Search for the meaningful unity among the manifold religious and spiritual systems in the world
- The foremost objective is to underline the fact that the manifold religious, spiritual and humanistic philosophical systems could become meaningfully united when one concentrates on their universal, essential, fundamental, substantial, and progressively connected and advancing principles and unifying messages, while at the same time appreciating the diversified features of each one of the religious systems.
- The second important objective is to demonstrate the fact that religious systems and spiritual/humanistic philosophies of the world can never become united in vision if one chooses to concentrate on their social, cultural, and historical contexts. Whilst, if one accepts the manners, approaches, and methods in each one of these religions as the natural and progressive unfoldment of human evolution, one will, no doubt, appreciate the manifold expressions of the principle of continuity and relativity, which leads to unity in diversity.
- The third, and perhaps the most important objective of this essay, is to provide the readers a theoretical framework, as well as a simple practical measurement tool and a comprehensive instrument with which each person can on his/her own, and without any coercion, bias, or preconception investigate and assess the applications and implications of the components of each of these systems. And, at the same time, be willing and able to fairly judge the vitality and usefulness of these systems within the context of the requirements of the age in which he/she lives. Such a critical judgement empowers the seeker who treads the path of true justice and is consumed by the love of wisdom to have the inner courage and the gift of conscience to free himself/herself from the chains of slavery to the doctrines that overtly or covertly violate individual nobility and threaten the cosmic unity of the entire creation — let alone the unity, peace and tranquility of the entire human race.
Everything in the universe is comprised of Forms/Appearances and Realities/Essentials. “Forms” are contextual, while “Realities” are essential, eternal and shall stand the test of time. The interactions between “Reality” and “Forms” create a dynamic in which the organic reality reveals itself continuously and progressively in the domain of space and time. Religious systems are no exceptions to this fact. The forms of all the religious systems are the functions of “cultural systems” (1), as was proposed by the American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, or it can be looked at as “an anthropological category” (2), as was viewed by Talal Asad. Within these contextual forms we see narratives, symbols, and traditions where sacred histories are developed. All these “Forms” are symbolic pointers to the Realities that are intended to provide certain contexts so that humanity can create some sort of existential meaning for life in the universe, and derive morality and ethics.
The following are the gleanings from the common practices (Forms) and objectives (Realities) that are shared in most of the major religions of the world:
- For instance, when we consider the various domains of worship, we note that each of these religions, be it Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Mithraism, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Sikhism, Babism or Baha’i Faith, etc., have a common component of Prayer, Meditation & Fasting. This commonality constitutes their Essence. However, each one of these religions approach the manner of offering prayers, performing meditations, or observing the fast differently. Each differs from the other depending on the cultural/sub-cultural settings and societal norms in which these religious systems have risen and evolved. For example, Islamic obligatory prayer consists of 17 Rak’ahs (Rak’ah is the recitation of specifically revealed verses accompanied by a prescribed set of genuflections and other movements(3) ) and is offered 5 times a day, while Babi obligatory prayer is 19 Ra’k’ahs and is offered once every 24 hours at noon. The Baha’i Faith has three different types of prayers offered at different times of the day depending on which one an individual believer chooses to recite. While in Judaism and Christianity there are specific prayers but the format in which they are offered was not stipulated in the Old and New Testaments. These FORMS are not the ESSENCE and they do not constitute the FUNDAMENTAL/SUBSTANTIAL message of these obviously different religious systems. While, the concept of PRAYER itself as a way to communicate with the Source of Being or the Universe is the Essence and the common principle between all of these religious systems.
Fasting is similar, while its FORM — as far as the period of fasting, its nature and scope, what one can eat or not eat, or drink — differ in each religion, but nonetheless its REALITY or main purpose is to teach detachment from the transitory things of life, contentment, being mindful of others in need, being gracious to others, etc., is universal and common in all of these religious orders.
- Another Example is Act of Service to others, such as caring for the poor, endowments for charities, and concern for others, which have been stated in different forms, but essentially are for the same humanistic purposes and seen in all the Eastern and Western religions.
- Another example is considering the Point of Adoration or Holy Land. While the Jews and Christians consider Jerusalem as the Holy Land due to its association with their prophet founders, Baha’is consider the twin cities of Haifa and Akka to be the Holy Land due to the events which took place in these twin cities. Moslems consider Mecca and Medina as the primary Holy places. These are all FORMS or CONTEXTS, while the MEANING and REALITY have been to create a point of unity between the believers who circle around a common place associated with their prophet founders.
- Another example is the manner of Greetings;Shalom, Salam, Allah-u-Akbar (God is Great), Allah’u’Abha (God is The Most Glorious) are all the different FORMS of expressing the REALITY of encouraging the followers to meet and greet, in the spirit of peace, greatness, and glory with whomsoever they come in contact with.
- Another example is the station and treatment of women: Allocations of their rights and responsibilities within the family and society as a whole, the number of wives the founders had or allowed their followers to have, the preference of male child over female, confining the successorship and ultimate authority to the male are but a few examples. These are all reflections of the various cultural norms and settings in which these religions appeared. For instance, all the scriptures in the Western or Eastern religions — all the way back to The Bhagavad Gita, attributed to Lord Krishna, to Kitab-i-Aqdas written by Baha’u’llah, have proclaimed the equality of man and woman before God as spiritual beings. All of these religious systems have gradually tilted less towards male as far as some functional and administrative rights and responsibilities are concerned. These differences, no matter how negligible they may be, are due to the social contexts and cultural contingencies in which these religious systems and their founders have manifested themselves.
- Another example to demonstrate the point of commonality is the consideration of how each of these religious systems conceptualize God and its relationship with the world of creation(Transformation from polytheist Gods towards Monotheistic God, and movements from personal God to impersonal God). The God of mystics differ from the God of the philosopher, or the God of the enlightened, etc. However, they more or less believe in a source of creation or Being. How each of these religious systems go about the nature or the qualities of this source of Being is mostly different and largely determined by the cultural settings, political forces, economic environments, maturation levels of the generality of humanity, psychosocial development and most importantly the advancement of scientific discoveries. All these factors, when combined together, will impact the notions, definitions and relevance of what we refer to as God. Nonetheless, all the religions share its existence one way or another, while calling it differently.
- Other major common points between all of the religions are: Performing the act of service to humanity: for instance, among the most fundamental beliefs in Sikhism, as have been articulated in the sacred scripture of Guru Granth Shaib,include “faith and meditation on the name of one creator, divine unity and equality of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct and livelihood “ (4). Same concepts are repeated in the Gita of Hinduism, in the passages of The Quran and verses in The Kitab-i-Aqdas by Baha’u’llah, who considers daily work as an act of true worship when it is performed in the spirit of truthfulness, and with the aim of service to humanity.
*All the religious and spiritual systems of the world have the goal of the transformation of the entire human race. The central aim and the ultimate objective of all these religious systems and spiritual philosophies have been to create a new race of humanity who, through holistic education and spiritual transformation, shall become the true examples of the attributes of what we call God and His virtuous example in the realm of creation: “Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, be a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom,a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility”. (5).
If one chooses to consider all these features with the eye of justice, one will assuredly testify to the fact that all these systems have aimed at the transformation of society through reducing the sufferings of humanity and increasing their happiness, motivating and empowering the individuals to achieve self-actualization and becoming true noble beings by discovering their true inner divinity — having been created in the image and likeness of God.
Marching Towards a Universal Cause & One Common Faith
Considering the principle of the continuity and integrity of all the spiritual philosophies and religious systems, which constitute their Reality, and at the same time applying the principle of relativity and diversity, which comprise their Forms, can help us to gain a deeper appreciation of unity that exists between all these systems and consider each one as a subsystem of one Universal Cause and One Common Faith. A Common Faith which upholds the common features that exist between all the religions. This Universal Cause does not allow for uniformity or the overpowering of one ideology, philosophy, or religious system over others. It encourages diversity at all times and under all conditions. This Universal Cause and Common Faith is natural, progressive and organic. It prevents the supremacy, singularity, and most importantly the dominance of one religious system by force or coercion. This Common Faith is “eternal in the past and eternal in the future” (6). This Universal Cause is greater than and way beyond the summation of all the religious systems. Hence, the One Common Faith is not any one of the faiths or any particular religion. Rather, it is that unifying spiritual energy which gives organic life to the manifold religious systems. In such a natural context, one can easily behold the unity between the manifold religious & spiritual philosophies which appear at different times and places on the planet, both progressively and within the contexts of the evolution and unfoldment of human, spiritual, mental, and emotional capacities. This concept of Universal Cause has been mentioned in different religions by different names. In Taoism or Daoism, this Universal Cause is referred to as Tao which means “the way” The Tao denotes “a fundamental idea and the principle that is the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists” (7). In the Bible, this same Universal Cause is referred to as the Word which is identified with God and Existential Force which has no beginning nor any end, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (8); “Truly, truly, I tell you…before Abraham was born, I am” (9). These twin passages certainly distinguish the contextual Jesus from the existential Christ which is an essential reality that is not confined to any particular religious ideology. Moreover, the passages, such as: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (10), “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (11) stresses the eternal reality in an unequivocal term. Same concept of Universal Cause is seen in The Quran: “Our Cause is but One” (12), “He is the First and He is the Last, He is the Appearance and He is the Reality” (13). This same fundamental reality is referred to as “the Primal Will which manifests itself in every dispensation” (14) in the writings of The Bab, the founder of the dispensation of Bayan or Babism. In the writings of Baha’u’llah this same Universal Cause is referred to as “Changeless Faith of God” (15).
When we solely concentrate on this Universal Reality, we not only see the essential unity between all of the religious systems, rather, we also witness the unity of their founders as well as their ultimate messages. This ultimate unity of all the founders can be easily understood by the statements in the Bible such as “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me” (16), or the passages in Quran “There is no difference between any of the messengers of God” (17), and the statement by Baha’u’llah “Beware, O believers in the Unity of God, lest ye be tempted to make any distinction between any of the Manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation. This is the true meaning of Divine Unity” (18). And, when we turn our focus away from this essential unity, we see nothing but different forms that relate to the diverse contextual cultural systems.
The following are the progressive Process that all the religious systems, more or less, have followed in transformation of humankind towards One UniversalReality/Cause.
1) All the religions have overtly or covertly aimed at the spiritual transformation of the entire human race moving towards:
- The acceptance of One Sourcefor the Creation of all things (regardless of what it is called: Brahma in Hinduism, Yahweh in Judaism, Father in Christianity, Allah in Islam, Unknowable Essence in Babi and Baha’i Faith)
- Recognition of One Common Faiththat is changeless, natural, eternal in the past and eternal in the future
- The realization of the Oneness of Humanity, regardless of its diversity factors (race, gender, culture, color, ethnicity, etc.)
2) The Essence of true religion has ever been to foster and widen the spirit of love, broaden the scope of fellowship and enlarge the circle of unity continuously, but gradually and progressively, among the entire human race — regardless of their diversity factors. For instance, one could witness the amplification of the spirit of true, authentic and genuine love and the organic transformation from one stage of love and unity to the next, when one considers the progressive messages of love and true unity in all these religions.
- TrueLove and “respect for one’s own self, knowing the true self within and selfless actions” (19) & Moving towards Cosmic love or love for everything in the universe (plants, animals, and the cosmos as a whole) (Hinduism)
- Transformation of suffering into peace, joy, and liberation– love of enlightenment and wisdom & the four noble truths about suffering (1) accept that we suffer, 2) search for its causes, 3) accept that it is possible to end the suffering, 4) follow the eightfold path to cease the suffering (“right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness, right concentration”) (20), (Buddhism)
- Adopting the non-violence attitude(21), at all times and under all conditions (Jainism)
- Synchronizing three aspects of one’s life (the Good Thoughts with the Good words and Good deeds) (Zoroastrianism)
- Love and respect for one’s ownfamily (Judaism)
- Love of one’s neighbor (Christianity)
- Love of one’s country (Islam)
- Genuine Love and unconditional regards for the dignity and rights of the entire human racewho reside on planet earth (Baha’i Faith)
Within this natural, circular, organic and most certainly nonlinear process, one can witness the progressive advancement of the degrees of love and unity: Starting with the unity in one’s own self, then extending it to the family system, to tribal unity, from there to national unity and ultimately towards the oneness of humanity on this planet, as was envisioned by all of the founders and was ushered in by Baha’u’llah, the prophet founder of the Baha’i Faith. This Natural, Essential, Progressive and most importantly organic movement towards love and unity, free from violence and coercion, may be considered the most fundamental attribute and essential feature demonstrating the unity of all religious and spiritual/humanistic systems in the world. To appreciate this natural unity one needs to wholeheartedly experience the cosmic feelings of transformation and genuinely be willing to accept the paradigm shift from absolutism (and its evil features such as fundamentalism, fanaticism, radicalism that could contribute to terrorism), towards the guarded relativism, while upholding the bounds of moderation and having regards for the essential ethical values that safeguard the rights and noble station of the entire human race.
Different Characteristics of One Common Cause that are envisioned by manifold religious systems
It appears as there is One Common Faith, or better stated, One Universal Cause, which has manifested itself in these infinite number of religious and manifold spiritual motifs. Each of these religious systems have emphasized or concentrated on one major aspect (step, feature, characteristic) that are required for creating the greater wholeness and achieving the ultimate unity for the entire humanity and eventually for the whole existence. In other words, when one considers all the religions (from the beginning which had no beginning until the end which has no end) to be interconnected with one another by a string of complementary components, then he/she sees nothing but one Universal Cause or One Common Faith; this will lead to the true wholeness or what we normally refer to as Holiness. Within this context, each religion — or the messages of that religion — become the fulfillments of all the messages of the religions that came before it, while at the same time, it acts as an introduction, precursor or forerunner to the religion that shall come after it. Such a universal context requires not only an appreciation but also a wholehearted acceptance of the progressive evolutionary process of humanity which also demands one to relinquish his/her mind and heart from the chain of slavery to belief in absolutism.
Here are some examples of this evolutionary process throughout history of religions.
1) Moses’ emphasis has been on the importance of obedience to the Laws (Covenant).
2) Zoroaster has emphasized the importance of the harmony between Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.
3) Jesus has concentrated on the regenerating influence of genuine and authentic Love.
4) Muhammad has highly concentrated on the belief in Oneness of God and peaceful Submission to His Will
5) The Bab had stressed the importance of Rational Inquiry and seeking a holistic meaning in all acts of worships through detachment from dogmas and irrational belief systems and mistaken lifestyles (22)
6) Baha’u’llah highly stresses the unity of the entire human race and links Unity with Equity, Peace and Justice. He, moreover, teaches the essential unity of God (Oneness of God), The unity between all the religions expressing the dimensions of One Common Faith, and the unity of the founders of religions (Each promoting different chapters of One Common Faith and having common essential objectives)
When we consider all these components together (Universal Law+ Goodness + Genuine and Universal Love+ Submission to the Higher Will + Detachment from Transitory things + Unity/Wholeness), then and only then can we appreciate the interconnectivity of all these religious systems and their effectiveness in creating a new unified, organic, cosmic world order. While, at the same time, we appreciate their diversities to be the result of the needs of humanity and due to the cultural and other social factors associated with the age in which they appeared. The result shall be true holiness (whole & healthy), peace, justice and true unity. When viewed in this light, religious systems will serve as one of the mightiest instruments to unite the hearts of humanity. While, on the other hand, without such an integrative perspective, the diverse religious systems shall become the most dangerous means of separation, suppression of humanity, the mightiest instrument for the destruction of the entire human race and the ultimate manifestations of the concept of evil as we witness how it has been revealed in the forms of religious fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.
Religious and humanistic/spiritual philosophies, when taken together as a unified and integrated system, shall create a calculus which is governed by the twin and inseparable axioms of integration/unity and differentiation/uniqueness. Within such a conceptualized framework, both integration (essential unity in relation to the eternal and none contingent reality) and differentiation (contextual diversity in the domain of space and time) are required for creating a postmodern reality through which a holistic meaning of unity could become manifested. In fact, unity cannot exist without the differentiation (variations) variables that reflect the diversity of the different populations that are comprised of infinite sets of variable (characteristics). The central point to appreciate is that because each of the religious systems were impacted by the social structures of the societies in which they appeared, one who seeks the common features between these various Faiths should not look at the FORMS (modes, styles) of the delivery of the messages that these religions have employed. If one concentrates on the forms and manners that are used in each of these religious systems, then differentiation becomes the means of strife and the cause of disintegration. That is to say if we solely look at differences without consideration of the essential objectives and integrative principles (the unified characteristics and common areas that are shared by all these diverse and manifold systems of thoughts and approaches), then searching for commonality between them shall prove to become challenging — if not impossible. Practically speaking, when we concern ourselves with the cultural and subcultural aspects of any religion, no doubt, we only see the differences and variations, while when we concentrate on the essential/fundamental values and the universal humanistic objectives that make their essence, then and only then, will we see nothing but their essential unity, and substantial integrity. Furthermore, when we consider both of these twin aspects of Integration (the fundamental essential messages and universal objectives) and differentiations (forms/contexts), then we fully appreciate the overarching archetype and the grand principle of unity in diversity that operates within and between all of these religious, humanistic and existential systems. Not until such a True Unity is established between the diverse religious and nonreligious systems of the world, humankind will deprive itself from the effulgent glory of the light of unity and the religion which is meant to reunite everyone becomes the mightiest instrument for creating divisions between humanity. The following statement of Baha’u’llah in addressing this fundamental issue underlines both the importance of the light of unity as well as understanding the diversity factors that are attributed to the varying requirements of different ages in which these religious systems have appeared:
“O contending peoples and kindreds of the earth! Set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you. Gather ye together, and for the sake of God resolve to root out whatever is the source of contention amongst you. Then will the effulgence of the world’s great Luminary envelop the whole earth, and its inhabitants become the citizens of one city, and the occupants of one and the same throne. This wronged One (i.e. Baha’u’llah) hath, ever since the early days of His life, cherished none other desire but this, and will continue to entertain no wish except this wish. There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. Arise and, armed with the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you. This, verily, is the most exalted Word which the Mother Book hath sent down and revealed unto you” (23).
Limitations & Future Studies
According to some estimates, there are roughly 4200 religions/faiths in the world. This includes Abrahamic, Iranian, Indian, East Asian, and others. Some of these religions, such as Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith are considered the major world religions and others may be considered the branches or subsets of the major ones. Still there are some debates concerning what should be considered major religions, world religions, international faiths, indigenous religions or even independent religions (24). This particular study examined the common features between mostly Abrahamic and Indian religious systems. Despite the belief of this author that the same common fundamental concepts and practices may exist among most, if not all the religions of the world, a future comprehensive research study of other religions are certainly required in order to assure the unbiased and solid outcomes and justified conclusions. Another limitation of this study is the absence of clear definition of what we consider to be a religious system. For instance, some regard Confucius to be the founder of a new religion, while others consider him to be solely a spiritual teacher and reformer (25).
1- Clifford Geertz, Religion as a Cultural System, 1973
2- Talal Asad, The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category, 1982
3- Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’i publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, p. 169
4- Sewa Singh Kalsi, Sikhism. Chelsea House, Philadelphia. pp. 41-50
5- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, Translated by Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i publication Australia, 2011, no. 130, pp. 322-323
6- Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’i publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, paragraph 182
7- Pollard; Rosenberg; Tignor, Elizabeth; Clifford; Robert (2011). Worlds Together Worlds Apart. New York, New York: Norton. p. 164
8- Jesus, Bible; John 1:1
9- Jesus, Bible; John 8:58
10- Jesus, Bible, Revelation 1:8
11- Jesus, Bible, Revelation 22:13
12- Muhammad, Quran; Surah 54 (Al-Qamar), verse 50
13- Muhammad, Quran; Surah 57 (Al-Hadid), verse 3
14- The Bab, Persian Bayan, Vahid (section) 2, bab (chapter) 4
15- Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, paragraph 182
16- Jesus, Bible, John 5:46
17- Muhammad, Quran, Surah 2 (al-Baqara), verse 285
18- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, Translated by Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i publication Australia, 2011, no. 24, pp. 65-66
19- Jack Hawley, The Bhagavad Gita, New World Library, Novato, California, 2001
20- Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Broadway Books, New York, pp. 9-10
21- Tirthankara: Jainism, Encyclopedia Britannica
22- The Bab, Persian Bayan,Vahid (section) 9, bab (chapter) 10
23- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, Translated by Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i publication Australia, 2011, no 130, pp. 322-323
24- For more information, see: Harvey, Graham (2000). Indigenous Religions: A Companion. (Ed: Graham Harvey). London and New York: Cassel
25- ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Abbas, Some Answered Questions, Collected and Translated by Laura Clifford Barney, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, USA, 1981, chapter 43
Alex Habib Riazati
Alex Habib Riazati, is a Strategist/Scientist at Boeing Company, Psychotherapist at View Heights Hospital, Founder and program director of the Human in the Making foundation (www.humaninthemaking.org) a nonprofit foundation aiming at motivating, empowering and enabling individuals to think independently; Author; international lecturer on various interdisciplinary topics relating to the integration of religion, philosophy, psychology and science; Producer of weekly TV programs at Pars National TV discussing current social issues. Lastly, he is the developer of the www.oceanoflights.org website in three languages, listing the major works of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith.