Several world religious leaders (including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Islam’s Caliph) refused to send representatives to the World Parliament of Religions at the 1889 Chicago World’s Fair – each claiming in turn that their religion could not sit with other religions because theirs alone contained Truth! But one of the speakers who did come was Vivekananda, the friend and disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, from India. Since many people had never seen a Hindu before, thousands came to hear him speak. “Sectarianism,” he began, “bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilizations, and sent whole nations to despair…. But now their time has come, and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of fanaticism.” What beautiful language!
Ramakrishna, the Hindu holy man and Vivekananda’s mentor, was one of the great spiritual figures of the 19th century. Basic to his teachings was his conviction that religions can exist in harmony because they all lead to the same God.
Hearing about the deep spiritual experience of someone from a different tradition, realizing that their tradition may articulate something quite wonderful that is either missing or not so well articulated in one’s own tradition, can lead us to say “I want to experience that”, without feeling any necessity to deny one’s own tradition or to convert to another tradition: but simply to broaden our awareness, to become more spiritually mature, knowledgeable, and awake.
Ramakirishna delved deeply into the ideas and principles of all traditions. He pursued Christianity, for instance, not like a modern once-a-week church-goer, but like a Desert Father, ceaselessly praying and contemplating the teachings of Jesus, while fasting and meditating alone in the woods of Panchavati. Then one day, after many months, he came out and proclaimed to his Hindu disciples, “I found God at the end of the road of Christianity. If anyone follows Christ he will reach God. I have verified it.” [Italics mine. The various quotes are found in The Face of Silence, a 1926 biography by one of Ramakrishna’s disciples, Dhan Gopal Mukerji.]
Another time, he decided to study Islam. Again he retired into the woods to meditate on what he had been taught by his Muslim teacher. Months later he came out of seclusion and proclaimed, “That road too leads to the palace of the same King!”
Ramakrishna demonstrated, like many mystics before him and since, that the revelation and experience of God takes place at all times and is not the monopoly of any particular faith or people. “Religions differ,” he said, “in their appearance. But not in their essence. No matter which path you take it will usher you, in the end, into God’s presence! Since religions are but means of finding God, why quarrel about their respective merits and defects? That,” he concluded, “will get you nowhere!”