|Thursday, 22 November 2001|
United Nations Year of Dialogue among civilizations
Mr. President, Allow me first to congratulate President Khatami and the Government of Iran on their most praiseworthy initiative in urging the General Assembly to proclaim the Year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilisations. When this idea was first mooted in 1998 there were those who wondered whether that initiative could lead to any practical results. Today, I do not think a single dissenting voice can be heard. Indeed, the terrible events that occurred in this very city two months ago have underscored dramatically the paramount necessity for the world to commence and sustain a serious and well-informed dialogue among civilisations.
Mr. President, throughout the history of mankind religion has divided man. Religion has put man against man. Religion has led to the most abominable crimes committed in the long history of warfare. Religion has led to intolerance, bigotry, ignorance and superstition. And yet, religion should be the great unifying force in the lives of men. The search for truth should be illuminated by the teachings of the great religions of the world. And so it would be if we approach religion, the religions of other peoples, with an open mind and an attitude of respect.
In Sri Lanka four of the great religions - Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity - coexist, and have coexisted for many centuries, in constructive harmony. In every city, and deep in the countryside, of Sri Lanka Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, mosques and Christian churches exist side by side.
It was, therefore, with confidence that Sri Lanka proposed to the General Assembly in 1998 that the Day of Vesak - the day on which, according to tradition, Gauthama, the Buddha, was born, achieved enlightenment and passed away - be declared a Day of Observance in the United Nations system. The resolution to that end, adopted by the General Assembly, was moved by Sri Lanka and co-sponsored by 34 other States - comprising Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Socialists, across the globe. Thus, the international community united to honour the name and the teachings of one of the great spiritual leaders of mankind. The Buddha was a Prince of Peace. He preached tolerance, love and compassion. His message brought initially to millions of people in South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia, and now brings to hundreds of millions of people all over the world, solace, peace of mind and understanding of the human condition.
I wish to pose today for consideration the place of religion in the Dialogue of Civilisations, for it is religion that underpins all civilisations from the immemorial. I believe that we, the United Nations, where all nations assemble, and where all nations jointly seek to address the common problems of mankind, must focus our attention on bringing to the peoples of the earth greater awareness of the similarities in the teachings of the great religions of the world. Then we will realize that religious beliefs should indeed unite the peoples of the earth and inform them in their common search for truth, rather than divide and confuse the followers of each faith.
Unfortunately, for most people faith in their own religion seems to kill even interest in other religions. The followers of each religion feel called upon to make their religion an article of export. They would drive all souls into the same spiritual enclosure. They are unaware of the great loss to humanity which would follow the imposition of any common creed on all. The suppression of the different religious traditions would make this world a poor place. Have we the right to destroy what we have not learnt to appreciate? It is spiritual vandalism to drag into the dust what is precious to the soul of a people, what has been laboriously built up by the wisdom of ages.
In the course of a series of lectures delivered at Oxford between 1936 and 1938 Professor Radhakrishnan, the eminent Indian philosopher (first Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford and later President of the Republic of India) demonstrated with abundant citations from the ancient texts that the life and teaching of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels bear striking resemblance to the life and teaching of Gauthama, the Buddha.
Similarly, there are many parallels between Krishna and Jesus. As with the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus a comparison of the Bhagavadgita with the Quran reveals striking similarities although those two scriptures are separated by more than a thousand years.
We know that nearly five hundred years before Jesus, the Buddha preached in the ganges valley proclaiming a way of life which would deliver men from the bondage of ignorance and sin. One hundred and fifty years after His death, but still many centuries before the birth of Jesus, the story of His life and passing away had become systematised.
Gauthama was miraculously conceived and wondrously born (Majjhima Nikaya, 123). The angels who received the babe held him before his mother, saying: All joy be to thee, queen Maya, rejoice and be glad, for this child thou has borne is holy'! His father was informed by angels about it, and, according to one text, the queen led the life of a virgin. On the day of his birth a Brahmin priest predicted his future greatness. Asita was the Buddhist Simeon. He came through the air to visit the infant Gauthama (Sutta Nipata, 679-700). Simeon 'led by the Spirit, went into the Temple' (Luke 2, 8 -40). When Asita asked the angels why they rejoice, they answer that they are 'joyful and exceeding glad' as the Buddha to be is born for the weal and welfare of the world of men' (Sutta Nipata - manussaloke hitasukhataya). Gauthama steadily grew in wisdom and stature. Jesus "grew both in body and wisdom, gaining favour with God and men" (Luke 2, 52).
In spite of great efforts to protect him from the sights of sorrow, Gauthama found no satisfaction in the life by which he was surrounded. He resolved to flee from the joys of his home. When the tidings reached him that a son was born to him, he observed: 'This is a new strong tie that I shall have to break', and he left his home without delay. Early in his wanderings, after a fast of forty-nine days, he was tempted my Mara to give up his quest for truth, with promises of world dominion. The Evil One said to the Buddha: 'So, Lord, if the Lord desired, he could turn the Himalayas, the king of mountains, into very gold, and gold would the mountain be'. The Buddha replied: 'He who hath seen pain and the source of pain, how could such a one bow to lusts?' The Evil One vanished unhappy and disconsolate (Oldenberg, Buddha (1882) pp 312 ff). The Buddha overcame the temptations, persisted in his search, meditated for days, and won enlightenment.
Mark (Mark 1, 12-13) says of the temptation of Jesus: 'At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were also there, but angels and helped him'. Luke says (Luke 4, 5-8) 'Then the Devil took him up and showed him in a second all the Kingdoms of the world, 'I will give you all this power and all this wealth, the devil told him. It has all been handed over to me, and I can give it to anyone I choose. All this will be yours, then, if you worship me'. Jesus answered 'The Scripture says, 'Worship the Lord Your God and serve only him".
Like his conception and birth, the Buddha's enlightenment was marked by the thirty-two great miracles. The blind received their sight, the deaf heard, and the lame walked freely. The Buddha himself was transfigured, and his body shone with matchless brightness. With a tender compassion for all beings he sets forth 'to establish the kingdom of righteousness, to give light to those enshrouded in darkness and open the gate of immortality to men' Mahavagga 1,6.8). His mission began. He had twelve disciples whom he sent of the, to carry his message among all classes of men. 'Go forth, O monks, on your journey for the wealth and the weal and the welfare of angels and mortals. Go no two of you the same way' (Sacred Books of the East (S.B.E), vol 13, p.112).
According to Mark (Mark 6, 7ff): 'Then Jesus went to the villages round there, teaching the people. He called the twelve disciples together and sent them out two by two. He gave them authority over the evil spirits and ordered them. 'Don't take anything with you on your journey except a stick - no bread, on beggar's bag, no money in your pockets. Wear sandals, but don't carry an extra shirt'. (See also Matthew 10, 5-15' Luke 9, 1-6):
The Buddha healed the sick; he was, like Jesus, the incomparable physician. In the striking story of the sick brother neglected by the other inmates of the monastery, whom the Buddha washed an tended with his own hands, saying afterwards to the careless monks, who would have been eager enough to serve him. 'Whosoever would wait upon me, let him wait upon the sick' (S.B.E, vol 17, p.240). He claims his oneness with humanity so that services to the sick or the destitute are in reality rendered to himself. According to Matthew (Matthew, 25, 40), Jesus said: 'I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me'.
We have the golden rule in the Buddha's maxim: 'Doing as one would be done by, kill not nor cause to kill' (S.B.E. vol. 10, 1, p.36) 'As a mother would guard the life of her own and only son at the risk of her own, even so let each one practise infinite sympathy toward all beings in all the world". (S.B.E Vol 20, pt. 2, p25). 'Let goodwill without measure, impartial, unmixed, without enmity, prevail throughout the world, above, beneath, around'. Jesus said: 'Do for others what you want them to do for you: this is the meaning of the law of Moses and of the teaching of the prophets' (Matthew, 7, 12). Both the Buddha and Jesus insisted on good conduct and good beliefs (Itivuttaka, 32; James 2, 14, 24, 26).
If the Buddha's teaching is accepted all distinctions of caste and status are lost (S.B.E) vol 20, p.304). He converted robber Angulimala, and accepted alms from Ambapali, the harlot (S.B.E. vol. 17, p.105 and vol. 11, p.30). Jesus saved the adulteress form being stoned (John 8, 1-11) Jesus too was upbraided for eating with outcasts. Mark says (Mark 2, 16): 'Some teachers of the law, who were Pharisees, saw that Jesus was eating with these outcasts and tax collectors, so they asked his disciples, 'Why does he eat with such people? Jesus heard them and answered. 'People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts'.
The Buddha was accused of living in abundance (Majjhima Nikaya, 28). Jesus too was accused of living in abundance. Matthew says (Matthew 11. 19): 'When the Son of Man came, he ate and drank, and everyone said "Look at this man! He is a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts. God's wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results'.
Echo in gospels
The following sayings of the Buddha have their echo in the Gospels:
'He abused me, he beat me,
Both Buddha and Jesus bid their disciples lay up for themselves a treasure which neither moth nor rust would corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal. 'A man buries a treasure in a deep pit', the Buddha observed, 'which, lying day after day concealed therein, profits him nothing. But there is a treasure that man or woman may possess, a treasure laid up in the heart, a treasure of charity, piety, temperance, soberness. A treasure secure, impregnable, that cannot pass away. When a man leaves the fleeting riches of this world, this he takes with him after death. A treasure unshared with others, a treasure that no thief can steal' (Khuddaka Patha, Childers, p. 13).
Mathew says (Mathew 8, 19-21): 'Do not store up riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, store up riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal, for your heart will always be where your riches are'.
Just as the Buddha condemned the gloomy ascetic practices which prevailed in ancient India, Jesus went beyond. John the Baptist's emphasis on observances and ascetic rites. Even as the Buddha condemned ceremonial religion, Jesus insisted less on sacraments and more on the opening of oneself in faith (Mark 1, 15). 'Reverence shown to the righteous is better than sacrifice' (Dhammapada, 108). The Buddha said: 'Monks, even as a blue lotus, a water rose, or a white lotus is born in the water, grows up in the water, and stands lifted above it, by the water undefiled; even so, monks does the Thathagata grow up in the world, by the world undefiled (Samyutta Nikaya, 22, 94). 'I am not of the world', said Jesus, according to John (John, 17, 14-16).
When a merchant who became his disciple proposed to return to his native town and preach to his people, the Buddha said: 'The people of Sunaparanta are exceedingly violent; if they revile you, what will you do?' 'I will make no reply', said the disciple. 'And if they strike you?' 'I will not strike in return'. 'And if they try to kill you?' 'Death', said the disciple, 'is no evil in itself. Many even desire it, to escape from the vanities of this life; but I shall take no steps either to hasten or delay the time of my departure'. The Buddha was satisfied, and the merchant departed (Jataka, 318).
According to Mathew (Mathew 5, 38-42) Jesus spoke as follows: 'You have heard that it was' said 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one kilometre, carry it two kilometres; when someone asks you for something give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him'.
Many of the so-called miracles are common. The Buddha fed his five hundred brethren at once with a small cake which had been put into his begging bowl, and much was left over, which was thrown away (Jataka, 78). There is the tale of the eager disciple who found no boat to take him across the water and so he walked on the water. In the middle the waves rose and he lost his faith and began to sink. When he reassured himself with faith in the Buddha, he went safely to the other side (Jataka, 190). Max Muller remarks that mere walking on the water is not an uncommon story, but walking by faith and sinking for want of it can only be accounted for by some historical contact or transference, and in this case Muller says 'we must remember that the date of the Buddhist parable is chronologically anterior to the date of the Gospel of St. Luke' (Max Muller, Last Essays, p. 285).
Mark says (Mark 6, 45-52) that after Jesus had fed the five thousand, 'When evening came the boat was in the middle of the lake while Jesus was alone on land. He saw that his disciples were straining at the oars, because they were rowing against the winds; so sometime between three and six o'clock in the morning he came to them, walking on the water. He was going to pass them by (or join them?) but they saw him walking on the water. 'It's a ghost,' they thought, and screamed. They were all terrified when they saw him. Jesus spoke to them at once. 'Courage' he said 'it is I'. Don't be afraid. Then he got into the boat with them and the wind died down.
The disciples were amazed, because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand'. According to Mathew's version of this story (Mathew 14, 28-32): "Then Peter spoke up. 'Lord, if it is really you, order me to come out on the water to you'. 'Come', answered Jesus. So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid and started to sink down in the water. 'Save me, Lord', he cried. at once Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him and said, 'How little faith you have! Why did you doubt?' They both got into the boat and the wind died down'. Though the Buddha performed miracles, he disapproved of them as proofs of his divinity. 'It is because I see the danger in miracles of physical power and of mind reading that I detest, abhor and despise them'.
He commanded his disciples not to work miracles but to hide their good deeds and show their sins. (Digha Nikaya, 11k).
To love one's enemies, to bless them that curse, do good to them that hate, to turn the other cheek, to leave the cloak with him who takes the coat, to give all to him who asks, which were the teachings of Jesus, were also precepts taught and practised in their extreme rigour by the Buddha in his many lives, according to the Jatakas.
The Buddha revolted against the complexities of the sacrificial religion to which he was born, as Jesus did against Jewish legalism.
There is, is there not, much matter for reflection in these coincidences in the lives of these two great teachers? Professor J. Estlin Carpenter writes:
'The lives of the teachers do not essentially differ. It was the mission of both to awaken men out of a state of spiritual indifference, to kindle within them a love of righteousness, to comfort the sorrowful, to reprove as well as to redeem the guilty'. (The Obligations of the New Testament to Buddhism, Nineteenth century, 1880, p. 975; also A. J. Edmunds, Buddhist and Christian Gospels (1908).
There cannot be any difference of opinion regarding the view of life and the world of thought which seem to be common to Buddhism and Christianity in their early forms. Whether historically connected or not, they are the twin expressions of one great spiritual movement. The verbal parallels and similarities reveal the impressive unity of religious aspirations. The Buddha and Jesus are the earlier and later Hindu and Jewish representatives of the same upheaval of the human soul, whose typical expression we have in the Upanisads. Whether the two religions met in early times and one borrowed from the other is, in the final analysis, of little moment.
Krishna and Jesus. There are also many parallels between Krishna and Jesus. According to legend a marvellous light enveloped Mary when Jesus was born. A similar light enveloped Devaki before Krishna was born. There was universal gladness of nature at their birth. Herod inquired of the wise men, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews'? (Mathew, 2.4). Narada warns Kamsa that Krishna will kill him (Harivamsa, 2, 56). Herod is mocked by the wise men (Mathew, 2.16) and Kamsa is mocked by the demon that takes the place of Yasoda's infant. The massacre of the infants is found in both. Joseph came with Mary to Bethlehem to be taxed: Nanda came with Yasoda to Mathura to pay tribute. The flight into Egypt is similar to that into Braj.
The Bhaghavadgita and the Quran. As with the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus a comparison of the Bhagavadgita with the Quran reveals striking similarities although those two scriptures are separated by perhaps a thousand years. A few of these similarities are set out below.
Gita ch. 2, v.20: - 'The Atman is neither born nor does it die'
Quran ch. 112, v.1-3: - 'Allah is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was he begotten'.
Gita ch. v.16: - 'The unreal has no existence; the real never ceases to be'.
Quran ch. 28.v.88: - 'Everything is perishable, except His Face'; and ch. 55, 26 & 27: 'Everyone on it (Earth) must pass away. And there will endure forever the person of Your Lord, the Lord of Glory and Honour'.
Gita, ch,6, v.9: - 'He stands supreme who has equal regard for friends, companions, enemies, neutrals, arbiters, the hateful, the relatives, saints and sinners'.
Quran ch.84, v.14: - 'O you who believe! Surely from among your wives and your children there is an enemy to you, therefore beware of them'.
Gita ch. 15, v.15: - 'I abide in the hearts of all; from me are memory, knowledge and their absence'.
Quran ch.50, v.16: - 'We created man. We know the promptings of his soul, and are closer to him than his jugular vein'.
Gita ch.3,v.17: - 'He is the light of all lights, and luminous beyond all the darkness of our ignorance'.
Quran ch.24, v.35: - 'Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth'.
Gita ch.3, v.24: - 'These worlds would perish, if I did not do action'.
Quran ch.2, v.255: - 'The Everlasting, the self-subsisting by whom all subsist. His knowledge extends over the heavens and the earth, and the preservation of them both tires Him not'.
Gita ch.2, v.47: - 'Seek to perform your duty; but lay not claim to its fruits'.
Quran ch.55,v.60: - 'Is there any reward for goodness except goodness itself?'
Gita ch.10,v.8: - 'I am the original of all; from me all things evolve'.
Quran ch.2, v.117: - 'Originator of the heavens and the earth. And when he decrees a thing, He says 'Be, and it is'.
Gita ch.18, v.85: - 'Fix your mind on Me; be devoted to Me; sacrifice to Me; prostrate before Me; so shall you come to Me. This is My pledge to you, for you are dear to Me'.
Quran ch.23 v.56-61: - 'Those who live in awe of their Lord; who believe in the revelations of their Lord; who worship none besides their Lord; who give away what they give with hearts apprehensive with the knowledge that they will return to their Lord: they hasten together toward good works and will be the first to attain them'.
If the great religions continue to waste their energies in a fratricidal war instead of looking upon themselves as friendly partners in the supreme task of nourishing the spiritual life of mankind the swift advance of secular humanism and moral materialism is assured. In a restless and disordered world which is unbelieving to an extent which we have all too little realized, where sinister superstitions are setting forth their rival claims to the allegiance of men, we cannot afford to waver in our determination that the whole of humanity shall remain a united people, where Muslim and Christina, Buddhist and Hindu shall stand together bound by common devotion, not to something behind but to something ahead, not a racial past or a geographical unit, but to a great dream of a world society with a universal religion of which the historical faiths are but branches.
We must recognize humbly the partial and defective character of our isolated traditions and seek their source in the generic tradition from which they all have sprung. Among the great religions there are similarities and dissimilarities. Does it not behove us to promote unity among them rather than perpetuate division?
Each religion has sat at the feet of teachers that never bowed to its authority and this process is taking place today on a scale unprecedented in the history of humanity and will have most profound effects upon religion. In their wide environment religions are assisting each other to find their own souls and grow to their full stature. Owing to a cross-fertilisation of ideas and insights, behind which lie centuries of racial and cultural tradition and earnest endeavour, a great unification is taking place in the deeper fabric of men's thoughts.
Unconsciously perhaps, respect for other points of view, appreciation of the treasures of other cultures, confidence in one another's unselfish motives are growing.
We are slowly realising that believers with different opinions and convictions are necessary to each other to work out the larger synthesis which alone can give the spiritual basis to a world brought together into intimate oneness by man's mechanical ingenuity.
Mr. President, we must endorse, support and take forward the initiative of Iran in this Year of Dialogue Among Civilisations. The United Nations has an immensely valuable role to play in that process.
Produced by Lake House