Commonality among religions is, for some, highly contentious issue and especially leaders of a particular religion assert truth of their own religion and reject truth-claim of other religions. This is quite common specially among those religions which believe in conversion. Conversion is possible only when truth-claim of ones own religion is established. In one of the inter-faith conferences, a religious leader said we do not accept pluralism as it implies truth of all religions; we accept only co-existence.

Of course co-existence with reservations about truth-claim of other religions is certainly better than existence with conflict but accepting truth-claim of all religions is much higher than mere co-existence. For accepting truth-claims we generally go by popular practices rather than scriptural scriptures. Hinduism, for example, is judged by Muslims and Christians, by idol worship of Hindus and since Islam and Christianity reject idol worship, their leaders tend to concern it.

Similarly other religions reject truth claim of Islam and Christianity and they too form their opinion on the basis of what they observe from popular practices among Muslims and Christians. The question is: is this a valid way of judging truth-claim of religions? Are popular practices necessarily supported by scriptural sources and where do these popular practices come from?


There is very close relationship between religion and culture so much so that one becomes integral part of the other. We are hardly able to distinguish between the two. For an outside observer it is difficult to judge where religion ends and culture begins as for him/her religion and culture becomes one integrated whole. In fact two different religions practices in one culture are closer to each other than one religion practiced in two different cultures.

The Arabs among whom Islam originated are nearly shocked to observe Indian Muslims and their practices and judge them to be closer to Hinduism, if not Hindus and that is why many purists tried to purge Islam of Hindu customs and traditions. Mewati Muslims, for example, who converted from Rajputs to Islam, are much closer to ‘Hindu’ customs and traditions and Tablighi movement started from Mewat to purify them and make them ‘true’ Muslims.

But such efforts often fail for obvious reasons. One can change religion but not culture. Religion can be preached but culture cannot be. Culture has much to do with geography, history and society which can be known but not changed whereas religion can both be known as well as changed. Religion consists of some doctrines, dogmas, beliefs and values. A person who founds a religion through divine inspiration or otherwise, is borne in a culture and his religion naturally is influenced by indigenous culture and becomes part of it but when it is transplanted to other culture it is influenced by the host culture.

Some religions are totally indigenous and some are universal though carry imprints of indigenous culture. But no religion, however universal, can be completely devoid of local cultural influences. But religions which are universal transcend indigenous cultural practices and incorporate universal principles and values. If we take these universal principles and values and compare them one will find very little difference in religions.

Thus a student of comparative religion should be very careful while comparing any two or more religions and should clearly distinguish between popular practices which are more cultural than religious and core philosophy and values. Let us take Hinduism and Islam. We normally associate Hinduism with polytheism and Islam with monotheism, Hinduism with multiple gods and goddesses and Islam with one God (called tawhid).

Now let us look at Gayatri Mantra which is very fundamental to Hinduism and its various forms are found in Upanishads. One of its forms comes very close to Surah al-Fatihah of the Quran. One of its forms translated in English is as follows:

Throughout all of existence

'That' essential nature

Illuminating existence is the

Adorable One.

May all beings perceive with subtle intellect

The magnificent brilliance of enlightened awareness.

There is no need to further explanation to understand there is no polytheism here but obvious indication of oneness of God, of tawhid. Yet when we go into explanation of words used in this mantra we find further proof of oneness of God, of tawhid. Let us take explanations of few words of this mantra to further understand Hinduisms stress on oneness of God. These words are following:

Aum Bhur Bhuvah Swah.

Explanations of these words are as under:

1) Aum: the Supreme name of God Collectively these remaining three words are known as Mahavyahriti. They express the nature of God and demonstrate His inherent qualities.

2) BHUR – First the word Bhur implies existence. God is self existent and independent of all. He is eternal and unchanging. Without beginning and without end, God exists as a continuous, permanent, constant entity. Secondly, the word Bhur can also mean the Earth on which we are born and sustained.. God is the provider of all, and it is through His divine will that we are blessed with all that we require to maintain us through our lives. Finally Bhur signifies Prana, or life (literally breath). God is that which gives life to all. Whilst He is independent of all, all are dependent on Him. ….It is God who has given us life and who has ability to take away our life when He so chooses.


Bhuvah describes the absolute consciousness of God. God is self-conscious as well as being Conscious of all else, and thus is able to control and govern the Universe. Also, the word Bhuvah relates to God’s relationship with the celestial world. It denotes God’s greatness- greater than the sky and space. He is boundless and unlimited. Finally Bhuvah is also indicative God’s role as the remover of all pain and sufferings. We see pain and sorrow all around us. However through supplication to God we can be freed from that pain and hardship. God Himself is devoid of any pain…….


Swah indicates the all-pervading nature of God. He is omnipotent and pervades the entire multi-formed Universe. Without Form Himself, He is able to manifest Himself through the medium of the physical world, and thus present in each and every physical entity (wahdat al-wujud). God is able to interact with the universe created by Him, and thus sustain and control it, ensuring its smooth and proper running and function.

Also, Swah symbolizes God’s bliss. All but God experience pain, suffering and sorrow. Devoid of all such things, God alone is able to experience supreme bliss. Happiness as experienced by human beings is temporary, a transient state of mental satisfaction, which soon dissolves back into the mire of worldly troubles. Perfect, and without any form of deficiency God alone experiences true bliss, permanent and unaffected by worldly pains and woes. One who realizes God is able to join in this bliss, and thus God is able to impart true happiness to those who establish oneness with that Supreme Divinity.(see www.citehr.com/169648/-gayatri-mantra-english-translation-html)

Thus from above explanations it would be seen that every word about God, His existence and His attributes are like ones used by Islamic theologians and some are quite close to Sufi concepts and doctrines. No wonder than Dara Shikoh whose contribution in comparative religion is very rich, decided to translate Upanishad and wrote in his introduction that he found concept of tawhid after Quran only in Upanishads.

It is therefore very important that we compare teachings of religion very carefully and not reject truth-claims on the basis of certain popular practices. And even cultural and apparent differences must be respected to avoid conflict. The Quran for this reason says that, “And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest, exceeding the limits, they abuse Allah through ignorance.”

And further more significantly Quran says that “Thus to every people have We made their deeds fair-seeming; then to their Lord is their return so He will inform them of what they did.” (6:109)

Qurans emphasis is also on morality and higher values of life. These values – truth, justice doing good to people, compassion and wisdom are shared by all other religions and form important part of commonality. One of the verses in Quran goes to the extent of saying:

“It is not righteousness

That ye turn your faces

Towards East or West;

But it is righteousness

To believe in Allah

And the Last Day,

And the Angels,

And the Book,

And the Messengers;

To spend of your substance,

Out of love for Him,

For your kin,

For orphans

For the needy

For the wayfarer

For those who ask,

And for the freedom of slaves;

To be steadfast in prayer,

And practice regular charity;

To fulfill the contracts

Which ye have made;

And to be firm and patient,

In pains (or suffering)

And adversity,

And throughout all periods of panic

Such are the people

Of truth of God fearing.


Thus from above verse it will be seen that whole emphasis is on moral behaviour and righteousness is connected more with such behaviour than anything else. However, priests, pundits and ulama, for reasons well known, make rituals, customs and traditions more central than anything else and thus emphasize differences rather than commonalities.

Thus to establish commonality one can quote verses from Quran and other scriptures and differences in worshipping rituals and other rituals are more because of different cultural practices than in religious doctrines and beliefs and are more of secondary nature than fundamental nature. The Sufis, who stressed spiritual and liberative aspects of religion recognized this and instructed their followers to respect all religions, languages and cultures. Unfortunately, various kinds of vested interests use religion for power and self and lay stress on differences rather than commonalities.

We should also remember that differences (due to culture or whatever other reasons) should not breed hostility but should lead to deepening and enriching our thoughts and enable us to live in mutual harmony and peace. Without some kind of differences this world will become monotonous and boring and differences test our capacity to tolerate. While recognizing differences we should also understand commonalities and it is tension between differences and commonalities which makes our lives rich and vibrant.

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