By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
15 July, 2014
If God is a reality—in fact, The Only Reality, as they say ‘He’ is—then why this baffling religious diversity, people who believe in ‘Him’ must surely wonder. If ‘He’ is one, how come there are so many different religions, each claiming to be true? Why this seemingly interminable conflict of religions? Why didn’t God make things simpler and have the whole of humanity follow a single religion? Surely, that way we might have been spared the loss of millions of innocent lives, all killed in the name of religion? Why does God allow so many religions to flourish?
I often think—even agonize—about these questions. The enormous prejudice and appalling violence fuelled by people who are convinced that their faith alone is true and that all others are false really saddens. At the same time, it provokes me to think of what I can do—in my own, very limited way—to promote positive appreciation among people (starting with myself) for religions other than the one they claim to follow (which is generally the one they happen to have been born into).
This morning, this beautiful thought entered my mind:
“All religions are equally valid devices. If they weren’t, why would God, who has control over everything, have allowed them to flourish for so many centuries? Surely, they must all have a purpose in His grand scheme of things.”
As I mulled over this, it struck me how much sense it made! A religion is a device that is developed for a certain purpose. A device is a means, and not an end in itself. Being a device, religion is a means for a certain purpose. If we deploy this device of religion in a proper manner, we can hope to attain this purpose. The different religions are different, equally valid, devices developed for this same purpose, I mused. This common purpose unites the different religions despite their apparent differences.
What is this one purpose that is the basis of all religions? It is self-transcendence, the dissolution of the false self, and the immersion in, submission to, or union with, God, these being processes or states that are described by different terms in different religions but connoting the same thing. Submission to God, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, charity, love, concern and compassion for other creatures and so on are stressed in different ways in all the various religions. All of these are methods that the different religions prescribe to their adherents to enable them to achieve the same purpose: to transcend the false self and empty themselves in God.
In other words, the different religions are simply different devices that are intended to work to achieve one and the same goal: of self-transcendence, the dissolution of the false self, which is union with God. They may don different garbs, have different scriptures, venerate different saints and prophets, use different languages, concepts and terms and employ different methods and rituals, but their purpose is identical. In this way, the different religions are equally valid and equally efficacious.
If religion and religious diversity are understood in this way, can there be room for scorn and hate for religions other than one’s own?
It is when we forget this fundamental fact, that religions are simply a device—invaluable, no doubt, but, nevertheless, a device or a means for attaining an end—and not an end in themselves, that other religions come to be thought of as rivals to the one that we happen to follow. When we erroneously begin to think of our religion as an end in itself, forgetting that it is simply a means, we begin to view other religions as false. When we make an idol out of our religion and begin to worship it in place of God, we begin to think of other religions and their followers as enemies that need to be fought and wiped out—ideologically or even physically.
The understanding that the various religions are equally efficacious and, therefore, equally valid, devices for the same purpose of self-transcendence might possibly go a long way in helping people who claim to follow different faiths to realize their essential oneness. Or so I hope!