One Experience: Many Expressions
Sri Swami Venkatesananda
This article is from the book “The Eternal Religion”.
One of the things in which we take special pride in India is the peaceful co-operation of the different religions there. Only when political considerations interfere, religious distinctions acquire some prominence; otherwise it has been a country where all religions were welcomed, not merely tolerated, but were appreciated by the practitioners of other religions.
PRESIDENT DR. RADHAKRISHNAN
In Madagascar a Christian girl asked me, “Why do you Hindus worship so many gods, whereas we worship only One God?”
I replied with a question, “How many Gods are there?”
“Only one,” she said.
“Then why do you say my god and your gods as though you yourself believed there were several?”
She did not utter another word, for only those who are themselves not sure that there is only one God, argue. Those who believe in the One God know that, albeit in various ways and forms, everyone worships Him alone.
Though He can be called by many names and approached by different people in different ways, the Indian believes that there is only One God. “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti“, declare the Vedas. “Truth is one, sages express it in different ways.” Expression only is different, not the realisation nor the experience. A group, representing many different nations, sit drinking milk, each in his own cup, round the same table, experiencing the same sensation (that of drinking milk), but each identifies that milk with a noun from his own language, a sound strange to his companions. His cup may be different, his word for milk incomprehensible, but the milk is the same.
All prophets and all religions sing the glory of the One God. Just as the language of the song is different, so the context in which each Prophet expresses his experience is different. Moreover, people to whom they address themselves have different capacities of understanding, some big, some small, some so weak that they can only see veiled truth, others strong and able to bear the unshaded light. Prophets and sages had, and still have, a difficult and delicate task in adapting their wisdom and knowledge to the degree that is assimilable and suited to the taste of their listeners. He is a bad host who, himself a diabetic, insists that his guests must observe his own strict regimen. One formula or concept of God should not and cannot be forced on all. The very fact that all religions, even newly concocted ones, eventually split up into sects, shows that the very nature of humanity is incapable of assimilating a uniform concept. Such dogmatic streamlining would lead to a twofold tragedy. (i) It would for ever imprison the Infinite in a finite concept. All concepts are finite. It is thus the Grace of the Infinite that It inspires infinite finite viewpoints, thus fulfilling a mission otherwise impossible. (ii) It would turn away from its redeeming portals millions who either cannot or do not comprehend or concede that concept. But, of course, both these are impossibilities.
True religion reaches out to each one of us at his own level and elevates us from there, to the supreme goal, the ideal, the Truth, to God.
In the East, we have recognised the differences, have argued over them, and ultimately recognised:
(a) the unity underlying (again!) all the differences, and
(b) the need for the differences themselves.
If this recognition has not welded us into a uniformity, at least it has enabled us to be more understanding in the realisation that (in the words of President Dr. Radhakrishnan).
“The ways may twist and turn, but when you once reach the top the spiritual landscape which you discern is exactly the same. All those who by different routes have come up to the top are people who belong to one family”.
Only one religion really exists, for, according to Dr. Radhakrishnan, religion is “a personal encounter of the individual with the Supreme and not merely a doctrinal conformity or ceremonial propriety”, and even in its literal sense, it is that which unites the individual with God. Different clanish religions are the creations of man’s diseased mind, vanity and vested interests–or, as a concession we may say that they are mere expedients. On our planet we have only one ocean, and yet we have a number of them marked on the map, the distinction being a nautical expedient.
God is One. The religion that leads Man to Him is also one. Some call Him Krishna or a thousand other names and the religion, Hinduism. Some call Him Christ and the religion Christianity. The devotee of Christ is Christian; the devotee of Vishnu is Vaishnava; the devotee of Siva is a Saivite; the adorer of Isvara is an Arya Samajist; he who adores Allah is a Muslim, but all of them believe in the One Fundamental Truth.
There is no difference–superiority or inferiority–among the Prophets either. Each one comes from Him, is of Him–is He Himself. The one who came later is not necessarily superior to the one who came earlier. Rain fell last year, a thousand years ago, and this year. Is this year’s rainwater superior to last year’s or that of a thousand years ago?
He comes to all His children, in the way in which they can recognise Him, and with the message which they need. He is nobody’s domestic servant, and no one can dictate where, how and if He should incarnate. All are His children. He comes to help primitive man in the jungle as He comes to guide the Roman emperor. We do not believe that there is a single heathen to be saved by proselytisation. Though the Hindu religion has a ritual for the most trivial event in life, there is no ritual for religious conversion!
Conversion is tantamount to an admission of the superiority of one faith over another, of one path over another. That in our eyes is blasphemy as well as moral disaster, for faith thus shaken can never be strongly built again.
The followers of the sage, saviour or Prophet have, however, the duty and privilege of serving their fellowmen with the Gospel they themselves received from their Master. The attitude here is not one of self-righteousness, religious or intellectual vanity, but one of worship of the Supreme Being Who dwells in the hearts of all those whom we thus serve.