| by Jagath Asoka
( February 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When I was in grade eight, our science teacher asked a simple question: Why does a piece of aluminum float when you make a very thin sheet out of it? I struggled with this question. This sparked my interest in science. I am glad that our teacher did not try to proselytize science. He just introduced science to us, and I was moved by it. He had an extraordinary gift: He could awaken our creative expression and desire for knowledge. Twenty-one years later, in 1993, I earned my Ph.D. in chemistry. Out of all the experiments that I have conducted, there is one experiment that evokes pure joy and excitement in my heart.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to send up a small balloon, so I asked my science teacher. He gave me a recipe to make hydrogen gas. I put all the ingredients in a bottle and capped it with a balloon to collect the hydrogen gas. When the balloon was filled with hydrogen, I tied up the balloon, released it, and eagerly waited for it to go up. But the balloon did not go up as I desired, so I was thoroughly disappointed; however, I kept trying. I repeated this experiment for several months, but the balloon never went up.
In my science class, I had learned that hydrogen, when mixed with oxygen, would make a “pop” sound upon ignition. So, I decided to check whether I had produced hydrogen gas. One day, I went to our kitchen, turned the gas cooker on, and squeezed my balloon, hoping to hear a “pop” sound. It exploded! I could not move, and I just stood in front of the gas cooker. Upon hearing the explosion, my mother came running to the kitchen. She asked me about the explosion, and I asked her, “What explosion? What are you talking about?” And I left the kitchen in a jiffy, and that was the end our conversation. After that explosion, I was thoroughly convinced that I knew how to produce hydrogen; my teacher’s recipe was a genuine one, yet the balloon never went up.
One day, I decided to try something new. I took a pair of scissors and cut the piece of balloon that was hanging beneath the knot. Voila! The balloon went up. I was elated. I watched the balloon, with pure enthusiasm, as it disappeared into the horizon. That was my peak experience in science, an epiphany for me.
When I was an undergraduate student at Kharkov State University in Ukraine, our curriculum put more emphasis on chemistry, which was my major. I was not introduced to Greek and Latin literature, theology, and philosophy of Plato, Confucius, Goethe, Nietzsche, and others who spoke of eternal values. When I was at Kharkov State University, I had to take an unusual class: Atheism. I was fascinated by this class because the emphasis was on the negative aspects of all religions. After taking this class I got more curious about religions; however, I had other plans. I continued learning chemistry. After earning my Ph.D. in chemistry from Kansas State University, I taught at Monmouth University in New Jersey. While I was teaching at Monmouth University, my repressed interest in religions came back with a vengeance , so I started reading the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads. As I read, I realized that the best way to understand my own religion was to read about other people’s religions. My interest in religions introduced me to mythology and psychology. In this journey, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have been my teachers. Jung’s books sparked my interest in psychology, and Campbell’s in mythology and comparative religion. Now, I do not subscribe to an established dogma or creed, but my eight-year-old son Rocco is my guru. I am not a scholar when it comes to matters of religion. I am just having a conversion with myself and want to share with my circle of friends where I feel safe to express my doubts, tell my stories, and share some of my irrational feelings.
When it comes to religion, I trust my personal experience: numinous feelings. Nietzsche, Gandhi, Campbell, and Jung are not my prophets or Gurus; their thoughts concretize what I have experienced and what I personally feel; give me a set of words to describe my feelings: All temples and gods are within us. Before I started reading about religions, my attitude toward other religions was shaped in my childhood.
I was fortunate when I was growing up in Sri Lanka. There were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in my neighborhood, and all of us lived in harmony. When I was a child, at least once a month I visited our neighborhood Buddhist temple. I still remember the feeling that I had when I entered our neighborhood Buddhist temple on a full-moon day. The Bo tree, the serene white statue of the Buddha, the magnificent snow-white stupa, the scent of burning camphor, incense, and the jasmine flowers strewn around the stupa, all these images and scents evoked an indescribable feeling rooted in my heart. I was on a different plane of consciousness. It was such a wonderful feeling. When I left the temple, I could still hold on to that wonderful feeling, at least, for a few hours. Sometimes, I went to our neighborhood Catholic church with my Christian friends and knelt down with them as they prayed. Often, I wondered about the wonderful stained glass windows and enjoyed the hymns and the biblical stories. Sometimes, I went to the mosque with my Muslim friends. I was not allowed to enter the mosque, so I stood by the gate and waited for my friends. It did not bother me that I was not allowed to go into the mosque, because I just enjoyed being with my friends. A muezzin’s call, urging devout Muslims for morning prayers, during the holy month of Ramadan, still reverberates in my memory. Of course, I have visited many Hindu temples with my father. These visits took me out of the humdrum, boring world and sparked my imagination about various religious traditions.
Only a lover of all religions can have a sanguine attitude toward theists as well as atheists. If you are a Buddhist, you do not have to believe what Christians believe. But you must accept that all Christians believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only son, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead; if you are a Christian, you do not have to believe that the Buddha was an enlightened being or in Nirvana or Karma, but you must accept that all Buddhists believe that the Buddha was an enlightened being and Nirvana and Karma are as real as Virgin Birth and resurrection; if you are a Muslim you must accept that Allah is the same biblical God, worshiped by both Christians and Jews.
We need to understand other people’s religions, especially now, because we have failed to understand the turmoil, divisions, and burning hatred in this world caused by our misguided attitude toward other people’s religions. To be a lover of all religions is not a very popular idea, but I believe what Nietzsche said, “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously.”
My love for all religions has put me on a different plane of existence that is more tranquil. The spirituality that we seek is common in all religions, and it comes from the heart of this universe and manifests as various religious traditions: the distilled wisdom of humanity. Without this wisdom, it is impossible to face what is constant to all of us: suffering. Whatever we own, love, and cherish can be taken away or lost in a moment. Whatever you think as precious can be destroyed or taken away by somebody or by some mysterious force of nature. I have experienced a few moments of total helplessness when I was separated from my loved ones, but my memories of them can never be taken away from me as long as I am alive. I have come to a realization that there is more than what I experience in my temporal relationship with others. And that is why I keep on going, because what is within me always stays with me, as long as I am alive, or perhaps, beyond my death.
Whether we like it or not we have to say yes to suffering. The story of suffering is the recurring theme—leitmotif—in many religions. The answer to suffering is unique to each religion.
When I was a young adult, I was a lover of science, and now I am also a lover of all religions: an omnireligiophile, a word that I coined. I became an omnireligiophile after reading about other people’s religions. I encourage you to do the same. If you choose to study other religions, I hope the journey is as enlightening and satisfying as mine has been.