By Anand Krishna
I managed to raise a few eyebrows when I discussed this subject in Singapore some time ago. So what is spirituality, then?
First, let us check our lexicons for the definition of the word “pluralism.” The following are the most popular ones:
• Oxford: a theory or system that recognises more than one ultimate principle
• Merriam Webster: a) a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality; b) a theory that reality is composed of a plurality of entities
It was perhaps based on the above definitions that the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI – The Indonesian Council of Ulemas) issued a fatwa, commonly mistranslated and misinterpreted as “decree.” Well, it is not. Fatwa simply means “opinion.” Call it an expert opinion. It is derived from the Arabic roots “afta,” which means to give an opinion, and “yastafti,” which means to ask for an opinion.
So, first of all, there nothing dreadful or scary about a fatwa. If some clerics opine that Salman Rushdie should be killed, or Lady Gaga is not lady enough to perform in Jakarta, it is simply an opinion. We can respect others’ opinions, and I strongly feel we should. But we are not legally bound to follow such opinions, unless of course there is a legal endorsement to such.
Back in 2000, a cleric opined that yours truly should be killed, albeit he put it in a mild way, something like “to be done with” – whatever he meant by that. Well, I am still alive.
The Fatwa on Religious Pluralism, Liberalism and Secularism, dated July 28, 2005, stipulates that such notions (paham or views) were haram or forbidden.
Now, I have neither the authority nor intention to declare something, anything, haram (forbidden) or halal (permissible). However, as far as pluralism is concerned, I would accept the MUI’s opinion.
I share the same opinion with MUI in this matter, if the lexicon definition of the word “pluralism” is considered.
Spirituality, in my view, is not plurality. It does not recognise “more than one ultimate principle” as suggested by the Oxford dictionary. It does not endorse the “theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality,” as defined by the Merriam Webster.
Indeed, any spiritualist, any “practitioner,” would deny that the Ultimate Principle were many. And, in this, both the modern-day scientists like Albert Einstein and the old boys like Archimedes would support the spiritualists. Our contemporary physicists do agree, too, that their ongoing experiments would ultimately lead them to a single formula that can explain everything – The Theory of Everything.
Spirituality unites, whereas plurality or pluralism as defined by our lexicons would certainly separate. So is spirituality the same as singularity?
The answer, once again, in my opinion, is no. What about the apparent plurality, the apparent differences and divisions? Do we discard them wholesale? We cannot. Spiritually speaking, you and I are one, yes. But, physically speaking, it is not so. You are you, and I am I. I cannot appease your hunger by eating myself. You shall have to eat yourself to appease your hunger.
What about the second definition given by the Merriam Webster, “that reality is composed of a plurality of entities”? Such reality cannot be the ultimate reality, for it shall depend on the components it is made of. Any one component taken out from such reality would be enough to prove that it is not the ultimate. A single component existing outside such reality is enough to prove that the ultimate is a myth.
So as the scriptures of the Hindus, the Upanishads, state: “Neither this, nor that” – spirituality is neither plurality, nor singularity.
However, it does not reject the apparent differences. It is always striving to see beneath, behind and beyond such apparent differences. Spirituality honours, respects and appreciates such differences; however, its focus is upon the underlying unifying factor.
This is why the founding fathers of the modern Indonesian Republic, especially Bung Karno, had to dive deep to find a pearl of local, indigenous wisdom to adopt as the national motto. The popular motto “Unity in Diversity” was not considered good enough. It could lead to uniformity, as it did not too long ago, or result in the chaos of ever-conflicting ideas.
So, they found “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” – Appearing as Many, but Essentially One. Interestingly, in this centuries-old axiom taken from a local epic, Sutasoma, by the mystic poet Mpu Tantular, the word “one” appears three times in its various avatars.
“Bhinn” is the Sanskrit or Kawi for “different.” To this word is added another word, “ika,” which means “one.” So if you want to say “Unity in Diversity” – the word Bhinneka should already suffice. There is no need to add “Tunggal” and another “Ika” – both of them meaning “one.”
The great sage Mpu Tantular was certainly trying to emphasise the oneness, the underlying unity. Alas, this understanding, this spirit of the axiom, is now forgotten, with the result that a nation, a state founded upon a spiritual base, is now torn between the conflicting interests of the pluralist and the singularist forces.
A spiritualist – a person or a nation – should actually be not caught in such conflict. There is no conflict in spirituality. Spirituality embraces both, and yet it does not identify itself with any. It rises above both plurality and singularity.
Anand Krishna is a spiritual activist and author with healing centres in Jakarta and Bali, including a new live-in ashram in Ubud (www.ubud.anandashram.asia).