“Truth is one; sages call it by various names,” the Rig Veda, one of Vedanta’s most ancient texts, declared thousands of years ago.
We are all seeking the truth, Vedanta asserts, and that truth comes in numerous names and forms. Truth—spiritual reality—remains the truth though it appears in different guises and approaches us from various directions. “Whatever path people travel is My path,” says the Bhagavad Gita. “No matter where they walk, it leads to Me.”
If all religions are true, then what is all the fighting about?
Politics, mostly, and the distortions that cultures and limited human minds superimpose upon spiritual reality. What is generally considered “religion” is a mixture of essentials and nonessentials; as Ramakrishna said, all scriptures contain a mixture of sand and sugar. We need to take out the sugar and leave the sand behind: we should extract the essence of religion—whether we call it union with God or Self-realization—and leave the rest behind. Whatever helps us to manifest our divinity we embrace; whatever pulls us away from that ideal, we avoid.
The carnage inflicted upon the world in the name of religion has precious little to do with genuine religion. People fight over doctrine and dogma: we don’t see people being murdered over attaining divine union! A “religious war” is really large-scale egotism gone berserk. As Swami Prabhavananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, would smilingly say, “If you put Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad in the same room together, they will embrace each other. If you put their followers together, they may kill each other!”
Truth is one, but it comes filtered through the limited human mind. That mind lives in a particular culture, has its own experience of the world and lives at a particular point in history. The infinite Reality is thus processed through the limitations of space, time, causation, and is further processed through the confines of human understanding and language. Manifestations of truth—scriptures, sages, and prophets—will necessarily vary from age to age and from culture to culture. Light, when put through a prism, appears in various colors when observed from different angles. But the light always remains the same pure light. The same is true with spiritual truth.
This is not to say that all religions are “really pretty much the same.” That is an affront to the distinct beauty and individual greatness of each of the world’s spiritual traditions. Saying that every religion is equally true and authentic doesn’t mean that one can be substituted for the other like generic brands of aspirin.
Every Religion Has a Gift
Every religion has a specific gift to offer humankind; every religion brings with it a unique viewpoint which enriches the world. Christianity stresses love and sacrifice; Judaism, the value of spiritual wisdom and tradition. Islam emphasizes universal brotherhood and equality while Buddhism advocates compassion and mindfulness. The Native American tradition teaches reverence for the earth and the natural world surrounding us. Vedanta or the Hindu tradition stresses the oneness of existence and the need for direct mystical experience.
The world’s spiritual traditions are like different pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle: each piece is different and each piece is essential to complete the whole picture. Each piece is to be honored and respected while holding firm to our own particular piece of the puzzle. We can deepen our own spirituality and learn about our own tradition by studying other faiths. Just as importantly, by studying our own tradition well, we are better able to appreciate the truth in other traditions.
Deepening in Our Path
Just as we honor the various world religions and respect their adherents, we must grow and deepen in our own particular spiritual path–whatever it may be. We shouldn’t dabble in a little bit of Buddhism and a little bit of Islam and a little bit of Christianity and then try a new combo plate the following week. Spiritual practice is not a smorgasbord. If we throw five varieties of desserts into a food processor, we’ll just get one unpalatable mess.
While Vedanta emphasizes the harmony of religions, it also stresses the necessity of diving deep into the spiritual tradition of our choice, sticking with it, and working hard. To paraphrase Ramakrishna, If you want to dig a well, you have to choose your location and keep digging until you reach water. It doesn’t do any good to dig a bunch of shallow holes.
While a shallow spiritual life is probably better than no spiritual life at all, it nevertheless doesn’t take us where we want to go: to freedom, to God-realization. Once we choose which spiritual path we wish to follow, we should doggedly pursue it until we reach the goal. The point is, we can do this while not only valuing other traditions, but also learning from them.
Different Paths to the Same Goal
Vedanta says that all religions contain within themselves the same essential truths, although the packaging is different. And that is good. Every human being on the planet is unique. Not one of us really practices the same religion. Every person’s mind is different and every person needs his or her own unique path to reach the top of the mountain. Some paths are narrow, some are broad. Some are winding and difficult and some are safe and dull. Eventually we’ll all get to the top of the mountain; we don’t have to worry about our neighbors getting lost along the way. They’ll do just fine. We all need different approaches to fit our different natures.
Despite external variations in the world religions, the internals are more alike than not. Every religion teaches similar moral and ethical virtues; all religions teach the importance of spiritual striving and the necessity of honoring our fellow human beings as part of that striving.
“As different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea,” says an ancient Sanskrit prayer, “so, O Lord, the different paths which people take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”