TWO CENTURIES AGO, WHEN EUROPEAN ENLIGHTENMENT THINKERS articulated the principle of religious tolerance, they did not realize that they were echoing an ancient vision-a vision enshrined in the Vedic scripture of the Hindu world as a pithy phrase. For here it states explicitly and clearly that there is but one God (referred to as Truth), and that He is described by the learned in different ways: ekamsat, viprât bahudâ vadanti.
In Sanskrit the word sat (pronounced sutt) means truth, essence, and also God. In this vision God is none other than Ultimate Truth, the quintessence of the Cosmic Whole. Quintessential Truth, however, is infinite, and it can be grasped by finite human minds only as glimpses. So every description of the Divine, whether from revelation or through speculation, whether from reading or by reflection, can only be partial. So it is said that those who have pondered the Mystery proclaim it in different ways. One is not right and the other wrong in this matter; we all obtain an incomplete picture of the Ultimate. Truth about the Ultimate is like the gUtter of a gem; it shines in different ways when viewed from different angles. For the enlightened heart and mind, therefore, God can be seen in the Star of David as in the Christian Cross, in the contemplation of the Buddha as in the Crescent of Islam, in the Adi Granth of the Sikhs as in the abstract sound of the sacred Om of the Hindus.
Every religious tradition has something unique, meaningful, and universal to offer to humanity. To me, this affirmation of multiple approaches to the Divine is the most significant contribution of Hindu thought. It is of greater relevance today than ever before. More than two centuries of the European Enlightenment seem to have had little effect on the minds of millions in our own times: they are still functioning in the framework of bygone eras which were characterized by interfaith hurt and anger, and swayed by passions motivated by religious bigotry. Some of the more extreme members of misguided groups, whose hearts have not been touched by the love and charity that all religions emphasize-or ought to-and whose minds have not awakened to nobler religious visions, are wallowing in a fanaticism that should be unconscionable and anachronistic in the age in which we live.
Economic lust has not been the only urge for militaristic expansionism through the ages. Conquests were not always undertaken by marauding horsemen to plunder other lands. Rather, they were often born of a deep-felt belief, indeed an inner certainty, that one's vision of God and the hereafter constitutes the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, and that all other systems were wrong and deserve to be destroyed. Echoes of that conviction, faint or harsh, still linger in the hearts and minds of many supposedly religious people.
We cannot deny that there are political misunderstandings to be resolved, economic injustices to be corrected, moral wrongs to be righted, and many more things to be done to make ours a fairer community of nations. But even in a Utopian world where all live in abundance, where arts flourish as much as sciences, there may not be peace and happy harmony as long as doctrinal intolerance persists.
From the Hindu spiritual perspective, it is important that we have reverence for the symbols and sounds of every religion in so far as they don't hurt anyone. That is why, no matter how some practitioners behave, I as a Hindu respect Judaism as an inspiration from a Covenant with a Higher Power, Buddhism as a call for compassion, Islam as a proclamation of peace and surrender to God, and Christianity as a pulpit for love and caring. I know that at its core every religion has something positive to teach.
In my view, this acknowledgment is what constitutes religious pluralism: not the abandonment of one's own faith, nor a naïve declaration that all religions say the same thing, nor an uncommitted lip service to all. …