Theology of Religion

Religious Fundamentalism – Denial of Religion


 Religious Fundamentalism – Denial of Religion

Dr Vincent Kundukulam


                                                                                    Vincent  Kundukulam





A vast amount of pain and suffering was heaped on the world by the attack on the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001. No words can be adequate to condemn this event, which was directed against the innocent civilians. This tragedy has brought back into public the discussion about religious fundamentalism. Opinions are divided on the question whether religions can be held responsible for such crimes. Some believe that a true religious man cannot indulge in terrorist activities. Yet it remains a fact that these terrorists adhere to such practices, which are considered to be generally religious. This paper is an attempt to know the origin of religious fundamentalism, its general features, its particular meaning in Indian context and the factors leading to religious fundamentalism. We will also discuss the question whether fundamentalism is native to religion and see how fundamentalism can be checked with the essentials of religions.

We want to begin with a clear and simple definition of fundamentalism. But it is a very difficult task due to various reasons. First of all, one man’s fundamentalism is another person’s normality. What may seem excessive to a non-believer could be very real for a believer. Secondly, fundamentalism is a catchword for many a narrowed suggestion like conservatism, evangelicalism, sectarianism, obscurantism or bigotry. This term is often evoked in the context of fanaticism, terrorist activities and communal violence. Due to its vague and multifaceted meanings any attempt to define it creates confusion rather than clarity. Therefore what is being attempted here is an extended description of the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism.

1. Origin of fundamentalism

The origin of the term fundamentalism dates back to the last phase of the 19th century in USA. It was mainly a deliberate reaction to the general liberalism spreading in North America. The decade after the First World War was marked by the increasing degree of scientific and historical knowledge. Some clergymen and theologians attempted to interpret the Gospel and the fundamentals of faith with the scientific tools, which were developed in biblical and theological disciplines. This attempt to say something in tune with the spirit of modernism was perceived by the traditionalists as watering down the essentials of the gospel and diluting it into something easier and comforting to man’s environment. They felt that modernism built up man’s pride in himself and this would lead many to reject the help of divine grace and ignore the dependence of man on God. They were under the impression that modernism made the Church cold and dead.

In opposition to this liberal attitude, a series of books with the title The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth was published between the years 1909 and 1919 by evangelical and conservative theologians. The term fundamentalist seems to have been used for the first time by Cutis Lee Laws, a Baptist from North America on 1st July 1920 in the editorial of a New York weekly The Watchman Examiner. It designated those who were blindly attached to the great fundamentals of Christian faith and vehemently opposed to modern interpretations of the Bible based on new exegetical methods. (P. Lathuiliere, Le fondamentalisme catholique, Cerf, Paris, 1995, pp.15-19).

Its conservative supernaturalism was mainly expressed in five doctrines: inerrancy of the Bible; the Virgin birth of Jesus, the supernatural atonement (redemptive sacrifice through the blood of Christ), the bodily resurrection of Jesus and Jesus’ ultimate return in glory. The fundamentalists raised strong opposition against the historical interpretation of Holy Scripture, which they thought would undermine the status of the Bible as absolute and perfect symbol of the religion. This movement was characterized not only by its conservatism with regard to traditional popular Christian beliefs but also by its aggressive efforts to impose its creed upon the Churches, on the public and on denominational schools of the country. A political campaign was started in general places against the schools, which ceased to insist upon the obligatory prayer before classes, the reading of the Bible and divine service in colleges and universities. It removed from the churches and educational institutions those who did not share the conservative faith. In a number of denominational colleges the teachers were asked to subscribe to the fundamentalist creed on pain of dismissal. It induced state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting the theory of evolution. In short it refused, as it was said, to let a vociferous minority of godless men and woman bring America to the brink of ruin. (H.R. Niebuhr, Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences, vol.6, 526; S. Fuchs, The Fundamentalists, Indian Missiological Review, June 1995, 5-8.)

The growth of fundamentalism in America was closely related to the conflict between rural and urban cultures. It coincided with the depression of agricultural values after the First World War. Its popular leader was the agrarian W.J. Bryan. Modernism was identified with bourgeois culture having its strength in the cities and in the churches supported by urban middle classes. Fundamentalism flourished in those isolated communities where educational institutions were not adequately developed and culture remained static. The rural societies, which depended for their livelihood on the processes of nature and who received least profit from a rationalized culture distrusted reason and doubted the human ability to solve ultimate problems of life. (H.R. Niebuhr, 527)

The main feature of Christian fundamentalists is that they think of their own position as the only Christian position. They cannot tolerate any other Christian positions that can be contrasted with their own. They are the true Christians and those who did not share their viewpoint are not genuine Christians. They consider a non-fundamentalist as anti-evangelical. They cannot admit that different forms of service have all alike been pleasing to God. There is no value in talking of manifold ways of coming to God when God himself has made known to us the way by which he intends us to know him. To the fundamentalists, noble life, good deeds and saintly character of others do not matter because man is saved through faith and not by the goodness of any human work. In short Christian fundamentalism lived two pairs of contrasts: on the one side the contrast between the true Christian and the nominal Christian, on the other side the contrast between the more conservative theological opinions and the more liberal. (J. Barr, Fundamentalism, London, SCM Press, 1991, pp. 4-6; 12- 15)

2. Religious fundamentalism today

Fundamentalism has cut across Christian world and has become one of the most obvious characteristics of almost all the institutionalized religious traditions of the world. Israel carries out systematically terrorist attacks on the people of Palestine to deprive them of their homeland. Muslim fanatics are reported to be involved in insurgent acts of political terrorism, kidnappings and sectarian violence from Philippines to Indonesia to Thailand to Kashmir to Afghanistan to Algeria to Chechnya and Bosnia. Groups like Jama-at Islami, Lashkar Toiba, Al Qa’ida, etc., are examples of the growing fanatic tendencies in the contemporary Islam. The fundamentalist tendencies prevailed among the Hindus since time immemorial in the form of caste system and untouchability. With the advent of Sangh Parivar movements, who maneuvered the destruction of Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, Hindus have explicitly turned against other believers in the country. To deal with the variable forms and meanings that fundamentalism acquired throughout the world is beyond the project of this paper. Therefore we limit our study to India, which will show how fundamentalism grows here along with communalism.

In India The growing religious fundamentalism in India is not necessarily the same of Christian fundamentalism of 19th century. It is both the cause as well as the effect of communalism and inter-religious conflicts in Indian society. Fundamentalism is breeding a false consciousness among the members of their respective groups. It has emerged in India as an ideology to be a succour in the game of power. Its platforms are beginning to yield political returns. The ruling elites have found phenomenon of fundamentalism quite convenient to divert the attention of people from the genuine issues and demands. They disseminate fundamentalist ideology through communal conflicts; a violent clash here and a hostile atmosphere there; a case of discrimination here and another case of blatant partiality there. In one area one group faces the threat and humiliation and in another area the other group meets the same fate. The vested politicians create vote banks manipulating such circumstances on religious base  (R. Punjabi, Mainstream, 5, January, 1991, pp.18-20)

Fundamentalists of both majority and minority communities have adopted exclusiveness to flourish in the country. Instead of making efforts to seek commonalities, which could be brought forth among various religions, they prefer the literal interpretations of scriptures and adopt antagonistic postures towards other groups. They seek guidance from the societies and persons, which have no experience of living in multi-religious societies. They marginalize the moderate religious leaders. It is important to note that fundamentalism wages a two-pronged attack. First, it annihilates physically the moderate forces within the ranks of their religious groups. Thus the moderate voices of different religious groups are getting feebler in the cacophony of the fundamentalists. Second, fundamentalism tailors the religious beliefs and adjusts the doctrines of a particular faith according to their requirements.(R. Punjabi, pp. 19-20)

The recourse to history has become a frequent technique of fundamentalists. They go back to what they regard as the purer standards of bygone days. This recourse to history helps to do with the culture of people today. This is to infuse in the marginal minds a sense of false superiority complex. This device helps them distort the perceptions of average minds and shape new stereotypes and attitudes. Due to these distorted perceptions they come to clash with those groups and cultures, which do not share these false notions. They view the other with suspicion and cynicism. It gets reflected in their behaviour patterns in the offices, in schools and in day-to-day dealings. Underneath the peaceful society, groups of people are arraigned against each other as adversaries and they get divided on the slightest provocation. (R. Punjabi, pp. 18-20)

To consolidate their hold, the fundamentalists launch pseudo-religious organizations. These groups apparently maintain their independent identity as defenders of faith but extend their support during crucial moments of political mobilization. They adopt militant postures and at times they give the impression of coming in collision with the state. It is through these groups that the ideology of fundamentalism is diffused in society. Through their mechanizations the ‘I teach them a lesson’ syndrome has become operational in Indian society. (R. Punjabi, p. 20)

Main characteristics: Here are a few major characteristics of growing fundamentalism today. a) A fundamentalist is always certain what he means by the terms he employs. His value system is non-negotiable. The Fundamentalist position is intrinsic to faith. To ask him to modify it is to ask him for something that he cannot perform. He thinks that a rigid and uncompromising position suits their interest best. He thinks that his is the best system of thought and management that is available to humankind. To argue that there could be a plurality of ideas which could be equally valid is for the fundamentalists sacrilege; b) Another feature is the moral fervor with which the fundamentalist speaks. He is certain that some people have God’s authority to do what they will because they are doing all that in the name of a higher value which is unquestionable; c) The Fundamentalists believe that those who do not believe in his value system are evil or are inspired by evil. They regard their victims no longer as human beings but as creatures of the devil. (GPD, EPW September 29, 2001, 3668) d) the Fundamentalists reconstruct a golden past through historification of legends and myths. e) The Fundamentalists support communalist leaders by supplying literal and anti-religious interpretations of the Scriptures, which legitimate the exclusion of the other. f) The Fundamentalists transform themselves into fanatic groups who become insensitive to human suffering and use violence against the fabricated enemies.

3. Factors leading to religious extremisms

            Incapacity to confront change: Stability was a positive value in the Middle Ages. But with the Copernican discovery people came to realize that the earth has four seasons because it orbits the sun. Change was then slowly looked upon as creative. Change became law of progress. But all are not responding positively to change. Man finds it at ease with a known trajectory than an unknown trail. Changes engender insecure feelings in him as he comes to know that many of the values, which molded his personality in the childhood, are persistently devalued. He finds it difficult to adjust to the new habits and values. He feels the foundation of his life terribly shaken.

            To escape from this fear he is in search of principles, which are permanent. He finds them in religion. For him they are the Religions, which uphold the perennial values and principles of life. All through the centuries religions have proposed and taught the fundamental answers to his quest. It is not only expedient but also necessary for man to depend upon God and religion to face squarely the distress and frustration. Religious beliefs were born as a response to man’s existential fear. The problem arises only when this attachment to religion becomes narrowed and blind. The spirit of intolerance begins when he absolutizes his experience at the expense of others.

            Inability to discover the true religion: The undue attachment to one’s own religion happens partly because of the misconception about what really religion is. Scholars of religion identify four elements in every institutionalized religion: external customary rites, myths, ideals and spiritual experience. The customs and traditions remain at the threshold of religions. The aim of religion is not to keep people in the mechanical practice of external rites but to lead them to the level of spiritual bliss. The ideals, symbolic representations and rituals must help the individual enter into the spiritual experience of the Absolute present to him in the universe and in the fellow men. But the populace often cannot reach the fourth (nth) stage of religious experience. It clings to the customs and traditions mistaking them for the absolute truth. For the common people one who marks his head with sandal is a Hindu, he who lights lamp in the church is Christian and one who recites the name of Allah is a Muslim. Those who mistake religions for external rituals and traditions take weapons to protect them. (S. Azhikode, Navayathrakal, D.C. Books, Kottayam, 2000, p.100)

            False reaction to anti-religious movements: With the advent of modern era reason became norm of truth. Secular thinkers, in their eagerness to affirm the inevitability of reason for progress, disqualified religion as superstitious. Gods were presented as man’s creation. Religions were projected as stumbling block in the path of human development. They tried to build a society where traditional religions would have no significant role to play in the cultural and political life.

The expulsion of religion from the social life had adverse effect. It created a vacuum in the mind. Man became insecure before the catastrophes that happened to him. Man understood more and more that science couldn’t give satisfactory answer to the ultimate questions of life. As a result he began to perch again in the limits of religions. Unfortunately this return journey towards religion means for some an extreme imposing of the bygone forms of religion as a solution to world-problems. They think that the reestablishment of the olden “golden age” of religions would usher in a right solution to the present problems. Such an approach is unrealistic because neither that man can rebuild his past nor that old solutions are inept to meet the problems of the present. Fundamentalists are those who are incapable of adapting religious values according to the present needs and cultural patterns.

            Move against globalization: Another important factor, which contributes to the rise of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, is the phenomenon of globalization. World is in the process of becoming one village. The cultures of the powerful nations are spreading and stretching into every nook and corner of the developing countries through television and Internet. The diverse cultures of the world merge into a monolithic culture. The negative effect of this uniformity of cultures is the disappearance of the “little traditions”. The “little cultures” exist in relation to specific regions, languages, races, geographical settings, etc. They don’t have the efficient means to resist the invasion of western culture. Their identity as well as existence is being threatened by it. Due to the fear of being removed from the earth, the regional cultures become defensive and reactionary (T. Henri, ‘La montee des extremismes religieux dans le monde’, Le Faits Religieux, J. Delumeau (ed.), Fayard, Paris, 1993: 740). Since they are unable to fight against the onslaught of an international culture they search support in traditional religions. Fundamentalists isolate texts from Scriptures and misinterpret them in view of disqualifying globalization.

Economic factors: Every society is very sensitive about the privileges, which others possess and are denied to it. Each one formulates strategies for capturing their rights. When it is difficult for a community to earn their rights through democratic and lawful means they take refuge in terrorist activities.  For example, behind the terrorist movements in Kashmir, Nagaland and Punjab are the economic interests of those states. K.N. Panickkar interprets the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center as Muslim reaction to the totalitarian policies of America in economic field. He observes that the three sites targeted by the terrorists are symbolic of American power. World Trade Center represents its economical strength, Pentagon the military power and the White House the political supremacy. The American companies collect the major share of the income of the petroleum industries in Gulf countries. The same way the Muslim countries pay a good deal of their road-tax to American companies. The attack on New York is a reaction of the Muslim fundamentalists to the economic supremacy of America. (K.N. Panikkar, ‘Matha Teevravadam – Saamoohika Manasika Maanangal’ Mathavum Chintayaum, vol. 82, no: 2, 2002, p.18)

4. Are the religions fundamentalists?

We have studied the components, features and causes of fundamentalism. The question that has to be answered now is whether fundamentalism is intrinsic to religion? Why people resort to religion for legitimizing their fundamentalist approach?

When we study the history of religions we come across several incidents where the religious leaders made divisive and pejorative remarks despising other religions as enemies. Crusades are best examples in the history of Christianity. When Islam conquered much of Christian territories and holy places in Europe, Popes instigated the Christians to fight against Muslims. Pope Urban II’s appeal for war is very famous:

“I beseech and exhort you – and it is not I but God who beseeches and exhorts you as heralds of Christ – both poor and rich, to make haste to drive that vile breed from the regions inhabited by our brethren, and to bring timely aid to the worshippers of Christ. I speak to those here present, I will proclaim it to the absent, but it is Christ who commands …If those who go thither lose their lives on land or sea during the journey, or in battle against the pagans, their sins will at once be forgiven; … What can I say more? On one side there will be poor wretches, on the other the truly rich; there the enemies of God, here his friends. Pledge yourself without delay.” (P. Regine, The Crusades, London, 1962, pp. 23-24)

The worldwide dismay and outrange caused by Taliban’s edict of 26th February 2001 ordering the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas raised a host of questions of fundamentalist nature. The justification offered for such an act of religious intolerance and vandalism is that these graven images offend the religious sentiments of Taliban. Their supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was quoted as saying: ‘I ask Afghans and the worlds Muslims to use their sound wisdom… Do you prefer to be a breaker of idols or a seller of idols? Is it appropriate to be influenced by the propaganda of the infidels?’ On 27th April 2001, human rights activist Salim Saboowala was harassed and assaulted by the BJP activists in Mumbai and the books on Pariyar Ramasamy Naicker and BR Ambedkar, which he was selling, were confiscated on the grounds that they carried derogatory references to Hindu gods. (R. Hensman, EPW, June 9 2001, 2031)

The mode of expressions that president Bush employed over the September 11th terrorist activity may be identified as that of fundamentalist nature. He posed the entire problem not in terms of secular international politics but rather as problem of faith. Needless to say, for the Americans preaching of Christian faith is curiously combined with political involvement in the world. They are convinced that the USA has a missionary mandate to save the world from unbelief and immorality. This is also to win the support of the fundamentalist protestant sects whose financial support is decisive for the politicians. Bush gave the proposed military operation a code name, ‘Infinite Justice’. The reference was again to the belief that only the Lord can bestow infinite justice. America sees itself as the Lord of the universe. It was not president George speaking but rather St. George speaking. (GPD, EPW, September 29, 2001, 3668-3669).

In the light of the above-mentioned inglorious stories, can we conclude that fundamentalism is native to religions? The answer depends upon how we comprehend religions. Amongst the numberless definitions that have been suggested in the history of religions, those that have been most frequently adopted for working purposes are that of Tylor’s and Frazer’s. E.B Tylor suggested a simple definition: religion is the belief in spiritual being. J.G. Frazer defined religion as a conciliation of powers superior to man, which is believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. (Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 19, p.103). Friedrich Schleiermacher defined religion as the feeling of absolute dependence. Religion stands for the pattern of beliefs and practices through which men communicate with or hope to gain experience of that which lies behind the world of their ordinary experience. Typically it focuses on an Ultimate or Absolute, thought of by some believers as God (Encyclopedia Americana, vol.23, p. 359)

Sociologists and anthropologists are not satisfied with the above-mentioned formalistic and experiential type of definitions. They rightly argue that religion is a social institution. Religion is never an abstract set of ideas, values or experiences developed apart from the total cultural matrix. As a social phenomenon it has to include the practices of all those who profess a certain faith regardless of whether they conform to or deviate from the teachings of the founder. If we understand religion from its social perspective, religion is to be considered as sources of peace and compassion but at the same time responsible for violence.

The interesting point here is that even while we consider religion as responsible for fundamentalism we don’t find the latter evolving from the Scriptures, but from the believers. James Barr who has done a thorough study of Christian fundamentalism argues that contrary to general belief, the core of fundamentalism resides not in the Bible but in a ‘particular kind of religion’. What is this particular kind of religion? Barr means here a particular type of religious experience the fundamentalists draw out of the Bible, which they think is a necessary consequence of the Bible. Such a religious experience controls the interpretation of the Bible within fundamentalist circles. The fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible works out as a necessary condition of the self-preservation of their religiosity. Therefore Barr writes, “fundamentalism is based on a particular kind of religious tradition, and uses the form, rather than the reality, of biblical authority to provide a shield for this tradition” ( J. Barr, 11)

Barr’s findings clearly show that fundamentalism exists not in the Scriptures, the reality or the basis of religion, but in the form i.e. the interpretation given by a group to the revealed texts. I think that to argue the contrary would be disastrous to faith. All religions recognize God as the source of the Scriptures. To consider the latter as source of fundamentalism would be making God a fundamentalist. If the Scriptures were the real root cause of violence, anyone who is genuinely practicing the scripture-based values should have been intolerant. But that is not the case. The strict and stiff observance of the Bible or the Koran or the Gita does not immediately make one enemies of other religions. For example, every devout Hindu is not necessarily a VHP activist. Therefore we have to conclude that there is no automatic passage from the Scriptures to religious fundamentalism. As Dr. S. Radhakrishnan observes, in the human mind, the primitive, the archaic, the infantile exist side by side with the civilized and the evolved. All our enemies are within. The impulses, which seduce and the flames, which burn, spring from that inner region of ignorance and error. The struggle between the life-affirming and life-denying impulses is permanent in man. (S. Radhakrishnan, The Present Crisis of Faith, Hind Pocket Books, Delhi, pp. 20-21). While believers, attracted by the political and economical interests, subdue themselves to the negative impulses they become easily prey to fundamentalism.

Yet one may ask whether some religions provide a better potential for fundamentalism since they contain also the interpretations of the Scriptures developed in course of history? In this regard it is worth recollecting the distinction made by A.A. Engineer about religion. According to him we must make a difference between religion as faith and religion as an identity. Religion as a faith has largely a spiritual function and religion as an identity acquires political overtones. (A.A. Engineer, EPW, October 20, 2201) The doctrines, laws and the code of conduct of religions are generally the outcome of interpretations made by the authorities on the revealed texts in view of adapting them to the particular context of their believers. Consequently, due to pressure from the believers or due to the influence of experts having extremist tendencies some interpretations may run the risk of fundamentalism. Any group that is violent is always in need of fanatical interpretation of religion to bind its followers together. Thus fundamentalism grows in so far as the followers use religion as an identity. Otherwise violence is not the product of religion. Religion as a faith cannot produce a fundamentalist.

Thus even though there is a communal potential in every representation of religiosity we cannot equate faith with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism originates from the believers who manipulate religion as identity for vested interests. Applying moderate and scientific tools of interpretations, which are developed in religious sciences, we can check the deviated explanations of the Scriptures. Similarly, we can purify the religions with the anti-fundamentalist potentials that are inherent in them. Following the 11 September event the leaders of the Islamic movements brought out a statement in which we read as follows: ‘we have unequivocally condemned the dastardly terrorist attack on establishments in New York and Washington. Islam upholds the sanctity of human life as the Koran declares that killing one innocent human being is like killing the entire human race. The tragedy of September 11 is a crime against humanity and Muslims all over the world mourn all the victims of the aggression as a common loss of America and of the whole world’. The main role of religion is to bind and to bring together the believers as well as to relate them to a wider and cosmic whole. The study about universalism, pluralism, love and compassion, innate to every religion, will prove that fundamentalism is denial of religion and that it can be resisted from within the religion itself.

6. Religions teach the spirit of pluralism and universalism

The Islamic attitude towards others is based on the concept of creation. According to the Koran(49,13), in spite of the different nations and cultures all are God’s creatures, all are children of the same parents. A Muslim has to believe in all the prophets, who came to this world. They have to respect the sacred works of all religions. One who does not believe in them is not a Muslim. “Say: We believe in God and that which is revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes; to Moses and Jesus and the other prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them.” (2, 136) This respect for other religion is also seen in the counsel of Babar to Humayun: ‘India is a land of different religions. You must be grateful for that. If Allah gives you power you should not show any favoritism. Don’t kill the cows, which may hurt the feelings of the Hindus…Don’t destroy the temples and places of worship….  Enrich Islam by a merciful heart and not through suppression (T.V. Muhammadali, ‘Bahumata Sauhradam Islamil’, Mathavum Chintayum, vol. 82, no: 2, 2002, pp. 41-43)

Hinduism is always known for its tolerance towards other religions. For a Hindu who holds this principle of ekam Sat vipra bhahudha vadanti doesn’t have any difficulty to accept that Allah, God the Father, or Yahweh as the different names of the same God. That is why even the materialist Charvaka is respected by the Hindu believers. One can draw a lot of other expressions in Hindu prayers and hymns like Vasudaiva kudumbakam, Atmavat Sarva Bhoodhani, Sarve Bhavandu Sukina, Loka Samasta Sukino Bhavandhu, which indicate that the universe is one family and all men are its members.

The Christian vision of the world and man is based on the theology of creation. The book of Genesis tells us that God created man in His own image and likeness. (Gen 1, 26-27). Consequently, men belonging to various religions, cultures, races, etc possess God’s image. Whoever lives according to the voice of his conscience is doing the will of the Creator.  Christian openness towards others is marked by Jesus’ respect for the believers of other religions. Even though Jesus was born as a member of Jewish community he honoured other believers in a special way. Seeing the faith of the centurion Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 8, 10-11) Jesus praised the Canaanite woman’s faith “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish”. (Mt 15, 28). He projected a Samaritan as model to practice the love of neighbor (Lk 10, 25-37). He did not hesitate to drink water from the Samarian woman, which was forbidden at that time.(Jn 4, 7)

7. Religions demand the practice of love and compassion

Religion is not only the way to God, but also the way to man. It is not mere contemplation, the fight of the alone to the alone, as Plotinus said. It is also a way of active service. All religions demand the practice of love and compassion.

The Atharvaveda says: “Like-heartedness, like-mindedness, non-hostility do I create for you; do you show affection, one towards the other, as does the cow toward newborn”.

Lao Tse says, ‘we must reply to our adversary with mercy and goodness’. The Mahabharata says: Even an enemy must be afforded appropriate hospitality when he enters the house: a tree does not withhold its shade even from those who come to cut it down.

In Rock Edict XII Asoka proclaims that the faiths of others all deserve to be honoured. By honouring them one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others. By acting otherwise, one injures one’s own faith and also does disservice to that of others.

Hillel remarks: “What is hateful unto thee, do not do unto thy fellow”. Isiah (2, 10) made Yahweh the one God of all mankind. Amos declared that Yahweh cared nothing for ceremonial worship but for justice and righteousness. Prophet Malachi says: “Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another?”

Justin Martyr said: “All those who have lived with the Logos i.e. with the eternal divine world-reason are Christians, even if they have been taken as atheists, as Socrates and Heraclitus”. In Tertullian’s phrase, the pagan soul is naturally Christian. Nicholas of Cusa regarded all religions as different expressions of the Word of God: ‘It is you, O God, who is being sought in the various religions, in various ways and named with various names, for Thou remainest as Thou art, to all incomprehensible and inexpressible.

            The Sufis advocate the following view

                        A Church or a Temple or a Kaaba stone,

                        Koran or Bible or Martyr’s Soul,

                        All these and more my heart can tolerate,

                        Since my religion now is love alone.

A scientific study of religions and their interrelations in the past show that there is a common substratum of all religions: the unredeemed situation of man, the longing for liberation, the recognition of the Divine Reality and many ways to reach the Real are found in all religions. The concepts of Virgin birth, the death and resurrection of the redeemer God, the inspiration of the sacred scriptures, the efficacy of grace, the use of the rosary, the conception of Trinity, the kingdom of God, priesthood, monasticism, etc. are found in every religion. Religions have influenced each other, helped each other and enriched the world. For example, Christianity received from Babylonia the idea of God as the maker of heaven and earth, from Persia the dualism of Satan and God, from Egypt last judgment, from Phrygia the worship of the Great Mother, from Greece and Rome the idea of universal law. (S. Radhakrishnan, pp. 51-58)

The above study shows that it would be erroneous to assume that the mind-set, which is labelled by the word fundamentalism, is invariably connected with the essence of religion. What happens really is that at a time when everything is in a flux and nothing seems to be stable and permanent, people feel a nostalgia for the customary and routine-bound past. They make a resolute and stubborn return to a way of life in the past based on religion though for our time it may be outworn and irrelevant. The political and religious leaders having vested interests manipulate the religious minded people and transform them as inimical to other religious groups.  The illiterate hope that the irrational attachment to the fundamentalist interpretation of sacred texts and exclusion of the ‘Other’ will resolve their contemporary problems.


Mankind is today in the midst of one of the greatest cries in history. In spite of the fact that the great scientific inventions have liberated us from servitude to nature, we seem to suffer from a type of religious neurosis. We need a moral and spiritual therapy, which would heal the human mind. The best medicine to be applied may be the spirituality of a universal religion, a religion of awareness and love, of wisdom and compassion, of truth and love. Religions are to be cured of their provincialism and they must rediscover their resources of pluralism, universality, compassion and love. We are born and trained in certain traditions of religion. But we are not supposed to transfer the absoluteness, which belongs to the Divine Reality, to its historical formulations. We must be able to hold our particular formulation as valid without denying the other forms. This is the only one attitude consistent with faith in a Universal God. (S. Radhakrishnan, The Present Crisis of Faith, Hind Pocket Books, Delhi, pp.  24-26)

            The religious and social leaders must turn their energies to fashioning new ways of understanding their own religions so that they can play a role in promoting peace, dialogue and social justice. There should be inter-religious forums in every village to isolate those who mix religion with political and economical interests. Dialogue sessions, common defense of human rights, joint endeavours for development, sharing of spiritual exercises, etc., will increase mutual confidence and cooperation among the followers of various religions. If we don’t take this challenge of decreasing the widened gap that exists between the temple, mosque and the church, our world may become an unlivable planet. We have to live together or die together and if we are to live together we must multiply our fight against fundamentalism


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