I was invited recently to speak at an event organised by the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The subject allotted to me was: ‘The role of the youth in inter-faith dialogue’ — the aim, obviously, being international understanding and world peace. So I thought, why not ask the youth what I should speak on? After all, they would know better what their role should be as compared to a 40-year-old like me.
So I met some students. And it was, I must admit, an intriguing conversation. Some youngsters nonchalantly remarked “inter-faith dialogue is a good idea and you oldies keep up the good work while we get on with our lives”. A laid-back youth said “the trick is to look upon each other as friends, and not as Hindus or Muslims or Christians or Sikhs...”
I understand that some among you, who are thoughtful, may think of these responses as simplistic. But the fact is that many people actually approach religion simplistically (though they may approach other subjects more thoughtfully). Many don’t actually read the scriptures of their own religion (let alone those of other faiths). They just know a few rituals and that defines their religious life. In this paradigm, these simplistic suggestions may just work.
But one suggestion from a youngster set me thinking. He said that we should encourage inter-faith marriages on the condition that neither husband nor wife should convert to the other’s faith. He felt that this way, many can discover faiths other than their own, perhaps seeing some similarities and, equally likely, some divergences. And there is nothing wrong with the differences, since it is impossible for different religious systems to be exactly similar. But the couple will learn to live with diversity. He said that even within the same faith, including those that claim One truth, there are different interpretations. I think there is a deeper philosophical idea embedded in this suggestion.
Ignore the point on marriage; they should ideally be based on love, not on religious similarities or differences. But the key thought was this: That there are differences between religions. And these differences need not be a source of worry.
Perhaps this is the problem with many inter-faith dialogues. There is a discomfort with differences. Often there is an almost desperate attempt to prove that ‘We are all the same.’
Let us approach this from the perspective of our bodies. If you look at the nascent source of the bodies of every single human being on earth, we are all the same. Why?
Because we are all carbon-based life forms, we are all made from the same chemicals, in the same proportion and, we all have water in our bodies as one of the primary components. So the source is the same. And when we die, after some period of time for decay, our bodies will return to the same chemicals that we emerged from.
So in a way, the ‘source’ and the ‘end’ of every single human body are exactly the same. But does that mean that our bodies are exactly the same today? No. Some are tall, some are short. Some are fat, some thin. Some have white skin, some have dark skin. So while the source and the end of our bodies may be exactly the same, we remain different today. We cannot force a Potemkin similarity.
It’s the same with the soul, with the spirit. The source may be the same. The end may also be the same. Because both the beginning and the end is with God. But as we are today, we are spiritually different. The aim of religion and spirituality is to aid the journey of the soul.
Since we are different today, our journeys will also be different. Some souls may find the path of Hinduism inspiring, some Islam, some Christianity, some Buddhism, some Sikhism or any other faith. Some may even find the path of atheism inspiring. That’s okay. We must follow the path that makes sense to our soul; that appeals to us.
The key point is to understand that while our source and destination may be the same, our paths will be different. All of us cannot have the same path; the same religion; the same ‘universal values’. Therefore, we must refrain from judging another’s path. We must not try to force-fit similarities where there are none. We need to learn to respect differences. It’s not a competition. We shouldn’t just ‘tolerate’ the religions of others, but respect them as well. I will respect your path, and you respect mine (this is important though: Respect must be mutual and not one-way).
So then, what is the point of inter-faith dialogue, if not to find some elusive similarities between all the religions? Why do it at all? I think one should do it to satisfy that human quality that is at the very root of our greatness: Curiosity. As we seek to learn about other lives and life forms, we should also seek to learn the different paths to God. No wisdom can be a waste. It helps in this great journey that our souls have undertaken. In this life. Or in the ones to follow.
(Amish is the bestselling author of the Shiva Trilogy and Scion of Ikshvaku, and tweets as @authoramish. The views expressed are personal)