March 9, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/ J M Shenoy and Suleman Din

'Religions are like human beings'

His parents journeyed from America to China as missionaries to spread the word about Jesus. In direct contrast, their devoted son, Huston Smith has been celebrating world religions for over five decades.

In such hugely popular books as, The World's Religions, published first in 1958, which has sold over 2.3 million copies, and his current bestseller, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, Smith has been broadcasting the Rig Vedic thought: God is one but people call him by different names.

"America's religious landscape is changing before our eyes," says Bill Moyers, the writer and television director, "and no one has done more to prepare us for the new religious reality than Huston Smith."

The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith, a five part series by Moyers, was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1997.

Smith is "the world's ambassador to religions everywhere," concurs Thomas Moore, the best-selling author of several spiritual books.

Smith, who recently turned 81, walks with the help of a cane. His hearing is impaired but he says that does not trouble him much, as long as he can look at the visitors and read their lips. Till two years ago, he practiced hatha yoga. He doesn't do so today but he does meditate regularly. And he does namaz five times a day. Recently, he demonstrated to two guests a perfect recitation of surah fatihah (opening prayer).

His modest home in Berkeley, California, is filled with icons of half a dozen religions, and adorned by the statue of an Apsara on the wall near the entrance.

A friend of Aldous Huxley, and other great philosophers and writers across the world, Smith talks animatedly about one of the most influential persons in his life, a Vedantic teacher, Swami Sadprakashananda of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda order.

"I have known many people who were extroverted, who were well-known, but the swami was the best Sanskrit scholar," he says. Huxley introduced him to the swami. It was also convenient that the swami lived in St Louis, Missouri, not far from Washington University where Smith taught.

He was "perfectly content" with Christianity until the Vedantas came into his life some five decades ago. "When I read the Upanishads, I found a profundity of world view that made my Christianity seem like third grade."

Swami Sadprakashananda helped Smith in his new quest.

"He was a great scholar and he was a very holy man," says Smith, who has taught religion and philosophy at MIT and a number of eminent universities. "I have never found scholarship and holiness combined in the way I found in him."

As his study of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam continued, Smith discovered that the same eternal truths were present in Christianity too.

Nobody had told him that though, not even the professors in graduate school at the University of Chicago. So as he continued the study of various faiths, he was never tempted to break away from any other religion.

"I was just moving into a new idiom for expressing the basic truths," he told Mother Jones magazine.

While the swami helped Smith divine the meaning of the Gita, he never compelled the professor to follow his lifestyle. "I was a very bad student," says Smith with booming laugh, explaining why he never took up vegetarianism, unlike his guru.

Did the swami give Smith an Indian name?

"We were bonded," Smith says. "And I was young enough to be his son. But he insisted on calling me Professor Smith."

From Huxley and the swami, Smith had realized long ago that materialism could not satisfy deep inner needs. Science has denied him a "logical, factual, scientific reason in why we cannot believe in religion," he says. "I wanted to write a book that would defend the religious viewpoint in a modern, secular world. "

But he also argues that science and religion have more in common than many people think. There is, for instance, he says, the shared belief that there is more to reality than the physical world we see every day. While science seeks to define reality through numbers and formulas, religion tries to know it through spiritual practice and contemplation, he says.

The ultimate reality is perceived by some as the space between atoms and by some as the space between the human heart and god, Smith told Publishers Weekly recently. Either way of thinking makes us like two-dimensional shadows, he said, "Whereas the ultimate reality is technicolor."

Smith, whose work gets a lot of inspiration and help from his wife Kendra, a psychologist, likes to use vivid examples to illuminate his thoughts.

"Science is like a flashlight in the hands of people in a big balloon," he has said. "They can illuminate anything inside the balloon but they cannot shine it outside the balloon to see where it is floating."

Why do many people call themselves spiritual, and spurn the word, 'religious'?

"Spiritual is a good word on campuses," he retorts. "I have never met a student who did not think he or she had a spiritual side." Besides, as he pointed out a few years ago, "Religion is institutionalized spirituality."

Because of that, he says, people are often embarrassed to say they are religious, Smith feels. To many people, religion seems like an institution that carries a list of don'ts, he explains.

"Institutions are not pretty," he said in an interview three years ago. "Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful but the universities? The same is true for religion."

But if people look around, they will find fluidity in religion. His own example: He goes to a Methodist church, and he is proud of the church's work in feeding the homeless people.

"They see only half of the picture," he notes about people who dislike religion for creating problems and division throughout the centuries. "They do not know the civil rights revolution in America, for instance, could not have succeeded without the help of liberal churches. "

Smith has taken something substantial from each of the major faiths. He values the devotion to Allah in Islam. He applauds the Muslim faith for "making God central in your life." He appreciates its tenet that charity should be a major principle of Islamic faith.

The 81-year-old, who swims every day, says he does not fear death, though he is afraid of being dependent on other people. "To me, that's the severest path," he told Mother Jones, "not death."

But what would he like to be reborn as?

Perhaps a poet, he says, with his eyes sparkling. Among the many poets he admires is the Sufi poet Rumi. "I love the language poets, I envy them. I cannot emulate them."

Asked to contemplate what religion he would like to be born in the next life, he remembers a headline in a Newsweek article about him: Smith Never Met a Religion He Did Not Like.

"It was, of course, an overstatement," he says. "There are some things I don't like. Satanism, false gurus…."

Since he is convinced all religions have the same common deep structure, he has no preference for any religion in his next life. "Religions are like human beings," he says. "On the surface we are different. Underneath, the shape of human spine is alike."

Photographs: Suleman Din. Design: Lynette Menezes

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