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Can the Religions Cooperate?

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By Phiroz Mehta

This lecture, given c. 1955, was not recorded

It would be difficult to find more inhuman persecutions or more savage wars in history than those in the name of religion or in the name of any ideology which fires its adherents with what amounts to a religious fervour. It would be equally difficult to find a stranger expression of aggressive egoism and spiritual rapacity than that found in militant missionarism, or in the exaltation of a particular faith by scholar or theologian at the expense of other faiths.

If we consider carefully the history of Islamic people, of Christian people, of Hindu people, of Nazi, Fascist or Communist people, or of any other people, we shall find that in the name of Love, of submission to the Will of God, of Duty and Truth, of Welfare and Happiness, of Honour, Justice and Freedom, human beings have behaved with a ferocity and stupidity which may almost condemn them to be the despised laughing stock of the universe.

Again, if we study the different theologies and other writings of the various religions, we shall notice what pains have been taken by great protagonists to demonstrate the correctness and superiority of their own presentation as against all others.

But let us note carefully that in all these instances it is always people who are against people, it is persons, men and women, who do not cooperate with other men and women. It is never the truth which is the Christ’s teaching which is at variance with the truth which is the Buddha’s teaching. It is always persons professing to be, let us say, Christians, and persons professing to be, let us say, Zarathustrians, who do not cooperate with each other.

Now this has not always been the case in the past. Cyrus the Great of Persia, the contemporary of Daniel and Ezra, of Parmenides, Pythagoras and Heracleitus, of Confucius and the Buddha — this Cyrus decreed and practised tolerance for faiths other than his own. India of the 3rd Century B.C. saw Aśoka, unique in all history as the successful philosopher-king, set one of the most memorable examples of religious tolerance, and even further, of actual cooperation with other faiths. Eighteen centuries later, the greatest Muslim Emperor of India, Akbar the Great Mughal, displayed the most illumined tolerance for all the great religions.

But these great instances of the past are noble examples of right action by isolated individuals. Today, we see the Emergence of something better, something which in fact is fraught with the promise of the fulfilment of the divine pledge to man, that the time shall be when man shall enter the kingdom of which he is the destined heir.

But for this, man must endeavour unremittingly. It is not that God obstructs him — nay, the gift of God was made even before there was man. It is not that Nature will defeat him, for Nature, the Bride of God, exercises man through the problems which she presents, so that he grows stronger and healthier as he solemnly, conceitedly, absurdly struggles with his divine mother. And everlastingly this gracious mother dances before man her dance of the Veils, enticing her erring child to burst home, naked and full-grown into the bosom of his Father-God.

How then shall man strive? Two ways there are today, and both have to be operative simultaneously, for they are complementary, interdependent and Indispensable to each other. One way concerns each man’s own life as a private individual. The other is his life as a member of the human race, of which he is integral part and parcel, inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the single whole. And one of the keynotes of this second way which is our concern tonight, a keynote of the highest importance, is cooperativeness.

Can the religions cooperate? The question means in practice, can the followers of the various faiths, can you and I cooperate? I mentioned earlier some of those lone stars of the past — Cyrus and Aśoka and Akbar, representatives of different faiths. Salutations to those exemplary souls, the pioneers who unconsciously laid the unseen foundations of what has emerged in recent centuries through the greatest good which you did when you went out East, lured by one of the Veils of your dancing mother†. That greatest good was born of the interest evinced by your great scholars in the languages of the Orient. Thus you came to know the Vedas and the Upaniṣads, the Zend Avesta and the Pitakas. Together with the study of comparative religion, there arose a new wave of good feeling in many people — not restricted to professional scholars — a wave which has borne forward several movements which aim at harmonization — not a devitalized, ill-nourishing and characterless syncretism — but a true harmonization of the great religions.

The World Congress of Faiths is one such movement for world harmony by means of the active cooperation of Individuals of different faiths. What is the ground of their unity? What is the spring of Inspiration of this cooperative action? Is it an allegiance to a common body or doctrine universally confessed by all our members? No. Remember that for all the similarities in doctrine, worship and daily ethical practice which you will find in the great religions, you will also find as many divergences. No, it is not in the garb which Religion is clothed that you will find the root of unity but in the nature of that supreme personal experience which you may call by any name you please — God-realization, union with the Divine, Salvation, Liberation, Brahman-becoming, Nirvana. It is that experience which is the source of unity. For there you stand on the single peak of the spiritual Everest, in which the whole world with all its wonderful diversity of ways of life and philosophies, its cultures and its great faiths, has culminated in a Supreme Realization. In that spaceless and timeless depth of Eternity which you can experience here-now, you have not destroyed or merely explained away, but you have truly transcended both similarities and divergences, and made real the very ground of unity.

Not for a moment do I suggest that it is a preliminary requisite that we should attain a transcendental consciousness ere we can cooperate. We can cooperate from the very beginning if, in addition to goodwill and intelligence, we have a certain commonsense ability to manifest this goodness of heart and clarity of head in daily practice.

I know the complexity and intensity of the problem which often faces the devotee of one faith who tries to cooperate with the devotee of another faith propounding unacceptable doctrines. But that precisely is the individual problem. And the solving of that problem will cost heavily in sweat and tears. Give grateful thanks and praise to our mother Nature for the sweat and tears. And when there is success in our cooperation, let the Glory be to the Highest alone, or else what we have created will be destroyed by the poisoned barb of our spiritual pride.

I am certain that the religions can cooperate. What is there to prevent us cooperating, if you and I each have a faithful heart and will be clearsighted? Therefore, lovingly and intelligently, from here and now onwards, from this hallowed spot and sacred moment, we can profoundly realize the spirit of actual cooperation. There is Peace for men with Goodwill. Each person is free to make his own choice. According to that choice he will be remembered by posterity. By which middle name would any person like to be remembered — Dogberry or Socrates?

† Phiroz was addressing a mainly British audience.

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