Issue 45, July 2005

Applied Spirituality
A Spiritual Vision for the Dialogue of Religions
Swami Agnivesh

Religion is about relationships. Every religion tries to enable the human person to relate to the divine and to the rest of creation in a harmonious and mutually enriching fashion. It is from this perspective that the importance of the relationship between religions needs to be appreciated. The alienation between religions, or a relationship of mutual hostility, even apathy, implies a contradiction of the very idea of religion. Physicians need to heal themselves first. We need to work earnestly towards bringing about a wholesome relationship of constructive cooperation among religions.

There has been a long period of alienation among world religions. The reasons are many. Some of them were ideological as in the case of western triumphalism and religious imperialism. The rise of secular materialism has been yet another factor. There was western ontology insisting on defining everything else on its own terms. It insisted on casting everything in terms of a neat opposition in which one part of reality was white and the other black. This pattern is very much in evidence in the US adventure in Afghanistan & Iraq. This aggravated the animosity to the unfamiliar and the alien. More than in any other field of knowledge, reductive western ontology resulted in spreading deep-seated anxiety and hostility towards eastern religions. In this the western world, for some strange reason, overlooked the fact that all religions were of eastern origin and that the only religion (or quasi-religion) crafted in the west was materialism. That being the case, it was inevitable that the spirit of distrust directed against eastern religions spread, eventually, to Christianity also.

Religion is a domain of power with a penchant for entering into combinations with other forces of power. Each time this kind of combination takes place it modifies the genius of the given religion. It is for this reason that no religion continues to exist in history in its pristine purity, making it necessary for religions to undergo periodic renewal, or succumb to the forces of degeneration and gradual demise. In their historical existence, all religions have entered into combinations, in varying ways and degrees, with political forces. The spirit of triumphalism in the religion founded after Jesus Christ, who was as meek as the lamb, is a hybrid of the biblical faith and western colonial imperialism. From this outlook, there was hardly any chance for any inter-faith dialogue. Triumphalism presupposes an arrogant unwillingness to know and value the other. It conjures up the spurious duty to conquer and assimilate other faiths. This spirit is still at large in the sphere of religion and we should do all we can to exorcise ourselves of this unholy spirit.

A brief word or two on spirituality is in place. We need to be wary of the widespread tendency to equate religion with spirituality, whereas they are, often, contrary to each other. That is certainly the case during periods of religious decay, as happens to be the case at the present time. Religious communities are crafted on the principle of sameness. They are, hence, marked by homogeneity. The foremost religious sin is heresy, which is, literally, claiming the right to “choose for oneself”. This is demonized and eradicated, not so much because God is too anemic to stand it, but because this disturbs the religious values of uniformity and conformity. But, what the religions wish to root out as heresy might well be, from an objective perspective, the spirit of prophecy, the vocation to articulate the costly truth. Jesus of Nazareth was seized of this perennial problem in the theatre of religions. No prophet, he said, was acceptable among his own people. The inter-faith movement needs to be erected on the foundation of spirituality, not of religion, as we have known religion for these many centuries.

Secondly, religion tends to be oriented on the profit and comfort of individuals. “Personal salvation” or the moksha of individuals is the foremost religious goal. Not so, in the case of spirituality. Spirituality is like an ever-expanding ripple. From the individual it spreads and embraces the world around. Spirituality integrates the salvation of the individual with the transformation of the society. That is why values such as love, truth, justice, compassion, and so on are basic to spirituality. Spirituality puts the spotlight on our shared destiny as a species and not on the metaphysical profit or loss that an individual might incur. Contrary to popular belief, spirituality is profoundly this-worldly. But spirituality is this-worldly precisely because it has a true sense of the divine. This-worldliness sans godliness is the genius of materialism. Spirituality is godly materialism, if you like. Quality of life as well as the health and wholeness of the whole of creation are basic to spirituality. This need not necessarily be the case with religions. It rarely has been.

This too has a material bearing on the inter-faith movement. Salvation shops can only compete among themselves. Not so in the case of shared spirituality, which shifts the focus from the efficacy of individual salvation to the collective destiny of our species. In the process, the spirit of competition is replaced by the spirit of a shared sense of mission.

“Religious experience” and not exclusively the hegemonic power of institutionalized religion needs to comprise the matrix of our inter-faith encounters. We therefore need to come to some understanding as to what may constitute this religious experience. In order to facilitate some preliminary thinking on this subject I propose the following features as mere markers of the religious experience.

There is a need to engage the scriptures, if necessary, from a perspective of what the American sociologist, Peter Berger, calls the “heretical imperative”. Heretical imperative implies the duty to be heretical in the face of established and deeply-entrenched dogmas that no longer square up with the truth of human experience. Our scriptures are mixed bags. They contain much that is valuable and inspiring. But this great treasure is mixed up with suggestions and insinuations that are not very spiritual. The idea of holy war that in some contexts sanctions the total elimination of race is a case in point. The idea that God resides on a particular mountain and nowhere else and that those who cannot go there for worship must carry some soil from there for purposes of worship is yet another. The notion that the water of a river is sacred and it can wash away your sin or guarantee painless delivery for women is yet another. The list is infinite. Scriptures that denigrate the value of a human being on account of his or her faith or caste identity must be rejected. So also any false notion that the injustice meekly suffered in this world would be compensated in a hypothetical heaven must be rejected. The idea of a partial God must be laughed out of court.

Second, the social isolation of religious communities must end. Sadly, the social distance between religious communities has only increased with the passage of time and with the shrinking of the global village. This is an unnatural state, promoted on purpose by vested interests. There is a need to reverse this trend and to multiply opportunities for promoting shared experiences.

Third, the escapist trends promoted by the priestly class must be curtailed. Barring rare exceptions, priests in all religious traditions live in a state of isolation from social issues. The religious wares they showcase remain the same, irrespective of what happens in the world around them.

Spirituality seeks to bring about change. But that change is not the process of fitting everything into a fixed framework. It is a change from what is to what might well be; a change from the real to the ideal. Spirituality is a continual endeavour to bring out the best potential latent in every person or society.

At the core of the spirituality of engagement is the concern to bridge the gulf between religious knowledge and social action. It is not enough that we know. The spiritual task is to bridge the gulf between knowledge and action. Compassion is the ability to love others in deeds not less than in words.

God is the eternal Giver. The spiritual task is to for ourselves to become the conduit for the generosity of God. Generosity is not mere charity; charity is giving in a superfluous way. It is not only material resources that God gives. It is a comprehensive framework for total human well-being in a spiritually wholesome fashion. Applied spirituality or the spirituality of engagement cannot develop unless this shift from the self to the other, on account of being founded in God, is welcomed and internalized.

In the absence of the true manifestation of the power of God, this world has been filled with the demonstration of the power of man. That is true also of the domain of religion. In the gigantic structures and massive establishments we have built up in the name of religion, there is hardly any space for the revelation of the glory of God. God is an Outsider, the Excluded One, vis-à-vis our edifices of religiosity.

The first and foremost requirement to turn religion into an invitation to address the world around is to invite God to come into our spirituality. But God will not do so on our terms and fit into our narrow frameworks. Our religiosity is too narrow for God whose presence fills the Cosmos. Our pettiness is too mean for the majesty of God’s sovereign sanctity. The coming in of God will, hence, be experienced as an explosion of heresy. We must have the spiritual robustness to stand this religious trauma.

Spirituality is a sphere of ever-expanding responsibility. That is why it is also a medium of humankind’s ongoing evolution. Spirituality is a vision that insists that one’s welfare is coterminous with the welfare of the society. That is because spirituality presupposes a holistic vision in which all the parts dwell organically within the whole and the whole indwells the parts. One part cannot thrive at the expense of the other.

Engagement is the dynamic of liberation and empowerment. The tragedy with the prevailing popular idea of religion is that its goal is reduced to having rather than being. Getting some blessings or enjoying some privileges is a sufficient goal in the “having” mode of religiosity. But in the “being” mode of spirituality, the irreducible goal is the full unfolding of the potential and scope of our humanity. It is the empowerment to be fully human.

Spirituality liberates us from religious ghettoes. It dismantles barriers and enables inter-religious partnerships. This is basic to the liberation that spirituality affords.

The need for religions to shift from a relationship of competition to one of cooperation is being increasingly realized the world over. This is in part due to the fact that religions have failed to impact the state of affairs in the world constructively due to their mutual alienation and suspicion. While the custodians of religions busy themselves with their petty quarrels the destiny of our species is being hijacked by the forces of economics and politics in the world. Our mutual quarrels have served only to marginalize religions from the text of human welfare.

When religions thus insulate themselves from the lived realities of the world, they tend to develop a purely other-worldly outlook that shuts its eyes on the burning issues of the times. Religious rituals and prescriptions are resorted to, in order to secure the maximum advantage for oneself, even to manipulate the will of God to one’s own benefit. It is this logic that blossoms in due course, under certain political and economic conditions, into communalism and sectarian violence.

This concept can only seem rather strange from the perspective of conventional religiosity. All religions have developed, in one way or another, religious or doctrinal legitimizations for disowning their responsibilities to the world around. Some of the instruments in this respect are:

The idea of ritualistic pollution. In several religious traditions, whatever is ‘of the world’ is treated as a source of spiritual pollution. Even contact with those outside of one’s religious fold is coloured in this fashion. The idea of ritualistic pollution has been one of the most powerful instruments of inter-faith and inter-caste alienation.

Fatalism. The fatalistic worldview discourages any initiative for improvement. The idea of a breakthrough seems even impious. This forestalls the possibility of forming inter-faith partnerships to address social evils. [cf. the attitude to poverty and human suffering from a fatalistic standpoint].

The doctrine of sin and punishment. This doctrine allows a convincing escape route from social action. Avoidable suffering can be explained as the result of overt or covert sin for which it is just punishment. So long as religion continues to be used as a means for legitimizing human suffering and the organized exploitations in society, the idea of interfaith dialogue will remain suspect.

The doctrine of reward after death. Even when it is fully granted that there is a life after death, irrespective of colour or shape that it might assume, it should in no way become an excuse for diluting the right of every human being to enjoy quality of life and find the full development of her potential as a person here and now. The extent to which the priestly class exploits our ignorance of and anxiety about life after death is wholly condemnable. Often it seems that the idea of life after death is used as the opium to dull the pains of the life before death.

Exclusive emphasis on personal salvation. As long as religions continue to operate on the paradigm only of personal salvation, the scope for inter-faith dialogue will remain slender. Corollary to the doctrine of personal salvation is the idea of exclusivity. All claims of religious exclusiveness hinge on the notion of personal salvation. This is the most formidable hurdle in the path of inter-faith cooperation and dialogue.

The thrust in applied spirituality should be:

A spiritual idea of God. The insult to God immanent in a communal or sectarian idea of God needs to be fully exposed. Rather than see the truth of the Divine as the invitation for personal and collective liberation and universal harmony, religious traditions caricature God as a partisan player in the market of petty-minded religiosity. All sectarian religions bear false witness to God. Their god is too small to reflect the spiritual splendour of the Universal God of all-embracing love. If God is recognized as the source of the human family as a whole, the petty quarrels between religions will at once look insufferably irreligious.

The ecumenical vision: a shift from exclusion to inclusion. [cf. vasudhaiva kutumbakam]. All spiritually directed reform movements have militated against the walls and barriers of religions. The ecumenical vision is a mandate to see the unity of our species underlying its diversity and variety. It is based on the truth that creation itself is a harmony of the One and the many, of unity in diversity. While religious orthodoxy tends to be allergic to the plurality of religions, spiritual robustness revels in it and seeks to unveil the unity that underlies this richness and variety.

An incarnate spirituality, as distinct from disembodied piety that limits itself to the practice of rituals and traditions aimed only at personal salvation or moksha. The true nature of God, the authentic dynamic of spirituality as well as the depth of scriptures, all these become accessible to us, if at all, only in a state of dynamic engagement with the realities of the world. Religions are not an anthology of magic formulae but manuals on life itself. Life does not lend itself to a dichotomy between the internal and the external. The reconciliation between the two and a dynamic traffic between the two are basic to the logic of life. When this stops, the logic of spiritual death takes over and religions that are, de facto, dead cannot enter into dialogues.

A radical idea of worship. Not just as a matter of going to have a date with God but also as an experience of equipping oneself to make the will of God (or godly values, such as justice, truth, compassion) prevail in the world. The flow towards the temple or church must be complemented by the flow from the temple into the society to impact and transform societies.

A thorough revision of our self images and the images we entertain of each other. A shift from seeing only ill in other religions to claiming the freedom to see what is good and beautiful in them. Basic to spiritual epistemology is the fact that others can be known truthfully only in love. This means knowledge through engagement. So far religions have chosen to know each other from a distance. Knowing from distance yields, at best, superficial knowledge. Distance distorts knowledge. To know in love is to know at close quarters, and without any prejudice. It is to know positively, rather than negatively. As long as the mindset of negativity is not removed from inter-faith perceptions, the cause of dialogue will remain crippled.

Above all, a shift from profession and confession to practice. Paying lip-service to spiritual values will not do. The emphasis must be on realizing them in the given social, political, economic and cultural context. Spirituality is a paradigm of engagement; and engagement is the dynamic of transformation.

Applied spirituality must be seen, essentially, as a means for liberating religions from the caves of exclusion to which they have consigned themselves. It is unlikely that each religion, cocooned in its chosen shell, refusing to move out, either develops applied spirituality or a culture of cooperation. It is by disowning spirituality that religions ghettoized themselves. It is by developing spirituality that they can liberate themselves. All through the history of religions, those who saw the light of the Spirit felt urged to come out of their religious caves into the broad sunlight of shared spirituality. It is a pity, though, that most people still remain, in a religious sense, mere cave men.

The basic dynamic of applied spirituality is the integration of the sanctuary and the secular society. What connects the two is the river of love. We must go to our places of worship so that our hearts may be filled with God’s love for the world. If and when that happens, we shall return to the society and incarnate that love through concrete actions. Applied spirituality as a new theological concept will be yet another eye-wash.

When we return to the society and begin to engage its complex and demanding problems, we begin to see the limitations of the spurious religiosity that we have absolutized all the while. Till that happens we shall go on mistaking the shell for the kernel of religion. It is our virtual imprisonment in the places of worship that has prevented us from developing our spiritual heritage or claiming our freedom to be effective spiritual agents in the given context.

Why should religions meet? Their meeting as a mere religious fad or as a concession to this age of multiplying conferences is a luxury we must readily forego. Religions must meet first of all for their self-liberation. Second, there must be an emphasis on their revitalization as agents of social liberation and transformation. The focus here must be relentlessly on social justice. The competitive and isolationist models of religion have failed to bear witness to God's passion for justice in this world. Third, religions must meet and help each other in fulfilling their historical destiny as instruments for peace and human welfare. The ultimate spiritual goal is not to dot the landscape with places of worship, but to turn the whole earth into one grand temple of God. It is when religions meet each other in a spirit of truth and mutual trust that the architecture of the true temple begins to be visible.

So there is a dialogic relationship between applied spirituality and the meeting of religions. For religions to meet, there must be a preliminary shift from conventional religiosity to applied spirituality. But, the more religions meet and understand each other and their shared destiny, the more they will themselves shift from religiosity to applied spirituality. Applied spirituality denotes a radical shift from doctrines and dogmas to the solidarity of a shared mission, centred on God and committed to the health and wholeness of the whole of creation.

In the end, religions will meet each other only if there is a genuine and passionate desire to meet with the God of love who loves the whole of creation without any partiality. Applied spirituality is born out of the spiritual insight that the love for God must express itself through the love of our fellow human beings. The framework for the meeting of religions must be the celebration of God’s love for all, which is the quintessence of spirituality.

The emerging global scenario, with its post-nation state ethos, offers an unprecedented opportunity to set forth the agenda both of religious reform and of earnest, in-depth inter-religious dialogue. There is, at any rate, an urgent need to evolve the spirituality for the global scenario. The religiosity fashioned in the ambience of the nation state is hardly adequate or relevant to the radically altered situation. Given the enormity of the task at hand, the religions of the world need to work together and harness all their spiritual resources to impacting the emerging global scenario spiritually.

Secondly, there is no alternative to dialogue. The alternative to dialogue is destruction and holocaust. The foremost spiritual task in the global village is to foster a sense of universal kinship among the peoples of the world. Unless the global village is inhabited by a global family, the chances of exploitation, coercion and conflicts can only increase in the new scenario. The nearness of religious blocks will aggravate their mutual hostility unless this is tempered by a deepened sense of spiritual kinship. Religions should not be allowed to infect the emerging world order with the poison of alienation and hostility. The post Sept.11 Afghan scenario needs to be seen as an early warning of the shape of the things to come.

It is not enough to dialogue. Dialogue must be pilgrimage to the depth. It must be a mutual engagement which liberates and transforms the participants. Dialogue as the mere mouthing of shallow religious sentiments serves no purpose. Rather than bypass or dodge areas of difference, they need to be engaged with open minds with a view of deepening mutual trust and understanding.

Finally, dialogue must be seen as a spiritual tool, and not an end in itself. Dialogue for what? When this question is raised, it becomes clear that dialogue cannot any longer remain an esoteric exercise which some privileged people indulge in. It must become an integral part of our way of life. For that two dialogues need to happen concurrently. Our horizontal dialogue with each other must be directed by our vertical dialogue with God. Dialogue must not be a fringe activity, but a shared culture.

Overarching all these, is the need to shift from the dialogue of words to the dialogue of deeds. As long as our inter-faith encounters are confined to the generation of words and our words and sentiments are not incarnated through a shared sense of mission, the breakthrough we dream of cannot even begin to happen. This is as much a matter of personal integrity and commitment as it is of theology.

The call with which the inter-faith dialogue resounded for long, namely, to shift from orthodoxy to ortho-praxis is valid here. We must integrate correct words with creative deeds, and so unleash the spiritual power that would liberate the people and transform societies. Nothing less than this is acceptable as the goal of the inter-faith movement for the third Millennium.

Swami Agnivesh is a social activist challenging religious fundamentalism and casteism. He is an advocate for women's issues, speaking out against religious and cultural practices oppressing women. The chairperson of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, he works to eradicate bonded and child labour and has for many years been the chairperson of the United Nations Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. He has been honoured with awards such as “The Anti-Slavery International Award”, “The Freedom and Human Rights Award”, “Rajiv Gandhi National Sadhavana Award” and in 2004 together with Dr Asghar Ali Engineer “The Right Livelihood Award”.

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Understanding Sikhism

W. Owen Cole

Dunedin Academic Press
Edinburgh, Scotland,
ISBN 1 903765 15 3