SCIENTIST astronaut Helen Sharman always remembers the Earth the way it really is when viewed from space: “You can’t see the political boundaries, and it’s actually a very tiny place where everything is interconnected.” But on the ground we see all kinds of boundaries. Law professor Shad Saleem Faruqi, reflecting on the past decade, laments that “bigoted racial and religious ideology” has become mainstream.
Hardline religiosity is roasting a swath of nations from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal, engulfing West Asia and South Asia. The heat is near our shores, but we are too busy kicking each other’s sand castles to notice the growing danger. We quarrel over December greetings, calligraphic writing, and lunar decorations – little sparks that arise from narrow defensive attachment to communal identities.
When religious faith becomes a ring-fence separating us from unbelievers, we need to ask: How do we share the Earth with them? First, who are the unbelievers? Are they religious adherents whose beliefs differ from yours? If you reject their beliefs, that makes you a die-hard unbeliever in their eyes.
The Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita offers frank advice: “Abandon all dharmas (narrow, sectarian religions) and take refuge in Me alone.” It’s a call to dismantle the ring-fences isolating communities from one another and to keep the space open. Modern open-plan office layouts have moved in this direction by replacing private rooms with low-height partitions. This has greatly improved staff interactions and strengthened their understanding of each other’s roles. Open plan is not to be confused with hot-desking, as that is a different concept meant for gig workers.
Unlike these open-plan floor designs, religions are still operating like 19th century office spaces with rows of private rooms and snooty aloofness. Although working for the same almighty boss and with the same heavenly objectives, religions behave like managers who are not on talking terms with other managers despite being on the same floor.
The problem is our communal ego. We take absolutist verses in scripture to mean that God intends one specific religion and a singular person to be the sole vehicle for human salvation. Thus, in the ordering of society we ensure that our religion occupies the penthouse. Likeable religions are placed on the ground floor, and religions that we dislike are treated as squatters.
The absolutist phrase “take refuge in Me alone” could also be interpreted to make Hinduism the supreme religion centred on Krishna, but yogis interpret the absolutism here as referring to the ever-living all-pervading inner reality.
While Krishna says “take refuge in Me alone,” Jesus says “no one comes to the Father except through Me.” Doesn’t it strike you that they are referring to the same absolute reality that each is personifying, ie, giving a human face to the infinite Light?
There is a third scripture that names one major religion as “the only true faith in the sight of God.” How should you interpret that verse? It’s easy to get it wrong unless you know that all scriptures carry the same message but call it by different names. The Buddhist scripture Dhammapada says of the Eightfold Path and the four Noble Truths – “This is the only Way. There is none other for the purity of vision. Go on this path!” To interpret this verse correctly, read it alongside another saying of the Buddha: “If you find truth (in any religion, philosophy or science), then accept that truth (without any prejudice).”
In the 2020s decade, we need to put a brake on religiosity and move towards spirituality. Religiosity is seriously failing by entangling humanity in communal factionalism, playing up supremacist feelings that ignite hostility. Spirituality, meanwhile, recognises inner universal meanings behind absolutist verses in scripture and cherishes religious diversity as multiple facets of truth.
Which path shall you take? The path of factionalism or the path of universalism, the path of divisive religiosity or the path of unitive spirituality? Be like Sharman, the astronaut. Get rid of the boundaries in your mind just as you get rid of all rooms, walls and doors in your open-plan office. The more inclusive you are, the more likely you will find God.
The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: email@example.com