Harsh Sonpal – B.M.S  , Persuing MBA at Thakur Institue of Management Studies & Research , Mumbai

One of the main problems about religion is its plurality or diversity. Not only are there several religions but they differ from one another in many ways. Further, each claims to show the right way of life, each claims to provide supreme peace and fulfillment. The phenomenon of plurality of religions raises several philosophical questions. These questions lead to another field known as ‘Comparative Study of Religions’, and so they are not discussed here. Diversity of religion, however, is not merely a philosophical problem. It has immense social, cultural and political consequences. Differences among religions have been one of the main causes of wars and communal riots all through human history. Even in normal, peaceful society, many people harbor prejudice and ill will towards followers of religions other than their own. More than a hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda said: ‘And thus we find that, though there is nothing that has brought to Harmony of Religions 2 man more blessings than religion, yet at the same time, there is nothing that has brought more horror than religion. Nothing has made more for peace and love than religion; nothing has engendered fiercer hatred than religion. Nothing has made the brotherhood of man more tangible than religion; nothing has bred more bitter enmity between man and man than religion. Nothing has built more charitable institutions, more hospitals for men and even for animals, than religion; nothing has deluged the world with more blood than religion.’1 It is, however, obvious that diversity in itself is not sufficient to account for religious conflicts. For people of diverse temperaments are seen to live together in peace in most societies. Two points are to be noted in this context. In the first place, religious conflicts have intrinsic and external causes. Intrinsic cause is the operation of certain doctrines or customs of one religion which are opposed to those of another religion. External cause is the manipulation of religion by vested interests, institutions, political parties, etc. Speaking about the harm done by the manipulation of religion by institutions supported by the State, Swami Vivekananda said: ‘Now, in my little experience I have collected this knowledge that for all the devilry that religion is blamed with, religion is not at all at fault. No religion ever persecuted men, no religion ever burned witches, no religion ever did any of these things. What then Harmony of Religions  incited people to do these things? Politics, but never [true] religion. And if such politics takes the name of religion, whose fault is that?’ Secondly, when we study the history of religious conflicts, we can see that the nature of conflicts has undergone much change during the past few centuries. These changes have been caused by changes in the role of religion in human life. Before the 18th century religions were almost wholly concerned with salvation. Most of the religious wars and persecutions that took place in the Middle Ages were over the question who would go to heaven and who will go to hell. With the progressive secularization of religion, which began with French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, etc., religion came to be identified with humanistic concerns. As a consequence, religious conflicts in modern times are not over doctrinal differences, but over social, economic and political issues. India had remained a land of religious harmony from very ancient times till the country attained independence. Religious freedom, toleration and harmony have formed the characteristic texture of Indian ethos. But after independence, especially in recent years, communal unrest, desecration of places of worship, assassination of religious leaders, etc., Harmony of Religions have become quite common. Another controversial change is the rise of fundamentalism. These events, however, are to be seen as deviations from the Indian ethos. These deviations are actually reactions of the Indian psyche to forces acting against the Indian ethos. Since religious conflicts and communal disharmony have assumed serious proportions in present-day India, harmony of religions has become a most important and vital concern for all people.


Recognition of differences

Harmony of religions should first of all be distinguished from ‘indifferentism’. Indifferentism is the view that there is no difference among religions and that they are all more or less the same. This is a philosophical concept. There is a similar popular belief that ‘all religions are the same’, which is prevalent among the common people especially in the rural areas in India. This kind of simplistic idea is based on ignorance of other religions, and ignorance cannot be a sound basis for harmony. The starting point for a proper understanding of harmony of religions is the recognition of differences among religions. Each religion has, through centuries of development, acquired a distinct profile Harmony of Religions  with ever so many unique features which include a complex philosophical framework, a vast literature, many social customs and rich mystical traditions. At the same time, these differences have created insuperable barriers among religions, and any discussion on harmony of religions has to take into account these barriers.

Harmony is different from toleration

Harmony of religions should also be distinguished from religious toleration. Toleration implies a certain degree of condescension and refraining from doing something worse. What Swami Vivekananda said on this point is worth mentioning here, ‘Not only toleration, for so-called toleration is often blasphemy, and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not a blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live?’

Interreligious and Interreligious Harmony

In discussions on harmony of religions we tend to treat each religion as if it were a monolith. But the truth is each religion is vertically divided into several major sects and a large number of minor sects. Examples are: Vaiùõava and øaiva sects in Hinduism; Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Churches in Christianity; Sunni, Shia and Ismaili sects in Harmony of Religions 6 Islam; Mahàyàna, Vajrayàna and Theravàda in Buddhism. Very often these sects show greater animosity towards one another than towards other religions. Discussion on harmony of religions should include harmony within each religion—intra religious harmony, as well as harmony among religions— interreligious harmony.

Approaches to the Problem of Harmony

There are four main approaches to the problem of harmony of religions: political, social, theological and mystical. By political approach is meant the policy adopted by the government towards religion. In modern times this approach has assumed paramount importance because, without it, the other approaches become ineffective. Even in theocratic countries the government follows a policy of religious toleration and takes care to prevent communal disturbances. In democratic countries like the USA and India the political approach followed is to declare the State to be secular. Secularism has been much criticized and is often thought to have failed in India. But it has denied legitimacy to fundamentalism and social injustice in the name of religion. Social approach is the one normally followed by the common people. Left to themselves, common people would live in peace with their neighbours Harmony of Religions 7 whatever be their religion or faith. They create communal disturbances only when they are incited by vested interests. This is the field in which religious leaders and voluntary organizations have a leading role to play. Theological approach consists in reinterpreting doctrines in favour of harmony of religions. In all world religions most of the doctrines were formulated many centuries ago. Some of these doctrines are against harmony of religions. If these cannot be changed, they could be reinterpreted to suit the needs of the present-day world. In Hinduism, scriptures have been classified into two groups: the

øruti and the Smçti. The eternal truths and laws of the spiritual world revealed to the ancient çùis constitute the øruti. It cannot be changed, but it has been interpreted in different ways by âcàryas. All other matters of religion, especially man’s duties and ways of life, constitute the øruti. Smçti can be changed or reinterpreted. In modern times Swami Vivekananda reinterpreted the ancient scriptures in the light of Sri Ramakrishna’s experiences. His ideas helped to establish intra religious harmony within Hinduism, and have given shape to the modern integral Hinduism which stresses interreligious harmony as a basic tenet. In this connection it may be mentioned that it is the theological approach that lies at the bottom of the dialogue movement initiated by

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. ”