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October 31, 2002

Unity in Diversity: The Fundamental Idea Behind All Religions

This world is perceived by us as “me and mine” versus “you and yours”. It is a feeling that percolates all our actions and thoughts.

For instance, when we watch a sporting event on TV, our feelings and emotions and even judgments are coloured by this perception. This is so much in evidence when a cricket match takes place between India and Pakistan. How we root for our team, and wish the other one ill! Even the poor umpire is not spared our wrath if he dares to give a judgment against our favourites. The irony of this animosity towards Pakistan is that until 1947 we were part of one country – how the meaning of “patriotism” changes!

The borders between countries is one major way in which we have divided our world into “mine” and “others”. But in what way are these borders sacrosanct? The Pope had drawn an arbitrary line to divide Latin America into countries, Churchill boasted he could re-create borders by playing around with his pencil, our sub-continent has been divided into “muslim Pakistan” and “hindu India” that leaves more muslims in India than in Pakistan! This applies to borders and divisions that we make within a country too – I am typing this article on the land at Navadarshanam, a land which is situated within the borders of “Tamilnadu”, even though there is not a single Tamil speaking family for miles around!!

Other ways in which we have divided the world into “mine” and “yours” include language, race, religion, culture, caste, colour, habits……. the list goes on and on. This feeling of ‘mine’ versus ‘yours’ is not confined to social stratifications. It percolates down to the family and even individual levels: sibling rivalry, property disputes, divorces and dowry deaths are ample evidence. This feeling of insecurity, if not outright rivalry, with respect to the “other” contaminates even the most loving of relationships. There is the story of a boy and girl who fell madly in love with each other. Their parents bitterly opposed their marriage, but they faced this and many other obstacles with the determination and perseverance that accompanies deep, passionate love. Finally, having overcome all obstacles bravely, they were one day able to get married. On that day, the boy embraced the girl very fondly and whispered to her: “Darling, from today, we are one”. Quietly, in a matching whispering tone, she asked: “Which one?”!!

Especially when we are in a state of confrontation, we are always wishing for victory over the “other”, often even hoping the “other” will be eliminated or just vanish into thin air. And yet, isn’t solitary confinement the worst punishment we can suffer? Herein lies the basic human predicament: that on the one hand we don’t want the “other” to be having his or her piece of cake, but on the other hand we can’t do without the “other” either!! This is the reason why we are always unhappy. Even when materially well-endowed, we look upon the “other” as a threat to our security; and yet, we are absolutely miserable when there is none else around.

The answer to this dilemma has been provided by all those who have attained spiritual heights, whichever age or country or culture they have belonged to. In one voice, they have proclaimed that the notion of the “other” is a falsehood, the real and only impediment to our goal of happiness. They have asserted this on the basis of their personal experience, their communion with the Supreme Power. This Power is that which gives us life, but remains hidden from our physical senses, making us mistake our bodies or minds for our real self. Those who have attained spiritual heights are those who have learnt to awaken the latent senses that are capable of seeing the life within, and this life, they assert, is the same in all of us. As Jalaluddin Rumi put it:

“The lamps are different, but the light is the same;
It comes from beyond.
If you keep looking at the lamp,
Thou are lost.
For thence arises number and plurality.
Fix your gaze upon the Light.”

This “gospel” or good news – that we are, in reality, one - forms the basis of all religion. The Latin roots of the word religion lies in re+legio – reconnecting with the Source. There is only one Source : no religion speaks of their God creating only their section of people, or of different Gods creating different sections of people. Religion teaches us one-ness, in fact it is the only basis on which we can unite all. When we visualize ourselves as separate and fragmented, that is when all bad things arise within us. Christ conveyed this very powerfully:

“The light of the body is the eye. If thine eye be single, thy whole body will be full of light. If thine eye be evil, thy whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness.”

All true religion should lead to this ‘en-lightenment’ that Rumi and Chirst have referred to, which is symbolized in the festival of Deepawali celebrated in our country. Like all mythical literature, the story of Ramayana is an allegorical reference to the process by which this en-lightentment takes place. Deepawali’s true and deeper reference is to the inner light, not to external lamps. The birthplace of Ram being Ayodhya is a very powerful metaphor – a+yodhya (“jahan yudh na ho”) stands for the state of consciousness where no battles rage because there is no ‘number and plurality’, as Rumi put it, in other words, no sense of the “other”. Sita is a reference to our soul, which is estranged from this Ram, and hence caught in this world of duality because she has been kidnapped by Ravana, who is not without qualities, but is – unlike Ram – a victim of ego or the sense of ‘I-ness’, whose natural corollary is the sense of the “other”. Dusssehra takes place when the Ram within is victorious over the Ravana within. Deepawali is always preceded by Dussehra, because victory over this sense of I-ness is a pre-condition to en+lightenment.

When we try to understand our religion (including our festivals and rituals) from this allegorical or mystical angle, we will discover its true worth – a means of overcoming the narrow compartments into which we tend to classify ourselves. If we don’t do so, then religion becomes just one more way to separate ourselves from others. We then lose a fantastic opportunity to understand Life and instead replace it with an excuse to hate or kill other children of the same God who has given birth to us – witness how Ayodhya being treated as a physical space rather than a state of consciousness (a+yodhya) has led to thousands of deaths, or how the real Jerusalem (of the Imagination, as emphasized by Blake) being forgotten is leading the world towards a great disaster in the city we have named Jerusalem.

E.F.Schumacher, the well-known economist, author of ‘Small Is Beautiful’ and the founder of the appropriate technology movement, has dealt with this fundamental reality in his book A Guide for the Perplexed very beautifully. As the title indicates, it is a book addressed to all those who find the social and individual problems of today very perplexing, and are troubled at a deep level by the fundamental question: ‘how should I lead my life?’. Schumacher himself was very troubled in his younger days, and while interested in religion did not find the answers being provided by it as satisfactory. He has described how Dr.Maurice Nicoll when he was young asked his teacher what some parable in the New Testament meant, how confusing the answer was, and how suddenly the young man suddenly realized that the teacher himself did not know! Schumacher was in a similar state for a long time, until Nehru called him to India as a consultant on development matters. As part of that trip, he went to Burma, and during interaction with its Attorney General was very impressed by the calmness and wisdom of the latter’s personality. This attorney general was also a teacher of the system of meditation that in Buddhist literature is known as vipassana, and Schumacher learnt this form of meditation from his new-found friend. He was utterly transformed by this experience. Not only that, through the practice of vipassana he found for himself the answers regarding parables in the Bible that he had been looking for from childhood. The “inner work” that was taught to him as part of the vipassana training did not convert him from a Christian to a Buddhist, but made him into a real Christian. As he put it:

“Inner work, or yoga in its many forms, is not the peculiarity of the East, but the taproot, as it were, of all authentic religions. It has been called the ‘applied psychology of religion’, and it must be said that religion without applied psychology is completely worthless. Simply to believe a religion to be true, and to give intellectual assent to its creed and dogmatic theology, and not to be know it to be true through having tested it by the scientific methods of yoga, results in the blind leading the blind.”

Pir Inayat Khan, the great Sufi teacher of the 20th century, emphasized the same point, and insisted that while we may belong to different religions, we can live only the religion – so if become a good Muslim, we automatically become a good Hindu, a good Christian, a good Jew. Once the centrality of inner work in religious pursuit – any religious pursuit - is accepted, it becomes the means of breaking down all compartments, of eventually effacing the ‘you versus me’ way of looking at this world.

As I write this article, news is just coming in that one Mohammed Afroz, accused by the Mumbai Police of planning an al-Quaida suicide bomb attack on London’s House of Commons, has been granted bail by the judge, but has refused to leave jail because he wants to continue his Yoga course being offered in jail by the “Art of Living” masters. Imagine – someone who is supposedly a hard-core muslim terrorist not taking advantage of a chance to escape from the police’s clutches, just because a yoga course is available in jail! What is so special about such a yoga course? “When I joined al-Qaeda, I was eager to kill myself and others. They had brainwashed me about jehad, promising a lot of money and saying that when I die, I will get jannat”, Afroz is quoted as saying,” I was very confused and disturbed. My sleep was also disturbed. But after doing the Art of Living course, I feel light and settled and sleep calmly. I feel like I have wings”.

Please do not misunderstand me - I have never myself been enrolled in either the vipassana or the Art of Living course, and am in no way trying to sell either of these to my readers. All I am pointing out is to the wonders of “inner work” in general. Therein, in my opinion, is hope – the only hope, really – for our strife-torn world. When people like Afroz will discover that true religion is all about inner work, then the hatred being sown in the name of religion will be replaced by a realization that behind all the diversity that we see around, we are all in reality one, children of the one and only One.

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