Religious Diversity and Truth

Strangely, in the last three weeks I have ended up speaking to at least five people who are a particular kind of Muslims. Being of a Muslim background myself, I perhaps allow them to talk about things they wouldn’t talk about with others. Here is a sampling of what I have been treated to in these weeks:

All religions except ours are wrong. God revealed different books to different people but only one book – ours – has been preserved without distortion. On the day of judgement those who worship things other than God shall be punished in the worst possible manner. Prophet Muhammad’s mission was to take people away from such polytheistic, wayward ways of worship that we see today among the people of all religions, except the true followers of Islam.

And here’s the icing on the cake:

The Buddha founded a new religion to take the people of ancient India away from worshipping trees, stones and animals. But eventually those people ended up worshipping the poor Buddha himself.

What is my problem with these sentences? For one, much of them are factually incorrect. The Buddha’s central teaching was not to make people stop worshipping material things and worship God. The Buddha refused to comment on whether there is a creator God or not. He was more concerned with offering people a way of understanding their immediate psychological experience and altering it through meditation, rather than making grand statements about how the world came about and how it will end.

Also, people of other religions do not believe that God revealed books to them, perhaps with the exception of certain portions of the Old Testament that were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. The rest of the Old and New Testaments are just that – testaments – of the history of a people and its interactions with God, recorded by human beings, albeit containing many messages from God. For the Hindus, the Vedas were not revealed by God, but seen, metaphorically speaking, by the rishis (meaning sages; literally – one who sees).

But there is a bigger factual inaccuracy that lies beneath all these little ones. That is the belief that there is only one way of perceiving and travelling towards the truth, and that way is the religion one follows. Further, this inaccuracy holds that to be religious in one way necessarily means to believe that other religious paths are incorrect. In its more extreme forms (such as those to be seen in places like Saudi Arabia, where four out of the five people I met came from), this is a religion that is defined against other religions. In other words, to be a follower of such a religion, one must also be a denier of other religions. One is what the other is not. That is a very significant part of what being a Muslim means to these people.

From an academic perspective, it is clear to me that all religions consider existence to be divided between two realities – first, the Absolute, which is unchanging, ever present, unaffected by anything and the source of everything; second, the relative, that which changes, dies, is created. Religion is a way of connecting the relative reality, of which human beings are the pinnacle, to the Absolute. The academic study of religion does not show, to me, that one particular religion holds a special key to this situation.

From a purely personal perspective, there are certain experiences that tell me that the above could not be false –

In Rishikesh, the atmosphere at the banks of the Ganges at sunset, as the river gently flows by, finally meeting the plains after its long journey in the mountains, is one such experience. The serenity, the sun being reflected in the river, the scores of orange – robed renunciants walking on the other side of the river – these are symbols of an eternal quest that has been followed with great sincerity around that holy river for at least 3,000 years. The calm is something wholly other than the hectic activity that characterises much of our lives. This memory is from 2004, but this scene would be the same one, two or three millenniums ago.

A Christian monastery in Western Europe, where dinner is served for a group of 30 students from around the world. In walks a tall, well-built, middle-aged man in a white robe, white skullcap and a small cross around his neck, followed by younger men. He has a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. He comes up to you and talks to you as if he likes you even before you have uttered a word. He wants to know who you are, truly. He is happy that you are – just happy that you exist. He recognises that you feel the same for him without having said it. His eyes tell you that he cares for you, that he doesn’t feel perturbed by your nervousness or reservations. The enormously gentle and compassionate, yet playful, expression remains on his face and in his eyes for the twenty minutes that he talks to you before moving on to another group of students. The man is the Cardinal of Vienna, one of the most important persons in the Catholic Christianity.

And finally, Mecca. The stark black cube – the Kaba. At some distance from it, pillars and walls of bright white marble surround it. The floor between it and the walls is also pure white. On it walk Muslims from all over the world – Africans, Arabs, Indians, Malaysians, men, women, children, rich, poor, maimed, healthy – all clad in white robes that wipe out any differences between them. They walk around the cube saying in lowered voices – Labbaik Allahhumma Labbaik, “here I am, oh Allah, to serve you!” Despite the great amount of people, the deep spiritual yearnings being expressed and much commotion, there is a deafening silence around the whole place. Even the birds flying above fly around the cube in a circular path. If there is order, peace and power anywhere in the world, it is here.

Three different parts of the world, three different religions, but the experiences were mine, at ages 19, 23, and 12, respectively. They were not the same experience, but I know that they came from the same source. And they have left a mark on my heart and shaped who I am. As for those who strongly assert that only one of these is close to the truth, the roots of my experiential understanding are not shaken by their antagonisms. While none of the above experiences would be possible without centuries of devout people living selfless, religious lives, every religion will also produce such aggressive persons as my five friends, given the deep personal significance of religious belief. May Allah show them the Straight Path.

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~ by tdcatss on January 5, 2010.

One Response to “Religious Diversity and Truth”

  1. Awesome; Kaif, you are blessed to receive such experiences. I too have been blessed with few such experiences that changed the atheist into a believer.

    Most of it happened at Thiruvannamalai… at Virupaksha Cave. Few while reading some scriptures such as Tripura Rahasya and Ashtavakra Gita.

    Loved this piece of writing.

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