Mohandas K. Gandhi
The Indian nationalist and spiritual leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, known to millions as Mahatma, or great soul, was born and lived his life as a Hindu. But like others around the world during the violent twentieth century, he saw a need to move beyond the boundaries of traditional religions in search of the common ground shared by the major faiths. His hope was not to combine the world’s religions into a new one, but to find ways to minimize the often deadly conflicts that religious differences tend to inspire. Recognizing common concepts and understanding religious practices besides one’s own, Gandhi believed, was an antidote to entrenched prejudice, mistrust, fear, and antagonism between religious and cultural communities and a catalyst for greater tolerance and, ultimately, peace. After all, tolerance and understanding, as Gandhi and many others have pointed out, lie at the heart of the teachings of history’s religious teachers and masters, from the Buddha to Jesus of Nazareth to the Prophet Muhammad.
Resolving world conflict is an important reason for studying religion, but it is not the only reason. Religious belief and practice have always been central to the human experience. The hunter-gatherers of prehistoric eras formed religious societies, as their burial practices and other customs indicate. Humankind’s first cities”in Iraq, Eypt, and India grew up as religious centers and temples were their greatest structures. As settled civilizations grew more complex, the world’s major religious tradi-
tions emerged, mostly in the period from about 800 B.C. (when Hinduism was taking shape) to the first decades of the seventh century A.D. (the era of the founding of Islam). Today most of the world’s more than 6 billion people either adhere directly to or live in societies shaped and informed by these great traditions, now many centuries old. In religion, people find solace, hope, meaning, connection with nature, and a sense of community. These religious traditions are living institutions that continue to evolve as human society evolves, and knowledge of them is essential to any understanding of human nature as well as global politics.
Knowledge of religious traditions is also essential to understanding world history. Many of the violent conflicts of recent decades have religious overtones rooted in religious conflict dating back at least to the third millennium B.C. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in the Indian subcontinent clashed violently and repeatedly in the late 1500s, for example, just as they have in recent decades; Christians and Muslims fought each other in the medieval Crusades and have fought each other much more recently in southeastern Europe and the islands of Indonesia in the early twenty-first century. The early twenty-first century conflict in the Middle East is based in part on centuries-old hatreds between Muslims and Jews. Meanwhile, virtually all religious traditions include ultraconservative groups who are fearful of or reject elements of the modern world such as secularism, materialism, and progressive social movements. Among them are the Islamic fundamentalists responsible for numerous
terrorist acts around the world in the last twenty-five years. Many of these conflicts have nonreligious motives as well, notably competing claims for territory or economic rivalry, but the emotional rhetoric of conflict is often couched in religious terms, as it has been for thousands of years. In an echo of the Crusades, for example, spokespersons on both sides of the current war on terrorism even speak of a war of civilizations between Christianity and Islam.
The friendly study of world religions is thus both a personal and a public duty. It is personal because through knowledge one can aspire to achieve greater nearness to God, the goal of most of the major religions. It is public because the study of religions also develops greater understanding of one’s fellow human beings, of their beliefs, aspirations, behavior, and ways of life. Ultimately, this understanding is an important step toward a more peaceful world for all.
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