Problem of Conflicting claims of Religions
and Spiritual Experiences
The question of determination of true knowledge, certainty of knowledge and even comprehensive knowledge still needs to be explored in a greater detail, particularly with reference to the data of the claims of each major spiritual experience, that it delivers the most comprehensive know- ledge of the ultimate reality and the universe as also with reference to the data of plurality of religions and the claims of each religion that the spiritual experience which is the foundation and which is also the culminating point of its practices delivers the highest knowledge and the most comprehensive knowledge, and, in any case, possesses some kind of superiority over similar claims made by other religions.
Cottingham's Analysis of the Problem
A recent book, authored by Cottingham, which discusses this question with great insight and penetrating analysis, may be referred to in this connection. The book, "The Spiritual Dimension"36, makes a distinction between religion and spirituality, and points out that whereas in regard to religious beliefs, there are very polarized responses but with regard to spirituality, one is not connected with beliefs and theories or
their claims. Cottingham defines spirituality as something which is to be understood as being more concerned with activities rather than theories, with ways of living rather than doctrines subscribed to, with praxis rather than belief. And he argues that spiritual practice is temporally, heuristically, psychologically and morally prior to theoretical or meta- physical understanding of religious questions. But even then, he points out that gates to spiritual experiences are many, and one is called upon to answer the question as to which of the various gates of spiritual experiences one should take. In presenting this question, he refers not only to the problem of pluralism of religions but also to the problem of pluralism of spiritual experiences.
Possible Solution of the Problem
The problem becomes acute when it is seen that the statements which express religious beliefs do not harmonize among themselves and they seem to be often colliding among themselves sharply. Confronted with this conflict, Cottingham is led to enquire as to on what basis one can take a decision to commit oneself to one religion or to the other. He refers to a solution, according to which, the choice among different religions can be made on the basis of a personal decision or a personal preference. Those who accept this solution argue that all religions share a number of core ethical values, and as long as these core values are practiced, it does not matter whether one belongs to Christianity or to Judaism or to Hinduism or to Buddhism. This solution tends to regard Pluralism of religions to be comparable to the pluralism of the methods of cooking or to the pluralism of the forms of sport. It is, however, realized that the differences among religions are not so simple, that even in regard to the core
ethical values, differences are sharp, and that the most important aspect of each religion is related to the perception of Truth. The difficulty of the pluralism of religions lies not merely in the plurality but in the conflicts among religions with regard to their perceptions of the truth and to the claim of each one that truth cannot be plural.
Cottingham refers also to the solution suggested by John Hick.37 According to him, the truth or reality in itself is unapproachable, since the human apparatus of consciousness is never free to apprehend or comprehend reality as it is in itself, considering that human beings are always conditioned by the cultural backgrounds in which they are bom and brought up. It will be seen that Hick's suggestion is basically Kantian. According to Kant, human beings are so conditioned in their epistemological apparatus that they can never experience the noumenal truth behind the phenomenal reality, and that they can experience only the phenomena which are inevitably framed within the categories which are inherent in human consciousness. According to Hick, various specific forms of religious awareness are' formed by the presence of the divine Reality but this presence comes to given consciousness in terms of the different sets of religious concepts and structures, and of religious meanings that operate within the different religious traditions of the world.
It is true that this approach is attractive and it appears suitable for the more global culture in which humanity is obliged to operate more and more imperatively. But the difficulty lies in the fact that the object in each religion is claimed to have been revealed, not in the Kantian manner, but in a more realistic manner. As a result, different and conflicting religious statements cannot be reduced merely to
differing religious traditions or differing cultural traditions. Cottingham rightly points out that the problem is more fundamental. Comparing Buddhism and Islam, he points out that while according to Islam, and for that matter according to Judaism also, the ultimate reality is absolutely and unqualifiedly One Personal being, according to Buddhism, ultimate reality is not personal at all, and it even negates any appellation of oneness or plurality by which the Nihil is experienced as a resting place of the state of liberation. He also points out that according to Christianity, the ultimate reality is triune. Cottingham thus acknowledges that the differing and conflicting claims of religion pose a serious problem to the indifferentist approach to the phenomenon of pluralism of religions.
Cottingham refers also to the apophatic tradition.38 According to this tradition, the test of religious belief lies in the experience on which the religious belief is based, and this experience is mystic, indiscernible and ineffable. This tradition is opposed to cataphatic tradition, according to which the object of spiritual experience is describable. On behalf of the apophatic tradition, it is argued that the ineffability of the spiritual experience which lies at the basis of religions prevents any philosophical argument or discussion, and that therefore philosophical disputations amongst religious doctrines can be dissolved by pointing out that the varying or conflicting statements of religions are only so many ways of expressing the inexpressible reality. According to this argument, what is important and what is common among all religions is the ineffable experience of reality, and different formulations of that experience are of secondary importance and therefore, conflicts among them can be dismissed by stating that all of them are imperfect, and
therefore they should not be insisted upon.
At one level, this argument leads us back to the solution that John Hick has proposed. For, it may be argued that the incompatibilities of different statements simply dissolve away as the mind climbs upward on the path of unknowing or on the path of ineffability. It may be argued that the object of all religions, however differently described, — even if they appear to be conflicting among themselves, — is an inexpressible mystery, — a mystery which is caught and the wonder of which is deepened but which does not present itself as a problem. But against this position, Cottingham refers to an argument according to which the mystics who maintain the incompre-hensibility of the Object of mystical experience do not seem to differ from skeptics or atheists, who assert that the first cause of all is unknown and unintelligible. Indeed, as Cottingham points out, this argument may be answered by stating that the mystic gets caught by the mystery of the Object of mystical experience, while sceptics or atheists do not get so caught.
Spiritual Experience Unavoidably Ineffable?
The deeper question is whether mystical or spiritual experiences on which different religions are based are utterly ineffable or whether these experiences are capable of being expressed, if not fully, at least partially or symbolically, and, if so, whether the conflicts among religions are rooted in the actual differences that are conveyed through expressions and symbolisms. Cottingham, at this point of the argument, admits a fresh impasse. For he argues that even if we grant the mystics their apophatic root, there must, if theism is to retain any distinctive character whatsoever, be some road back and some way for religious faith to return from the
darkness of unknowing and locate itself within the domain of a workable human language.
Cottingham refers to the Christian reader and points out that the central concept of the Incarnation makes visible to him,in the person of one human being, the icon of the invisible God. He argues that if the Transcendence of God is not to be lost in silence, we need a transition, a way of understanding God in human terms. At this stage, Cottingham proposes that liturgy provides a transition from the transcendent to the human dimensions. He contends that symbolic thinking that is implied in liturgy is exactly what might be expected to be the most fruitful way of approaching the deepest layers of meaning within our lives, as also the most likely avenue of glimpsing the ineffable source of such meaning. The question is whether this position is an adequate answer to the problem of the conflict among religious and spiritual experiences. For liturgy ceremonies in different religions differ, and symbolisms seem to point to objects that are not merely results of cultural diversity. We are thus led back to those assertions in which exclusivism of religions is rooted. Cottingham, however, argues that exclusivism is not necessarily entailed, — it need not and certainly should not. It is true, he contends, that religions have gone on the path of exclusivism, and that Christianity has often fought under exclusivistic banners such as under no name but that of Christ can we be saved, and outside the Church of Christ there is no salvation. But at this stage, he advances a fresh argument and points out that anyone who subscribes to the authentic moral precepts inherent in Christianity can hardly support that a surpassingly benevolent and loving Creator could attach his favour to adherence purely in virtue of the doctrinal choices. He points out that there is something deeper which binds one
human being with another and it is a revelation of the common witness in which the realness of equality and fraternity is revealed-; It is at this deeper level that one finds an unknown marvel, a fundamental basis of existence, more important than all the differences and inequalities super- imposed upon it. According to Cottingham, exclusivism of religions can be transcended when we realize that, as in the case of Christian theology, so in all other conflicting theologies, our life and soul demand intrinsically the imperative need for awareness of our common humanity and the need to reach out to others. This is, indeed, a climactic point of the argument of "The Spiritual Dimension". One reaches here the integral connections between religious, theological and moral thought. And towards the end of the book, we are presented with images of integration.
Cottingham argues that the problem of pluralism of religions can be resolved not by comparing and contrasting and attempting to reconcile various propositions of religious beliefs; he suggests that one should always be open to religious beliefs which are not rooted in one's own culture. Since we are all culture bound, the religion which is related to our cultural roots will appeal to us and we shall naturally adhere ourselves to it. But this should not mean that we develop dogmatism and that we denounce others and that we should convert people of different religious beliefs to our own religious beliefs. What is important is not the proposition of our religion; we should not believe that salvation lies in carrying with us the label of the name of a religion which is rooted in our culture, but in praxis of religions; and Cottingham points out that the praxis of religions consists of the deepening of our inner awareness in the arrival of integration of our being, such as we find
advocated in the Aristotelian doctrine of virtue which avoids excesses of self-aggrandizement and self-abasement, and arrives at the golden mean. He also refers to the kind of integration that is advocated by the psychoanalytic system of June. But beyond the limits of the framework of the doctrines of Aristotle and Jung, Cottingham underlines the concept of integration by referring to the process by which different parts of being are harmonized in our wholeness. He speaks of integration that lies in the practice of morality and the practice of spirituality, which leads to the perception of oneness with all, in spite of distances that we find among ourselves and in spite of our maintaining those distances and differences. According to Cottingham, it is in that practice of integration, — not in insisting on distinctions and divisions of religious beliefs and practices, but in that spiritual dimension which enables us to arrive at our own integration and in looking upon others and being with others in the experience of integration.
Cottingham's Solution and Indian Solution of Conflict of Religions
Cottingham has brought out, with penetrating insight, several aspects of the problem of pluralism of religions, which is central to the contemporary world. In presenting the problem and its solution, Cottingham seems to come very close to the problem and solution of pluralism of religions that we find in the Indian experience of religion and spirituality.39 If we study the development of pluralism in Indian religion and spirituality, we find that to the Indian "und the least important part of religion is its dogma, and what has been most important in India has been the religious spirit rather than the theological credo. A rigid stand on a fixed intellectual belief hampers the processes of tolerance
and harmonization. It is clear that it is when religions insist on their formulated beliefs that each one of them tends to claim itself as a true religion and others as false religions according as they agree or do not agree with the credo of the critics. A critical examination of the formulated beliefs of religions shows that it is an error and even a falsehood to suppose that intellectual truth is the highest verity and, even, that there is no other. The Indian religious thinkers came to admit that the deepest core of religion transcends the intellectual formulations, rituals, ceremonies, prescribed acts and notions on which social and cultural institutions are built up; they acknowledge that the highest eternal verities are truths of the spirit and that the supreme truths are neither the rigid conclusions of logical reasoning nor the affirmations of credal statements, but fruits of the soul's inner experience. They acknowledge that intellectual truth is only one of the doors to the outer aspects of the religion. They also came to recognize that since intellectual truth turned towards the infinite must be, in its very nature, many-sided and not narrowly one, the most varying intellectual beliefs can be equally true because they mirror different facets of the Infinite. The Indian religious thinkers tended to maintain that however religions may come to be separated by intellectual distance, they still form so many side entrances which admit the mind to some faint ray from a Supreme Light. An important aspect that came to dominate in the process of reconciliation among religions was the spirit that declared that there are no true and false religions but rather that all religions are true in their own way and degree. As Swami Vivekananda declared with great emphasis, each religion is one of the thousand paths to the One Eternal.40
All religions aim at relating human life or humanity to the
highest possible truths or truths and realities that are discovered in spiritual experience or through special revelations. The very word religion connotes its emphasis on this process of relationship. In the process of establishing this relationship between man and God or between human consciousness and the highest possible state of being of consciousness, religions have tended to place or recognize four necessities. In the first place, religions have tended to impose upon the mind a belief in a highest consciousness or state of existence universal and transcendent of the universe, from which all comes, in which all lives and moves without knowing it and of which all must one day grow aware, returning towards that which is perfect, eternal and infinite. Secondly, they tended to lay upon the individual life the need of self-preparation by development and experience till one is ready for an effort to grow consciously into the truth of this greater existence. Thirdly, they tended to provide in the framework a well-founded, well-explored, many-branching and always enlarging way of knowledge and spiritual or religious discipline. Lastly, they were led to provide, for those not yet ready for the higher steps, an organization of the individual and collective life, a framework of personal and social discipline and conduct, of mental and moral and vital development by which they could move each in his or her own limits and according to his or her own nature in such a way as to become eventually ready for the greater existence.,
A speciality of religion in India attached to the last a great importance. It left out no part of life as foreign to the religious and spiritual life. Still the Indian religious tradition is not merely the form of a religio-social system. However greatly a given form of a religio-social system may count at the moment of a social life, however stubbornly the conservative
religious mind may oppose all pronounced or drastic change, still the core of Indian religion is a spiritual, not social discipline. Religions like Sikhism counted in the Vedic family although they broke down the old social tradition and invented a novel form. It is true that in all the four elements that constitute Indian religion, there are major and minor differences between adherents of various sects, schools, communities and races; nevertheless, there is also a general unity of spirit, of fundamental type and form and of spiritual temperament which creates in this vast fluidity an immense force of cohesion and a strong principle of oneness. In all forms of this religion, there is one common recognition of the supreme truth of all that is or of an existence beyond the mental and physical appearances we contact here. They admit that beyond mind, life and body, there is a Spirit and Self containing all that is finite and infinite, surpassing all that is relative, a supreme Absolute, originating and supporting all that is transient, a one Eternal. They all admit that there is one transcendent, universal, original and sempiternal divinity or divine Essence, Consciousness, Force and Bliss and that this Divinity is the fount and continent and inhabitant of things. But this Truth of being was not seized only as a philosophical speculation, a theological dogma, an abstraction contemplated by the intelligence. Indian religion did not consider the idea of this Truth to be indulged by the thinker in his study, but otherwise void of praxis. It was put forth as a living spiritual Truth, an Entity, a Power, a Presence that could be sought by all according to their degree of capacity and seized in a thousand ways through life and beyond life. The recognition and pursuit of something or someone Supreme behind all forms is a one universal statement of all Indian religions and developed and interacted among themselves through long centuries and millennia, and if it has taken a
hundred shapes, it was precisely because of its emphasis on praxis. It encouraged the pursuit of spiritual praxis, and did not consider intellectual or theological conceptions to be the one thing of central importance. It allowed the development of varieties of conceptions and varieties of forms and emphasized the attainment of spiritual consciousnesses by inner experience. As a result, we find in the Indian religion, varieties of schools or sects developing and living side by side under a general consensus that spiritual realizations and spiritual praxis is the one thing needful. To open to the inner Spirit, to live in the Infinite, to seek after and discover the Eternity or the Eternal, to be in union with God, — that is the common idea and aim of religion, that is the sense of spiritual salvation, that is the living Truth that fulfills and releases. According to one school or sect, the real self of man is indivisibly one with the universal Self or the supreme Spirit. According to another school or sect, the individual is one with the Divine in essence but different from him in Nature. According to a third school or sect, God, Nature, and the individual soul in man are three eternally different powers of being. The Advaitin, the Vishishta-advaitin and the Dualist, however they may differ from each other, they all agree in underlining the importance of the discovery of the inner spirit or self in man, the divine soul in him, and some kind of living and uniting contact or absolute unity of the soul in man with god or Supreme Self or Eternal Brahman. The Indian religion allowed the freedom to conceive an experience of the Divine as an impersonal Absolute and Infinite or to approach and feel Him as a transcendent and universal sempiternal person, or even to conceive and have the experience of the highest spiritual reality as Non-Being. Differences of credal belief carne to be perceived by the Indian religion as nothing ore than various ways of seeing the one Self and Godhead
in all. What came to unite the plurality of religions was the emphasis on the dynamic praxis of the highest spiritual truth and the highest spiritual aim.
Yet the Problem of Religious Conflict Persists
Indian religion is not a religion, it is a banyan tree which has continually given rise to new religions, and yet some organic bond provided for plurality that would avoid any violent or sharp conflict. This does not mean that there were no conflicts among religions which branched out of the original trunk of the tree; there were conflicts, even sharp conflicts; there also developed exclusivism for a short or long period, and the tendency towards exclusivism is not entirely absent even today. But on account of the fact that praxis counted more than doctrine, there has been a continuous stress towards accommodation and even synthesis. When Jainism and Buddhism developed as anti-Vedic religions, the conflicts between Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism manifested sharply; but even then these three religions absorbed each other, and by this absorption, they were enriched and even in the days of sharpest conflicts, the emphasis on praxis in all the three religions was equally shared by all these religions. Within Hinduism itself, the conflict between Vaishnavism and Shaivism was quite sharp for centuries, but here, again, on account of the emphasis on praxis, the conflict among the doctrines has been comparatively moderate, and for the general masses both Vaishnavism and Shaivism have come to be regarded as alternative ways of approach to the Supreme or even as complementary methods or a synthetic pursuit.
One important element, which is central to all religions, and which can open up a wide gate for the solution of the
conflict among religions, is their common admission that they all look upon spirituality and spiritual experience as a final point of culmination of human effort. But this element has not really sufficiently been utilized for arriving at the solution of the problem of the plurality of religions and conflict in religions. Faced with plurality, an impartial seeker asks inevitably: which is the way? This inevitably leads to comparison of doctrines, and this comparison has not yielded any satisfying answer.