Sri Ramakrishna’s cryptic phrase, “As many faiths, so many paths” (Bengali, যত মত, তত পথ) is often cited to affirm that all religions are true and valid paths to reach life’s ultimate goal. The word, মত, refers not specifically to “faith” but to “way of thinking” (which a “faith” generally provides). What Sri Ramakrishna was saying in effect is that every way of thinking is a pathway to understanding or to knowledge.
This needs some qualification, of course. It is difficult to imagine every wayward and random thought leading to any sort of profound knowledge. Only the way of thinking that (1) is backed up by an authentic source (śruti), (2) does not contradict reason (yukti), and (3) can be verified by direct experience (anubhūti) becomes a pathway to knowledge.
Affirming that all religions are valid paths does not imply that every religion is a unified single path. No religion is monolithic, that is, in no religion does everyone think alike or do things in the same way. Over the course of centuries, most of the world’s religions have developed varied ways of thinking within their own traditions, hence the presence of many sects, denominations and theologies; hence also robust debates and disagreements within every religious tradition. Every world religion is better imagined as a network of crisscrossing pathways which are distinct but never stray too far from one another—and may look like a single highway from 30,000 feet high.
Although Vedanta is often spoken of in the singular, there are many different schools of thought within Vedanta, every one of which identifies itself as Vedanta. The three major divisions are nondualism (advaita), qualified nondualism (viśiṣṭādvaita), and dualism (dvaita). Every one of these has its own subdivisions. The more you dig, the more intricate and nuanced the variations become.
What set apart these pathways in Vedanta are the differences among them, sometimes very subtle, in the way they conceive of the embodied self (jīva), the transcendent reality (brahman), and the world (jagat). The world phenomenon (saṁsāra, literally, “that which is constantly changing”) can be viewed through different lenses. Each view provides new insights and new ways to understand ourselves, the purpose of life, and how to achieve it. These different lenses are, in other words, frameworks for easy understanding. Each presents a worldview, a kind of window, through which we can look out at the canvas of life.
It is possible to look at the world around and see it as a Cosmic Mystery (māyā) or as a Cosmic Person (virāṭ) or as a Cosmic Sacrifice (yajña) or as a Cosmic Union (yoga) or as a Cosmic Play (līlā)—at least five different windows through which to look out and make sense of what we see. Not all of these windows may resonate with everyone and they don’t have to. Perhaps one way of thinking may make more sense to someone than other ways of thinking about the same thing.
Whichever of these ways rings true for me (and this can be quite subjective), it ends up becoming my worldview. It makes my life meaningful and purposeful. It is helpful to recognize that a different way of thinking may be equally meaningful to someone else. The ways of thinking are many, but what is thought of is one and the same.
We are free to move from window to another, enjoying the gamut of views, but over time, we may find ourselves spending more time near one window and eventually moving our desk next to it—that window, then, becomes special for us, our personal favorite!
It is important to keep in mind that each of these windows is only a means to understanding saṁsāra and the way to get out of it. As Sri Ramakrishna said:
“God can be realized through all paths. All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof. You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope. You can also climb up by a bamboo pole.” (Gospel, 111)
Every way of reaching the roof is distinct but, no matter which way we choose, the end result is the same. In precisely the same way, each of the five “windows” that provides a way of thinking about the world is distinct, but no matter through which window we see, the end result is the same—namely, a framework that helps us understand the interrelationships between the individual, the world, and the divine reality that pervades and transcends them both. Every framework suggests practices, or the kind of “stairs,” which help us “reach the roof.”
We cannot of course reach the roof if we insist on taking one step on the stone stairs, the next on the wooden stairs, and then on bamboo steps. That won’t work. The stairs are different and distinct. Hence we cannot combine concepts associated with one window with those in another, or search for ways to “reconcile” one with the other. These efforts serve no useful purpose. They only result in confusion and frustration. We cannot simultaneously look through two windows which are far apart.
It’s not the windows that matter but the view they provide, the Truth they reveal. That Truth is one, no matter which window we look through.