People generally think that all religions are ultimately the same or that they are fundamental similar and only superficially dissimilar. But are all religions really the same or teaching us the same things? Are all religions really like different ways to the same destiny? By Rev. Sudhakar Mondithoka.
“All roads lead to Rome and so any way (religion) will get you there (to God)” is a statement of Religious Pluralism, according to which different religions are like different routes to the same destiny. Religions are like rivers and just as different rivers ultimately merge with the same ocean, different religions take us to the same God. It is said that just as we can reach the top of a mountain from different sides (North, South, East, West, North-West, North-East, South-West, and South-East for example), we can reach God by choosing one of the many religious routes that are available. In this context, any exclusive claims are considered to be expressions of outmoded thinking and of narrow mindedness and religious bigotry. People generally think that all religions are ultimately the same or that they are fundamental similar and only superficially dissimilar. But are all religions really the same or teaching us the same things? Are all religions really like different ways to the same destiny?
I invite you to think with me on this very important question or issue. I want us to approach this question from the perspective of truth. Truth is important, because if we are in error, we will be the losers. Our ancestors in India expressed their intrinsic desire in the well-known Sanskrit prayer: “Asathoma Sadgamay, Thamasoma Jyothirgamay, Mrithyorma Amruthangamay." This means: Lead us from untruth into truth, Lead us from darkness into light, and Lead us from death into life or immortality. This prayer is an expression of the ancient Indian quest for the truth and this quest is a universal quest. In the twenty first century also truth is important, because it is a life and death issue in our lives and in the ultimate sense as well. For example, if God, heaven, and hell are real and there is a certain way in which we need to reach God, and if I do not know the truth about these matters and hold false beliefs, I will be the eternal looser. So, if our aim is to discover the truth regarding this issue, we need to first discuss the subject of truth and then focus on "Truth in Religions," and apply the principles or logic of truth to this discussion.
TRUTH – Different Views
Please consider this first set of statements expressing different possible views that a person can hold about Truth and the questions that will help us to evaluate their validity:
- There is nothing called the TRUTH – But what about this? Is this true or the TRUTH? If this is not true, then you are giving us a false statement (and we need not take it or you seriously). Even if it is true that there is nothing called truth, it still means the same thing (i.e., it cannot be true, because it contradicts itself).
- All views about Truth are false or wrong – Is this also false or wrong? If ‘yes’ then we do not have to pay attention. But if ‘no’ you are contradicting yourself and your view cannot be true.
- All views about Truth are equally valid or true – What about the first two views? If they are true, then this cannot be true!
- So some views about Truth are or must be better than other views – When can we use the words 'better' or 'worse' (or words like 'taller' or 'shorter' etc.) meaningfully? Only when there is an objective standard against which things are compared, can we use the word 'better' meaningfully. Therefore, there must be a standard, one unchanging reality or view, the Absolute. So absolute truth is inescapable.
Now please consider the second set of statements expressing different views about truth one can possibly hold:
- We cannot know anything about truth – Do you know this? If ‘yes’ you are contradicting yourself and if ‘no’ then you are not really offering anything for us to consider.
- We have to doubt everything or every view – Should we doubt this view? If ‘yes’ then you are not offering us any solid truth and if ‘no’ you are contradicting yourself.
- All truth is relative, a matter of ones own perspective (i.e., there is nothing called truth which is truth for all and all claims about truth or truth-claims are equally valid) – What about this (or your) statement? Is it just your perspective or are you telling others that this is true? You see, if it is just your perspective, then you should not or need not tell it out. The fact you are telling it out shows that you are offering it to others and it is no longer just your private subjective opinion.
On the basis of the foregone analysis, we have to come to the following conclusion: There must be some truth that is truth for all. If there is no truth that is truth for all, we cannot live harmoniously as human beings. For example, if there is no moral truth (we should not harm others or kill others), there will be moral and existential chaos and life cannot be lived. So all truth cannot be relative and there must be some truth that is truth for all. But what is truth? What do we mean by the words 'truth'
; and 'falsehood' or 'true' and 'false'?
Truth and Falsehood: What are they?
Truth is the characteristic of a statement or proposition where what is stated by it corresponds to reality. On the contrary, false means that what is stated or affirmed by a statement does not correspond to reality. But this throws up another question: What is reality then? What is is real or that which is is real. Reality is that which is or the real state of affairs. Reality is objective in the sense that it is out side of us or exists independent of us. Let us see what the great philosopher of the past, Aristotle said about truth and falsehood:To say what is, is, is truth,To say what is not, is not, is truth,To say what is, is not, is false, and To say what is not, is, is false. This is a simple (free from philosophical or complex jargon) and yet very profound and even those that are untrained in philosophy can understand it. But what are the characteristics of truth and falsehood? Let me explain them briefly.
Characteristics of truth and falsehood:Truth is absolute (not relative to an individual or culture or society), objective (not subjective or private to an individual but accessible to others also), and universal. It is the same for all people in all places. It does not change from place to place, person to person, culture-to-culture, and country to country. But it might change from time to time if the reality itself changes. For example, the statement “Sudhakar Mondithoka is not married” was true until the 21st of September 1991, but not true after that. Falsehood is not the same for all people (not absolute) in the sense that it can come in any number of forms. But what is false is also false to all people, whether they know it or not or accept or not. Let us now consider a final set of statement about truth that seem to give us or comment on the ultimate basis for truth:Truth is true -even if no one knows it.Truth is true -even if no one admits it. Truth is true -even if no one agrees what it is. Truth is true -even if no one follows it. Truth is true -even if no one but God grasps it fully.
Truth in Religion(s)
If we apply the logic of truth (which says that two contradictory or incompatible statements cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense and that truth is the same for all) to our topic, it will become obvious very quickly that all religions are not the same. They might look the same superficially, but they are different fundamentally and even contradictory. There are superficial similarities but fundamental differences between religions.
Let us now take a look at some religious subjects and see what different religions are saying, starting with the most important topic. In any religious discussion ‘God’ would be the most fundamental or important or central topic. Then come topics like ‘Man,’ Origins (Universe, Man, etc) and Destiny – Who are we/am I, where have I come from, Why am I here and where am I going? Let us begin with ‘God.’ All religions cannot be the same if they are teaching different and incompatible things about God. So what do different religions teach about God?
Some religions (e.g., Pantheistic Hinduism) teach that God is Infinite and Impersonal or non-personal. Some other religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which are theistic) teach that God is infinite and personal (having personality). Some religions (Pantheistic Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism) teach that God is one and some other religions (Polytheistic Hinduism, Greek polytheism and Roman polytheism of the past, and Shintoism) teach that there is not one God, but there are many gods that are finite and personal. Some religions (Judaism and Islam) teach that God is unipersonal; where as some other religions (Christianity which is Trinitarian or incarnational theism) teach that God is tripersonal (one God or Divine Essence existing in three persons). Now we have to say that all of them cannot be true at the same time. If God is Infinite and Personal, then God cannot be Infinite and Impersonal. It has to be either this or that and not both. If God is one, then there cannot be many gods.
If God is unipersonal, then God cannot be tripersonal and vice versa. It has to be either this or that and not both. In Buddhism there is no mention of God and it is called an agnostic or even an atheistic religion. Jainism is called an atheistic religion, because there is no concept of a Creator God there. These two religions along with Taoism are called cosmological religions (as opposed to the theological religions like Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Shintoism, Sikhism, etc.), because in these systems the nature or Cosmos is the ultimate reality and there is no supernatural reality, God. Are all religions really the same? I am afraid they are not and among the so many religions that are existing we need to search for truth and embrace the one that is true in all that it affirms about God, Man, Universe
, God-Man relationship, etc. Now to further clarify what has already been said and hopefully shown, I will focus on what different religions say about Mankind.
Judaism and Christianity teach that humans were (and are) created by God and all are equal in being like God, but became sinful by the misuse of the good gift of free will.The Islamic view is that humans were created by God innocent, but make wrong choices. They are not sinful, but weak or fragile. Pantheistic or Advaita Vedanta Hinduism teaches that humans are essentially divine-God is like the Ocean and Man is like a drop of water. On the Polytheistic Hindu view humans belong to different classes or castes of – all are not equal, because they were created from the different parts of the body of Brahma (the creator God) and are sinful. Humans are finite and immortal, because God sustains in existence (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). At least the soul is eternal (Pantheistic and Polytheistic Hinduism and many other religions). At death the body and soul are separated, but soul and new body are reunited at resurrection (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). At death the body and soul are separated, but the soul, which is eternal, transmigrates or reincarnation takes place and the body is destroyed (Pantheistic and Polytheistic Hinduism, Sikhism, etc.). But what about the question of human destiny? After death, resurrection and judgment one is either with God forever or away from God forever based on one's own choice (Judaism and Christianity) or based on one's own deeds (Islam). After death one either reincarnates or continues in the Karma Samsara Cycle or gets united with Brahman or goes to heaven (different forms of Hinduism).
Once again it is obvious that all religions are not saying the same things about human origin, condition, and destiny. So all of them cannot be true at the same time. Now let us see what different religions are saying about the universe or cosmos and with this wrap up our discussion.
Some religions teach that the Universe is finite – had a beginning and will have an end (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Others teach that it is infinite – had no beginning and will have no end, either because it is an extension of Brahman according to Advaita Hinduism or because the nature is infinite and gives rise to the gods according to Polytheistic Hinduism and other polytheisms. Yet again it becomes clear that all religions are not saying the same things and all of them cannot be true at the same time in regard to what different religions say about Humans and about the Cosmos.
So we need to search for the truth and find out which religion out of the may is giving us the truth, rather than living under the illusion that all religions are the same or that they are all teaching us the same things.
In conclusion, we would just like to say that since truth is the same for all, the truth about God, us, and the universe (and any other subject for that matter like miracles, God coming into the world in some form, etc.) has got to be the same for all. Truth cannot be different for different people or even religions. If 3+3=6, it is the same for all, mathematically speaking. In fact, if I say that it is 6 only no one would call me a narrow-minded mathematics teacher. If Gandhiji was born on the 2nd of October, then that is the truth for all, historically speaking. If I say that this is the only truth, no one would call me a narrow-minded historian. If atoms are divisible, then that is the truth for all, scientifically speaking. If I am 5 feet and 6.5 inches tall, then that is the truth for all, as far as my height is concerned. In the same way, whatever is the truth about God, the Universe, and us would be the truth for all and the religion that gives us the truth about all these would be the true religion. We cannot escape from this logic of truth, because as long as truth is our concern we have to think in terms of truth and nothing else. Moreover, the nature of truth does not change whether we are talking about a date in history or an addition in mathematics or about God or man or God-man relationship in religion.
So when we say that out of the many competing religions (that make contradictory statements on a variety of topics) there can only be one that is true (fully true without any errors), no one should think that we are narrow-minded. We say this because truth itself is narrow (it contradicts and excluded error or falsehood). This does not mean that we should be intolerant of those who do not agree with us. We will not only tolerate, but will respect even those that disagree with us, because all humans are created in the image and likeness of God (from a Christian perspective) and they are free to hold whatever views they hold. When we share the truth that we know with others we should do so respectfully and with a desire that they might come to know the truth and be blessed.
In fact, the fact that some one is discussing with some one else shows that he or she is affirming that the other person is intelligent enough to discern or discover the truth. Moreover, we need to be very clear that all religions have some truth in them. There is no religion that is totally false. Religion, in general, is about mankind trying to reach or reconnect with God and God reveals Himself to all mankind through the Creation and human conscience. At least from the theistic perspective and from the common sense perspective, what is made reveals some things about the one that made it. So it is natural for us to find some truth or glimmerings of truth in all religions, because the nature is accessible to all humans and they do learn something or the other about the Supernatural Creator.
All truth, wherever we might find it, is God’s truth. Therefore, we should affirm the truths we find in other religions and then go on to show to them that the one religion that is true is true without any errors or falsehood in it (if at all there is one like that). Such a religion should of course be a revealed religion in the sense that it should be based on the initiative that God has taken in revealing Himself to us and to show us the way to Him. Jesus said,
“You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” May we know the truth and be set free. Our ancestors in India said, “Satyame va Jeyathe,” which means the truth shall triumph May we know the truth and be on the triumphing side ultimately.
 John Hick is one of the leading proponents of Religious Pluralism now. Many leading Indian Religious Leaders and Philosophers too (e.g., Rama Krishan Paramahamsa, S. Radha Krishnan) were pluralists. See John Hick, Faith and Knowledge (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1957); Hick, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980); Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995) and S. Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939).
 See Paul Copan, “True For You, But Not Foe Me” (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), 18.
 See Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990), 10-12.
 See Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion, 47-50.
 For us to be able to establish truth we need to have some objective, universally acceptable truth tests or criteria. Unless we have this we cannot decide which system of thought is the best or true in all that it affirms. But this is not the topic we are concerned about here. You need to get hold of some good epistemology books for this.