Every religion, even ideology, needs to provide its followers with ways of coping with the vicissitudes of life, especially when personal tragedy tears a gaping hole in the fabric of meaning. This book describes the search for serenity as found in what are conventionally referred to as the world religions and identifies a similarity in the pattern which seems to underlie these approaches, thereby extending the application of the comparative method to religious psychology.
Arvind Sharma, formerly of the I.A.S., is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has published extensively in the fields of Indology and Comparative Religion, and is currently engaged in promoting the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions.
WHAT is your favourite emotion? The answer would perhaps depend on the person asked, and on the situation in life the person happens to be negotiating at that time, but it is likely that whatever the choice, it will probably be a positive emotion. That is to say, it likely to be love rather than hatred, hope rather than despair, patience rather than anger, restraint rather than indulgence and so on.
The world religions are united in appealing to such positive emotions. Some scholars have been argued that both the Eastern and the Western religious traditions often opt for essentially the same positive emotions, although the manner in which they do this may have prevented the point form becoming obvious and has to be argued for. Huston Smith makes this point in his response to the following question by Jeffrey Kane: Would you say there are certain universals one would find through many of the world's religions? His response runs as follows:
Yes. Two levels need to be distinguished here. The one which is the more explicit is what we should do, but beyond that is the question of the kind of person we should try to become.
Now, on the first level, what we should do, there are four problem areas in human life that have to be dealt with. These are: violence, wealth, the spoken word and sex. In lower forms of life these problem areas are monitored quite adequately by instinct. Man, though, is an animal without instincts, so these problem areas can get out of hand. Moral precepts are devised to secure appropriate, life-sustaining behaviour in the four areas, and they are remarkably uniform across cultures: don't murder, don't steal, don't lie, don't commit adultery. These are the basic guidelines concerning human behaviour.
He then goes on to say:As for the kind of person we should try to become, the virtues point the way. In the West these are commonly identified as humility, charity, and veracity. Humility has nothing to do with low self-esteem; it is to recognize oneself as one and fully one but not more than one, just as charity is to look upon your neighbour as fully one (with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto) just as you are one. Veracity begins with not being deceitful, but it ends in the sublime objectively that sees things exactly as they are, undistorted by our subjective preferences. These are the virtues in the West. Asia, interestingly, has the same three but enters them by the back door, so to speak, by speaking of the three poisons - traits that keep the virtues from flourishing in us. The three are: greed (the opposite of humility), hatred (the opposite of charity), and delusion (the opposite of veracity). To the extent that we expunge these three poisons, the virtues will flood our lives automatically. The convergence of East and West in these areas is remarkable.
It's a pity that serenity does not find a place in this list along with humility, charity and veracity. I hope this book helps to demonstrate that the quest for serenity is as much a part of world religions as the search for the other virtues. Alternatively, one could argue that if world religions are engaged in the quest for reality at the metaphysical level, and in the quest for virtue at the moral level, then they are equally engaged in the quest for serenity at the psychological level.
Religion plays many roles but surely one key role which it plays in our lives is to try to beckon us to the shore of serenity, when we find ourselves being tossed to and fro on the stormy sea of life. Every world religion offers a similar hope and yet in its own unique way; each throws out a life-line to us but these lines have their own texture.
This book is an attempt to chart this quest of serenity in world religions, wherein a common pattern seems to underlie this quest for serenity. It seems as if whatever goes on in life can be placed into two distinct dynamic categories: (1) that which we can control, and (2) that which we cannot control. And that life achieves a serene balance if we actively pursue those aspects of life which lie under our will, and graciously accept as the will of God, or of some higher force or power, over which we have no control.
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