At the World’s Parliament of Religions, held at Chicago in 1893, Swami Vivekananda quoted a beautiful verse from ancient Hindu scripture, Shiva Mahimna Stotra:
“As different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their waters in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths, which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.” 97
He concluded his address by summarizing the message of his master, Sri Ramakrishna: “Criticize no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your lives that religion does not mean words, or names, or sects, but that it means spiritual realization.”
There are two ideologies in the world today: the ideology of one religion or faith, and the ideology of multiple faiths. The believers in one religion feel strongly that their faith is the only one that leads to spiritual evolution and salvation of man. The believers in multiple faiths have a more open-minded approach and feel that mankind may attain spiritual wisdom through many different paths. There are many gradations of attitude, however, in this second category. Some practice tolerant exclusiveness; they tolerate other beliefs but do not wish any more closeness. Others believe in interfaith dialogue. They maintain a good communication with other faiths. Yet there are those who go beyond that to practice interfaith enrichment: They have a mutual respect for and an interest in learning from other faiths. Inter-religious tolerance is not enough; inter-religious respect is needed.
In modern times, the talk of one religion being superior to other religions is gradually fading. Most don’t accept that one religion is right and another is wrong; they are simply different! As all races of the world are considered to be equal and free, so too are the various religions. The world at large is coming to terms with religious pluralism. It is important to realize and accept the fact that for any individual, his or her own faith is the best; there is simply no point for competition or confrontation among various religions.
There is undoubtedly a growing awareness of the interfaith approach. The youth, especially, appear to be more inclined toward this new direction. In recent times, America and other Western countries have witnessed an unusual phenomenon—many people are not giving up on God, but they are not interested in empty rituals and labels. They see a unity in the diversity of many religions. Hinduism has a unique status in this regard. Its origin itself is suggestive of a conglomeration of many spiritual vistas in the ancient era in the subcontinent of India.
The Hindu concept that the entire world is but one family lays great emphasis on the unity of all religions. At the same time, Hindu seers and saints have distinguished themselves consistently and emphatically in the belief that all different religions, as well as the religious sects, are sacred and must retain their individual identity. The Vedas explain, “Let us have concord with our own people and concord with people who are strangers to us.” 98
Mahatma Gandhi, too, strived all his life for unity among the various religions but not for uniformity. When confronted with failures and insurmountable difficulties, he would often surrender to the Supreme God for guidance, and pray:
“Let us ask for help from God, the All-Powerful, and tell Him that we, His tiny creatures, have failed to do what we ought to do. We hate one another. Let us ask Him to purge our hearts of all hatred in us. Let us ask God in all humility to give us sense, to give us wisdom.” 99
Swami Vivekananda’s participation and his famous speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 have been hailed as a landmark and a turning point in the organization of the interfaith movement. His thundering words truly echo the concepts of Hindu philosophy:
“I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” 100
Paramahansa Yogananda adopted this open-door attitude to great advantage. He founded new and unique meditation centers, which adapted many ideas from the Western style of functioning. The Ramakrishna temples, spread all over America, also embraced a new system to a considerable extent. Devotees sit in comfortable chairs and may enter without removing their shoes; they even have no problem with keeping a picture of Christ in the main worship place. Participating and celebrating in each other’s religious festivities may be a great joy!
For Hindus, interfaith is a sacred heritage. In fact, it is incorporated in the ancient teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads: Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vidanti—there is only one truth; sages call it by different names. This age-old maxim is the intrepid recognition of the plurality of faiths. Sri Ramakrishna said, “As many faiths, so many paths to God, there can never be a single religion for all humanity. Each faith has distinct characteristics and has a definite significance in economy of an enriching divine life.”101
In the ancient period, Emperor Ashoka created the Council of Religions, where representatives of various faiths met and discussed different issues in a cool, deliberate manner. None would be permitted to speak ill about other religions. Hindu sages have also repeatedly professed not to talk pretentiously of other creeds and sects.
A pertinent question is often raised as to what Hinduism has to offer in regard to the emerging concepts of interfaith. Hinduism may be considered as a living link between the ancient tribal system and the organized religions of the later periods. The ancient concept of Mother Earth is also the basic Vedic theme. A unified vision of the world as one family has been ingrained as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Hinduism has thus carried forth the tradition of the early tribal religions, when tolerance of other religions was astonishingly high as compared with the organized religions of the later period. It has been said that in this war-torn age, only the ancient Indian spiritual teaching of unity and harmony can be a true savior.102
Said Sadhu T. L. Vaswani, one of the most prominent saints of the last century:
“There are so many who can believe only one thing at a time. I am so made as to rejoice in the many and behold the beauty of the One in the many. Hence my natural affinity to many religions: in them all I see revelations of the One spirit. And deep in my heart is the conviction that I am a servant of all prophets.” 103
Hinduism was originally formed by the conglomeration of the spiritual wisdom of many ethnic tribal communities of the ancient past. All along its course through millennia, it has retained its pluralistic character with great diversity, by its representation of God in many different forms and names, in its ways of worship, and in its rituals and customs.
At no time has any Hindu saint or leader claimed that Hinduism is the sole way to God. Hindus have generally adopted a soft attitude toward other faiths; in many temples and places of worship, bhajans and hymns, containing the names of other religious messiahs are recited without any demurral. In some places even the pictures or idols of Christ, Buddha, or Guru Nanak are positioned along with Hindu gods without any protest! This is not to say that there are no fanatic elements in the Hindu community; human nature betrays its weakness time and again.
Many non-Hindu world philosophers and scholars, through the ages, have recognized the positive impact of Hindu religion, and even boldly opined that the ancient Hindu teaching of “Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vidanti—there is only one truth; sages call it by different names”, may perhaps help us out of the many conflicts and quarrels grappling the modern world.