We live in a time when people of different religions have to be in touch with each other, live together and work together. In such a context, acceptance of plurality of religions is mandatory for peaceful coexistence and smooth relationships. There needs to be a strong theoretical foundation to accept religious plurality.
The ancient yet lively Hindu Dharma system, which can be approximately called “Indian Philosophy”, offers a wonderful system towards this.
Purpose of Religion
Every person, in fact every living being, wants to be happy and does not want to face sorrow. Most of the people seek happiness through the enjoyment of the presence of people, objects and situations. Whether it is possible and to what extent, is a different discussion. However, given the fact that most people pursue happiness this way, unfortunately, one person’s pursuit of happiness is limited by another person’s pursuit. Thus, it is necessary to regulate the pursuit. Being “good” is to ensure that one person’s pursuit of happiness does not interfere with the pursuit of happiness by another person. Thus, there is a necessity for people to be good. Thus, to be happy and to be good are necessary for human beings.
In Indian Philosophy, the pursuit of ultimate absolute happiness is called “moksha”. Pursuit relative happiness in the world of people and objects is called “artha” and “kama”. Being good is called “dharma”. (A detailed discussion on this can be found here.)
Now, the question is, “How can we inspire a person to be good?” Not everyone can understand, appreciate and be inspired by the necessity to be good, so that he does not limit someone’s pursuit of happiness. So, for the common man, there needs to be an “artificial” reason to be good. Just as how the law shows sticks and carrots to make people follow some order in life – like for example, not to drink and drive, which is actually for the good of the person – there needs to be some sticks and carrots to make people to be good. This is the purpose of all religions.
According to Advaita Vedanta, one of the very popular systems of Indian Philosophy, absolute happiness has to be unconditional. If there is a possibility of unconditional happiness, it should be available here and now. So, the only reason that a person may not be happy is because of not having the knowledge that happiness is here and now, or not availing it. (You can find a detailed discussion on this here.) The mind has to be prepared to understand, assimilate and avail this ever-present unconditional happiness. This system shows by rigorous logic that this preparation can be achieved only by being good. Thus, “being good” is shown as a necessary means to “be happy”.
Different religions and philosophies link “being good” to “being happy” in different ways.
Features of Religion
The mind and the sense organs can access only finite properties of objects. They cannot evaluate the infinite. They cannot evaluate the substance behind the properties. They cannot evaluate the subject who perceives or conceives the object. Whether they exist, if they exist, are they the same or different, etc. cannot be evaluated by the mind and the sense organs. So they are entirely left to the belief of individuals. This is where various religions, theologies and philosophies come into picture. So, the three questions are – “Who is God (the infinite)?”, “What is this world (the substance)?”, “Who am I (the subject)?” As long as a system gives answers to these three questions in a manner that is logically coherent and not conflicting with experience, it has to be accepted as a possibility.
Non-religious philosophies do not have the obligation that the answers to these three questions should result in a system that also promotes goodness and happiness. Religious philosophies have this obligation. Thus, various religions are nothing but various systems of philosophies that answer these three questions in a manner that it promotes goodness and happiness. With this core, the religions weave a huge network of mythologies, legends (glorified and dramatized history of people), rituals and customs, based on and to suit, the cultural context of the people who are addressed by the religion.
When religions are understood in this way, there is no conflict in the mutual existence of various religions. Though all religions point to a state of unconditional happiness as the goal, not all religions describe it as the same when it comes to the details. Various religions offer various descriptions of the state of unconditional happiness. Some religions say it is in a Heaven. Some religions say it is in the proximity of a Supreme Being. Some religions say it is possible only after death. Some religions says it is possible here and now.
Depending on what a person can understand and accept, he can choose any of the options. Some of them may even not stand rigorous logic. Still, it may serve the current understanding of the person and help him to be good. Depending on the description of the goal that is accepted, the means would surely be different.
Thus, there cannot be one religion that is suitable to everyone. Religious plurality has to be accepted. Even within the same religion, each person’s understanding and practice can be different depending on his capacity. As the person grows, his understanding and practice can change. He may even find some inadequacies in the religion that he has been following so far, and decide to switch to a different religion.
Religion vs Culture
It is highly debatable how closely religion and culture are connected. The culture of a person includes the philosophy, mythology, legends, rituals, customs, clothes, cuisine, festivals, language, literature, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, etc. In general, we see that religion and culture have been going together. This has created a lot of violence and destruction – physically and emotionally – to different cultures in the world.
Almost all the indigenous cultures of Europe, Northern Africa, Arabia, Russia, Americas, Australia, New Zealand and many other places in the world have been wiped off the face of the Earth because of the aggressive exclusive propagation of two of the world’s major organized religions – Christianity and Islam. The Viking, Celtic, Saxon, Bavarian, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Inca, Aztec, Maori – the list is endless – cultures are today only in museums. Many of them have been lost without even a trace in museums. This is a great loss to humanity. When we are so much concerned about the extinction of an obscure species of fish deep in an ocean, we are blind to the extinction of so many glorious human cultures. The descendants of those cultures may be living, but the cultures have been irrevocably lost. Along with them we have lost unimaginable wealth of art, poetry, literature, ideas, cuisine, etc.
The pity is that the trend has not changed. Active propagation of exclusive religions along with their culture is destroying indigenous cultures in a large scale today. It is an urgent necessity to come up with alternate ideas and concepts so that people have a wide choice of religions and philosophies to choose from, and at the same time, indigenous cultures are preserved alive. Culture lives in the life of the people who actively follow it. We need to work out, how various religious options can be provided to people, without changing their culture.
Luckily, we have a few successful histories of such propagation.
The Christianity that is being propagated today is not that of Christ. Christ lived in a very Asian environment. His ideas were taken up by Rome and completely Romanized. The architecture, interiors, icons, rituals, customs, etc. of today’s Christianity are more of the Medieval Roman royalty than those of Christ. (However, Rome lost its mythology. The myths and legends of the Old Testament replaced its own.) Thus, if a religion can be assimilated into the Roman culture retaining many of its cultural elements, surely it can be assimilated into other cultures too, without disturbing their cultural elements. But unfortunately, due to political agenda, the Roman version of Christianity (may be Churchianity is a better word) was propagated along with the cultural elements.
The way Buddhism was propagated is more ideal. The Buddhism in Tibet is much different from that in Sri Lanka. The Buddhism in Thailand, Japan, etc. are each distinct. In each culture, Buddhism exists with much of the indigenous culture intact. Similarly, Hinduism in Thailand, Bali, Cambodia, etc. are also indigenous. The clothes, music, dance, etc. used for depicting Hindu themes are totally of the respective cultures. The mythology and legends have been mixed with the local indigenous mythology and legends. For example, you can find the worship of traditional Chinese deities have never conflicted with the worship of various forms of Buddha. The paintings and sculptures of Buddha are very Chinese. There is no trace of India in them. Thus, Buddhism and Hinduism are offered as localized supplements to the existing religion and culture.
Study of these histories and blending methods will show the way forward to peaceful propagation of religious ideas without destroying the indigenous cultures.
Thus, for a peaceful humanity without destroying indigenous cultures, it is necessary to understand religions from a more down-to-earth perspective. Religions need to be seen as various alternatives to suit the understanding and inclination of various people. Propagation of religions should be in the spirit of providing alternative reasons and means to be good and happy. Exclusive claims should be dropped. Religion should be separated from culture. Propagation of religion should not be accompanied by replacement of existing culture. Religious conversion should be initiated from the individual and not from the religious institution. It should be more for seeking a meaning to life than for seeking worldly ends.
This way, religious plurality can be a great asset of humanity. It will enrich the lives of individuals and societies.