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Some Reflections on Religious Pluralism in the Light of the Life and Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

By Swami Tapasyananda

27 January 2017

(Extracts from Swami Tapasyananda’s book Sri Ramakrishna’s Thoughts on Man, World and God)

 “Another obstacle in the way of spiritual aspirants is a narrow and fanatical outlook. According to the Master [Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa], all religions invoke the same Sacchidananda, be it by the name of Allah, God, Hari, or Brahman, just as the same substance is meant though called by different names as ‘Water’, ‘Vari’, ‘Aqua’ or ‘Pani’. Every religion is a path to God as the different Ghats of a tank leading to the water. As the one reservoir supplies gas to the gas-lamps in different localities, the same God illumines the religions and religious teachers of different times and climes. Fanaticism is therefore due to ignore regarding the nature of God or due only to a partial knowledge of Him. It is like blind men quarrelling about the form of the elephant after knowing it only by touching the tusk, trunk, leg or ear of the animal; or it is like children disputing about the colour of the chameleon without knowing that the chameleon changes colour every now and then. The right attitude for an aspirant is therefore not to dispute about the truth of different religions, but to follow his own faith while showing due respect to those of others at the same time. ‘Look at the young daughter-in-law in a Hindu joint-family,’ says the Master, ‘She respects her father-in-law, mother-in-law and others in the family, obeys them, and ministers to their wants; but, at the same time, she loves her husband in a way quite different from her love for others. In the same way, be firm in your faith towards the particular form of the Deity you adore, but do not despise those of others. Honour them, too; for they all represent one authority and one love.’”

“By ‘religion’ what the Master [Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa] always had in mind is its spiritual content and not its politicized and grotesque shell that passes for religion generally. The quest for the Supreme Being and the means that are helpful in that quest alone form the essential content of religion. Religious exclusivism, which makes votaries think that God is only ‘this’ and never ‘that’, is at the root of all fanatical Gospels which put forward the exclusive claim to the ‘key of Heaven’ and condemn to hell-fire others who do not accept their claims. It is such an attitude to religion that politicizes it, and changes it into the most grotesque form of group-selfishness. The Master had no truck with religion of that kind.

The Master maintained that all the great religious traditions, in spite of their striking differences, are channels that take aspirants to the same God. ‘As many faiths so many paths’, was his watchword. ‘There are several bathing Ghats’, he says, ‘in a large tank. Whoever goes to whichever Ghat he pleases, to take a bath or fill his vessel, reaches the water. It is useless to quarrel with one another claiming one’s Ghat to be better than that of another. Similarly, there are many Ghats that lead to the water of the fountains of eternal bliss. Every religion of the world is one Ghat. You go with a sincere and earnest heart through any one of these Ghats, and you will reach the water of eternal bliss. But say not that your religion is better than that of another.’”

“Every religion that speaks in exclusive terms has only a partial insight into the Infinite, though they claim finality and completeness for what they have known. When the understanding is only of a segment, and when that segment and the way of attaining that are claimed to be the whole, the resulting cult becomes a kind of fanatical idol worship. The religions that claim to have complete and exclusive understanding of the Infinite are the real promoters of idolatry. They in fact commit the great sin of limiting the Infinite.

About the Infinite Being and its understanding by great sages and seers, the Master says: ‘God is like a hill of sugar. A small ant fetches from it a tiny grain of sugar, and a bigger one takes from it another grain considerably larger in size. But, in spite of this, the hill practically remains as large as ever. So are the devotees of God. They become ecstatic even with a single divine attribute. No one can contain within him the realization of all His glories and excellences.’

There is another saying of the Master extremely relevant for driving home this point, especially the ideal that only one who has full realization of the mystery of the Infinite can really understand the doctrine of universal acceptance. He says: Two persons were once disputing over the colour of a chameleon. One said: ‘The chameleon on the palm tree is of a beautiful red colour.’ The other contradicted him saying, ‘You are mistaken, the chameleon is not red but blue.’ Being unable to settle the matter through argument, both went to a man who always lived under that tree and had watched the chameleon in all its phases. One of the disputants asked him: ‘Is not that chameleon on that tree, of a red colour?’ The man replied, ‘Yes, sir, it is.’ The other disputant said: ‘What do you say? Is not that chameleon blue?’ The man again humbly replied, ‘Yes, sir, it is.’ He knew that the chameleon constantly changed in colour. So he said yes to both the conflicting views. God, who is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, has likewise various forms. The devotee who has experiences God only in one aspect knows that aspect and that alone. None but he who has seen Him in His manifold aspects, who always sits under the tree, can say, ‘All these forms are of the one God’, for God is multi-formed. He is formless and with forms, and many are His forms which no one knows about.

These sayings of the Master reveal where exactly the fallacy of dogmatists and exclusivists lies. The truth of God is not like the mathematical truth that two plus two can only be four and never five. If God were subject to this mathematical logic, He would be one among measurable objects, which is equal to saying that He is only a material substance with all the limitations of such substances. He would be unworthy of worship. If God is the Infinite Spirit, no prophet or scripture can limit Him to be only ‘this’ and not something contrary or contradictory to the ‘this’. As the chameleon in the Master’s parable can be both red and blue, all contradictory views stand resolved in the Infinite and Absolute Spirit. The perfect seers understand this […] The problem created by religious pluralism can be solved only through the acceptance of such a liberal philosophy of religion by all the organized faiths. But so long as these religions remain organized, which is only another way of telling they are politicized, there seems to be little chance of their wholehearted acceptance of such a liberal view. For the object of the ecclesiastics who control these religions is world conquest under the guise of showing the path to salvation

Solution:  A Phenomenological Approach

If there is any chance of their accepting this liberal doctrine it lies only in the possibility of their getting acquainted with the life of Sri Ramakrishna and his experiments with all the great religions of the world.

The importance of the Master in effecting harmony in a world of religious pluralism is that he is the only person in world history who supported this doctrine with the example of his own life. What phenomenology of history tries to do in an intellectual way the Master achieved in terms of actual life, long before the phenomenological way of thinking originated. ‘I had to practice the various religions in my life,’ he says, ‘Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, and I have walked the paths of different sects of Hinduism—the Sakta, the Vaishnava, the Vedanta, etc—and I have found that it is the same God towards whom all are travelling, only they come through diverse ways.’

To get a full view of this saying of the Master, one has to read a detailed life of his. Besides the long period of intense spiritual aspiration, his early life was remarkable for the varieties of systems of spiritual disciplines which he practised. Being born and brought up in the Hindu spiritual traditions, he underwent the disciplines prescribed by various schools of Vaishnavism, Saktism, Advaita Vedanta etc by following both the paths of Bhakti and Jnana. Generally, all spiritual aspirants adore and meditate on the Deity according to one tradition, and if they attain perfection in that path, they attain spiritual fulfilment. But the Master’s spiritual life developed in a different way. In all the spiritual disciplines he practised, he attained perfection in an incredibly short period of three days. But his urge for adoring the Divine did not subside with it. As he said in later days, just as a glutton is eager to take the same good stuff dressed in different ways, he felt an urge at that time to practice all known systems of spiritual disciplines, and he discovered that they all took one to the same Supreme Being.

His urge for spiritual practices did not therefore end with the practise of disciplines of Hindu cults. He came across a Muslim holy man, probably a Sufi, and felt inclined to be initiated into the Muslim way of Sadhana for God-realization. Speaking about his days of Muslim Sadhana, he said: ‘Then I used to repeat the name of Allah, wear my cloth in the fashion of Mohammedans and recite the Namaz regularly. All Hindu ideas were banished from my mind. Not only did I not salute the Hindu deities, but I had no inclination for visiting them. After passing three days in that way, I realized the goal of that way of devotion.’

Just as he practised Islam, he practised Christianity too. He had heard parts of the Bible read by his devotees and had been acquainted with the holy life and ideals of Jesus Christ. One day, when he was intently looking on a photo of Infant Christ with the Madonna, he found the idea behind the picture blazing into a luminous spiritual aura which overpowered his mind. Just as it happened in the practice of Islam, all the strongly imprinted concepts and images of Hindu tradition were swept away from his mind, and the Christian pattern of devotion fully occupied it. He spent three days in that mood, and at the end of it he had a vision of Christ, followed by the experience of Brahman with attributes.

It will thus be seen that he accomplished in truth and in reality what the modern idea of phenomenological approach to the study of comparative religion seeks to accomplish—that is, to understand a religion from within or as a believer in it does.

Practical and not Theoretical

There is a great difference between Sri Ramakrishna’s method and that of the scholars. While the modern method is more theoretical and merely intellectual, Sri Ramakrishna adopted the method of complete identification with the spiritual content of each religion he chose to understand and lived like a Muslim or a Christian and adored the Divine in their fashion with the fullest devotional identification. It is after this practical experiment that he declared that all these great religious traditions led to the same God. The same was his experience when he practised the Sadhanas of the different sects and cults of Hinduism. He experienced the adored Deity first as dissolving in Brahman with attributes and then in the attributeless Impersonal Absolute, in spite of all the differences in their theologies and practices. So he could declare with perfect conviction: ‘Different creeds are but different paths to reach the One God. Diverse are the ways that lead to the temple of Mother Kali at Kalighat in Calcutta. Similarly, various are the paths that take men to the house of God. Each religion is nothing but one of these paths.’”


Swami Tapasyananda (1904-1991) was a disciple of Swami Shivanandaji Maharaj, one of the eminent disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. He was a Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Order during 1985-1991.