satyasya yoniṁ nihitaṁ ca satye
satyasya satyam ṛta-satya-netraṁ
satyātmakaṁ tvāṁ śaraṇaṁ prapannāḥ
We take shelter of You, whose very essence is truth: You, who are true to your vow, who value the truth above all, who are the unchanging truth that pervades past, present and future. You are the womb of truth; You are hidden in all truth; You are the very Truth that makes all truth true. You are the eye of truth in the cosmic law. (BhP 10.2.26)First I would like to thank the organizers of the conference, in particular Jodh Singh and Paramvir Singh, and Jaspreet Kaur Sandhu, but everyone else also. It has been a most enjoyable and gratifying experience to be so warmly received as a guest here at Punjabi University, Patiala.
Furthermore, I would like to thank all the speakers who shared their thoughts on this important topic. I will not be able to list them all for fear of putting some first and some later. Suffice it to say that I have been a gainer by hearing them all, attentively or inattentively, simply by imbibing their spirit. In particular, I am grateful for having the opportunity to get a better understanding of the Sikh point of view. I must say, though, that this morning’s session looked particularly lively and I feel that I missed a lot by not knowing more than a few words of Punjabi.
On behalf of Mahamandaleshwar Swami Sri Veda Bharati, I therefore extend an invitation to all of you to come at some time to Swami Ram Sadhak Gram in Rishikesh so that you can experience the peace of meditation in a sacred environment. This is the only way we can adequately return a fraction of the kindnesses you have extended to us.
I would further like to encourage the various departments of Punjabi University to go on with this kind of endeavor. Improved interreligious dialogue is nowhere more needed than in a multilinguistic, multicultural and multifaith nation like India, and the study of comparative religion and the bringing together of different voices from the various communities is a progressive step that can only have auspicious results.
Like all human phenomena, religion grows, matures and becomes more productive as a result of interaction with those who are different. One defines oneself through recognizing the similarities and differences with others. All learning comes through this process, anvaya-vyatirekābhyām.
(1) May Truth be ever victorious
I would now like to make a few comments on my experience of this conference. I will speak as a religious person from both the perspective of my own tradition and my experience as an academic student of religion. The famous verse I quoted at the beginning of this talk is taken from the Bhāgavata Purāna and I think it would have been appreciated by Mohandas Gandhi, the father of this nation.
Indeed, on his inspiration, India’s national motto is taken from the Upanishads, the wonderful mahā-vākya, satyam eva jayate. “Only truth is victorious.”
satyena panthā vitato deva-yānaḥ
yenākramanty ṛṣayo hy āpta-kāmā
yatra tat satyasya paramaṁ nidhānam
Truth alone is victorious, and never falsehood. Through truth evolves the path leading to divinity. The seers transcended by following this path, attaining all desires, arriving there where Truth resides in all its fullness. (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.6)And it is from this point of view that I would like to make my comments.
(2) Faith: The essential standpoint of religion is that of optimism.
In the endeavor of achieving world peace, if we are not optimistic, then everything is lost. Religious faith means taking an optimistic attitude to human life. Or it should be. Whether this is expressed through a belief in the ultimate beneficence of God or the transformability of human nature, the end result is to state that life is worth living and that an ideal society can be achieved.
Any religion that is pessimistic about human nature, about the purpose of life or the destiny of humankind, individually or collectively, is not true religion. And I make this remark here: Whether the religion is “this-worldly” or “other-worldly” in its orientation, it is making an optimistic statement about the ultimate ends and goals of human existence, even if it may be pessimistic about the results of what it ascertains as being wrong ways of living.
One source of that optimistim is the belief that we are all one. The position of the believer is that everyone, atheist or believer, is in the same truth matrix, if you like. kim atad vastu rūpyatām? What is there that lies outside of God?
In the view of the Bhagavad-gita, this means that every sincere seeker of truth, even one who has lost his way, is still somewhere, somehow connected to God.
ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ
I reward all beings in accordance to the way that they surrender to Me. Everyone follows My path in all respects. (Gita 4.11)Now when we engage in religious dialogue, this indicates that there is a certain faith that all those who have traditionally sought the truth through the different religious paths have had insight to this Truth, even if they may have lost their way from time to time due to the pressures of what a Christian would call their fallen condition or propensity for sin, or the Hindu would call the gunas or Maya, and someone else might call “the Deceiver.”
Dr. Chahal talked about “the failure of religion,” but I think that most of us gathered here would say that to talk of the failure of religion is erroneous. The failure is one of humanity under the influence of subjection to the material nature, and not of Truth itself. It is a failure to see the Truth, not a failure of Truth. And all endeavors know countless failures on their way to success. And each small success – of any kind – is a step towards the Truth.
As such, we are, in a sense, believing that the various paths of religion have found or provided answers to the problems of human life, having had not one or two, but many successes in their search for the Truth; and what we seek to do in dialogue is to share notes in order to create a common front against those forces that deny the religious or spiritual approach wholesale.
Here, too, we are faced with the basic challenge of being able to demonstrate, by our success in this endeavor, the validity of our basic premise. If we cannot find a modus vivendi amongst ourselves, we undermine the very premise of the religious or spiritual approach to life in general.
(3) Separating the Essence from the Ephemeral
As a result of the last 300 years of history, since the European “enlightenment," modern rationality has been steadily deconstructing God and religion. The result is that religion's traditional place in many areas has slowly been eroded.
So much so that one Christian theologian coined the phrase “God of the gaps” to indicate that God was less and less capable of serving as an explanation for anything, or as a solution for any problems in life, and had even ceased serving as a source of entertainment! As such, religion had retreated into those few areas that science could not explain, and for most people, the big questions of where life comes from and what it is for become less and less important as the immediate needs and stresses of life become more prominent. This receding domain of the Divine is a matter of concern to many, but need it be?
The deconstruction of religion by sociologists, psychologists, students of comparative religion or the history of religions, etc., are all serving the cause of religion by helping us to separate its essential elements from the non-essential. This is the ongoing process of the via negativa, which is the rational obverse of the intuitive path provided by faith and revelation. These could also be called the paths of parā and aparā vidyā mentioned in the Upanishads (Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, 1.1.4, etc.). The Bhāgavata also says,
etāvad eva jijñāsyaṁ
yat syāt sarvatra sarvadā
Someone who is inquisitive about the truth of the Self should inquire through both direct (anvaya) and indirect (vyatireka) processes as far as this, the Truth that exists always and everywhere. (BhP 2.9.36)Looking for the God of the gaps is actually a desirable procedure, because what it is really about is finding the God of the essences.
(4) Truth and Science
Dr. Chahal, again, spoke of a compatibility of Sikhism with the scientific outlook. I have heard representatives of most religions make this claim at one time or another. They do so in the hope avoiding accusations of irrationality.
A small distinction needs to be made between the function of religion and the function of science, both of which seek to know truth. In this it may be said that religion and science share a common goal. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist and cosmologist, though an avowed atheist, talks about “knowing the mind of God.”
What this indicates is that science also has a kind of faith. It is a faith in the rationality of the universe, the intelligibility of its laws, and also, ultimately, in its integrity as a whole. In other words, a oneness to which we all belong.
When the Upanishads claim that understanding God means understanding everything, yasmin vijñāte sarvam evaṁ vijñātaṁ bhavati, that does not mean that one can learn quantum mechanics by sitting in a cave and praying or meditating. But on the other hand, the scientist who knows quantum mechanics has still – admittedly even to him – only seen the barest fragment of God’s splendor.
Nowadays scientists talk about a “theory of everything,” a global understanding of the laws of nature. Very optimistic too, they also talk about “anticipatory materialism,” as though they expect that the empirical endeavor will soon (!) achieve a comprehensive understanding of all things, to the point of creating life and so on. This is, of course, hubris on the one hand and a basic misunderstanding of the very concept of infinity on the other - infinity itself being a scientific concept.
We need not discuss this here, but let us say that science is essentially, as Dr. Chahal quoted Einstein, lame unless it has the insights of faith. On the other hand, if religion without science is blind, the dialogue with science has and will put pressure on religion to examine its fundamentally held cosmological beliefs, etc., which are often mythological in nature, and revise their attitudes towards them. Do they have the resources to do so?
Science has the power to establish a common world view about most phenomena, or at least to change the nature of the discussion about these phenomena. Where competing mythologies do battle, science can arbitrate.
At the very least, the onus is on the religious systems to find a way to make religious beliefs and practices accessible and meaningful to people who have been educated in the scientific world view.
(5) Religion as a science (or art) of life
By the same token, in the social sciences, there is an even stronger critique of religion that has far-reaching ramifications for the understanding of the functions of religion and spirituality, both for society and the individual. Here, science is not simply a challenge to religion because of its explanatory power, it is also a challenge in its prescription for the good life.
This kind of dialogue was hinted at by Dr. Swaraj Singh when he pointed to the necessity for dialog with atheist philosophers. Here again, the search for truth is the common trait.
The prominent contemporary guru from Bangalore, Ravi Shankar, talks about the “art of living.” Psychologists, social scientists, political theorists, etc., also strive for prescriptions for the good life without resorting to religion specifically as a necessary factor in that life. They may recognize some para-religious features—a sense of purpose, belief, optimism, even rituals, etc.—but will try to cultivate these independently of specifically religious ritual or belief.
The challenge here is that those who are religiously oriented often say, as we have heard several times here, that science is capable of improving the material quality of life, but not of curing the spiritual malaise. In this respect, I would say, science has not yet given up the fight.
And the fact of the matter is that in many respects, the changing way of life in modern societies, which is characterized by increased education, prosperity and health, increased freedom of choice, independence, the capacity to experiment with life in ways that would have been unthinkable in the traditional societies where most religions had their origin and development, have unquestionably increased the overall happiness quotient for most people.
This is not to diminish the basic truth of most spiritual paths, which draw a distinction between spiritual and material happiness. That the spiritual search can add further value to the degree of happiness is something that we hold to be self-evident. But the freedom to choose or discover one’s own path through personal investigation and experimentation is a sine qua non of the modern approach to life. We may blame this freedom for bringing new stresses, but it is not only necessary for real human growth, it is in its very self a most important source of happiness.
So the question here is this: What are we really trying to do when we talk about "saving religion"? Oftentimes, I think, people are really talking about conserving traditional morality and social order, the preservation of traditions that have outlived their usefulness, and so on. In particular, this often seems to mean that traditional sexual moralities and the keeping of women in their place are the very baseline on which religious leaders define their battle with modernity.
Whether this is a worthwhile battle, whether sexual morality is the essence of religious life, is something that needs to be decided, partly through this kind of dialogue, but certainly it is one that must be engaged in with great humility and awareness of the last century of progress in the social emancipation of women. And it must be done with the full participation of women themselves. And I thank Deepali Bhanot for drawing our attention to these issues and the importance of full equality being given to women's voices in the entire project of interfaith dialogue.
We are all engaged in experiments with Truth. The self-examination required here is about how different religious approaches are affected by these kinds of social changes and whether it is possible to adapt to them. But the core of the question is whether we, as religious people, are furthering the cause of happiness or subverting it. If religions are not making people happier, or as said earlier, at least giving them optimism and courage in the struggle for life, then it is failing in its primary mission.
(6) The possibility of evolution.
Although it is not possible to go into a discussion of the manifold findings in the history of religions, one thing that simply has to be stated is that religions also change. Like any living organism, they adapt or die. Hinduism, in its long history, has undergone such startling transformations that it is hard to see how anyone can claim a single, unchanging Vedic revelation. But, by the same token, there has been monumental historical change in most religions, major or minor. These changes arise from contact with opposing forces. Some of those forces, specific to the modern world, which are being faced by all religions, have been named above.
(a) What do we do when there is a conflict between truths?
Are the elements there in our religion by which we can make the jump to new ideas or not? Most religions nowadays want to make the claim that they are compatible with science, but when there is a conflict between these truths and those of our historical revelation, can we reinterpret our texts and traditions, abandoning those aspects of our sacred revelation or revered tradition that are undesirable in the light of a revised world view?
And what if one religion has a better insight into the truth than we do? Do we have the collective humility to accept that this is the case, that one insight into the divine truth may be more accurately expressed in one doctrine than in another? Can a Christian say, “Mohammad actually said this better than Christ?” Or a Muslim the reverse?
The Prophet Mohammad said that if the truth be in China, seek it out. Manu says,
vidyām ādadītāvarād api
viṣād apy amṛtaṁ grāhyam
amedhyād api kāñcanam
The person of faith seeks beneficial knowledge even from an inferior, just as one should take the nectar from poison and gold from a filthy place. (Manu 2.238)The point being that if one has faith, he does not fear the source of truth, but learns to recognize it wherever it is found.
(b) We need to face the controversial issues.
In the course of the colloquium, we heard some people express the opinion that the peace process comes from stressing common values alone, and that we should avoid contentious issues as far as possible. However, as stated above, anvaya-vyatirekābhyām, we need to face contentious issues squarely and analyze their character exhaustively.
It has been said that real peace comes through understanding. But we must in fact start with faith, namely we must begin from the point of view of peace. This was the point of meditating in silence together. We must seek out the transcendental common ground each and every time that we sit down to strive for mutual understanding, for attempting to understand means immediately descending into the world of names and forms, and therefore conflict. We must make every effort to strengthen our direct experience of spiritual unity before we attack the world of names and forms.
This leads to the manifestations of spiritual maturity like fearlessness and empathy. Fearlessness was pointed out several times by speakers stressing Guru Nanak’s personal contribution to the art of dialogue. We must be fearless when talking to those of other faiths: dvitīyād vai bhayaṁ bhavati (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka 1.4.2), “Fear comes from the perception of duality or 'other-ness'.”
Experience of and faith in the underlying oneness of God and creation also leads us to a recognition of our capacity to empathize with the other, the indispensable element in all dialogue, as Prof. Kazi Nurul Islam so correctly pointed out.
But all such faith quickly disappears in practical circumstances when we are challenged, physically, verbally or psychologically. This is where difficulties arise. But that is precisely why we must face the controversial interests, to test the universality of our own beliefs. Understanding comes from an exercise of reason, without which faith becomes undermined and weakened.
(c) The need to widen the discussion.
In connection with the above, it is necessary to say the following: Separating the political from the religious is a practical impossibility. As already stated, when we depart from the pure realm of Truth, we enter into that of names and forms. We enter into the world of action, and therefore conflict.
Politics is sometimes called “the art of the possible.” Getting things done in this world is politics. The greater good often means inconvenience for the individual. Since religions exist in the world of humankind, politics are inevitable. Thus even building a temple, church or mosque can be - and factually always is on some level - a political act.
In other words, we cannot say, “That has nothing to do with religion, it is just politics.” Sure, religious identities may be manipulated for political reasons, but our identities are nevertheless connected with religion, i.e., our cherished symbols of the highest ideals and values.
By saying this, I am not approving of the kinds of reactions that rise to the surface in cases like that of the Satanic Verses, or to scholarly works by Wendy Doniger that give openly sexual interpretations of Hindu deities, but it is a recognition that this is an area that requires utmost sensitivity and empathy.
On the other hand, often our own subservience to emotion in such cases is a sign of an insufficient depth of our own understanding, or of the inadequate resolution of subconscious fears. Do attacks on our symbols for the truth justify our divergence from the character of saintliness and truth these symbols presumably impose on us?
Facing the difficult issues therefore means widening the frame of discussion. In this, a Punjabi university with a specific mandate to preserve and study the heritage of this land, the Sikh point of view is naturally emphasized. But if we are primarily speaking to ourselves, then the objective of interfaith dialogue is defeated.
Even so, if we do talk to ourselves only, we should still not only stress the positive points, but be self-analytical and reflective, even confessional. It is important to stress the positive elements, but if we only do that, we risk falling into the trap of collective identity ahankara. Ahankara is a most subtle element. A man may seem humble and reasonable enough among his own kith and kin, but when faced with the “other,” the foreign and strange, he becomes defensive and even violent.
Our failures are as important to recognize as our successes. It is not enough to say, “Our failure is due to failing to recognize our own essence, i.e., our own pristine belief system.” Often it is hard to separate popular understanding of the essence from the transient. And, of course, it is even worse to simply blame the protagonists as if they embodied all evil. There is little to be gained, in terms of our overriding commitment to Truth, in playing the righteous martyr.
Looking to instances from real life political, especially recent, history, and engaging in dialogue with those who are or have been protagonists or antagonists in such conflicts, especially those holding contradictory views, and who we may even suspect of not being sincere interlocutors, is a necessary sign of good faith and good will. Where is the dialogue with someone who only says what I want to hear?
(7) The necessity of practical and direct experience
We have been talking above of knowledge, and I think it is necessary here to talk about the Bhagavad-gita’s insight into the different kinds of knowledge, particularly as they impact on the matter of dialogue.
One of the most important aspects of the Gita’s teachings, discussed in several of its chapters, is the defining of different kinds of activity, faith or belief, according to the three guṇas. The tamo-guṇa is destructive, the rajo-guṇa creative, and the sattva-guṇa stabilizing. Though general principles about these guṇas are described succinctly in the 14th chapter, there are further precisions, especially in the 17th and 18th chapters, that provide a great deal of substance for reflection.
With regard to knowledge, Krishna says:
That knowledge by which one sees the all-in-all in a single manifestation, to which one is unreasonably attached, which is meager and bereft of clear understanding, is called tāmasika. (18.22)These attitudes are furthermore reflected in the way we react and deal with others. The religious person with a predominantly tāmasika psychology will be unable to understand or evaluate the ideas coming from an unfamiliar source. The rājasika person will be able to evaluate them, but is attached to grading them as superior or inferior, etc.
The knowledge by which one knows the various categories of nature in all things, seeing them as divided and different, is said to be rājasika. (18.21)
That knowledge by which one sees a single irreduceable essence in all things, which is undivided despite the appearance of division, is said to be in the mode of sattva. (18.20)
The Bhāgavata-purāṇa further makes it quite clear that these categories apply universally to the practice of all religions. The transformation of the devotee is from the narrow and exclusive focus on God in the ritually sacred to the experience of the Divine in all things. It repeatedly condemns the bhinna-dṛk, the “separatist,” as being on a lower level of experience and understanding. In terms of actions, in the materially afflicted modes of religiosity, the tendency to contaminate all dealings with destructive attitudes or personal motivations is unavoidable.
Furthermore, these attitudes apply both to the religious and the scientific person. But if we are to seek a general approach, we must say that the truly positive and fruitful perspective is that of the sāttvika person, especially where dialogue is concerned. Moreover, like cool air mixing with the warm, the presence of sāttvika persons transforms the very atmosphere and the passions of the less spiritual, further increasing the likelihood of fruitful dialogue.
As such, the following conclusion can be made, based on the aforesaid considerations: Our fundamental faith position must be sāttvika, for as soon as we enter into the realm of names and forms, we will immediately be challenged by the rājasika and tāmasika aspects of our personalities. And everyone in this world must admit to the admixture of these qualities in their own character as a fact of existence.
The only way to resolve this quandary when we are in the dialogue situation is to strengthen the sāttvika tendencies through the practical application of silent meditation techniques. Through such meditation, we quieten the rājasika and tāmasika tendencies of the mind and body and make it possible to experience at least a reflection of the underlying divine nature. Silence is important, inasmuch as prayer or other verbally or physically expressed prayers or rituals immediately awaken intellectual resistances from the rajo- and tamo-gunas.
The stronger this common experience is, the easier it becomes to withstand the challenges that arise when faced with conflicting experiences or expressions of the religious life. Moreover, the experience of silence brings new insight and perceptiveness into one’s own traditional expressions and forms, making it possible for creativity in interfaith and intercultural understanding.
This is why we exhort everyone who is engaging in any kind of dialogue to begin and end with a guided practice of meditation that promotes the direct experience of unity, beyond sentimental and pious expressions
(8) Taking the Long Term View
Gandhi often said that it would only take a few genuine satyagrahis to accomplish the miracle of Indian independence. But what is most interesting about Gandhi is that he never truly considered Indian independence as the goal of his Satyagraha Movement. He saw Indian independence as a kind of truth statement, a necessity in the inevitable march towards Truth. But he never considered it something to be attained at the cost of truth, or love, which he considered to be practically speaking interchangeable.
Today, there are many in India who reject Gandhi because they feel that he failed to achieve so many of his stated goals, and that some of his methods also appear to have ended in results contrary to his aims—Partition being just one of them. The thing is that Gandhi was a true follower of the Gita and he recognized that the means and the goals one achieves are directly related. The meaning of the mūla-sūtra of karma-yoga, which calls on us to act with detachment to the results (Gita 2.47) means simply that, in principle, no matter how noble our intentions we should never compromise the ethical character of the means we adopt if we hope to obtain a result that has long term integrity. Gandhiji said,
The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. I am not likely to obtain the result flowing from the worship of God by laying myself prostrate before Satan. If, therefore, anyone were to say, "I want to worship God; it does not matter that I do so by means of Satan," it would be set down as ignorant folly. We reap exactly as we sow. (Hind Swaraj, chapter 16)The fact is that we are all short-termists. That is the very definition of the conditioned state. We naturally want peace, love and happiness and a perfect world. But these are what I call a “vanishing point,” i.e., an ideal that appears like the horizon on the limits of consciousness, something that we continue eternally to approach, but never really attain. And yet we still want these goals without paying their real cost.
For instance, it is clear to most of us that destroying the enemy without never results in peace within. In fact, our enemies tend only to return in other forms, especially if they represent the Truth, or if they are falsehoods that are still present in ourselves. The truest peace process only comes through the expansion of inner peace.
Religion in the service of short term goals – at any level – is never religion, at least not sāttvika religion. Because God is infinite, because the Truth is unfathomable, I called the long-term goal of religion a vanishing point. But that does not make it the less valid. We do not say that science is invalid because it has yet to answer all the questions that need answering. In fact, every scientist knows that one answer begets many more questions. We may never consider religion or spirituality a failure as it is the ongoing experiment of human life, the human project in its totality.
To think in the short term is a failure to understand the magnitude of the task. To understand the totality of Truth is not something that can be achieved in one day, one lifetime or one generation. It is the task that humanity in its entirety undertakes, by its very humanity, for as long as it exists, This is precisely why the adventure must be seen in the long term.
So let us do our bit to furthering the cause, principally by taking the guidance of our gurus in the cause of Divine Truth and Love. And I think that in the case of India, whose motto pays homage to Gandhi’s commitment to Truth and Love, we are blessed to be beholden to that vision. Let us honor that commitment by following it, no matter what our individual path of faith. Thank you.