On Religious Tolerance: A Hindu’s Perspective

In chronological terms we live in the twenty-first century. But in some contexts many people are still functioning in a bygone era which was characterized by interfaith hurt and anger, passions and persecutions motivated by religious fervor, convictions of free-rides to Heaven after martyrdom, and invocation of God and Satan prior to the perpetration of heinous deeds.

All through the ages the intertwining of politics and religion was more than a scheme by conquering marauders to manipulate and whip up mindless soldiers in the conquest of new lands. Rather, it was born of deep-felt belief, an inner certainty that one’s visions of God and the hereafter constitute the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, and that all other systems of thought and belief were wrong, pernicious, and deserving of destruction.

There was a time when this mind-set did more havoc than arrows, gunpowder, and even cannons, for the power of religion-inspired hate can be more virulent and vicious than weapons of war. We are currently witnessing the unleashing of that power in some regions of world.

Granted, there are political problems to be resolved, economic injustices to be corrected, and moral wrongs to be righted, and lot more things to be done to make this a fairer community of nations. But even in a Utopian world where all may live in abundance, where the arts flourish as much as the sciences, there may not be happy harmony. Peace cannot reign where doctrinal intolerance persists.

Let me say this first: I have reverence for the symbols and sounds of every religion of the human family in so far as they don’t hurt anyone. Irrespective of how some of their practitioners behave, I respect Judaism as an inspiration from Covenant with a Higher Power, Buddhism as a call for compassion, Islam as a proclamation of Peace and surrender to God, Christianity as a pulpit for love and caring. I know that at the core every religion has something positive to say.

This, to me is religious pluralism: Not the abandonment of one’s own faith and the naïve embrace of all, nor the simplistic view that all religions teach the same values or have the same visions, but the feeling and understanding that there is wisdom in every tradition, magnificence is every spiritual aspiration and a sublime core in every religion.

In the current context of religious confrontations, I would like to recall a vision of Hinduism in a pluralistic world. The challenge for the religiously inclined is not faith and loyalty to the religion of one’s affiliation, but tolerance of, and respect for other faiths and loyalties. Monotheism is a lofty vision, if the term only implied belief in a single God. Sadly, it often tends to include a condescending corollary: That One God is the God which I worship. It is an irony of religious history is that there have been more bloody confrontations among monotheistic religions than between any of them and a polytheistic one.

Theologians and leaders of all religions would do well to consider Hinduism’s view on this matter. There is a precious aphorism in the Rig Veda which says it all:
ekam sat; vipraa bahudaa vadanti: Truth is one; the learned call it by different names.

In Sanskrit the word sat means truth, essence, and also God. God is no other than the ultimate truth, the quintessence of the Cosmic Whole. Quintessential Truth, however, is infinite, and it can be grasped by finite human minds only in parts. So every description of it, whether from revelation or through speculation, whether from reading or by reflection, can only be partial. So we all proclaim it in many different ways. One is not right and the other wrong in this matter, we all obtain a glimpse of the Ultimate. Truth about the Ultimate is like the glitter of a gem, it shines in different ways when viewed from different angles. For the enlightened heart and mind, God can be seen in the star of David as in the Cross, in the Crescent inspired by the Qur’an as in the abstract sound of the sacred Om.

At the most basic level, we pray for our own well being, for recovery from disease, for success in an enterprise or for experiencing spiritual delight. But at a more sophisticated level, we may seek guidance to go from asat or Untruth (the mono-vision of truth) to Truth (recognition of its multiple appearances).

As long as we are constrained in the conviction that our own parochial vision of Truth is all there is, we are groping in darkness. We must therefore seek guidance for being led to jyoti or Light which reveals the splendor of multiplicity from the tamas or darkness of ignorant narrowness.

As long as we linger in the dark dungeon of intolerance, we are mortals in spirit as in body. As long as we wallow in our own rigid modes, unable to get out of it to see and feel with others, we are as good as dead for we are without profound perceptions. Immortality is not living for ever, but getting a glimpse of the Infinite and the Eternal. We achieve this in the mortal frame when we emerge from narrowness, bigotry, intolerance, and the like. We therefore need to be guided from death to immortality.

So we have this trans-denominational prayer in the Hindu world:

asatomaa sad gamaya: From Untruth to Truth lead us!
tamasomaa jyotir gamaya: From Darkness to Light lead us!
mrtyomaa amrtam gamaya: From Death to Deathlessness lead us!

As elsewhere, Hinduism has its local enrichment in music and mythology, in doctrines and dogmas, and it also betrays shocking divergences between theory and practice. But there is this nugget of insight in the Hindu world that is not only interesting, but indispensable if we ever hope to have religious harmony in the world: namely, that no matter how we picture the Unfathomable and what name or form we give It, all modes and forms of worship ultimately go one and the same Principle. As it says poetically in Sanskrit:

aakaasaat patitamtoyam
yadaa gachchadi saagaram
sarvadeva namasraarah
sri kesavam pradigachchadi

As waters falling from the skies
Return to the self-same sea,
Prostrations to all the gods
Reach the same Divinity.

A very simple idea this certainly is, yet so difficult to practice when the mind is clouded by self-righteous doctrine and dogma. Until and unless this idea is internalized by practitioners of all faiths, the ugliness of religious intolerance would be never be erased from the list of problems confronting our poor species.

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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