(This is an essay I wrote that I didn’t bother sending where it was originally intended)
“I love you my brother whoever you are whether you worship in your Church, kneel in your Temple, or pray in your Mosque. You and I are all children of one faith, for the diverse paths of religion are fingers of the loving hand of one Supreme Being, a hand extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, eager to receive all.” – Khalil Gibran
While this may not be anywhere close to the traditional introduction one may expect to read, it illustrates the topic in discussion almost perfectly. Just the other day during a family get-together the subject of one of my aunts was raised. My aunt happened to elope with a Muslim boy back in the day and while the Muslim part hurt, it was the eloping that hurt more. Needless to say, it was a major scandal back in the late 70s and early 80s, the repercussions of which of which are felt to this day. I never met this aunt in my life and I recently learnt that she expired, which brings us to the day the discussion took place. I couldn’t help but notice that people still bear a great deal of ill-will towards her. Not just her and her actions but the entire Muslim race. I am a Brahmin so a family get-together is usually an affair to remember with highly educated men and women doing the talking. So essentially what I witnessed was a combined bashing of Muslim rites and culture and severely reprimanding a woman who eloped with a Muslim boy, bore his children and made an excellent wife till the day she died.
Even as someone born in a world where more and more unnatural relationships are gaining acceptance, I will not condone my aunt’s actions. Perhaps if she did what she did today, it would be a different scenario altogether. If I were to marry a Muslim girl, I know for a fact that my parents and family wouldn’t be thrilled about it (we’re all very pro-Nazism that way, wanting to keep inbreeding to make sure the purest strains are produced). However, I believe that if I was completely in love with a girl who was of a different faith, I still wouldn’t elope. If I’m so convinced she’s right for me, I should be able to convince my parents about it. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that it has nothing to do with her being a Muslim or a Christian or even a Scientologist for that matter. Which, for what it’s worth is true even if I was a homosexual. It’s not about religion. It’s not our place to mix religion and faith with major life decisions. At the end of the day, we all believe in a higher power. Even atheists do, they believe in the absence of one. We all believe in something that defies all logic and gives us strength and solace in tough times.
So why all this hoopla over how I execute and conduct my faith? Does it matter whether I fold my hands or bow down or kneel in submission? Does it matter if I go to swarga or jannat or paradise after I die? No one really knows what happens in the afterlife. We all speculate and counter-speculate and we all have an inherent right to. So why can’t we all co-exist and tolerate each others’ speculations? Why is it that sacrificing goats is condoned but eating mutton is condemned? In her book The Atheist’s Bible, Joan Konner explains this rather aptly – “The reason there are so many opinions is that no one knows the truth.”
1.1 Faith and its implication
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke said that “Perhaps our role on this planet is not to worship God— but to create Him.” It’s funny how we make fun of other religions and faiths and mock their beliefs while our own are infested with anomalies. All religions are, in their own way, beautiful. They all teach us to pray to a certain God, in all humility, to respect our elders and to treat everyone with kindness. They inculcate in us values that we need to live a good and happy life. They encourage us to shun desires, suppress our materialistic urges and to live within our means. They teach us that it was God who created this world and that God alone is responsible for everything and that we must surrender ourselves to his service. They impart the knowledge to carry out this service. They prescribe methods of charity and generosity, they warn us against evil and it’s forms and they implore us to respect others and embark on a journey of self exploration and fulfillment. What else is there?
“Successful indeed are the believers:
those who offer their prayers with all solemnity and full submissiveness,
and who turn away from all that is frivolous,
and those who pay the zakat.”
—Sourat al Mu’minun (The Believers) Verses 1-4
The rest is folklore. Tales, fables, cases in point that help us understand these things better. It would be quite impossible to take into account all exceptions but one can safely say that the aforementioned generalization is quite appropriate. No faith explicitly demands its followers to commit crimes in the garb of religion. If it does, then such a religion is obsolete and must be discarded immediately. I think this essay is concerned with religions that humans follow and not their savage counterparts. As evolved human beings we must respect the fact that even religion needs to keep pace with changing times and ideologies. Surely, no religion meant for its sacred scriptures to come off as sexist or prejudicial. No religion asks its men to drink and beat up their women. No religion prescribes its followers to wage wars and orchestrate genocides and apocalypses in its name. No religion advises giving birth to children one cannot provide for. Surely, no religion claims that one must keep producing offspring till a male offspring is born. Surely, no religion prescribes discarding female offspring. Blaise Pascal said “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” One doesn’t have to be a scholar of religion to know and understand this.
It would be irrelevant to cite examples of religious wars from ancient history. While it’s tempting to discuss at length the Crusades, let’s instead talk about today. There’s enough brutality that goes on in the name of religion and faith even today. Terrorists and cowards (I consider the two synonymous. All terrorists are cowards. The converse is not always true). A terrorist commits crimes in the name of his/ her faith. Can such a faith even be deemed as one? A madman is a madman. He knows no religion. No terrorist is a Muslim or a Hindu or a Christian. A man who thinks that his religion advises him to commit atrocities against women has failed to understand his religion. As has the man who believes that his religion is the true path to salvation. No single religion can claim to be the sole path to righteousness and salvation. If reading the Bhagwad Gita assures me a seat in heaven, I shouldn’t grudge my bible adhering neighbors a seat.
“You can study God through everything and everyone in the universe, because God is not confined in a Mosque, Synagogue, or Church. But if you are still in need of knowing where exactly His abode is, there is only one place to look for Him: In the heart of a true lover.” – Shams Tabrizi
1.2 The Inherent Coherence of all Religions
Truth is often universal and singular in nature. Over time, it is this singular and universal truth that has presented itself in various forms that we confused as different. If the truth differed in its content each time, it would cease to be the truth. The same truth has presented itself through different voices and in different forms to a different group of people at various junctures in history. That truth is religion. The plurality of this truth is often a misunderstood concept. Only that which is truly singular can be plural. This is explained by the fact that every religion is self sufficient and all encompassing. Every revelation throughout history has contained the whole truth. The diversity of religions does not demonstrate difference but oneness. A religion, any religion is not defined or limited by what is includes but rather by what it excludes. Frithjof Schuon has explained the coherence of religions as follows:
“A religion is a form, and so also a limit, which, “contains” the Limitless, to speak in paradox; every form is fragmentary because of its necessary exclusion of other formal possibilities; the fact that these forms—when they are complete, that is to say when they are perfectly “themselves”—each in their own way represent totality, does not prevent them from being fragmentary in respect of their particularization and their reciprocal exclusion”
1.3 A note on Atheism
Celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens claimed that since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right; the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.
A sixth of the world’s population is believed to be “non-religious”. This includes agnostic, atheist, secular humanist, and people who answer ‘none’ or ‘no religious preference’ when asked an open-ended question about what is their religious preference. So the absence of a religion is the in fact fastest growing religion and the numbers alone disqualify it from being a fad or a cult. An interesting idea is that all human beings are born atheists. Religion is thrust upon us as we grow up. We enter this world with zero knowledge of religion or God or spirituality. So being an atheist is far from unnatural. In fact, it is perhaps the truest religion there is. Given the fact that not all atheists are ego maniacal lunatics, there is a case to be made that on some level, most atheists do believe in some higher power. Some atheists may even be spiritual. Dean Ornish has explained this concept rather pertinently – “The word spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean religion, it means whatever it is that helps you feel connected to something that is larger than yourself”. Perhaps atheism is gaining acceptance because of the simplicity and convenience. No rituals, no laws, no constant struggle for salvation, life, birth, rebirth, it’s not a messy affair. In today’s day and age, people don’t have the time to spare. They’re not faithless, they’re pragmatic. And therein lies the allure of atheism.
1.4 The One and Only True Path?
This is perhaps the most divisive aspect of most religions. Nearly all major religions are territorial and obstinate on this one point. They all claim to be the sole path to happiness and the ultimate goal of life. They demand unquestionable faith and diligence in exchange for the fictional concept of an afterlife and no guarantee of a secure life. All priests would be, by that logic millionaires and happy men. A small portion of them would decline the materialistic wealth but most wouldn’t. It’s human nature after all. But priests and pastors are not the wealthiest men on the planet. This is a fact.
Most religions allege that they are the one and only true path to all the things we seek. Which automatically makes it challenging for other ‘rival’ religions and faiths to co-exist. Elementary logic dictates that if I’m selling a unique product that I claim only I have, it makes everyone else selling the same product my competition. To protect my individuality and interests, I will try and quash my competitors. The same principle seems to extend to religion and its professors. If only an evolved and all-encompassing entity like religion could accept that there is a possibility that it is too arrogant in making a claim like that, it would make co-existence a lot easier.
Interestingly, not many faiths profess that they are the “one and only true path”. It is the people who profess the faith who make that claim. Is it the fear of losing sanctity or the phobia most religious pundits have of the world becoming more and diverse and less traditional and primitive forms dying out, is best left for speculation. The fact remains that due rapid globalization and breaking the barriers of distance and space, we are gradually moving toward a society where uniqueness is not defined by the percentage of the original but rather how many different parts constitute a person.
2 Select Short notes
2.1 Death and Afterlife
What can we know of death,
We, who cannot understand life?
—Gates of Prayer, Jewish prayer book
The accepted explanation of death according to Jewish traditions is the “separation of the eternal, spiritual soul from the material body, the two of which were joined together at the time of conception”. As per Christian philosophy, “As We Live, so We Die, and Are Born to Eternal Life”. In Islam, the Qur’ anic verse (3:185) “Everyone shall taste death. And only on the Day of Resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full. And whoever is removed away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise, he indeed is successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception.” Buddha’s central teachings indicate that “In itself, death is neither inherently good nor inherently bad—it is merely a fact of existence.”
Jonathan Perry summarizes the Hindu philosophy of death as – “There is at least a sense in which nothing is totally lost at death: the five elements [earth, water, fire, air, and ether] return to the common pool for re-use; the soul is immortal and is reborn [or according to Hindu theists, it may be liberated and attain the kingdom of God], the body particles a person shares with his kinsmen endure in their bodies [traced through seven generations on the father’s side and five on the mother’s]. The person is never entirely new when born; never entirely gone when dead. Both his body and soul extend into past and future persons…”
We can therefore observe a distinct pattern of similarity in the explanations of death and life beyond death of various religious philosophies. There are unique differences in each case but nevertheless, the inherent oneness is fairly noticeable.
2.2 Religious Fanaticism
In 1099, Crusaders captured Jerusalem and massacred Muslims, Jews and native Christians. Religiously motivated fanaticism was once again observed a few centuries later during the Spanish Inquisition. Islam is perhaps the most notorious in this respect. In his essay titled “Islam’s Way to Freedom”, Thomas Farr says that, “Even though most Muslims reject violence, the extremists‘ use of sacred texts lends their actions authenticity and recruiting power”. The modern world credits Islam with the introduction of the concept of Jihad that rose to fame shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.
George Robinson describes the passage of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible that contains the principle of lex talionis (“An eye for an eye”) as one of the “most controversial in the Bible.” The passage has given rise to several theories regarding the vengeful nature of biblical texts. Tibet has been repeatedly criticized for upholding a feudal society that exploits peasants. The current Dalai Lama however supports the collaboration of Buddhist principles with Marxist economics. Throughout history, Mormonism has been equated with violence and fanaticism. Mormon philosophy has introduced concepts like blood atonement and law of vengeance. In the light of these events and many more it is difficult to respect differences between religions.
2.3 Clarification of the ideas of Islam
Islam refers to that state of perfect harmony between God and His creation. It also means submission to one God. Thus, anyone who submits to the One and only God is called a Muslim. The God of Islam is unique, beyond comprehension, genderless, all powerful, and merciful. He is merciful because He never ceased to sustain His creation. His mercy is reflected in the guidance he has sent to humans in the form of the Quran.
Death and Martyrdom in Islam according to the Quran is as follows: “And whoso obey God and the Messenger, then they will be in the company of those on whom God has bestowed His Grace, of the Prophets, the followers of the Prophets who were the first and foremost to believe in them, the martyrs, and the righteous. And how excellent these companions are!” (4:69)
While it’s easy to casually say that uniting all faiths is the right way to go and if we can’t respect the differences, we lack compassion and need to broaden our minds, it’s a whole lot harder to apply these values. Writing essays is easy, making speeches is easy, writing books is easy. Not looking at a Muslim fellow passenger on the plane suspiciously with fear is harder. It’s easy to talk the talk, it’s hard to walk the walk. The time has come to walk now. We’re finally evolving into a generation of people that truly know how to respect differences, cherish them even.
To inculcate the ability to be patient and to appreciate the fellow human being is something only education can effectively bring about. An educated mind is least likely to fall prey to dogma and small-mindedness. Religious tolerance is a virtue that brings the best out of everyone in all facets of life. Someone who cannot accept and co-exist peacefully can never be content. How unconscionable is it that we hate someone for his religious beliefs? How can we ever justify violence in the name of faith and God? And yet, it happens. Every day, to most of us, in some way or the other. It has to stop, for God’s sake.
Rosen (ed.) – Ultimate Journey; Death and Dying in World’s Major Religions (2008)
Religious Systems of the World; a Contribution to the Study of Comparative Religion, 3rd ed. (1899)
Moreman – Beyond the Threshold; Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions (2008)
DeLaTorre (ed.) – The Hope of Liberation in World Religions (2008)
Palmer – World Religions (2002)
Oldmeadow (ed.) – Crossing Religious Frontiers; Studies in Comparative Religion (2010)
Kung & Bowden – Tracing the Way; Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions (2002)