The Limitations of Exclusive Monotheism
Abrahamic traditions are monotheistic and recognize that there is only one God. Yet their monotheism is largely exclusivist. Their One God does not tolerate any other Gods and is often at war with them.
In addition, Abrahamic monotheism is usually intolerant of the use of images, as if the use of images inherently implies a denial of the One God and a worship of inferior or dangerous spirits.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians do use images, but only regard their images as holy, while the images worshipped by non-Christians they see as unholy. Jews, Protestant Christians, and Muslims deny all use of images as idolatry, sometimes criticizing Catholics for using images as well. This rejection of images has magnified their exclusivist mentality and denigrates traditions that use images, particularly of a non-Christian nature, as a denial of the One God.
Such exclusivism is behind the obsession of Christian and Muslim groups to convert the world to their beliefs, whatever other calamities their efforts may cause. Most missionary efforts in Bharat today still promote this aggressive monotheism and use it to denigrate Dharmic traditions as unholy, if not evil.
This conversion-based monotheism may have One God but has two humanities – those who are saved and those who are damned. Anyone who does not subscribe to belief in the One God is consigned to error or damnation, and their spiritual practices deemed as unsacred. Various Abrahamic sects also condemn each other for theological differences. The intolerance born of excusive monotheism harms people within monotheistic traditions as well as those on the outside.
Self or Atman
In the Hindu tradition, the highest idea of divinity is Self, Atman or Purusha, defined as pure consciousness that pervades the entire universe, transcending time and space. The Atman also exists within the hearts of all creatures as our true nature behind body and mind.
Along with this understanding of the inner Self is a recognition of the underlying unity of all existence, which some thinkers might like to equate with monotheism. Yet the monotheistic idea that there is only One true God is not the same as the recognition of a universal consciousness that finds the Divine in all as all.
Exclusivist monotheism follows a dualistic world view. Its usual goal is for the soul to go to heaven or paradise after death, which is often described as a glorified physical world. It does not recognize the need for Self-realization, but holds that faith and belief alone are enough for immortality.
Among the many names for God in Abrahamic traditions we do not find the term Self or any other term comparable to Atman. God is usually an other to the soul, though the two may have an intimate connection. To say that “I am God” in the Upanishadic sense, is regarded as heresy.
Yet we do find a few mystics within monotheistic traditions who speak of unity consciousness to various degrees. We find such mystics even in Abrahamic religions, and from philosophical and artistic disciplines as well. We also find these unity statements in Greek and Gnostic mystics in the ancient period, as well as in pagan and Native Traditions worldwide throughout history.
Exclusivist traditions have often rejected or even killed such mystics within their own faiths, like Al Hallaj of Bagdad who proclaimed Anal Haqq or “I am the Truth” only to be cruelly executed for heresy. Meister Eckhart, who had similar mystical views in medieval Germany, was accused of heresy by the Pope and died under church arrest.
Yet not all mysticism is unitary or oriented to Self-realization. There are also militant and orthodox mystics who have upheld exclusivist dogmas with great religious fervor. We should not blindly equate all mysticism either.
The Way of Self-realization
The way of Self-realization or Atma Vidya is clearly explained in Yoga-Vedanta traditions in an accessible manner for everyone who wants to pursue the higher truth. Along with it the process of karma and rebirth is described in detail. We rarely find such clear teachings elsewhere in mystical traditions, particularly when the sword of monotheism hangs over people.
There is no path to Self-realization recognized in orthodox Christianity or orthodox Islam. There is some approach to unity consciousness among unorthodox groups, but seldom a complete system.
So let us not equate monotheism, the idea that there is only One God, with Self-realization, unity consciousness or the idea that all is God. In honoring religious pluralism let us not mindlessly equate contrary religious doctrines or different philosophical views.
That there is only One God is not necessarily to honor the Divine Self in all beings. In fact, monotheism is usually based upon a denial of the Self. Accepting that there is only One God is very far from honoring the need for Self-realization. If the belief in One God promotes an exclusivist approach to truth, demanding conversion, such a belief blocks the true spiritual development of the person who has it, and breeds religious intolerance and violence in the world overall.
Self-realization is more characteristic of Dharmic traditions. It is at best a secondary if not questionable and heretical pursuit in Christianity and Islam. Yet Self-realization is the true goal of life for all, not just for one religious community or another.
Let us honor the Self in all beings, but let us also not confuse other religious teachings that propound different goals with genuine paths to Self-realization. Religion and spirituality have many types and levels and can reflect not only higher truths but human prejudices.
This is just as in the case of science in which we cannot simply equate all proposed scientific theories as true. Spirituality should be a science of Self-realization, not any sort of religious dogma. It should teach us how to change our own consciousness –not merely make us target other people for conversion, when we are ignorant of who we really are.