Respect for other religions

Since the purpose of religion is to show the path for a seeker to attain inner peace and enduring happiness in one's life-time by instilling an unshakable faith in the existence of a supreme being guiding the affairs of human beings and Nature, one would naturally expect that it would, at the very minimum, serve as a definite means for eliminating restrictive and hostile emotions of every kind. But, unfortunately in practice, one finds that it has not succeeded in putting its lofty precepts into practice as is evidenced by the rampant hate that exists in every sphere of life. What is more alarming is that the locus of hatred encompasses religion also, the very institution that was meant to mitigate it. Examples of militancy in the practice of religion can be found in all parts of the world, so much so that clashes between civilizations are deemed as a distinct possibility in the pursuit of resolving political conflicts. There is a widespread feeling that some religions are more militant than others because of the prominence they give to fundamentalism with all its attendant proclivity for violence. On the one hand we take pride in the fact that because of the tremendous advances made in transportation and communication, the whole world has now become a global village, but on the other hand, we are also cognizant of the mental distances that separate the practitioner of one faith from another. In addition, there is also the reverse kind of hatred on the part of atheists when they view religion as the opium of the masses.

The question of religious toleration has been debated throughout the ages in order to fathom the reasons why hatred creeps into religion at all. We find that every religion preaches universal love towards all mankind and makes it incumbent on its devotees to practice good ethical behaviour as a matter of duty. But we all know that there is a wide gap between precepts and practice in this regard. Only a critical analysis can reveal whether there is anything in the teaching of a religion that gives room for intolerance even indirectly. After all, respect for other religions should not come merely as a matter of good protocol, but it should arise spontaneously out of a deeper conviction of one’s own conceptual framework about the totality of the truth that is taught in one’s own religion. We shall now examine some of the possible ways in which we can reconcile the truths propounded by the various religions.

One way to avoid being fanatical about one’s own religion is to realize that the truth taught by it cannot be asserted with complete certainty on account of its transcendental character. There is no way of validating the transcendental truth by methods available for the verification of truths of the secular realm because it is beyond the pale of human experience. This conviction should instill a degree of healthy skepticism about one’s own understanding of religious truths. Accordingly, they should also serve to inject a modicum of respect for teachings of other religions which also has identical limitations. But truly speaking, this kind of skepticism does not pass for religious toleration. If one starts from the premise that there is uncertainty attendant on the truths proclaimed by all religions, what one is really suggesting is that object of intolerance is not at all present, and so the question of religious intolerance does not really exist. Furthermore, this attitude has the implication that those who are certain about religious truths are, by definition, intolerant, a conclusion which we wish to avoid.

A second way of encouraging religious toleration is to grant that there could be certainty about religious truths but they can at best be attested by only by a few highly evolved individuals and so they need not concern the bulk of the humanity who have neither the ability nor the desire to reach such titanic heights. But this type of toleration, while it concedes that it is humanly possible to attest to the certainty of religious truths, it nevertheless minimizes the role of religion itself by denying its universal appeal for the spiritual advancement of every human being, which is a highly cherished egalitarian principle. Accordingly, we have to discard this argument as legitimate grounds for religious toleration.

We shall now present the viewpoint that is prevailing within Hinduism which serves the purpose of promoting religious toleration. It holds that all religions are equally valid and it is unreasonable to question the authority of any of them or to bestow preferential treatment for one over the other. The revealed knowledge of all religions is divinely inspired and all of them are known to have given spiritual solace to their adherents. Consequently, whatever the choice of the seeker, he is sure to be following the correct path. What is implied in this understanding is that one can realize the ultimate truth by taking recourse to one of several approaches available to him. This is the common bond that links all human beings. The differences that exist between religions are attributed to differences in evolution on account of circumstances such as age and country, and race and temperament. Such differences are, however, confined only to the externals of a religion, namely, the rituals and modes of worship; in particular, they do not suggest differences in their inner truths. They are conspicuously present within Hinduism itself; the manner of worship, say in a Ramakrishna Mission, which places more emphasis on meditative practices, is very different from the temples where the dominant mode of worship is through rituals and Vedic chanting. An outsider to the religion might even wonder whether it is the same religion that the two groups are practicing. Because of such wide differences in the practice of their own religion, Hindus are not dismayed by the unfamiliar practices of other religions however different they are from their own.

The seed of intolerance is sown when a religion asserts that its claims are true to the exclusion of the rest. It is this ill-informed conviction about exclusivity that begets bigotry and taken to its extreme it results in religious fundamentalism that can in turn give rise to militancy. If a clash of civilizations has to be avoided, it is very necessary that we should try and eliminate the feeling of exclusivity that lies dormant in most religions. Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion because of its deep-seated conviction in non-exclusivity, and religious tolerance has characterized the mainstream of its religious thinking throughout its long history. It is this dominant force that has been able to mitigate the fringe movements that have surfaced in recent years which are based on religious intolerance. A conviction should grow that tolerance with which religious truth is pursued is as important as the pursuit of the truth itself. To quote Hiriyanna [1], no divisions are so sharp as those caused by religion and it is equally true that no unity is so strong as that following a recognition of identity in religious aim which is the supreme aim of life.


1. Hiriyanna, M., “Outlines of Indian Philosophy”, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1968

Dr. H. K. Kesavan