Religions of the World: Same or Different?

It is simplistic to say that the religions of the world are all same. They are clearly not. But it is also simplistic to say that the religions of the world are so different that they share nothing at all in common. That is not true either. Religions do share much in common, but opinions can vary about what it is that is shared among religions and where it is that they differ.

To me it seems reasonable to affirm that every religion has something unique to contribute to the religious consciousness of the world. If it didn’t, it would not only not survive for long but wouldn’t really be a “religion” in the best sense of the term. Every religion which has survived the test of time is special and, of course, different from other religions.

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It has been suggested by some that while religions of the world differ considerably in their “social aspect” (based as it is on culture, language—and the symbols and images that emerge from them), they are remarkably close to one another in their “experiential aspect” (based on the direct experience of what lies beyond the sensory field). This has led to the idea that religions of the world, while no doubt different, are essentially the same. This idea is tantalizing and welcomed by many. Others resist it, because it raises several questions: who gets to decide what the “essential” part of religion is? Since the social aspects of different religions are obviously different, should we assume—and upon what evidence—that the experiential aspects of the religions are the same (or even similar)? Did the “enlightened ones” of the different religions experience the same thing?

None of these is an easy question to answer, primarily because there is no universally accepted definition of even the word “religion,” what to speak of words such as “enlightenment” or “religious experience.” What makes something a “religion”? Can something be called a “religion” just because its followers identify it as such? There is no universal agreement about the nature of what gets described as “religion.” Is religion primarily a social phenomenon or a spiritual quest? Religion, to many, is inseparable from their social lives and relationships; for others, it is primarily concerned with their relationship with God and only secondarily with the world. “God” is another loaded word in the field of religion: it seems unavoidable but not everyone uses it in the same sense. Two people may talk about “God,” but each of them may be thinking/picturing/conceptualizing a being who may be very different from the other’s.

Language and concepts become the barriers for communication and, ironically, they are also the instruments we use to communicate with one another. Can we use language to overcome the barrier of language? Can we use concepts to lead us beyond (or around) concepts toward the reality that is being conceptualized? I believe we can, but—as with most significant things in life—it is not easy. It needs patience, perseverance and, most importantly, clarity of vision and purpose.

As mode of communication and carriers of ideas, words are indispensable. But, as Śaṅkarācārya points out: śabda-jālaṁ mahāraṇyaṁ citta-bhramaṇa-kāraṇaṁ, “The web of words is like a dense forest that causes the mind to wander” (Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, 60). When we get caught in words, or in the concepts that they convey, and lose sight of the reality they point to, we are in trouble. Take the case of the goal of life. Do religions point to the same goal? Apparently not. There is no way to affirm that the Christian “salvation,” Buddhist “nirvāṇa,” and Hindu “mokṣa” are one and the same. Not only are the words different but the concepts they stand for look different too. But it is possible to dig deeper, to clear through the “dense forest” of conceptual frameworks, and ask: don’t all of these words point to an experience that eclipses or leaves behind the human experience of mortality, imperfection, bondage, and ignorance? Freed from their theological trappings, it would seem that the words point to an experience of something that every human being seeks. It would seem that where human beings differ is in the “how” of their quest, not in the “what” of their prize. But the prize gets clothed in different words and hung upon different frameworks and then it looks very different.

Similarly, it is possible to look at the different words such as God, Allah, Īśvara, Great Spirit, even Emptiness, and wonder whether they point to the same Truth or Being but conceived differently since it is viewed from the lenses of different minds. Because the lenses are different, the answers to these questions are different as well: Is the Ultimate with form or formless or beyond even the concept of “form”? Is the Ultimate with attributes or attributeless or beyond even the concept of “attribute”? Never mind the different answers, but does that necessarily make the Ultimate different too? If it is claimed that there are different Ultimates, then none of them would be much of an “Ultimate,” unless we want to go back to a much simpler—but increasingly problematic—affirmation that one’s own “Ultimate” is true and all others are false.

Once we begin to search for unity in the midst of diversity, there is no stopping. It is possible to do this carefully and respectfully, without diminishing the sanctity, beauty and importance of diversity. If we persist in our efforts to look deeply into the “differences” between religions, we may make more startling discoveries. While the practices of different religions are obviously different, is it really impossible to find things that they share in common? Most religions advocate practices such as prayer, worship, contemplation, and selfless service. The details regarding these—the how and the when—will be different and the “why” will be answered through the theological framework of every religion. But the essence of the practice, in my opinion, is shared across religious boundaries. Those engaged in prayer and other spiritual practices, irrespective of their religious affiliations, are trying to transcend their human limitations by employing the means provided by their faith traditions.

It is possible to associate all religious practices with the different faculties of the human mind. There are practices that primarily employ the faculty of reason; others use feelings and emotions; yet others, will-power. Any practice that helps to establish a relationship or connection between the individual and God is a spiritual practice, and is called yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning to “yoke” or to “join”--in this case, it joins the human being with the divine being, or the creature with the Creator. Depending on which faculty of the human mind is dominant in any practice, the yogas have been classified by Swami Vivekananda into four groups: karma yoga (the path of selfless work), bhakti yoga (the path of love or devotion), jnana yoga (the path of philosophy or reason), and raja yoga (the path of contemplation).

Sooner or later we all realize that all religions are only so many “labels”: they play an important role in our lives but it is good not to remain confined to these labels for ever. At some point our consciousness must rise beyond what each of us sees as “my” religion. There is a Religion (with a capital “R”) that transcends all religions (with a small “r”). Being a citizen of a country is good and helpful, but at some level we must realize that we are also, simultaneously, citizens of the world. The same is true in the field of religions as well.

Adventure and Security

We find ourselves with two mutually conflicting tendencies in the heart: the desire for adventure and the desire for security.

The desire for adventure is really the desire to know, to explore, to push beyond the real or imaginary limits. All of this requires going out of one’s comfort zone and can be potentially stressful and pain-bearing. What makes people go for it anyway is the tantalizing possibility of successful breakthroughs, which can be enormously fulfilling and pleasurable. All great discoveries and inventions have occurred through the spirit of adventure.

The desire for security is the desire to be safe, to avoid risks, and to accept certain limitations in return for peace of mind. We usually find security in what is familiar, be it a place, an idea, a person, or work. Some people seem to prefer the boring known to the exciting unknown. The desire for security is often connected with responsibility for dependents (one’s family, for instance).

Adventure is generally associated with youth (more accurately, a youthful state of mind) and security is generally associated with the later stages in life. This may be partly because the idealism and dreams of youth often get tempered by the harsh, cold realities of life. Failures and setbacks also dim the drive to be adventurous.

Babies don’t have a sense of “security,” hence parents have to be around to take care of them. Although babies have their own adventures (eating anything and crawling anywhere when left to themselves), none of those are “conscious adventures.” For a thing to be recognized as an adventure, we must be conscious of the risks involved.

Science is quite adventurous within the bubble of this world. This bubble is circumscribed by space (deśa), time (kāla) and causality (nimitta). The “world” that science tries to understand and explore is what is under the domain of space, time and causality. Science doesn’t see these as limitations but merely accepts them as a given reality. Modern science, however, has dared to question these categories at least with regard to the relation between space and time.

Religion, especially organized religion, is adventurous also, but within the secured confines of its own dogmas and doctrines, which are seen as “truths.” The courage to question them is often lacking or not encouraged. Very few, if any, dare to venture outside the self-imposed boundary. Such an attitude limits the scope of religion considerably.

Religion attains its full potential and becomes “spirituality” when no questions are squashed, when nothing is taken for granted, when everything is subjected to test using reason and verified through direct experience. Spirituality is more adventurous than any other human pursuit, as it seeks to transcend all limitations, even those of time, space and causality. For those on the spiritual path, the only “security” is their faith in the words of the scriptures or faith in God or, what amounts to the same, faith in the true Self.

There are some who are temperamentally prone to seeking security. Such are the cautious, the careful, and those skeptical of anything new. Then there are others who long for adventure—such are the carefree, the curious, the impatient. Most of us are somewhere in the middle but perhaps leaning more toward the one than the other.

In life we often go back and forth between these two tendencies—to be adventurous and to be safe. When certain adventures end in disasters, we pull back and become extra-cautious, preferring the security of the familiar to the thrill of the unknown. When we get bored by the endless routine of familiar chores, the mind becomes restless and we gather enough courage to try out something new … until we become disillusioned again and return to our own comfort zones. Some of us never really figure out how to handle these two tendencies. Getting the balance between the two is not always easy.

It is a helpful exercise to look within and find where we lie on the adventure/security spectrum. Rather than indulge in reckless adventures, it may be more helpful to be gently adventurous, pushing the boundaries firmly but in small measures.

While there are many kinds of adventures, nothing comes even close to the thrilling adventure of leading a holy life seeking the spiritual ideal. Those who spend time in prayer, worship, meditation, and selfless service know this well.


This topic was discussed at some length at the Satsang on June 9, 2018.

Bathing the Lord

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When I was offering the ritual bathing water (snāna) during the worship some time ago, a thought came to my mind. Water can be seen as representing matter (since its potentiality is identified with one of the five primal elements) and the offering of snāna, besides being water for bathing, represents also a material sheath to cover the Spiritual Being, who is of the nature of pure consciousness. Only when clothed in matter can God become tangible and accessible to the human mind and senses.

Let philosophers and theologians worry about whether such material-covering is real or projected. What is undeniable—since it is a matter of direct experience—is that the worshiper is able to establish instant connection with God with such creative thinking. Once that connection is established, everything else automatically becomes secondary.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Buddhist monk, has often said that doing the dishes can be an enjoyable task (and not a mundane chore to be endured somehow) if one washes each dish mindfully, thinking that one is, in fact, bathing a baby Buddha.

Creative thinking leads to tangible results.

Life Above the Clouds

After the Kalpataru Day celebration on January 1st every year, the Vedanta Society has a Winter Recess until the first Sunday in February. That’s the time I usually travel. Take-offs and landings during flights are fascinating experiences. The transition from life on the ground to life above the clouds can provide an opportunity for reflection. The following is a brief reflection I made in my diary years ago.

In June 2006 my flight from Houston was delayed because of rain and stormy conditions in Boston. We finally took off three hours behind schedule. The plane was flying above the clouds: it was a beautiful sight. The world above was full of light, quiet, tranquility. The sky was crystal clear. I could see the moon and a lone star. As Boston neared and the plane began to descend, the passage through the clouds was understandably bumpy. Once we landed, we encountered a world which was dark, rainy, windy, and crowded. The tranquillity that was so palpable when we were above the clouds was lost in a moment. Once we got involved in the world with our feet firmly planted on the earth, the life above the clouds was forgotten.

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But the world above the clouds always exists. It is just that it rarely pops up in our consciousness, except when we are flying above a sea of clouds.

Isn’t meditation like taking off in a plane to go above the kośa-clouds into the world of the Ātman? The journey through the clouds is bumpy, but once we are up there, we get to experience real peace, joy and tranquility. We don’t get to stay there for long, as we feel we have “work to do” down here in the world under the clouds, so we come down and get immersed in the kośa-s again.

A time will come when we will realize that we don’t need to come down at all. Our true home is above the clouds.

"I Have a Mother"

On Mother’s Day it is inevitable that we think of mother, one’s own but also of mothers in general. In Ramakrishna circles, it is equally inevitable to think of Holy Mother, as Sarada Devi is fondly known. “I can’t contain myself when one draws near me and calls me mother,” she said.

More than twenty years ago, when I was in Chennai, I was asked by my monastic elders to go and assist in the Vedanta work in Boston. A retired professor who had taught in the West heard this and spoke with me. He painted a gloomy picture of life in the West and said to me in mock sympathy, “I am sorry that you have a bleak future ahead of you.” I could only smile. I hoped he was joking, although it didn’t feel like that then. I knew then, as I know now, that the power to smile in the face of so distressing a prophecy came from Holy Mother.

No matter the challenges and difficulties involved, innumerable people all over the world today are facing life boldly and smilingly, thanks to a dynamo of power that originated in the tiny village of Jayrambati in India in the middle of the 19th century.

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At first glance Holy Mother appears an unlikely figure to inspire courage, boldness, enterprise, determination—qualities generally associated with “manliness.” One might say that Vivekananda is the right person to inspire these qualities in others—and he does. But that is not the point here. The question is, how is a shy, self-effacing, uneducated village woman able to inspire these “manly” qualities?

The answer is that there is nothing specifically “manly” about being courageous, bold, enterprising, and determined, and there is nothing “womanly” in being the opposite. It is time we got over such outdated, gender-based and misleading classifications of the past. Vedanta students must try to transcend the male-female distinction and see every person as a “human being.” This is the non-negotiable starting point if we aspire to look even deeper and discover a divine being under the human cover.

As humans we need to meet the life’s challenges squarely and boldly, and Holy Mother shows us how to do it. When we read her life mindfully and meditate on it, we see an extraordinarily strong human being brimming with confidence, full of faith in herself and her ideal, and sure of what she was doing every moment of her life. What’s more, she makes us feel we too can be like her. It is not just a matter of feeling like that. We do imbibe Mother’s qualities when we become her children in the truest sense of the term.

How does that come about, this becoming her true child? Simply by doing what she wants us to do. In other words, becoming an obedient child. Obedience is not always a virtue and does not always produce salutary results. Much depends on to whom we are being obedient. There is no danger in being an obedient child of Holy Mother. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose except our ignorance, bondage and fear.

Those amongst us whose spiritual lives are influenced by the power and light of Ramakrishna’s wisdom are Holy Mother’s children. Ramakrishna himself was a Mother’s child. Not just Mother Kali’s but also Holy Mother’s. He said he saw no distinction between the Mother Kali worshiped in the temple, his biological mother Chandramani Devi, and his wife Sarada Devi. When asked how she looked upon Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother once admitted, “As my child.” Everyone who is associated with the Ramakrishna tradition is a Holy Mother’s child, because she is the mother that powers, preserves and guides the tradition.

The story of the Ramakrishna tradition is the story of sacrifice, courage, faith, dedication, devotion, and determination. It is the story of Holy Mother’s children, who are armed with her assurance: “Do not fear, my child. Always remember that the Master (Sri Ramakrishna) is behind you. I am also with you. As long as you remember me, your mother, why should you be frightened? … Whoever has come here, whoever is my child, is already redeemed. Destiny dare not throw my children into hell. Free yourself from all anxiety by entrusting your future to me. … Never fear. Whenever you are in distress, just say to yourself: ‘I have a mother.’”

“I have a mother” is a mantra not just for the children in distress. It is for all of Mother’s children and for all occasions. Holy Mother makes everything possible. She really does it all by herself, but she likes to make her children feel she gets everything done through them. Her children know this. So they remain free from anxiety, jealousy, pride and hatred. Freedom from these fills them with love and understanding, peace and joy. In whatever they think, whatever they say, whatever they do, they never forget the mantra: “I have a mother.”

That helps. Every time we remember “I have a mother,” we hear Mother saying, “You are my child."