There was a time in my life when all I knew was Christianity as it was practiced in my church, a small church in a small, suburban, overwhelmingly white town. I knew only the God that was preached about to me at Sunday school, and I thought everyone celebrated Easter and Christmas as I did. But that all changed on 11 September 2001 when I was sitting with my mom watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center repeatedly crumble to the ground on TV and heard the words “Muslim” and “Islam” for the first time. My nine-year-old mind grew confused and angry, and I began to cry, screaming, “I hate them! I hate them!” I had no concept of what them was, except that they were different, believed in something different, and although only a few out of over a billion had perpetrated a terrible act of violence, it was somehow enough to qualify them as well as their God as worthy of my hatred.
This mindset quickly dissipated in the aftermath of the attack, as I began to question the God that I had learned about and look into the God or gods that other religions discussed. How could there be so much variation? How could people think that their God was better than someone else’s God? I became uncomfortable, disturbed by the diversity, violence, and apparent lack of cohesion between the many religions of the world. I reasoned that there was no way only one of them could be right, and all the others wrong. Therefore, I assumed, they must all be wrong. And up until recently, I had never seriously looked into the possibility that they may all, to some degree, be right.
The world is filled with a diversity of religious beliefs or faiths, although Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism undeniably claim the top positions in terms of membership. Knowing this diversity existed, I needed to understand how it came about, and whether or not the differences that society so blatantly emphasizes reflects real or concocted divisions in belief and practice.
When I began to casually explore bhakti-yoga, I was naturally suspicious. I was exposed to names in an ancient language, names that I had never heard before, such as Krishna, Rama, and Hare. Although I identified as an atheist at the time, bhakti-yoga was explained to me as a science, a process of realization that people could apply in their daily life and then experience the results. I wasn’t being asked to believe in God—rather, I was being prompted to try to find and verify his existence through a gradual process that ultimately would result in my unlimited happiness. It was a sweet enough offer that I was willing to, at least, explore the possibility.
As my studies of bhakti-yoga continued, the pieces of the puzzle that had overwhelmed me as a young girl started to fit together. I read about the unlimited energies, forms and names of God. God could not be confined to a single name— rather, according to time, place and circumstance, different aspects of the same God are manifested. In the Bhagavad-gita (4.11), Krishna states, “As all surrender unto me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows my path in all respects . . .” So, God, Krishna, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Jehovah and infinite other names, and the purpose of all these different manifestations and the spiritual practices they invoke is to attain a greater connection to, and love of, God. The differing levels of realization form the different understandings of God around the world, depending on the purity of the consciousness of those receiving God’s guidance. Therefore, rather than seeing a world perpetuated by unconquerable differences, I finally began to see a ubiquitous harmony.
Growing up in the United States, I am no stranger to witnessing acts of religious discrimination and violence. The country has created an environment of fear and hatred for those who are different, one that in recent years especially surrounds those who identify as Muslim. Yet, as with most scenarios of prejudice, the fear and hatred is based on a pervasive ignorance of Islam and a failure to pursue a discourse based on similarities rather than differences. In an increasingly globalized world, wouldn’t it be better to find commonalities to expand on, rather than differences to fight about?
In 2012, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study of more than 130 countries that revealed 5.8 billion people around the world identify with a religious group, or around 84 percent of the world’s population. Yet, despite the unity of identifying as religious, distrust, fear, hatred and violence seem to dictate the majority of inter-religious affairs that I have witnessed and studied throughout my life. Facing this phenomenon, bhakti-yoga provided me a unifying factor.
Srimad-Bhagavatam, one of the classic yoga texts, says, “As rivers born from the mountains and filled by the rain flow from all sides into the sea, so do all these paths in the end reach You” (10.40.10). For one willing to explore the diverse spectrum of religious and spiritual manifestations, different levels of the same truth are revealed across the many scriptures, with the more comprehensive paths providing more complete realizations. Delving into the texts, similarities become more apparent than differences, with the commonality of morality, emphasizing compassion, tolerance, mercy, truthfulness and love.
In the Bible (Col. 3:12-314), it states, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Similarly, the Quran (90:12-17) reveals, “And what will explain to you what the steep path is? It is the freeing of a (slave) from bondage or giving of food in a day of famine to an orphan relative, or to a needy in distress. Then will he be of those who believe, enjoin fortitude and encourage kindness and compassion.” In the Bhagavad-gita (16.1), it is stated, “purification of one’s existence; cultivation of spiritual knowledge; charity; self-control; performance of sacrifice; study of the Vedas; austerity; simplicity; nonviolence; truthfulness; freedom from anger; renunciation; tranquility; aversion to faultfinding; compassion for all living beings; freedom from covetousness; gentleness; modesty; steady determination; vigor; forgiveness; fortitude; cleanliness; and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor—these transcendental qualities…belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.”
Although these quotes seek to highlight the similarities in moral values between just a few familiar scriptures, the core or essence of religious and spiritual practices is universal and goes well beyond mere morality. Read truly, scriptures prompt an individual to live a life striving for a higher purpose, a purpose based on love that will bring one closer to God. If practiced purely, without mundane interpretation or speculation, all of these paths can eventually lead a person to a higher spiritual consciousness. Yet, we disregard the high standards and purity of the scriptures. Polluted by egotism, lust, envy, and greed, the aspects of love and compassion that pervade the pages of holy scriptures have been lost in terms of practical application. We are identifying as religious or spiritual, but too often failing to follow the guidelines for the realization of what that means.
This is where the final piece of the puzzle that has baffled me for over a decade finally falls into place. In a lecture by Bhakti Tirtha Swami, a monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition, he states, “The Vedic scriptures [such as Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam] are the oldest scriptures, therefore, they help to make a person a better Christian, a better Muslim, a better Hindu and when one becomes better, perfect, he no longer considers himself of any specific, demarcated distinction, but he considers himself as a servant of God.” The essence of any spiritual practice is to, therefore, go beyond mundane designations such as “Hindu,” “Muslim,” “black” or “white,” and realize that we are all spirit souls, minute particles eternally in relationship with the Supreme Consciousness. The Vedic scriptures are the core of bhakti-yoga, and understanding their relevance to other religious and spiritual traditions allowed me to overcome whatever differences I saw in terms of practice. I realized that all of the religions were seeking the same goal of re-establishing a lost relationship with God, and bhakti-yoga is merely the most effective, practical way available to attain it in this modern age.
Defined as love and devotion, bhakti-yoga is a science that shows the benefits of developing love of God, and, consequently, love for all living beings. It overcomes the boundaries we have concocted based on race, culture, religion, and nationality. It does not change one’s religious or spiritual affiliation, but rather enhances it by providing techniques that will allow one to overcome the envy, greed, and ego that are so difficult to disentangle from. While I am still on the path of trying to understand God, I no longer see it as a choice between one name of God and another, between one right God and a plethora of wrong ones. Like the threads of a spider’s web, they are all connected in a beautiful pattern with love of God and all living beings at the center, and bhakti-yoga provides a universal process for attaining that goal.