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Harmony of Religions: Going the Vivekananda-Way

(Law Student, RGNUL) 31 Dec 2018

Nanyah Panthah Vitato Devyanah! 

(All paths lead to the same goal.)

The clarion call by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions, on the opening day – the 11th of September 1893 marks the beginning of a new chapter in the story of religions. Swamiji concluded his historical speech with the following words: “I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wedding their way to the same goal.” 

As Sri Ramakrishna succinctly puts it, in Bengali, jato mat tato path (as many beliefs, so many paths). This can be understood by the famous water-anecdote. Imagine a pond which has four sides to its entrance. On each bank, a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim arrive, each one carrying his own tumbler and fill it with pond-water. A man standing by asks each of them – “What are you carrying in that bottle?” Each one gave a different answer; for the Christian, it was ‘water’; for the Hindu ‘jalam’; for the Muslim ‘paani’. Now, upon observation we find that each one’s pot has the same matter – the liquid water, yet they choose to call it by different names. However, this nomenclature has nothing to do with the actual content of the container – it is one and the same liquid (the universal solvent). The matter doesn’t change with varied names.

Next comes the famous river simile. As all the water-streams and rivers, moving in different paths, ultimately merge into the ocean, no different are the religions than the various paths to the same goal. As also has been preached in the Bhagvad-Gita – “Ye yatha maam prapadyante, taansthaiva bhajamyaham” – meaning, thereby ‘whosoever, worships me by whatsoever name or form, reach to me ultimately’. It is the same truth that all religions strive to arrive at. No matter what one practices or professes, if done with sincerity and honesty, one would arrive at the same truth. Now, the truth may be called by different names depending upon the language, culture or civilization, but still it refers to the one and the same.

125 years from today, the Swami delivered this message to the world. Today, humanity, it seems, has not even started off towards the goal of religious harmony. Instead, one feels we are moving backwards from civilization to barbarism, when matasya-nyaya (might is right) prevailed, where opinions get acceptance not on the basis of merits rather on the basis of loudness. Today, we ponder why has this message not been heeded to by India and the world. One may say that Swamiji was too much ahead of his time. But we must remember that whatever he preached was not his own discovery, it was largely the ancient message of Rigveda – Ekam sad, viprah bahudha vadanti, which means – God is one, the sages call it by many names. It was the same message delivered in a different language to a different crowd. Religion, which could have otherwise united us has been manipulated to the opposite effect.

On the eve of 20th century, when science was progressing by leaps and bounds and reason been seated on the altar of worship, the call for harmony could have easily been synthesised in the world. But alas! The century in all its vaunted glory missed to get hold of this message of unity. India itself, stands witness to one of the worst conflagrations of religious hatred and fanaticism. As a result, millions were killed, millions were uprooted from their hearth and home, and the country was partitioned. Various other parts from the world, be it the east or the west, have faced horrors of violence arising out of religious fanaticism. 

Let us analyse today’s world dispassionately. Every morning, the newspapers and the news bulletins brings before us the reports of angry fumes of religious bigotry and fanaticism. It’s high time to diagnose the cause of this malady, this disease in the human psyche. 

Now one may say, why to analyse so much – this is a by-product of religion, why not abolish it altogether. Well, this is easier said than done. Primarily, it is like saying that the cure to a chronic headache is to cut off the head! Secondly, if an individual tries to uproot religion, the people fascinated by him and his thoughts, shall tomorrow make a religion around the same individual. So, the individual who initially had started the war against religion himself becomes the originator of religion. This new phenomenon though altogether different from the existing religion, still shall be of a similar nature due to the tenants of belief and faith invested in him (the propagator) by his followers.

Religion is a felt need of humanity and can never be eliminated in totality from the human psyche. Attempts have been made in different parts of world against different religions, only to fail in the last, and at times, giving birth to a new religion altogether. The real purport of religion is to help the man (used as a common noun, denotes both male and female) realise his higher nature, to raise the brute into man and higher, to manifest the Supreme Reality (God) in his own life. The goal is to manifest the divinity inherent in each one of us. In Swamiji’s words, “doctrines or dogmas or ritual or books or temples or forms are but secondary details.”

The problems arise when this fundamental aim of religion is forgotten and when religion gets reduced to mere social practice. When social groups practice and observe religious practices for a considerable time, it does not take long time to associate politics with it and thus begins the decline. Vivekananda expressly declares – “No religion ever persecuted men, no religion ever burnt witches. What then incited people to do these things? Politics, but never religion; and if such politics takes the name of religion, whose fault is that?”

It is an undeniable factum, that whenever religion became the political denominator, it began to breed narrowness and fanaticism, leading to hatred and violence. The ‘crusades’ and ‘jehads’ are in fact, nothing but the outward symptoms of this phenomenon. Religious bigotry and fanaticism are not only irrational and unscientific but may also be termed as crass stupidity. Amidst all this conundrum and melodrama, the common man suffers and suffocates.

Bharata (India) is the land of Mahatma Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi which has time and again preached unto world the power of peace and compassion. How does it befit us, to the descendants of the great Bharat, to stoop down to such levels that we can take up a human life in revenge of an unfortunate slaughter? Homicide is the worst of all brutalities; it is unbecoming of the great culture and civilization which we have inherited. Indeed, the boss indica (Indian Cow) is holy to us in this part of the world, worshipped like mother and should be protected. At the same time, we must recognise that if the God needs to be worshipped in the living form, in all living beings, human being is the highest of all creations and manifestation of God in flesh and blood. So, there can be no justification for killing a man for whatsoever reason.

At times, there are reports of conspiracies to hurt the sentiments of a community by merciless sabotage of the cow considered to be holy for Hindus. Such situations though challenging are not a matter to be taken up for individuals by breaking all the boundaries of law, conscience and innate humanity. These are essentially law and order issues which should be dealt with an iron hand by the state. If India wants prosperity, identity politics in the name of religion has to be shunned, for once and for ever. Anything that divides, is weakening; anything that unites, is strengthening.

Everyone must grow according to their own law of growth. That is to say, every man or woman is entitled to his or her religious freedom. No one should interfere with that freedom. It is one’s own personal affair. Thus, the ideal is – even within a family, the husband may belong to one religion and the wife to another, yet there is prefect peace and prosperity in the family. Now extend it to the universal proportions and we get the picture of religious harmony. Every person should have the full freedom to practice and profess one’s own religion and at the same time the duty not to interfere with others’ freedom.

Regarding the question of reforms in a religious community, it suffices to state that such reforms are necessary with change in time. However, the change has to come from within the community and not from outside. Should the others be mute spectators to all the deformities and superstitions? No, the change can be stimulated from the outside but not by direct interference but by making available an indirect catalyst – the modern education, by modernisation and initiation into sciences and philosophy.

As the Rigveda puts it, “Yatra vishwam bhavtyekaneedam.” – where the whole world become one. We have to find out where we can all meet. Therefore, in order to make harmony of religions a living reality for the individual as well as for the society, we need to find grounds of building consensus and unity.

 ‘Unity in Diversity’ is the need of the hour, when we are faced with threats on both fronts – internal as well as external, be it to the country or the culture or the civilization. There are forces damaging the social fabric – by words or by barbaric deeds. United we stand and divided we fall. Let us be united - Stand united, speak united and practise as per what has been said – samano mantrah, samitih samani, samanm manah-sahah, samana hridyani cha. This ‘unity’ does not mean to dissolve all individual identities forever but to be united despite having differences. Unity with appreciation of each other’s diversities is the main idea.

Not that one has to be guilty of practising a particular religion, but to evolve oneself and one’s beliefs in a way that benefits the individual and the world. Preserving the individual for prosperity of universal – is the idea. In Swami Vivekananda’s words, “I am proud to belong to a religion that has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

Swamiji wished to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this, according to him, has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible, and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that all religions are but the varied expressions of the ‘Religion’, which is – oneness. Therefore, religion should be understood in the right perspective and then practised in one’s own life. True religion lies beyond society and politics. The true religion which sings the glory of oneness of all existence has been replaced by a politicized religion which compartmentalises humanity into narrow groups fighting with one another. Proper education and rational outlook shall help us to draw the line between religion and politics, to de-link the duo. In short, the need is to spiritualise the religion and not to socialise or politicise it.

Sarve bhavantu sukhinah.

(May all be in bliss.)


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