Will Organized Religions Survive in the New Millennium?
As a yoga monk and spiritualist, I strongly believe that we must think deeply about our vision for world
peace. For the sake of our children and all living beings, we have a duty to encourage every movement
that contributes to it and struggle against all divisive and exploitative trends. So what should be our
attitude towards organized religions?
Different people hold vastly different opinions about the world’s churches and faiths. How can we decide
what is good or bad about them?
The Ecumenical Movement
Tolerance of other faiths, dialog to discover common views, and working together for common social goals
are the foundation of the ecumenical movement. The World Network of Religious Futurists
(http://www. wnrf.org/about/faq.htm) is one such endeavor. While I applaud their ecumenical efforts,
I disagree with their conclusion that organized religions will still exist in 3000. My first experiences
with the ecumenical movement in Brazil highlight the possibilities and the dangers of this approach.
One month before the historic 1992 Global Forum that took place in Rio de Janeiro alongside the Earth
Summit, I was invited to help organize an interreligious vigil for that event. I was skeptical, because
praying for the welfare of the earth is, I think, less important than our actions. However, in the first
meeting at the Institute for Religious Studies (ISER), the organizer, Ruben Fernandez, impressed me
because he gave equal respect to the representatives of every tradition, from the Catholic priest to the
old woman saint of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda tradition, from the Lutheran minister to the Hare Krishna
devotee. More than 20 different religions, spiritual paths and esoteric groups participated, each allotted
their own structure in the park, to practice according to their beliefs. Nearly 10,000 people stayed until
dawn, when everyone gathered in the amphitheater. There the Dalai Lama and Dom Helder Camara, the former
head of the Brazilian Council of Catholic Bishops, shared the stage with leaders of other faiths. At the
end the religious leaders were embracing one another and all were singing and dancing together to the
spiritual music of different traditions. It was an unforgettable vision of the future, of people from
every race and land living together in peace and harmony with the planet. Another ecumenical group tried
twice to stage inter-religious programs at the same Global Forum. The result of these shows by the Open
Heart Foundation was disastrous. The organizers invited representatives from different religions and
spiritual groups to the stage, but when we arrived, they did not even want to know our names or what
groups we represented. They explained that they wanted us all to sit on the stage as a colorful
background while they gave a lecture. At the end we would all hold hands and read aloud their prayer for
world peace. They would have done better to hire a group of professional actors dressed in different
costumes! This symbolizes some very serious problems with the current paradigm of the major world
Dogma Vs. World Peace
In The Liberation of Intellect: Neo-Humanism, Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar defines dogma as any intellectual
barrier beyond which one may not question. Examples of some religious dogmas are the ideas that we
are the chosen people of God and others are not, that ours is the only way, that we are going to heaven
and everyone else is going to hell, that only our holy book is the word of God. I remember an incident
from my childhood that typifies religious dogma. When I was 11 years old, I attended a catechism class
in a conservative church in the southern USA. During the class I raised my hand to ask a question. The
pastor said, "Don’t ask questions! Have faith! Blind faith!" Then and now I believe that faith and
surrender have value on the spiritual path, but I also believe that we have the right to ask questions.
A fundamental spiritual principle, called Svadhyaya in Sanskrit, states that we should utilize our
intellect in our search for truth. Fanaticism, even religious violence, occurs when adherents of a
religion blindly follow their dogmatic leaders without thinking for themselves.
In the past, male religious leaders invented dogmas to suppress women; sadly some of these dogmas still
survive. Orthodox Hindus believe that only men can achieve liberation; women must be reborn as men before
they can hope for this. Others believe that women cannot be priests. Some say that women are the original
cause of sin. These dogmas must be discarded, for regardless of the physical and psychological differences
between men and women, spiritually they are equals.
Intolerance and Conflict
Fundamentalism and fanaticism are darkening the psychic climate in some parts of the world. In the Middle
East, hatred and fear between Jews and Muslims is growing. Both groups are of the same racial Semitic
stock, yet the growing violence is driving a wedge ever deeper between them. Religious riots and armed
conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India are increasing. Fear of religious violence is a constant
part of life amongst Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, amongst Christians and Muslims in Sudan,
East Timor and the southern Philippines, between Christians and Protestants in Northern Ireland and
between Sunni and Shiite Muslims of Iran and Iraq. Structural violence is equally terrifying. In
Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh and other Muslim countries, the oppression of women and the violence
that the courts mete out to criminals are barbaric and repulsive.
Why is religious fundamentalism growing?
Too many people feel they have no future. Unemployment, heavy debt, insecurity, urbanization and
Westernization are marginalizing millions. They clearly do not feel part of the capitalist dream
presented by Hollywood with beautiful, rich, happy American actors. Alienated, confused, with little hope
for the ever-elusive material wealth and romantic fulfillment, people fall into personal despair or turn
to religion as a way out. The majority of religious conflicts are rooted in economic injustice. Countless
petty tyrants have followed Hitler’s formula for political success: preach to the poor and unemployed that
the cause of their suffering is exploitation by followers of another religion. Sometimes these religious
leaders whip up a frenzy of communal hatred that results in orgies of ethnic bloodshed. If we cannot
eradicate the scourge of poverty, then it is reasonable to predict increasing religious violence as a
A Spiritual Vision
Only universalism can bring world peace. We are all brothers and sisters in one human family. We must treat
each other with mutual respect and love regardless of race, caste or nation. A universal outlook is needed
to overcome the harmful effects of racism, nationalism, sexism, etc. A world government that guarantees the
fundamental necessities of life to everyone, that prevents any form of exploitation and that allows freedom
of travel, should be our goal. The earth is our common heritage, so we must share it equitably. A universal
and comprehensive outlook is also needed in the spiritual dimension. Dharma is an ancient Sanskrit term
which means following righteousness and doing spiritual practices such as daily meditation. Our goal should
be to channel our natural human instincts in a positive direction for our physical, mental and spiritual
development. The path of Dharma is from imperfection to perfection, to become saint-like, to become God-like.
Wisdom, and not mere intellect, is a very rare, timeless quality that the world desperately needs. A wise
person, understanding the deepest truths of life, becomes a fountain of divine love and inspiration. There
are saints who, though illiterate, are respected by all for their wise counsel. Wisdom comes through
knowledge of the self, through deep reflection and meditation.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton urged spiritualists to take moral stands and point the way towards a new
future that is not based on materialism and exploitation. A new human ethics based on universal principles
of morality should be the base of economic activity and global peace. For example, the ancient yogic
principle, aparigraha is an ecological ideal of simple living, not accumulating unnecessary things. On
the personal level it encourages the adoption of a humble lifestyle and donating extra wealth to charity.
On the social level it is the basis of creating a ceiling on the excessive personal wealth that is robbing
the planet of the resources that God gave to humanity. The Liberation theology of the Catholic Church,
led and inspired by Brazilians Leonardo Boff, Frei Betto and others, and the courageous stands taken by
some Catholic priests against the torture and killings of military dictatorships throughout Latin America
are examples of spiritual leaders fighting for social justice. Self-realization and service to the universe
are universal goals that all people can be encouraged to adopt. Service work is both purifying and humbling.
Bo Lozoff’s wonderful Prison-Ashram Project of the Human Kindness Foundation in the US is a sterling example
of teaching ancient yoga techniques and sharing correspondence of love with more than 50,000 prisoners
around the world (http://www.humankindness.org). The Chicago School of Theology was so impressed that they
awarded Mr. Lozoff an honorary doctorate degree in divinity. From this example, for the last three years
I’ve been teaching weekly meditation classes in the local prisons in Brazil. The Paradox of a Spiritual Future
I find myself in a paradoxical role. Spirituality is deeply important to me, but I do not teach religion.
I love peace, but am dedicated to fighting against the enemies of peace. It is only by taking the best from
the East and the West, and by honoring the spiritual treasure at the heart of every religious tradition that
we can make a better future. At the same time we must reject the dogmas and fight against injustice and
exploitation wherever they are. It is our personal meditation and other spiritual practices which will give
us the inner strength and inspiration to continue on our journey of selfdevelopment, creating a brilliant
future for ourselves and a better world for our children.
Dada Maheshvarananda is the author of the books Neo-Humanist Ecology and After Capitalism. He can be
reached at: Proutista Universal Rua Buarque de Macedo 35 Floresta, Belo Horizonte MG CEP: 31015-350,
Brazil. Tel/Fax: (31) 444-1574,
This article was re-printed from New Renaissance, Vol. 9, Number 3.
Volume 9, No. 2, Summer 2002 [Accurate date cannot be determined]