Many Paths to the Same Summit (Hinduism)

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo or a staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways. 

That Hinduism has shared her land for centuries with Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians may help explain a final idea that comes out more clearly through her than through the other great religions; namely, her conviction that the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal. To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion is like claiming that God can be found in this room but not the next, in this attire but not another. Normally, people will follow the path that rises from the plains of their own civilization; those who circle the mountain, trying to bring others around to their paths, are not climbing. In practice India’s sects have often been fanatically intolerant, but in principle most have been open. Early on, the Vedas announced Hinduism’s classic contention that the various religions are but different languages through which God speaks to the human heart. “Truth is one; sages call it by different names.”

It is the conviction of Hinduism that the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal. “Truth is one; sages call it by different names.”

It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge. At base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points. Far from being deplorable, this is good; it adds richness to the totality of the human venture. Is life not more interesting for the varied contributions of Confucianists, Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians? “How artistic,” writes a contemporary Hindu, “that there should be room for such variety—how rich the texture is, and how much more interesting than if the Almighty had decreed one antiseptically safe, exclusive, orthodox way. Although he is Unity, God finds, it seems, his recreation in variety!” But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.

Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points. Far from being deplorable, this is good; it adds richness to the totality of the human venture. 

For evidence of this, one of Hinduism’s nineteenth-century saints sought God successively through the practices of a number of the world’s great religions. In turn he sought God through the person of Christ, the imageless, God-directed teachings of the Koran, and a variety of Hindu God-embodiments. In each instance the result was the same: The same God (he reported) was revealed, now incarnate in Christ, now speaking through the Prophet Muhammad, now in the guise of Vishnu the Preserver or Shiva the Completer. Out of these experiences came a set of teachings on the essential unity of the great religions that comprise Hinduism’s finest voice on this topic. As tone is as important as idea here, we shall come closer to the Hindu position if we relinquish the remainder of this section to Ramakrishna’s words instead of trying the paraphrase them.

One of Hinduism’s nineteenth-century saints sought God successively through the practices of a number of the world’s great religions. In each instance the result was the same: The same God (he reported) was revealed.

God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion. One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way. 

As one and the same material, water, is called by different names by different peoples, one calling it water, another eau, a third aqua, and another pani, so the one Everlasting-Intelligent-Bliss is invoked by some as God, by some as Allah, by some as Jehovah, and by others as Brahman.

As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo or a staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways. 

Bow down and worship where others kneel, for where so many have been paying the tribute of adoration the kind Lord must manifest himself, for he is all mercy. 

The Saviour is the messenger of God. He is like the viceroy of a mighty monarch. As when there is some disturbance in a far-off province, the king sends his viceroy to quell it, so wherever there is a decline of religion in any part of the world, God sends his Saviour there. It is one and the same Saviour that, having plunged into the ocean of life, rises up in one place and is known as Krishna, and diving down again rises in another place and is known as Christ. 

Everyone should follow one’s own religion. A Christian should follow Christianity, a Muslim should follow Islam, and so on. For the Hindus the ancient path, the path of the Aryan sages, is the best. 

People partition off their lands by means of boundaries, but no one can partition off the all-embracing sky overhead. The indivisible sky surrounds all and includes all. So people in ignorance say, “My religion is the only one, my religion is the best.” But when a heart is illumined by true knowledge, it knows that above all these wars of sects and sectarians presides the one indivisible, eternal, all-knowing bliss. 

As a mother, in nursing her sick children, gives rice and curry to one, and sago arrowroot to another, and bread and butter to a third, so the Lord has laid out different paths for different people suitable for their natures. 

There was a man who worshipped Shiva but hated all other deities. One day Shiva appeared to him and said, “I shall never be pleased with you so long as you hate the other gods.” But the man was inexorable. After a few days Shiva again appeared to him and said, “I shall never be pleased with you so long as you hate.” The man kept silent. After a few days Shiva again appeared to him. This time one side of his body was that of Shiva, and the other side that of Vishnu. The man was half pleased and half displeased. He laid his offerings on the side representing Shiva, and did not offer anything to the side representing Vishnu. Then Shiva said, “Your bigotry is unconquerable. I, by assuming this dual aspect, tried to convince you that all gods and goddesses are but various aspects of the one Absolute Brahman.

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