Our religion’s inherent tolerance and grasp of truth are keys to a peaceful world

By Shreya Mahasenan

Hinduism is known by many as the world’s oldest religion, with a history that spans several millennia. The world in which central Hindu teachings and ideas first began taking form was a world far different from the one I am growing up in now, as a young, 21-year-old university student, born in the United States and living in Montreal. And yet, true to its nature as Sanatana (eternal) Dharma, Hinduism’s themes, teachings and values continue to play an ever-important, foundational role in my life, mentoring me through the many complex challenges and intricacies of modern times. Many of the themes that distinguished a dharmic life thousands of years ago remain just as relevant in the 21st century, and it is for this reason that Hinduism has stood the test of time and continues to inform, influence and inspire.

A recurrent theme in Hinduism is the significance of pursuing truth and knowledge. That pursuit refers in part to the ultimate truth: the realization of Brahman, the Absolute Reality of the universe. But to be a Hindu is also to develop a fundamental respect for the exchange of knowledge of all types, whether that be Vedic knowledge, scientific knowledge, or knowledge and mastery of the arts. My Hindu upbringing frequently instilled that respect in me.

During Saraswathi Puja, I gathered all my textbooks and learning materials and prayed for another year of education and enrichment. I learned to respect my gurus as the imparters of knowledge, finding joy in thanking those gurus with gifts of guru dakshina. I also learned to respect the role of the student who partakes in that knowledge. There was always a connection between my overall spiritual journey and the countless types of learning that I could engage in.

As I have grown up, I have only grown to appreciate the importance of pursuing knowledge and truth more. I have also come to realize that in the modern world this value bears a special weight. Thanks to the widespread use of technology around us, we are surrounded by abundant information readily available at our fingertips. However, as the amount of information instantly accessible to us has propagated, misinformation and “alternative facts” have begun to propagate just as quickly. It has become increasingly easy and even tempting to prioritize the ease and speed with which we can obtain information over the quality and truth of said information. In such a world, it is even more imperative to take pride in learning and obtaining knowledge, and to make it the goal of our learning to achieve a higher, transcendent truth. A follower of Sanatana Dharma regards vidya—correct, irrefutable knowledge—as one of the most essential goals of their life. In the chaos of twenty-first-century life, that means maintaining that commitment no matter the noise and distractions around us.

Somewhat relatedly, another key Hindu value to call upon in the modern world is the value of embracing multiple paths and ideas. We live in a world that grows seemingly more and more polarized with every passing day. In such times, I especially appreciate that Hinduism stands quite unique in its tolerance and acceptance of wide-ranging beliefs and ideas. To be a Hindu is to explore one’s own dharma and how to think, act and grow in accordance with that dharma. It is not to accept what we are told at face value, or to believe that there is only one way or path towards finding fulfillment and peace. In the immortal words of Swami Vivekananda, “I am a Hindu. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Even within the umbrella of Hinduism, there is a beautifully diverse, wide-ranging spectrum of beliefs, philosophies and schools of thought with an incredible potential for dialogue and discussion about almost any aspect of life.

Both on a community and individual level, this openness is one of the liberating ways in which we are encouraged to embark on the journey to explore and develop our spirituality. In today’s world, this aspect of Hinduism is one in which I find a great deal of refuge and solace. All around us, we hear of conflicts and issues arising from a lack of respect for different ideas and an unwillingness to engage in discussion. Often, when we observe so much vitriol and hate, it can be difficult to resist the urge to join in on the mudslinging and fight fire with fire. To do so would be contrary to Hindu values, and I habitually find myself meditating on those values to remind myself that no matter what happens around me, my duty is to prioritize acceptance and open-mindedness. It is ever-important in the world around us today that we remain mindful of the principles that should unite us all, such as compassion and global kinship, regardless of our faiths, backgrounds or unique identities. Those of us who treasure this belief as fundamental to our Hindu identities therefore have a key role to play in contemporary life as advocates of respect, discourse and goodwill.

Far from feeling that a philosophy as ancient as Sanatana Dharma bears little significance in 2022, I feel that my Hindu values have given me major guiding principles with which I can navigate a complicated world. As a member of Gen Z, I find myself at the crossroads of multiple discussions on key contemporary issues, global movements and questions of morality and duty. I know that I am not at all alone in this regard. In 2020 I cofounded the McGill Dharma Society, the official campus representation for students of Dharmic faiths. I often engage in conversations with my peers in numerous Dharmic faith communities in Canada and beyond. Our discussions form bridges of connection between people of different faiths, nationalities, races, languages and identities, and those bridges, in turn, highlight the united and harmonious nature of the universe. In a world that can at times feel turbulent, uneasy and tense, Hindu values such as truth, knowledge, open-mindedness and environmental awareness are vital to regaining the sense of peace and fulfillment attainable through a life lived in pursuit of Dharma.

First published in Hindu Vishwa, July, 2022. Edited for length.

Shreya Mahasenan is a senior at McGill University in Montreal, majoring in anatomy and cell biology and minoring in political science. She enjoys playing guitar and violin, singing, ice hockey and writing.