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Friday, January 4, 2013

The Harmony of Religions

by Charles (Prana) Feldman

For a while now, I have categorized political tendencies as those that seek predominantly either liberty, equality, or solidarity. I have come to believe that we need a balance between the three for the best kind of society.

As I have gotten older, I have turned more to religion for meaning in life, and being a philosopher by nature, I have tried unsuccessfully to categorize religions in a similar manner . . . until the other day. Now I think I have come up with a way to think about different religious tendencies that has made things easier for me to understand.

While all political tendencies seek some form of justice, I think all religions seek some form of unity, usually with God. There are three ways that religions go about seeking unity: through diversity, through hierarchy, and through mutuality.

Hinduism is the main religion that seeks unity through diversity. For most Hindus, it is okay to worship God (or not worship God) in whatever way brings you closer to God (or to your ideal). So Hindus, who mostly believe in an ultimate unity beyond the material world, seek this through a celebration of diversity.

I am generalizing here, but the trend of the Abrahamic religions is to seek unity with God through hierarchy. There is a hierarchy with a separate God at the top, the prophet(s), messiah, or other religious leader(s) at the next rung, then I believe comes humanity, then angels, then other sentient life forms. In this view, and again, this is a generalization, God is the source of all good, so any diversion from the scripture that represents God, is a rebellion or innovation, and thus bad. There are many in the Abrahamic religions who are not “fundamentalists” and who may not follow this view, but the highest ideal of the Abrahamic religions is the all good scripture, which comes from an all good God.

Finally, there is an attempt to bring about unity through mutuality, which represents many Buddhists (especially Mahayana), and many secular “religions” such as Marxism or humanism. In this tendency, people are all viewed as essentially equal and will in some way all support each other, either through leading each other to spiritual liberation or through having the same vested interests in a just society.

Keep in mind that all of these portrayals are generalizations. Hindus may believe in hierarchy (follow the personal God and the guru) and equality (we will all eventually reach the same goal). Liberals in the Abrahamic religions may accept other religions as paths to God and may seek some form of social justice where we are all equal. And Buddhists may look at people as having different karma (making them unequal at the moment) while communists may support a temporary hierarchy with the goal of eliminating all hierarchy.

As in my political view, I think a balance of the religious ideals is best. Diversity is good to allow people to follow whatever path brings each person closer to God or to their ideal. It is best to have a vision of God and to have spiritual teachers who may be higher up in the hierarchy, from whom we can eventually reach their state or reach union with them. And mutuality is important so we will not count anyone out as being important in the scheme of things.

I have always wanted an ideal ever since I have begun to philosophize. It is important to remember that all spiritual or religious paths, whatever their tendencies, seek some form of unity.  When we see that, we can accept the goal of all paths as valid. May we each find that unity in our own way.


  1. Nice article. I like to classify the religions into 2 categories: community-oriented and individual-oriented, based on their practices. The three major religions of Middle-East, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are community-oriented while most of the religions that arose in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism are individual-oriented. The synagogues, churches and mosques have all people assemble together at one time and disperse together after the prayers and rituals are over. The prayers and rituals are usually standardized and are to be followed by all. In the temples of Eastern tradition, there is no particular timing that all people have to necessarily come together. The rituals and prayers are done individually by each person. Usually, these rituals and prayers themselves could vary from person to person and they have no particular rigor that needs to be followed. Just as Charles cautioned us, what I pointed out is a stereotype version. The religions from Middle-East have some individual prayers and rituals while the Eastern religions have their own version of community programs. But both these variations from the stereotype version are not a common norm and do not form the central practice of their respective traditions. For example, the devotional songs (bhajans), Aarati and some festivals where an image is created for specific time (like Durga and Ganesh

    As I grew up with Hindu faith, when I first saw a church as an adult, it reminded me of a classroom with benches in a school and particular timings for the assembly of people. It felt odd that people are somewhat forced to follow a certain prayer and ritual and timing where as in a Hindu temple people are more free to follow their own procedures of their liking. On the other hand, I also felt that the rigour and vigour seen in community-based programs is sometimes lost in an individual-oriented one. Both these sets of practices are therefore necessary for us. Community-based programs help one to gain the vigour sometimes lost in one’s own individual practice. Individual-based programs help one to dig deeper and grapple with one’s own inner personality and there by orient our life towards the goal accordingly. You may eve say that one type of program helps us to develop the immanent aspect of God (community) while the other focuses to bring forth the transcendental aspect (within an individual).

  2. When you talk about the individual vs. community, I have in the past called this the struggle between liberty and solidarity, which along with equality make up the three most prominent archetypal social goals, and in fact, are the goals of the European enlightenment. I see the religions that you call individualistic as fostering a higher kind of solidarity, in the Oneness or Nonduality that they propose lies behind everything. I was struck today by a statement in Swami Adiswarananda's "Meditation and its Practices" where he said if we realize that we are all One, we would never hurt anyone, because then we would be hurting ourself. I have heard this many times, but it really struck me today. If I know that we are all One, I would never want to hurt myself (others). This is the utopia that i formerly sought through politics. The ultimate Oneness of all souls.