Chennai: Reports from Manchester that Gurudwaras there had stayed open all through the night, “open for all people” in the Sikh community’s instant humanitarian effort to help the victims in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Manchester Arena’ bombing, when people including scores of children had gone for a concert by popular American pop singer Ariana Grande recently, came as a stellar reminder that the perennial wellsprings of humanism is one great antidote to the poison of radical religious fundamentalism.
Today’s highly technological and complex world has enough ideological - religious and political “well(s) of orthodoxy”, to borrow a phrase from the late elder Statesman Rajaji, for the game of contestations to take over. Leaving aside the politics of this grave dynamics, both in domestic constituencies and in the larger stage of world politics for a while, this is a plea for why ‘humanism’ needs more global ambassadors now. Religions too need sagacious, global envoys, as much as diplomacy and peacemaking need them.
Religion means several different things, which people are prone to forget amid the anxieties of job-losses, financial ruin and severe droughts in a post-capitalist society worldwide. Religions are neither a mere set of beliefs nor any assertion about any ultimate, singular truth-claim. They are neither merely rituals to be performed nor just identities to be asserted as emblems of supra-morality. Religions are also about higher metaphysical ideas, about ordering of human life in relation to the cosmic order, mapping the purpose of existence, dilemmas of human evil and last but not least, human freedom.
The moment we say, “only my God really exists” in the singular, as the well-known Philosopher of Religion, Prof John Hick, formerly of the University of Birmingham, England, has pointed out, we enter into the “question of growing edge of the Philosophy of Religion”. A one-word, dogmatic ‘yes’ for an answer to such a poser, eschewing all other images as ‘false Gods of the market place’, even deprives traditional theisms of their charm. Underlying universal, spiritual and humanitarian values are then a casualty.
A hawkish approach by any religious practitioner very often leads to a less inclusive sociology of religion and even hotter disputes over “conflicting truth claims of different religions”. It may be equally appropriate that we should be revisiting these basic issues in the millennial birth centenary year of one of India’s very progressive philosophers and religious reformers, Sri Ramanuja, who stood for a more inclusive religious metaphysic.
In his very insightful work ‘Philosophy of Religion’, still a classic in the field, Prof. Hick, quoting from the important book ‘The Meaning and End of Religion’ by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, says, whether it is Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, or any of the other well known religion of the world, it is a fallacy to ask which of these systems “is the true one”. Seeing each of them as ‘mutually exclusive entities’ and as a set of competing systems, Hick and Cantwell remind us, “may well be an example of illicit reification, the turning of good adjectives into bad substantives”, a “powerful conceptual distortion” leading to seeing religions of the world as “rival ideological communities”.
Rather, religions should be seen as part of the “wider history of human culture and human civilisations.” This is the inflexion point every religion needs to dialogue with other religions in the wider sphere of ‘Philosophy of Religions’. “This means that it is not appropriate to speak of a religion as being true or false, any more than it is to speak of a civilization as being true or false. For the religions, in the sense of distinguishable religio-cultural streams within man’s history, are expressions of the diversities of human types and temperaments and thought forms,” says Prof. Hick.
“If we can have a United Nations Organization, cannot we have a United Religions Organizations, asked our late philosopher-President, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in his eloquent work on ‘The Spirit of Religions’. Cautioning us against the fallacy of drawing a “false analogy” between natural history - where Darwinian evolutionism might relentlessly work - and human history, he says, “Civilization is a human creation, the triumph of man’s mind and will.”
“Today, the Nation-state has taken hold of us,” Radhakrishnan wrote in the last century, which seems to be bitterly truer today in the 21st century. “We have reached a stage when nationalism is not enough. As mankind’s needs and problems have changed enormously since the industrial revolution, “We must not allow our nationalist allegiances to disrupt the spiritual unity of the world,” says Radhakrishnan. It is, “according to the Greek poets, ‘hubris’, the insolence of pride, (that) is the root of all tragedy, personal as well as national,” adds Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan with a poetic prophecy as it were.
Equally of importance are Mahatma Gandhi’s views on religious tolerance. In one of his pieces in ‘Harijan’ in March 1933, Gandhi wrote very profoundly: “Temples or mosques or churches…. I make no distinction between these different abodes of God. They are what faith has made them. They are an answer to man’s craving somehow to reach the unseen.”
In ‘Young India’ in December 1927, the Mahatma wrote: “ I do not expect India of my dream to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu, or wholly Christian or wholly Musalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.” That was Gandhi’s way of engaging with the Philosophy of Religions.
The plea for more global ambassadors of humanism draws its energies from such exemplars who were ever keen to explore the spiritual bonding of humanity. J. Singh, the Manchester taxi driver, as reported, who offered free taxi raids to anyone who needed them that terrible night after the bombing, is one such votary of humanism....