Interfaith dialogue is designed to bring people together so that we can remember the unity behind the diversity. It is not saying that there should be one religion to which we should all belong. And it is certainly not asking that you leave your religion to join another religion. It doesn’t believe in that kind of conversion. Just because I love my mother, should I ask you to renounce your mother and only love my mother? I should know that just as I love my mother, you also love your mother. That is why in the name of interfaith dialogue we are saying, “Let us love all our mothers.”
We are literally destroying ourselves in the name of religion. We criticize each other’s faiths proclaiming, “Mine is the best, yours is the worst.” Even the same religious groups have splintered factions. Muslim factions in the Middle East are killing each other. It’s happening everywhere. The Hindus and Muslims are wreaking havoc in Sri Lanka. The Sikhs and the Hindus are tearing apart northern India. The Catholics and the Christians in Ireland are at each other’s throats. Is that the purpose behind religion? Do you think our God will be happy? Because we are one in Spirit, it doesn’t mean that you should renounce your own path or approach. That is not unity; that is conversion. Real unity means accepting all the various approaches, and that is what ecumenism or interfaith understanding is all about.
Sometimes people ask if the interfaith approach is an effort to have all faiths merge into one. That is not the point. When things become uniform they become boring. If there is only one kind of flower in the garden, it’s no longer a garden. Should the flowers fight about their colors, their scents, their shapes, and forms? Should they hate each other for their differences? We seem to appreciate the variety, texture, shapes, and scents of the flowers as they blend together to create a beautiful bouquet of flowers. God created all this variety for us to enjoy and for this beauty to enrich our lives. Our aim should be to understand the unity and enjoy the variety.
You can be loyal to your parents, your religion, your country, and at the same time you can love and respect another person’s allegiances. We can love our own faith and respect the other person’s faith as well. There is nothing contradictory in that. You don’t have to renounce one to love another. Ultimately, we all aim for the same truth while walking on different paths.
So, in the name of interfaith understanding, we are not advocating uniformity, but universality. There are many conferences now being organized worldwide to promote this kind of interfaith perspective. The Parliament of the World’s Religions took place one hundred years ago. The centennial of this Parliament was recently commemorated with a second Parliament in Chicago that included the Dalai Lama, among other leaders. Pope John Paul II was among the religious leaders who attended the interfaith summit Assisi, Italy. There are so many interfaith gatherings now. Why? The time has come and the world has shrunk. We cannot separate ourselves and deny each other anymore because we are aware, more than ever, that we are a global village. It’s time to understand each other better and to live as one global family.
The purpose of any religion is to educate us about our spiritual unity. However, more people have been killed in the name of God and religion than in all of the natural calamities and world wars combined. That means that religion has gotten caught in the hands of egoistic groups who are fighting with each other, who are claiming that only their path is right.
If you follow the teachings of one individual, or of one faith, that doesn’t mean that everyone should follow the same thing. The one and same Spirit expresses itself in many names and forms to suit the age, time, and place. In one place God is called Yahweh, others may follow Jesus, another place will pray to Buddha, and yet another will believe in Mohammed. There’s not need to claim that only one should be worshipped.
When we fight in the name of religion, we divide ourselves in the name of God. This is terribly wrong. It is disconcerting enough that we separate ourselves by country, by region, by race, by language, by political beliefs, and so on. We have put labels that say, “This is my land, that’s your land.” We have even divided the sea, “My sea, your sea, you see?” Then we have even divided the sky, “This is our sky. Your flight should not go over our sky.” How small our vision is, how little-minded we have become. We want to grab everything and label it as “ours.”
If there is only one God, did that God create only the Christians? Who created the Buddhist, Hindus, or even the atheists? Is there a different God for the atheist then? No. There’s only one God. As children of that one God, we are the rightful heirs to the entire world. Everything that God created belongs to all of us and our future generations. The entire world belongs to us, to be shared by us as one family of God. Nobody can put a label and say, “This is mine alone.” All the resources of the world are given to us for our use and we have a responsibility as stewards on this earth. Nobody has ever taken anything with them when they left this world and nobody has brought anything with them when they came into this world. Have you ever seen any baby coming out with a penny in the mouth? Later on that person may become a millionaire. But then how many millions will they take with them when they go? In between, God has given us the bounty of this earth to make use of for the highest good of all concerned.
So, it should be no surprise that even our God has not escaped from that. One will say, “Krishna is the best.” Another will argue, “No, you are wrong; Jesus is the only way.” Yet another will challenge, “Allah is the best.” This kind of fighting is going on and on and has already killed enough people. It’s not the religions or the founders of the religions—the sages and prophets who gave us these beautiful paths—that are dividing us. They want us to be together. It is the people who make use of religion for their own benefit or political reasons who are literally dividing humanity in the name of that which is supposed to unite us. We must do everything within our capacity to follow the principle that we should not and cannot divide ourselves in the name of God and religion.
The various religions can be looked at like various types of candies. They may have different forms but they are all made of the same sugar. Have you ever seen candymakers boiling the same sugar syrup and then pouring it into various molds? One mold will be round-shaped, one will be in the shape of a horse, and so on. If you see children come along into the candy shop, one may pick out a lollipop in the shape of the horse, while another chooses a multi-colored rainbow-shaped pop. The one child will lick the horse-shaped pop and declare, “Yummy. Mine is so good.” The other child might say, “Mine is better than yours.” Then the first child may reply, “No, mine is sweeter than yours.” And a verbal tug of war may continue until the shop keeper declares, “Hey, wait just a minute. It’s all made of the same sugar. So, don’t fight. You enjoy your pop and you enjoy yours.”
As adults we can listen to this story and laugh at the childishness and limited vision. We realize that the children are young and don’t recognize the truth behind their lollipops—that they are made from the same stuff. We will think all their fighting is cute or silly. We may even say, “Kids will be kids.” But if only we could realize that we are all like those kids in the candy store when we go to our different places of worship. Rather than criticizing, making fun, or fighting with each other, let’s enjoy our lollipops!
Truth is one. That is why my motto has always been, “Truth is One, Paths are Many.” The great sages and saints have experienced the same truth but only expressed it in different ways. It does not matter what name you give to the nameless Spirit. Because the Christians called the Spirit as Christ, they say Christ is the only way. Because Buddhists called the Spirit Buddha, they say the only way is through Buddha. The “only way” is to experience that Spirit—you are free to call it whatever you like. The only way to eternal peace and joy is to realize that Christhood or Buddhahood or Krishnahood. But when we miss that point, we fight in the name of Spirit.
There are so many things that can separate and divide us. We often divide ourselves by our definitions. We say, “I’m an American,” or “I’m an Australian.” And, “I am white,” or “I am black.” We also say, “I am fat,” or “I am thin;” “I am a boy,” or “I am a girl.” Further still, we say, “I am Christian,” or “I’m Hindu,” or “I’m Muslim.” My color may be different from your color. Her color may be different from somebody else’s color. We are all of various colors and hues, because nature never makes duplicates. There is constant variety throughout the creation. But inside, we all have the same light, we are all made in the image of God. The same light is shining through many different colored lamps. That’s the reason why we look different.
When we look at the outside alone, we will only see differences. But when we go a little deeper, we see the oneness. Don’t we say that “Beauty is only skin deep.” Scratch less than one millimeter beneath the surface and we all have the same color blood. So, if we see the difference, we are different, we are separate. Either we are friends or enemies. But if we see the Spirit, we are the same. I am you, you are me, we are not different. We define ourselves in so many ways. We have all the differences and individual distinctions, but we are also so much more. These definitions are what you make use of in order to function in this world. The challenge given to each and every one of us is to remember that oneness behind the outer differences.
God gave each of us a different costume, different makeup, a different role, in order to play our part in the world. But behind all these differences we are all one in Spirit. When we forget that and identify ourselves with the superficial differences, we lose sight of the spiritual oneness. So, religion asks us to get back to that original state. The very meaning of the word “religion” is to bind back; to get back to your original oneness.
What is it that we should see if we really want peace and an harmonious co‑existence? We should see the one unifying factor, the Spirit. If we see the Spirit in us, we realize that we are all one. If we forget the Spirit and see only the body and mind we will see the differences. And wherever there are difference, there is either fight or fun. Either you are a friend or an enemy. That’s why instead of only seeing the physical and mental frame of the people, also see the Spirit. And even to get the capacity of seeing the Spirit in others, I should first of all know that I am by nature the Spirit making use of this body and mind.
Don’t we see so many different tools in a workshop? Why do we need all different types of tools? Isn’t there one tool to do all the jobs? No, there isn’t. We need pliers, screwdrivers, hammers, chisels, wrenches, and saws. Can we say that one is superior and one is inferior. The chisel may be very straight, polished, and sharp. Should the chisel laugh at the saw because of its shape? Each tool is designed for a particular use. And even though they have different shapes, colors, and uses, they are all part of a tool set. There is a unity within their diversity. With that understanding, all the tools can coexist in an atmosphere of peace, respect, and harmony.
We can look at another example. Doesn’t a painter have a lot of different color paints? Which color is the most important? Maybe for one painting, the painter uses certain basic colors more often. One or two of the paints may be left sitting there in their tubes with nothing to do. These colors need not condemn each other. The colors used more often need not taunt the others saying, “Oh, look at that. The painter never even touched you. You are simply sitting there idly. We are the people who are being used more.” No. Maybe towards the very end the painter may just take that one unused color to give one stroke to make the whole picture come to life. In the same way, nobody is unwanted or undesirable.
With this understanding, you won’t condemn anyone. You will realize that everyone has been made by God for a unique purpose. Maybe you do not understand what that purpose is at this moment, but one day you may know. You may ask me, “What purpose does a person who does no good at all fulfill in God’s plan? I would say that, perhaps, that person is given to you as an example of what not to be. We learn by all kinds of examples.
All the different religions are there to help us to achieve peace and communion. They may offer different prayers and practices, but all of these are designed to help us to commune with God or a Higher Power. There are many different roads that lead to the same goal. Imagine a summit that can be approached by different routes. One person starts from the eastern side; the other from the west. As they are climbing they won’t see each other. But if both had walkie-talkies they might have the following conversation. Climber #1 might to the other, “Hey, where are you headed?” Climber #2 might respond: “I’m going up to the summit, what about you?” Climber #1 then says, “I am also going to the summit and the only way to get there is by walking along this road. You seem to be on another road, so you should leave that and join this road.” Climber #2 replies, “No, no. You’ve got it all wrong. It’s only this road that leads to the summit. Climber #1 may get annoyed and say, “You fool, don’t you get it? You are definitely on the wrong path. If mine is the right path, then you’re on the wrong path.”
They could keep arguing and never get anywhere at all. But maybe it’s a good idea if they continue their climb on their respective paths. And when they reach the summit, we might hear a conversation like this: Climber #1 seeing Climber #2 says, “Oh, I see now. Both paths come to the same place. I was shouting and finding fault with you, demanding that you join my path. That would have really delayed your reaching the top because you would have had to work your way back down the mountain and come around to where my path was.” When you realize that both roads are ultimately going to the same place, you can easily admit, “You are also right. Let’s meet at the summit. You take your route; I’ll take mine.” That is what we mean by universality or ecumenism.
When we argue about what is the right path and whose religion is best, there is something terribly wrong with our approach. We are looking at the superficial side of religion and forgetting to go deep into its foundation. If we did go deep, we would find that all the religions ultimately talk about the same God, the same Truth; but somehow we ignore that common base and continue to fight over the superficial aspects. It is time for us to recognize that there is one truth and many approaches.
As long as you are a spiritual seeker, follow your spiritual path with your goal in mind. Don’t worry about other people’s paths. Whatever path you choose according to your temperament and taste, stay with that consistently. Though God can be approached through any form or name, if you keep changing from one idea of God to another, you won’t progress at all. You can’t travel on ten roads at the same time, even if they’re all going to Rome.
So, let us resolve to not fight in the name of religion. The moment the understanding comes that essentially we are one appearing as many, all the other problems—physical and material—will be solved. Until then, they will never be solved, because the basic cause for all the world problems is the lack of understanding of this spiritual unity. Wherever you go say, “We look different, but we are all one in Spirit. Hello, brother, hello sister.” We should embrace the entire universe with the understanding that God has a purpose for everybody. Nobody is superior and nobody is inferior. No religion is superior and no religion is inferior. We are all doing God’s work. We should learn to live together and work toward one goal: to share and care, love and give.