for Huffington Post on Sept. 2, 2011
The tension between the essence of spiritual teachings and the harmful fundamentalism that often arises in the name of religion is an issue that has engaged my mind practically as far back as I can remember. I recall in my childhood asking, "How is it that hatred could fester in the name of a loving God?" Experiences of religious discrimination had traumatized my young, impressionable mind. Whereas religious prayers sing of peace and harmony, religion has divided human beings through an atrocious history of enmity and bloodshed. Yet, behind the veil of superficiality and hypocrisy, I always believed in the inherent beauty of God that lies at the essence of all true spiritual paths.
This childhood intuition of mine would become a guiding principle in my life and eventually shape my future in ways that I could never have imagined. As a 19-year-old, I set off on a journey to find God. On a path fraught with danger, I hitchhiked from Europe through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After six months I arrived at the Indian border haggard, sickly and covered in dust. I was a penniless pilgrim, but full of excitement in anticipation of the riches of wisdom lying just beyond this final hurdle. Naively, I handed my passport to the boarder guard. "How much money do you have?" I had 26 cents. "We have enough beggars, go back!" she replied. For six hours I pleaded. For six hours I received verbal assaults, threats and rejection until, after the changing of the guard, a sympathetic Sikh gentleman finally relented and allowed me entrance. For me, it would be an entry not only into the nation of India, but also into a vast spiritual tradition -- rather, a fusion of traditions, commonly known as Hinduism. This would serve to develop my understanding of the world and my place in it, and radically transform nearly every aspect of my life.
What I found particularly fascinating and satisfying about the Hindu tradition was its spirit of inclusiveness. In Sanatan Dharma, or what is commonly called Hinduism, I discovered the basic truths of all religions in a way that the oneness of God and religion is comprehensively understood. This is not just as a sentimental idea, but is based on philosophical, theological inquiry accompanied by a scientific practice. The essential Hindu scriptures elaborately describe the nature and qualities of God and the divine spiritual realm. I discovered fascinating explanations of the soul, the material world, the causes of suffering and a variety of practices meant for the soul's liberation. And interestingly enough, I found that this knowledge not only opened the doors to a sublime spiritual path, but also granted a profound insight and appreciation into other religious traditions. I felt this to be critical in a world torn by sectarian views.
The essence of Hinduism is the same essence of all true religions: Bhakti or pure love for God and genuine compassion for all beings. Why should we fight over which religion is better? It is pointless. True love for God devoid of selfishness or egoism is the best religion. Wherever true love, broad mindedness, integrity and compassion are present, there one will find real religion through whichever path it is realized.
I don't mean to paint too rosy a picture. The past four decades I've spent immersed in Hindu culture have shown me not only broad-minded inclusiveness, but also the same kind of shallow fundamentalism that can be found in any religious group: sectarian pride, attachment to the external aspects of form and ritual while missing their very purpose, and narrow-minded allegiance to a tradition without embracing its spirit of universal love and compassion.
Forty years ago, that kind Sikh gentleman opened a door to a spiritual quest by allowing me entrance into India. That brought me into the presence of many saints and spiritual leaders. Some of these people claimed a monopoly on God, condemning other forms of worship as pagan, heathen, idolatrous, satanic or heretic. Most devoted people I met, however, honored other faiths and helped me see the common essence lying beneath apparent contradictions.
If we probe beyond the often-contentious histories of world faiths and examine the essence of their teachings, we can find a common foundation that unites the various visions of God. A famous parable underscores this common foundation by comparing visions of God to parts of an elephant. A holy person came with his elephant to a remote village that was suffering from severe drought. On the back of the elephant he brought a large vessel of fresh water to the home of six blind men who always stuck together to help each other, but somehow always quarreled. After the water pot was lowered from the elephants back, down to the ground, the first blind man reached out and caught hold of the elephant's tail. "The elephant," he declared, "is like a piece of rope."
The second man grabbed an ear and said, "No, the elephant is like the leaf of a banana sapling."
The third man was holding the trunk and said, "Wrong. The elephant is very much like a huge snake."
The fourth man had his arms around one of the elephant's legs. "What nonsense are you talking!" he exclaimed. "It is definitely like a pillar."
"Wrong," cried out the fifth blind man, clinging to a tusk. "You are all misled. The elephant is certainly like the branch from a magnolia tree."
The sixth man, rubbing the elephant's belly, said, "Can't any of you see? It's obvious the elephant is like a sack of grains."
Soon a quarrel erupted between them. While they were on the ground punching and tearing each other's hair, they rolled right into the water vessel. All the water spilled out onto the ground while the elephant stood by looking on with an expression of pity.
Of course, each of the blind men was partially correct, and their fighting was pointless, since they were describing the same object. The elephant came to the starving men to provide water. In their useless debate, they missed the benefit. Similarly, God reveals different visions of Himself according to the needs of time and place for the purpose of giving us the water that will quench our thirst for love and happiness. Throughout history, declaring one vision all in all has been a convenient pretext for aggression, as it is relatively simple to manipulate uneducated or insecure people with propaganda. It is unfortunate to see that God, whom all faiths exalt as great, is so often depicted as small, petty and partial to one group.
Recently I was reminded of my initial entry to India, when I was granted the privilege of an audience with India's president, Pratibha Patil. I had to smile, recalling how dramatically things had changed in my life since my first entry to India. Four decades had passed and as much as my life had transformed, so had my reception. Unlike the border officials who had rudely rejected me, India's top security personnel greeted me with folded palms and cheerfully escorted me through a series of checkpoints.
Ceremoniously, they brought me directly to the President who stood to greet me with a warm, gracious smile and a basket of fresh fruits. I found President Patil to be a modest woman of culture and integrity. Our discussion was meaningful and like so many people I meet, both in India and abroad, she posed a familiar question. "As an American who has studied and experienced many of the world's religions, why did you choose to follow Hinduism?" I honestly revealed my heart, expressing my genuine appreciation for all the great religions of the world and my belief that one could attain a spiritual perfection by properly following any of them with honesty and sincerity.
My childhood conviction that the inherent beauty of God must lie at the essence of all true spiritual paths has only grown over the years. Of course, the accounts of tragedy in the name of God have endured as well. Whenever I hear such unfortunate news, I can't help but think that perhaps a prudent addition to the premise of God's greatness would be that God is greater than our comprehension of Him -- greater even than the religions we dedicate in His honor. God is independent and not restricted by our expectations or demands. This is the premise of the Bhakti tradition and the starting point of the journey to reawakening our love of God: God is so much bigger than we imagine.
I enjoyed the honor of meeting President Patil and felt that she was genuinely moved by my appreciation for her culture and people. And I find it somehow pleasantly ironic that, in answering her question, "Why did you chose to follow Hinduism?" the answer would lie in how this one religious tradition has helped me see the truth and beauty of all the rest.