Peace and harmony within religious diversity
Religious diversity is not a new feature. It is as old as the history
of humankind. Within the same region, within the same culture there have
been and there are to be seen diverse faiths, different beliefs and
varied religion and there are also different groups of adherents. It has
to be admitted that, at times, this diversity has led to conflicts, more
often that not, leading to destruction of millions of innocent human
lives and devastation of unaccountable amount of material wealth.
Diversity of faith has led to battles between factions of the same
ethnic group: varied cultures have been ruthlessly wiped out of the face
of the earth by those who considered diversity as a threat. Diversity
becomes a menace when one fails to look at it positively, but consider
it as meaning 'rivalry' or as 'opposing to each other' it is this
inability to see diversity as a natural feature, a positive one, that
becomes extremely harmful.
If viewed properly one would see diversity as beautiful, if so viewed
and admire religious diversity and use it for the good and benefit of
all humankind. And this is the purpose aimed at by all religions. All
religious teachers were concerned about the good of their fellow beings.
There is no religion that preaches against man, that encourages
conflicts and rivalries. It is the failure of the followers, often the
over-enthusiastic, over-committed followers to understand and appreciate
the primary aim of religious founders that has caused diversity to turn
into a problem, which is conflict generating and emotion igniting. This
failure to see diversity positively and make use of it for bringing
about unity that has impelled many to see it as a highly inflammable
state. This really is not so, and this truth has been proved beyond
doubt. And I can cite many an instance to prove this.
All agree that Sri Lanka began to develop as a united nation after
the advent of Buddhism. Introduction of Buddhism put an end to
factionalism in Sri Lanka. The rulers very cleverly used Buddhism to
bring about total integration of all people, in spite of the different
faiths they followed. Buddhism was made the rallying point, yet giving
due importance to other religions. Since the advent of Buddhism Sri
Lanka rose to great heights in all spheres: cultural, social, political,
Perhaps this trend of bringing about unity in diversity was initiated
by the great Emperor Asoka of India. Though he may have had his own
inclination towards a particular religion, he appreciated diversity of
religions. He saw effectiveness of religion as a cohesive force. So, he
picked up features that are conducive in religions to promote peace and
harmony among the subjects. He gave up the traditional practice of
subjugating territories through war. Instead, he used the peaceful
message contained in religions to win support and establish his
authority through righteousness.
He strongly urged the people to appreciate the diversity of
religions. He dissuaded people from praising their own faiths and making
disparaging comments on other faiths. He put up rock inscriptions
stating that one who praises one's own religions and disparages other
religions is unwittingly harming his own religions. Thus he directly
rejected religious fundamentalism.
Evidence from both Korea and Japan too support this view. Buddhism
was introduced to these countries as a uniting force. At the time of
introduction of Buddhism, Korea comprised of three warring states:
Koguryo, Packche and Shilles, Buddhism was used to unite these three
kingdoms, and gradually Korea developed into a great power.
Japan was also torn by factionalism among various powerful clans such
as Soga, Monobe and Nakatony and Buddhism helped to bring about peace
among these conflicting clans. Later Shotoku Thaishi, who is popularly
considered as Japanese counterpart of Emperor Asoka, made full use of
Buddhism to fuse unity among different faiths by using Buddhism as a
base for unification.
In all three instances cited above Buddhism was used as the unifying
force because Buddhism has this coalescing characteristic. Buddha
strongly believed that one should not blindly cling to one's own
religion and condemn other religions. The usual tendency to claim that
"only what one says is right and all the rest if false" is never
encouraged in Buddhism. Such a tendency is the basis of religious
fundamentalism. It is this fundamentalism that blinds one from seeing
and appreciating religious diversity, and seeing the beauty in diversity
of religious thought.
To be a committed practitioner one need not to be a fundamentalist.
In fact fundamentalism blinds one to the truth. It limits his vision. A
fundamentalist is led by his emotions, and this is very dangerous, for
emotions are highly inflammable fundamentalist usually succumb to the
demands of the heart, and this is very chaotic. One should have faith in
the heart without abandoning, discriminatory knowledge which is a part
of the intellect.
This is the attitude encouraged by all religious teachers. The Buddha
very openly upholds this attitude. His aim was not to just convert, but
to guide others to see and know things by themselves. The well known
discourse called the 'Kalama Sutta' delivered by the Buddha to a group
of people who were utterly perplexed by the claims made by different
religious teachers who separately maintained that only their teaching is
the right one and the rest false. In this discourse the Buddha did not
say that his teaching is the right one instead he gave criterion to
judge which teaching is more beneficial.
This kind of open-minded objective attitude towards religion is a
must in modern societies. At least, metaphorically the world is
shrinking fast turning into a global village. In a global village all
have to confront diversity. If we are not ready to see and understand
diversity properly we are bound to mistake diversity to be rivalry; to
take diversity as opposition. If we understand diversity in this manner,
then our immediate reaction will be to confront it, to fight against it
and to reduce it into smithereens. This is what is happening in certain
areas as far as religious diversity is concerned. Such a reaction will
certainly be most destructive and, perhaps, even suicidal.
In the present global context, whether, we like it or not, we have to
face diversity as diversity, we should not get irritated when we are
told that modern societies are multi-cultural, and multi-religious.
These are realities and these have been realities for long in our
histories. No longer can people live in total isolation, completely
insulated from various cultural, religious and other influences.
And what is wrong with this. While living in conditions of diversity
one could maintain one's own identity. This is so even with regard to
faiths, religions and beliefs. This becomes a problem only if one were
to carry his faith, his beliefs or his religion on his head and not in
his heart. Carrying religion on the head is the attitude adopted by
exhibitionists, propagandists. It will go well with fundamentalists.
If we are not ready to do this, then our aspiration for a peaceful
and harmonious world will be only a dream; and not even a dream but a
figment of imagination. We should be awakened to the ground realities.
All religionists should be open-minded, without having hidden
agendas. All have to adopt a 'live and let live' policy if we really
desire peace and harmony. Religion should be treated with the device,
the instrument for peace and harmony. It should never be turned into a
weapon to destroy peace, mutual understanding and trust.
A religion is a personal thing. Everyone has the right to follow the
faith that he likes. To serve a particular religion is to practise that
religion faithfully. No religious teacher says that there should be one
common religion for all. Religions are different attempts, made by
religious teachers to bring happiness and good to the followers. So, why
make any religion a source of misery, conflict, unhappiness.
Buddhism admonishes its followers to cultivate and spread
friendliness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity to all. This
cultivation of equanimity is important. It enables one to view
everything objectively, without any bias, and appreciate what is good
and very detachedly put aside what is not good.
It is this kind of enlightened awareness that we should adopt to live
without any conflict and confrontation.
This is the way to co-exist peacefully in a world full of
diversities. This is the one and only option available if we wish to
live in peace and harmony.
The writer is the Chancellor of the Sri Jayawardhanapura University