Religious Conflicts: One God, two humanities
by Virendra Parekh on 18 Mar 2009 16 Comments

In the night, we stumble over the things and become acutely conscious of their separateness. But the day reveals to us the great unity which combines them all. Similarly, the man who is enlightened at once realizes the spiritual unity reigning supreme over all the differences of races, creeds and colours, and his mind, therefore, no longer awkwardly stumbles over individual facts of separateness, accepting them as final.” - Rabindranath Tagore

The Upanishads describe Brahman as the One without the other (ekamevadvitiyam). Jehovah revealed himself to Moses as the only God of the Jews, according to the Bible. There is no God other than Allah, says Quran.

If God is one, why should his followers fight bloody battles in his name? The short answer is that although all peoples and cultures have a God in some form or other, the word does not mean the same thing for everyone. Even within the same culture, its meaning varies representing different grades and levels. For the same individual, the meaning of God changes with his spiritual evolution. 

The unity of God in monotheistic religions is quite different in concept, content and consequences from the spiritual unity sought by the Indic traditions, and indeed by all ancient religions, eastern and western.

One way or no way

The Abrahamic traditions make a sharp distinction between the Only True God and all other gods. The latter are regarded as usurpers, pretenders, impostors and abominations, if not handiwork of Devil. The God of the Semitic creeds is single, male, exclusive, external and all powerful. He is kind and benevolent to his followers (and them alone), though he could be ruthless in testing their loyalty to him.

Above all, this God is jealous. He brooks no other god. He seeks to command supreme allegiance of the entire mankind by denying and destroying all other rival objects of worship. He is Ishmael-like, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against his. His followers are forbidden from believing in or worshipping any other god in any manner. “Slay everyman his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour,” ordered Jehovah to those who truly followed him.

The only true god does not speak directly to his followers, the Chosen People, but only through a messenger or prophet. The importance of the messenger or the prophet cannot be overstated. He and he alone receives the word of the God, which is recorded in the Book. Everyone else has to learn it second-hand, and accept it as authentic even when it runs counter to one’s experience, or reason, or moral sense, or all of them taken together. No one else can have direct knowledge of it or aspire to enter the consciousness to which it was revealed. Belief in the word of God as spoken by the Prophet and as written in the Book is, therefore, all that is needed for qualifying as one of the faithful.

This theology, which underlies Judaism, Christianity and Islam, speaks of One God but two humanities. The distinction between the believers and the unbelievers, the faithful and the heathen, the Mu’min and the Kaffir is as clear as between white and black, day and night. The prophet intercedes on behalf of the faithful on the Day of the Judgment and saves them (and them alone) from eternal Hell fire, which is the final destiny of mankind unless it believes in the only true God.

Jehovah, the exclusive and jealous God of the Jews was adopted by Christianity and Islam. In their hand, he became even more exclusive, jealous and far more ambitious and bellicose. With Jews, he was their God alone. Other people had to be content with their gods, however false these gods might be. But with Christianity and Islam, he offered to become the God of all mankind, opening the floodgates of crusades, missionary subversion, and jihad.

The first thing that strikes us is the irrationality of it all. The Book is the Word of God, because the Prophet or the Saviour has said so. The Prophet or the Saviour represents God, because the Book says so. There is no independent proof. The claims made on behalf of the Book and the Saviour or the Prophet cannot be referred to any system of logic, and they cannot be verified by any experience that human beings in this world are capable of. They are to be accepted on authority.

More important is the intolerance that is the fruit of such bitter seeds. Other Gods must be dethroned, and so must also die those who speak in the name of other gods (Deut. 18.18-19). The “Articles of Religion” of the Anglican Church makes it clear, “They are also be had accursed that presume to say that every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth… for holy Scripture set out unto us the Name of the Jesus Christ whereby men must be saved.” Misaq, the covenant into which Allah enters with Muslims (Ummatu Muhammadi) commands them to worship him alone.

Nor is the intolerance merely passive, confined to the psychological level. The believers must strive, ceaselessly and by every means at their disposal, to convert the unbelievers to the new creed. Religions and cultures which preceded the arrival of the Prophet or the Saviour or the Messenger have to go and yield place to the religion and culture of the age of ‘enlightenment’. Finally, the lands of the believers must be made into launching pads for missions as well as military expeditions to be sent to the lands of the unbelievers, so that the latter are conquered and turned into lands of the believers.

Ekam sat

Any follower of Indic religions would at once realise that he is in an unfamiliar world, on a strange terrain. The Hindus do not call their gods either ‘One’ or ‘Many’. What they worship is One Reality, ekam sat, which is differently named. This Reality is everywhere, in everything, in every being. It is one and many at the same time and it also transcends such distinctions. Everything is an expression, an image, a play or an echo of this Reality.

Reality is like Ganga. Different villages situated on it know it by different names, but they are all on the same river and nourished by the same waters. Just as sugar is sweet at all points, just as a nugget of pure gold is the same at all corners, just as the ocean is the same on all its shores, the Reality is the same everywhere at all times. In the language of philosophy, it is the material as well as the efficient cause of the world. It pervades, encompasses and transcends everything. It alone is. Nothing is outside it.

In such an approach, the number of gods can be increased or decreased at will. It is a matter of classification or viewpoint. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, to a repeated question regarding the number of gods, Yajnavalkya began with the popular figure of 3306 and ended up by reducing them all to one. But this ‘one’ God of Yajnavalkya was not the God of Christian or Islamic theology. For, on further questioning, this one God turned out to be “Breath” (Prana), also called Brahma. Yajnavalkya was speaking the language of Yoga, of the Sadhana of Prana, the churning of the life force.

In such an approach, it is not surprising that each Vedic god has a thousand names (Sahastranama), some of which he shares with other gods. Each god has multiple functions and multiple forms. Gods are friends, one and equal. Several gods are invoked together, are given offerings together. Each god is supreme in turn. All names are His/Her names, all forms are His/Her forms, all worship is His/Her worship, for this Ultimate Reality is without or above gender. As a result, praises and hymns that are given to one also belong to the other.

God or path

In this deeper approach, the distinction is not between a true One God and false Many Gods, but between a true way of worship and a false way of worship. Wherever there is sincerity, truth and self-giving in worship, the worship reaches the true altar by whatever name we may call it. “Whatever excellent praises are given to other divinities also belong to Indra, the bearer of the Thunderbolt” (Rig Veda 1.7.7).

In a hymn addressed to Agni, the sage says “Whatever we offer in repeated and plentiful oblation to any other deity is assuredly offered to thee” (Rig Veda 1.26.6). In Gita, Lord Krishna assures us that “those who worship other gods with faith worship me” and that “I am the enjoyer of all sacrifices” (Gita 9.23-24). On the other hand, if worship is associated with ego, falsehood, conceit and deceit, then it is unavailing, though it may be offered to the most True God.

This deeper approach to gods has bred a spirit of tolerance and freedom. It draws into a fellowship all those who accept the moral law and earnestly search for the truth. Here there are no blood-chilling cries of jihad, no Church to terrorise the heretics, no missionary machinations of conversions, no devils, no curses, no Hell fire. There is no need to despise others, or worry about bringing them to the ‘right’ path.

This spiritual approach is variously called Vedic, Indic, Eastern or Oriental. But there is nothing geographical about it. It was shared by all ancient cultures. Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt worshiped many gods, but were remarkably free from religious wars, although they had their full quota of other kinds of wars.

Rome, Athens and Alexandria were open places where followers of different religions met and discussed freely. When St. Paul visited Athens, he was invited by Athenians to speak about his doctrines. In ancient Rome, followers of different sects built their temples and worshipped gods of their choice in their own way. This freedom disappeared when Christianity, the religion of One True God, took over.

The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

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