gave an entirely new and non-sectarian definition of religion: “Manifestation of the potential divinity of the soul”. He classified the means and the methods on a more acceptable psychological basis into four yogas : Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga. A similar thing may be tried, say, in Jainism. The word Jina is a non sectarian word meaning, one who has conquered his baser passions etc. and the follower of such a person is a Jain. According to this definition, therefore, the followers of Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Ramakrishna are also Jains because these great men too were the great conquerors of their internal foe. Even the words used for the five adorable ones mentioned in the navkar mantra of Jains viz. arihanta, siddha, acharya, upadhyaya and sadhu are non – sectarian.

2. Our attempts to increase and promote inter-religious understanding through seminars, publication of books and articles must be continued.

3. We must also get acquainted with the scriptures, the spiritual literature and traditions of religions other than our own in a spirit of sympathy and acceptance.

4. The need for spiritual growth with the help of one’s sadhana cannot be over-emphasized. We must see to it that the spiritual foundations of the nation do not get eroded or weakened by the onslaughts of secular and material forces. This is especially important because the disharmony and unrest, which we find today, is more due to non-religious, materialistic forces than religion. The secularists believe that religion should be abolished or at least delegated to a minor place in society, and all social problems can be solved purely on a non-religious basis. But they forget that any peace or harmony, unity or integration achieved without the religious roots would always be shallow especially in a religious country like India. Today even socialist countries have started recognizing the force of religion, and psychologists have accepted that religion is a potent means of achieving mental peace, and integration of personality. What is of prime importance today, therefore, is the living of a truly religious life. The conflict to day is not inter-religious, but between religion and irreligion, between the secular and the sacred. And the sacred cannot win unless it manifests through actual living.

5. Last but not the least, we cannot and must not neglect our duty to our fellow beings, our neighbors, the gods moving around us in the sick, the poor and the deprived. They are not strangers. None is a stranger. Everyone is our own, be he a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian. Let us make them all our own by giving help, love, sympathy, and what little we can, irrespective of caste, creed, race or religion.

Related articles

Hinduism & Sri Ramakrishna
Founder of Hinduism
Hinduism Brief Sketch

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