interfaith dialogue

COLLECTION FROM FRIENDS AND OBLATES OF SHANTIVANAM

Inter-religious Dialogue, a daily Reality in life
by Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt (India),

Inter-religious dialogue is a subject that is much in vogue today. By the very fact that society is composed of people belonging to diverse religious traditions and practices, it becomes incumbent on all to interact with one another avoiding confrontations and enhance one’s life through it. We are constantly engaged in inter-actions with one another in every field. In fact we are inter-dependent on one another all the time for the fulfillment of our basic needs and growth in every area of life. Most people profess affiliation to one religion or another by dint of their birth. However, whatever values and traditions a religion contains and passes on to its followers, it is not complete in itself for the simple reason that no religion can exhaust the fullness of truth. Religions have certain belief systems, code of laws and rituals which come to take shape over the years through the influence of culture, perception of values and the means of living it out in accordance with what one understands as consonant with the teachings of a religious founder or leader. Unfortunately, in course of time they get solidified with their local cultural expressions and become less amenable to change. The followers of all religions have had the tendency to carry with them wherever they go all the externals of their religion such as the specific rituals, dress code and their particular theological understanding of the perennial truths. This has led to much tension in human history. People from different lands meeting together find themselves contradicting each other when they view their religious practices against that of others who live side by side with them following a different religion or a different understanding of the eternal reality. This has necessitated inter-religious dialogue in some form at least among people for a peaceful co-existence. The conviction has been gaining ground in enlightened circles that no religion is the embodiment of truth but only the finger pointing to it in an imperfect way. Hence every religion has in it only segments of truth. One must delve deeper into one’s own religion and explore the perceptions in another’s religion too in order to arrive at complete truth and be built by it. Inter-religious dialogue does not imply compromising one’s beliefs and adopting another indiscriminately. It is rather the meeting together of human beings as they are and sharing together the best of doctrine, tradition and life style they possess. There is no evaluation of each other as good or bad but of appreciating each other’s assets for what they mean to them. No name given to God is his real name because God has no name or form. It applies also to the qualities that one attributes to God. Hence no one can say that he/she is right or wrong in whichever way he or she names God or speaks of him. The plan of God for each human person varies and it ought to be respected while sharing one’s own experience of religion. The town of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, India, where I live, is a meeting ground for people from all over the world who are drawn here by the life and teachings of Sri. Ramana Maharshi, a sage who lived here in the first half of the last century. He belonged to a Hindu Brahmin family from Madurai but came here drawn by the grace of Shiva who has been considered embodied by the Mountain of Arunachala at Tiruvannamalai. Living for two decades in the caves of the mountain in silence with his altered state of consciousness, he grew into an enlightened sage whom people sought after from near and far. Going beyond the tenets of religion, he led those who came to him to seek and find the real self hidden in each one under various external expressions. Having an Advaita approach to life, Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi left behind him at Tiruvnnamalai an aura of spirituality and God-seeking which continues to draw tens of thousands to the town every year. Today people from all walks of life and rooted in diverse religious affiliations come here, stay at Ramana Maharshi ashram or anywhere around and do the pilgrim walk around the mountain. No one is keen to learn about the religion the other pursues but all are united in seeking to discover the self within which was the clarion call of the Maharshi. All the guest houses in Tiruvannamalai are booked up to capacity by Western seekers by and large from November to February every year. Most of these are followers of Christianity. A minimum of 100,000 people do the Girivalem walk around the Mountain of Arunachala at every full moon. The vast majority of these are Hindus but there is no distinction among the persons who constitute this crowd that walks around. The follower of any religion can sense the presence of God on that Mountain as well as in the crowd of pious pilgrims. At different points along the route, the pilgrims are served free food or snacks by groups of kindly volunteers from anywhere who bring cooked food ready to serve. No one is asked his or her religion. Everyone is accepted as a devotee of Shiva or a seeker of God. It is inter-religious dialogue taking place on a high level. People learn to go beyond one’s religion to recognize the humanity of the other and serve him or her with joy and humility. I have seen Muslim women in their purdah go into Ramanashram premises and experiencing the atmosphere of spirituality and acceptance prevailing there. The gate is open to all throughout the day and nobody is ever turned away unless evidently he or she is a public nuisance. Inter-religious dialogue takes place where men and women meet together on the common ground of their humanity and share each other’s spiritual, intellectual, artistic and other humanistic riches. Every form of talent present in any man or woman is a gift of God, under whichever name or form one perceives him. When we recognize that and appreciate it with thankfulness we render glory to God and make our lives more human and enriched. It is not our distinctions in religion that we need to share but rather what our religion has led us to on our spiritual journey. When we enter into true dialogue and listen to each other intensely, we shall pass on to each other even unknowingly the gift of God’s presence and love. This indeed is the ultimate aim of inter-religious dialogue. Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt (India)

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  The importance of the inter-religious dialogue as an example for reaching tolerance on political views.
by Zen Moraes and Marcos Mohan Das, São Paulo – Brazil (grupobedegriffiths@gmail.com)

Unfortunately, the past few months have been full of political turmoil in our country and one of the social behaviors that struck us the most was the extreme expression of hate. It is surprising to see how once apparently close people get to be so segregated by a passion for defending each one’s own political thought. While popular social movements should be encouraged, it was clear to see people’s differences and their distance of reaching a medium ground where opposite views could be at least accepted as freedom of expression. Looking from a spiritual point of view, moments like this must be carefully lived by those who can see the Divinity in all. While it could be difficult not to get somehow involved in society; the person in the spiritual path must attain a state of tolerance and amplify the feeling of love and generosity. Our sangha group in São Paulo has been a common ground for friends not only of different religious traditions, but also different political ideologies where the dialogue can be embellished by the desire of joining in the name of the Lord. We are most pleased to see the influx of new people and young minds interested on the quest of a broader living experience of spirituality and of what is truly Sacred. After our return from India, in 2016, as on previous years, we continued receiving the presence of guests and spiritual seekers from the Orthodox Church, the Order of Franciscan Friars, Buddhists, Kardecists on Spiritism, Hare Krishnas, spiritual yogis, and a group of Progressive Christians brought up by the Oblate of Shantivanam, Angélica Tostes. A variety of themes were studied and discussed ranging from inter religious prayers, introduction to Tantra, Christian Mysticism Theology and spirituality, the Bhagavad Gita commented by Bede Griffits (River of Compassion) compared to the Gospels and all the traditional prayers and bhajans from Shantivanam. We would like to invite friends and Oblates from everywhere to visit our sangha and get to know a little more about our country and culture. All are welcomed.” Zen Moraes and Marcos Mohan Das, São Paulo – Brazil

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(Tina Goodchild- Cape Town, South Africa)

“There are various situations where people of different religions come together to share with each other. We may join in interfaith sharing among friends or Interfaith dialogue, which requires a deep knowledge and experience of one’s religious tradition. Our small group in Cape Town have weekly interfaith meetings which could be considered more of an experience of ‘Satsang’ which translates into ‘sat’ Truth and ‘sang’ being in the company of. We get together and each shares their experience of Truth or shares readings from the Holy Scriptures with commentary or writings of a particular saint or sage. Those of us who meet together are mainly Hindu and Christian although we have also had Islam and Buddhist practitioners join us. We always commence the meeting with the Om chant followed by singing of The Lord’s Prayer, then the Universal Prayer of Swami Sivananda and the chant from Shantivanam Om Jagadishwara. We follow it with sharing, a short meditation and prayers for healing etc. We have all been connected to the teachings of Bede Griffiths and the founders of Shantivanam and/or the teachings of Swami Venkatesananda and Swami Sivananda. Satsang is held at Ananda Kutir Ashrama in Cape Town twice a week and is based on the Satsang of the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. It is a spiritual food – something that fills us with faith hope and love and encourages us to continue on our spiritual journey.”

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on dialogue between people of different religious traditions

(by Bishop Joao Noe Rodrigues – (Diocese of Tzaneen – South Africa)

“Interfaith dialogue only makes sense if the participants themselves are genuine believers and practice their particular faith, a faith which is generally known and respected in our society by all people of good will. The spirit of the dialogue should be fundamentally a spirit of listening, of trying to understand what the other is actually saying. Any questions or comments by others should aim at clarifying what the speaker is seeking to communicate. Participants should refrain from criticising what others have shared concerning their faith and religious practices because it is not a debating session nor an exercise in comparing and evaluating religions.”   “The work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to Christians or the Church. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God who can “touch” and inspire any human being of good will irrespective of his religious tradition. It is this sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit that we should seek to encourage among all people irrespective of their religious faith – and this work of the Spirit is shown in our peace-making efforts, in respecting one anothers’ sacred dignity,in being merciful and helping one another in our real human needs, in “doing unto others as you need others to do unto you.” In this universal perspective of the work of the Holy Spirit in humanity, it is possible for the Christian to “see” in faith Christ present in our midst and in people of all religions and even of no formal religion… The late Nelson Mandela got it right when he wrote: “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished”.

 

Religious Images & Statues

(Brother Martin)

(extract taken from THE FOUR O’CLOCK TALKS – Discussions with JOHN MARTIN

SAHAJANANDA compiled by Carrie Lock (pg. 114)

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a strong sense that God is transcendentand that we should never make an image of God. ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol’(Gen 20:4) is one of the Ten Commandments. In Judaism they do not have any image of God. In Islam there is also no image of God; Muslims are completely against any idol worship. In Christianity, we do not have any image of God. God may be presented as having a long white beard, but it is not a real image of God.

Sometimes, others accuse Catholicism of a type of idol worship due to the prevalence of statues of Christ, Mary and the saints. In Christianity, we have to distinguish between worship and veneration. There is a subtle difference between the two. Worship only belongs to God. What we need to do is to ensure that our symbols have universal value so that others can also understand and follow the meaning; otherwise our symbols become a narrow type of mentality which excludes others.

In Hinduism, there are a lot of statues, especially of the gods such as Vishnu, Ganesh and Shiva. Hindus believe that when you concentrate on a statue of one of the gods, the spirit of God comes and dwells in the statue and that the idol is worthy of worship. In my view, we cannot take sides whether this is absolutely right or wrong. There is something positive in having the idols. The danger is when we make these images absolute.

Especially in the Western mind, it is thought that Hindus believe in many gods. This is called polytheism. We have to be very clear about this: Hindus do not believe in many gods, they believe in only one God, and this one God has infinite attributes. The term is sahastra nama. Sahastra means 1000, which means infinite. God allows individuals to have an image according to his or her need. For God, it is not a problem. God is the same even though there are many images; what is different is only the external form or expression of God according to people’s needs. We should not see the differences but instead we should focus on the unity, and then you don’t worry about the image.

Temples, like images, can also represent attributes of God. Whenever we go to a temple, we should ask, ‘What is the meaning of the name of this god?’ and consider whether this name is OK with God. For example, there is a famous temple in the state of Orissa called Jagannatha Temple. God is worshipped as Jagannatha. Jagath means ‘the world’ and Natha means the Lord. God is being presented as Jagannatha, ‘Lord of the world’. Is not God Lord of the world? Another example: there is a temple called Vishvanath in Varanasi. Vishva means universe. God is being presented as ‘Lord of the universe’. Is not God the Lord of the universe? We have a temple here in the nearby city of Trichy called Sri Ranganatha. God is called Sri Ranganatha. What do we mean by ‘ranga’? Ranga means stage. Nadha is the Lord.

So God is the director of the stage. People are acting on stage and God is the director. In the state of Andhara Pradesh there is the famous temple Sri Venkateswara Swami. This means ‘The Lord who removes sins’, We say Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, this is Venkateswara. In Islam, they may not have an image of God, but still they have attributes of God. They have 99 attributes of Allah. Likewise in Catholicism, there is only one Christ, but he is given various attributes such as ‘Christ the Healer’, ‘The Sacred Heart’, ‘Divine Mercy’ and so on. What the Hindus do is they make the attribute into a form.How do they know God is merciful? They put it into visual form. For example at Jagannatha Temple, God as ‘Lord of the world’ is an attribute. It is difficult for some people to understand God as the Lord of the world, so an image is created so that people can relate with God.

In Hinduism, they have different names for different aspects of God; according to that name they build the statue or temple for worship. It is not the stone but the presence of God in the stone that is being worshipped. The most important thing is not to say don’t worship these idols. If you don’t want to worship, don’t worship, but if this stone is able to awaken devotion in millions of people, that is really a great miracle, no? We human beings are not able to awaken devotion in the people but this stone is able to do so. The important thing is whether this stone is helping people find devotion. We should not just find fault. We should not blame people, as long as their form of worship is benefiting them to be more spiritual and move closerto God then there is something good there.

In the Prophetic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is portrayed as transcendent and that you should never have any image of God, but then people can identify God with the scriptures and say ’This is God’. That is also a type of idol worship. Idol worship isn’t only related to statues; it can also be in the form of a book. That we forget. Any image of God can be an idol, even the ideas we have of God in our mind can be idol worship. We can use the idols and symbols but we have to go beyond the idols and symbols to the reality. The real nature of God is love and compassion.