By Jamuna Rangachari June 2006 As more and more vault from religion to spirituality, there is a growing recognition of the oneness of all faiths. Is this the beginning of an interfaith society that will spell peace for the world? A visit to the Gobind Sadan Society for Interfaith Understanding at Mehrauli, New Delhi, affords an enthralling experience. As evening falls in the picturesque ashram premises, men, women and children, all Sikhs, file in reverential silence to the chapel of Jesus to light candles before proceeding to the evening namaz at the mosque, the aarti at the temple and the ardas at the gurdwara, all the while solemnly chanting ‘Ek omkar sat nam wahe guru’. The spiritual head of the Sadan, which houses all the places of worship in its premises, is Baba Virsa Singh, a radiant, white-haired Sikh. A healer, he exhorts his people to worship every saint, prophet and deity and affirms that the day is not far when everyone will revere all saints and traditions, and it is this reverence that will bring peace to the world. Ralph Singh, who was born into the Jewish faith, lives in the ashram with his wife Joginder, who was born a Sikh. They both feel privileged to be part of a place which vibes with such spiritual unity. Says Mary Pat Fisher, a writer who has been here for the last 15 years, ‘I feel absolutely blessed to be in a place where people of all backgrounds, traditions and faiths, mingle and feel one with each other.’ One of the most cherished experiences I have had is taking part in the prayer sessions at Gandhi Institute of Gandhian Studies at Wardha. Chanting verses from all the religions with a group of people from diverse backgrounds, nationalities and religions brought an indescribable sense of peace and oneness with the entire cosmos. What is there about the sight of devotees, bowing reverentially before the many prophets and symbols of religions, that can move us almost to tears? Perhaps it is the grand spectacle of people transcending one of the most divisive and pervasive aspects of identity to make common cause with their fellow human beings. Perhaps it is the unsurpassed delight of seeing them sip from the nectar of all wisdom traditions. Perhaps it is the supreme joy of observing the worship of God in all his many names and forms. Perhaps it is the deep satisfaction and security of seeing people surrender the drive for dominance, control and superiority and experience the sweetness of inclusivity. Perhaps it is the manifestation of the final understanding that all faiths proclaim the same truth and that differences are semantic. And indeed, this is no mean task. For the individual must rise above thousands of years of conditioning that has compelled him to regard his faith as one of the deepest and most sacred aspects of his identity, to be defended against other faiths at all costs, even death. He must rise above the fear of an avenging God so assiduously cultivated in most religions, and dare to look at his faith with clear-sighted, eyes. He must go beyond blind belief and deeply understand the tenets of his creed. He must set aside all desire to be right or superior and prove the other wrong. In short, he must grow and expand to a high level of spiritual maturity before he can attempt to ford the divisions between his religion and that of others. Towards UnityThere is no doubt that this is the next step for humanity as it hurtles more and more relentlessly towards globalization and a borderless world. As we become more intimately entangled with each other, whether we are in Mozambique or Mumbai, Moscow or Malabar, we need to learn to get along, to respect differences, to accept each other as we are, and above all, to afford the other the right to worship his way. As Baba Virsa Singh affirms, spiritual freedom, above all freedoms, holds the key to peace for our troubled planet. Perhaps the strongest indication of this destiny realizing itself is the growing number of people around the world who are transcending religion to move into the wide, open spaces of spirituality. In the West, churches are emptying out rapidly, even as meditation centers, yoga classes, books on Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and other Eastern mystical paths are booming. Reiki healings, tarot readings, Gnostic e-groups, are all indicators of a new and active embrace of paths, processes and techniques that have little to do with the state religion of Christianity. Here, in India, recognition of the validity of different paths to God is part of the Vedic heritage and it is no coincidence that this country has given birth to many of the world’s major religions. Nor is it to be wondered at that it, above all countries, gives sanction and sanctuary to people of all religious persuasions. While it is true that we have seen religious differences harden into fundamentalism and wreak havoc in the lives of millions, this country’s deeply pluralistic traditions and the living spirituality that permeates it, makes it one of the most fertile places in the world for spiritual exploration. Says Shantum Seth, a Hindu, whose search finally led him to the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘The greatest advantage of being born in India is the freedom to pick and choose from a variety of traditions and practices without being restricted by ‘labels’ such as Hindu, Muslim, etc.’ Englishman and former BBC correspondent, writer Mark Tully, is an ardent seeker who has spent a long time understanding the multiple spiritual traditions in India. Viewing this as a unique catharsis, he says, ‘The greatest lesson I learnt in India was respect for pluralism and an acceptance that there could be, indeed there are, several paths to spirituality.’ Bangalore-based spiritual teacher, Mumtaz Ali, was born into the Muslim faith, but at a young age, he was sought out by a Himalayan yogi, who he later encountered at his cave in the Himalayas and was initiated into spirituality. Ali is an expert on the Vedas and an exponent of the Bhagavad Gita, and advocates a pure strain of spirituality that goes beyond religious identities. Sudhamahi Regunathan, a writer and editor, has traveled all over India with her husband, who is with the Indian Administrative Service. Says she, ‘I was first exposed to other faiths in the Eastern part of India where I realized the beauty and simplicity of Dony Polo, a tribal religion.’ Now associated with the Foundation for Universal Responsibility and Enlightened Citizenship (FUREC), she has since explored various religions and imbibed from all of them, be it the Vedas or the cerebral austerity and simplicity of Jainism. Her study of Islam has revealed its true goal of fostering a peaceful society. She says, ‘Studying all the various spiritual paths only reinforces my belief that they all lead to the same goal.’ Rajeev Mehrotra, media personality, went through a range of experiences which included getting connected to the inclusive message of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, and finally found his master in the Dalai Lama, who, through his life and teachings, inspires the acceptance of life in its entirety. Today he is actively involved in an organisation set up by His Holiness in 1989, the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, which encourages the exchange of ideas on a wide variety of areas. Truth is OneThrough their own explorations, these seekers stumbled upon the profound insight that all religions throw light on the same central truths. The word Islam itself means peace, and one of the attributes of God in Islam is As-Salaam, the peace giver. The Bible too reiterates the central message of peace repeatedly. One of the Beatitudes on the Sermon at the Mount, for instance, says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. – Matthew 5:9′. All Vedic prayers end with Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, praying for peace within oneself, peace in the immediate surrounding and peace in the entire cosmos. When Christ exhorted his followers to love their neighbors he was only endorsing the Vedic concept of oneness and the Buddhist concept of interconnection. His observation ‘as you sow so shall you reap’ is a clear recognition of the concepts of karma and reincarnation that are so characteristic of the Eastern religious traditions. Established by prophets and sages in touch with the living truths of life and God, all religions began as open channels of spirituality. Unfortunately, the followers lost their way along the serpentine path and contented themselves by paying lip service to the concepts and converting what was meant to be experiential truths into items of creed and belief. Perhaps one of the most dramatic testimonies of the oneness of all faiths comes from the spiritual experience of Ramakrishna Paramahansa. The great bhatkta was inspired to immerse himself in all faiths and first did so with Islam. He repeated the name of Allah, wore the robes of a Mussalman and temporarily forgot his Hindu gods. His ardent worship yielded fruit when one day a radiant personage with white beard appeared before him and merged into him. He intuited him to be the Prophet and through him Ramakrishna experienced the Absolute. He later repeated the experiment with Christianity, and in like manner he saw coming towards him a person with beautiful large eyes, a serene regard and a fair skin, who was revealed to be the Christ. Through merger with him too, he experienced the Absolute that he had first experienced through the person of his beloved Mother, Kali. He later said to his disciples, ‘I have practiced all religions, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects… I have found that it is the same God towards whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths. You must try all beliefs and trav
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