Archive for March 2011
But never get into your head that your faith alone is true and every other is false. (Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa)
In the month of March 2011, the 176th anniversary of the birth of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa (Ramakrishna) is celebrated. During his lifetime Ramakrishna experimented with the devotional practices of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and was convinced that the source of all the world’s religions is the same. Ignorance, he said, is the belief that God is outside oneself and far away. True knowledge is realizing that God is within oneself. When one has that true knowledge, and realizes also that God is within all living beings, then there is no longer any place for such concepts as “infidel,” “heretic” and “apostate.” There are no foreigners and no aliens; there are none who do not belong, none who cannot be forgiven, none who cannot be unconditionally loved.
On January 13, 2011, in Toronto, Shāh Karīm al-Ḥussaynī, the fourth Āgā Khān, the current imām of the Shia Imami Nizari Ismailis, delivered the Lafontaine-Baldwin lecture at University of Toronto. The lecture was broadcast on CBC Radio. In that lecture, His Highness made the observation that all the great empires in the world have thrived during the times when they have embraced what we now call multiculturalism and religious pluralism, and they have fallen when the inclusive attitudes of embracing all ethnic groups, all linguistic groups and all religions has given way to xenophobia and religious intolerance. Just one of the examples he gave was that of the Islamic empire of al-Andalus in what is now southern Spain. This nation lasted for more than 700 years, from 711 until 1492, and was a vibrant center of Muslim, Jewish and Christian cross-fertilization and exchange. In 1492, when the intolerant Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile recaptured Granada and began the reconquest of Spain, one of the most brutal and ugly episodes in human history took place. The Spanish Inquisition was a time when Jews and Muslims were required to convert to Catholicism or be expelled from Spain, and many of those who chose to convert were there examined by the Inquisition and found to be heretical. They were then handed over to the state and subjected to punishment, often in the form of being burned alive in public squares. The intolerance and brutality of the Spanish Inquisition set the tone for the treatment of native peoples in lands colonized by the Spanish in the Americas and Africa. Most of the shameful European conquest of the Americas can be seen as an aftermath of the collapse of morality in the wake of the descent from the spirit of multiculturalism and religious pluralism that began in 1492 and then gained momentum for several centuries afterward.
Intolerance of all kinds is contagious. Some have argued that it is innately human and that people are naturally disposed to be suspicious of outsiders and to blame them for nearly everything that has gone wrong in the world. Indeed, it is difficult to find any part of the world that has not at one time or another see manifestations of xenophobia. It does not follow from that, however, that people must be driven by suspicion and hatred. Nor does it follow that to be driven by forces other than suspicion, fear and hatred is to be somehow inhuman. Throughout history there have been people who have dedicated their lives to overcoming aggression, and the fearful mentality that gives rise to it. The Jina and the Buddha of ancient India, Laozi and Mozi and Mengzi of ancient China, Socrates and Aristotle and the Stoics and Skeptics of ancient Greece, and countless prophets and priests and philosophers and mystics since then have tirelessly articulated and lived the message of universal love—of loving one’s neighbor and loving the stranger just as one loves oneself and one’s own family.
In his address in Toronto, the Aga Khan observed that the world has become so interconnected through communication networks that whatever happens anywhere is soon known—and often imitated— everywhere, and social and political movements spread like wildfire. At the time of his talk, the protests in Tunisia were just beginning to be widely known, and the unrest in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen had not yet unfolded, nor had the massive protests in Wisconsin—the largest since the protests against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and ’70s. Given how rapidly cataclysmic change can take place around the world, he said, we human beings do not have much time to learn the important message that love is a much better strategy for survival and well-being than animosity. Given the efficiency of the technology of destruction now distributed around the world, failure to find our way back to civilization could quickly bring our unruly species to an end.
As the celebration of the birth of Ramakrishna takes place in Vedanta centers around the world, it is a time to reflect on his words and deeds, and on the words and example of the Aga Khan, and on the words and teachings of all men and women who have lived and died to establish peace and harmony and justice for all living beings on this earth. In the spirit of Ramakrishna, I personally find myself reflecting on the words of George Fox, written in a letter from prison in England in 1656, a time when men and women lost their lives or, like Fox, were imprisoned for following the “wrong” sort of Christianity:
…be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.