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.