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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Non pace sincere al mondo (1)

(This piece was written during a visit to the church of St.Anthony of Padova, Italy in 2003 and is dedicated to the memory of Sri Chandrasekhara Saraswathi of Kanchi, India and St.Anthony of Padova, Italy).

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana

The thoughts for these essays came when I was visiting Italy and were in response to my reflections on the persistent conflicts between nations, ethnic groups and religious groups. After promising to share these thoughts with you, I wondered whether I should, because these thoughts will be read by many and may not be acceptable to a few. But that is not a good reason to withhold these ideas, which are based on my sincere desire for peace and harmony in this world. I am truly concerned about your growing up in this cruel and unpredictable world where innocent people suffer.

The title of this essay comes from a musical opus written by Antonio Vivaldi. The meaning of this Italian phrase is that there is no true peace on earth. Why is there so much violence between human beings? Why is there no genuine peace?

Why does one human being harm another, particularly someone he has never seen? How is it that we humans kill each other in the name of God and religion? These questions led me to think about religion and spirituality, concepts that are related but not identical.

Every culture promotes certain ideals and practices to attain them. If the ideal is God, the method is a religion with emphasis on prayers, rituals and faith. If the ideal is a quest for understanding the relationship between our personal and universal dimensions and relating to one Universal Force or Primordial Principle, the ideal aimed at is spirituality and the method involves reflection and an inward journey. One is an organized, collective activity. The other is a personal activity.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the reasons for human conflicts in the name of religion. Religion plays an important part in the lives of individuals and of societies. Religions have served as unifiers, community gathering places, schools, provider of community outreach for the poor and the sick, and sites for ethical forums. Religions have also contributed significantly to the arts and music of cultures. These are the strengths. Religions have their weaknesses too.

As pointed out by Richard Feyneman, the three areas that are influenced by religious traditions are metaphysical, rituals and customs, and inspiration and comfort. These three aspects of religions serve essential functions in individual lives and in the society. If so, where is the problem?

1.Metaphysical: This function of religion is to answer questions such as who we are, where we come from, what the origin of the sun, the planets and the stars are, who God is etc. The human mind has always wondered about the mysteries of the universe and of life in general. From time immemorial, sages and mystics the world over have asked similar questions. In Sanskrit, the famous questions are “Ko aham? Kim va? Katham idam?” (Who am I? How did this come about? ) Western philosophers have posed these riddles in almost the same words.

These questions can be divided into those that relate to the mystical aspects and those that relate to the physical aspects of life and of the Universe. Religion tries to answer both sets of questions. Reason (and science) can help attain an approximate answer for questions related to the physical aspects. But, it will always be incomplete since it can provide answers to only the “how” of things and not the “why”. This is where metaphysical aspects of religion come in, but with consequences.

Each religion started with the mystical experiences of one or more “divine” human beings. Ancient sages (rishis) of India, Buddha, Jesus and Mohamed looked inwards to find answers to questions on the ONE Unity behind all this diversity and on the relationship of man to his fellow men (women, of course) and to other forms of life. Their insights were universal, but the descriptions and visions were rooted in their culture and experiences. As Radhakrishnan pointed out, “something is directly experienced, but it is unconsciously interpreted in terms of the tradition in which the individual is trained”. The founders taught these revelations to their followers in infinite compassion. Their followers created institutions from these teachings based on their personal interpretations, resulting in numerous “schools” within a given religion. It is amazing how common and universal these teachings are, as they should be (2). Yet, conflicts arise.

Each religion has its own myths about the origin of the universe, the earth and life. Our ancestors generated these myths based on their understanding of natural phenomena, limited by the store of knowledge available in their times. Since people rarely moved far from where they were born and communication between cultures was minimal, differing myths came into being. Each myth used symbols from the environment in which it was conceived. India used elephants and snake in its mythology. Native Americans used the eagle, the bear and the buffalo. The Eskimo used the ice and the sea animals. The similarity in meaning of many of these myths is astonishing, although the symbols are different (3).

The salient point is that the mystical experiences and descriptions are comparable worldwide, whereas the explanations provided by religions for the origin of the universe, origin of life, and the physical phenomena of the world have become obsolete. For many individuals, simple explanations for complex phenomena of the world are more satisfying than scientifically evolved tentative answers. Science never says it has final answers; religion often insists that it does. Definite explanations are more satisfying and give a sense of security. We often swallow plausible explanations rather than accept the exploratory nature of scientific findings. We cling to myths, symbols and interpretations that our ancestors provided and INSIST THAT THEY ARE THE ONLY CORRECT ONES.

2. Moral and ethical: The second function of religion is to give us instructions on how to behave. It gives us moral and ethical values. This function also has two components. One stipulates codes of conduct towards our brethren, society, humanity, and nature. The other gives us rituals and observances to remember events in life and natural phenomena.

The former (codes of conduct) are based on universal values of love, compassion, duty, truth etc. There is an element of self-preservation in these values and they have been accepted and practiced even by those who do not follow any religion. The core concept is that what we do for selfish reasons are not as moral as what we do with the welfare of others in our mind and we should do unto others what we would want done unto us.

The latter (rituals) help create a concrete experience for the followers. Celebrating a Diwali, Hannakah , Ramadaan or Christmas gives a chance for people of kindred spirits and common customs to gather together and share their common values, visions, customs, food and culture. Rituals can connect folks with the spiritual sense of a deeper reality and thus are very important in every culture.

Rituals have another important function. Children cannot understand abstract concepts until after they are 12 to 13 years old. Until then they cannot reckon with conjectural questions such as, “Is there God?” or if there is God, “why is there so much suffering?” Young children need a concrete object, a symbol or an event to relate to. Daily rituals and periodic festivals furnish a stage; myths and symbols provide actors and drama. As children mature, rituals and festivals can facilitate their quest for meaning particularly if they are allowed and encouraged to remain open and inquisitive.

Look at the differences among cultures that developed independently when we were islands of humanity. Mark the diverse literature, stylized drama, musical nuances, variegated dresses and flamboyant festivals that are available to enjoy. How drab the world will be if there was only one language, one myth and one dress and the same type of food!! The differences are for celebration of life and not to fight about.

But how do we behave? We make distinctions and become attached to our symbols and rituals. Indoctrinated into time-honored dress, food and customs, we favor ours as “right” and others as misguided or weird and as even intolerable. We become intolerant and are sometimes cruel to people whose features, beliefs, or dress differ from ours.

3. Comfort and Inspiration: A third function of religion is to provide comfort and strength to the followers, particularly at times of stress. Who among us is not in distress or in sorrow at some time during our life? Religion can and does give solace and inspiration through “faith”, but faith in what? Faith in the system you were born into is reasonable; dismissing faith of others is not. Adhering to our received beliefs for comfort and inspiration does not oblige others to follow the same path. Innumerable mystics and a host of religious writers maintain that spiritual paths are like rivers. The Supreme Power (Atman, Lord, Vishnu, Christ, Allah, Buddha whatever the name) is like an ocean. Don’t all rivers flow towards the ocean? Is it not possible to have faith without becoming fanatic about it? Does one have to become a fanatic to achieve inspiration?

Reflections on these observations lead me to one single theme. We tend to believe that our own myths, symbols and rituals represent a truth that is not to be challenged by reason and observation, and insist that our way is the only way to salvation (whatever that means). As a result, we do not adequately teach our children to think on their own, to reflect on values and to cherish tolerance. Insisting that our children follow the transmitted faith hinders their ability to discover their own faith. This is surely a major cause of conflict both between religions and within each religion.

These observations lead me to suggest two things:

1.Each one of us should teach our children and by implication children everywhere that while respecting their own faith,they should not expect everyone else to hold the same beliefs. We should encourage them to reflect for themselves on spiritual and moral issues and guard against passionate speakers who preach intolerance.

2.We should insist that religious leaders avoid teaching that theirs is the ONLY way. They should accept the proposition that each of us is at liberty to follow our faith and that we are morally obliged to allow others the freedom to follow theirs.They should champion tolerance and renounce all forms of violence – violence in thought, speech and action.

Looking at history,what makes me think this will happen? Are we destined to await another Buddha or Mohamed or the second coming of Jesus? Even if that happens, what makes me sure, we will not forget the message and start another religion to fight about?

I am an optimist. I also believe in the capacity of the human spirit for love, compassion, and hope at an individual level. Something happens to these values when humans aggregate into groups! It is as if all these values are abandoned as soon as we classify people into “us” and “them”. Seeing the earth from outer space, we realize that we are all together in this spaceship and there are no “us” and “them”. Instant communication and easy travel have broken barriers and have connected us physically, culturally and economically. We now have the emotional barrier to break. That is a formidable task, but is achievable.

I wish to thank my good friends Jim Johnson and SV and my brother for their insightful comments and dialogue.


1. The title is the name of a composition by Antonio Vivaldi . It means “No true peace on this earth”.

2. Aldous Huxley. The Perennial Philosophy. Harper and Row NY 1970

3. Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth. Doubleday. NY 1987