ekam sat: viprā bahudhā vadanti
Most religions are based on the teachings of charismatic prophets. Religions are often anchored to their names: Abraham, Christ, Buddha, Mahavira, Mohammed, and Guru Nanak. Hinduism rests for the on the visions of a galaxy of sage-poets called Vedic rishis, and on other saintly personages who expounded on and extended the core principles of Vedic insights. Moreover. Not all Vedic rishis are unanimous in what they say about some issues. Their interpreters have also diverged significantly. On the one hand, this divergence blurs what Hinduism actually proclaims as a worldview. On the other hand, it allows for much elasticity in what one presumes to be the nature of the ultimate mystery which, after all, is the ultimate quest of religions.
A Vedic rishi recognized the religious quest with uncanny insight when he declared ekam sat: viprā bahudhā vadanti: Truth is one; the learned call it by different names. This is a deep insight. It affirms the enlightened view of the Divine as an all-embracing Cosmic Unity. It identifies God with Truth or Ultimate Reality. God is envisioned as sat: essence of everything, that which is at the core of all existence.
An atheist may refuse to describe this essence as God. Well, she is welcome to describe it in any other way. The goal of physics – whose task is to account for every aspect of the phenomenal word as well as its nature and ultimate cause – also seeks the essence and the root of it all. Call it matter, call it energy, call is quark, lepton, or the Higgs particle: the quest is for the ultimate essence.
The word ekam, meaning one, reminds us of the unity behind diversity. The phrase ekam sat is one of the most terse and most emphatic affirmation of monotheism in any language or religion. Hindu spiritual vision sees the singleness of the Cosmic substratum which is the root of everything.
One of the gross misconceptions about the Hindu world, arising understandably from the colorful icons in countless forms with a hundred names, is that Hinduism is polytheistic. It is so only in the narrow and most elementary notion of the Divine: as a visualizable image. Once God is anthropomorphized, there is not much difference between having just one form or a million. Vedic/ Indic mythopoesis recognizes the multiple modes by which this unity may be represented or envisaged. The notion of thirty million gods of Hinduism is a recognition of this aspect of human thought and conceptualization.
The second part of the Vedic aphorism quoted above is the subtext of the first. It states that at no time can humanity describe the Divine in a single way. There will always be multiple descriptions and names for God. This subtext does not declare that any one vision of God is the only correct one any more than that one prophet is the only or the last one, marginalizing or negating all others. It says rather that the approach to God, i.e. spiritual fulfillment can be achieved through multiple paths: polyodosism, from Greek words meaning many (poly) and paths (odos). We may call this bahumārga in Sanskrit.
The statement is an insight into the fact that the human mind can grasp only a partial aspect of the Supreme. The mind is finite in what it can encompass, whereas the universe itself is limitless. The finite cannot hold the iinfinite. This is the reason for different descriptions, for when it comes to God, it is certainly the case of the six blind men and the elephant. The nature of God is discussed by the learned, and no one affirmation about God has necessarily a higher standing than any other. By this recognition, the Vedic seer reminds the followers of the faith that one needs to respect the deeply felt religious modes of others as well.
This should be a guiding light for all religious people in the modern complex multicultural and multi faith world. Whether Shakta, Vaishnava or Shaiva, whether Christian, Islamic, or Jewish, whether Buddhist, Jaina, Sikh, or Parsee, every tradition has its own framework. One may well be fully satisfied with any one formulation of the nature or attribute of the Divine. But one should also learn to respect the spiritual framework of others, including those who have no spiritual framework at all.
One must be happy for the spiritual satisfaction that other traditions bring to other people, even if one is not as convinced as they that their particular version is Truth Absolute. In a world of religious diversity where there are far too many religions confronting one another, polyodosism can serve us all well.