Existential Unity and Harmony of All Religions
The earliest of the world’s scriptures, the Rig Veda, contains the greatest declaration of religious harmony: “Truth is one but sages call it by various names”. Religious harmony has been, in the main, the central theme of the Eternal Religion (Santana Dharma).
Buddhism was an attempt to reform Hinduism when it had become degenerate; but it was never spread by fire and sword as was greatly done later in the case of Christianity and Islam. The Buddha’s message of enlightenment penetrated everywhere in a peaceful way. Emperor Asoka, who was a staunch follower of Buddhism, put up the edict:
“He who out of respect for his own faith disparages the
faiths of others inflicts the greatest injury on his own.”
The spirit of dynamic universalism enabled Hindus to assimilate within its fold a number of races – native and foreign – with their diversities of customs and cultures.
In the early centuries of the Christian era, many Christians came to India as refugees, but later many came as conquerors and, in trying to convert others to their faith, sometimes used force and various unfair means. Many missionaries supported by foreign rulers grossly misused India’s hospitality and vilified the Hindus who were tolerant to a fault. The Indian atmosphere with its religious harmony, however, was responsible for changing the attitude of some of the missionaries and their Christian followers.
At first this attitude was one of wholesale denunciation and destruction whenever possible. The Hindu religion was considered “a weltering chaos of darkness, terror and uncertainty.” It was “the work of Satan”. Later some of the leaders of Christian thought came to hold:
“In her (India’s) literature, philosophy, art and regulated life there is much
that is worthless, much also that is distinctly unhealthy; yet the treasure of
knowledge, wisdom and beauty which they contain are too precious to be lost.”
(Hymns of the Tamil Saivite Saints, Eds, F. Kingsbury & G.F. Phillips. Editorial preface).
The next attitude was:
“Other religions are broken lights; Christianity is the perfect and complete light.
Other religions are preparations for the reception of Christianity. Christianity is
the fulfillment. Christ is the crown of Hinduism.”
A newer and more tolerant outlook is now gaining ground regarding different religions as ‘legitimate’, just as different types of human language are legitimate products of local conditions; but the attitude still maintains a sense of superiority: This reminds one of the Englishman’s remarks about the language of the Americans: “They speak the same language as we do, but not as well”. “You speak what our cousins in America call English!” Something of this snobbishness is still there among the best of the Christian missionaries in India, but the spirit of universalism is undoubtedly at work.
This is partly true also of the Muslims who came as conquerors and finally settled in the land. In spite of occasional outbursts of fanaticism, the militant faith of Islam, too, has become somewhat toned down. Under its influence of universalism, the Moghul emperor Akbar attempted to lay the foundations of a new, broad and eclectic religion. He declared:
“Each person according to his condition gives the Supreme Being
a name, but in reality to name the unknowable is vain.”
His son Jehangir held that the science of Vedanta is the science of Sufism or the mysticism of Islam. Dara Shuko, a grandson of Jehangir, acknowledged the universal spirit of Islam and Hinduism and was instrumental in having the Upanishads translated into Persian. This was later on translated into a jargon of Latin, Greek and Persian, and drew the admiration of the German philosopher Schopenhauer, who declared:
“That incomparable book stirs the spirit to the very depths of the soul.
It has been the solace of my life; it will be the solace of my death.”
(Quoted by Prof. Max Muller. The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy).
Muslim fanatics destroyed many Hindu and Buddhist temples and converted many persons by force, but still, the Hindus, on the whole, continued to allow them and others perfect freedom of worship. In this connection what Abdul Razak, the Persian Muslim ambassador to the Hindu court at Calicut, South India, wrote about the middle of the 15th century, is very revealing:
“The people of (Calicut) are infidels; consequently I consider myself to
be in an enemy country, as the Mohammedans consider every one who
has not received the Qur’an. Yet I admit I meet with perfect toleration
and even favour; we have two mosques and are allowed to pray in public.”
(Quoted by S. Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religion and Western Thought).
Minds conditioned with pre-conceived notions of what religion is or should be may find it difficult to comprehend the Hindu attitude that Spiritualism is something more, in fact, infinitely more, than that of toleration. It is the acceptance of all religions as true, of the fact that God can and should be realized through as many paths as possible, that its real essence lies. This echo of the Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Religion), encompassing the Voices of all religions – in its very universality and loftiness – has a lasting appeal for us all.
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