Editorials by Sangharakshita


Buddhism and the Parliament of Religions

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, February 1954

Though gatherings of the representatives of different religions were held in ancient times in most Asian countries, especially India - generally under the patronage of powerful kings interested in the political unification of their domains - the idea of a Parliament of Religions, or Fellowship of Faiths, which would assemble on one platform the endless diversity of religious belief, was conceived only recently. The Parliament of Religions held in Chigaco in 1893, at which Southern Buddhism was represented by the founder of the Maha Bodhi Society, Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala, may be mentioned as the first of a long and illustrious line of such assemblies, the most recent of which was held in the Senate Hall of Calcutta University only last month.

Such assemblies have done immense good not only by promoting friendship between people of admittedly divergent views, but also by stimulating the attempt to formulate a common creed or confession of faith equally acceptable to the followers of all religions. In Western countries, where the fierce bigotry of Christianity long reigned supreme, the influence which they have exercised has indeed been wholly salutary. Col. Ingersoll, the famous Agnostic lecturer, once told Swami Vivekananda that had he attempted to preach Vedanta in America a few years earlier he would have been burned alive. That a representative of any of the great religions of the East no longer runs such a risk in the United States (Col.Ingersoll's remark still holds good of certain Roman Catholic countries) is to a large extent due to the increased knowledge and understanding of 'heathen' religions which the holding of Parliaments of Religions has helped to disseminate.

In all human activities, however, there is a tendency to go to extremes, and though Semitic exclusiveness is now the prerogative only of the mentally backward and spiritually enslaved section of mankind, some of the promoters of movements aiming at inter-religious fellowship seem to have slipped almost unawares into a no less extreme and onesided inclusiveness. Examples of this tendency came to our notice not only in connection with the International Congress of World Fellowship of Faiths held in Calcutta during the last week of January but also at a Fraternity of Faiths meeting organised by the Sadharan Brahma Samaj in the same city a few days earlier. With regard to the first, it was stated that the aim of the Congress was 'to draw together in common bond of fellowship people of all denominations, races and countries and to comprehend the whole human race as one and that all religions are but different manifestations of the Supreme Reality'. With the first part of this pronouncement we have no quarrel, but with the second part of it no informed Buddhist could possibly agree. The expression 'the Supreme Reality' evidently has a theistic connotation, whereas Buddhism is notoriously atheistic. A similar theistic bias was exhibited by Dr. H. C. Mookerjee, M.A., Ph.D., D.Litt., Governor of West Bengal, who in the course of his inaugural address at the First Session of the Congress, speaking of Kabir, Nanak, Dadu and Babalal etc., said 'All these great saints brought the masses of the people round to the central creed - the religion of Man in relation to his Maker, not his sect.' Such a formulation of the central creed of religion completely excludes the Buddhists, who can hardly be expected to meet the followers of other religions on a 'platform' which contradicts one of the most vital points of Buddhist doctrine. How would Christians and Muslims react if they were invited to meet on a 'common platform' of 'No God and No Soul'?

A Christian speaker at the Fraternity of Faiths meeting went a step further than Dr. Mookerjee, asserting that all religions believed in the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, and that apart from the former belief the latter was unthinkable. The Buddhist speaker who followed him had to contradict this statement, declaring that though Buddhism denied the very existence of God its followers have exemplified the spirit of Brotherhood more fully than the adherents of other religions. At the beginning of the speech from which we have already quoted Dr. Mookerjee said, 'Christianity, whose doctrine is love, broke out in a fury of persecution and vengeance even within its own fold. Likewise, Islam, preaching the mercy of God, brandished almost a merciless sword against non-Islamic religions and peoples. Hinduism in India expelled Buddhism and developed into a domineering doctrine'. It is significant that His Excellency could find no similar charge to lay at the atheistic door of the fourth great world religion, Buddhism.

How determined is the attempt which is being made in some quarters to force Buddhism into a doctrinal framework thoroughly repugnant to it was nakedly apparent in the Presidential Address delivered by the Sankaracharya of Puri at the First Session of the Congress. The Buddhist representative's emphatic assertion that Buddhism rejected the idea of God, and exhorted man to depend for deliverance upon himself alone, had apparently upset His Holiness, who spent nearly an hour attempting to prove that Buddhists, even though they professed not to believe in God, really did believe in him, and that atheists and theists were bound for the same goal.

It is time that Buddhists stopped allowing people of other religions to tell them what they 'really' believe. Buddhists do not believe in God, neither do they believe that all religious doctrines are true. If the organisers of Parliaments of Religions and Fraternities of Faiths make such beliefs their 'common platform' then it is obvious that such a platform is not broad enough to accomodate the followers of atheistic religions. Buddhists should be courageous enough to refuse to participate in any inter-religious meeting which endeavours to drag down the Dhamma of the Enlightened One into the morass of theistic superstition.