Introduction of Dharma



Religion is about relationships. Every religion tries to enable the human person to relate to the divine and to the rest of creation in a harmonious and mutually enriching fashion. It is from this perspective that the importance of the relationship between religions need to be appreciated. The alienation between religions, or a relationship of mutual hostility, even apathy, implies a contradiction of the very idea of religion. Physicians need to heal themselves first. We need to work earnestly towards bringing about a wholesome relationship of constructive cooperation among religions.

In this regard, we need to reckon a long period of inter-religious alienation among world religions. Even a casual sense of history will enable us to see that there is nothing religious about this unfortunate state of affairs. Several factors have contributed both to its genesis and to its perpetuation. Some of them were accidents of history and geography. Some of them were ideological as in the case of western triumphalism and religious imperialism. The rise of secular materialism has been yet another factor. Setting the cat of competition among the pigeons of religions served the need to deflect attention from the onset of this unspiritual worldview. Complicating all these was western ontology that insisted on defining everything else on its own terms. It insisted, besides, on casting everything in terms of a neat opposition in which one part of reality was white and the other black. [This pattern is very much in evidence in the US adventure in Afghanistan] This aggravated the animosity to the unfamiliar and the alien. More than in any other field of knowledge, reductive western ontology resulted in spreading deep-seated anxiety and hostility towards eastern religions. In this the western world, for some strange reason, overlooked the fact that all religious were of eastern origin and that the only religion (or quasi-religion) crafted in the west was materialism. That being the case, it was inevitable that the spirit of distrust directed against eastern religions spread, eventually, to Christianity also. Hence the emergence of the Post-Christian era in the history of the west.

Religion is a domain of power. One aspect of the power of religion is its penchant for entering into combinations with the other forces in the given field, the forces in the political, economic and cultural domains of its milieu. Each time this kind of combination takes place it modifies the genius of the given religion. It is for this reason that no religion continues to exist in history in its pristine purity, making it necessary for religions to undergo periodic renewal, or succumb to the forces of degeneration and gradual demise. In their historical existence, all religions have entered into combinations, in varying ways and degrees, with political forces. The spirit of triumphalism in the religion founded after Jesus Christ, who was as meek as the lamb, is a hybrid of the biblical faith and western colonial imperialism. From this outlook, there was hardly any chance for any inter-faith dialogue. Triumphalism presuppose an arrogant unwillingness to know and value the other. It conjures up the spurious duty to conquer and assimilate other faiths. This spirit is still at large in the sphere of religion and we should do all we can to exorcise ourselves of this Unholy Spirit.

From the inter-faith perspective, colonialism is a curious phenomenon. It was colonialism, as we have seen, that unleashed the imperialistic impulse into the encounter between religions. Yet the desire to understand religions objectively was also a by-product of colonialism, as colonialism brought religious communities into contact with each other to an extent that never happened prior to that. The serious study of non-Christian religions began to attain academic acceptance and prestige in European universities from the second half of the 19th Century. The point of interest for us here is the practical truth that cross-cultural and inter-faith encounters must move towards a deeper understanding both of one's own faith and the faiths of other peoples. It is from the inter-faith engagement that we began to understand that the spiritual truth of one's own faith is best understood through the epistemological distance afforded by the inter-religious perspective.

Yet another factor relevant to the inter-faith movement is the rise and fall of nation states. Religions -in the European context, denominations- tended to identify themselves with particular nations states. As a matter of fact, religious or denominational kinship played a decisive role in European nationalism. It is from this very context that the idea of the inferiority and superiority of religions purchased it new legitimacy. Religion was the deepest source of the morale and identity of a people and their subjugation was never complete unless their gods were humiliated and their religions denigrated.

This brief survey would serve to prove that inter-faith relationships were modulated by everything other than religious or spiritual considerations. This continues to be case even to this day. Relationships of mutual hostility between religions are a sure sign of the erosion of the spiritual core of these religions. Unfortunately, we did not have the spiritual discernment or skill to diagnose the religious sickness that this portended!

Here a brief word or two on spirituality is in place. We need to be wary of the widespread tendency to equate religion with spirituality, whereas they are, often, contrary to each other. That is certainly the case during periods of religious decay, as happens to be the case at the present time. Religious communities are crafted on the principle of sameness. They are, hence, marked by homogeneity. The foremost religious sin is heresy, which is, literally, claiming the right to "choose for oneself". This is demonized and eradicated, not so much because God is too anemic to stand it, but because this disturbs the religious values of uniformity and conformity. But, what the religions wish to root out as heresy might well be, from an objective perspective, the spirit of prophecy, the vocation to articulate the costly truth. Jesus of Nazareth was seized of this perennial problem in the theatre of religions. No prophet, he said, was acceptable among his own people. The inter-faith movement needs to be erected on the foundation of spirituality, not of religion, as we have known religion for these many centuries.

Secondly, religion tends to be oriented on the profit and comfort of individuals. "Personal salvation" or the moksha of individuals is the foremost religious goal. Not so, in the case of spirituality. Spirituality is like an ever-expanding ripple. From the individual it spreads and embraces the world around. Spirituality integrates the salvation of the individual with the transformation of the society. That is why values such as love, truth, justice, compassion, and so on are basic to spirituality. Spirituality puts the spotlight on our shared destiny as a species and not on the metaphysical profit or loss that an individual might incur. Contrary to popular belief, spirituality is profoundly this-worldly. But spirituality is this-worldly precisely because it has a true sense of the divine. This-worldliness sans godliness is the genius of materialism. Spirituality is godly materialism, if you like. Quality of life as well the health and wholeness of the whole of creation are basic to spirituality. This need not necessarily be the case with religions. It rarely has been.

This too has a material bearing on the inter-faith movement. Salvation shops can only compete among themselves. Not so in the case of shared spirituality, which shifts the focus from the efficacy of individual salvation to the collective destiny of our species. In the process, the spirit of competition is replaced by the spirit of a shared sense of mission.



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