Jeffery D. Long
With each passing day, it seems that our world becomes a more dangerous and frightening place. There is of course the coronavirus, as well as the wider environmental crisis that has given rise to it. And then there are conflicts between human beings of different religions, nationalities, and ethnic groups. One may be tempted to ask if humanity has a future, given all of these many, very serious problems that we all face. One might even go further and ask if humanity deserves to have a future, given that we have ourselves created the problems that we are experiencing. For young people, especially, who did not create these problems, but are inheriting problems that are the result of poor decision making by older generations, the issue of survival is particularly urgent.
Yet, in the midst of all of these problems, we see cause for hope. The coronavirus is a very serious issue, but, like all the diseases that have ravaged humanity in the past, it will one day be cured or managed. While our environmental issues are also quite grave, there are also innovative technologies being developed and new ways of organizing ourselves economically that are being imagined which have the potential to show the way out of this dire situation. And in the midst of even the worst conflicts across communities, one finds pockets of sanity, in which members of one community will rescue members of the other community from the violence that threatens them. In my own country, the United States, where there are, as I am writing this, massive protests against racism and violence carried out by the police, there are also police who support these protests, so long as they are peaceful, and who themselves wish to see a society free from racial prejudice.
There is reason for hope because, if human beings have created the problems that we now face, it is also human beings who will develop the means for solving them. We are a species with great potential both for creation and for destruction. We have been tremendously destructive, but have also been tremendously creative as well. It is our positive creativity, which, in the Vedanta tradition is seen to be a manifestation of our inner divinity, that has the ability to save the day.
Focusing specifically on conflict across belief systems and ethnic and national groups, two of the greatest visionaries of history, who had the capacity to perceive how we might all learn to co-exist, were Swami Vivekananda, and his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Swami Vivekananda, or Swamiji, who was the first Indian spiritual teacher to travel to the Western world in the modern era to share the wisdom of Vedanta with Americans and Europeans, taught a vision of what he called “universal acceptance.” In his famous welcome address, given at the World Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893, he proclaimed his pride in belonging “to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”1
Two important things need to be noted about Swami Vivekananda’s teaching of universal acceptance. First, there is the distinction between acceptance and tolerance. Secondly, there is the question of what it means to accept all religions as true.
I have asked my students on many occasions, “If your friend, or a beloved family member, said to you today, ‘I tolerate you, ’ how would you feel?” Tolerance is, of course, much better than intolerance. If someone is intolerant, it means that they cannot even stand our existence. They are so hostile to us–perhaps because of our beliefs, or our appearance, or our language, or our ethnic origin–that they truly wish that we did not exist. They cannot tolerate the fact that there are people who are different from themselves.
But tolerance is not the highest ideal to which we can aspire. If we are tolerated, it is as if we are merely being allowed to exist. It does not mean that our existence is a cause for rejoicing. It is more like the person who tolerates us would rather we were not there, but they are not going to act on that feeling. Swamiji understood this very well. He said, in another one of his lectures, “Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not a blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live?”2 Who am I, and who are you, to say that one person or another deserves to live, or does not deserve to live?
Tolerance, again, is better than intolerance. It is certainly much better to ‘allow’ people to live than not to allow them to live: to murder them. But even this sense of ‘allowing’ another to live falls far short of the highest ideal which we are capable of achieving. Can we not do something more than not murdering others? What is this ideal? This is the ideal which Swami Vivekananda calls acceptance, saying, “I believe in acceptance.”3
What does acceptance mean? Swamiji elaborates upon it as follows:
I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque…I shall enter the Christian’s church and kneel before the crucifix; I shall enter the Buddhistic temple, where I shall take refuge in Buddha and in his Law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light which enlightens the heart of every one. Not only shall I do all these, but I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future.”4
Acceptance, particularly in regard to different religions, involves seeing different paths not as rival ways of being with which one is in competition, but as many paths to the same ultimate goal. This is rooted in the teaching of Swami Vivekananda’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna, who himself practiced a wide array of spiritual disciplines, drawing from many diverse traditions, and found that each of the paths that he followed led to the experience of samādhī, or absorption in the divine:
I have practiced…all religions–Hinduism, Islam, Christianity–and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects. I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths…Wherever I look, I see men quarrelling in the name of religion…But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Śiva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Āllāh as well–the same Rāma with a thousand names.5
How is it possible, though, to accept many paths as true, given the real differences amongst the world’s religions? Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, for example, believe in rebirth, while in the Christian and Islamic traditions, this idea is denied. How can both understandings be true?
Universal acceptance does not mean that one necessarily must believe everything taught in every religion. This is clearly not possible, given the contradictions among religious worldviews. It does mean, though, that one is open to the particular perspective on truth which a given religion expresses. Each religion captures a different aspect of reality, much like the different parts of the elephant grasped by the various blind men in the famous Indian metaphor of the blind men and the elephant. The important thing, according to Sri Ramakrishna, is that the practice of any religion can be effective in helping one advance toward God realization. This does not mean the religion has to be true in every single respect, but that its core values and its basic orientation toward infinite Reality enable the practitioner to be transformed: to overcome ego and to realize the true, divine Self within.
Does humanity have a future? This will depend on our choices, in the present moment and in the years to come. We need to reduce our greed and attachment to material comfort and work for an ecological state in which all beings, and not only human beings, can thrive and flourish. We need to change many of our habits, and move from a state of ego-centeredness, or even national-centeredness (which can be a mere extension of the ego), to a state of cosmic consciousness. And we need to see one another’s religions and perspectives as alternate paths, alternate views of reality from which we can learn, and ways to realization in their own right, and not as rivals.
If the philosophy of universal acceptance taught by Swami Vivekananda–and lived out to its fullest extent by Sri Ramakrishna, with his practice of many paths–were to be widely adopted worldwide, then there would be good reason to hope for the future of humanity and a peaceful world.
Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Volume One (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1979).
Swami Nikhilananda, trans. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center, 1942).
Jeffery D. Long is a religious studies scholar who works on the religions and philosophies of India, particularly Hinduism and Jainism. He is a professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College.
Dr. Long is associated with the Vedanta Society, DĀNAM (the Dharma Academy of North America). A major theme of his work is religious pluralism. Dr. Long has authored several books.