The first truth is obvious in the fact that we gathered in Zimbabwe as committed members of the world's religions. Religious commitment is the common feature in the lives of all of us, and each one of us follows and is loyal to a distinct path. In many important ways our religious paths vary, but we do share a central and significant insight. One always runs the risk of making an improper generalization whenever one attempts to speak of a common element in religious traditions, and I am aware that my generalization my not be acceptable to all. I do hope that it is not offensive and that my remarks will offer an opportunity to articulate the standpoint of other traditions.
What we share is a rejection of a materialistic understanding of the universe and of human life, and the affirmation of the reality of an absolute or ultimate in the light of which human existence becomes meaningful. Our understandings of the nature of the absolute are not identical and are reflected in the different ways in which we speak about it. Such differences are vitally important and ought not to be dismissed as merely semantic in nature. We must take these differences seriously, be challenged by them and wrestle with their significance. I am aware of the fact that my own tradition, in its worthwhile enthusiasm to affirm and give importance to the unifying elements in the world's religions, is often guilty of overlooking and underplaying the significance of differences.
While the different ways in which we understand the ultimate are important, it is a central Hindu conviction that our words, at some fundamental level are inadequate and that the ultimate is always more than we could define, describe or understand with our finite minds. A God whose nature and essence could be fully captured in our words or who could be contained within the boundaries of the human mind would not be the absolute proclaimed in our traditions. A famous verse from the Taittira Upahad, a part of the authoritative Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas, speaks of the absolute as, "that from which all words, along with the mind, turn back, having failed to grasp. Other texts caution us that the infinite is not to be comprehended or thought of in the same manner that we think of finite objects in the world. The absolute, says the Kena Upanishad, is that which the eyes cannot see, but because of which the eyes see. It is that which the mind cannot comprehend, but because of which it comprehends.
The centrality of the absolute in our various traditions and our acknowledgment of the limits of human understanding and language provide a powerful justification for meeting one another in humility and reverence. If our theologies cannot limit the limitless, we can learn from and be enriched by the ways in which others have experienced and apprehended the absolute. Religious arrogance is the consequence of thinking and concluding that one has a privileged relationship with and understanding with the absolute. It is a consequence of limiting the absolute to one's own community, the pages of one's sacred text, or the walls of one's place of worship. We cannot, in reality, limit the absolute. We do, however, limit our knowledge and experience of its nature.
My own religious life as a Hindu has been and continues to be immensely enriched and stirred by my encounters with practitioners of other traditions. I think of myself as a fellow traveler on a vast highway who has discovered that he is surrounded by other travelers with stories full of wisdom, profound experiences and unanticipated discoveries. I have benefited immeasurably from the opportunity to converse and interact with some of these pilgrims. I know that my spiritual poverty would be much greater without the wealth I have received from people of other traditions.
Unless our understanding of the absolute is specifically tribal, ethnic or national in nature, we hold it to be the source, support and destiny of all beings. Where the absolute is understood as a personal God, God is always understood as the creator of all beings and not just of a specific group. In the Bhagavadgita (9:17), Krishna speaks of himself as the father and mother of the universe and the grandparent as well. Our understanding of the absolute is such that it would be contradictory to propose that it could be anything other than one. If we admit the reality of two or more absolutes, we proclaim ourselves to be polytheists. Hinduism is clear in its belief that the object of quest and worship in the world's religions is the same and we could speak in different and even contradictory ways about the same reality. This is the point of the often quoted text from the Rig Veda, "The Absolute is one; the wise speak of it in many ways." With reference to the diversity of worship, there is the famous text from the Bhagavadgita, "Howsoever people approach Me, even so do I welcome them, for the paths people take from every side are Mine."
Speaking from a Hindu standpoint therefore, God is clearly our God. Yet, while we recognize that our God may be called by many names and imagined in diverse forms, we choose one name and form as the center of our lives. This is referred to, in Sanskrit, as the ishtadevata, or the God of one's choice. Each one has a right to choose the ishtadevata which frames one's life and focuses one's religious quest. There is a special commitment to one's choice, along with the recognition that others have chosen differently and that the divine may be celebrated and honored under many names and forms.
Hinduism has been accused, with some justification, of failing to distinguish between one revelation and another. The text from the Rig Veda which I cited earlier, is often interpreted in ways suggesting that religious differences are merely semantic ones and which seem to make interreligious dialogue itself unnecessary. If all paths, for example, are independently capable of leading to liberation and if all differences can be explained away as semantic ones, there is not much to be learnt from dialogue with others.
The Hindu position, however, is much more complex than these simplistic interpretations suggest. While it recognizes the one Absolute as the source and destiny of all beings, it does not naively assume that they are all equally true to it. An excellent example of this Hindu position is Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi creatively balanced an openness to the insights of the world's religions with sharp questioning of the content of particular traditions. Gandhi considered religion without morality to be inconceivable and saw the virtues of truth and compassion as essential to valid religion. He felt deeply that no single religion could fully contain God and that all religions reflected the frailty of the human condition. Hinduism has its own imperfections. Its principal sin, for Gandhi, was its tolerance of untouchability.
Gandhi was not the only Hindu to exemplify an attitude of openness to other religions with a critical stance toward particular theologies and practices. The Hindu teacher, Ramakrishna (1863-1888), is perhaps unrivaled in his acceptance of diverse beliefs and practices. It was Ramakrishna who told us of a lake with four landing points on its four banks. People who draw water at one bank call it "jal" and those who draw at a second call it "pani." At the third bank, they call it "water" and at the fourth "agua." But it is one and the same thing: water. Ramakrishna, however, held normative positions from which he criticized the religious pretensions of his contemporaries. For him, a religious way led to God only if there was sincere and earnest longing for God as the ultimate value, the renunciation of materialism and compassion for all. Some paths to God were preferable to others.
The point here is that while the Hindu tradition clearly recognizes God to be our God, it does not legitimize everything that transpires in the name of religion. The reality of spiritual blindness and error is another powerful reason for humility before others and the recognition that we can grow by being challenged through interfaith encounters.
The absolute One is not yours or mine, but ours. It does not belong to us, we belong to it. While this acknowledgment may be a grand theological step for many, it should not mean the end of our search to know work with each other. Diana Eck in her work, Encountering God, reminds us that while tolerance enables coexistence, it does not push us into engagement with people of other traditions. It may even be a form of passive hostility. "Tolerance alone," Eck writes, " does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another by building bridges of exchange and dialogue. It does not require us to know anything new, it does not even entertain the fact that we ourselves might change in the process. Tolerance might sustain a temporary and shaky truce, but it will never bring forth an new creation." Our common acknowledgment of the absolute ought to be the starting point for seeking engagement and relationship with each other and for building the bonds of trust which will enable us to question and learn from each other. In this way we may all hope to grow in our understanding of God, our God.
Dr Anantanand Rambachan is a Hindu scholar from Trinidad and Tobago and professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA.