Interfaith Harmony and Social Cohesion
There have been battles and wars in the history of the world; and there have been constant justifications and constant condemnations of these battles and wars. But after the Second World War, humanity has at last proclaimed the need to abolish battles and wars forever and has even instituted huge global organisations in defence of peace. Humanity has even gone farther, and perceiving that battles and wars begin in conflicts, small or big, a great endeavour has been initiated for conflict resolution, for reduction of forces of division, and for strengthening the forces of understanding, interchange, dialogue and even for building up defences of peace in the hearts and minds of the people.
With the growing globalisation, which has become irresistible, it is being increasingly realised that there are two major factors that need urgent attention, if durable peace is to be secured: conflict of civilisations and conflict of religions. These two conflicts are in a large measure interconnected. And humanity is increasingly turning to the instrumentality
of dialogue, and this dialogue is being increasingly centred on bringing civilisations and religions in close intimacy for mutual understanding. It is in this context that the movement of interfaith harmony has come to occupy a central place in the forward march of the contemporary world.
The starting-point of the programme of interfaith harmony is the recognition that the world abounds with scriptures and with religions, and sects and their corresponding dogmas and structures and systems and ways of life. And we are required to notice that there is the phenomenon in the field of religions of exclusiveness and passion in favour of this book or the other book or this Word or the other Word. It is true that we do not frequently slaughter our fellows in the name of God’s truth or because they have minds differently trained or differently constituted from ours. We are even ready to admit that Truth is everywhere and cannot be our sole monopoly. But we still declare that our truth gives us the supreme knowledge which other religions or philosophies have missed or imperfectly grasped so that they deal with subsidiary and inferior aspects of things or can merely prepare less evolved minds for the heights to which we have arrived. And it is at this point that we look for harmonisation.
The task is extremely difficult. The question here is not merely that of mere good neighbourliness, even though that, too, has to be admitted and practised. We have to admit that there is multiplicity of religions in the world and that they encounter each other more and more sharply in the contemporary world which is rapidly shrinking. Religions have become neighbours, and we have to find ways and means by which these neighbours can live and flourish without clash or conflict and cultivate positive harmony amongst themselves.
Religions need to revisit their own scriptures with a fresh sense of inquiry. This inquiry must ask at least two questions: How does my scripture and what precisely does my scripture affirm what is affirmed in other scriptures? Secondly, in spite of the common areas of agreement, why are there differences amongst religions? In particular, are these differences due to mere historical reasons or because of some more fundamental reasons that pertain to the grasp of the eternal truth which every religion claims to possess?
There are, we find, wide areas of agreement among religions. Every religion speaks of the supra-physical. Every religion affirms the source of revelation or the source of knowledge of the Truth
as something that lies beyond body, life and mind. Every religion speaks of the Truth and regards that Truth as eternal. Every religion speaks of the need to develop a way of life that embodies disciplines that are supposed to be conducive to the promotion of the practice of the Truth. Every religion aims at the advancement of all human beings on the earth. All religions describe goodwill for all, – goodwill that all should see the truth, all should practise the truth and all should receive the ultimate fulfilment. Finally, all religions promise the attainment of fulfilment, provided that their methods and prescriptions are followed faithfully.
Beyond these important areas of agreement, there are differences, and even wide differences. And we must address ourselves to these differences. Here, too, we need to ask some questions. If all the religions speak of the eternal truth, do they maintain that eternal truth is not one and that there are many eternal truths, such that each religion grasps more luminously only one set truths? It will, however, be found that every religion claims that the truth or the set of truths is one and must be one and eternal. How are we, then, to explain the phenomenon of differences? If one does not identify oneself with the realm of religions and examines neutrally the differences among the claims in regard to the eternal truth, one may have a good ground to suppose that none of the claims is valid, and that the claim of each religion to have possession of the eternal truth is questionable or even false. Against this argument all religions will be equally obliged to find some valid ground for differences in their claim to Truth or claims in regard to the eternal
Truth in such a way that the argument of the neutral critic is met successfully. Could it not be, we may ask, that even though truth is one and eternal, it cannot be shut up in a single trenchant formula? Is it not likely that the eternal Truth is not found in its entirety or in all its bearings in any single philosophy or Scriptures or uttered altogether and forever by any one teacher, thinker, prophet or avatar? Could it not be that the truth, though it is one and eternal, expresses itself in time and through the mind of man, and therefore, every Scripture must necessarily contain two elements, one temporary, perishable, belonging to the ideas of the period and country in which it was produced and the other eternal and imperishable and applicable in all ages and countries? Moreover, could it not be that in the statement of the Truth the actual form given to it, the system and arrangement, the metaphysical and intellectual mould, the precise expression used must be largely subject to the mutations of Time and cease to have the same force?
Is it not a fact, it may be asked, that we can never be quite sure of understanding an ancient book – scriptural book or the book of the Words expressing the eternal truth – precisely in the same sense and spirit it bore to its contemporaries? And, could we not contend that that which is entirely permanent in its value is that which besides being universal has been and is being experienced, lived and seen with higher than the intellectual vision?
Indeed, this entire process of questioning may be prohibited at the very starting point on the ground that religions often prohibit questioning, and that no dogmas can be questioned or should not be allowed to be questioned. This is, it may be admitted, is an understandable position. But in that case, no religion should question the claims of other religions, and no religion should judge or proclaim that only its own dogmas are unquestionable and that the claims of other religions are questionable and they even deserve to be combated or even deserve to be set aside. How can harmony be attained in this situation? It may be answered that harmonisation can be achieved if we can effectively persuade adherents of religions to leave altogether the effort to determine the nature of the eternal truths, if any, and to ask them to refrain discussion of their respective claims in regard to the eternal truth. It is
not impossible that for the sake of maintaining good relationships among religions, adherents may agree with this course of action. But considering the actual fact that each religion maintains that its own discovery of truth is the best, there will be a genuine ground to profess that claim and even to influence others to convert them justifiably to its own professed truth.
There is, indeed, an answer that all religions are true, and even though all may not seem to be equally true, and even if in any free inquiry, they may not be found to be equally true, religions must cultivate among themselves an attitude of equal respect for the rival claims of truth. This, again, may be a good policy and even sincere policy in a process of interfaith harmony. But the question is whether this attitude and this position can be sustained in the progressive development of the climate in which intellectual, moral and spiritual questioning which aims at the determination of the truth on the anvil of experience which has to be subjectively and objectively validated.
Interfaith harmony can, therefore, be sustained if, besides many several other requirements which need to be fulfilled, it welcomes a programme of research that aims to answer the above question.
Indeed, this programme of research, even though its timeframe cannot be determined, will create a welcome atmosphere and will contribute to the lessening of tension in respect of conflict among religions.
In the meantime, several other proposals could be made to augment the force of the movement of interfaith harmony which will also contribute to communal harmony and social cohesion. Three such proposals can briefly be spelt out for consideration:
A major effort could be initiated where one major hurdle that lies in the path of interfaith harmony can be addressed with some kind of focal attention. This is related to what may be called exclusivism of religions. It seems that the reason why adherents of religions do not easily come together is that each religion claims an access to some kind of essential element which alone contributes to the attainment of the highest human well-being, and yet which is not available in other religions. How, it may be asked, can this exclusivism be viewed? Is it not possible for adherents of religions to initiate a dialogue with an aim of possibly arriving at the meeting of religions by avoiding or by excluding exclusivism? For it could be contended that each religion brings to humanity
an important perception or vision or realisation of the truth, but it can harmonise and even be enriched by admission of the perceptions or visions or realisations of the truth which are to be found in other religions. If this contention could be looked upon as a starting-point of a new dialogue among religions, the movement of interfaith harmony will greatly be strengthened.
There is one aspect in the contemporary thought which stands as a great challenge to all religions, and adherents of all religions could unite together to meet that challenge. This challenge has come to be formulated in various forms during the last two hundred years. Its basic premise is that physical senses are the only means of developing acceptable systems of knowledge. Often this premise remains hidden in the body of arguments that challenges religions. There is agreement among all religions, namely, that the truth that the religions put forward is derived from that source of knowledge which transcends both sense experience and reason, even though knowledge gained or the knowledge advocated can in varying degrees be shown to be seizeable in rational thought or even in sense-experience. A dialogue among religions on this issue could be considered to be salutary for the strengthening of interfaith harmony and social
cohesion. In this context, a significant development that has taken place is a growing interest in themes like science and religion, and science and spirituality. But frequency of dialogues on these themes among adherents among all religions has not been as great as it could be or should be. And it is here that institutions like Temple of Understanding could play a major role.
On account of the conflict among religions something that is very precious in all religions remains neglected, and this needs to be remedied. All religions impart the spirit and atmosphere of holiness, of reverence, and of humility that is generated in the presence of a vision of the vast, of the universal, of the transcendental. All religions agree that human consciousness suffers from the malady of egoism and that the remedy lies in the deliverance from egoism. It can, therefore, be suggested that a vast effort can be initiated by all adherents of religions by coming together in promoting the perception and vision of vastness, universality and transcendence that can infuse in human consciousness the sense of holiness, reverence and humility in which false egoism of human consciousness can melt or disappear.
One can perhaps think of several other
programmes for strengthening the movement of interfaith harmony, and we need to explore new directions, including some radical ones which advocate transcendence of all religions in the realm of spiritual experiences and unity of these experiences or which advocate the development of spiritual religion of humanity.