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An essay on Inter-religious Attitude by Understanding Hinduism


An essay in four parts:

1. An essay on Inter-religious Attitude

2. Why are there so many Religions?

3. Where do religions agree and disagree?

4. What is the universal religion?





By Swami Nikhilananda

Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, New York



From the time of the Vedas, the earliest recorded history of India’s spiritual culture, to that of Ramakrishna (1836 to 1886), the prophet of modern India, Hinduism has shown goodwill and respect for other religions. Despite sporadic instances of sectarian intolerance, the history of India is singularly free from religious strife. Even before the Christian era, India afforded shelter to a Jewish group, which was given freedom to pursue its own form of worship. Thomas, one of the apostles of Christ, came to India to preach the gospel of his master, and established a church in South India, which is still functioning. Most of the Parsis, when persecuted in their homeland came to India, where they are living today as the remnant of the grand ancient Zoroastrian faith. Hindu kings, frequently helped the Moslems to build their mosques, in spite of the fact that the Moslem rulers of India destroyed Hindu temples, disfigured Hindu images, and converted the Hindus to their faith often by ruthless methods. The religious clashes between Hindus and Moslems that have occurred during the present century (20th century) have been inspired largely by political factors, religion being used merely as a pretext.


The respectful attitude of Hinduism toward other religions can best be understood in terms of its philosophical basis. As has been explained earlier, ultimate reality, according to Vedanta, is Brahman, or the spirit, which is devoid of name, form, or attributes; and in the relative universe the highest manifestation of Brahman is the Personal God, who is worshipped under different names and forms by Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Moslems. A passage in one of the Hindu scriptures says: ‘Though without parts or attributes, Brahman assumes forms for the welfare of the spiritual seekers.’ The Personal God leads devotees to the realization of the spirit. Though Buddhism does not officially recognize the Person God, yet in actual practice the attitude of Buddhists towards Buddha is not very different from that of the votaries of other religions toward their respective prophets or saviours.


A religion which regards ultimate reality as impersonal truth, and at the same time recognizes the validity of its concrete manifestations for the benefit of struggling aspirants, cannot but admit the validity of all religious ideals and show them respect. The situation is quite different with those for whom the Personal God is the ultimate reality. To accept the doctrine of exclusive salvation and develop the concept of ‘either-or’ are natural for them. Hinduism has never developed the theory of a jealous God or exclusive salvation; the idea of a chosen people is alien to it. In the Hindu monotheism all other deities are either absorbed in the Supreme God or accepted as parts of Him. Whereas in the Semitic monotheism they are not tolerated. The Bhagavad Gita says that people under the compulsion of desires, following their own natures, worship other deities with suitable rituals. The supreme God does not frown upon such worship; on the contrary, He deepens their faith in their respective ideals and enables them to obtain the object of their desires. The ultimate fulfillment of desires, however, comes from Him alone who is the real dispenser of the fruits of worship. To a disciple who criticized the questionable rituals of a certain Hindu sect, Sri Ramakrishna said that the members of that sect, too, if sincere, would enter God’s mansion- it might be by the back door.


Christ proclaimed that in his Father’s house there are many mansions, and to emphasize the statement, added that he would not have said so if it were not true. Vivekananda said that a man does not progress from error to truth, but from truth to truth- more correctly, from lower truth to higher truth. It cannot be that among sincere devotees of God some are in total error and some completely right. A man’s spiritual life and method of worship are determined by his inner evolution. The Bhagavad Gita warns that the wise should not unsettle the understanding of the ignorant, but should instruct them, coming down to their level.


It is good to have been born in a church, but one should not die in a church. Religions as human institutions cannot be absolutely perfect, but God is perfect. Religion is not God, but shows the way to God. The teachings of any organized religion deviate somewhat from those of its founder. It is said that Satan was once asked how he would tempt a possessor of pure truth, and he replied that he would tempt him to organize it. As clocks should be corrected from time to time by the sun, so also religions. The correction is made by saints, who directly commune with God, and not by theologians, who are only interpreters of the scriptures.


As already stated, Hinduism, both at its source and during the period of its subsequent development, exhibits a remarkable spirit of catholicity. As early as the time of the Rig-Veda it was said: ‘Reality is one; sages call it by various names.’ We read in the Upanishad: ‘May He, the One without a second, who, though formless produces by means of His manifold powers various forms without any purpose of His own; may He from whom the universe comes into being at the beginning of creation and to whom it returns in the end- endow us with good thoughts.’


Again: ‘As flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their names and forms, so a wise man, freed from names and forms, attains Brahman, who is greater than the great.’


One cannot distinguish a Hindu from a Moslem, or a Christian from a Jew, when they are absorbed in the infinite spirit. One sees differences only on a lower level, but from the summit all distinctions disappear.


That the non-dual spirit is worshipped under different names is reiterated by Hinduism. Here is a text from a Hindu scripture: ‘May the Lord of the universe, the remover of evil- whom the devotees of Siva worship as Siva, the Vedantists as Brahman, the Buddhists as Buddha [and we may add, the Christians as the Father in heaven, the Jews as Jehovah, the Moslems as Allah], the followers of the Nyaya philosophy who are clever in logic as the Divine Agent, those devoted to the Jain doctrines as Arhat, the ritualists of the Mimamsa Schools Karma- grant us all the desires of our hearts.’


That all paths lead to the same goal is emphasized in the following hymn: ‘Different are the paths laid down in the Vedas, in Sankhya, in Yoga, and in the Saiva Vaishnava scriptures. Of these, some people regard one and some another as the best. Devotees follow these diverse paths, straight or crooked, according to their different tendencies. Yet, O Lord, Thou alone art the ultimate goal of all men, as the ocean is the goal of all rivers.’


Hinduism itself provides for more than one divine incarnation. A good Hindu shows respect to them all and to those believed in by other religions as well. It is related that when at one time Arjuna extolled Krishna, who was of a dark complexion, as the unique avatara, Krishna asked his disciple to follow him, and they entered a forest. Krishna pointed out to Arjuna a big tree and asked him if he knew what kind of a tree it was. After observing it, Arjuna said that it was a blackberry tree with clusters of berries hanging from it. But coming nearer, Arjuna discovered that they were not berries at all, but innumerable Krishnas hanging from the tree of the Absolute. Krishna, Buddha, Christ, and the other incarnations are so many waves in the ocean of existence – knowledge-bliss-absolute.


One day Ananda, the foremost disciple of Buddha said to his master that Buddha was the greatest of all the prophets of the past, present, and the future. Thereupon Buddha asked the disciple whether he knew of all the prophets that had been born in the past since the creation, and of all the prophets that would descend on earth in the future till the world came to an end, and even whether he knew of all the godlike men who were living in different parts of the earth at the present time. Ananda was ashamed of his dogmatism.


According to Hinduism, no prophet is unique in the sense that he is the greatest of all. All receive their message from the one source and present it to men to suit their particular needs. In the teachings of Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, and Moses one may see apparent differences due to the peculiar requirements of the people whom these prophets taught. But in their communion with reality they all experienced the same goodness, beauty and truth. The common inner experiences of prophets are not noticed by their followers; the apparent external differences in their teachings account for much of religious quarrelling and controversy.


The harmony of religion found its most vivid expression through the spiritual experiences of Ramakrishna. This saint of modern India practised all the dualistic and non-dualistic disciplines of Hinduism and always arrived at the same state of God-consciousness. He pursued the teachings of Christ and Mohammed, and attained the same spiritual goal. One noticeable feature of his spiritual practices is that when he followed a particular path, he became completely absorbed in it and forgot everything else. While pursuing Islamic disciplines, he ate, dressed, and acted like a Moslem, removed the pictures of the Hindu deities from his room, and stopped going to Hindu temples. Thus he taught from actual experience, and not from mere book knowledge, that all religions are but different paths to reach the same goal. He also taught that a devotee of any faith need not give up his own rituals or beliefs, for he will certainly realise God with their help if he is sincere.


One of his favourite songs was the following:


I have joined my heart to Thee: all that exists art Thou.

Thee only have I found, for Thou art all that exists.


O Lord, Beloved of my heart! Thou art the home of all;

Where indeed is the heart in which Thou dost not dwell?


Thou hast entered every heart: all that exists art Thou.

Where sage or fool, whether Hindu or Mussulman,

Thou makest them as Thou wilt: all that exists are Thou.


Thy presence is everywhere whether in heaven or in Kaaba;

Before Thee all must bow, for Thou art all that exists.


From earth below to highest heaven, from heaven to deepest earth,

I see Thee wherever I look: all that exists art Thou.


Pondering, I have understood, I have seen it beyond a doubt:

I find not a single thing that may be compared to Thee.


To Jafar it has been revealed that Thou art all that exists.


Ramakrishna often described different religious experiences as different melodies of music. One day, as he listened to a concert, he said to a religious leader who was intolerant of religions other than his own: ‘Do you hear how melodious that music is? One player is producing only a monotone on his flute while another is creating waves of melodies in different modes. Why should I produce only a monotone when I have an instrument with seven holes? Why should I say nothing but, "I am He, I am He"? I want to play various melodies on my instrument with seven holes. Why should I say only, "Brahma! Brahma!"? I want to commune with God through various relationships- sometimes regarding myself as his servant, sometimes as His friend, sometimes as His mother, and sometimes as His sweetheart. I want to make merry with God. I want to sport with God.


On another occasion, addressing some members of a religious sect who believed only in a formless God, he said:


We are all calling on the same God. Jealousy and malice need not be. Some say God is formless, and some that God has forms. I say, let one man meditate on God with form, if he believes in form, and let another, if he does not believe in any form, meditate on the formless Deity. What I mean is that dogmatism is not good. It is not good to feel that my religion alone is true and other religions are false. The correct attitude is this: my religion is right, but I do not know whether other religions are right or wrong, true or false. I say this because one cannot know the true nature of God unless one realizes Him.


Hindus, Moslems, and Christians all seek the same object. A mother prepares dishes to suit her children’s stomachs. Suppose a mother has five children and a fish is bought for the family. She does not prepare pilau (rice dish) or fish curry for them all. All have not the same power of digestion (food requirements of an infant are not the same as for the grownups). But she loves all her children equally.


Do you know what the truth is? God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times and countries. All doctrines are 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. Suppose there are errors in the religion that one has accepted; if one is sincere and earnest, then God Himself will correct those errors.


If there are errors in other religions, that is none of your business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that. The view that you hold is good indeed. You describe God as formless. That is fine. One may eat a cake with icing, either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way.


But dogmatism is not good. You have no doubt heard the story of the chameleon. A man entered a wood and saw a chameleon on a tree. He reported to his friends, ‘I have seen a red lizard.’ He was firmly convinced it was nothing but red. Another person, after visiting the tree, said: ‘I have seen a green lizard.’ He was firmly convinced it was nothing but green. But the man who lived under the tree said: ‘What both of you have said is true, the fact is, however, that the creature is sometimes red, sometimes green, sometimes yellow, and sometimes has no colour at all.’


God has been described in the Vedas as both with form and without form. You describe Him as without form only. That is one sided. But never mind. If you know one of His aspects truly, you will be able to know His other aspects too. God Himself will tell you all about them.


The harmony of religions, as preached by Ramakrishna, fulfils a pressing need of the times. Due to science and technology the world has shrunk, as it were, and human beings have come closer together. Since religion is a vital force in men’s lives, how can there be peace in the world unless the different religions show mutual respect and work for the common good of humanity? In the past religions have produced both good and bad results. On the one hand, they have contributed greatly toward peace and progress, building hospitals and charitable institutions, promoting art and literature, and conferring many other blessings upon humanity; on the other hand, in the name of religion people have waged war, persecuted their fellow beings, and destroyed monuments of human culture. There are enough religions in the world today to give men the incentive to hate one another, but there is not enough of the religious spirit to inspire them to love one another. Indeed, religious intolerance has made many turn away from religion and seek solace in an ethical life, or in philanthropic work, or in the study of science and the humanities. Nevertheless it is not religion that is responsible for hatred and cruelty, but human bigotry and narrowness. And despite all the intolerance, there has always been an undercurrent of eagerness to promote inter-religious amity. In discussing the Hindu attitude in this matter, we may briefly consider the following questions: Why are there so many religions? Where do they agree? Where do they disagree? What is the universal religion?




An essay in four parts:


1. An essay on Inter-religious Attitude

2. Why are there so many Religions?

3. Where do religions agree and disagree?

4. What is the universal religion?




Published with the kind permission of


Their ‘Understanding Hinduism’ website is an award winning site featuring a whole host of various articles promoting Hinduism. It truly is a wonderful, thoughtful and thought provoking work and a true beacon for the promotion of Hinduism and Vedic culture in the world today.


Please visit their enlightening website at


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This article was published on Thursday 28 May, 2009.
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