While attending a conference in Philadelphia, I asked a Nobel Laureate scientist about the difference between the scientific and religious approaches to truth.
He replied, "Science is concerned with discovering the laws of the physical universe, whereas religion is committed to discovering the laws of the spiritual world. Scientists conduct experiments to ascertain the laws of the external world; similarly, the religionists experiment to grasp the laws of the inner world. As different sciences contribute to providing a partial glimpse into the mystery of the material universe, so are the various religions contributing towards partial insights into the inscrutability of the spiritual world. Even when scientists idealize Newton, Einstein or Hawking, they still regard them as providing only limited perspectives on the physical universe. Moreover, all scientific discoveries are put to the empirical tests and when falsified, scientists will modify them without killing their opponents."
He continued: "However, there is a big difference between science and religion in terms of their attitude towards the discovered wisdom. Scientists admit their discoveries to be scratching the surface of the vastness of the physical universe, whereas the proponents of the monotheistic religions pronounce in no uncertain terms that they have discovered the truth. Since this truth is described in their unique scriptures, religionists declare their technique to be the only way to achieve a spiritually meaningful life. The monotheistic religions are so convinced with the truth of their wisdom that they fight tooth and nail to convert others. This pronounced exclusiveness of religions has been the basis of innumerable conflicts throughout the history of humanity."
My dialogue with the Nobel Laureate led me to reflect on the question of "How to circumvent these religious conflicts?" One possibility was to think of a "One-World Spiritual Quest or Universal Spirituality," where one could delineate the quintessence of all religions representing the best aspirations of humankind. Here the emphasis would be on the universal laws of the spirit revealed by the diverse religions, where inclusiveness, not exclusivity, would be emphasized. Moreover, each of the present religions would then be looked upon as offering only one of the paths leading to the realization of this universal spirituality.
How do we reveal the common laws of the spirit as discovered by the diverse religious traditions? What are these laws and where can we find them?
Similar to the experiments of the scientists, who discovered the physical laws and put them in the books of science, we would find the spiritual laws in the lives as lived by the founders of religions and in the books of their traditions.
The lives of the founders of diverse religions reveal that they have had a direct vision of reality. In this awe-inspiring moment, they realized the power and complexity of the cosmic-spiritual being and their unique connection with and dependence on it. Since it was a one-to-one bond with this immeasurable force, the spiritual experimenters contemplated ways to repeat this splendid relationship with their source. Through their personal lives, they discovered certain laws as pathways to reaching this bondship.
When we contemplate on the lives of various religious founders, we find that each one discovered at least one important principle relating to the spirit. The Buddha came up with compassion and love for others; Mahavira of Jainism with the sanctity of life and attitude of reverence towards all creatures; Guru Nanak of Sikhism with experiencing the meaning of life through service of others; Jesus of Christianity with compassion-in-action by taking upon oneself the sufferings of others; Mohammad of Islam with the idea of universal brotherhood by asserting that all of us are siblings in whose veins the same blood flows; and Krishna of Hinduism with the path of selfless service as the goal of life.
Gandhi, who studied the lives of the founders of religions, adopted these spiritual principles in his political and social reform movements. In his personal and social life, Gandhi abridged all these spiritual principles into two components. People come to religion to seek salvation, which is possible through enlightenment and the knowledge of god.
As a social reformer, when Gandhi was asked "How can one become enlightened?," his answer was "By serving everyone." And how can one know god? His answer was "By feeding everyone." This, according to Gandhi, was the core message of all the various religions: salvation to be found by following the two spiritual principles of "feeding everyone" and "serving everyone." In his personal life, Gandhi adopted the spiritual motto of "finding oneself, by losing oneself in the service of others," which for him was the authentic way to experience the all-encompassing-spiritual-consciousness.
I believe the 21st century needs to move from particular religious consciousness towards an all-encompassing spiritual-consciousness by making selfless service to humanity the goal of each religion. In the development of this kind of humanitarian consciousness lies the hope of a new one-world-spiritual-peaceful-order in the future.
Ashok Kumar Malhotra is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the State University College at Oneonta.