Religion and literature have often shaken hands and even walked together. Many religious texts are nothing but sheer poetry. Grand ideas, imagination, fantasy, love for nature, love for humanity etc. are the content of many religious texts. But regrettably along with many other anomalies of our times, clash of religions is certainly one big challenge for the present world. Religions have become a confrontational site. You click 'harmony among religions' on the internet search, and see what you get. You set out to find common points among religions and you end up with cheap and foolish propagandist literature that does not respect other religions and therefore cannot respect itself.
Perhaps, it is not a bad idea to evolve a comparative literacy approach to religions. We can begin where Swami Vivekananada left - creation of a world religion. It may seem to be a far-fetched idea but it is really worth it.
The trick here lies with finding a rational territory. If we jump to provocative and unscientific issues such as burning in hell, or life after death, we will soon reach a deadlock. The end of the road will not be far. 'You live in your mental prisons and I live in mine' this kind of an approach will not do. We can go a step further and ask, 'why was burning in hell, kind of an image needed'? Or 'why does one religion talk about life after death?' Soon enough, we will realize that these concepts were created to propagate certain behavioral restraints.
Proper social behavior has been the motto of all religions of the world. Murder is bad. Theft is bad. Excessive physical indulgence is bad. All religions are one on all these behavioral restraints. The stories were needed to drive the lessons home. Thus, these stories were created.
Contextualizing a religious precept is a rewarding exercise. It helps in bridging the gap between two religions. Whether it is a piece of medieval catholic art work depicting damnation or a particular Buddhist concept of reincarnation or even Nietzsche's open questing of the existence of God – these topics involve a wider and more inclusive discussion on religion.
Beautiful stories have been written on the theme of reincarnation. Similarly, great epics have been created on life in hell. Here the boundary between religion and literature blurs. Religious-literary texts or concepts from different cultures, continents and centuries can be studied together. This can be an important tool in developing a tolerant, liberal and healthy world-view.
The discourse of reaction must stop. 'That community is rigid or fundamental or violent and, so we will also be the same' – this can be the voice of intellectually underdeveloped minds. But the broad, all inclusive stream of discourse must go on. The world should not be given to madness, protective, defensive and ultimately venomous theorizing. Just a look at extremist literature will further drive the print home. Literary, symbolic, and imaginative interpretation of religion can definitely go a long, long way in creating the world we want for our progeny.
A number of precepts across all religions are actually very relevant to our present day existence. Many religious precepts relate to what most of us naturally believe. Role of sacred trees, their worship, sacred water, fasting, celebrations and ceremonies are the cords that practically connect all religions. In the days of climate crises, religions faith can come to our aid. Not polluting water, planting trees, worshipping them can help save our planet.
Many times, all intellectual exercises seem to be exercises of ego-boosting. Rising above the self is a very difficult task for any researcher. An ability to detach oneself from the subject matter and examine it critically is essential for developing a comparative literary approach to religions. Personal beliefs generally pre-determine conclusions. Analyzing evidence and making a strong argument is something essential. Religious convictions go deep into an individual's psyche. But personal writing turns out to propagandist writing. It becomes ineffective. Most of the extremist forces cite 'evidence' and logic for their irrational views. A healthy, comparative approach is entirely missing.
The very nature of this approach is inter-disciplinary. Literary, historical, cultural, sociological and anthropological modes of investigation can be applied on religious texts and precepts. One significant step can be in contextualizing a particular religious phenomenon like a belief or a ritual. Every religion develops in a set of circumstances and atmosphere. The growth of every religion is affected by the immediate atmosphere. When we put a religious practice, ritual, precept or text in a context, we demystify it, make it more comprehensible and bring it nearer to people.
Comparative essays on religious texts and practices can explore tremendous common ground among religions. Listing similarities and differences on any given topic, the researcher can finally rise above the details and discuss the message. These messages are often universal. For example, we can take up the Chinese folk tradition of honoring ancestors and compare it to Hindu practice of feeding and worshipping forefathers. These rituals involve food, and lamps. While Hindu practice needs an altar, the Chinese ritual is performed without an altar. After going into various details and religions texts, we can finally come to the fact that all religions of the world ask us to respect our forefathers.
Our ancestors live in our DNA. Our today is defined by their past. Present, as it were, is born out of past. To think that those who have gone away, have no relevance today would be wrong. Religions across globe put tremendous emphasis on family and family history. When we remember our fore-fathers under religions considerations, our present family ties get stronger. It acts as glue that binds a family together. The child knows that he is one is a chain. That sense of belonging is carried forward and families do not break. As it is beautifully said, 'Families that pray together, stay together'. Abundant wisdom on art of living lies in these religions. Religions really bring people together if they are studied. Most of the people do not study religions and fight over borrowed ideas and words. Comparing religions can be one way of clearing the hateful mist.
Even though fanatics and fundamentalists resist even a remote possibility of re-interpreting and re-creating religions texts, such an exercise should be encouraged. Religious texts should be re-written according to contemporary sensibilities. Assimilation of the marginalized into the mainstream, equality of women, rights of the downtrodden, sensitivity towards natural environment are some of the ideas that can be underlined while reinterpreting ancient texts. Sometimes, we are surprised by the utter modernity and flexibility of these texts. People with vested interests succeed in knitting a web of rigidity around these texts simply because we do not study them. Reading religious texts can really generate positive vibrations. Methods of literary analysis can be employed. Deciding the genre of the text, its authorship, its source and its historical contexts is an inviting field of investigation. Comparing different texts can be a crowning glory.
The boundary between religious texts and literary texts is not actual. It is our approach that decides the nature of the text. Vedas, Puranas, the story of Lord Ram and Lord Krishna, Bible, Koran, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory or Nietzsche's The Antichrist - these texts are excellent literary texts. For once, let’s know and believe that lines among religions are man-made. Christ or Prophet Mohammad, Lord Buddha or Lord Ram or Krishna never proclaimed to have started new religions. They gave us methods to live. The simple contention is that the weakness, ignorance or indifference of rational forces boosts the extreme forces. A world as divided as ours needs enlightened souls. Enlightenment can come only by studying the kept aside texts. These texts are extremely beautiful literary masterpieces waiting to be revisited by us.
The views expressed above have been generally inspired by following works in particular and many other works which have not been mentioned here:
1. Koehn, Philip. Exploring the Major Faiths 1997. Oregon: Createspace.
2. Edited. The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa and other Poets 1995. Boston: Shambala
3. Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms. 1958 New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.