The Essential Unity of All Religions

Richard Brooks – USA

[This article was previously published in Insight, 42.3 (May-June 2001): 4-9]

When one looks at religious practices in the world today, one might as well ask “Is there an essential unity of all religions?” The answer would certainly seem to be “No.” In the past, religion has been used to justify the Inquisition and forced conversion of people to what was thought to be the Only True Religion, usually either Christianity or Islam. In both the past and the present, religion has been used to justify warfare against infidels or to justify invasion of other people’s territory. One need only think of the invasion by ancient Jews of what they considered to be their Holy Land or even present-day building of settlements on the West Bank of the River Jordan because Zionism claims that it was given by God to be the Jews’ homeland. Or think of the conquest of that land (as well as others) by Muslims, because Jerusalem is considered their Holy City. Or think of the Crusades by Christians to free that land from the Muslims because it was considered their Holy Land. Think of the pogroms against Taoists and Buddhists in China under certain Confucian dynasties — or similar pogroms against Confucians when Taoists later gained power. Or think of the suppression of the Falun Gong movement in China by its Communist rulers today. Think of the bloodshed of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims as a result of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Or think of the contemporary “Hindutva” (“Hindu-ness”) movement in India which is attempting to change India from a tolerant, secular State to a Hindu State. Movie houses have been damaged by Hindu mobs who objected to what they considered to be an indecent, un-Hindu movie being shown there. Christian missionaries have been murdered by Hindu mobs claiming the missionaries were engaged in “forced conversions.” A Muslim mosque was tom down in Allahabad by a Hindu mob who claimed it was built on the site where the avatar Rama was bom. Consider the pogrom against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia or against non-Muslims and even non-conservative Muslims in Afghanistan today.

Each group considers that it alone has the truth and all other groups must either be converted or killed. Each justifies its actions by quoting the claimed Authority of its Scripture. In the light of all of this past and present-day history, can one seriously claim that there is an essential unity of all religions? It certainly would seem not.

Yet, I believe there is, and until we find and understand it, religious conflict and persecution will continue. The way one can find it is by looking at religion more deeply, from a Theosophical point of view. The motto of the Society, after all, is “There is no religion [dharma] higher than truth.” So, what light does Theosophy have to shed on this subject?

There have been many attempts to find essential, defining characteristics common to all religions. But before one can do that, one has to identify what those religions are. And, in doing so, one’s criteria for identifying a religion become one’s defining characteristics of religion. Scholars just accept as religions whatever people consider to be religions and then analyze them. But their analyses look mostly at the surface of things. Psychologists usually approach religion from the standpoint of behavior. I had a former colleague at my university who even admitted to me that he taught a “Psychology of Religion” course essentially as “strange aberrations of the human mind”!

Anthropologists start with so-called primitive religions and see modem religions as just sophisticated developments of primitive superstitious nonsense! Sociologists look only at the social phenomena of religious-rites of passage, festival cycles, etc. These may serve a useful purpose, but they have no real truth value. Many philosophers look at religious claims and find, like the Scottish philosopher David Hume, that they lack any hope of empirical verification and therefore are meaningless. Hume even wrote of all religious scriptures, “Commit them, then, to the flames, for they contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” From a Theosophical point of view, all these academics miss the point and also ignore — or merely brush aside — man’s spiritual yearning, which theosophists identify as an expression of our inner, divine nature.

Other, perhaps more sympathetic, attempts to find the essence of religion usually end up being ethnocentric. Christians, Muslims and Jews would claim that a defining characteristic of religion is belief in a single Supreme Being: God, Allah, or Jehovah. But what, then, of Buddhism? Most people would consider it to be a religion even though it is non-theistic. What about Confucianism? That is so difficult to categorize that some books on comparative religion include it and some exclude it, largely on the basis of what the authors take to be a defining characteristic of religion. Or what about polytheism? Or nature worship? And is worship of a Supreme being an essential characteristic of religion? What, then, of meditation? What of nature mysticism?

Perhaps a defining characteristic is the acceptance by adherents of a religion or a Scripture, said to be revealed to saints or prophets or to a divine Incarnation. That certainly fits Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But, again, what of Buddhism and Confucianism? Buddha claimed insight, but no divine revelation.

Confucius merely claimed to be a student who loved learning and wanted to share it with others. Or what of Shinto, which has a scripture — in fact two versions of its mythological story — but no one person to whom it was revealed?

All these problems have led some thinkers to call religion “an attitude of ultimate concern.” That certainly waters down religion, does it not? But worse yet, that definition could include nationalism, Marxism, and even terrorism as religions, since they are based on attitudes of ultimate concern. Obviously, they are not considered religions. So something has gone wrong. Perhaps there isn’t any essence, any defining characteristic, to religions. Perhaps, as the 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, suggests about many other things, religions have only a “family resemblance” to each other but no one thing which they all have in common. Perhaps.

Let’s re-examine the question from a Theosophical point of view. Remember that H. P. Blavatsky said that Theosophy is not religion, it is religion. The word “religion” comes from the Latin prefix re — meaning “back” or “again” and the root word legere meaning “gather,” “collect,” or “choose” (consider the English word “elect” which is also derived from legere). The word is basically Western, yet it does suggest an Eastern concept. Many Theosophists interpret it to imply a binding back into our Divine Source, which is essentially the meaning of the word “yoga.” Underlying it is the idea of unity or wholeness, which has largely been lost sight of in the West.

In Chinese, the analogous word is tao meaning “the Way” or “the Path.” In India it would be, as Annie Besant pointed out, Sanatana Dharma,the Eternal Law [which underlies the universe and makes for an orderly society]. The Mughul emperor Akbar called it Din-i-Illahior “Divine Faith,” “Eternal Wisdom.” In ancient Greece it was called Theosophy (cf. St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 2.7 where he spoke of “the wisdom of God [i.e. theos sophia] in a mystery, his secret purpose framed from the very beginning to bring us to our full glory” — combining the King James and New English Bible translations).

Religion seems to be less a single set of ideas than a progression of attitudes which take the spiritual seeker (1) out of materialism into spirituality, (2) out of sectarianism into universalism, (3) out of ethnocentrism into universal brotherhood, (4) out of egocentrism into holism, and (5) out of the phenomenal into the noumenal. This progression can also be described as a movement, doubtless over many incarnations, from (a) shamanism to (b) fundamentalism to (c) liberalism to (d) metaphorical/mythic interpretation of scriptures, to (e) a mystical experience, to (f) occultism — in which one acts as a co-creator with the Ultimate Reality, or, as it is put in At The Feet of theMaster, “a pen in the hand of God.”

In other words, Religion is a Quest for Meaning, not a set of dogmas or beliefs. Religions are formalized stages in that Quest. As Bhagavan Das wrote in a book which gave me the title for this article: “The Fundamental Truths and Teachings remain ever the same, but the frameworks in which they manifest decay and lose vitality, in race after race, age after age, tongue after tongue. The words, the forms become hackneyed with the lapse of centuries, and human hearts respond to them no longer vividly and actively. The divine fire of life that is needed to vivify afresh those Truths and Teachings and give them a new birth in the living frame of a new language and new forms . . . can be given only by [the new] incarnate Founders of Religions . . . Thus they give a new life-time, a whole great era, to the Eternal Truths, and so give birth to a new civilization” (Bhagavan Das, The Essential Unity of All Religions,pp. 220-221).

And he continues: “[But] the creators of a movement, who give it its origin, its life, its energy, its emotional impulse, and its actional impetus, are usually other than those who give it its detailed philosophy, and do its teaching and guiding . . . . While these latter remain true servants of the Spirit, and well-wishers of mankind, the religion flourishes. When they become false, selfish, aggressive, proud . . . sects arise and multiply, decay begins (ibid, p. 221).

So, religions are expressions of the evolutionof the Quest, while Religion itself is that Quest, a search for the Truth that lies beyond dogmas, a Path involving the unfoldment of consciousness until that Truth is realized in one’s own immediate experience. Another way of putting it is that Religion is a manifestation of man’s search for meaning: to find a purpose for one’s life in what seems like a vast and impersonal universe, to give us control over our own destiny, and to enable us to give expression to our essential divinity.

Individual religions evolve over time from magic which attempts to control Nature, to worship which makes us appreciate the wonder of Nature, to mysticism which puts us at one with Nature, to occultism which enables us to act as co-creators with Nature. At each step, religions give meaning to our lives. Since meaning is a function of context, the wider the context, the greater the meaning. Specific religions tend to limit our context, whereas Religion itself continually expands it. The latter feeling has been described as a circle with its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere.

So we can put religious practices and dogmas on a continuum from simple attempts to control Nature by means of magic — often quite ineffective and full of superstition, but also sometimes based on profound insights into the occult workings of Nature — to contemporary expressions of religion in our world today, to festival cycles and ceremonies which are interpreted as metaphors for deeper truths, to the final consummation of this Path to Perfection in what one author, Lawrence Hyde, called “the Nameless Faith,” a full realization of our Oneness with All and our co-operation with its ultimate purpose. But rather than allowing this classification to give us a sense of superiority over those still attracted to the more magical and dogmatic aspects of religion, we should remember that they all serve a purpose for the people who are at that stage of their spiritual develop­ment. To paraphrase the great orientalist Max Muller, “There never was a primitive religion, unless you can call a child a primitive man.”

So, the essential unity of all religions lies in specific festival cycles. Instead of having knowledge of only our own sect, our own rites, and our own festivals we try to appreciate all religions, all rituals, and all festival cycles. Gaining such insight is the real meaning of “conversion,” which is not merely a change of behavior or dogmas, but a change of heart; not just a new way of thinking, but a new way of seeing, not merely a new theology, but truly a Theosophy, that is to say, a wisdom. That, I think, is what is meant by “There is no religion — that is to say, dharmahigher than Truth.” For dharma, as its root meaning (“the basic principles of cosmic and individual existence”) clearly implies, is what truly sustains us as individuals as well as our world. And what sustains cannot be a source of what divides, what sets one sect against another, even leading to violence. That is not Religion.

Again quoting Bhagavan Das: “Communion between two friends brought up in two different cultures, but able to realize the underlying identity of the spirit of refinement and enrichment of life, is more interesting than that between friends brought up in the same culture. . . . To be able to recognize the Dearest of Friends [the divine] only if He is clothed in one dress and no other is not to know the Friend at all, but only the dress. . . . Pots, pans, jugs, jars, tumblers, decanters, kettles are many and of many shapes, the water in them all is one. . . . Living organisms are many and of many shapes; the life in all is one. Religions are many and of many forms and formalities; the Universal Religion is One” (ibid,pp. 69-70). That I think is what is meant by the essential unity of all religions.

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