Co-existence of Religions, Pluralism and Cultural Diversity - D. R. Kaarthikeyan

Posted: 16.12.2008
Updated on: 30.07.2015

2nd Plenary Session

8176422523I consider it a great privilege to be participating in the 7th International Conference on Peace and Nonviolent Action and to be speaking on the subject of “Co-existence of Religions, Pluralism and Cultural Diversity.”

I should confess that the ideas and even most of the words contained in this article/speech are borrowed from great thinkers around the world. My own thoughts and belief have always been in tune with the expressions in this article.

There is perfect harmony in creation. There is diversity, but there is an underlying harmony everywhere in every being: Harmony between the Body, Mind and Soul; harmony between the individuals; between the human beings and other life forms and between nature and us.

That is how the universe was created to be. We are created to think and live in harmony with the Universe. But do we have harmony in our lives, between our own Body, Mind and Soul; with others; with nature and between the nations?

“Vasudaiva Kutumbakam” - ‘all creation is one family’ says our ancient scripture. All life is sacred; all living beings are products of evolution; in creation everything has a divine purpose and they all have the right to exist.

Where and how did we lose this harmony?

Due to advancement in science and technology and tremendous increase in communications, the world has shrunk into a Global Village and human beings have come closer together. Yet the psychological distance between man and man has been increasing.

Development, without getting anchored on spiritual, ethical and human bases has resulted in distortions and disruptions in society.

Even with the invention and manufacture of more and more increasingly destructive weapons of mass destruction, man is not feeling more secure.  In fact, for the first time in human history, man has acquired the capacity to destroy himself and all other forms of life on this planet - not once but many times over.  Today, all nations, in fact, all beings, are living in constant fear for each other as never before.

During the last century over a hundred million people have been killed in wars and conflicts.  Most of these were fought in the name of defending Peace, Harmony, God or Religion.

The founders of none of the religions preached violence; they never preached hatred.  It is over a period of time distortions and aberrations have crept in, either out of ignorance or out of selfishness.  Some religious fanatics, who wanted to dominate, confused their gullible followers and created all the differences.

So, when we talk about spirituality, we are talking about the religions as they were founded by their Founders.  They were totally spiritual; later on they became involved in a lot of unwanted rituals and impurities. 

A society with compassion for others, which cares for others, is a spiritual, ethical and moral society.  Such a society will not allow political, social, economical discrimination, exploitation or injustice, which is a major cause of all the crime and movements of terrorism, insurgency and extremism.

Since religion is a vital force in men’s lives, how can there be peace in the world unless the different religions show mutual respect and work for the common good of humanity? In the past, religions have produced both good and bad results.

There are enough religions in the world today to give men the incentive to hate one another, but there is not enough of the religious spirit to inspire them to love one another. Indeed, religious intolerance has made many turn away from religion and seek solace in an ethical life, or in philanthropic work, or in the study of science and the humanities.

The Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 envisioned the harmony of religions and unity of humankind. One hundred years have passed, yet the dream of unity and harmony continues to prove elusive. Religious intolerance and misunderstanding keep the world divided and stand in the way of a harmonious world culture. Wherever we look, we find pain and suffering, disunity and despair. The acts of hatred and violence, committed in the name of God and religion, are disgraces of human history. The need for unity and mutual understanding has never been greater than it is today. We live in a world, which is neither Eastern nor Western, where every one of us is heir to all of civilization. The vision of a new world order requires a new world outlook, based upon respect for and understanding of other religious traditions.

Addressing the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, Swami Vivekananda said,


“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”


In his concluding address at the Parliament, he further said:


“Upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not Fight”, ‘Assimilation and not destruction’, Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.’


But today, even after 115 years, the world is divided and threatened as never before due to religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.  Most of the major conflicts of the last century resulting in killing of over 100 million people can be traced to wars fought in the name of religion, God and peace.

Even today the root of most of the present major conflicts can be traced to religious fanaticism, intolerance and hatred. There are over 30,000 nuclear weapons and even explosion of few of them can destroy all forms of life on the planet. If such a catastrophe should happen, it will be very likely due to religious fundamentalism.

But no religion ever preached violence or hatred.

To quote Swami Nikilananda:


Ultimate reality, according to Vedanta, is Brahman, or the spirit, which is devoid of name, form, or attributes; and in the relative universe the highest manifestation of Brahman is the Personal God, who is worshipped under different names and forms by Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. A passage in one of the Hindu scriptures says: ‘Though without parts or attributes, Brahman assumes forms for the welfare of the spiritual seekers.’ The Personal God leads devotees to the realization of the spirit. Though Buddhism does not officially recognize the Person God, yet in actual practice the attitude of Buddhists towards Buddha is not very different from that of the votaries of other religions toward their respective prophets or saviours.


The Bhagavad Gītā says that people under the compulsion of desires, following their own natures, worship other deities with suitable rituals. The supreme God does not frown upon such worship; on the contrary, He deepens their faith in their respective ideals and enables them to obtain the object of their desires.

Jesus Christ proclaimed that in his Father’s house there are many mansions, and to emphasize the statement, added that he would not have said so if it were not true.

Swāmī Vivekananda said that a man does not progress from error to truth, but from truth to truth - more correctly, from lower truth to higher truth. A man’s spiritual life and method of worship are determined by his inner evolution.

Hinduism, both at its source and during the period of its subsequent development, exhibits a remarkable spirit of catholicity. As early as the time of the Rig-Veda it was said: ‘Reality is one; sages call it by various names.’

The Upanishads say:


May He, the One without a second, who, though formless produces by means of His manifold powers various forms without any purpose of His own; may He from whom the universe comes into being at the beginning of creation and to whom it returns in the end - endow us with good thoughts.


The Upanishads further say:


As flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their names and forms, so a wise man, freed from names and forms, attains Brahman, who is greater than the great.


One cannot distinguish a Hindu from a Muslim, or a Christian from a Jew, when they are absorbed in the infinite spirit. One sees differences only on a lower level, but from the summit all distinctions disappear.

That the non-dual spirit is worshipped under different names is reiterated by Hinduism. Here is a text from a Hindu scripture: ‘May the Lord of the universe, the remover of evil- whom the devotees of Siva worship as Śiva, the Vedāntists as Brahman, the Buddhists as Buddha [and we may add, the Christians as the Father in heaven, the Jews as Jehovah, the Moslems as Allah], the followers of the Nyāya philosophy who are clever in logic as the Divine Agent, those devoted to the Jain doctrines as Arhat, the ritualists of the Mīmāṁsā Schools Karma - grant us all the desires of our hearts.’

That all paths lead to the same goal is emphasized in the following hymn: ‘Different are the paths laid down in the Vedas, in Saṅkhya, in Yoga, and in the Śaiva Vaiṣṇava scriptures. Of these, some people regard one and some another as the best. Devotees follow these diverse paths, according to their different tendencies.

Hinduism itself provides for more than one divine incarnation. A good Hindu shows respect to them all and to those believed in by other religions as well.

One day Ānanda, the foremost disciple of Buddha said to his master that Buddha was the greatest of all the prophets of the past, present, and the future. Thereupon Buddha asked the disciple whether he knew of all the prophets that had been born in the past since the creation, and of all the prophets that would descend on earth in the future till the world came to an end, and even whether he knew of all the godlike men who were living in different parts of the earth at the present time. Ānanda was ashamed of his dogmatism.

According to Hinduism, no prophet is unique in the sense that he is the greatest of all. All receive their message from the one source and present it to men to suit their particular needs. In the teachings of Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, and Moses one may see apparent differences due to the peculiar requirements of the people whom these prophets taught. But in their communion with reality they all experienced the same goodness, beauty and truth. The common inner experiences of prophets are not noticed by their followers; the apparent external differences in their teachings account for much of religious quarrelling and controversy.

The harmony of religion found its most vivid expression through the spiritual experiences of Ramakrishna. This saint of modern India practiced all the dualistic and non-dualistic disciplines of Hinduism and always arrived at the same state of God-consciousness. He pursued the teachings of Christ and Mohammed, and attained the same spiritual goal. One noticeable feature of his spiritual practices is that when he followed a particular path, he became completely absorbed in it and forgot everything else. While pursuing Islamic disciplines, he ate, dressed, and acted like a Moslem, removed the pictures of the Hindu deities from his room, and stopped going to Hindu temples. Thus he taught from actual experience, and not from mere bookish knowledge, that all religions are but different paths to reach the same goal. He also taught that a devotee of any faith need not give up his own rituals or beliefs, for he will certainly realize God with their help if he is sincere.

Sri Ramakrishna often described different religious experiences as different melodies of music. On another occasion, addressing some members of a religious sect who believed only in a formless God, he said:


We are all calling on the same God. Jealousy and malice need not be. Some say God is formless, and some that God has forms. I say, let one man meditate on God with form, if he believes in form, and let another, if he does not believe in any form, meditate on the formless Deity. What I mean is that dogmatism is not good. It is not good to feel that my religion alone is true and other religions are false. The correct attitude is this: my religion is right, but I do not know whether other religions are right or wrong, true or false. I say this because one cannot know the true nature of God unless one realizes Him.


God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times and countries. All doctrines are so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths; with whole-hearted devotion.

If there are errors in other religions, that is none of your business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that. The view that you hold is good indeed.


Why are there so many religions?

Different religions are differing forces in the economy of God; all working for the good of mankind; as we cannot destroy any force in nature, so we cannot destroy any of these spiritual forces. Different faiths are necessary to suit the diversity of human temperaments. Some men are emotional, some rational, some introspective, some active; again, there are those who wish to contemplate an abstract ideal, and those who wish to worship through concrete symbols. If there were only one religious discipline, there would be no hope for those who did not respond to it. Hence it is fortunate that there are many religions instead of only one, as many would prefer to have it. The greater the number of religions, the more chances people will have to satisfy their spiritual hunger.

If there are different restaurants in a city, everyone will have an opportunity to choose the food that is most suited to his taste and requirement. People can get the same nourishment from rice, bread, or potatoes; the same illumination comes from lamps of different shapes, and the same white milk from cows of different colours. Religion will not have fulfilled its mission until every man has evolved his own religion, revealing to him his unique relationship with its Creator. If only one religion remained in the world, religion would be dead; variation is the sign of life, and always will be. Thinking beings must differ; difference is the first sign of thought. A thoughtful person prefers to live among other thoughtful persons, for the clash of thought stimulates new thinking. The very fact that all the great religions have survived till today proves that their utility is not gone. The religions of the world are not really contradictory or antagonistic; they are complementary. There is, in fact, no such thing as your religion or my religion, your national religion or my national religion; there is only one universal religion, of which all the so-called different faiths are but different manifestations. God is often described in Hinduism as the wish-reflecting gem. In Him everyone finds a reflection of his own ideal of truth, goodness, and beauty.

The different religions emphasize different facets of the supreme reality. Islam, perhaps more than any other religion, stands for the brotherhood of men among its own devotees. With the Moslems there are no social distinctions. It is inspiring to read about the pilgrimage of the Moslems to Mecca. There hundreds of thousands of the faithful discard their differing dress, whether of prince, ordinary citizen, or beggar, put on the seamless white garment which makes the chieftain indistinguishable from the shepherd, and proceed to the holy shrine to declare their surrender to almighty Allah. Before God all Moslems are equal.

With the Christians the central idea is: ‘Watch and pray, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ - which means, purify your minds and be ready for the coming of the Lord. And one cannot but admire the love of God, which innumerable Christians show through love of men, to whose service they devote their time, energy, and material resources. The idea of ‘sharing’ is perhaps the most striking feature of Christianity in practice.

Judaism has clung to the idea of God’s power and justice, and the Jewish people with dauntless patience have faced the ordeals and sufferings through which they have passed for two thousand years without losing their faith in God’s power and justice.

Buddhism teaches how to attain peace through renunciation and service. In these days of selfishness and competition, it is a joy to see Buddhist monk serving people with infinite love and infinite compassion, as taught by their prophet.

Hinduism makes the realization of God, who is both within and without, the central fact of life. Thousands of Hindus are willing, even today, to renounce everything - including the world itself - to experience the reality of God.

Thus the different religions are like different photographs of the same building from different angles; but all of them are genuine pictures. Though people with vessels of different sizes go to a lake and carry away water, which takes the form of the vessels, it is all the authentic water of the lake. And after all the vessels have been filled, the lake still appears to contain the same amount of water. None can exhaust the infinite power, beauty, love, and goodness of God.


Where do religions agree?

In so far as religions belong to the realm of men’s inmost soul, there are many remarkable similarities between them. The inner experience is the same everywhere; only the outer expressions are different, as determined by time and place. The end and aim of all religions is the realization of God; realization of one’s own divine potential, though the methods of realization may differ. The scriptures of the different religions merely point out different means to the attainment of freedom and universal love.

Rituals, mythology, and philosophy, are necessary factors in religious growth. Like husks, they protect the kernel of religious truth. The kernel is the essential part of a seed, but without the husk it cannot germinate. When the sprout appears the husk drops away. As one begins to dive deep in search of God, the non-essentials of ritual, mythology, and philosophy are discarded.

All the religions are complementary and not to competitive. Saints and mystics have flourished in all religions; some such personalities have not belonged to any organized religion.

The nearer we are to God, the closer we shall feel toward other religions. The farther we move from God, the greater will seem the difference between one religion and another. In God we all meet. In order to promote religious harmony; let us deepen our religious consciousness. Let us come nearer to God by following our respective faiths, and not by jumping from one faith to another.

Let the Hindu, the Moslem, the Christian, the Jew, emphasize the spirit and not the letter of their scriptures, and then all religious quarrels. Our religious edifice should keep all its windows open so as to permit fresh air from outside to come in; but we must not allow the wind to sweep the edifice off its foundation.

The enemy of Islam is not Hinduism or Christianity; the enemy of Hinduism is not Christianity or Islam. All religions are challenged today by a common enemy; the rising tide of skepticism and secularism. A Christian, to paraphrase the words of the great Historian scholar Arnold Toynbee, can believe in his own religion without having to feel that it is the sole repository of truth. He can love it without having to feel that it is the sole means of salvation. He can take Buddha’s words to heart without feeling that he is disloyal to Jesus Christ. But he cannot harden his heart against Krishna without hardening it against Jesus Christ. The same applies to adherents of every other Faith also. 

There will always remain differences in some rituals and non-essentials of various religions. The world is a complex machine with intricate wheels. Let us try to make it run smoothly; Let us lessen the friction by greasing the wheels, as it were, by recognizing the natural necessity of variation. Truth can be expressed in a hundred thousand ways, and each of these ways is true as far as it goes.

At an International Conference on Sufism - A Road to Peace and Inter-faith Harmonyheld at Lahore, Pakistan (22-24 November 2006), I told the audience that like a gardener enjoying growing plants giving flowers of different colours, sizes and fragrances, God also loves diversity and variety.  If the all-powerful God wanted all religious places to be similar or all his creation to pray similarly, He would have done so. He loves variety and diversity and hence the birth and existence of various religions and practices at different points of time and places. True devotees of any religion cannot attempt to improve upon His own will and creation.

Similarly, I told the International gathering at Lahore that true believers of any religion cannot hate or harm followers of other religions, as ultimately it is the all-merciful God who has created all beings on the planet.                     

The masters and preachers of various religions have a tremendous responsibility in the promotion of harmony of religions and world peace. They must, in their preaching and teachings, emphasize the common truths basic to all religions and play down the differences that may have crept in the form of rituals.

What the society today needs is, “not destruction, but fulfillment”; “not condemnation, but fulfillment”; “not dissension, but harmony”.

I greatly appreciate and thank His Holiness Acharya Shree Mahapragya and ANUVIBHA for organizing this International Conference on Peace and Non- violent action.

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