There is a scene in the Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy where his character Arthur Dent says something that we would consider harmless, which turns out to be a deadly insult to another race of beings. The consequences of Arthur's unknowing insult are astonishing; a civilization is wiped out and an invasion of earth is only prevented when a cocker spaniel swallows the invasion fleet. (That's something to do with space, time, and relative sizes.)
I might have got some to of the details wrong, it might have been a Labrador that swallowed the invasion fleet, but I think you get the gist – how hard it is to translate ideas and concepts from culture to culture. It's not even always a matter of having to work translate from one language to another, although that complicates matters even more, because you can share a language but not an approach to conceptualizing with it.
Our way of thinking is shaped by the philosophies that we have been immersed in from the moment of our birth. I can reject them all I want intellectually and search for another means of defining how I live my life, but they are still the concepts my brain uses to bring definition to ideas and philosophies.
To give you an example, I've been reading the books of Ashok Banker now for the past year and a half, specifically his retelling of the classic Indian epic The Ramayana. Through out the six books of the series the central figure, Rama, is continually described as an adherent of dharma and it is his absolute devotion to that concept in the face of all obstacles that lends him his greatness and earns him the admiration of even the gods and goddesses.
Each time I think that I've come up with a way of being able to put into words what I know emotionally dharma to be, my intellect fails me. I can use words like fulfilment of duty to my heart's content and although it might tell you that there's a relationship between duty and dharma it still is off the mark. It's not that the English language is unsuitable for explaining the concept, although it would be probably less awkward if I did speak Sanskrit, it's just that I keep wanting to impose our structure of thinking on it. It's extremely difficult to throw off thousands of years of genetically imprinted thinking, and 45 years of implementing it in just over a year.
It's like peeling back multiple layers of skin from a fruit or a nut; each time that you think you have worked your way through to the kernel of truth there's another husk between you and the truth. These are subtle nuances that aren't thick enough to prevent you from seeing the ultimate goal, but they are sufficient to keep you from touching it.
For instance, I recently ventured the opinion that one could choose to fulfil or not fulfil one’s dharma. But I was gently corrected and told that dharma was either adhered to or not adhered to and choice had nothing to do with it. I think I understand the difference, but I don’t think I'm capable of putting it into words except to hazard that dharma simply exists and choice implies doing something. I can choose to do, or not do, that which helps me fulfil my dharma but I can't choose dharma.
I still don't know if even that's right, but that where my thought process has taken me to after a year and a half of reading, thinking, and talking about it with others. It's been a slow and steady progress towards understanding on something deeper then an intellectual and philosophical level and I'm still only getting occasional glimpses of the complete picture.
To me this diversity of thought is something that is to be celebrated and be in awe of. I find it amazing that the human race, with its one basic pattern, has developed such a diversity of means to express concepts and beliefs. But if we look back at the scenario put forward by Douglas Adams we can also see how this beauty can become dangerous if we allow ourselves to be wilfully ignorant of the rest of our planet's inhabitants.
Instead of having the decency to be grateful for the abundance we have been given, some of us, too many in fact for anybody's safety, believe that they represent the only right way of thinking and being. Not only do these people not make any attempt to see what beauty the person next to them has to offer, they work hard to extinguish it and replace it with there own beliefs.
You want to guarantee that someone is going to resent and hate you for generations to come? Simple, try to steal their language, culture, and belief system away from them and jam yours down their throats. One of the few occasions that I know in which this didn't happen was in Canada. No, not with the native people who lived here when the Europeans showed up, but between the English and the French.
In the mid 1700s when the British finally defeated the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec City, they knew they would need to keep them as allies in the years to come. So they guaranteed them the right to speak their language, practice their religion, and control the education of their children.
Of course they more then compensated for that one moment of compassion with their actions throughout the remainder of their empire as they blithely banned the languages and beliefs of any and everybody else whose country they expanded into. The residue of that resentment is what feeds a good chunk of the terrorist actions around the world.
Haven't you ever wondered why the men who are the authority figures of these organizations speak like they have gone to Oxford or Cambridge University? It's because they either have, or have been taught English since they started schooling. India is not one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world because it chose to be.
After so many years of getting away with our hubris of believing we could act like we want and treat people with disrespect and disdain, this approach has started to come back and bite us in the ass. We shouldn't be surprised; there is only so long that people can take being stepped on before thy chew the boot.
The only way we can even begin to stem the tide is to change the way we treat others and begin to make the effort to understand our differences and celebrate them. It doesn't mean your going to have to become a devotee of dharma but it does mean stopping believing yours is the only way. Of course it's a two way street and both sides have to prove to each other that they are willing to take the leap of faith required for this to work.
Nobody says this is going to be easy; it is far easier to try to kill someone than to get to know them. Maybe it's time we started; we need the practice.