At the end of a consultation after the medical matters are discussed and sorted out, sometimes the conversation turns to various other matters; politics, philosophy, religion, spirituality…., depending on who the patient is and how well we know each other.
On one such occasion recently as he had his hand on the door handle to let himself out, one of my patients, or should I say friends turned round and asked me, what religion I followed? What my own personal beliefs were? Two rather intimate questions, as religion and beliefs are felt to be private matters in western culture. In some other cultures religion is worn as a badge of honour, a mark of belonging to a community and a source of strength.
What gave him the freedom to ask such an intimate question?
Its the understanding built over a number of years, the rapport established during a number of contacts, the willingness to share a part of my own personality, warts and all that gives the other person the liberty to ask questions which could be felt to be uncomfortable and perhaps impertinent.
Nevertheless, I was unable to answer the question straight away due to lack of time, but it set a train of thought in my mind. What are my personal beliefs? How did I get them and what influences shaped them?
Lessons learnt in the lap of a loving mother, sights seen riding on top of stout shoulders of a caring Dad, rituals and rites reinforced by religious teachers and training and knowledge from teachers all contribute to our beliefs and mold our personality.
But do our beliefs remain static?
Not necessarily. The challenges of teenage years with the new found freedom, attempts to fit in with the crowd, add further layers to our developing beliefs and personality.
Add to that the trials and tribulations of adult life, sometimes overwhelming us with the demands on our capacity to provide and protect our own offspring. Often we seek answers and solace in something bigger than us, pray for deliverance. For many of us, even when the prayers go unanswered, the faith in the teachings we have received, that trials and tribulations are a test to be borne with fortitude and patience, for a reward in the life to come and a place in Heaven is sufficient to keep us going.
At the other extreme, reason taken to its limits questions the very existence of God or supreme being. Why, if he/she is all powerful, does he/she create suffering? Why he/she cannot solve all problems? why does he/she not answer our prayers? Science with its demand for objective evidence, leads us to either a position of agnosticism, in the hope that with advances in technology and science we will have proof of existence or non-existence of God. While others deny the existence of anything supernatural right away and profess Atheism.
Once our physiological needs, need for security, love and self esteem are met we come to the level of self actualization, when we think of deeper questions as to what our purpose in life is and why we have come here? Faith in a religion is enough for a majority of us, but not always.
Beliefs regarding the physical objects and the universe around us are formed by the analysis and synthesis by our brain of the sense data that we perceive through our five senses, augmented by various technological advancements.
Lets consider an ordinary alarm clock placed between two observers sitting opposite to each other. The description of the clock face by one observer completely differs from the other observers description of the back. Makes you wonder if they are describing the same object. Take away the faculty of sight and we are left with the story of the five blind men, each feeling a different part of an elephant and variously describing it as a rope, a tree trunk, a sail etc. If that is the case with two ordinary objects our consternation when we consider the scale of the universe with 4000 stars taking birth each day. Moreover we only perceive 1/10th of a billionth of the electromagnetic spectrum. I am not even talking about the perplexities of quantum mechanics. So how much confidence can we have on our interpretation of reality as we see, hear and feel?
If that’s the situation with our perception of physical reality how much more complex is it when we consider the metaphysical realm? Can we completely deny it? Our scientific quest has led us to answer many of the questions of what the universe is made of, how it perhaps came into existence and why some phenomena occur as they do. But when it comes to the question of why we have evolved, we hit a stumbling block. Is this question worth answering or not?
Myriad mythologies, multiple philosophies and many religions have tried to answer the question of why we are here, in their own way. The quest has not ended, at least for a number of us.
Comparative religious studies approached with the intention of promoting their truth as “The Truth” only leads to schisms. It will never lead to understanding because for each person his own version of truth is “The Truth”. Quoting from scriptures to score points and scholarly debates to denigrate other views will only lead to ever widening gaps. So how then can we promote understanding, tolerance and peace?
As Tariq Ramadan eloquently argues in his “The Quest for meaning” we need a plural philosophy of not just tolerance to various views but an open honest andmutual understanding and respect is what is needed if we are to succeed as humankind and achieve our potential, god given or evolution driven.
Thus it was that I explored , only a little I daresay, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Christian points of view. I was struck by the Buddha’s four noble truths- the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. The eight fold path to end suffering, Right intention, Right thought, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right meditation, Right concentration struck me as something that was similar in Islamic teaching. I am pretty certain that if we go deeper into any religion these basic principles we will find are similar albeit expressed in different ways.
Meditating, calming the mind and listening to the silence within taught me the essential oneness of universe.
The concept of Allah as the immanent, omniscient, omnipotent, of this universe and beyond this universe, indescribable being I found similar to the concept of “Brahman” as reflected in the “Shanti Mantra- Om purnamadah, purnamidam….”. The forms of worship completely divergent but the concepts same. Is it not important to seek the similarity of concept instead of chasing after forms?
Imagine a long tree lined avenue stretching to infinity in either direction. Place yourself in the middle of this avenue. In the short distance you will find different trees, Ash,Birch, Cypress…. Mango, Neem, Peepal….all very different, but cast your eyes to the farthest limit that it can see, the trees converge at the origin and end of the avenue! It’s all a matter of perspective. We perhaps need to change our perspective to see that at the origins of “Big Bang” and at the end of this world we meet in “Singularity”- What we call by various names- Allah, Brahman, God, Yehweh in essence are, one and the same.
Once we realize this oneness, what remains is the question, what does this oneness want from us?
It wants us to reflect it in this world , since it is said that we are created in its image.
As the Dalai Lama puts it, “With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world”
And finally as Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers say in “The power of Myth”
“The ultimate aim of the quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.”
Not all of us can become Prometheus and steal the fire from the gods for humankind but we can light a candle from that fire for others. If we can do that we would have found the answer to the WHY!
How then could I explain my beliefs and religion in a short time?