A common tenet of Hinduism is “Sarva Dharma Sambhava, which literally means that all Dharmas (truths) are equal to or harmonious with each other. In recent times this statement has been taken as meaning “all religions are the same” – that all religions are merely different paths to God or the same spiritual goal.
Based on this logic the religious path that one takes in life is a matter of personal preference, like choosing whether to eat rice or chapatis to fill one’s stomach. One’s choice in religion is merely incidental and makes no real difference in the spiritual direction of one’s life. Any path is as good as any other. The important thing is to follow a path. However since the religion of one’s birth is not only as good as any other, but is the closest to access and easiest to understand, one should usually follow it whatever it may happen to be.
From this point of view whether one is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or of another religious belief is not important. Whether one goes to a temple, church or mosque, it is all the same. Whether one prays to Jesus or Allah or meditates upon Buddha or Atman the results cannot be ultimately different. All religions are equally valid ways of knowing God or truth. The outer differences between religions are merely incidental while their inner core is one, the knowledge of the Divine or supreme reality. Therefore members of all religious groups should live happily together, recognizing that there is no real conflict in what they believe in but only superficial variations of name and form.
This view of Sarva Dharma Samabhava has been turned into a political principle in modern India. It has come to dominate the thinking of the country and has been turned into the main tool of trying to harmonize different, often conflicting religious communities. However other countries in the world, notably nearby Pakistan and Bangladesh, have not taken it up. Religions espousing an exclusive or final revelation like Christianity and Islam have almost uniformly opposed it.
They do not think that their religion is just one among many but is the only, the last or the highest. They do not recognize genuine diversity in religious beliefs but divide the world into the true believers and the unbelievers. The disharmony between religion remains and in many instances has grown worse. Nor has this idea served to create an equality of views even within Hinduism where different sects still compete with one another.
Therefore, one is compelled to examine this issue further. Is the equality of all religions a spiritual principle that is fundamentally true or a wishful statement designed to try to create harmony in spite of actual differences between groups? Can such mere wishful thinking eradicate real differences and contrary beliefs? And is it the real meaning of Sarva Dharma Samabhava?
The Real Meaning of Sarva Dharma Samabhava
Let us first examine what Sarva Dharma Samabhava really means. It is simply a statement that all Dharmas are equal. But what are Dharmas? Dharmas are universal truth principles and natural laws that are eternally true. For example, the Dharma or property of fire is that it burns. One cannot imagine a fire that does not burn. Similarly there are ethical and spiritual principles or Dharmas.
Such ethical Dharmas are yogic principles like non-harming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), control of sexuality (brahmacharya), non-stealing (asteya), and non-hoarding (aparigraha), the yamas and niyamas of yogic thought. For example, since no creature wishes to be hurt to cause suffering to others is a violation of Dharma, while to seek to alleviate the sufferings of others promotes Dharma.
These are principles of right living valid for people of all societies and walks of life. Another important Dharmic principle is the law of karma that tells us that our actions have consequences both in this and in future lives, both for ourselves individually and for our world collectively.
In fact one could argue that no real Dharmic teaching is complete if the law of karma is not accepted. Understanding the law of karma we act in such a way to promote the good of all, regardless of our outer beliefs or appearances of name and form.
An understanding of the nature of Dharma and the law of karma must go together. Otherwise Dharma, which means natural law, loses its significance. Of course, many religions do not accept the law of karma, so how can they be called Dharmas?
Generally traditions that call themselves Dharmic, like Hinduism and Buddhism, regard religion as a way of meditation designed to bring us to union with God or to enlightenment, and to release from the cycle of rebirth. This could be called the Dharmic way of spiritual development. But all religions are not of this sort.
Are All Religious Teachings Dharmic?
From the notion of Sarva Dharma Samabhava the question must arise: Is everything that is taught in different religions throughout the world a Dharmic principle? Certainly all religions teach us, at least to some degree, to be good, to tell the truth, to control the senses, and other principles which are Dharma. Such principles should be accepted by whoever says them; yet they do not require any religious belief or revelation to follow them.
They are universal ethical principles which are largely self-evident if we look into the interdependence of all life. Yet beyond this, religions do not have much in common. Some religions, not only Biblical religions but also most forms of Hinduism, have a creator God, while some, like Buddhism and Taoism, do not. While Dharmic traditions, like Hinduism and Buddhism, look to enlightenment or Moksha as the goal, for other religions, particularly most forms of Christianity and Islam, salvation from sin and heaven and hell are ultimate realities.
Some religious groups regard the world as merely six thousand years old; others see it as billions of years old. Some allow the use of images in religious worship, others vehemently oppose it. Some religions are tolerant and accepting of other beliefs, others are proselytizing and prone to Religion is as varied as any other cultural phenomenon like dress, language or art. What is acceptable or laudable in one community may be unacceptable or even taboo in another. Religion is hardly of one piece only, nor does it only occur at the highest level. In fact religion can be a place where worn out superstitions and discriminatory practices are allowed to continue and often appears among the least enlightened aspects of human life.
Our God may be allowed to get a way with passion, partiality or violence that we would not tolerate in our fellow human beings. When one holds that all religions are equal and the same, this unfortunately ends any real dialogue between them. It sanctions existing religions as they are, as if anything that called itself a religion had to be valid as it is practiced today among its majority believers. Naturally this attempt to end debate between religions is hoped to end any friction between them.
Yet it merely serves to fossilize religions on the level at which they are at and does not provide further incentive for them to grow. It is like sanctioning all national boundaries as good and final, which would only make countries become more entrenched within their own separative identities.
Universal Dharma and Religion
Religions contain beliefs and dogmas that are not universally true and some that are not Dharmic at all. Otherwise separative religious identities and the whole history of religious conflict, holy wars, and the effort to convert others to a particular belief could never have occurred. There are adharmic principles in all religions and in some religions, at least at some times, adharmic principles predominate.
The question must therefore arise: Are the beliefs of all religions Dharmas or universal truths? Clearly not. Many of these are simply dogmas, things that are supposed to be true but are merely the opinion of certain people. The Christian belief that Jesus Christ is the only son of God is not a Dharmic principle, an eternal or universal truth, but a belief or imagination of certain people over a limited period of time.
It is an idea conditioned by time, place and person that cannot be acceptable to everyone. The Islamic belief that Mohammed is the last prophet is also not a Dharma, but an identification of truth with a particular person and a specific historical revelation. Nor is the belief that an historical revelation like the Bible or the Koran is the Word of God a Dharma or universal law but only the opinion of a particular community. An eternal heaven and hell are also not Dharmic principles. This idea possesses an eternal reward or punishment for transient deeds, which violates the law of karma.
While one could argue that such beliefs can be employed as a means to lead people to Dharma, instilling moral and ethical virtues on the ignorant, it is clear that these beliefs can be used for social domination as well. Even within Dharmic traditions are things that are not Dharmic. For example, a caste system determined by birth, such as many Hindus take it to be, is not Dharmic. It does not reflect the nature of individuals, of which birth is only one factor, and not necessarily the main one.
So clearly some of the fundamental and primary tenets of different religions are not Dharmic or universal but limited and therefore sectarian and divisive in their application. Even if they have some value we should not put them on par with universal truth principles. And we cannot ignore the problems that arise from various religious beliefs, placing them under the protective veil that all religions are true. Above all we must recognize that dogma is not Dharma.
That we should respect all Dharmas should not translate into respecting all dogmas and refusing to question them, which failure to seek the truth is itself adharmic. That all Dharmas are one should not be used as an excuse for adharma to place itself beyond question. That Dharma is one does not mean that adharma should be able to hide itself in the garb of religion.
While we should respect Dharma wherever we find it, we need not accept dogma in order to do so. In fact where there is dogma there can be no Dharma. Dogma is an unquestioned belief held to be true by faith alone, even if it is irrational. Dharma is a universal law that we can discover through objective inquiry, questioning all dogmas and preconceptions. To uphold the unity of Dharma we cannot sanction and protect all dogmas. To raise the banner of Dharma we must question dogma and the darkness of religious belief, not just in our own religion but in all religions, in ourselves and in all humanity.
Hinduism has sought to define itself through Sanatana Dharma or the universal and eternal Dharma. It does not require belief or dogma, though it does have its culturally conditioned forms and vehicles to promote Dharma. Hindu Dharma has tried to accept all Dharmic principles and to include all of these within itself. Buddhism and Jainism also are called Dharmas and aim at Dharma, sharing the basic principles of karma, enlightenment, and yogic practices as Hinduism, though defined somewhat differently. However Western and specifically missionary religions (Christianity and Islam), with few individual exceptions, have not accepted the Dharmic traditions of India as valid.
They continue a campaign to discredit and displace Dharmic traditions under the guise of saving souls. It is not souls that they are really saving but Dharma that they are ignoring, if not degrading. Such religions generally insist that even a good person cannot gain salvation unless he or she has the proper religious belief, which naturally is their belief. A good Hindu, by this account, cannot gain Divine favor unless he converts and becomes a Christian or a Muslim. That is, the Dharma or nature of a person is not the deciding factor for missionary religions but the belief or the dogma that people accept.
Belief and Dharma
The correct term for the common Western idea of religion, which is a particular belief, in Hindu thought is not be Dharma but “mata” meaning a belief, view or opinion. There is no such possible statement as “Sarva Mata Samabhava” or the equality and unity of all opinions. Opinions are as diverse as the minds of creatures. Nor need we seek to make all opinions one and the same. A diversity of opinions is an essential part of the freedom necessary for seeking the truth.
Opinions are various and even contradictory. Some may be right, others may be wrong. They are speculative views that must be proved in practice. That fire burns is a Dharma. It is its natural quality. If some one has the opinion that fire does not burn we do not have to respect that idea in order to maintain the universality of all Dharmas. We should allow everyone to have his or her own opinion about religion, because the minds of living beings are unique and move in different paths, but we don’t have to sanction all religious opinions as true in order to do this.
No belief is a Dharma. A Dharma is a truth principle. A belief is a conjecture held to be true. One does not believe that fire burns, one knows it. To equate a belief, like that of Christ’s resurrection in Christianity or Mohammed’s ascension to Heaven in Islam, with a Dharma, is an error. There can be no harmony or unanimity of beliefs. Beliefs are inherently limited, though they may have their metaphoric value they can easily create distortion and division if we take them literally.
Religions as we know them from the Western world are largely belief systems which state that truth belongs to a particular person, group, holy book, or name of God and that those who do not share this belief are somehow wrong or evil. There is certainly no record of any major Christian or Islamic leaders who contradict this statement and state that Hinduism or Buddhism are as good as their religions and that therefore all efforts to convert followers of these religions are misguided and should be ended! If all religions follow the same Dharma let all religious leaders say that they accept the law of karma as valid and Self-realization as the real goal of life.
Let a pope, bishop, mufti or mullah proclaim that one can find God without Jesus or Mohammed, the Bible or the Koran. If these religious leaders are not saying such things how can anyone state that all religions are the same?
Belief-centered religions are based upon time, place and person and therefore contain much that is not universal or valid. The exclusivism of their beliefs has historically led to forceful efforts to convert others that are adharmic. Hence religious exclusivism is the real bar on social harmony between religious groups. Making all religions the same has not ended this exclusivism but, on the contrary, has allowed it to continue without question, giving it a kind of religious sanction. It has placed exclusive beliefs on par with more tolerant traditions.
While there is much adharmic in the social evils, like caste, that have arisen in a misapplication of the Hindu religion, there is no adharma in its core formulation that transcends time, place and person, and emphasizes the eternal over the historical element in religion. Hinduism does not require an exclusive formulation of truth but welcomes diversity and multiplicity in religious approaches.
Religion and Truth
Great thinkers have said not only that God is Truth but that truth is greater than God. If it is a question of having either God or truth, one should take truth and leave God behind. Following the same logic one could say that truth is greater than religion and if it is a question of choosing religion or truth one should take truth and leave religion, however old or popular, behind.
Yet if we do this, there may be little left over of certain religions for anyone to follow. Does it really serve the cause of truth to make all religions equally true? Look at religions and what they have done through history. They are filled with superstitions and prejudices and divide people into warring camps. Major religions have only sons of God, virgin births, last prophets, bizarre claims of miracles, and many assertions that contradict not only science but reason and common sense.
The God of many religions, like a tyrant, condemns his enemies to cruel tortures and exalts his favorites even if they commit vile deeds in his name.
If one were to take such statements as symbols or metaphors of a mystic path it would not be so bad and there are a few who attempt this. But all over the world most religionists still interpret their faiths literally and insist that their book is God’s word, which no one can challenge. Religion as we have known it is not so much a beautiful field of truth or mysticism but an abyss of negative emotions and hostile actions that have scarred the minds and lives of millions, may billions of people.
It would better to regard all religions as false because this would at least cause people to seek the truth and make them question what religions have taught. To make all religions true, with all their human imperfections, is to make people hostage to any falsehood, half-truth, or misinterpretation that happens to call itself religion. And certainly all human beings would like their opinions, beliefs and prejudices to become a religion. Nothing is more flattering to the human ego than to ascribe our biases to God and to sanction our desires and ambitions as the working out of His will.
Unity of Mysticism
A further point is made by certain thinkers that, though religions have differences that can be major, they also contain an inner dimension of mystical teachings which is the same. This view is a closer to the truth but not as close as its votaries may like to believe. Certainly mystics of different religions have more in common in their experiences and practices than ordinary believers. However, if we look deeply, we do not find any simple unanimity among mystics either. There are different views of Moksha and Nirvana within Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
There are disputes between dualistic and non-dualistic Vedanta (dvaita and advaita) within Hinduism. Christian and Islamic mystics seldom accept the law of karma and usually insist upon their particular heaven or paradise as the highest, even if they hold that there is only one God. There are many levels and stages of mystical experience between ordinary human consciousness and the highest Self-realization that can be quite varied and not free of illusion. Hence while the mystics of different religions may have more in common than the orthodox, they hardly all teach the same thing.
In fact some mystics have been missionaries or taken militant roles in crusades and jihads because their personal experiences made them more zealous in their beliefs. A mystic who does not have the proper purity of body, mind and intention can end up in an exaggerated state of mind that can lead to extreme actions. There is also a dark or Asuric mysticism. Not all mysticism is of a sattvic or selfless nature. Hence the Vedas say that even demons practice Yoga to gain occult powers in order to control the world. We will examine this issue in depth in the chapter on Devic and Asuric Forms of Mysticism.
All Religions as One at their Origin
Other thinkers hold that what the original teachers of religions taught was the same but that their followers later misunderstood or distorted their teachings. They hold that what Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Krishna originally taught was the same, but that later people turned their message of unity and tolerance into a sectarian religion. Yet if we look closely at the existent teachings of such religious leaders we find very different approaches, attitudes and behavior.
Books like the Koran and the Gita are hardly alike either in their tone or teaching. Such main topics of the Gita as the Self, karma, the gunas, yoga and renunciation are not found in the Koran unless we insert them between the lines. Teachers like Mohammed and Buddha had very different manners, one being aggressive and assertive in his religious proselytizing, the other being passive and non-violent. The list of could go on and on.
If religions differ so much in the world, there is no reason to believe that all their founders must have originally taught the same thing, though some of them may have taught something similar. If we tell people to return to their original religion as taught by its founder, they may not find this magical unity of Sarva Dharma Samabhava but only an original zealousness and intolerance such as often exists at the early stage of religions, particularly those based upon an historical revelation.
Besides, if the majority of believers today view their religion in a certain light we cannot ignore that in favor of a mystical view of the religion that most of its believers would regard as heresy. The fact that certain religions feel compelled to convert the world to their beliefs shows something very different about the basis of their religions than that of religions which honor pluralism and have no need to make everyone think and act as they do.
To pretend that all religions are originally good is as much a mistake as to regard different cultural concepts of truth, justice or beauty as all correct. True religious inquiry does not require pretending all religions are good but discarding religious teachings that are harmful and upholding those based upon higher impulses. Naturally existent erroneous beliefs will not give up without a struggle, and as their power is mainly in the political world, the struggle will be political as well spiritual.
As false beliefs tend to militance in order to protect what are indefensible ideas, they will certainly resort to force to preserve themselves. We should have no illusions about the complications that this may create in the external world. At the same time we should have no illusions that the continued existence of false beliefs will not lead their followers to harmful behavior on various levels. False beliefs will lead to wrong actions until they are removed.
The Pluralism of Paths
Sarva Dharma Samabhava is equated with the idea that “Truth is one but the paths are many.” There is indeed One Truth and there is no limit as to the number of potential paths to it, whether inside religion as we know it or beyond it. This plurality of paths is as important a principle as the unity of Truth. There are many and diverse paths to truth that cannot be limited or stereotyped along one approach, however useful that approach may be. Different individuals possess different temperaments and are at different stages of spiritual growth.
Therefore a variety of approaches must be offered to meet the various needs of living beings. We must respect this pluralism of paths as much as the Unity of Truth or we will turn that infinite unity into an exclusive path or rigid uniformity in which both the One truth and the many paths are denied. The pluralism of paths is the basis of religious freedom and freedom of inquiry through which alone we can discover what is real.
Yet the statement that truth has many paths does not mean that all paths, as long as they call themselves religious, must be equally good and lead to the same goal. A pluralism of spiritual paths implies that there are paths that lead to falsehood and paths that lead only to partial truths. Not all paths take us to the full truth of existence. A path can only take us as far as it goes. For example, a religion that does not teach any experiential path to Self-realization, which has no concept of karma or liberation, and no gurus or living lineages who have attained it, cannot take us there, however faithfully we may practice it.
It can only take us to the idea of God, heaven or salvation that is its stated goal. A pluralism of paths implies some plurality in the goal as well, with the true goal only coming at the end of a complete path. We should respect a diversity of paths and the freedom of people to follow them, including to follow paths that do not lead to the full truth. No one path to truth can be imposed upon all humanity. Truth is something that we can only discover in the freedom of our own inner seeking.
If it is imposed upon us externally as a belief or a concept, it becomes artificial and prevents real inner growth. Sometimes through taking a wrong path and realizing our error we can learn a great deal, perhaps more than halfheartedly following a true path. There obviously is no cosmic law preventing wrong paths to exist or stopping people from following them. A pluralism of paths encourages discrimination between paths rather than making all paths the same. If many paths are possible, some true and some not, we must be very careful about the path that we are taking.
Even a path that may be right for one person may not be right for another, so we cannot assume that what worked for someone else must work for us as well. Recognizing one truth and a diversity of paths requires that we examine each path critically, not that we blindly make all paths equal and true. Making all religions the same destroys this discrimination and allows wrong paths to be placed beyond scrutiny. It would be like saying that all so-called medicines are equally good for everyone and prescribing the same medicine for all. The result would be not healing for all but the poisoning of many.
Unity of Religions and Monotheism
Modern votaries of Sarva Dharma Samabhava have tried to make the goals of different religions the same, even if these are very different in formulation. The idea of the unity of religions has encouraged equating all statements of oneness or unity of the Divine given in different religions. Notably monotheism, the idea that there is only One God, gets equated with universalism, the idea that all is God (monism).
Monotheism, we should note, is usually not monism. It is usually an assertion that only one formulation of God is true, rather than a unity between all formulations of Divinity. The goal of monism is usually mergence into God or the Absolute, while that of most forms of Western monotheism, is a heaven or paradise in which the soul worships God, and from which those who don’t believe in this form of God are excluded. Monotheism, particularly in Western religions, is usually an exclusive formulation that divides humanity into the believers and the unbelievers and refuses to accept truth that falls outside the boundaries of its belief.
Its One God is not a universal principle but a singularity, not a force of unification but one of separation. Monism is usually a product of pluralism, accepting the value of many paths. Monotheism usually denies pluralism, insisting upon only one true path.
The unity of truth therefore cannot limit itself to monotheism of a particular persuasion but must honor all spiritual aspiration whatever form it takes. This means that not only monotheism of all types (not only the Biblical), but polytheism, pantheism, monism and other religious formulations are have their validity. In fact what the monotheistic West calls polytheism is usually not a primitive worship of many Gods but a genuine diversity of paths and a freedom of approach to the One Truth, what is really a monistic approach.
The idea that there are many names, forms, qualities and ideas of Divinity that can be represented by various Gods and Goddesses was the basis not only of so-called Hindu polytheism but also that of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Kelts, Native Americans and perhaps most so-called polytheists all over the world. The Vedic principle of Sarva Dharma Samabhava originally arose to show the unity of the Truth, Self or Atman behind the worship of all the different Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.
It was not meant to reduce that multiplicity of approaches or scale down its forms to something simpler or more uniform. Sarva Dharma Samabhava was a sanctioning of pluralism, not an attempt to reduce all paths to a single point of view. However the idea that all religions teach the same thing, accepting dominant forms of monotheism as the model of true religions, has not led to the acceptance of religions denigrated as polytheistic.
It has not created a genuine pluralism but has become an instrument for trying to remake pluralistic religions like Hinduism in a Western monotheistic mold, or rejecting them as primitive because they don’t resemble the world’s so called great religions and their model of One God, One Teacher and One Book. Modern Hindus under this idea are inclined to say that they are also monotheists, that they also have their prophets, and their Bible, rather than affirming the pluralism of their tradition which cannot be reduced along such stereoptyed lines.
In fact pluralism in religion is more important than unity. A respect for different Dharmas is more important than making all Dharmas the same. If we accept pluralism in religion – that there are many different religions which teach different and sometimes contrary things and that people should be free to follow whatever religion they wish, emphasizing the discovery of truth – this would go farther in creating religious tolerance than calling all religions the same, which they clearly are not.
Modern Sarva Dharma Samabhava, in failing to emphasize pluralism, ends up creating intolerance by trying to put all religions in the same mold, which tends to over emphasize the importance of certain monotheistic beliefs. Those who do not accept their simplistic equation of religion are rejected on principle as irreligious.
Value of Religions
That we might not regard all religions as the same, however, does not mean that there is no value in different religions. We can honor religions for what they have to offer historically, culturally, intellectually, or on whatever level, without having to make them into something Divine and not to be questioned. The Bible, for example, is an extraordinary book with much great history, poetry, and wisdom that is worthy of profound study and reflection.
But it is hardly the Word of God, true in all respects or for all time and for all people. In this regard all religions are part of our human legacy and must be understood, just as all the events and leaders of a nation must be examined to understand its history. Questioning them does not mean mindlessly discarding them but taking them for what they are worth, which in religion like in any human field of activity, from politics to art and science, has both some benefit and some imperfection.
The most that one could say about the unity of religions is that all religions represent to some degree a human seeking of the Divine and transcendent, however imperfect that may be. Just as all forms of art, however varied, high and low, primitive or sophisticated, are seekings, consciously or unconsciously, after beauty; or just as all human laws, however varied, good and bad, magnanimous or cruel, are seekings for justice; similarly, all religions, however varied, Dharmic or adharmic, represent a human seeking for something beyond time and space, death and sorrow.
But to extend this principle to sanctify all religions as good would be just as naive as to use such a higher truth behind any human seeking to justify the various, often imperfect and sometimes erroneous forms this seeking takes. While we must honor the higher truth behind our human aspirations we must also recognize how easily the human mind can distort higher aspirations for its egoistic ends. While we should be open to truth wherever we find it, this does mean that we must blindly and indiscriminately accept all religions as true in order to do so.
That some aspect of truth exists in all religions does not mean that all aspects of all religions are true, or that all religions are essentially the same. There is an aspect of truth in art, science and non-religious aspects of human culture. Does Sarva Dharma Samabhava require equating all these as well? Should we therefore equate Einstein with Buddha, or Shakespeare with Christ? Hence we must be very careful in associating Dharma with religion and insisting that different religions are inherently as harmonious as different Dharmas. In fact different religions have inherent disharmonies that will require much time, study and communication to sort out.
They are as disharmonious or harmonious as the individuals, nations and cultures that follow them. It may be possible to eventually integrate all religions of the world into a broader religion, in which each religion of humanity has its place and its value. But it cannot ultimately give all human religions, which is a vague definition anyway, an equal place and value. This integration first requires that exclusive beliefs give up not only their exclusivism but also their aggressive attempts to convert others. When Sarva Dharma Samabhava fails to challenge the poison of conversion under the guise of respecting and tolerating all beliefs, it only ends up sanctioning religious division and intolerance.
Sarva Dharma Samabhava and Religious Conversion
Hindus have used the principle that all religions are the same to approach other religions on the level of intellectual debate. They have tried to deal with missionary efforts to convert them by trying to convince the missionaries that since all religions are the same there is no need to convert Hindus to another religion. They have added to this idea a corollary that everyone should follow their religion of birth, whatever it may happen to be, as if this was the will of God.
This idea was intended to mean that Hindus need not convert to another religion but it came to suggest that Christians and Muslims should stick to their religion of birth as well, including that Hindus should not seek to reconvert former Hindus once they have left Hinduism for another religion. Hindus have tried to prove their sincerity in this non-conversion policy by not seeking any conversions to Hinduism. Reconversion efforts by Hindu groups like the Arya Samaj were opposed by Hindu politicians to avoid causing any conflict between religious communities in India.
Needless to say this strategy has been far more effective in preventing Hindu reconversion efforts than in stopping the missionaries, who would be strongly opposed to any unity of religions or they would have never taken up the missionary mantle in the first place.
Sarva Dharma Samabhava as a strategy against conversion is a great failure and can leave Hindus defenseless against conversion efforts. Missionary groups can simply quote Hindu praise of Christ or the Bible, of Mohammed, the Sufis and the Koran, to convince Hindus that their religion is also good. They can tell Hindus that since Hindus believe all religions are the same they should not object to Hindus converting to other beliefs. In other words it only gives the clever missionaries more ammunition. “After all,” they say, “you respect our religion. Why not then join it?”
Hindu votaries of Sarva Dharma Samabhava pride themselves in supporting other religions. They tell a Christian to be a better Christian or a Muslim to be a better Muslim, and would not encourage them to become Hindus, as if these religions contain the same teachings and have the same value as Hinduism. This they think is being liberal in religious matters and will aid everyone in their quest for God. However, it only consigns people to the limitations of their religious beliefs as these actually are, not as they are idealized to be.
A religion that does not recognize Self-realization, God-realization or have any yogic sadhana, such as most Western religions have been historically, cannot lead people to Moksha in the Hindu sense. If one wants to help a person to find Moksha, which should be one’s real Dharmic concern, it is better to tell them to follow what is true, to seek out the Dharma, even if it may require going against their religion of birth.
Sarva Dharma Samabhava has been used more as a political than a spiritual principle. If one looks at its application closely, it is usually an attempt to gain favor from different potentially hostile religious communities. Politically it has been used to court the favor of various religious groups and to uphold vote banks based upon religious belief. Sarva Dharma Samabhava has been used by politicians to tell each of his constituents what they want to hear. It is an attempt to be all things to everybody. It tries to avoid the difficult questions and real problems with some imaginary harmony.
Naturally this may serve the politician’s urge to get elected but it does not address the real problems, which are often based on real differences between religious beliefs, particularly relative to their social manifestations. Of course, once elected the politician may do as he likes, but while seeking votes he has to appear to be on everyone’s side. It is this vulgar, self-seeking sort of all religions are good that has come to dominate modern India. Under the guise of social tolerance it is used to fuel personal and family ambitions.
Sarva Dharma Samabhava, which is a religious idea, has become a primary political principle in India – that in order to create social harmony we must honor all religions as the same, so that religious differences do not fuel social conflicts. Unfortunately the religious conflicts have continued. This is because pretending religions are the same, which is all this principle really does, cannot remove the real differences and misunderstandings between them.
Such respect for all religions is usually a one way street. Hindus are told to accept Sarva Dharma Samabhava, which means that they should not mind if Hindus are converted to Christianity and Islam and should avoid criticizing these religions even if what they believe appears to be a violation of what Hindus hold to be true. On the other hand, under the same principle, Muslims and Christians are not expected to reciprocate, stop their conversion efforts, or to become Hindus.
The result is that Sarva Dharma Samabhava has served to erode the Hindu view of truth and encouraged Hindus to give up their critical faculties in matters of religion. It is contrary to the spirit of the yogis and Rishis in which all manner of debate was encouraged in order to arrive at truth. Please note the Shad Darshanas, the six systems of Hindu philosophy, for such a tradition of free, lively, and friendly debate. When a superficial agreement is required for political harmony all real examination must come to an end. For this reason there has been a decline of intelligence in India and a diminishing of critical thinking about religion.
While we should all strive to be kind and not interfere with the religious views of others, this does not mean that we have to cease thinking in order to do so. Social tolerance should not be confused with equation of all beliefs and no longer discriminating between various religious teachings. To create social harmony Hindus need not give up defending their religion or critically examining the religions that oppose them. The logical result of this thinking would mean that Hindus should give up their religion altogether. Yet when Hindus try to defend their religion, they are accused of violating the principle of Sarva Dharma Samabhava.
On the other hand, when other religious groups violate this principle, which is what all missionary conversion efforts are doing, there is little criticism. When have Christians or Muslims in India ever been criticized for violating Sarva Dharma Samabhava? Does this mean that they have never done so? If the principle of Sarva Dharma Samabhava does not apply to them then why should we interpret it as meaning that all religions are the same?
Under the guise of religious tolerance this idea of equality of religions is used to prevent scrutiny of religious dogmas. Hindus are encouraged to accept the Bible or Koran as true like the Gita, for example, even without looking into what these books really say. Should Hindus look at other religions in a critical light, however intelligent, courteous or objective their views, they are called communal. Rather than uniting all religious groups, this principle of religious equality serves to sanction existing religions as they are.
Aggressive religions are allowed to continue to be aggressive. Passive religions are expected not to try to defend themselves. Each religion is given sanctity for what it has historically done, and religions are given the freedom to act without question under the veil of belief.
Freedom, Tolerance and Pluralism
What then is the alternative? What is the way of bringing understanding on the level of religion and social harmony between religious groups that often have very different, if not hostile beliefs? For this what is needed is a real tolerance between religions, which requires that we respect diversity in the religious realm, not make all religions the same. Members of different religious communities must recognize that other religions often teach something different about God, truth, salvation or liberation than they do.
Rather than pretending these differences do not exist we should acknowledge them and allow people the freedom to examine these. Equality of religions has been used to try to create tolerance through uniformity, but true tolerance is based upon freedom to be different, not on the assertion of some artificial sameness. We should tolerate all people, even if they do not agree with us. Tolerance of differences creates harmony, not pretending that differences do not exist. In fact if we only tolerate people if we make them the same as we are, we are not really being tolerant at all.
Similarly, members of other religions should learn to tolerate Hindus and respect the fact that Hindus do not always agree with them on matters of religion – that Hindus have their own spiritual and ethical views that other religious groups must consider as well. Should Hindus seek to redress the historical wrongs committed upon them by aggressive attempts to convert them, members of the religions involved should be willing to hear the Hindu point of view and honor it as they would their own grievances.
In a free society religious belief should be a personal matter. There should be no government enforced religious beliefs or dogmas. There should be political tolerance of all religious views as long as these do not involve violent or antinational activities. On the political level it should not matter whether one believes in any religion at all, much less what religion a person may believe in. Political tolerance of religious views, however, does not mean that individuals have to accept all religious views as right or good. In a free society one can be an atheist or agnostic or believe in any religion.
Does this mean that we have to respect atheism as equally valid as religion in order to truly practice Sarva Dharma Samabhava? In Western democracies there is a growing recognition of a multifaith and multicultural society. But there is no idea that all religions or all cultures are the same, that for example there is no difference between Christianity and Hinduism. Nor are religions, including Christianity, placed beyond question. In Islamic countries, on the contrary, there is still the attempt to impose Islam upon everyone and little respect for other religions.
In multifaith dialogues throughout the world there is a recognition of certain commonalties in religion of moral goodness but a recognition of many differences as well, particularly in regard to metaphysical beliefs. These differences are too significant to cover over. Hindus must recognize this fact as well.
A truly free and tolerant social order should be based on respect for all people and respect for all life. This means respect for the individual and not imposing any collective or politically enforced idea of religious truth upon them. We should recognize our unity as human beings, even though our religions may have as many differences as they may have commonalities. The correct principle of a truly free society is not the equality of religions but freedom from domination by religious dogmas.
This means that everyone should be free to follow or to question religion as they so choose. Hindus specifically should tolerate all religious beliefs because that is the nature of Dharmic action and respect for the Self of all beings, not to gain the political favor of minorities. And they need not accept all religious beliefs as true in order to do so. Hindus should not seek to politically enforce their beliefs, but they should not seek to politically enforce other religious beliefs either.
Hindus should act politically to defend the rights of Hindus for freedom and justice all over the world, just as they should do so to for all human beings and all creatures, regardless of their beliefs. Those who belong to other religions should know that Hindus will not attack them or interfere with their beliefs and will give them complete freedom in the religious sphere. Yet they should also know that Hindus will not stand quiet while other religious groups denigrate the Hindu tradition or when they use religious tolerance to hide political aggression and antinationalism in India.
They should know that Hindus have their own views of truth and cannot accept the missionary approach, exclusive monotheism, or any final savior or prophet as spiritually valid. They should know that in the intellectual and religious spheres Hindus will promote what they regard as truth and will not bow down to religious beliefs that are not acceptable to the principles of Sanatana Dharma. Other religious groups must learn that there is a Hindu voice, a Hindu conscience and a Hindu critique of religion that they cannot ignore. They must learn that Hindu tolerance is a form of strength and broad mindedness, not a form of weakness, placation or appeasement.
While a government should not criticize religions, it should not prevent their critical examination in society, banning books in the name of Sarva Dharma Samabhava. True religion should be like science, a seeking of truth, not an attempt to impose a belief without any examination. This requires that we do not accept the boundaries of religion but open the field of religion, all religious, to deep examination. An honest Hindu examination of other religions is essential to bring out a genuine inquiry today.
Return to Dharma
What is necessary is a return to Dharma or universal truth principles, not respect for all religions as they exist today, which with their dogmas are often sordid affairs. One must seek to uphold Dharma even if all the organized religions of the world have to be discarded. It is time for religions to bow down to Dharma, not for Dharma to be made in the image of religious beliefs and institutions. Spiritual truth transcends organized religion, which mainly serves various political and social aims.
Sarva Dharma Samabhava means the harmony of Dharma or truth-principles, not the equality of religious beliefs, dogmas or institutions. Those who use the term otherwise are misusing it. We are entering a new era in civilization today, in which religion must be radically recast, if not discarded. Only those religions willing to undergo a radical transformation are likely to survive. This change will be in the direction of experiential spirituality, in which the individual’s direct experience of God or truth becomes most important, and religious dogma and institutionalism is set aside.
This is the real Sarva Dharma that no group can claim to own or dispense. Hinduism as a religion of Dharma rather than dogma should lead the way in this revolution, which also means clearing up the adharma that can be found among Hindus today. Unfortunately the superficial universalism of political Sarva Dharma Samabhava is only creates a smoke screen for adharmic beliefs and dogmas to perpetuate themselves.
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