What a Multi-religious Upbringing Taught Me
I grew up in a household that did not practice one faith. And I am glad. Probably the best thing that happened to me. Why? Because it taught me that religion is not about who you worship but it’s about who you are.
My mother is a Roman Catholic. Comes from a rather stalwart family of them. My father is a Buddhist. His family practices the Dhamma vs. the ritualistic version of Buddhism. So he doesn’t sight a temple but believes in living by the principles of Buddhism. His wisdom to me was ‘may all beings be free from sorrow, ill health and may they be healed.’ My mother and her family were stalwart pillars of the church but she is also a person who gifted me ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’ on my 21st birthday saying “As a Catholic mother, I don’t know if this is what I should be giving you on your 21st birthday, but here you go”. It’s a book she and my aunt read in their youth. So they were enlightened about the Church and were hardly blind followers.
Religion was never an issue in our household. My mother practiced her faith and my father lived by his principals. Both believed in truth, justice, honesty and humanity. I believe those are the foundations of any religion.
Take what happens when you grow up in a family and community that is just your own religion – you end up with a rather myopic view of your own. “My God and religion is the best” is pretty much the sentiment expressed and you see this in leaps and bounds thanks to the politicization of religions and ethnicities. You also fail to see that religion survived the ages because it became institutionalized and heavily ritual based. But the principals of all religions I would dare say are the same. So what are we bickering over? Rituals? What we call God? How we pray? Where we pray?
Where did this us vs. them divide start? And this condescending superiority complex? I see this in Christianity coz I grew up in it and it’s quite patronizing. “There is only one God” (meaning the Christian one), “Only Jesus can save you”, “we must pray for those who have gone astray (i.e. non Christians, homosexuals etc.). My father does not believe in Jesus Christ. Am I to tell him that he is going to hell when he is far more Christian than half the idiots holding down the pews in church? Starting with the clergy. No. Because I have learned to accept that faith should be personal and that goodness in whatever form comes to us in myriad ways and through all faiths. I personally see nothing wrong in getting a blessing from any clergy person. It’s a positive thing – why should I reject it? I am not worshipping the clergy person. I show respect.
Yet it’s a painful thing to listen to people turn non-religious things into religious battles. Christians who claim they don’t drink alcohol and look down on those who do, have forgotten the first miracle in the Bible. Would Jesus be turning water into wine if alcohol was forbidden? What is forbidden is addiction – know the difference. The Islamic followers who don’t make crosses – brother, we are brothers. Christians and Muslims are brothers starting from Abraham. What’s haraam in making a cross? You are not worshipping it. Buddhists who don’t marry non Buddhists have forgotten the very basics of Buddhism – tolerance. Where is your compassion and tolerance? Where did the Buddha advocate exclusivity and extremism? You have borrowed that mad notion from Christianity, formed a protestant type of Buddhism and you don’t even know it. The same can be said for Hindu followers.
Yet with all this obsessive exclusivity, in a melting pot like Sri Lanka we have all faiths running to Kataragama Devale (a Hindu temple), to St. Anthony’s Kochchikade (a Catholic church), to Koneswaran Temple, to Adam’s Peak. In Anuradhapura, Buddhists worship ‘Pulleyar’, a synonym for Lord Ganesh – a Hindu God.
And what’s wrong with that? Are we not all seeking some meaning in life? Some clarity in a world of noise? And what’s wrong with acknowledging there are faiths other than yours? Hinduism and its predecessors are far older than Christianity or Islam. Even Buddhism. So what does that say? That God suddenly came down only in one religion and condemned the rest? One has to be a fool to believe such fallacies.
We need interfaith understanding and we need to stop thinking ‘my god is the only god’ and that others are lesser beings for not belonging to our faith. Every religion teaches goodness. And that is what matters. Not petty differences and discourse on who is greater and who is better. There can be no such thing because every religion preaches love and compassion. One has a right to believe in the faith of their choosing without condescension from other religions and their followers.
Try some interfaith living. Be a bit of what we surround ourselves by. The good that comes from other faiths. It’s a lovely feeling. I see myself as a Christian with a Buddhist outlook. They go hand in glove. Just that the institutions that built the religions need exclusivity to survive in their present form. Don’t be a blind party to division. Embrace another human for their humanity and not for their religious tag.