Attitudes to Other Religions: A personal View


Many decades ago, my father initiated me into the recital of Sanskrit shlokas.  But he also wanted me to learn about other religions.  So he sent me to a Jesuit school for two years.  Here I studied Latin and took a course in Moral Science (Bible study).  My father taught me that to be a good Hindu I should be respectful of other religions.

A few years later, in a biography of Sri Ramakrishna I read that when the saint was in his mid-thirties, a Hindu sufi introduced him to Islam.  Ramakrishna repeated the name of Allah many times, wearing a white Arab garb.  The Hindu icons vanished from his psyche.  He is said to have experienced the Prophet Muhammad within himself.  Some years later, he meditated on Madonna and Child, which resulted in his feeling of merger with Christ.

In my adult life, I began to approach religions from cultural-historical perspectives, and read with care not only the scriptures of the major religions, but also the lives of saintly personages in various traditions.  It became clear to me that the well-intentioned thesis that all religions say the same thing is really not true.  Not even all the sects within  a religion say the same thing.  Then, were personages like Ramakrishna, Guru Nanak, and Ramana Maharishi fooled into thinking that all religions are the same? \

In an effort to find an answer to this question, I launched a project for myself many years ago.  Every week I visited a place of worship of a different denomination, often accompanied by my wife.  Fortunate circumstances in my life have taken me to various churches, synagogues, mosques, and also to Buddhist, Bahai, and Hindu temples: mosques in Cairo and Algiers, synagogues in Curaçao and Penfield, Churches in Vienna and Seoul, Bahai temples in Wilmette and Delhi, Buddhist temples in Bangkok and Los Angeles, Gurudwaras in Calcutta and Rochester, Hindu temples in Kanya Kumari and Kalighat, and to many other places of worship.  I even spent an hour at a worship center in Lapland. 

Everywhere, I participated in the collective spiritual mode, not as an observer, but as one who wanted to feel a little of the spirit that moves people to piety.  These were enormously rewarding experiences.  I know very well that not all religions say the same thing: a well-intentioned, but naïve generalization that has rightly come under attack.  Unfortunately such attacks come, not always from people who have the most generous heart towards, or respect for others, but more often than not from religious chauvinists who fear that any such identification would bring their own religion from the pedestal which they feel is its due.  Every frog within every religious well is always croaking that not all the wells contain the pure and clear water that its own well does.

My own conclusion is that Ramakrishna wasn’t at all deluded, as some of his critics suggest.  I interpret his truth to mean that all religions have the potential to give an aspirant genuine spiritual fulfillment.  Everywhere I went during a worship service, I saw an outpouring of reverence and devotion for the Unfathomable Mystery visualized and invoked in different languages and modes, through different symbols and gestures.  Even with all the atrocities and abominations perpetrated in the name religions by brutal bigots and deluded devotees, something sublime and spiritual is infused in the hearts and minds of people who are prayerful in a place of worship.  Of this I became certain.

After my experiment, I was more convinced than ever of the wisdom in the lines:

      akâsât patitam toyam yatha gacchadi sâgaram

      sarvadeva namaskârah shrî kesavam pradigachadi.

As waters falling from the skies go back to the self-same sea

Prostrations to all the gods return to the same Divinity.

March 11, 2014

 

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