Many Voices but Only One Truth

Indonesia: the largest archipelago, with 17,508 islands, and the second-highest level of biodiversity. Living on 6,000 islands are 237 million people belonging to 300 distinct ethnicities and speaking 742 languages and dialects.

Consider these figures: Almost 30,000 different types of plants, more than 2,500 species of animals and birds and an astonishing number of over 4,000 types of fishes.

And compare them with any of the Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, has a total number of only 2,028 known plants – many of which extinct by now. Similarly, the total number of all known animal species is only 200.

Here in Indonesia, diversity is a reality. One cannot deny it. It is not an ideal to achieve, or a feat to accomplish, but a living reality to appreciate and live by. It is a reality that covers all aspects of life. The geographical diversity has a deep impact on our minds and outlook towards life.

The Indonesian Coat of Arms enshrines Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – commonly translated as Unity in Diversity – as the foundation upon which the modern Indonesian state is founded.

Literally however, Bhinneka means “appearing as many” – whereas tunggal is “single,” or “merging into.” And ika is “one.” Bhinneka calls for the celebration of “apparent” diversity, whereas tunggal ika emphasizes the “essential” oneness. Therefore, the phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika literally means, “Appearing as many, yet singularly one.”

Unity in Diversity versus Appearing as Many, yet Singularly One – the first phrase is a vague statement. One can turn it into an ideology, or an ideal to achieve, and then forget all about it. Not so with the later phrase, as we shall shortly see.

One fine Sunday, my uncle-turned-priest, Father Tony, arrived at the church without his favourite cap. He felt naked without it, and was not at ease while delivering his sermon.

That day, he was speaking about the Ten Commandments. First, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and the seventh, “Do not commit adultery!” My dear uncle was enlightened, “Aha, I remember where I left my cap!”

Got it?

We may reduce “unity in diversity” to one such commandment. We can forget all about it, until it is lost, and then, “aha!” We can preach unity in diversity without comprehending its implication. We can talk about it without understanding its meaning.

As an ideology, “unity in diversity” often remains far from the reality. It has been, and is, often misinterpreted and misappropriated to benefit a certain group, or a certain class of society.

One can advocate for the ideology by merely giving lip service to the three words. I have met with politicians posing as defenders of the ideology, by twisting its meaning and attaching certain terms and conditions to their understanding of both unity and diversity. Such impostors are dangerous. They are hypocrites, cunning and can be misleading.

Indeed, better are the all-out opponents, those who reject pluralism outright. Their stand is very clear. To quote one of them, “Religious pluralism affirms that all religions are right. Meaning, Islam is right, Christianity is right, Judaism is right and all other religions, whatever, all are equally right. This is pluralism. Whereas, according to Islam, Islam alone is right (Al Qur’an Ali-Imran [3]:19), all other religions are not right and not acceptable to Allah (Al Qur’an Ali Imran [3]:85).”

Similarly, the official stand of the Council of Indonesian Ulemas (MUI) is also very clear. On July 29, 2005, the council issued decrees (fatwa) banning secularism, pluralism and religious liberalism. Its definition of pluralism as well as objection to it – both are the same as those given by the scholar quoted above.

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church follows a strikingly similar line. On June 29, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI signed a document reasserting the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, declaring Orthodox churches defective, and other Christian denominations not true churches.

More amazing is the fact that those openly objecting to pluralism, and having the “holier than thou” attitude, as well as those giving lip service to interfaith issues are often representing our nation in interfaith conferences overseas. Subject to the availability of funds from generous sponsors with vested interests and hidden agendas, they also do not mind hosting similar events domestically. Hail “Unity in Diversity.”

My cockeyed uncle, Mulla Nasruddin, calls himself walking “unity in diversity” in flesh and blood. “Looking London, and going Tokyo, yet I am I,” he says.

“Unity in Diversity” has been reduced to a mere slogan. It is a royalty-free brand. No copyright, and no strings attached. Anyone can use and define it to suit one’s convenience, and needs.

When it comes to religion – in spite of the same religious affiliation, my understanding of religion may significantly differ from yours. We can then either choose to tolerate each other, or go to war to defend our respective understanding and viewpoint. In both cases however, violence is imminent.

Tolerance is putting up with the differences. It is curbed violence, whereas going to war is expressed violence. The line dividing the two is a very thin one. A tolerant person can, at anytime, turn violent.

The promoters of “Unity in Diversity,” however, are at home with tolerance. They are quite comfortable with it. Not so with those who understand the actual meaning of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika. That is, if we understand the phrase correctly – “Appearing as Many, yet Singularly One.”

One who correctly understands the phrase penetrates into the core of apparently different realities, and discovers the inherent and essential unity of all things. At the nucleus, there is only One. There is no duality, and no diversity there. At that point, the phrase “Unity in Diversity” loses its meaning. It cannot hold itself. For diversity is only an apparent reality. It is a dream-reality, real as long as one dreams.

“Unity in Diversity” is superficial truth. For diversity is superficial. “Appearing as Many, yet Singularly One,” on the other hand, is the core truth. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika pertains to the core truth, and not the superficial truth.

It saddens my heart to see my own countrymen no longer appreciative of our cultural values and indigenous wisdom. Yet we cannot afford to lose hope. We have to rise from our own ashes, as did the legendary phoenix, and fly to reach the peak of consciousness where all differences melt into oneness – where Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is no longer a slogan, but a melodious song of harmony sung by peaceful souls saturated in love. Amin, Amen, Sadhu, Om Shanti!

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 130 books, several in English (, His organization runs Holistic Health/Meditation Centers, a National Plus/Interfaith School, a Charitable Clinic and a Public Reading Room in Bali. For more information, call Aryana or Debbie at 0361 7801595, 8477490.

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