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The Role of Religious Pluralism for a Pluralist Society

The Role of Religious Pluralism for a Pluralist Society

Author: Jay Lakhani
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A lecture given by Jay Lakhani at the conference on Leadership in a pluralist society at the East London Mosque.

The two major challenges faced by all world religions in modern times are: how to address the issue of strife in the name of religion and how to respond to the challenge of rationality. Hinduism has an important contribution to make on both these fronts.

Most people mistakenly think that Hinduism is a polytheist religion which promotes belief in many all-mighty Gods, we know that this is a naive and childish idea; there cannot be more than one ultimate reality as that would be a contradiction in terms.

Yet Hinduism is not so simplistic; it is and it always has been a gloriously pluralistic religion. It teaches that each one of us relate to what is normally defined as God or Spirituality in a uniquely individual way. This is not a statement of compromise but a statement of fact. It cannot be otherwise. There is no way we can relate to something without using our innate mental structure. We cannot jump out of ourselves, hence we utilise our own inner make-up to relate to everything, including spirituality. Pluralism is a statement of fact that simply says we will all perceive and express spirituality in our own individualistic ways. Even within the same religion or in the same sectarian body of a religion we find people who will relate to spirituality in slightly different ways. This is a good thing; it means that we are not robots but individuals. The idea of pluralism may sound very abstract so let me offer a simple example to illustrate it:

I go to many primary schools and talk to a great many Christian children. I ask them if they like to think of God as a father figure in heaven, and most heads nod in agreement. It is certainly a wonderful idea to think of God as a benevolent father figure looking after us and protecting us. But then there is always someone who does not agree. There will always be one little chap who will insist that he does not like to think of God as his father in heaven.

Why not? Because daddies are so rough and tough and strict, they shout when we haven't done our homework, "no TV, no supper, straight to bed" they say. "Daddies are so harsh, why can't God be my mummy in heaven? Mummies are so kind and cuddly, why can't God be my mummy in heaven?" What can we say to this? What right does anyone have to disagree with this approach? Pluralistic Hinduism would encourage the youngster to think of God as a mother figure in Heaven if that is what he desires. This is his way of making spiritual progress. This is what pluralism is all about.

I do not mean to suggest that God is merely a gender issue, what I am trying to emphasise is that every individual perceives God in a way that is best suited to them and it cannot be otherwise. Yet the idea of comprehensive pluralism is far broader than this. Pluralism accepts that the vast number of people progress spiritually in a theistic mode. The majority of mankind subscribe to monotheistic religions that have helped them relate to spirituality for thousands of years. But then there are also non-theistic ways of making spiritual progress as we discover with Buddhism and Jainism. These two major world religions do not invoke a God to promote spirituality but no one would dispute that they are very important pathways for spiritual progress.

The idea of comprehensive pluralism goes a stage further, it suggests that not only is it possible to make spiritual progress using a religious mode (whether it is theistic or non-theistic), but it is also possible to make spiritual progress in a non-religious mode. Every disciplined human endeavour like arts, music, literature, poetry, and science itself reveals a spiritual edge. It has to be so. If the underpinning to this reality is spiritual in nature, then it must be intrinsic in every field of human endeavour. Hindus recognise that this is precisely what is being discovered at the present time. For example what we are discovering at the heart of physical science can best be described as spiritual in nature but this has never been fully explored. The founding fathers of quantum mechanics have been telling us that the conceptual leap that has occurred in Physics with the discovery of quantum mechanics is mind-blowing. They are telling us that the primary building block of the universe is non-material, and this feature of modern science is classed in a category of 'absolute certainty'. Yet, this idea has not been properly explored. Instead we have documentaries by the likes of Dawkins that equate 'atrocities in the name of religion' to 'religion' as a way of demolishing the validity all world religions. My response to Dawkins would be that every discovery by mankind is fraught with danger. Discoveries from fire to nuclear energy have been used and quite often misused but this does not take away their validity. The same is true of spiritual discoveries. Religions too have often become tools for perpetuating atrocities, but this does not take away their validity.

Let me go back to the idea of religious pluralism as it offers the best prescription as to how people of many world religions can co-exist peacefully without threatening or without feeling threatened by each other. Let me use a metaphor to illustrate how to practise religious pluralism; ancient teachers used metaphors so why can't modern ones use them too? They are a very powerful tool to put across subtle ideas.

Imagine two five year old boys playing together. while playing they start discussing their mothers. One says, "My mum is the best in the world." The other says, "Nonsense, your mum is not the best, mine is, she cooks the best food." "Your mum cant cook" says the first, you brought those home-made cakes, they were like rocks, your mum is rubbish, my mum is best." Now if we tell a boy that his mum is rubbish, we can expect a third world-war. Boys being boys, they like to resolve differences physically. Soon they are hitting each other and both are getting bruised in the process. A wise man passing by may ask them what the problem is so that he can offer a resolution. After listening to their problem, he tells both of them to affirm with all the love and devotion they can muster: "my mum is best" but then he says, add two magic words at the end of the sentence and say, "My mum is best. for me," Both boys immediately agree and say that that is precisely what they meant, "my mum is best for me, not for anyone else." We may think that this is such an easy concept to grasp, but try to persuade the theologians of many world religions to say, "My religion is best for me and my congregation (and not necessarily for the rest of mankind)" and we very quickly discover where the problem lies.

Some theologians object to the idea of religious pluralism as they equate it to relativism suggesting that this concept dilutes their religion. Pluralism is certainly not relativism, which suggests that there is no absolute hence anything goes! Let me use another metaphor to illustrate what is involved in religious pluralism. Suppose we are all standing in a circle and we all want to reach the centre. We all point to the centre as the direction we have to take. Every one of us will be pointing in a different direction; if we compared our prescription to go to the centre, we will not come to any agreement. It may appear that there is no agreement as to which direction is right and the whole thing is pure relativism, yet we know that not to be the case. Even though we are all pointing in different directions, the direction we have to follow is binding. Each prescription, though different is binding as it allows us to make spiritual progress taking into account our different starting points. The binding nature of our prescription translates into practice in insisting that even though there are many different pathways (religions), we have to stick to the one that suits our needs and relates to our starting points. There is no need to shift or water down our faiths just because others are using different methods. One interesting bonus that comes out of this metaphor is that, provided we use our own methods to progress spiritually, as we move towards the centre we begin to feel greater affinity with people of other faiths who are also making progress towards the centre. It is only when we move radially away from the centre that we have difficulty in relating to people of other religions and also with people of our own religion. Let me emphasise that religious pluralism does not mean that we mix and match many religions and produce a new religion. Pluralism simply tells us that the religion that fits our needs and relates to our starting points, is best for us. This idea grants every one of us full permission to practise our own religion without compromise and without having to water it down. What a magnanimous idea. The issue of strife that has arisen in the name of religion can only be laid to rest in the name of religion. All other attempts to resolve the issue through political, diplomatic or social methodology are mere patchwork solutions. This issue can only be resolved by invoking the idea of religious pluralism which I have outlined.

Interfaith dialogue started with the idea of tolerating other religions, but this term was not correct, it was a concessionary title given to other religions. Recently there has been a shift in emphasis; now interfaith dialogue promotes the idea of showing respect for other religions. Is the Hindu satisfied with this? No! We need to move a stage further and adopt an attitude of 'giving educated acceptance' to other pathways for making spiritual progress. There is a reason why I use the term 'educated acceptance' rather than 'devotional acceptance' of other pathways. Pluralism does not expect us to be Hindus in the morning, Christians in the afternoon and Buddhist in the evening. That is not what pluralism means. It simply affirms that there are many ways of making spiritual progress. The path that suits our requirements is the best for us. We do not have to discard our pathways when we give educated acceptance to other pathways. Why should our pathways become any less potent when we discover that there are other pathways?

Let me also say that in this century it is inevitable that the truth claims made by various religions will have to be reconciled. They cannot continue to exist in a disjointed manner. Either all religions will survive or they will all fall. It is also inevitable that the truth claims of religions will have to be reconciled with the truth claims of science. Though this may appear to be a tall order, it is on the cards. What we are discovering at the heart of modern science is very exciting, it is very clearly pointing to a spiritual foundation to the universe. When I address youngsters at sixth form seminars or at colleges I talk about these links between science and spirituality. These talks are received with a great deal of enthusiasm. I tell the youth, "It is not the prophets of the past but the science of today that has the power to lead mankind to spirituality. It is the science of today that holds the key to reviving and refreshing the message of spirituality for the modern world."

Jay Lakhani of Vivekananda Centre, Director of Education for Hindu Council UK.


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