'Mankind seems now indeed inclined to grow a little modester and wiser; we no longer slay our fellows in the name of God's truth or because they have minds differently trained or differently constituted from ours; we are less ready to curse and revile our neighbor because he is wicked or presumptuous enough to differ from us in opinion; we are ready even to admit that Truth is everywhere and cannot be our sole monopoly; we are beginning to look at other religions and philosophies for the truth and help they contain and no longer merely in order to damn them as false or criticize what we conceive to be their errors.'
- Sri Aurobindo: Essays on the Gita: 1916 - 1920
Despite the optimism, Sri Aurobindo did not see a perfect world in early 20th century. He conceded that we still had a tendency to declare other religions or philosophies as having imperfectly grasped the truth. At least the truth they have grasped through their religions was looked down as inferior, and only meant for lesser minds to arrive at the heights of truth that we ourselves had understood so easily with our systems. At no time in history we had ever achieved a perfect harmony and balance in tolerance of other religions. Yet most people conceded that all religious philosophies contained truth, which we are seeking. It is the journey and the path to this truth that is enumerated in different styles and manners in the various religions. The egoistical man considers the path he has been following is superior to others. This has led to much discord within the various cultures and ethnicities. When these same groups of people try to impose their beliefs, thinking they are superior to the ones followed by others, in the name of redeeming their souls, major disturbances have occurred.
Sri Aurobindo argues that the eternal truth cannot be confined and shut up in a single trenchant formula. It cannot be found in all its bearings in a single philosophy or scripture. The truth is not the sole property of any religious authority (or a teacher, thinker, prophet or Avatar) belonging to any one religion, order or denomination. Our view of truth does not necessitate 'intolerant exclusion' of the truth underlying other systems. Sri Aurobindo writes, 'When we reject passionately, we mean simply that we cannot appreciate and explain.'
Sri Aurobindo considers the eternal Truth as one that expresses itself in two ways; first as 'time' and the second through the 'mind of man (intellect)'. Hence all scriptures contain two parts. One that is temporary and perishable belongs to the period and the country from which the scripture originated. It is the second part of the scripture that is imperishable and eternal, universally applicable to all countries and ages. The first has changed and mutated with time and is important only in the context of the text, its country and timing. Human intellect has changed continually over the period and the synthesis has been rearranged constantly. Hence we are not sure of the connotations and contents of an ancient scripture in the same spirit as it was to the contemporaries when it was written. What can be seen with a higher than the intellectual vision in a text is universal that has been experienced and lived by following generations of human beings. If one can see the Gita, Bible and the Koran in this context, everything makes perfect sense. Collectively, all of them help man in his quest to seek the truth.
'Only those scriptures, religions, philosophies which can be constantly renewed, re-lived, their stuff or permanent truth constantly reshaped and developed in the inner thought and spiritual experience of a developing humanity, continue to be of living importance to mankind.'
Thus the scriptures of the major philosophies of the world have withstood the test of time as well as its molding to accommodate the current generation and thinking. Reform or perish seems to be the advice all religions and philosophies are wise to heed. It is also wise to accept the fact that all scriptures contain temporal and perishable accounts that are not important. One can gather the truth in a document only if one has the intelligence to decipher through the enormity of it. In the end, one will see and extract only what one is capable of from the scriptures.
Nearly ninety years after Sri Aurobindo noticed a change in the trend in the attitudes of people towards each other's religions, we seemingly have reverted to the old days of barbaric medieval times. Atrocities are now committed and justified in the name of religion without regard to human life. We have created a God, who looks kindly upon murderers and thugs who kill, as long as the victims belong to the other religions.
Acceptance and tolerance cannot be taught like mathematics or science in a classroom. A fundamental knowledge of humanity and society is necessary to comprehend the importance of diversity in society. If the teacher is ignorant the students cannot be expected to be different. The short and long-term consequences, and the ultimate damage on humanity, are not thought of when the so-called religious leaders churn emotions in their followers. Homogeneous or a non-secular society is a dead end street with high walls on both sides, where the charm and beauty of other thoughts and ideas cannot be appreciated. A person who has his eyes tightly shut fails to appreciate the brightness of the midday sun. Fundamentalism foments hatred and is fundamentally flawed.
Sri Aurobindo could have easily touted the religion that was dear to his heart, that he spent a lifetime studying (i.e. Hinduism), as the only true religion. It would have been tempting to disregard other thoughts as inferior and less authentic. Yet he saw the wisdom of other philosophical thoughts. Every word, every sentence in the scripture need not be treated as the absolute dogmatic doctrine. Instead Sri Aurobindo saw the merit of assimilating all philosophies in his quest to find the universal truth. He also wisely saw the importance of changing with the times. After all, an avid student of history can see that Hinduism had reformed itself constantly over many millennia.
Many of us are guilty of condemning a religion that we know little of. We see others in their daily practice of a particular religion and form our opinions, without knowing the core philosophy of their religion. More passionately we reject or condemn them more insecure are we about them, according to Sri Aurobindo. Is this not what we see everyday? How many Hindus, who discount the wisdom of the Koran or the Gospels, have actually read them? How many Christians or Muslims, who condemn Hindus as barbaric idol worshippers, have read and understood the Gita? We know that in Hinduism the wise sages have shown other paths (Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga) towards salvation to less educated masses that have trouble comprehending the scriptures. But how many people who are critical of the Hindu religious practices (including Hindus) know this?
If we take Sri Aurobindo's advice seriously, we should all read the scriptures of other religions. Shunning them only shows our discomfort about them; put as much effort in finding the truth in scriptures, as we are eager to find disagreeable paragraphs. If we cannot do this, we should refrain from forming opinions about other systems. Above all find the truth in your own system and make it work for you.