THE INTERFAITH MOVEMENT

Kuldip Singh
17 min readNov 1, 2020

(Note -This speech is dated August 1986. Yet, it is still applicable to our current time, 34 years later. Obviously, we have not made any progress.)

Today, the world stands at a very delicate and crucial crossroad. The ever-prevalent fear of nuclear war; misery resulting from disease, hunger and poverty (which is fast consuming the roots of the third world); world-wide drug addiction; crime and corruption along with the other prevailing social evils are some of the factors which are cumulatively threatening humanity caught within this web, although made by man himself.

The world is looking for a solution. Amongst all the spheres of human development, there is only one path which can now guide us from war to peace, from division to unity, from hatred to love and from darkness to light. The seers and spiritual souls, for whom the world is a family, must now take the helm. It could be that is why nature took world religious leaders to a meeting of the Council for the World’s Religions, where Rabbis, Reverends, professors and thinkers of the world have collected to reflect upon the problems of the present world unrest and the pursuing religious conflicts.

The Council for World’s Religions held an inter-religious conference in West Germany, in August 1986. The theme of the conference was “The World-Wide Interfaith Movement: Present Situation and Future Prospects”.

The participants were religious leaders, scholars and people who are actively involved in interfaith work.

The Council aims to bring together the religions and religious believers of the world in mutual respect, understanding and collaborations’ thereby ushering in the age of World Peace. This goal corresponds with that of the Guru Nanak Ashram which is presently situated in Patiala. This ashram, other than being the guiding light for the desperate and the needy, seeks to bring oneness in mankind and World Peace. This understanding is being brought about through the message of the Sikh Gurus, whose mission was to bring humanity under the Unitive Being of God.

The Guru Nanak Ashram is run under the guidance of Saint Scholar Naranjan Singh, who was one of the eight principal speakers to have addressed this conference. Sant Scholar Giani Naranjan Singh Ji, Shiromani Kathakar ( Chief Exponent of the Sikh Scriptures), spoke the inaugural address.

It is important to mention here that Sant Ji distributed the message of Sri Guru Amar Das Sahib Ji Maharaj — a prayer beseeching God to save this world:-

“O’ Lord, the world is in flames; Save it with Your Grace.

Save it, whatever way it can be saved.

The True Guru shows the path of Peace in the meditation of the True Name.

Nanak says that other than God there is no other Liberator.”

(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 853)

INTERFAITH MOVEMENT AS A JOURNEY IN GOD SIKH HOPE AND INVITATION.

Sri Guru Nanak Dev Sahib Ji (1469–1538), the first of the ten preceptors or the founders (Gurus) of the Sikh religion, entered the water of the rivulet (Beini), near Sultanpur Lodhi in Punjab, seemingly for a bath. When He re-emerged from the flowing waters, He proclaimed “Na Ko Hindu Na Ko Musalman”. ( There is no Hindu, no Muslim). It was an invitation to men of faiths to shift their gaze from the near and the divisive to the ’Not so far’ and the unitive being of God.

Sri Guru Nanak Dev Sahib Ji was seeking the attention of the people to the movement of the flowing waters and what it symbolized. The river was purifying and carrying along with it all the drops of water in one togetherness and mutually enriching harmony. It was difficult for anyone to distinguish one droplet from the other. I have always been impressed by this meaningful proclamation by Sri Guru Nanak Dev Sahib Ji which came to Him immediately after a spiritual revelation, while He was still in the river Beini.

Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib Ji (1666–1708), the tenth and the last human Guru in the Sikh religious tradition, has also taught the essence of man in his ‘unitive nature’:

“Recognise the whole human race as of one caste.”

(Akaal Ustat — Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib Ji)

Before stating this, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib Ji refers to the various modes of human faiths and their respective identifying marks. All these, He says, are due to the influence of place and time. The underlying essence of all men is one and the same.

I have referred to the teachings of the first and the tenth Guru to underscore the point that in spite of the great persecution of the Gurus, during the history of the growth and development of the Sikh religious tradition, the persecution itself did not embitter the Gurus. They saw the same continuity even in their persecutor. The claim to the truth of the essential unity of the humankind was fundamental and higher than any suffering caused by the misguided and the misdirected.

I have always remembered this message of the Gurus as an invitation to go beyond one’s experience of interfaith conflict, and the ensuing suffering and to rise to the higher spiritual experience of oneness which alone is real and comforting. A keen student of human behaviour ( Sikh literally means a student or a disciple) may be able to perceive that most of the conflicts, for which the faiths are accused are not necessarily due to the spiritual experience. There are diverse illusions of gains which lead men to initiate or sustain conflicts.

In a large number of cases, the interfaith conflict relations are controlled externally by non-faith factors and internally manipulated by non-religious persons. This, however, does not mean that there has never been an interfaith conflict. Instead, what is being submitted here is that such conflicts are very few and, further, that these conflicts have the potential of being converted into highly co-operative and mutually helpful relationships after the conflict is over.

Let us now refer to the third point exemplified in an incident associated with the life of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib Ji. I am referring to this here because it is most widely mentioned in the various congregations of the Sikhs and is very often recalled by Saints and others addressing the seekers of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus.

A devout Sikh, Bhai Kennayah, was assigned the duty of serving drinking water to wounded Sikhs engaged in a defensive battle with the invading armies of the rulers. Bhai Kennayah was carrying out his duties. After some time, a complaint was made to Guru Ji by the Sikhs who were fighting the invaders. It was submitted by them that Bhai Kennayah was serving drinking water to friends and foes alike. This helped the invaders to regain their lost strength and to attack the Sikhs with revived vigour. The Guru sent for Bhai Kennayah.

When the latter came to the presence of the Guru, the Sikhs repeated their complaint against him. The Guru spoke softly and with affection to Bhai Kennayah and encouraged him to say what he wanted to express about the matter at hand. Bhai Kanahiya bowed to the Guru and said, “I am merely carrying out Your instructions. You have always taught us that God is everywhere and in everyone. I look at the invader and the defending Sikhs in the light of this teaching and treating everyone alike, without making the distinction of friend and foe.”

The Guru then praised him for realizing the essence of religion. He asked Bhai Kennayah to come near Him and then gave him an ointment which was to be used for healing the wounds of the injured persons. The Guru directed Bhai Kennayah to apply the ointment, in addition to the service of drinking water, to the warring soldiers. Bhai Kennayah was advised to do this work without making any distinction between the men of his own faith and that of the invading soldiers. Bhai Kennayah bowed to the Guru and left for the battlefield with reinforced faith and guidance of the Guru.

The Guru then remarked, “Bhai Kennayah has realized what I am teaching.”

This widely recalled incident and its teaching has always impressed me in my work for this interfaith movement. I find in this a reflection of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Sahib Ji’s revelation. “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” Bhai Kanahiya lived this revelation in his actions.

Were I to stop here and utter not a word more, I think, I would have made the view of Sikhism and about its interfaith relationship very clear by the above-mentioned statement.

Some have often cited this as an example of the Guru’s love for all men. A few persons have regarded this as a lesson for us to adopt a friendly attitude even towards our foes. A few others have also upheld this as an example of nonpartisan and impartial behaviour towards others. It may be that all these persons are right as their conclusions appear to be duly entailed by the teaching.

I have, therefore, always regarded this incident as revelatory of the spiritual relationship of all men and all faiths. There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim. There is no Christian: There is God, and God alone is reflected in all of us. Without God, there would be no difference between inert matter and human bodies. Any realization of the spiritual in human relationship is a step towards perceiving the spiritual continuum. The ‘false wall’ of ego seems to create the veil which disables man from going beyond the mere matter. The wall is not the house nor is it the dweller within. Bhai Kennayah had perceived the ‘dweller within’ and this perception alone can be the true and everlasting foundation of all human relationships including the ones involved in the interfaith movement.

There is an urgent need to reinterpret the illusory motivation concealed in the slogans of ‘struggle for survival’ and ‘the survival of the fittest’. The appeal of this contemporary or shall I say the nineteenth and twentieth-century misunderstanding of man’s ‘evolution and development’ is due to failure to see that growth at different levels, and especially at higher levels, follows overwhelming patterns of cooperative contribution. Far from being a heartless conflict and mutual annihilation programme of man as his fate and future, the spiritual in man confers on him a duty as well as an ability to perform this duty, to grow by contribution to everyone’s growth.

I am here tempted to continue with my presentation of the Sikh precepts on the subject of the interfaith relationship being grounded in the realization of the value of the spiritual.

I may refer to an event of the history of the Sikh religion which has made a deep mark on my perception of the spiritual and its reflection in human actions. I have been deeply influenced by this from the very early stage of my childhood.

Ours is a family which has accepted the duties of developing and looking after a very important historical Sikh shrine which exists since the earliest stages in the development of the Sikh religion. This Gurudwara (a word used for a religious place) is associated with an event in the life of the Ninth Guru, Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib Ji. The name of the place where the Gurudwara is situated is known as Kot Dharamwala (literally, a fort of religion) and it is situated at a distance of about one hundred kilometres, north of Patiala, where I have set-up “Guru Nanak Ashram” and am, presently, engaged in spiritual contemplation and social work, including interfaith work.

The name of the shrine at Kot Dharamwala is Sulisar. The word Suli signifies the Cross and Sulisar commemorate the crucifixion, or may we say, self-crucifixion.

I quote the narration of this event in the words of Max. Arthur Macauliffe, a British writer on Sikh religion and history:

“Guru Tegh Bahadur (1622–1675), the ninth Guru, once set out on a tour. During the course of the journey, he travelled to Kot Dharamwala and was received with affection by the people everywhere.

During this journey, he was pursued by two thieves, one a Musalman (Muslim) and another a Hindu, who watched day and night for an opportunity to steal his horse. While the Guru, wearied with travel, lay asleep on a dark night, the thieves, it is said, saw from their place of concealment, a tiger appearing from a lonely forest and making three prostrations before the sleeping Guru.

The Musalman thief became afraid and said to the Hindu, “The Guru, whom a carnivorous animal not only toucheth not, but boweth to, must be some wonder-worker.” The Musalman would therefore never steal his horse but would go home. The Hindu thief could not avoid recognizing the Guru’s power, but at the same remained fixed in his resolution to commit the theft.

On awaking in the morning, the Guru heard of the theft, and in reply to his men said that the horse and the thief would be found standing on a certain spot to the north of his camp. He accordingly sent his servants and ordered them to bring the horse and the thief before him.

The Guru asked the thief why he had stolen the horse and why he had remained standing with the animal instead of running away.

The thief told him all that had occurred prior to the theft and added that when he had mounted the horse he became blind and could not see his way. He had travelled several miles but could not find the road, and therefore halted at the place where he was arrested.

In his contrition, he afterwards climbed a Jand tree, broke off a portion of a branch, and impaled himself on the stump. The place is now called ‘Sulisar’

Macauliffe, M.A. The Sikh Religion. Vol. 4, page 341

Macauliffe has drawn the conclusion from the above episode that ‘thus did the thief gather the fruit of his sins’. As Saint Shaikh Farid says, such is the punishment that awaits those who perpetrate evil deeds.

However, I have always looked at this event very differently. In India, the word Suli has generally been revived in our memory crucifixion of one of the greatest prophets of religion, Jesus Christ.

It has often occurred to me that there are two prominent instances of crucifixion in the world. There is the crucifixion of the Holy Christ, who was put on the Cross, so that he may redeem the sins of humanity. His love for the suffering humanity led him to accept the most painful so that choice made by the people who were gathered there when the Roman Governor made the offers to set either their prophet or the thief free. They asked for the freedom of the thief.

I know that Jesus Christ was destined to be crucified, but you just see the human choice. It opted for the base and the evil, it favoured the one who was unscrupulously seeking the material things, as all thieves do. There was something in other men which directed them to act in terms of their own desire for the matter.

However, the glory of the spiritual did not come to an end with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, it has given rise to the great movement of the Christian religion.

Thus, the matter failed to be final or higher. The eventual inspiration in all religious movements, is similarly, very powerful and pervasive.

In case of the Sulisar, the thief was also attracted towards the matter. It was the horse which moved him more than the presence of the Guru. He took the horse, but it did not sustain him. It failed to take him anywhere. When the thief came to the presence of the spiritual in the Guru, the spirit in the thief triumphed and the thief suffered his cross by impaling himself on the stump of the tree.

The Guru had granted him the pardon and allowed him to go wherever he wanted to go. But even a thief, under the surge of spirituality in him, came to see the matter as lower.

All interfaith movements have a great lesson here. I have always upheld this example in contributing to the spiritual development of all who came in contact with us. Today, the shrine Sulisar stands haloed not because it stands in the memory of a very powerful or successful thief. It is a shrine because it commemorates the Grace of the Guru’s visit as also the transformation of a seeker of the material in the face of the kindness of the spiritual.

Somehow, Sulisar always inspires me to believe that interfaith and intrafaith movements ought to be based on the principle of selflessly contributing to the spiritual growth of everyone. It signifies that the goal of the spirit is not divisive but unitive. Religious life is an invitation to growth by sharing and cooperating with others. The matter is merely a contributory factor. The real height is gained through surrender. The fabric of the interfaith movement is woven with the threads of self-sacrifice and love.

I started at the age of fourteen, the exegetical work and the delivering of the religious discourses in a very important shrine, called Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib (literally, the remover of sufferings), at Patiala. It is managed by the Central Authority of the Sikh Shrines. I have always regarded this opportunity as the Grace of God and the Guru.

For years together, I have had the privilege of being heard by millions of people of various faiths. We call this discourse, in Sikhism, as Katha. It is a form of a religious sermon which combines in it the elements of interpreting the teachings of the Gurus as well as the narration of the events of religious history. The purpose of the discourse is to invite human beings to a journey in God. It is also aimed at sustaining those who are already in this path. The men of faith, or of all faiths, are assured that their hope in Him is not unfounded and that this hope has the support in human history. It is a sharing across the barriers of time and the geographical limits of traditions. We ought to follow the ‘Signs’ of God and we shall meet Him not very far from all of us.

The interfaith movement is a movement in Him. The ennobling nature of this movement is due to the spiritual nature of Him who moves us in this togetherness. I pray for God’s Blessing for the Council for the World’s Religions, whose vision and programmes may become the cues and instruments of God’s Will. May everyone understand the true purpose of God and seek to realize it in their life. Let this alone be the purpose and programme of the interfaith movement.

This is our prayer. This is our hope. And this is our Invitation.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa. Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

The pure is of the Lord. To the Lord is the Victory.

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At the conference, there were many who raised questions:

Richard J. Payne, publisher (Amity House) in New York, America asked many questions. He said:

“I felt a wondrous energy flow through the atmosphere when Sant (Giani) Naranjan Singh Ji entered the seminar Hall.”

He asked:

Q. What else, besides these conferences, can we do, to bring about a change in world attitude?

Sant Ji: Working for the self is the most important task. Only a glowing lamp can dispel darkness. An empty tank cannot distribute water. To spread love, unity and peace, develop the self. That is, one who sleeps cannot wake others.

Q. How do we do this?

Sant Ji: Break away from the material, not by action, but by thought. Live like a lotus lives in a pond, within this world and yet, uncontaminated by it. Maintain a simple living and high thinking. If we live in the company of Saints, we can learn to live such a life.

Q. What is the self?

Sant Ji: The ‘Power’ or ‘Energy’ which is within us is the ‘Self’. In the old language of the Puranas, it is called the ‘Atma’. It is also called Soul, God, etc — numerous names have been given to it.

Rabbi Dr.Albert H. Frielander from Kent, London remarked in his plenary address:

“The presence of such a person as Sant (Giani) Naranjan Singh, make me see what interfaith actually means. In his presence, I did not feel myself to be a Jew or him to be a Sikh. Such is the love which flows from within him. One knows when one stands in the presence of greatness. I am fortunate to have met and received the blessings of such a person.”

Fr: Albert Nambiaparambi CMI Director UPASANA, asked:

Q: How is it that when sufferings come, religious saints run away from the situation?

Sant Ji: There are three types of sufferings, namely, physical; mental; and spiritual. The Sikh way of life does not advocate escapism, whatever may be the nature of sufferings. Our Guru or Preceptors faced sufferings in the form of tortures of the extreme kind, but they never deviated from the path of Truth. They faced sufferings boldly and did not deviate from the divine path. The same has been the attitude of thousands of their followers. Let me mention here, that in Sikh parlance, our doctrine is not referred to as “Sikhism”, but as the ‘Sikh Panth’ or the practical way of life. The Sikh doctrine does not stand for philosophical quibbling or for any rituals. It stands for life for living a principled life even in the face of sufferings and having to sometimes die for it.

Q. What is the practical way of life?

Sant Ji: To practice what is Real, means to be ‘practical’. But first, there should be an inquiry about what is ‘Real’.

Rev. Francis H. Clark, a senior consultant of the C.W.R., bowed to take Sant Ji’s blessings. He requested Sant (Giani) Naranjan Singh to become a patron of the organization.

Dr Sayimatha Siva Binda Devi thanked Sant Ji for his visit saying, “Greatness resides within you”.

Retd. Maj. Gen. S.S. Ubban, paying his respects to Sant Ji said, “the force of your spirit moved everyone.”

Dr. Manfred. H. Vogel asked:

“How can one get Bhai Kennayah’s vision of non-duality, where foes and friends would seem alike? Why are there so many cults in the world when there is only one humanity?”

Sant Ji: The basic postulate, as incorporated in the MOOL MANTRA of the Sikh doctrine is EK ONGKAAR, that is, there is only One Reality who is projecting Himself through this creation or phenomenon. This Real being of God is the Eternal Truth in existence. He is the creating source and energy; is devoid of fear and enmity; is immortal, unborn, self-existing and is known by the grace of the Guru.

Every human being, to whatever religion, race or nation he may belong is gifted by God with a hidden ‘Super Eye ’which is also known as the ‘third eye’. In order that we may see oneness in the world and not division, we need to develop this eye.

In reply to a question asked by Arjuna, as to whether it was possible to see unity in diversity with these physical eyes, Lord Krishna answered:

But you cannot see Me with your present eyes.

Therefore I give you divine eyes. Behold My mystic opulence!”

(Bhagavad Gita 11–8)

In Gurbani it is stated:

“O my eyes, the Lord has infused His Light into you;

do not look upon any other than the Lord.

Do not look upon any other than the Lord;

the Lord alone is worthy of beholding.

This whole world which you see is the image of the Lord;

only the image of the Lord is seen.

By Guru’s Grace, I understand, and I see only the One Lord; there is no one except the Lord.

Says Nanak, these eyes were blind;

but meeting the True Guru, they became all-seeing.”

(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 922)

If this hidden divine sight opens and is awakened, the wall of duality is shattered, this world of matter loses its entity and appears to be engulfed in spirit. Individual entities are seen existing in the Divine Light and the Divine Light in the entities. This wondrous sight is described as:-

“Your Light is in Your creatures,

and Your creatures are in Your Light;

Your Almighty Power is pervading everywhere.”

(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 469)

In short, spirit and matter appear so intermingled that the spirit becomes matter and the matter becomes spirit. The process of awakening of the Divine Sight implies looking inwardly, leading a disciplined life and life of introspection. It also means practising of emptying the mind of worldly thoughts and things, of voices and visions, of feelings and emotions — in short, of everything that is creaturely. In Sikh parlance, this is called breaking the wall of falsehood.

“So how can you become truthful?

And how can the veil of illusion be torn away?”

(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 1)

It is an attainment of a state of worldly thoughtlessness, a state of inner stillness. This deep and complete stillness is MEDITATION. The more one progress in this inner journey, the more one comes nearer to the threshold of the Divine One.

In the words of Gurbani:-

“In the midst of hope, remain untouched by hope;

then, O Nanak, you shall meet the One Lord.”

(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji 877)

That is, you meet the One when you cease hankering after worldly desires or hopes, though still continuing to live in this world of desire and hope.

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Kuldip Singh

I serve in Guru Nanak Ashram in Patiala, Punjab, India. This Ashram is a centre for Spiritual retreat and learning.