One of the main problems about religion is its plurality or diversity. Not only are there several religions but they differ from one another in many ways. Further, each claims to show the right way of life, each claims to provide supreme peace and fulfillment.
Diversity of religion, however is not merely a philosophical problem. It has immerse social, cultural and political consequence. Differences among religions have been one of the main cause of wars and communal riots all through human history. Even in normal, peaceful society, many people harbour prejudice and ill will towards followers of religions other than their own.
India had remained a land of religious harmony from every ancient times till the country attained independence. Religious freedom, toleration and harmony have formed the characteristics texture of Indian ethos. But after independence especially in recent years, communal unrest, desecration of places of worship, assassination of religious leaders, etc., have become quite common. Another controversial change is the rise of fundamentalism. These events, however are to be seen as deviations from the Indian ethos. These deviations are actually reactions of the Indian psyche to forces acting against the Indian ethos.
Since religious conflicts and communal disharmony have assumed serious proportions in present-day India, harmony of religions has become a most important and vital concern for all people.
India had remained a land of religious harmony from very ancient times till the country attained independence. Religious freedom, toleration and harmony have formed the characteristic texture of the Indian ethos. But after independence, especially in recent years, communal unrest, desecration of places of worship, assassination of religious leaders, etc., have become quite common. Another controversial trend is the rise of fundamentalism. These events, however, are to be seen as deviations from the Indian ethos. These deviations are actually reactions of the Indian psyche to forces acting against the Indian ethos.
The distinguishing feature of all living religious traditions in India has been the spirituality lying embedded in their formulations and thought projections which as a matter of fact sustains them. Spiritual elements are seen as forming the core of every religion. Though the core ideas in all religious traditions in this country are one and the same, and their objectives, namely, the refinement of men as social beings and their uplift in spiritual field, are also similar, yet diversities appear in their religious beliefs and practices. Now the question arises, wherefrom do these diversities appear when their thought-content and aim are almost the same? What really causes them? Could not the practitioners of different religions try to identify their commonalities, and attempt at harmonization of the different trends in religious field seen in their religious beliefs and practices? This is the crying need in the present scenario of violence, hatred and mutual mistrust in this country. Sri Ramakrishna showed us the way to harmony through his sadhana, performing spiritual practices as laid down in different religious traditions and then reaching the same goal. His famous words yata mat, tata path (as many faiths, so many paths) can serve as a beacon to our endeavour.
The diversities in religious beliefs and practices we find in religious traditions today in this country probably have been designed by the founders of religious faiths to satisfy the need of time and conditions then prevailing in the country, or to cater for the need of the followers of religion with varying capacities and inclinations. This could also be a spillover of the pluralism prevailing in all spheres of human existence and society.
As followers of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, our conviction is that the unity in diversity must exist, and it must also be reflected in all our endeavours in life. Swami Vivekananda had beautifully and convincingly put this in these words, ‘So far as we see it is hard to find any universal features in regard to religions and yet we know that they exist.’ Time has now come to discover them. Our conviction is that harmony in religious traditions is natural while difference and elements of discord are artificial, created by the irresponsible zealots out of parochial considerations.
Our task now is to identify the factors responsible for creating discord and intolerance in the religious field today in this country. We have to find out the causes responsible for narrowing down our vision resulting in our failure in preserving the real truth. We feel that much of the confusion in the religious field is due to our ignorance about others’ viewpoints and our failure to appreciate them. We feel that it could be dispelled by inter-faith dialogues. In a meeting of minds of this sort, there can be no room for superior-inferior or near-remote feeling; nor is there any need of unnecessary criticism. What is essentially important is some soul-searching, some honest exchange of views, some recollection of spiritual experience so that the ways of upholding religious harmony can be conceived in spite of all contrary signals that may be there.
It is with this objective in view that the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture organized a National-level Seminar to explore the horizon of religious harmony – as it was preached, as it was practiced and as it could be re-established, in a serious, sympathetic and honest frame of mind. It is our hope that such a dialogue would go a long way towards discovering the area of convergence among different religious traditions in India, paving the way for their harmonization.
The inaugural address in the Inaugural Session of the Seminar was delivered by Revered Swami Smarananandaji Maharaj, the then General Secretary and presently one of the Vice-Presidents of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. Dr J.N. Mohanty, formerly Woodruff professor of Philosophy and Asian Studies, Emory University, Atlanta, USA, presented the Keynote Address and Professor Pratap Chandra, Formerly Minister of Education, Government of India, chaired the session. The inaugural and Valedictory Sessions were open to all.
We are thankful to the co-ordinators of the Academic Sessions of the members of the Publications Department who took the trouble to edit the proceedings of the respective sessions. We hope that this volume would facilitate under-standing and appreciation of the religious diversities which in turn would lead to an environment of communal harmony and peace.
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