Firstly, any institution is obliged to claim that as a means of survival. Any institution or organization has to set up walls in order to define itself, to distinguish itself and to survive.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, at the centre of any organized religion is a spiritual tradition. If we go to the fountainhead of each spiritual tradition, we find that the great teachers always spoke of unity and oneness. Moreover, the assertion is made that this state, which transcends the world of mind and of the senses, can be experienced. Religion is what can take us beyond mind and the senses. In particular, it takes us beyond reasoning. At the level of that fundamental experience, the particular tradition disappears.
Swami Vivekananda says,
'A tremendous statement is made by all religions; that the human mind, at certain moments, transcends not only the limitations of the senses, but also the power of reasoning. It then comes face to face with facts which it could never have sensed, could never have reasoned out. These facts are the basis of all the religions of the world.'1 . . . 'all the existing religions of the world claim for the human mind this peculiar power of transcending the limits of the senses and the limits of reason; and this power they put forward as a statement of fact.'
The goal of religion is to reach that state. Belief will not suffice; it must be one's own experience. As Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, writes, 'Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent, even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.' Furthermore, inner experience has to correlate with outer behaviour.
Swami Vivekananda says,
'This conquering of the inner man, understanding the secrets of the subtle workings that are within the human mind, and knowing its wonderful secrets, belong entirely to religion.'
Once we have reached that unity and oneness, the concept of the tradition vanishes. Moreover, one recognizes that the same goal may be reached through many paths. This is the basis of the principle of the harmony of religions. It is not an ecumenical harmony, but a harmony of goal.
The Rig Veda records an aphorism of an unknown teacher: 'One Being, sages speak of by various names.' The Bhagavad Gita records Krishna as teaching, 'As men approach me through whatever path, I accept them' . The Torah records the saying that 'God created man in his own image': not certain men, but all of humanity. Buddha said that the light of truth is in all beings. There is no end to the list of teachings of great souls that emphasize the essential unity of humanity—nay, of all existence—and of Ultimate Reality. In our time, Sri Ramakrishna taught 'The more you advance towards God, the less you will see of His glories and grandeur.' After various visions of names and forms, the aspirant 'sees only Light without any attributes'. 'At last he sees the Indivisible Light and merges in It.'
About the author
The author is a Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of Toronto. He gives regular lessons to young students' group attached to the Vedanta Society of Toronto.