IN GLOBAL SOCIETY

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Moments come, which come but rarely in history, when quite perceptibly one age draws to an end and another dawns; when we stand poised between a collapsing past and an indeterminate future; when established landmarks disappear and we often seem to be adrift on a limitless ocean; when, in essence, to survive we need not merely have a linear progression in thinking but a paradigm shift in consciousness. We have, in fact, reached just such a crucial crossroads in the long and tortuous history of humanity on this planet. There have been many major transitions in the past - from the caves to the forests, then to pastoral, agricultural, pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial civilisations. But what we are now involved in will certainly be the most crucial and difficult of all the transitions that we have encountered so far - the transition to the global society.

Impelled by science and technology, all aspects of life on our planet are undergoing a process of globalisation, whether it is politics or economics, commerce or industry, environment or communications, language or music, or any other. The great religions of the world also have burst geographical boundaries and have assumed global dimensions. While we are thus being irresistibly propelled towards a global society, the consciousness needed to sustain such a society is still imperfectly developed.

It is this dangerous time lag which is at the root of much of the tumult and turmoil that we see around us today, and if the truly religious impulse is creatively projected it can go a long way in forging this new consciousness that would unite rather than divide the people of the world.

Religion has always been a major factor in the growth of human civilisation. Whether it is art or architecture, music or literature, philosophy or law, moral codes or spiritual texts, many of the glorious achievements of the human race can be traced back to the tremendous inspiration provided by the world's great religions. But let us have the courage to admit that there have also been negative contributions - mass killings, pogroms, inquisitions, torture, persecution, vandalism and bigotry - have all, at some place or time, been perpetrated in the name of religion. And the crowning irony is that these have been done in the name of a divinity, which every religion looks upon as being beneficent, merciful and compassionate!

The Divine Will seems to have decreed that no one religion ever has, or ever will, dominate the entire world. And yet one thing is clear; the religious impulse is far stronger than had been generally realized. India, of course, is par excellence the land of religion where four of the world's great faiths - Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism - arose, and four others came to us from West Asia and have flourished for centuries - Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. But even in Europe it now transpires that the hold of religion remains a major factor.

The most dramatic manifestation of this has been the situation in Russia where, despite 70 years of an avowedly atheistic dictatorship, there has been a mass upsurge of religious activity. I was in Moscow in 1989 when the thousandth anniversary of the advent of Christianity was being observed, and was amazed at the tremendous resilience of the faith that survived three generations of Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. There has also been a major upsurge of religious activity in Eastern Europe, West Asia and South Asia.

Some of these manifestations have been disturbing, because they point to a revival of fanaticism and lead to a growth of tension. On the other hand, they also show that religion remains a major motive force for the vast majority of the 5.5 billion inhabitants of planet earth!

This being the case, the question before us is whether we are going to revert to the medieval pattern of religious wars and internecine conflict, or move onwards to a new dimension, of interfaith dialogue, harmony and understanding. The Interfaith movement which began in Chicago a century ago has, over the last few decades, assumed increasing importance, and has been well described as a 'Pilgrimage of Hope'. There are several worldwide organisations, which propagate inter-religious dialogue, including the Temple of Understanding, the International Association for Religious Freedom, the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the World Congress of Faiths. There are also many communities and shrines specifically dedicated to a multi-religious consciousness, including the Lotus Temple in Yogaville, West Virginia, and the unique township of Auroville in South India based on the evolutionary spiritualism of the great philosopher-seer of this century, Sri Aurobindo.

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Several decades ago Sri Aurobindo wrote " The conflict of religions arises because each one claims the exclusive truth and demands complete adherence to it by the method of dogma, belief, ritual, ceremony and prescribed acts." The solution would be to recognize that the real truth of religion is in the spiritual experience of which it is an outer formation. To transcend, therefore, the outer form and insist on the spiritual experience, and, in addition, to recognize that there can be infinite and valid varieties of spiritual experience, is the important step in the solution. Religions cannot be unified, but there can be a synthesis of religious experience.

The Parliament of the World's Religions, and the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, marks a major milestone in the development of such a synthesis. We must reaffirm our commitment to eradicate poverty, disease and illiteracy from the face of the earth, as they represent a standing challenge to our sense of shared humanity, and we must direct our attention towards the interface between science and spirituality, which holds the key to a unified global consciousness.

While we individually seek within us that divine spark and clean our minds of bigotry and fanaticism, we need to take collective steps towards global inter-religious peace and harmony. Today we find the world riven with religious dissension's and rivalries. If we are to halt the rising tide of religious intolerance that seem to be engulfing us in many parts of the world, we must collectively enter into a contract with ourselves to take effective and meaningful steps to intervene, at the level of religious and spiritual leaders, to bring back sanity, peace and harmony. We must try and set up a permanent international forum, which would bring together major international interfaith and other world religious bodies into a sort of "Spiritual United Nations."Among other steps, one of the long-term measures needed is a paradigm shift in the traditional pattern of present day education. Instead of clinging to fixed ideas and rigid patterns, what is needed is a rediscovery of some of the insights of various religious and cultural traditions for a decisive breakthrough, a quantum leap into a new spiritual dimension.

This corrective reorientation of our education systems, both their outer structure and inner content, represents one of the most exciting challenges of our times. All over the world there is a growing number of individuals and organisations that are searching for methods to expand human consciousness in order to bring about a spiritual transformation. This can be achieved through a new education based on cooperation, collaboration, reciprocal altruism and personal and social responsibility. Only a comprehensive and holistic system of education can bring about a change in our consciousness and expand our personal and universal awareness so as to ensure harmony in the emerging global society. The universal values inherent in all the great religious system of the world need to be clearly articulated in terms of contemporary consciousness and the compulsions of global society. For example, in Hindu Vedantic thought one can abstract such principles as the all pervasiveness of the divine, the divine spark inherent in each individual, the essential unity of all religions and the concept of humanity as a single extended family - Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Swami Vivekananda was a forceful and passionate exponent of these universal principles. His dramatic debut in Chicago a century ago marked the beginning of a new chapter in the East-West dialogue and the interfaith concept.

In his opening address Swami Vivekananda said, and I quote: "Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilisations and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time has come; and, I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

"Unfortunately, his optimistic hope has not been fulfilled. But we cannot abandon the vision; it simply means that we must redouble our efforts to achieve the goals that he so eloquently articulate. For this it is necessary to highlight the olden thread of mysticism that runs through all the great religions of the world - the glowing vision of the great Upanishadic seers or the Jain Tirthankaras, the luminous sayings of the Buddha or the passionate outpourings of the Christian saints, the amazing assertions of the Muslim Sufis or the noble utterances of the Sikh Gurus. These and other traditions of ecstatic union with the Divine represent an important dimension of religion that is often submerged under the load of ritual and theology.

It is the many splendoured light of the Atman, "the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world," as the Bible has it, the "Ruhani Noor" of the Muslims, the "Ek Onkar" of the Sikhs, that must form the basis not only of organised religion but, more importantly, of the inner spiritual quest. In the tumult and turmoil around us we must never lose sight of this inner light and the deeper purposes behind outer events. As Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi said in one of his great quatrains

"Wherever I look there are torches and candles,
Wherever I turn there is tumult and shouting.
For the world today is heavy and in travail
Striving to give birth to the eternal world."

And the seer of the Upanishad, having glimpsed that eternal world, cries out in ecstacy

"Vedahmetam purusham mahantam adityavamam tamasah parastat"

"I have seen that great being, shining like a thousand suns beyond the darkness".

We have ultimately to find that light within us and become one with it. Then only will the true significance of the inter-religious dialogue become manifest, and then only will religion fulfill its true dual purpose - to lead us inwardly towards the spiritual light and outwardly towards peace, harmony and global consciousness, as humanity hurtles into the future astride the irreversible arrow of time.

Chapter 16 India and the World

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Interfaith Dialogue

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