By Jamuna Rangachari
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.
There 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 One
Through 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 traverse all the different ways once.’
No wonder his principle disciple, Swami Vivekananda, could thunder in the World Parliament of Religions, 1893, ‘Every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my eart.’
Paths to the Goal
Here is proof that all faiths are essentially paths to the same goal. Here is the philosophical basis for interfaith harmony. If all are going to the same goal should the person traveling from the East quarrel with he who travels from the West, or should the one traveling by train take exception to the one who travels by plane?
And yet the diehard believer may persist in asking, why so many paths; why would the Divine deliberately create so much confusion and room for conflict?
The student of human nature will answer that question at once. Human temperament is diverse and cannot be forced along the same path. The artist, thinker, man of action, the mystic, the occultist, all need to move along paths calibrated to call out to them. The Bhagavad Gita rightly extols the three paths of bhakti (worship), jnana (knowledge) karma (action) as optional ways of reaching the Absolute. There are innumerable others too, laid out by pioneers who intuited the Truth. Different paths are a testimony to the manifold love of the Creator for His creation, and his sensitivity to their needs; therefore they must be deeply revered.
There are many concepts in Indian philosophy that facilitate the movement towards a larger and more complex comprehension of reality. One is the Jain concept of anekanta, which says, ‘Truth is multi-dimensional, everything is relative and multi-dimensional with an inbuilt coexistence of opposites.’
India’s broad expansiveness and receptivity to different spiritual ideas has spawned innumerable sages and seers who repeatedly clean the philosophy of any debris it may have gathered and keep it free flowing. Such sages have reiterated Sri Ramakrishna’s message of the oneness of all faiths. Kabir and Shirdi Sai Baba are classic examples of spiritual leaders who effortlessly spanned the divide between Hinduism and Islam and urged their devotees to recognize the one God in all faiths.
Others, like Guru Nanak, have forged faiths that are an amalgam of existing ones, affirming a clear recognition of their unity.
The Sikh faith that he founded has as one of its principle tenets, the call to respect and accept all other world religions. He went on long spiritual journeys called `udasis’ wherein he interacted with leaders of other faiths. Bhai Mardana, a Muslim and Bhai Bala, a Hindu, two close associates of Guru Nanak, continued to practice their respective religions while accompanying Nanak on his travels spanning several decades. This principle remains embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib, which includes hymns of both the Hindu and Muslim saints and emphasizes the importance of interfaith dialog and cooperation.
In recent times, the Sant Nirankari Mission, a breakaway Sikh sect founded in 1929 by Baba Buta Singh, cuts across all barriers of caste, creed, religion and nationality, while serving society with a spirit of brotherhood.
One of the soundest ways of ensuring acceptance of other ways of being is through interfaith marriages. When two people from different faiths live together, each is forced to acknowledge the essential humanity of the person who lies behind the religious label. This automatically gives them the impetus to go beyond religion towards the unity of either humanity or, if so inclined, spirituality.
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the famous sarod player and his wife Subhalakshmi Khan, an erstwhile Bharat Natyam dancer, connect to spirituality through their common love for music and the culture of the land. Fond of Sanskrit and chanting, Mrs Khan recites shlokas and performs pujas at home and Ustadji too participates in the same, being totally open to all faiths. ”Swar hi ishwar hain’ and ‘atma hi parmatma hain’ are the principles I firmly believe in,’ says Ustadji, while Mrs Khan adds that ‘pakeezgi’ or sacredness of approach is what they try to practice.
We need to see the inner divine, they say. Bringing up their children, Amaan and Ayaan, with a focus on the spiritual core, they have incorporated an inclusive family prayer session as part of their childhood routine. Mrs Khan shares, ‘Our son wished to go to the Balaji mandir to offer his prayers and tonsure his hair and this was never an issue for debate or discussion for my husband and myself.’
Believing in such universal values has only made their bond with their sons stronger and more loving. Music, of course, has always been a great unifying force. The classical Dhrupad style of North India is an example where the alap is done using the syllables of a mantric phrase ‘om antaran twam, taran taaran twam, ananta hari narayan om’ by practitioners of all faiths. The Dagar family, one of its chief exponents, has been preserving and cherishing this priceless legacy for decades. Ustad Rahim avows, ‘Dhrupad symbolises the true tradition of India, both in music and in life.’
Shameem Akhtar, a yoga practitioner and Life Positive columnist, was born into the Muslim faith but has sought spirituality from all faiths: ‘I always have had English translations of Upanishads, Vedas, Bible, and of course, the Koran and such spiritual books around the house,’ she says, adding, ‘When you are a teen and just beginning to ask the questions to which these books hold an answer, it impacts you forever.’
Shameem went on to marry Sai, a Hindu Brahmin. Both pursue the Divine in their own ways. Shameem by exploring mystical elements and Sai through organized religions, including Islam. Just as he visits temples, he also keeps the Ramzan fast. Their daughter, Jahnavi Sheriff, is proud of both the faiths she belongs to, and happily takes part in the inter-faith satsangs the couple organizes.
Choreographer Salome Roy Kapur, who was born into the Jewish faith, married a Hindu in a simple Arya Samaj ceremony and has exposed her three children, now adults, to all the faiths of the world and is convinced that they have only benefitted from the many traditions. Happy that both sets of parents accepted them fully, she recalls that her father-in-law was firmly opposed to her changing her name, not considering it an issue at all. Two of her children have since married and all that matters to Salome is their compatibility and commitment to values – with religious origin being a very small detail.
Maya Rangwala, a Hindu, has been married to a Bohri Muslim for 20 years and celebrates Eid and Diwali with equal enthusiasm. She says, ‘It is important that children learn to be good human beings and humanity is what I consider their religion to be. My children feel the same way. In fact, my daughter filled up ‘to be a good human being’ against the religious column of her school form.’
Meher Castelino, fashion columnist and practicing Zoroastrian, came from a family who prayed to saints from all religions and so, marrying her husband Bruno, a Catholic, was not an issue at all. She says, ‘Religion is important since it gives us direction, but the true religion of every being should be ‘good thoughts, words and deeds’ and this is common in all religions.’ As a family, they follow all faiths and celebrate all festivals, even Hindu ones, with élan. Meher, who is now a follower of the mystic Meher Baba, sees her spirituality as a natural progression from the liberality that enabled her to marry into another faith.
Shantum Seth is an ordained Dharmacharya in the Zen tradition, while his wife, Geetanjali, follows both Zen and Hindu practices. With the children, Nandini and Arnamika Maitreyi, he believes in letting his life speak for itself. ‘Rather than indoctrination or pushing one’s beliefs on one’s children, living a life of spirituality speaks for itself,’ he says.
When both husband and wife are seekers, their religions are irrelevant. Nagma, a Muslim and an ardent seeker, found her answers through Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a liberal Islamic thinker who presented to her the spiritual side of Islam and its core tenets. Married to Nagdeep Kapoor, a publisher, who was seeking answers to the same spiritual questions for a long time, they are together in this journey and are open to all faiths, while relating strongly to Maulana Khan. ‘To me, the rational explanation he offered was most appealing,’ says Nagdeep.
Priya Mallik, an investment banker, also found her path with Maulana Khan when reeling from a depression brought about by the untimely and sudden death of her colleague. Subsequently, she married Khalid Ansari, associate editor with a media house, who, in his spiritual quest, had even learnt Sanskrit and the Hindu scriptures. It is this quest that is the bond between them. ‘I see Priya as neither Hindu nor Muslim but as a rational seeker of truth,’ says Khalid.
Individual seekers apart, spiritual organizations are today the bastion of interfaith perspective. Though many of them may be practicing Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, what they affirm over and over again is the universality of the experience. Thus in Vipassana, teachers highlight the universality of the sensations on the human body and in yoga or pranayam classes the universality of breath is emphasized. Promoting the values and techniques that help access experiential knowledge of God and Self, such organizations are deeply inclusive with space for all castes and creeds. Whether it is the Art of Living organisation, Satya Sai Baba’s ashram, the Dalai Lama’s Foundation of Universal Responsibility, or Anandam-urti Guruma’s followers, one encounters a motley bunch of seekers richly representing world diversity. These organizations are today playing a crucial role in transforming individuals into looking beyond religious identities. Former journalist and Muslim, Rajaque Rahman, is an Art of Living teacher dressed in the standard white kurta-pyjama of devotees. He says, ‘Art of Living has brought a lot of depth in me and has given me a complete understanding of the concept of oneness of God. It has helped me to be a better Muslim, because I can now understand the Koran better.’
There are also other centers that practice plurality. For instance, the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the erstwhile Sufi, is now a place of peace, prayer and meditation as also a center for music concerts, lectures, conferences, and social programs and qawallis comprising of songs from all faiths.
India is also dotted with several Christian ashrams that attempt to bring together Christianity and Hinduism. The Satchidananda ashram in Tamil Nadu, established by an English monk, Father Bede Griffith, combines Indian aratis with mass, teaches the Vedas, Tamil classics and the Bible, thus fostering true understanding of both traditions.
The Temple of Understanding, an international movement founded in 1960, whose India chapter is headed by Dr Karan Singh, offers interfaith education for adults, seminarians, college students, and youth.
Even quasi spiritual organizations serving social goals are performing yeoman service in bridging faiths and fostering harmony.
Religion for Social Justice founded by Arya Samaj sanyasi, Swami Agnivesh and Rev Valsan Thampu takes up cudgels against fundamentalist fury, protesting both the violent killing of Graham Staines, and the Gujarat carnage in 2002. Currently the organisation is spreading the message of harmony in Gujarat and has now taken up social causes such as female foeticide.
The Foundation of Universal Responsibility and Enlightened Citizenship (FUREC) formed by 15 spiritual leaders with the patronage of President Abdul Kalam in 2004, is another body that seeks to promote acceptance of, and respect for, all religions. Closely associated with the Jain Vishva Bharati Institute headed by Acharya Mahaprajna, the forum conducts courses in religious understanding and organizes many interfaith dialogs and studies, while working with schools on an inclusive value education program.
In other parts of the world, other initiatives are performing the same task. Bahá’u’lláh, a 19th century Persian exile, founded the Bahai faith. The fundamental belief of the Bahais is that all the world’s religions represent one changeless, eternal faith and all the masters and prophets are its messengers. They believe in a new world order that seeks justice for all, irrespective of race, nationality or ethnic group and their entire focus is to view themselves as part of humanity without regional or cultural barriers. In keeping with this vision, the Bahai house in Delhi organizes interfaith discussions with eminent scholars on a regular basis.
A few years ago, my daughter, Samyukta, told me excitedly, ‘Amma, we made a beautiful crib for baby Jesus in school today. It was just like the Baby Krishna’s cradle we made at home during Janmashtami’. Excited, she then went on to tell the story of how Jesus was born. Interfaith receptivity comes naturally to children like Samyukta. All we need to do is not disturb it. And perhaps the tired world will finally win the peace it yearns for.
‘Only reverence of all saints and traditions will bring peace to the world.’
-Baba Virsa Singh
With inputs by Vinita Makhija
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