By Belinda F. Espiritu, New Age Islam
05 August 2017
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a philosopher and the second president of India, said that “In spite of continuous struggle with theological baggage, India has held fast to the ideals of spirit”. It is a wonderful blessing from God to be able to travel to India with my husband on a golden triangle tour which includes Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra where I have seen and experienced firsthand India’s holding fast “to the ideals of spirit”, that is to say, the religiosity and spirituality of the Indian people, and there is much that can be gained from such a spirituality, although religious differences are evident and are bound to manifest themselves.
The tour to different religious, historical, and cultural sites in the abovementioned cities in India expanded my consciousness and lifted me out of the rigidity of my evangelical Christian faith. My exposure to the different religious sites we visited in India (the Akshardham Temple, Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah, the Cathedral of Redemption, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Jama Masjid, Hazrat Abu Bakr Toosi’s Dargah, Salim Chisti’s Dargah, Hare Krishna Mandir) and my first-hand observations of the respect and care accorded to the animals, plants, and trees in India rooted in its old-age spirituality made me realize that we should look into what is good and what is lovable in other religions while still sticking to our own deeply held religious beliefs. We can strive to transcend our religious differences in order to attain a synthesis of spiritualities. Part of my realizations is that if our deeply held religious beliefs include doing “Dawa” or mission to spread the truths of our faiths, we should do this without condemning the other faiths since there are good things we can draw from every religion.
Christians and Muslims may not believe in the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses, but we can strive to look into and draw from the spirituality of Hinduism. There is a longing or striving for the Divine in every religion, an aspiring to be in the “divine and mystical realm”, which we can experience when we turn into our spirits, the innermost part of our beings, where God’s divine Spirit dwells. Moreover, the external things can mirror or can be a portal to the unseen world. Seeing the fresh waters from different rivers mingled in the large beautiful pool in Akshardham Temple in New Delhi and enjoying the beauty, symmetry, and peace exuded in the temple was a divine experience. Marvelling at the spiritual meaning of the architectural design and layout of the Taj Mahal can help us remember our goal, which is to be in the home of God, our eternal home in Paradise where God is the Light and the Life. The pool of fresh waters in front of the majestic Taj Mahal makes one remember the waters of eternal life in Paradise. Water has a spiritual meaning in the major religions of the world, as in Christianity, the river of life flows endlessly from the throne of God in heaven. Moreover, the love and devotion of Shah Jahan for Mumtaz Mahal is a human reflection of God’s divine and enduring love for each soul who loves him in return. It is Krishna’s love for Radha, and his amorous relations with the Gopis signify the intimate love between God and each soul who loves Him.
Hinduism recognizes the divine in animals, humans, trees, and even rivers. Such a spiritual belief has been so internalized in the Hindu world in India that I have seen how cows, monkeys, and squirrels freely roam without fear of being slaughtered, while plants, trees, and even rivers are also recognized to be divine. How unlike it is with what happens in countries where no such philosophy exists but where excessive capitalism reigns. In one documentary film entitled Food Inc, I saw how cows, chickens, and pigs are being raised in very crowded conditions, fed with growth hormones, and are just viewed as food and commodities to be slaughtered, sold, bought, and eaten every day. It is much better to recognize the divinity in all creatures than to see them as things to be exploited and consumed. But if cows are treated as more important than the lives of human beings, then there is something terribly wrong in this religious belief. Human beings are the highest form of creatures on this planet and in the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions; they are mandated by God to be the stewards or caretakers of His creation, which includes animals, plants, trees, and the whole natural environment.
We bought a few books from the Akshardham Temple book shop wherein I found a treasure book entitled “Transcendence: My Spiritual Experiences with Pramukh Swami Ji”, written by the former President of India, Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari. (The title of this article gets its inspiration from the title of this book).
The purity of the soul and spirit of Abdul Kalam, his intelligence and profound learning, his philosophy and spiritual insights mixed with his experiences as the former President of India and his spiritual experiences with the Hindu saint, Pramukh Swami ji, can be discerned in the different essays compiled in the book, and reading his essays was like taking in and drinking of spiritual and intellectual nourishment.
In one essay entitled “From Within I Rise”, Kalam writes that the expansion of consciousness begins with a fundamental knowledge or understanding of one’s place in the universe and the interconnectedness of all with the Divine. He explains this idea beautifully in these words:
Imagine that you are a drop in the ocean. If you think you are separate from the ocean, you
feel powerless, helpless and unable to tap into the abundance of the ocean that is all around
you. If you know that you are a part of the ocean, you have the power of the ocean with you….
…….. You know that you are part of the Divine, that you are loved, that the universe is friendly
and that everything is working for you and with you. Any time that you have spent in the higher
dimensions – contacting the Divine and aligning with the divine will – you will feel this same
The realization that the eternal spirit resides within each of us is the foundation of the divine life. Kalam further writes that all those living on this planet Earth – around us, away from us, in our countries, in other countries; even other species and vegetation and minerals – are all different forms of a great unity. We are all enveloped in a vast universe of light, consciousness, and love. What we need to do is “to reach upward to the higher parts of our being and access this source of inspiration, creative ideas, energy, wisdom, understanding and spiritual vision”. In our Christian group’s parlance, this is to turn to our spirits or our innermost beings which can connect to the Divine Spirit of God who is the source and giver of divine, eternal life.
In Islamic mysticism or Sufism, Dhikr or the remembrance of God through invocation of the Divine Name of God is essentially a spiritual exercise through which Sufis are able to experience God’s presence in every fibre of their very being. Dr. Farida Khanam writes that the Sufis looked upon themselves as Muslims who take most seriously God’s call to perceive His presence both in the world and in the self. She writes: “They tend to put more stress on looking inward than outward, on contemplation over action, spiritual exercise and development of the self over dry legalism, and cultivation of the soul over social, worldly interaction with people”. Sufis aim to attain a direct knowledge of God and a personal experience of the Divine. As the Sufis believe that the heart is the centre of spirituality, it is the heart that needs to be activated by turning to the practice of meditation.
The practice of love, peace, compassion, and nonviolence is a synthesis of the spiritualities of the different religions of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam. India’s Mahatma Gandhi affirmed that nothing enduring can be built upon violence. Abdul Kalam writes that Gandhi’s modus operandi of Satyagraha was designed not to coerce the opponent, but to set into motion forces which could lead to his conversion. Gandhi’s Satyagraha was conceived out of a synthesis of the spirituality of different religions, particularly Jainism and Christianity. Jesus Christ’s eight beatitudes and his sermon on loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek to the oppressor made an impact of him. Martin Luther King Jr famously declared: “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method”. The aim is to convert and persuade the oppressor and enemy, not to kill or punish him. Abdul Kalam realized that non-violence is an active and powerful way to build a better world since everything is a part of a totality – “everything and we are connected”.
In the tradition of non-violence, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan has written and advocated for peace in his books, articles, and sermons, rallying all Muslims and non-Muslims to adopt and practice the ideology of peace. It is a great gift of God to have had a personal audience with him in his home at Nizamuddin West and to have me this daughter, Dr. Farida Khanam; his son, Dr. Saniyasnain Khan; and the members/volunteers of the Centre for Peace and Spirituality which Maulana has founded. It was one of the highlights of our visit to India, and we felt the need to do something in the spirit of solidarity and cooperation with the work of promoting the message of peace and spirituality to our own country within our spheres of influence. While holding on to the Christian beliefs that I cherish, I repented for the biases I have kept in my heart and mind towards other religions and resolved to recognize more the beauty and goodness in them and work with others to spread peace, love, and spirituality that can eventually overcome the hatred, ignorance, darkness, and materialism in this world.
Belinda F. Espiritu teaches at the University of the Philippines in Cebu and is a sustainability and peace advocate.