Compassion: A Shared Value and A Common Project

When scholars approach a vital human emotion and shared value like compassion, they are confronted with a range of questions. First, how do we understand compassion? How has it been analyzed and interpreted in the cognitive discourses that are associated especially with the world religions? Next, why is this value generally recommended by religious and moral traditions across the board?

The teachings of the world’s religions seem not only to demand the cultivation of a compassionate attitude but also require that the idea of compassion be put into practice in all forms of human relations. The world religions seem to be unanimously persuading us to practice compassion, and what’s more, they seem not to regard it as an option but as an obligation. I say “seem to be” because our knowledge is usually restricted to one or two world religions, while our perception of the rest is mainly drawn from scanty information, imagination and hearsay. Still, we do tend to think of compassion as a common value, perhaps because we frequently come across depictions of enlightened personalities in a variety of religious narratives who are regarded as the actual practitioners—if not the actual embodiments—of compassion. These traditions universally acclaim that such rare individuals have not only transformed their own lives but also the existences of those around them. Be these actual historical retellings, anecdotes or legends, the fact is that we recognize in these accounts something elevating and compelling. The lives and conduct of such compassionate individuals speak to us of the normative dimension of human existence.

This month, a unique delegation of scholars will be addressing questions and issues surrounding compassion and its prominence in the teachings of religions at the celebrated Parliament of World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. This team, composed of luminary scholars involved in the ongoing science and religion dialogue, represents a variety of religious traditions and scientific disciplines.1 Compassion emerged as a collaborative focus of study for these thinkers through a series of meetings from June 2008 through January 2009 that spanned the countries of Germany, Spain, Norway, and India.2 The meeting in Melbourne expands this initiative to yet a third continent. The overall aim is to learn to look to religious teachings on compassion as an untapped resource that can be put to greater use in our conflict-ridden “global village.”

Today, unquestionably no less than before, the presence of the plurality of world religions is still treated more as a divisive force than as a resource. This state of affairs urgently needs correction. However astonishing it may sound to skeptical ears, the fact is that the world religions remain the principal and primary sources from which the largest aggregates of humanity receive guidance and derive a sense of collective identity. Moreover, given the challenges of the contemporary global scenario where technology is increasingly, as it were, shrinking geographical distances and making our multi-religious situation glaringly visible, the importance of an authentic encounter of world religions can hardly be underplayed despite all ongoing talks of secularism. The expected outcome of such an encounter would be that members of any one of the given traditions would become better informed about the traditions of “others” than they presently are. Recall the statement by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (a well-known philosopher and a politician, who served as the President of India) who fittingly remarked that that “no one is so vain about his own religion as the one who knows of no other.”

Indeed, the socio-ethical norms that nourish diverse cultural soils—even while presently claiming to be secular—are noticeably derived in very large part from conceptual resources stemming from religious traditions. This is why the question of values associated with world religions is a matter that cannot be side-tracked in the public space except to our peril. If the twentieth century has been the bloodiest in the recorded history of humankind, the twenty-first shows ominous signs of worsening trends. If we are to seek earnestly for a conflict-free social sphere, a bona fide meeting of world religions is no less urgent an undertaking than any other steps that are currently being conceived. A cautious detection and an authentic appreciation of common values and norms that are embedded in religious as well as in secular moral traditions is important precisely because these have the potential of being incorporated into various socio-political agendas.

The crucial importance of carefully exploring the idea of compassion in a multi-religious context by drawing together a number of scholars representing diverse religious traditions first occurred to me in a serious way when I was asked to address the topic of compassion at the international conference on ‘The Great Religions of Asia’ in Nepal in 1999. At that meeting, I presented some of my thoughts regarding the conceptual overlaps in the philosophical formulations of the notion of compassion in the Upanisadic and the Buddhist traditions despite the metaphysical differences that are surely there. I also remarked that, “it is regrettable that an authentic encounter of world-religions has not happened in a manner that could show us clearly in what sense and with what intent a common path is taken in the sphere of value-orientation, highlighting this great idea of compassion or Karuna.”

Two years ago, I was asked by the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) to submit a proposal for a sub-theme to be presented at the Parliament of World’s Religions. I was only too eager to propose that we take up this idea of compassion in world religions in its theoretical and practical bearings. This initiative, it seems to me, has great contemporary relevance, whether viewed as an attempt to bridge the distances among thought traditions or seen as an endeavor to grasp the practical bearing that compassion has on various levels of actual human transactions.

Given that the concept of compassion is present in the discourses of a great many philosophico-religious as well as secular moral traditions, familiarity with all these modes of interpretations is informative and inspiring in many ways. The diverse and rich conceptual contents that are entailed in the notion of compassion are not only of great interest in the theoretical context but are also helpful for deepening our understanding of how the practical implications of such a common value have been delineated across the boundaries of cultures. A full recognition of such common values can be expected to have impact on policy-making in the public sphere since these are clearly the sources that provide norms for regulating and guiding actions, both on an individual and collective plane.

But skeptics may still ask: Are there really such common values? Is compassion, for example, a value that all traditions share? The answer to such a question requires not any imagination but only knowledge of other traditions. It is tempting to hope that as we gradually construe a common frame of enquiry—specifically with the intention of noting the overlaps as well as the differences in the treatment of normative principles—we will not only be able to ascertain whether there is a common value but also to notice how diversely it is construed in the varied conceptual worlds of the Indic and the Abrahamic traditions. The fact is that distortions of religious ideas, as we all know, are not difficult to come across. However, it is unfortunate that sufficient effort has not been made so far to discern what is authentically shared in the teachings and preachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as in faiths and traditions that exist besides these. There is little doubt in my mind that an effective way to play down the abuse of religious differences, which can have cruel consequences in the hands of imaginative and malevolent politicians and even preachers, is to provide the adherents of various world-religions opportunities to learn about each others’ traditions. It seems absolutely worthwhile—at least for the sake of achieving greater social harmony—to search and identify common values such as we believe compassion to be.

It is with this objective in mind that I, together with Dirk Evers (a colleague from the University of Tubingen and a seminal participant in the compassion project), will publish a volume based on the contributions made by the invited speakers at the aforementioned German and Indian meetings. The scholars in this volume discuss the theme of compassion in their own traditional and disciplinary areas. The hope is that this compendium will contribute to a clearer understanding of whether compassion is truly a common, shared value that is recommended across the board and how exactly has this norm been understood, analyzed and interpreted in various cognitive discourses that are associated with the principal world-religions. This scholarship will also aid us in gradually perceiving the implications of the idea of compassion at various levels of human transactions in the practical sphere including the sphere of applied science and technology.

It is worth reminding ourselves, at a time when all nations are striving to share a corporate scientific technology irrespective of their cultural traditions, that we can no longer ignore the need to foster an authentic exploration of common values found among and across traditions that extreme forms of cultural relativism seek to deny. We need to ask ourselves whether it is conceivable that if world-religions were standing together today, could their alliance be a major force in deterring us from such specious practices as selectively employing scientific technology for eradicating poverty or eliminating certain diseases, or for dealing with crises of food and water more effectively in certain regions than in others? We can further ask whether a properly informed compassionate science-religion program might be of assistance in de-legitimizing the institution of war that entails colossal wastage of intellectual and economic resources while also compelling us to seek other alternatives for conflict-resolution? After all, can a value-oriented scientific technology serve the cause of violence? If a cherished value, supported by all the great traditions, is not of decisive help for figuring out how to accomplish such shared projects that increase a sense of human solidarity and well-being among all, what else can do that job?

We look to the present event of the Parliament of World’s Religions for providing further inspiration and opportunity to push forward this endeavor of bringing the principal traditions together to form an ethic of compassion. Without such efforts—as some of us are making by contributing to this project in small and humble ways—our present-day multi-religious situation will undoubtedly continue to echo the remarks of Jonathan Swift who perceptively remonstrated, “We have enough religion to hate one another but not enough to love one another.”

Compassion in the World's Religions Look for Compassion in the World's Religions: Envisioning Human Solidarity, Anindita Balslev and Dirk Evers, eds. coming soon from LIT Verlag Publishers.


1 The title of the first two sessions (to be held on 6 &7 December 2009) is “Transforming Compassion in Science and Religion” and feature LeRon Shults (moderator), Solomon Katz, Michael T. H. Wong, Manuka Henare, Imam Afroz Ali, and myself. The title of another session on 9 December 2009 is “Compassion as a Common Value/Global Food Crisis as a Spiritual Challenge” and features Solomon Katz (moderator), Rev. Dirk Evers, Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Nomanul Haq, Samdhong Rinpoche, and myself.

2 Mention must be made of the contributions made by the Udo Keller Foundation, Germany. This enabled us to begin the project by organizing a meeting in Neversdorf. Moreover, this Foundation has also partially contributed toward holding the New Delhi meeting, which was mainly supported by Indian organizations.

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