Ramakrishna, Life of Pi, and learning from multiple religions

Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony to the harmony of religions: here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family–and in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves. – Arnold Toynbee

Ramakrishna is a fascinating figure: A youth whose spiritual capabilities were recognized and developed early. An Indian mystic steeped in the Hindu tradition. Yet someone who spent years fully committed to practicing and understanding Islam and then Christianity. He even began to have dream-like visions of Jesus and Allah. Through these experiences, Ramakrishna came to realize that all religions share a core, that they contain a shared truth:

I have practised all religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity—and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects. I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths. You must try all beliefs and traverse all the different ways once. Wherever I look, I see men quarrelling in the name of religion—Hindus, Mohammedans, Brahmos, Vaishnavas, and the rest. But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Siva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Allah as well—the same Rama with a thousand names… – Ramakrishna

The main character in Life of Pi, Piscine “Pi” Patel, bears a striking resemblance to Ramakrishna. Pi was also raised Hindu. Pi also added Christianity and Islam into his religious repertoire.

The examples of Pi and Sri Rama have shown me that practicing one religion doesn’t have to exclude an interest in others, just as we have diverse and shifting interests in career paths, relationships, and hobbies.

If the purpose of religious practice is to help us lead a better, deeper, more meaningful life, then why wouldn’t it be a strictly better idea to understand more than one? If we draw an analogy to academic fields, we could say that genetics is by itself a powerful discipline, but how much deeper our understanding and capabilities if we also study computer science and combine the pursuits.

You might think that religion should be a monogamous relationship: like marriage, you’re better off committing to one person. And this could be true for many if not most believers. Yet even the most faithful of couples still have multiple healthy relationships in their lives, that provide different things: close friends, managers they see at work, role models they admire and study, exes from whom they learned and grew.

You could have a mother religion, like Judaism. You could have a Buddhist practice for its tranquility and detachment. And even – yes – an Islamic practice for its rigor and passion.

At the very least, a world where some form of multi-religiosity was common could improve understanding and reduce religious conflict. But I believe it goes much deeper than that.

There are many people who came to the same conclusion long ago. Besides Sri Rama, there have been movements, among them Omnism and Pantheism and Humanism and Unitarian Universalism, each with their own wikipedia entries, which take distinct paths to identify what is shared between the faiths or even try to unite them like Tolkien’s one ring. Jewish Buddhists, or JuBus for short, attempt to merge their Jewish practice and culture with Buddhist meditation and Eastern philosophy. Aldous Huxley was a proponent of the Perennial Philosophy, which recognizes that beneath all of the spiritual practices there is an underlying shared reality:

The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, tat tvam asi (‘That thou art’); the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is. – Aldous Huxley

Our third president Thomas Jefferson tried to approach the Bible and Qu’ran as sources of textual wisdom. He even cut and pasted his own TJ Bible by removing references to what he considered supernatural events, leaving a book of aphorisms and timeless wisdom.

Then there is intellectual giant David Foster Wallace’s insight into the nature of worship:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. – DFW

The way people camp out for days only to spend half their weekly paycheck on the latest iPhone; the way women obsess over luxury handbags and men over collector watches, how they devote fortunes and careers to their pursuits; the way helicopter parents spend life and limb to obtain Ivy League admissions letters for their kids. We invest as much time and emotion and hope into these dreams as devout Christians do in following the miracles of Jesus and Buddhists in securing karmic reincarnation.

We live in a label driven world and we ourselves are obsessed with labels. We are YouTubers, lapsed democrats, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and unicorn startup employees. Muslim and reform Jew and Southern Baptist are labels, but they’re just some among many. We could open ourselves to more of these “religious” labels and all be better for it.

To be clear, I am not convinced that religion is a human instinct, a genetic endowment that we all share. Maybe this is true, but I don’t begrudge an atheist or an agnostic their convictions or lack thereof. Yet I don’t believe like Daniel Dennett that religion is a spandrel, a kind of appendix of mental activity in human evolution.

The fact is – and the numbers prove, over and over – that the world is becoming more religious, not less. That’s right, the world is religio-fying. Primarily due to demographics. But also because while we economically lucky ones who live in North America and Western Europe may feel like God(s) is shrinking from our lives, the catching-up world, from sub-Saharan Africa to greater Asia, is spiritually awakening.

Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase. Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall.

…the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population, even though it will increase in absolute number. In 2010, censuses and surveys indicate, there were about 1.1 billion atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion. By 2050, the unaffiliated population is expected to exceed 1.2 billion. But, as a share of all the people in the world, those with no religious affiliation are projected to decline from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of this century.

–Pew Research (source)

Let’s not forget, too, that a practical and enduring reality is that even religious nones have their own unique, possibly spiritual beliefs:

24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

…upwards of six-in-ten adults (65%) express belief in or report having experience with at least one of these diverse supernatural phenomena (belief in reincarnation, belief in spiritual energy located in physical things, belief in yoga as spiritual practice, belief in the “evil eye,” belief in astrology, having been in touch with the dead, consulting a psychic, or experiencing a ghostly encounter)

–Pew Research (source)

The world I see is one where religion in its various forms is more prevalent, and more necessary, than ever. As Alain de Botton says, and I am fond of quoting:

The single danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage – Alain de Botton

We are standing squarely on that stage. Given a beaming spotlight. It’s no accident that as a result of our star turn, we are also taking more drugs (prescribed and illegal), committing suicide at higher rates, and being diagnosed with mental illnesses at a higher rate than ever.

Religion has been a powerful and ancient and proven remedy. A timeless anchor amidst the tides of societal change and technological acceleration. If you are a religious none, I believe your life can be improved through even a dispassionate study of the world’s major religions. If you feel comfortable meditating without understanding its place in Hindu and Buddhist evolution, then you should be fine reading the Qu’ran and saying a private prayer.

And if you are devoutly within a faith, there is no harm in learning from others. Start by reading their books. It will probably improve your own practice. Multi-religiosity already has several trends working in its favor: More and more Americans raised in interfaith homes. Mixed-religion marriages rising in frequency.

As the world continues to shrink, exposure to different religions will only grow. People through travels and change will visit more churches and mosques and temples, be exposed to different ways of practicing religion, meet new spiritual communities. This can only increase our understanding and cooperation, and this is a good thing for us as individuals and for global society.

A final point I’d like to make. The multi-religiosity that I am most interested in is one that recognizes and respects the different wisdom traditions. It is not an attempt to merge them. I don’t believe we are better served by trying to create a “best” religious tradition or raising competition between them. Instead, I believe that by reading the Bhagavad Gita, meditating daily, going to Church on Sundays, and participating in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we can become better people, and we can together build a more peaceful, more patient global village.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.