Towards a Global Congress of World Religions 1979 - Edited by Warren Lewis
Warren Lewis: Now I have the genuine pleasure of presenting Prof. Dr. K. L. Seshagiri Rao to you. He studied at Mysore University and at Harvard. He is now Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of Virginia. It is a pure delight (Q present him to talk to you about the Global Congress and let the spirit of Gandhi speak through him. I now present to you Professor Rao.
K. L. Seshagiri Rao: There are problems all around. There are problems all around, there are evils all around -- social, national, international. How do we go about solving them? To give an example: a blind man wants to cross the street and you can hold him by your hand and take him to the other side of the street. But then he has another street to cross and another street to cross and another street to cross-every time, somebody has to help him. Suppose you were able to give him vision. You have made him independent: he can cross this road, he can cross the other road, he can cross many roads. One of the most practical ways of solving the problems we face is to focus and raise the consciousness of the people on a problem and give them "vision."
One of the most creative experiences of Gandhi's life, which from then on made him involve himself in social-political community affairs in a most creative way, was the one he had in South Africa. He was traveling on a train from Durban to Johannesburg. He had a first-class ticket. At a place called Martisburg, a white gentleman entered, but he did not want to travel along with this black man. So he called the guard and asked him to move Gandhi to a third-class compartment. Gandhi said to the guard, "Look, I have paid for a first-class ticket. I don't want to cooperate in evicting myself. It's all right if you throw me out, but I won't go." He was thrown off and his baggage was thrown out on the platform. That was the turning point of his life. The question that ran through his mind at that time was: Should he go back to India and forget all about all these things and all these community affairs, or should he stay in South Africa and fight the evil, trying to do something about those people who are oppressed? He made the decision and stayed there. He educated the Asian community there and fought for seventeen years before he won against the South African government on every one of the points over which he fought them. It took him seventeen years, but he did it. And that was just the prelude to his struggles for independence in India and his campaigns for the achievement of the rights of the untouchables, of women, and so on.
So that train ride was a very creative experience for Gandhi. I hope all the discussions today have raised our level of consciousness to this problem and have turned the lever in the proper direction in our hearts and minds. When we achieve a higher consciousness, I think we have got it made. The rest will come easy. First must come a raised level of general consciousness and the desire to do something creatively. Once the change comes in the heart, then it can be expressed in institutions and external behavior.
Concerning the Congress of World Religions, I want to make a minor observation and I have shared this with Warren earlier. I hope to see the title changed to "Global Congress of the World's Religions"-not "World Religions," I mention it because, in my mind there is the connotation of world religions as those which have hundreds of millions of followers, like Buddhism or Christianity or Hinduism. But how about Jainism, which has four million followers, or Zoroastrianism, which has less than a million followers? And how about Judaism which does not have a hundred million followers? But they are all "World Religions." Each one of them has a universal message. So I would like, if and when this Congress meets, the name to be Global Congress of the World's Religions, so that it will envelop all the world's religions, big and small.
Today I want to present the teaching of Gandhi on the question of inter-religious relations. I believe that his approach presents the necessary attitude and flavor if the Congress of the World's Religions is to succeed at all. In one way, his approach is explained in terms of "Sarvadharma," which in this context means, "Reverence for all religions."
Gandhi arrived at the concept of "reverence for all religions" in the course of his sincere search for truth. He was conscious that his way of understanding truth was not the only way. He had a great regard for the point of view of other persons. That was for him the practical meaning of charity. Because of his great concern for truth, he was humble and inwardly receptive to the other currents of truth coming from other sources. He never claimed finality for his own convictions. Otherwise, he could never have said "Truth is God." His concept of the harmony of religions and his reverence for all of them were the result of his ardent pursuit of truth. As you know, the creative values which gave inspiration for Gandhi are truth and non-violence. All that he did and said are expansions of the implications of these two insights.
The attitude which implies that one's own faith is the best and the highest and that other religious systems are imperfect or inadequate produces a closed system. Fanaticism puts a stop to all religious quests and leads a person up a blind alley. As one German philosopher observes, "The claim of exclusiveness is a moral attack on the search for truth."
Gandhi did not advocate syncretism; he did not believe that all religions are of equal value to everyone and that a synthesis can be achieved by merely adding together the best in different religions. On the contrary, he maintained they all have their own respective backgrounds and characteristics issuing forth from specific historical geographical, and cultural circumstances. These specific backgrounds are the outcome of unique social and intellectual forces, and are often composed of an unrepeatable combination of factors which cause qualities to develop differently. That all-important difference expresses itself in the ethos of a people. The members of each religious group, therefore, share an outlook on the world, God, humanity, etc., which is not identical with that of other groups. In the religious and cultural fields, there is a great scope of difference in methods, approach and modes of expression. Any attempt to root out these traditions is not only bound to fail but is also sacrilege. It is therefore right and desirable to uphold the uniqueness of particular religious systems. Cultural and creedal differences are not to be steamrolled, but attempts should be made to establish harmonious relationships between different cultures and creeds. The need of the moment is not a new religion, but mutual respect among the adherents of different religions. This is to be achieved through harmony, not uniformity.
Gandhi did not look upon eclecticism with favor. He did not approve of abdication of one's own religion and its rich heritage. On the contrary, he advocated firm adherence to one's own religion. The eclectic does not go deeply into any religious tradition and, therefore, lacks depth. His approach is superficial and he fails to grasp the distinctive message of any religion, even his own. He swims on the surface only. Actually, to call a person "eclectic" is to say that he has no faith. Gandhi did not approve of an eclectic religion; he advocated that different religions enter into a mutually respectful and fruitful intercourse with one another, each retaining its special fragrance. All religions are relevant in the context of the diversity of human needs. In the final analysis every person must have a form of worship and a set of beliefs suited to his own mental and moral competency. The food of the adult does not promote the infant's growth. Some religions are strong in devotion (bhakti), some in knowledge (jnana) and others in action (karma). Different types of people require different types of religious teaching. Though most religions refer to one God, they present God in different ways in accordance with the requirements and temperament of the respective peoples involved. This being so, there is no need to deplore the existence of various religions. All true values which ennoble and uplift life belong to God and must be respected and taken seriously. To ignore any of them is to ignore God's infinite richness and impoverish humanity spiritually.
The aim of all religions is the moral and spiritual salvation of human beings. Each religion is valuable, as each serves its respective adherents. As Professor Sorokin has observed:
The existing major religions do not need to be replaced by new religions or be drastically modified. Their intuitive systems of reality value (God, Brahman, Tao, etc.) as an infinite manifold and their conception of man as an end value (as 'Son of God,' as 'Divine Soul: as 'bearer of the Absolute')-all of these conceptions are essentially valid and supremely edifying. Similarly, their ethical imperatives enjoining a union of the human with the Absolute and the unconditional love of human person for human person and for all living creatures, call for radical change. Some of these norms, such as those of the Sermon on the Mount, are indeed incapable of improvement.
The need of our times is for a sympathetic understanding of the facets of truth in different religions and their ways of life. Only by impartiality and charity can we recognize and appreciate different points of view and work towards a greater cooperation among religions than in the past.
The great religions of the world, each in its own sphere, have sustained the hearts and minds of millions of people through the ages. Each of them has attempted to solve life's problems in its own way, according to its own genius. All of them have supplied answers to the persisting questions of the mysteries of existence. They have lighted humanity on the path of right conduct and have given solace in the face of suffering and death. All deserve reverential study and understanding. And as long as they remain vital they deserve to go on living.
Apart from the broad groupings of humankind on the basis of religious affiliation, religion also is an individual attitude toward life and reality, and carries with it a sense of personal longing for the Divine. This element in religion is expressed by Whitehead when he says that religion consists in what one does with his "solitariness." There are deeply religious men and women who are unable to derive help from any institutional religion. Most individuals are neither sufficiently contemplative nor sufficiently imitative to adopt the explanation given by some master theologian. They may grasp parts of this system of thought and sense the direction of the system as a whole, yet they find that they require their own interpretations when they are in the grip of engrossing troubles and turmoils in their lives. In times of acute distress it is not the perfection of the system as a whole that satisfies, but some aspect of it that renders the moment intelligible and bearable. For such people, religion is a thing of the heart and not merely of outward form. Each person is entitled to his own religious conviction and as a necessary corollary, needs to respect others' convictions.
Dr. Sri Radhakrishna observes:
When two or three religious systems claim that they contain the revelation of the very core and center of truth and acceptance of it is the exclusive pathway to heaven, conflicts are inevitable. In such conflicts, one religion will not allow others to steal a march over it, and no one can gain ascendancy until the world is reduced to dust and ashes. To obliterate every other religion than one's own is a sort of Bolshevism in religion which we must try to prevent.
To fail here would lead to a state of anarchy in the moral and spiritual realm with repercussions in the social and political. There are several examples of this unhappy fact in recent history-cities and states have been ruined.... In the words of Gandhi:
Mutual respect for one another's religion is inherent in a peaceful society. Free impact of ideas is impossible in any other condition. Religions are meant to tame the savage nature, not to let it loose.
Freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom of worship are necessary for the flowering of human personality. Freedom in these spheres always means allowing similar freedom for others: in this sense, freedom is a social quality. And in freedom alone can religions flourish-otherwise, the situation becomes impossible. Gandhi said:
The Golden Rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall see truth in fragments from different angles of vision. Conscience is not the same thing for all. Whilst, therefore, it is a good guide to individual conduct, imposition of the conduct on all will be an insufferable interference with everybody's freedom of conscience.
All religions teach adherence to certain human and spiritual values, such as devotion to duty, righteousness, self-restraint, mercy and above all dedication to truth and love. In this sense, the success of any religion is the success of all religions. In the eternal struggle of good and evil, religions have taken sides with the good and exhorted humanity to cultivate moral and spiritual values. Gandhi held that each religion must bring its individual contribution to humanity's understanding of the spiritual world. He readily welcomed the diversity of religious creeds by which people have sought to express their relation to the Supreme. He believed that all the world's religions are God-given and that they were necessary to the people to whom they were revealed.
At this point, of course, I cannot afford to omit this historical note: religions, in many cases, have been manipulated, misused, abused, exploited. Now these aspects have to be carefully removed, but we cannot throwaway the baby along with the bath water. Religion, religiousness, the devotion to truth and righteousness, sincerity, have to be cherished: but we want to put an end to the abuses of religion.
Since the dawn of the religious quest, the horizon has continued to widen. Prophets were born, and are being born, to give us different facets of truth. God speaks to humanity at various times and in diverse tongues. Various persons in different environments are engaged in this eternal search for infinite truth. The same spirit informs them all. As we grow and progress in spirituality, we realize our kinship with one another through the universal spirit that binds us all.
Truth in religion does not mean a proposition. Truth in religion means contact with reality-experience of reality. That's the vision of God. It points to a commonly experienced reality. Religious personalities have contact with the Divine. But one person's experience is not the only true experience. There is no cause here to oppose religions other than one's own. All religions are fulfilled in their own way by contact with the Divine.
Understanding truth in this way, Gandhi advocated that each individual should start from his own religious foundation. But that does not mean that other ways to God are wrong. Men and women should know that other ways to God exist which equally serve other people. It is not necessary to ask through which gate one enters the City of God. The important thing is the basic experience of the Divine, the living contact with God. In the absence of this, all the forms and formalities and the debates are of little avail.
The spiritual truths contained in all religions are the common heritage of humanity. Gandhi's concept of reverence for other religions culminated in another concept which he formulated: mamabhava, i.e., the acceptance of the entire religious heritage of mankind "as my own." I don't want to deprive myself of any part of this heritage: I don't want to destroy any part of this heritage: I want to keep it all. In fact, even though I do not belong to this or that particular tradition, if I find there is the danger of the destruction of that tradition, the whole world, all concerned people, should go to the defense of that tradition, because it is a part of the religious heritage of humanity.
Spiritual values are universal and cannot be confined to a geographical area-we cannot ultimately have "Eastern values" or "Western values." Spiritual values are universal, they are human values. They cannot be restricted to a particular group of people. Every human being has the right of access to these spiritual treasures. These values are there to be studied, admired, appreciated, and assimilated. Reverence for all religions should therefore culminate in mamabhava. The prophets and saints of different religions have passed on their experience and knowledge for the benefit of humanity. They have a universal appeal. They are not the monopoly of any person or religion. Anybody may draw inspiration from them.
Most of the adherents of the world's religions are hardly aware of the authentic contents of their own respective traditions. They are ordinarily satisfied by adhering to certain rites and ceremonies. That is why general humanity has not been kind to truly religious souls. Some of the prophets have died as martyrs at the hands of their own people. What the world needs, therefore, is the creative practice of religion, and not mere profession of it. The world has suffered not from lack of knowledge, but from the lack of right practice. The transformation can come only from self-purification and self-analysis.
Religions, in cooperation with one another, can do a great deal to rehabilitate mankind and give meaning, purpose and value to life. They can also do much towards the establishment of peace in the world. If religions recognize their mutual worth and potentialities and work to bring out the latent treasures hidden in each of them they will help humanity immensely at a time when it is facing one of the most acute spiritual crises in history. No single religion has been able, so far, to spiritualize the whole of mankind. Perhaps an all-comprehending and sustained effort is required on the part of all religions to achieve this purpose. In the process mankind has to learn that the tolerance with which truth is pursued is of as much importance as truth itself; it is a part of truth. If it be true that no divisions are so sharp as those caused by religion, it is equally true that no unity is so strong as the one that follows inter-religious understanding and harmony.
One important outcome of reverence for the faith of other people is the encouragement it gives to an impartial study and appreciation of other religions and the criticism of one's own in the light of different religious systems. Various religions existing side by side cannot but give rise to comparison, one with the other. Comparison is a halfway house to constructive criticism, and constructive criticism results in creative religious reconstruction. There are always sensitive souls among the adherents of every religion who keenly alive to the virtues of their religion, the virtues of other religions and the shortcomings of their own, are stirred to reforming zeal. Gandhi himself received inspiration from Christianity and Islam which he used in his task of reformation within Hinduism, and he publicly acknowledged it.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, humankind witnessed the Buddha. Two thousand five hundred years after the Buddha, we witnessed Gandhi, who literally believed that violence and intolerance negated truth that the greatest power on earth is the power of love in action and that voluntary self-suffering can change the mind and heart of the most hostile of persons. These are the teachings of Gandhi, who lifted an ancient tradition of tolerance to greater heights than ever before. As the well· known historian Toynbee observes:
A spirit of nonviolence is a state of feeling inspired by a moral ideal. But every moral ideal is bound up with some corresponding intellectual outlook. In the Indian outlook, the intellectual counterpart of the Indian spirit of nonviolence is a belief that, for us human beings there is more than one approach to truth and salvation.
Describing his vision, Gandhi said:
I do not expect the India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e. to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Moslem; but I want it to be wholly tolerant with all its religions working side by side with one another.
This same vision, I think, might be applied to the whole of humanity. You know, males and females have differences, but they can work together. Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Christians have differences; why can't they work together? I think and feel and believe that they can. Thank you very much. (Applause)
Irving Hexham: As a South African historian. I find it difficult to accept the optimistic interpretation of Mr. Gandhi's work in Africa. He had some success, but unfortunately -- and I think this is very important for talking about religion-after his success came failure. The Indian community in South Africa is very oppressed today. I say this because as an historian of South African religion. I believe that if we are going to talk about the world's religions we also must admit that certain religions are evil in their effect and we cannot be tolerant. When one encounters evil one must speak out against it.
K. L. S. Rao: Gandhi launched his agitation against the South African government on the following points: he wanted the poll tax that was levied upon the Asian communities to be ended and he wanted the removal of restrictions on Asian immigration in South Africa. On these points the government had to yield and make an agreement with Gandhi. These were his limited goals and he won them on the basis of his nonviolent struggle.
It is incorrect to make religion responsible for the misuse of religion by politicians. If at this point, the South African government is making use of religion to maintain the apartheid system one can't make Christianity responsible for that. We have to trace the cause of this, making a correct analysis of how religion is being falsified to support an evil system. Wherever there are evils they have to be separated out they have to be eliminated. There is no point in reconciling ourselves to apartheid, reconciling ourselves to the oppression of some of the third-world countries and so on. No. no compromise! But that does not mean we have to give up our basic commitment to truth and love. That is the basis of creative religion. If we, in fact, make these commitments to truth and love, these very religious concerns will make us revolutionary activists to remove the ugly marks on the face of humanity and on the face of history.
Warren Lewis: On the first point at issue here. I hear no disagreement. I think Irving would like to see a resurrection of Gandhi in South Africa. Apparently his work needs to be done all over again. On the second point, Irving, would you say that apartheid is a direct result of Afrikaner religion or is religion the ex post facto rationale for this racial-cultural situation?
Irving Hexham: I think it is an extremely complex situation, but I think there is such a thing as an Afrikaner religion which is not simply manipulation by politicians, and which is in itself evil.
Warren Lewis: I have to agree with that. As a Southern white, I was twenty-two years old before I met a black person I thought was as good as I am and I had to get past my religion to believe it that way. I realize now that it was a religious cause to keep the races separated; and miscegenation-intermarriage of whites and blacks -- would for me, have been close to the unpardonable sin. I've had to get over that in my adult life. Now, I work for a man who believes that interracial and intercultural marriages are a large component in the coming together of the globe. Our Southern white religion was evil, is evil, on that point. That is my opinion.
Shawn Byrne: We cannot achieve everything; we have got to select. The major choices before us are whether to tackle the great ethical evils of our time or to try to create a creative alternative. I think we want to think of the Global Congress as a process rather than as a once-off thing. The main conference might deal basically with theological questions and perhaps the follow-up ones might deal more with ethical applications, as a very general suggestion. I do feel that we need to have what I would call a vertical viewpoint, that we be not so much concerned with doctrinal differences and cultural differences, but that we try to have a more universal and vertical look at the purpose and significance of all religions and cultures. This is what I meant earlier when I suggested the question: Who is mankind and where are we headed? I would be worried if the Congress were to be merely a cerebral fact. I would be worried about that, because although a great deal of prominence is given to the intellectual faculty, it actually is not the deepest human faculty. The heart is at a deeper level. So I feel that the Congress should have something to do with the feeling sense with the oneness of all mankind and with the feeling sense of that oneness in origin and in goal, in desire and in need. That would incorporate the recognition that religion is developed out of differing experiences and cultures. Mr. Braybrooke mentioned this, I think, in reference to Sir Francis' experience of compassion and the recognition of the unity of all mankind. It included the feeling, the sense of embracing everybody; recognizing that religions and cultures have derived out of different experiences and have therefore headed off in somewhat different directions but that nevertheless all are trying to answer the same basic questions as to who mankind is where we come from and where we are headed. If we can experience ourselves in this way, we can then be creative. If we can recognize these relativities we can ask more absolute universal questions. This, I guess, is what K. L. S. Rao was saying in connection with Gandhi: a reverence for all religions while at the same time recognizing that we must say that all religions have gone off the track in part that there is evil involved in every religion. That should also be recognized.
I would like to suggest that the Global Congress ought to be, then, something of an experience of mankind's basic unity before the Ultimate, before God, and that it should be more like a festival with the arts than a gathering, merely, of theologians and experts. I would like to see it be a multi-faceted happening. I guess it can't just be artistic or heartistic, it can't just be music and celebration and all that but neither ought it to be just theological or ethical and political directions. The net effect would be a sense of the interdependence of all mankind, of all men and women. I would like to see it not prepared in such a way that it pins people down too much. I would suggest, maybe not altogether seriously, that we ask the great religious leaders, great theologians, great thinkers, to come unprepared. No prepared scripts-just come and be ready to give what overflows from your heart on the spot in this situation, come and share with us in music and drama and song and prayer (prayer should be at the core of it) and discussion. But let it flow, let it be spontaneous, let the Holy Spirit work through it. I think, in such a situation, we could develop the kind of sensitivity which has been spoken about here, called for here, which is really the most necessary thing: compassion, sensitivity, universality. Thank you.
Warren Lewis: As a tongue-speaking Pentecostal, I certainly agree with that last comment. believing as I do that if you don't take thought for what you will say in that day and in that hour, but rely upon the Holy Spirit to tell you what to say when you get there, then maybe it will be God and not your own preconceived notions speaking. At least God will have a chance. I agree we can't say ahead of time what the Global Congress will decide to do. Personally, I hope it will not be a "once-off' event. I certainly share with Marcus the horror of the idea of a get-together which is a "nice conference," and then that's the end of it forever. I personally am still thinking in terms of a "U.N. of the religions" which would meet periodically to deliberate and would continue to struggle with the issues of life from the religious perspective, perhaps spinning off appropriate action groups similar to UNESCO and UNICEF. We can't set the agenda for the Global Congress. The Global Congress has to decide what it's going to be.
Unidentified Speaker: I come from Germany. In spite of your convictions that we should be a Pentecostal movement, I am nevertheless very glad that we are allowed to speak our hearts. Yet [ have the impression that there are many people. especially in religious questions, who would have big problems if we put all the emphasis on this speaking the heart openly. There would be many people who would have difficulty speaking out before people of other traditions, other convictions, other religions. I am convinced it is a good thing to speak from shyness, especially in the question of religion. We shouldn't speak only by reason; but there are many people, from different religions, and religions with deep heart, who have a shyness exactly to show heart. I have no difficulties to show my mind, but I have more difficulties to show my heart. Not everybody can speak immediately at such a meeting in this way.
Robert Moon: We started this conference (Boston ICUS) with the general idea of absolute love expressed in Sun Myung Moon's introduction at the beginning of the conference. I think this is extremely important in what we are trying to do here. Our worldly affairs are so much concerned not only with the deeds, but also the word. How can we control our thoughts? This is where trouble begins, with the thoughts. Thoughts can be evil or they can be good, and we must find a way in which we can eliminate the evil thoughts before they progress to the word and deed stage. I think sharing is very important here, using all our intellectual, spiritual and moral powers from our hearts and under God's guidance. Then we begin to realize that no individual is above any other individual. We're all the same, we have something to share, we complement each other. As far as knowing is concerned, many of us have experienced the sciences, where one cannot be a scientist without being a poet. We do share ideas and something new can come if our hearts and minds are ready. There is also revelation. That may be what we're after in this Global Congress.
Warren Lewis: Now we are at the end of the second session. I feel as though we have made progress. There is more momentum now than there was a year or a week ago. We have Marcus Braybrooke and Seshagiri Rao to thank. I'll conclude simply with this invitation: it seems that our next step will be to hold a conference of several groups which are industriously engaged in the work of global, inter-religious, ecumenical dialogue, groups such as Marcus's World Congress of Faiths and Seshagiri's Temple of Understanding. We will form an international, interfaith invitation committee to plan this proposed conference, which we might hold in about a year's time. Its purpose shall be to allow the several groups to communicate with one another about their perspectives, their histories, their work and their future. These groups, ideally, might confederate as the co-conveners of the Global Congress of World Religions.