Religious life imparts to us the vision to see everyone as, in essence, a beloved servant of God. Yet so often the differences between religions underline a feeling of "the other" that turns those who should be friends into enemies. What often follows is behaviour that may not seem very religious at all.
An example of this is the act of usurping another tradition's place of worship in order to establish one's own sanctuary. From my Catholic school upbringing, I remember reading about the aggressive tactics of some Christian missionaries against the religions of indigenous peoples. What struck me was the anger that these acts seemed to convey. The spreading of a message of love and salvation and the intolerant destruction of other forms of faith seemed incompatible.
I recalled this irony recently, when I read about religious tension in Malaysia. In multi-faith environments such as Malaysia, it is hard to avoid a categorisation of "us" and "them", and consequently easy to fall into a tendency of marking the "other" religion into one's enemy.
In Malaysia this tension is manifesting, among other ways, in the demolition of different sacred buildings. This year has seen the destruction of at least one nineteenth-century Hindu temple, and last year witnessed the similar demolition of a Christian church and an indigenous place of worship. In all cases, the justification given was that the buildings were illegal. Yet, many such buildings are deemed so simply because they pre-date land records.
Why do religions so easily fall into a status of competitors – essentially as enemies? Does religious missionary work have to entail a labelling of the "other"? Does it demand that the flourishing of our faith depends on the subduing of another?
When we make categorical distinctions between "East" and "West", or "my religion" and "your religion", we designate ourselves in relation to "the other", as a friend or enemy, often creating a need for "the other" to act in self-defense. Is there not a better way of spreading a message of truth in this world?
As Vaisnavas, we learn that since a devotee of the Lord sees every living being as part and parcel of the Lord, he or she never creates a situation of friendship or enmity.
However, this is not to advocate a passive indifference to others. If we refer to Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata-Purana), we find this statement of the hallmark of one who is advancing on the spiritual path: "May all living entities become calm by practicing bhakti-yoga [devotional service to the Lord], for by accepting devotional service they will think of each other's welfare." ISKCON's founder, Srila Prabhupada, in his purport to this verse elaborates that when one frees himself of envy, "he becomes liberal in his social dealings and can think of others' welfare."
This idea of the religious pursuit is not one where the practitioner values only his own salvation, nor is it one where he pushes down those who have not accepted his path.
If we label a particular group, including a particular religion, as a friend or enemy, are we are thinking spiritually? Are we truly representing our religious tradition? When searching for the best way to spread a religious message, can we recognize that missionary activity should not be about crushing faith that is already there? Is imposing our faith on top of another's with a type of "brand-name" seal the act of a religious person?
Does perpetuating the sense of "us" and "them" turn the spiritual struggle into a power struggle? Spreading a religious message is not aided by force or by divisive views toward other religions. Rather, "Pure love for Krishna is eternally established in the hearts of the living entities. It is not something to be gained from another source. When the heart is purified by hearing and chanting, this love naturally awakens." Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 22.107