By Joachim Ng
A Tamil poet dubbed him ‘the Angel of Malaya’ for his life of spirituality and service. The Angel — an old boy of St Michael’s Institution who took vows and became Swami Satyananda — conducted a broad range of educational activities in Perak and beyond during the 1930s-50s, eventually pioneering interfaith gatherings in Malaysia and founding the Pure Life Society.
Forward to the 1960s. A Chinese student at St Michael’s Institution spent a lazy afternoon at Ipoh’s public library. Devoutly Christian, yet his eyes fell upon a Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Its words, like a candle in the dark, took him on a journey of inner truth and in later years he carried an interfaith torch bringing light to many. The two Michaelians — one Christian and the other Hindu — could stand on common ground across faith boundaries as they saw a real connection underlying the façade of religious differences.
In 2010, King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke at the United Nations General Assembly and mooted a great initiative to promote interfaith harmony and provide a focal point for all people to recognize that the common values they hold far outweigh the differences they have. A year later, the UN adopted a resolution to establish World Interfaith Harmony Week on the basis of ‘Love of God (or the Good) and Love of the Neighbour’ to fall on February 1-7 every year. Unfailingly since 2011, Malaysia has organized national-level celebrations spearheaded by the Department of National Unity and Integration. Some NGOs organize smaller events on their own.
February is also the month of another love event — Valentine’s Day falling on the 14th. Unfailingly it captures the public imagination every year. Who hasn’t bought Valentine’s Day flowers for his mother, wife, or girlfriend? Although having prewar roots, interfaith harmony is celebrated on a scale that is a pale comparison to Valentine’s Day. What makes Valentine’s Day a runaway success story, while Interfaith Harmony Week is just a limping runner-up?
The UN resolution gave World Interfaith Harmony Week a tagline: Love of God (or the Good) and Love of the Neighbour. It missed out one love: Love of Nature. Ancient spiritual traditions always bind the three into one. In Chinese classical writings, this triune relationship is symbolized by a trigram — three lines stacked above each other to represent Heaven, Earth, and Humanity (tiandi-ren).
Heaven means the non-personal God, and Earth means Nature. Heaven expresses itself in Nature, and Nature is the mother of Humanity. Knowing geometry, we can reconstruct the trigram into a triangle. Nature connects God and Man. Without Nature, the love triangle is missing one angle and our relationships become disconnected. How long have we been disconnected? Not that long, really, and certainly not from the beginning.
Although the human species has existed for 200,000 years, civilization is less than 10,000 years old. What were our primitive ancestors like? They were non-civilized but not uncivilized. The primitive tribes were close to God and Nature, as they were people of the forest or caves who lived by hunting animals but mainly by gathering edible wild plants. Tribal members were also close to one another as they were bound together by kinship ties.
About 10,000 years ago, with the advent of large-scale farming requiring mass labour, tribes began merging into super-tribes and these into tribal federations. Civilization began when the first cities were built around this time to house the thousands. The word ‘civilization’ is derived from ‘city’ and to this day, the primary feature of civilization is dense urban living disconnected from nature and from the sense of an all-pervading divine presence. Most urbanites also feel that they are living amidst total strangers.
All our present-day religions sprang up with civilization, as institutions to bind the people back together as a community. The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin noun religio that means ‘bond’ and the verb religare that means to ‘bind back’. The purpose of religion as a binding force is revealed in one of the basic words that we learn from young. That word is simply the word to describe your community — the Muslim ummah, the Hindu sangam, the Sikh khalsa, the Buddhist sangha, the Christian ecclesia (translated as ‘church’). These italicized words have exactly the same meaning — a community of people who are bound together.
This is the basic connective point that touches all religions: they bring people together as communities. The next step — long delayed — is to bring all communities together. It hasn’t happened because of our alienation from Nature. If we don’t feel connected to Nature, we can’t feel connected to one another’s faith communities. Nature teaches us the most fundamental lesson of life: there are no real boundaries anywhere, as researchers in quantum-wave physics have newly discovered.