If humanity is to achieve its next stage of development, more of us must attain the inner experience of unity that transcends religious differences. This truth is found at the core of all great traditions.
Human beings have a drive for wholeness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their search for the ultimate reality—that which is the source of all. This is first and foremost a private, internal exploration, but in the past several decades it has increasingly become an external search as well. The present is troubled, the future is vague, and it often seems as though we are heading for another dark age. This search for the ultimate reality is often conducted through the medium of religion, which is unfortunate. The founders of the world’s great religions were selfless and sincere—great seers, sages, and spiritual leaders. But as these religions spread, the teachings of the founders were lost. History shows that religionists do not encourage their followers to follow in the footsteps of the founder, but instruct them to worship the image or the name of the founder through the intervening priests, many of whom suffer from the ills common to humankind—egoism, jealousy, and selfishness. The light of truth cannot shine through such obstructions. As things now stand, instead of teaching unity, religions propagate discord, crippling the efforts of humankind to attain the next stage—the stage of civilization in which people will learn to live with others in mutual understanding and love.
The Impulse Toward Unity
Throughout history, there have always been those for whom the knowledge of God is a direct, vivid, and luminous experience. This experience transcends all words, and those who have it become one with the Word that is God—that which was “in the beginning,” to use the biblical expression. That same revelation is expressed in Eastern spiritual traditions by the term shabda brahman, “the Word as Brahman.” Throughout the ages, this divine revelation has been assimilated by the adherents of various faiths out of the intuitive understanding that all revelations spring from one source.
The Jews absorbed the East in the form of the Zoroastrian doctrine when they were liberated by the Iranian (Persian) king Cyrus from Babylonian captivity. Led by philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria, they also assimilated Greek ideas. The magi who came to pay homage to the baby Jesus were neither Jewish nor Western, but Zoroastrian priests from Persia.
The spirit of unity spreads its influence among the nations of the world.
This impulse toward unity has always been with us and has managed to assert itself even in the face of the fundamentalist tendency of religionists to settle on a partial truth and uphold it at all costs. For example, in spite of its insistence on doctrinal purity, Christianity, which was originally an Eastern religion, absorbed influences from the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, and other Western cultures. But it also continued to assimilate the East. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the tradition of Hesychasm, the practice of cultivating stillness through breathing exercises and prayer of the heart. Hesychasm has been a central practice in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches since the later part of the Middle Ages. This tradition, which is identical to that of the yogis of the Himalayas, is a scientific method for reaching the mystic heights and attaining a direct experience of God, the only experience whereby diverse religious streams flow into one river.
There are many examples in the West of the ways that disparate traditions have come to honor each other and acknowledge a common truth. In the 18th and 19th centuries, philosophers and writers such as Hegel, Schlegel, Humboldt, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer all studied Indian philosophy. In the 20th century, Carl Jung broke away from Freud to incorporate aspects of the Eastern approach to psychology into his own system. In the 19th century, the United States seemed to have felt the effects of the Eastern emphasis on realization of transcendental truth. Emerson’s poem “Brahma” is a paraphrase of several verses from the Bhagavad Gita and the Katha Upanishad; Walt Whitman wrote “Passage to India” and extolled the wisdom of the Vedas; and Thoreau’s Walden makes numerous references to Brahma.
The spirit of unity spreads its influence among the nations of the world: Thoreau and Emerson studied the Bhagavad Gita. Mahatma Gandhi borrowed the phrase “civil disobedience” from Thoreau and refined it spiritually as satyagraha. Martin Luther King, in turn, made it the basic tool of his movement to liberate millions of Americans.
The Eastern Experience
In spite of such syncretic trends, the various concepts of God held in different cultures divide us and are a significant underlying cause of the many tribal wars in progress across the earth. In the face of this divisive force, is it possible that we can build a civilization based on a principle of unity? Can the masses in any culture be persuaded to accept the One behind the many in their daily life and celebrations?
Unfortunately, the possibility of such an occurrence in the West vanished with Greece’s golden age, although it remains alive in the East, where it is a tradition as old as civilization itself. In the Vedas and Upanishads, the word “one” is a synonym for absolute reality, sat. Sixty-nine unbroken generations of sages and saints had already taught this truth by the dawn of the fourteenth century BC. In the sixth century BC, Buddha, the Enlightened One, dismissed theological disputes as a net spread by priests and propounded a philosophy devoid of authority, emphasizing instead self-effort and the ability of all to attain enlightenment.
Meanwhile, in Persia, the tradition of Zarathustra propounded a similar ideal of the unity of religions. Emperor Darius, who is infamous for his invasion of Hellas (Greece), helped the Jews rebuild the temple in Jerusalem beginning in 519 BC. In the third century BC, Emperor Ashoka of India not only declared unilateral disarmament for the first time in history, but also issued proclamations stating his respect for all religions and had them carved in stone.
Can the masses in any culture be persuaded to accept the One behind the many in their daily life and celebrations?
Throughout history, rulers in Asia have granted patronage simultaneously to teachers and philosophers of all religions. For example, in China, Genghis Khan, who built the largest empire ever established, invited the teachers of all religions to his camps and diligently studied under them. There, the Confucian and the Taoist traditions commingled, yet each kept its identity. Later, Buddhism also found a place of honor in China. Today a Chinese may be Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist all at once. This same syncretic impulse is also evident in Japan, where the people recognize the significance of both of their major religions, Shinto and Buddhism. For celebrations of life, they make offerings at a Shinto shrine; for guidance in dispassion, they visit a Buddhist monastery.
Although at present India is torn in places by religious strife, the culture tenaciously upholds the ideal of the unity of all religions. Within one kilometer of the international airport of New Delhi are dozens of shrines where Hindus and Muslims offer prayers together, each according to his own rites. Numerous Muslim poet-saints have sung songs of adoration to Rama and Krishna. In the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, the psalms of devotees and saints of various religions are given equal honor. People from all faiths and walks of life attended the mystic saint Guru Nanak Dev and benefited from his teachings.
Indeed, many people in India and Southeast Asia would be surprised and baffled by the notion that a person must adhere strictly to one religion and accept only one kind of statement about God, because they know that God dwells in all hearts. In fact, the different communities in this part of the world are so intermingled that their ideas are blended into one another, and only the intellectuals can distinguish the currents of separate philosophies and faiths. One piece of evidence for this is that Sufi saints throughout this region are respected equally by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and even Christians. No one cares whether a saint or fakir is Hindu or Muslim as long as his blessings (dua) can ease his or her problems.
The Deficiency of Doctrine
We have seen that in the East it is natural for the followers of various religions to share the one absolute reality and to recognize it in a multitude of names and forms. Why is this so alien in the West? What are the fundamental differences between Eastern and Western approaches to spirituality?
The primary difference is that in the West, salvation comes through belief in a religious creed, while in the East, spiritual liberation comes through the direct realization of God, who dwells within. God is recognized as both the inner dweller and the One who manifests in all forms. This deeply profound, direct experience can never be captured or conveyed in words. What can be stated is a truncated truth, and is not worth insisting upon. That is why the sage takes to silence and the Zen koan advises the disciple to “Kill the Buddha if you meet him on the road.” It is for this reason that the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said, “If I were making a statement, I could be challenged. Since I have no statement to make, I cannot be held to task.”
This is not agnosticism, nor cynicism, nor relativism, nor nihilism, but a clear statement of the need to resort to silence. When Nagarjuna says repeatedly that “the Buddha taught nothing,” what he means is that he maintained a deep spiritual silence.
In the East, ever since the dawn of history, a vision has prevailed of cycles upon cycles of time and space in which there are innumerable universes. In these innumerable universes, it is not that God became flesh once, but rather that God becomes flesh, manifests Himself or Herself innumerable times in all the possible worlds. The mustard seed called the planet Earth lasts only as long as it takes a needle point to pierce a tender flower petal, so far as God’s time is concerned. In that period, God has manifested innumerable times, in all possible forms, to people of all nations, speaking to them in their respective languages, fulfilling many missions in these manifold forms.
Easterners pay homage to all of these forms and hold all revelations as the Holy Book. A devotee may hold a favorite revelation dear to heart—according to personal need, temperament, or particular tradition—but never think less of other revelations. To deny any of the revelations would be to deny God. That is why the Hindus do not have one single holy book, but a whole sequence of texts revealed over the millennia, and why they accept any bible of the world as holy.
In Western religions, however, the concept of the Divine is entirely different. Christianity and Islam, for example, have a concept of God that is clearly specified in their bibles. Adherents of these religions are not allowed to think independently—a Christian who wants to know God must know God through Christ alone and does not believe it possible for someone else to know God through Buddha, through Krishna, or through Rama. In contrast, a Buddhist pays homage to all the enlightened ones who have appeared on all the myriad worlds.
The accomplished yogis go beyond all these manifestations and remain above all time and space.
What God will do where and when?
Where God will appear to accomplish what and when?
What God will reveal to whom and when?
The Eastern sages of yore took these queries into their deep meditation. These masters, to paraphrase Einstein, “wanted to know how God might run the universe.” That is why the conflict between science and religion, a hallmark of Western civilization, is little known in the East. The East includes all levels of immanent reality in the transcendent reality from which they emerge, in which they are sustained, and into which they merge again. All that is Brahman.
If there is to be a unifying religion in the future, it will arise from this unity among the natural sciences, cosmology, and the personal transcendental experience that has long been envisioned by the accomplished masters of the yoga tradition. Just as a natural scientist enters his research laboratory and methodically examines and verifies hypotheses, so the yogi enters into deep meditation and verifies the truth of all revelations. From that depth, he brings forth natural sciences, as well as the knowledge beyond.
Many religions, like the empires of the past, have vanished and many more will vanish yet. We must bow in humility before the forces of divine time and await the revelations that are yet to come. When they do come, their essence will be no different from what has been directly experienced by the sages and mystics in the past because they will flow, as do all streams of inspiration, from the same wellspring. As the philosophy of Vedanta says:
All that one perceives is the vast, expansive godly reality, Brahman.
It is One, without a second.
All the diversities must be realized in their unity in Brahman.
If such a grasp of the whole is beyond our capacity, I have another suggestion: Let us hold our peace and resort to silence. In the silence of God-experience, all doctrines will dissolve and all disputes will cease, for the realized ones have stated:
I know Him not,
How can I speak of Him?
I do know Him now,
Oh, how can I speak of Him?
We are told in the Bible that when the seventh seal is opened there will be silence in heaven. It is not by disputes over doctrines that we shall arrive at the truth about God but by becoming as children. That is why the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad says:
Let a child of God abandon claims to scholarship.
Let him instead aspire to become as a child.
Then one knows that the indwelling truth is All.
Established in this realization, the sage’s worship consists of knowing “I am All.”
Into that allness of one’s own interior self merge all postulates and statements regarding truth and falsehood. The sages tell us that the highest reality incorporates real, unreal, and the real-unreal. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna puts it another way:
O God, I see in your body all the gods
As well as groups of differentiated beings,
Brahma, the Lord sitting on the lotus seat,
All the seers . . .
I see you without beginning, middle, or end;
Of unending virility, with endless arms,
With the moon and the sun for your eyes.
In the East, those who realized this unity as an inner experience first shaped their own lives accordingly and only then led others by the light of their direct experience. It was that experiential truth which enabled them to sow the seed of unity in the midst of diversity. These great ones pulled diverse communities out of the isolation of their separate identities into unity, one with another. They taught the importance of including all and excluding none—the simple, but most effective, way of practicing love in daily life and bringing the sense of wholeness into the world.
In his first address before the World Parliament of Religions a hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda quoted two passages from the Bhagavad Gita. These verses echo the central theme of the Upanishadic sages:
In whatever way and whosoever takes refuge in me,
I grace them in the like manner.
From all directions do human beings follow on the path towards me.
Whosoever wishes to adore whichever form of mine with loving faith,
Towards that very form of mine do I strengthen his firm and
Had we taken those words to heart a century ago, the world would now be a very different place. Time is short. Let us begin.
Source: Yoga International magazine