Spiritual Pluralism:

How Universality leads to Empathy

Universality: Inward and outward connections

What is Universality?¹ At first, we may think of the universality of human rights or the universality of the laws of mathematics. But for our purposes, universality is the very embodiment of Reality, which connects and underlies every aspect of existence. It touches all, and all experience it. This ever-present connection is what theists term God or Divinity. It is nowhere and everywhere at once. Reality is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Outwardly Manifest and Inwardly Hidden (Al-Zahir, Al-Batin). It is much more than a theoretical supposition, as it’s capable of engendering empathy on the individual level and greater compassion societally. 

At the individual level, this universality starts with a degree of openness, a willingness to hear other ideas. With spiritual practice, it develops into familiarity with oneself; and a heightened eagerness to understand others. It begins by becoming aware of one’s failings and then learning to refrain from judging others for making the same mistakes. With time, this understanding blossoms into patience with others, then compassion and empathy, and finally, unconditional love. We start realizing that the “other” is not so different from oneself. Slowly but surely, we progress towards the principle of non-violence (ahimsa). When we truly see ourselves in others, how can we harm them? At its fullest, this quality can manifest quite dramatically, as in the case of great Saints and mystics. 

The Mystic’s Empathy

When the Sufi saint Abu Said observed an irate man whipping his stubborn donkey, the sage started rolling on the ground in terrible agony. As a crowd gathered and questioned him, he implored them to stop hurting the donkey. When the donkey’s owner and onlookers asked how this matter concerned him, he lifted his shirt showing the stunned crowd fresh welts and bruises from the beating. Every time the hapless donkey felt the whip, Abu Said cried out in pain, and a new injury would appear on his body! 

In a similar episode, Paramhamsa Ramakrishna, the great Indian mystic of the 19th century, asked his devotees to stop walking on the grass near his residence at the Dakshineshwar Kali temple. He said that when someone strode over the grass, he felt like they were walking on his chest, and he couldn’t breathe! There are similar stories from around the world about mystics feeling the pain of others because they have merged with all of creation. It is common to find in the prose and poetry of saints and mystics such all-encompassing references while dissociating from narrow societal conventions that constrict the heart and divide humanity.  

In Vedic literature, three aphorisms sum this up quite nicely, Aham Brahmasmi (I am That)Tat Tvam Asi (You are That), Hari Om Tat Sat (All is That). In Sufi terms, this is the journey of the traveler (salik) from multiplicity to singularity (fana) and then again into multiplicity (baqa). The Oneness of Being or Unity of Existence (Wahdat al-Wujud) is the Sufi articulation of this idea.

While such examples may seem dramatic and hyperbolic to the casual observer, they demonstrate the power of spirituality to refine a person and make us fully human. The Peace Prayer of Saint Francis beautifully expresses this ideal: 

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


From Emotional Intelligence to Social Intelligence

Interestingly, studies in psychology and neuroscience seem to corroborate this. The work of Daniel Goleman suggests that spiritual practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, are crucial to achieving a focused mind, which in turn leads to self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (i.e., the four pillars of emotional intelligence). In other words, empathy is a natural outcome of spirituality. In Lawrence Kohlberg’s model of moral development, such awareness and universal acceptance of others is the quintessential requirement of the highest stage of moral development. It is at once the pre-requisite and the fulfilment of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” For if you see yourself in others, how can it be otherwise?

When we proactively work on ourselves through various spiritual practices that encourage a universal outlook, universality slowly becomes part of and parcel of our very being. Hazrat Maulana Chaman Qadri², our teacher often emphasized this unity within diversity. For the better part of 30 years, he served as the Rajasthan State Chair for the All India Pluralism Committee started by the former President of India, Gyani Zail Singh. Babuji insisted upon this as a cornerstone of his message, a legacy he inherited from his teachers. At the individual level, it also means accepting every person as they are, where they are. At Essential Spirituality, we embrace the resulting pluralism as a cornerstone of our work and seek to unite seemingly disparate people in the unity of spiritual ideals. 


¹See the article, ‘Spirituality: What it is. Really‘ to understand the value of universality in a spiritual context.

² Learn more about him on our, ‘Inspiration’ page.

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