Ecumenism–Diplomacy or Sincere Exchange?

By Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, from Back To Godhead Magazine #23-09, 1988

Almost all religions pursue some sort of exchange with other religious sects. They may do it to further the aim of their own sect, to quell violence among fanatics, to cooperate in efforts for humane work, or for many other reasons. Perhaps the purest and most worthy purpose for persons of different religions to come together is to help one another in the individual attempt at attaining love of God. Having taken part recently in conversations with Christian professors and clergymen in the United States and Europe, I would like to discuss some of the more positive aspects of ecumenism, and how the Krishna consciousness movement can contribute.

According to religions scholar Huston Smith, there are two kinds of religionists, whom he calls “lumpers” and “choppers.” Lumpers find the common element in different religions and bring them together, and choppers look for differences. But even among lumpers there are different opinions as to the real purpose of ecumenism. In Frankfurt, Germany, I met Professor Edmund Weber of Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, who said, “I am not as much interested in comparative religion as cooperative religion.”

Dr. Weber spoke of the need for religionists to cooperate to help solve world problems. He gave the example that many people in the world do not have the basic necessities of daily food, clothing, and shelter. One of the main reasons for this, he said, is that nations who enjoy a higher standard of living are denying, either directly or indirectly, those who do not have enough.

So religious leaders can set the example in this regard by living simply. Certainly Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did this throughout His life, as did St. Francis of Assisi and Gautama Buddha. Although religious persons are entitled to use wealth in the service of God, the money they receive should clearly be for Him, not for the sense gratification on the churchmen. Only if the religious people act in this way can they honestly preach to other that material wealth is not the highest sign of God’s favor and that we should share what we have.

Religious representatives can also cooperate by encouraging seminars among members of the different religions. In these meetings, they can discuss how to solve such down-to-earth problems as achieving successful matrimony, keeping faith in times of ordeal, and controlling one’s material desires. An immense amount of experience has been gathered by pastoral counseling, and religious workers of different traditions can share the viewpoints of the different scriptures.

The most important goal for a religious person is to develop love of God. This can also be a subject of ecumenical exchange. Although one must be convinced of the truth of one’s own religious path, one should be humble enough to admit the possibility of benefiting by a spiritual exchange with like-minded souls. It is in this area that the Krishna consciousness movement may be able to offer its most useful service to ecumenism. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada often met in this way with representatives of different religions, and he recommended it for his followers. He stated in a letter in 1974:

Just today we spoke at a seminary in Melbourne, Australia, and the young Franciscan monks listened very respectfully. When speaking to Christians we never say our religious system is better than theirs but we speak on the principles of love of God, sa vai pumsam paro dharmo. They become convinced and pleased to hear our explanations of God consciousness based on the Vedic conclusion.

When I used to travel with Srila Prabhupada as his secretary, I noticed two specific suggestions he offered to Christians. One was that they should worship God by chanting His holy name. The importance of singing and meditating on the names of God, especially in this age, is stressed in Vedic literature, and Srila Prabhupada took it to be a universal principle. He suggested that Christians could either chant the names of God as found in the Hare Krishna mantra, or that they could chant the name of Jesus Christ. Srila Prabhupada also pointed out an interesting etymological similarity between the names of Christ and Krishna.

Another suggestion Srila Prabhupada never tired of giving was that the Bible advocates refraining from animal slaughter, and that this is the real sense of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Srila Prabhupada didn’t attempt to convince Christians to give up their religion, but he made suggestions like these, as to how they could become “better Christians.” And as he indicates in his letter about the Franciscans, Christians usually liked to hear these suggestion form Srila Prabhupada.

Some of the practices of Krishna consciousness may seem peculiar to the Vaishnava sect, such as offering all of one’s food to God before eating it, worshiping the form of Krishna on the altar, or studying the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita and other Sanskrit scriptures, but an intelligent “lumper” will be able to appreciate even these practices as carrying the universal essence of bhakti, or devotion to God. Similarly, how could a Vaishnava refuse to accept the great commandment of Jesus Christ: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with a all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbours as yourself”?

An in-depth study of scriptures will show that in every religion the essence is bhakti. Religions usually teach lesser forms of worship for those persons who are very much attached to material desires, but the scriptures always make it clear that the ultimate goal is devotion to God. The scriptures of the Krishna consciousness movement promote only bhakti. Although the Vedas do give prescriptions for those on the paths of karma (material desires) and jnana (mental speculation), scriptures such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita are meant for those who are after the highest goal of life, pure love of God. Thus it is stated in the beginning of Srimad-Bhagavatam, “This scripture completely rejects all religious activities that are materially motivated.”

And in the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna states, “This scripture completely rejects all religious activities that are materially motivated.”

And in the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna states, “Give up all activities performed in the name of religion and just surrender unto Me. I will release you from all sinful reactions. Do not be afraid.”

Aside from the benefit religionists can gain from hearing one another’s scriptures, there is also the benefit of personal example. The symptoms of love of God have been analysed in the scriptures, and they include qualities such as humility, renunciation, kindness to all creatures, and being fixed in the Absolute Truth. To find these qualities in a devotee of God is always an inspiration for one who is aspiring to the spiritual path. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu states that personal example is the most important manifestation of religious truth: “The scriptures and great learned sages are not always in agreement with one another. Consequently there are different religious principles. But a devotee’s behaviour establishes the true purpose of religious principles.”

The same point is also stated in the Mahabharata:

Dry arguments are inconclusive. A great personality whose opinion is not different from others’ is not considered a great sage. Simply by studying the Vedas, which are variegated, one cannot come to the right path by which religious principles are understood. The solid truth of religious principle is hidden in the heart of an unadulterated, self-realized person. Consequently, as the shastras confirm, one should accept whatever progressive path the great saints advocate.

One can associate with great saints through their writings and teachings. And although one may say that there are no great saints today, there are sincere devotees trying to follow the path of pure devotion to God. The Vedic scriptures declare that the association of such devotees, even taken in small amounts, is very beneficial.

Some religious leaders will continue to shy away from ecumenism, and some will indulge in it only for diplomacy, but the opportunity is open for deeper and more sincere exchanges. One should not be afraid that he will lose his own faith in such exchanges, but he should try to share whatever genuine God consciousness he has realized by serving his spiritual master and scriptures. We can use all the help we can get.

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