Addresses at the Parliament of Religions – 3
Paper on Hinduism
Swami Vivekananda’s first ever series of public lectures were the ones he delivered at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. All of these lectures, except the paper on Hinduism (this month’s reading), were extempore. As we read his words, we can feel their awesome power even today. Swamiji’s paper on Hinduism was read on September 19, 1893. It is published in the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 1: 6-20.
Three religions now stand in the world which have come down to us from time prehistoric–Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. They have all received tremendous shocks and all of them prove by their survival their internal strength. But while Judaism failed to absorb Christianity and was driven out of its place of birth by its all-conquering daughter, and a handful of Parsees is all that remains to tell the tale of their grand religion, sect after sect arose in India and seemed to shake the religion of the Vedas to its very foundations, but like the waters of the seashore in a tremendous earthquake it receded only for a while, only to return in an all-absorbing flood, a thousand times more vigorous, and when the tumult of the rush was over, these sects were all sucked in, absorbed, and assimilated into the immense body of the mother faith.
From the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy, of which the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes, to the low ideas of idolatry with its multifarious mythology, the agnosticism of the Buddhists, and the atheism of the Jains, each and all have a place in the Hindu’s religion. Where then, the question arises, where is the common center to which all these widely diverging radii converge? Where is the common basis upon which all these seemingly hopeless contradictions rest? And this is the question I shall attempt to answer.
[The subsequent part of the paper takes up aspects of what Swamiji calls “the common basis” of Hinduism and describes them briefly. The topics covered include: the Vedas, creation, the true “Self”, karma and reincarnation, image worship, the cause of bondage, the way to freedom, the unity of all existence, the harmony of religions, and the ideal of a universal religion.–ed.]
The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. It may sound ludicrous to this audience, how a book can be without beginning or end. But by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery, and would exist if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual world. The moral, ethical, and spiritual relations between soul and soul and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits, were there before their discovery, and would remain even if we forgot them.
The Hindu Concept of “Creation”
The discoverers of these laws are called Rishis, and we honor them as perfected beings. I am glad to tell this audience that some of the very greatest of them were women. Here it may be said that these laws as laws may be without end, but they must have had a beginning. The Vedas teach us that creation is without beginning or end. Science is said to have proved that the sum total of cosmic energy is always the same. Then, if there was a time when nothing existed, where was all this manifested energy? Some say it was in a potential form in God. In that case God is sometimes potential and sometimes kinetic, which would make Him mutable. Everything mutable is a compound, and everything compound must undergo that change which is called destruction. So God would die, which is absurd. Therefore there never was a time when there was no creation.
If I may be allowed to use a simile, creation and creator are two lines, without beginning and without end, running parallel to each other. God is the ever active providence, by whose power systems after systems are being evolved out of chaos, made to run for a time and again destroyed. This is what the Brahmin boy repeats every day: “The sun and the moon, the Lord created like the suns and moons of previous cycles.” (1)And this agrees with modern science.
Atman, or the True “Self”
Here I stand and if I shut my eyes, and try to conceive my existence, “I”, “I”, “I”, what is the idea before me? The idea of a body. Am I, then, nothing but a combination of material substances? The Vedas declare, “No”. I am a spirit living in a body. I am not the body. The body will die, but I shall not die. Here am I in this body; it will fall, but I shall go on living. I had also a past. The soul was not created, for creation means a combination, which means a certain future dissolution. If then the soul was created, it must die.
Karma and Reincarnation
Some are born happy, enjoy perfect health, with beautiful body, mental vigor and all wants supplied. Others are born miserable, some are without hands or feet, others again are idiots and only drag on a wretched existence. If they are all created, why does a just and merciful God create one happy and another unhappy, why is He so partial? Nor would it mend matters in the least to hold that those who are miserable in this life will be happy in a future one. Why should a person be miserable even here in the reign of a just and merciful God?
In the second place, the idea of a creator God does not explain the anomaly, but simply expresses the cruel fiat of an all-powerful being. There must have been causes, then, before our birth, to make us miserable or happy and those were our past actions.
Are not all the tendencies of the mind and the body accounted for by inherited aptitude? Here are two parallel lines of existence–one of the mind [“subtle” matter], the other of [gross] matter. If [gross] matter and its transformations answer for all that we have, there is no necessity for supposing the existence of a [mind and a] soul. But it cannot be proved that thought has evolved out of matter, and if a philosophical monism is inevitable, spiritual monism is certainly logical and no less desirable than a materialistic monism; but neither of these is necessary here.
We cannot deny that bodies acquire certain tendencies from heredity, but those tendencies only mean the physical configuration through which a peculiar mind alone can act in a peculiar way. There are other tendencies peculiar to a mind caused by the person’s past actions. And a soul with a certain mental tendency would by the laws of affinity take birth in a body which is the fittest instrument for the display of that tendency. This is in accord with science, for science wants to explain everything by habit, and habit is got through repetitions. So repetitions are necessary to explain the natural habits of a new-born soul. And since they were not obtained in this present life, they must have come down from past lives.
There is another suggestion. Taking all these for granted, how is it that I do not remember anything of my past life? This can be easily explained. I am now speaking English. It is not my mother tongue, in fact no words of my mother tongue are now present in my consciousness; but let me try to bring them up, and they rush in. That shows that consciousness is only the surface of the mental ocean, and within its depths are stored up all our experiences. Try and struggle, they would come up and you would be conscious even of your past life.
This is direct and demonstrative evidence. Verification is the perfect proof of a theory, and here is the challenge thrown to the world by the Rishis. We have discovered the secret by which the very depths of the ocean of memory can be stirred up–try it and you would get a complete reminiscence of your past life.
Ignorance, the Prime Cause of Bondage
So then the Hindus believe that every person is a spirit. The sword cannot pierce the spirit, the fire cannot burn it, the water cannot melt it, and the air cannot dry it. [Gita 2.23](2) The Hindus believe that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose center is located in the body, and that death means the change of this center from body to body. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter. In its very essence it is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow or other it finds itself tied down to matter, and thinks of itself as matter.
Why should the free, perfect, and pure being be thus under the thralldom of matter, is the next question. How can the perfect soul be deluded into the belief that it is imperfect? We have been told that the Hindus shirk the question and say that no such question can be there. Some thinkers want to answer it by positing one or more quasi-perfect beings, and use big scientific names to fill up the gap. But naming is not explaining. The question remains the same. How can the perfect become the quasi-perfect; how can the pure, the absolute, change even a microscopic particle of its nature? But the Hindus are sincere. They do not want to take shelter under sophistry. They are brave enough to face the question in a manly fashion; and their answer is: “I do not know. I do not know how the perfect being, the soul, came to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to and conditioned by matter.” But the fact is a fact for all that. It is a fact in everybody’s consciousness that one thinks of oneself as the body. The Hindus do not attempt to explain why one thinks one is the body. The answer that it is the will of God is no explanation. This is nothing more than what the Hindus say, “I do not know.”(3)
Well, then, the human soul is eternal and immortal, perfect and infinite, and death means only a change of center from one body to another. The present is determined by our past actions, and the future by the present. The soul will [apparently] go on evolving up or reverting back from birth to birth and death to death.
But here is another question: Is a human being a tiny boat in a tempest, raised one moment on the foamy crest of a billow and dashed down into a yawning chasm the next, rolling to and fro at the mercy of good and bad actions–a powerless, helpless wreck in an ever-raging, ever-rushing, uncompromising current of cause and effect; a little moth placed under the wheel of causation which rolls on crushing everything in its way and waits not for the widow’s tears or the orphan’s cry? The heart sinks at the idea, yet this is the law of Nature.
The Way to Freedom
Is there no hope? Is there no escape?–was the cry that went up from the bottom of the heart of despair. It reached the throne of mercy, and words of hope and consolation came down and inspired a Vedic sage, and he stood up before the world and in trumpet voice proclaimed the glad tidings: “Hear, ye children of immortal bliss!–even ye that reside in higher spheres![Svetasvatara Upanishad, 2.5] (4) I have found the Ancient One who is beyond all darkness, all delusion: knowing Him alone you shall be saved from death over again.” [Svetasvatara Upanishad, 3.8](5)
“Children of immortal bliss” –what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name–heirs of immortal bliss–yea, the Hindus refuse to call you sinners. Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth–sinners! It is a sin to call anyone so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.
Thus it is that the Vedas proclaim not a dreadful combination of unforgiving laws, not an endless prison of cause and effect, but that at the head of all these laws, in and through every particle of matter and force, stands One “by whose command the wind blows, the fire burns, the clouds rain, and death stalks upon the earth.” [Taittiriya Upanishad, 8.1](6)
And what is His nature? He is everywhere, the pure and formless One, the Almighty and the All-merciful. “Thou art our father, Thou art our mother, Thou art our beloved friend, Thou art the source of all strength; give us strength. Thou art He that beareth the burdens of the universe; help me bear the little burden of this life.” Thus sang the Rishis of the Vedas. And how to worship Him? Through love. “He is to be worshipped as the one beloved, dearer than everything in this and the next life.”
This is the doctrine of love declared in the Vedas. Let us see how it is fully developed and taught by Krishna, whom the Hindus believe to have been God incarnate on earth. He taught that we ought to live in this world like a lotus leaf, which grows in water but is never moistened by water [Cp. Gita 5.10]; so we ought to live in the world–our heart to God and our hands to work. It is good to love God for hope of reward in this or the next world, but it is better to love God for love’s sake, and the prayer goes: “Lord, I do not want wealth, nor children, nor learning. If it be Thy will, I shall go from birth to birth, but grant me this, that I may love Thee without the hope of reward–love unselfishly for love’s sake.”
One of the disciples of Krishna, the then Emperor of India, was driven from his kingdom by his enemies and had to take shelter with his queen in a forest in the Himalayas, and there one day the queen asked him how it was that he, the most virtuous of men, should suffer so much misery. Yudhishthira answered, “Behold, my queen, the Himalayas, how grand and beautiful they are; I love them. They do not give me anything, but my nature is to love the grand, the beautiful, therefore I love them. Similarly, I love the Lord. He is the source of all beauty, of all sublimity. He is the only object to be loved; my nature is to love Him, and therefore I love. I do not pray for anything; I do not ask for anything. Let Him place me wherever He likes. I must love Him for love’s sake. I cannot trade in love.”
The Vedas teach that the soul is divine, only held in the bondage of matter; perfection will be reached when this bond will burst, and the word they use for it is therefore, mukti–freedom, freedom from the bonds of imperfection, freedom from death and misery. And this bondage can only fall off through the mercy of God, and this mercy comes on the pure. So purity is the condition of His mercy.
How does that mercy act? God reveals Himself to the pure heart. The pure and the stainless see God, yea, even in this life; then and then only all the crookedness of the heart is made straight. Then all doubt ceases. [Cp. Mundaka Upanishad, 2.2.8](7) We are no more the freaks of a terrible law of causation. This is the very center, the very vital conception of Hinduism. The Hindus do not want to live upon words and theories. If there are existences beyond the ordinary sensuous existence, they want to come face to face with them. If there is a soul which is not matter, if there is an all-merciful universal Soul, the Hindus will go to Him direct. They must see Him and that alone can destroy all doubts. So the best proof a Hindu sage gives about the soul, about God, is: “I have seen the soul; I have seen God.” And that is the only condition of perfection. The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing–not in believing, but in being and becoming.
Thus the whole object of the Hindu system is by constant struggle to become perfect, to become divine, to reach God and see God. This reaching God, seeing God, becoming perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect, constitutes the religion of the Hindus. And what becomes of those who attain perfection? They live a life of bliss infinite. They enjoy infinite and perfect bliss, having obtained the only thing in which we ought to have pleasure, namely God, and enjoy the bliss with God.
Nonduality, or the Unity of All Existence
So far all the Hindus are agreed. This is the common religion of all the sects of India; but, then, perfection is absolute, and the absolute cannot be two or three. It cannot have any qualities. It cannot be an individual. And so when a soul becomes perfect and absolute, it must become one with Brahman, and it would only realize the Lord as the perfection, the reality, of its own nature and existence, the existence absolute, knowledge absolute, and bliss absolute. We have often and often read this called the losing of individuality and becoming a stock or a stone.
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”
I tell you it is nothing of the kind. If it is happiness to enjoy the consciousness of this small body, it must be greater happiness to enjoy the consciousness of two bodies, the measure of happiness increasing with the consciousness of an increasing number of bodies, the aim, the ultimate of happiness being reached when it would become a universal consciousness.
Therefore, to gain this infinite universal individuality, this miserable little prison-individuality must go. Then alone can death cease when I am one with life, then alone can misery cease when I am one with happiness itself, then alone can all errors cease when I am one with knowledge itself; and this is the necessary scientific conclusion. Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter; and Advaita, or nonduality, is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, soul.
Science is nothing but the finding of unity. As soon as science will reach perfect unity, it will stop from further progress because it will have reached the goal. Thus Chemistry will not progress farther when it will discover one element out of which all others can be made. Physics will stop when it will be able to fulfill its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are but manifestations. The science of religion became perfect when it discovered the Being who is the one life in a universe of death, the one who is the constant basis of an ever-changing world, the one who is the only Soul of which all souls are but delusive manifestations. Thus is it, through multiplicity and duality that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no farther. This is the goal of all science.
All science is bound to come to this conclusion in the long run. Manifestation, and not creation, is the word of science today, and the Hindus are only glad that what they have been cherishing in their bosom for ages is going to be taught in more forcible language, and with further light from the latest conclusions of science.
Descend we now from the aspirations of philosophy to the religion of the ignorant. At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshippers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism, nor would the name henotheism explain the situation. “The rose called by any other name would smell as sweet.” Names are not explanations.
I remember, as a boy, hearing a Christian missionary preach to a crowd in India. Among other sweet things he was telling them was that if he gave a blow to their idol with his stick, what could it do? One of his hearers sharply answered, “If I abuse your God, what can He do?” “You will be punished,” said the preacher, “when you die.” “So my idol will punish you when you die,” retorted the Hindu.
The tree is known by its fruits. When I have seen amongst them that are called idolaters, people the like of whom in morality and spirituality and love I have never seen anywhere, I stop and ask myself, “Can sin beget holiness?”
Superstition is our great enemy but bigotry is worse. Why does a Christian go to church? Why is the cross holy? Why is the face turned toward the sky in prayer? Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray? My brethren, we can no more think about anything without a mental image than we can live without breathing. By the law of association, the material image calls up the mental idea and vice versa. This is why the Hindus use an external symbol when they worship. They will tell you that it helps to keep their minds fixed on the Being to whom they pray. They know as well as you do that the image is not God, is not omnipresent. After all, how much does omnipresence mean to almost the whole world? It stands merely as a word, a symbol. Has God superficial area? If not, when we repeat that word “omnipresent”, we think of the extended sky or of space, that is all.
As we find that somehow or other, by the laws of our mental constitution, we have to associate our ideas of infinity with the image of the blue sky, or of the sea, so we naturally connect our idea of holiness with the image of a church, a mosque, or a cross. The Hindus have associated the idea of holiness, purity, truth, omnipresence, and such other ideas with different images and forms. But with this difference that while some people devote their whole lives to their idol of a church and never rise higher, because with them religion means an intellectual assent to certain doctrines and doing good to their fellows, the whole religion of the Hindus is centered in realization. We are to become divine by realizing the divine. Idols or temples or churches or books are only the supports, the helps, of our spiritual childhood: but on and on we must progress.
We must not stop anywhere. “External worship, material worship,” say the scriptures, “is the lowest stage; struggling to rise high, mental prayer is the next stage, but the highest stage is when the Lord has been realized.” [Cp. Mahanirvana Tantra,14.122](8) Mark, the same earnest people who are kneeling before the idol tell you, “Him the sun cannot express, nor the moon, nor the stars, the lightning cannot express Him, nor what we speak of as fire; through Him they shine.” (Mundaka Upanishad,2.2.10)(9) But they do not abuse anyone’s idol or call its worship sin. They recognize in it a necessary stage of life. “The child is father of the man.” Would it be right for an old man to say that childhood is a sin or youth a sin?
If we can realize our divine nature with the help of an image, would it be right to call that a sin? Nor even when we have passed that stage, should we call it an error. To the Hindus, human beings are not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To the Hindus all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the Infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress; and every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength, till it reaches the Glorious Sun.
Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindus have recognized it. Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas and tries to force society to adopt them. It places before society only one coat that must fit Jack and John and Henry, all alike. If it does not fit John or Henry, he must go without a coat to cover his body. The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realized, or thought of, or stated, through the relative, and the images, crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols–so many pegs to hang the spiritual ideas on. It is not that this help is necessary for everyone, but those that do not need it have no right to say that it is wrong. Nor is it compulsory in Hinduism.
One thing I must tell you. Idolatry in India does not mean anything horrible. It is not the mother of harlots. On the other hand, it is the attempt of undeveloped minds to grasp high spiritual truths. The Hindus have their faults, they sometimes have their exceptions; but mark this, they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbors. If the Hindu fanatics burn themselves on the pyre, they never light the fire of Inquisition. And even this cannot be laid at the door of their religion any more than the burning of witches can be laid at the door of Christianity.
Harmony of Religions
To the Hindus, then, the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material person, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, say the Hindus. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.
It is the same light coming through glasses of different colors. And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns. The Lord has declared to the Hindus in His incarnation as Krishna, “I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there.” [Cp. Gita 7.7, 10.41](10) And what has been the result? I challenge the world to find, throughout the whole system of Sanskrit philosophy, any such expression as that the Hindus alone will be saved and not others. Says Vyasa, “We find perfect men even beyond the pale of our caste and creed.”
One thing more. How, then, can the Hindus, whose whole fabric of thought centers in God, believe in Buddhism which is agnostic, or in Jainism which is atheistic? The Buddhists or the Jains do not depend upon God; but the whole force of their religion is directed to the great central truth in every religion, to evolve a God out of a human being. They have not seen the Father, but they have seen the Son. And he that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father also.
The Ideal of a Universal Religion
This, then, is a short sketch of the religious ideas of the Hindus. The Hindus may have failed to carry out all their plans, but if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Islamic, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being, from the lowest groveling savage not far removed from the brute, to the highest beings towering by the virtues of their heads and hearts almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of them and doubt their human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be created in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.
Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you. Ashoka’s council was a council of the Buddhist faith. Akbar’s, though more to the purpose, was only a parlor meeting. It was reserved for America to proclaim to all quarters of the globe that the Lord is in every religion.
May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura-Mazda of the Zoroastrians, the Buddha of the Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heaven of the Christians, give strength to you to carry out your noble idea! The star arose in the East; it traveled steadily towards the West, sometimes dimmed and sometimes effulgent, till it made a circuit of the world; and now it is again rising on the very horizon of the East, the borders of the Sanpo, a thousandfold more effulgent than it ever was before.
Hail, Columbia, motherland of liberty! It has been given to thee, who never dipped her hand in her neighbor’s blood, who never found out that the shortest way of becoming rich was by robbing one’s neighbors, it has been given to thee to march at the vanguard of civilization with the flag of harmony.
Our Real Nature
This lecture on Jnana Yoga was delivered by Swami Vivekananda in London on June 21, 1896, and is reproduced here from his Complete Works, 2: 70-87.
The Search for Reality and Happiness
Great is the tenacity with which people cling to the senses. Yet, however substantial they may think the external world in which they live and move, there comes a time in the lives of individuals and of races when, involuntarily, they ask, “Is this real?” To those who never find a moment to question the credentials of their senses, whose every moment is occupied with some sort of sense-enjoyment–even to them death comes, and they also are compelled to ask, “Is this real?” Religion begins with this question and ends with its answer. Even in the remote past, where recorded history cannot help us, in the mysterious light of mythology, back in the dim twilight of civilization, we find the same question was asked, “What becomes of this? What is real?”
One of the most poetical of the Upanishads, the Katha Upanishad, begins with the inquiry: “When someone dies, there is a dispute. One party declares that the person has gone for ever, the other insists that he or she is still living. Which is true?” Various answers have been given. The whole sphere of metaphysics, philosophy, and religion is really filled with various answers to this question. At the same time, attempts have been made to suppress it, to put a stop to the unrest of mind that asks, “What is beyond? What is real?” But so long as death remains, all these attempts at suppression will always prove to be unsuccessful. We may talk about seeing nothing beyond and keeping all our hopes and aspirations confined to the present moment, and struggle hard not to think of anything beyond the world of senses; and, perhaps, everything outside helps to keep us limited within its narrow bounds. The whole world may combine to prevent us from broadening out beyond the present. Yet, so long as there is death, the question must come again and again, “Is death the end of all these things to which we are clinging, as if they were the most real of all realities, the most substantial of all substances?” The world vanishes in a moment and is gone. Standing on the brink of a precipice beyond which is the infinite yawning chasm, every mind, however hardened, is bound to recoil and ask, “Is this real?” The hopes of a lifetime, built up little by little with all the energies of a great mind, vanish in a second. Are they real? This question must be answered. Time never lessens its power; on the other hand, it adds strength to it.
Then there is the desire to be happy. We run after everything to make ourselves happy; we pursue our mad career in the external world of senses. If you ask the young man with whom life is successful, he will declare that it is real; and he really thinks so. Perhaps, when the same man grows old and finds fortune ever eluding him, he will then declare that it is fate. He finds at last that his desires cannot be fulfilled. Wherever he goes, there is an adamantine wall beyond which he cannot pass. Every sense-activity results in a reaction. Everything is evanescent. Enjoyment, misery, luxury, wealth, power, and poverty, even life itself, are all evanescent.
Two Options: (1) Nihilism or (2) Seeking the Real
Two positions are possible. One is to believe with the nihilists that all is nothing, that we know nothing, that we can never know anything either about the future, the past, or even the present. For we must remember that one who denies the past and the future and wants to stick to the present is simply mad. One may as well deny the father and mother and assert the child. It would be equally logical. To deny the past and future, the present must inevitably be denied also. This is one position, that of the nihilists. I have never seen a person who could really become a nihilist for one minute. It is very easy to talk.
Then there is the other position–to seek for an explanation, to seek for the real, to discover in the midst of this eternally changing and evanescent world whatever is real. In this body, which is an aggregate of molecules of matter, is there anything real? This has been the search throughout the history of the human mind. In the very oldest times, we often find glimpses of light coming into the minds of people. We find men and women, even then, going a step beyond this body, finding something which is not this external body, although very much like it, much more complete, much more perfect, and which remains even when this body is dissolved. We read in the hymns of the Rig-Veda, addressed to the God of Fire who is burning a dead body, “Carry him, O Fire, in your arms gently, give him a perfect body, a bright body, carry him where the fathers live, where there is no more sorrow, where there is no more death.”
The Concept of “The Fall”
The same idea you will find present in every religion. And we get another idea with it. It is a significant fact that all religions, without one exception, hold that we humans are a degeneration of what we once were, whether they clothe this in mythological words, or in the clear language of philosophy, or in the beautiful expressions of poetry. This is the one fact that comes out of every scripture and of every mythology that we as we are now are a degeneration of what we were. This is the kernel of truth within the story of Adam’s fall in the Jewish scripture. This is again and again repeated in the scriptures of the Hindus; the dream of a period which they call the Age of Truth (satya-yuga), when no one died unless they wished to die, when they could keep their bodies as long as they liked, and their minds were pure and strong. There was no evil and no misery; and the present age is a corruption of that state of perfection.
Side by side with this, we find the story of the deluge everywhere. That story itself is a proof that this present age is held to be a corruption of a former age by every religion. It went on becoming more and more corrupt until the deluge swept away a large portion of humanity, and again the ascending series began. It is going up slowly again to reach once more the early state of purity. You are all aware of the story of the deluge in the Old Testament. The same story was current among the ancient Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Hindus. Manu, a great ancient sage, was praying on the bank of the Ganga, when a little minnow came to him for protection, and he put it into a pot of water he had before him. “What do you want?” asked Manu. The little minnow declared he was pursued by a bigger fish and wanted protection. Manu carried the little fish to his home, and in the morning he had become as big as the pot and said, “I cannot live in this pot any longer.” Manu put him in a tank, and the next day he was as big as the tank and declared he could not live there any more. So Manu had to take him to a river, and in the morning the fish filled the river. Then Manu put him in the ocean, and he declared, “Manu, I am the Creator of the universe. I have taken this form to come and warn you that I will deluge the world. You build an ark and in it put a pair of every kind of animal, and let your family enter the ark, and there will project out of the water my horn. Fasten the ark to it; and when the deluge subsides, come out and people the earth.” So the world was deluged, and Manu saved his own family and two of every kind of animal and seeds of every plant. When the deluge subsided, he came and peopled the world; and we are called “man”, because we are the progeny of Manu.
Scientific Superstition vs. Religious Superstition
Now, human language is the attempt to express the truth that is within. I am fully persuaded that a baby whose language consists of unintelligible sounds is attempting to express the highest philosophy, it is just that the baby has neither the organs to express it nor the means. The difference between the language of the highest philosophers and the utterances of babies is one of degree and not of kind. What you call the most correct, systematic, mathematical language of the present time, and the hazy, mystical, mythological languages of the ancients, differ only in degree. All of them have a grand idea behind, which is, as it were, struggling to express itself; and often behind these ancient mythologies are nuggets of truth; and often, I am sorry to say, behind the fine, polished phrases of the moderns is arrant trash. So, we need not throw a thing overboard because it is clothed in mythology, because it does not fit in with the notions of Mr. So-and-so and Mrs. So-and-so of modern times. If people should laugh at religion because most religions declare that we must believe in mythologies taught by such and such a prophet, they ought to laugh more at these moderns. In modern times, if people quote a Moses or a Buddha or a Christ, they are laughed at; but let them give the name of a Huxley, a Tyndall, or a Darwin, and it is swallowed without salt. “Huxley has said it,” and that is enough for many. We are free from superstitions indeed! That was a religious superstition, and this is a scientific superstition; only, in and through that superstition came life-giving ideas of spirituality; in and through this modern superstition come lust and greed. That superstition was worship of God, and this superstition is worship of filthy lucre, of fame and power. That is the difference.
The Theory of Cycles
To return to mythology. Behind all these stories we find one idea standing supreme–that we are a degeneration of what we were. Coming to the present times, modern research seems to repudiate this position absolutely. Evolutionists seem to contradict entirely this assertion. According to them, we humans have evolved from the mollusc; and, therefore, what mythology states cannot be true. There is in India, however, a mythology that is able to reconcile both these positions. The Indian mythology has a theory of cycles, which states that all progression is in the form of waves. Every wave is attended by a fall, and that by a rise the next moment, followed by a fall in the next, and again another rise. The motion is in cycles. Certainly it is true, even on the grounds of modern research, that human beings cannot be simply an evolution. Every evolution presupposes an involution. The modern scientist will tell you that you can only get as much amount of energy out of a machine as you have previously put into it. Something cannot be produced out of nothing. If we are an evolution of the mollusc, then the perfect amongst us–the Buddha, the Christ–was involved in the mollusc. If it is not so, whence come these gigantic personalities? Something cannot come out of nothing. Thus we are in the position of reconciling the scriptures with modern light. The energy that manifests itself slowly through various stages until it becomes the perfect person, cannot come out of nothing. It existed somewhere; and if the mollusc or the protoplasm is the first point to which you can trace it, that protoplasm, somehow or other, must have contained the energy.
Force and Matter
There is a great discussion going on as to whether the aggregate of materials we call the body is the cause of manifestation of the force we call the soul, thought, etc., or whether it is the thought that manifests this body. The religions of the world of course hold that the force called thought manifests the body, and not the reverse. There are schools of modern thought which hold that what we call thought is simply the outcome of the adjustment of the parts of the machine which we call body. Taking the second position that the soul or the mass of thought, or however you may call it, is the outcome of this machine, the outcome of the chemical and physical combinations of matter making up the body and brain, leaves the question unanswered.
What makes the body? What force combines the molecules into the body form? What force takes up material from the mass of matter around and forms my body one way, another body another way, and so on? What makes these infinite distinctions? To say that the force called soul is the outcome of the combinations of the molecules of the body is putting the cart before the horse. How did the combinations come; where was the force to make them? If you say that some other force was the cause of these combinations, and soul was the outcome of that matter, and that soul–which combined a certain mass of matter–was itself the result of the combinations, it is no answer. That theory ought to be taken which explains most of the facts, if not all, and that without contradicting other existing theories. It is more logical to say that the force that takes up the matter and forms the body is the same that manifests through that body. To say, therefore, that the thought forces manifested by the body are the outcome of the arrangement of molecules and have no independent existence has no meaning; neither can force evolve out of matter. Rather it is impossible to demonstrate that what we call matter does not exist at all. It is only a certain state of force. Solidity, hardness, or any other state of matter can be proved to be the result of motion. Increase of vortex motion imparted to fluids gives them the force of solids. A mass of air in vortex motion, as in a tornado, becomes solid-like and by its impact breaks or cuts through solids. A thread of a spider’s web, if it could be moved at almost infinite velocity, would be as strong as an iron chain and would cut through an oak tree. Looking at it in this way, it would be easier to prove that what we call matter does not exist. But the other way cannot be proved.
What is the force that manifests itself through the body? It is obvious to all of us, whatever that force be, that it is taking particles up, as it were, and manipulating forms out of them–the human body. None else comes here to manipulate bodies for you and me. I never saw anybody eat food for me. I have to assimilate it, manufacture blood and bones and everything out of that food. What is this mysterious force? Ideas about the future and about the past seem to be terrifying to many. To many they seem to be mere speculation.
Our Real Nature
The Atman and Its Nature
We will take the present theme. What is this force which is now working through us? We know how in old times, in all the ancient scriptures, this power, this manifestation of power, was thought to be a bright substance having the form of this body, and which remained even after this body fell. Later on, however, we find a higher idea coming–that this bright body did not represent the force. Whatsoever has form must be the result of combinations of particles and requires something else behind it to move it. If this body requires something that is not the body to manipulate it, the bright body, by the same necessity, will also require something other than itself to manipulate it. So, that something was called the soul, the Atman in Sanskrit. It was the Atman that through the bright body, as it were, worked on the gross body outside. The bright body is considered as the receptacle of the mind, and the Atman is beyond that. The Atman is not the mind; it works the mind, and through the mind the body. You have an Atman, I have another, each one of us has a separate Atman and a separate fine body, and through that we work on the gross external body.
Questions were then asked about this Atman, about its nature. What is this Atman, which is neither the body nor the mind? Great discussions followed. Speculations were made, various shades of philosophic inquiry came into existence; and I shall try to place before you some of the conclusions that have been reached about this Atman.
The different philosophies seem to agree that this Atman, whatever it be, has neither form nor shape, and that which has neither form nor shape must be omnipresent. Time begins with mind, space also is in the mind. Causation cannot stand without time. Without the idea of succession there cannot be any idea of causation. Time, space and causation, therefore, are in the mind, and as this Atman is beyond the mind and formless, it must be beyond time, beyond space, and beyond causation. Now, if it is beyond time, space, and causation, it must be infinite. Then comes the highest speculation in our philosophy. The infinite cannot be two. If the Atman be infinite, there can be only one Atman, and all ideas of various souls–you having one soul, and I having another and so forth–are not real.
The Real Person, therefore, is one and infinite, the omnipresent Spirit. And the “apparent person” is only a limitation of that Real Person. In that sense the mythologies are true that the apparent person, however great he or she may be, is only a dim reflection of the Real Person who is beyond. The Real Person, the Atman–being beyond cause and effect, and not bound by time and space–must therefore be free. The Real Person was never bound, and could not be bound. The apparent person, the reflection, is limited by time, space, and causation, and is therefore bound. Or in the language of some of our philosophers, the person appears to be bound, but really is not. This is the reality within, this omnipresence, this spiritual nature, this infinity.
Every Atman is infinite, therefore there is no question of birth and death. Some children were being examined. The teacher put them rather hard questions, and among them was this one: “Why does not the earth fall?” He wanted to evoke answers about gravitation. Most of the children could not answer at all; a few answered that it was gravitation or something. One bright little girl answered it by putting another question: “Where should it fall?” The question is nonsense. Where should the earth fall? There is no falling or rising for the earth. In infinite space there is no up or down; that is only in the relative. Where is the going or coming for the infinite? Whence should it come and whither should it go?
Thus, when people cease to think of the past or future, when they give up the idea of body–because the body comes and goes and is limited–then they have risen to a higher ideal. The body is not the Real Person, neither is the mind, for the mind waxes and wanes. It is only the Atman beyond, which can live for ever. The body and mind are continually changing, and are in fact only names of series of changeful phenomena, like rivers whose waters are in a constant state of flux, yet presenting the appearance of unbroken streams. Every particle in this body is continually changing; no one has the same body for many minutes together, and yet we think of it as the same body. So with the mind: one moment it is happy, another moment unhappy; one moment strong, another weak; an ever-changing whirlpool. The mind cannot be the Atman, which is infinite. Change can only be in the limited. To say that the infinite changes in any way is absurd; it cannot be. You and I, as limited bodies, can move; every particle in this universe is in a constant state of flux, but taking the universe as a unit, as one whole, it cannot move, it cannot change. Motion is always a relative thing. I move in relation to something else. Any particle in this universe can change in relation to any other particle; but take the whole universe as one, and in relation to what can it move? There is nothing besides it. So this infinite unit is unchangeable, immovable, absolute, and this is the Real Person. Our reality, therefore, consists in the universal and not in the limited. These are old delusions, however comfortable they are, to think that we are little limited beings, constantly changing. People are frightened when they are told that they are the Universal Being, everywhere present. Through everything you work, through every foot you move, through every lip you talk, through every heart you feel.
People are frightened when they are told this. They will again and again ask you if they are not going to keep their individuality. What is “individuality”? I should like to see it. A baby boy has no moustache; when he grows to be a man, perhaps he has a moustache and beard. His individuality would be lost if it were in the body. If I lose one eye, or if I lose one of my hands, my individuality would be lost if it were in the body. A drunkard should not give up drinking because he would lose his individuality. A thief should not be a good man because he would thereby lose his individuality. No one ought to change their habits for fear of this. The truth is that there is no individuality except in the Infinite. That is the only condition that does not change. Everything else is in a constant state of flux. Neither can individuality be in memory. Suppose, on account of a blow on the head I forget all about my past; then, I have lost all individuality; I am gone. I do not remember two or three years of my childhood, and if memory and existence are one, then whatever I forget is gone. That part of my life which I do not remember, I did not live. That is a very narrow idea of individuality.
We are not individuals yet. We are struggling towards individuality, and that is the Infinite, that is our real nature. Only the person whose life is in the whole universe really “lives.” The more we concentrate our lives on limited things, the faster we go towards death. Those moments alone we live when our lives are in the universe, in others; and living this little life is death, simply death, and that is why the fear of death comes. The fear of death can only be conquered when we realize that so long as there is one life in this universe, we are living. When I can say, “I am in everything, in everybody, I am in all lives, I am the universe,” then alone comes the state of fearlessness. To talk of immortality in constantly changing things is absurd. Says an old Sanskrit philosopher: It is only the Spirit that is the individual, because it is infinite. Infinity cannot be divided; infinity cannot be broken into pieces. It is the same one, undivided unit for ever, and this is the real individual, the Real Person. The apparent person is merely a struggle to express, or to manifest, this individuality that is beyond; and evolution is not in the Spirit. These changes that are going on–the wicked becoming good, the animal becoming human, take them in whatever way you like–are not in the Atman. They are the evolution of nature and manifestation of Atman.
Suppose there is a screen hiding you from me, in which there is a small hole through which I can see some of the faces before me, just a few faces. Now suppose the hole begins to grow larger and larger, and as it does so, more and more of the scene before me reveals itself and when at last the whole screen has disappeared, I stand face to face with you all. You did not change at all in this case; it was the hole that was evolving, and you were gradually manifesting yourselves. So it is with the Atman. No perfection is going to be attained. You are already free and perfect.
What are these ideas of religion and God and searching for the hereafter? Why do we look for a God? Why do we, in every nation, in every state of society, want a perfect ideal somewhere, either in human beings, or in God, or elsewhere? Because that idea is within us. It was our own heart beating and we did not know; we were mistaking it for something external. It is the God within our own self that is propelling us to seek for Him and to realize Him. After long searches here and there, in temples and in churches, in earths and in heavens, at last we come back, completing the circle from where we started, to our own soul and find that He for whom we have been seeking all over the world, for whom we have been weeping and praying in churches and temples, on whom we were looking as the mystery of all mysteries shrouded in the clouds, is nearest of the near, is our own Self, the reality of our life, body and mind. That is our own nature. Assert it, manifest it. Not to become pure, we are pure already. We are not to become perfect, we are that already. Nature is like the screen which is hiding the reality beyond. Every good thought that we think or act upon is simply tearing the veil, as it were; and the purity, the Infinity, the God behind, manifests Itself more and more.
The “Why” of Ethics
This is the whole history of human evolution. Finer and finer becomes the veil, more and more of the light behind shines forth, for it is its nature to shine. It cannot be known; in vain we try to know it. Were it knowable, it would not be what it is, for it is the eternal subject. Knowledge is a limitation, knowledge is objectifying. He is the eternal subject of everything, the eternal witness in this universe, your own Self. Knowledge is, as it were, a lower step, a degeneration. We are that eternal subject already; how can we know it? It is the real nature of every one of us, and we are struggling to express it in various ways; otherwise, why are there so many ethical codes? Where is the explanation of all ethics? One idea stands out as the centre of all ethical systems, expressed in various forms, namely, doing good to others. Our guiding motive should be charity towards fellow human beings, charity towards all animals. But these are all various expressions of that eternal truth that, “I am the universe; this universe is one.” Or else, where is the reason? Why should I do good to my fellow beings? Why should I do good to others? What compels me? It is sympathy, the feeling of sameness everywhere. The hardest hearts feel sympathy for beings sometimes. Even those who gets frightened if they are told that this assumed individuality is really a delusion, that it is ignoble to try to cling to this apparent individuality, that very people will tell you that extreme self-abnegation is the center of all morality.
And what is perfect self-abnegation? It means the abnegation of this apparent self, the abnegation of all selfishness. This idea of “me and mine”–Ahamkâra and Mamatâ–is the result of past superstition, and the more this present self passes away, the more the real self, or the Atman, becomes manifest. This is true self-abnegation, the center, the basis, the gist of all moral teaching; and whether we know it or not, the whole world is slowly going towards it, practicing it more or less. Only, the vast majority of people are doing it unconsciously. Let them do it consciously. Let them make the sacrifice, knowing that this “me and mine” is not the real Atman but only a limitation. But one glimpse of that infinite reality which is behind–but one spark of that infinite fire that is the All–represents our present reality; the Infinite is our true nature.
The Utility of the Knowledge of Our Real Nature
What is the utility, the effect, the result, of this knowledge? In these days, we have to measure everything by utility–by how many pounds, shillings, and pence it represents. What right has a person to ask that truth should be judged by the standard of utility or money? Suppose there is no utility, will it be less true? Utility is not the test of truth. Nevertheless, there is the highest utility in this. Happiness, we see, is what everyone is seeking for, but the majority seek it in things which are evanescent and not real. No happiness was ever found in the senses. There never was a person who found happiness in the senses or in the enjoyment of the senses. Happiness is only found in the Atman. Therefore the highest utility for us all is to find this happiness in the Atman.
The next point is that ignorance is the great mother of all misery, and the fundamental ignorance is to think that the Infinite weeps and cries, that He is finite. This is the basis of all ignorance that we, the immortal, the ever pure, the perfect Atman, think that we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery. This is the utility that if a very small fractional part of human beings living today can put aside the idea of selfishness, narrowness, and littleness, this earth will become a paradise tomorrow; but it will never be with just machines and improvements of material knowledge. These only increase misery, as oil poured on fire increase the flame all the more. Without the knowledge of the Atman, all material knowledge is only adding fuel to fire, only giving into the hands of selfish man one more instrument to take what belongs to others, to live upon the life of others, instead of giving up his life for them.
Is This Knowledge Practical?
Is it practical?–is another question. Can it be practiced in modern society? Truth does not pay homage to any society, ancient or modern. Society has to pay homage to Truth or die. Societies should be molded upon truth, and truth has not to adjust itself to society. If such a noble truth as unselfishness cannot be practiced in society, it is better for us to give up society and go into the forest. That is the daring person.
There are two sorts of courage. One is the courage of facing the cannon. And the other is the courage of spiritual conviction. An Emperor who invaded India was told by his teacher to go and see some of the sages there. After a long search for one, he found a very old man sitting on a block of stone. The Emperor talked with him a little and became very impressed by his wisdom. He asked the sage to go to his country with him. “No,” said the sage, “I am quite satisfied with my forest here.” Said the Emperor, “I will give you money, position, wealth. I am the Emperor of the world.” “No,” replied the man. “I don’t care for those things.” The Emperor replied, “If you do not go, I will kill you.” The man smiled serenely and said, “That is the most foolish thing you have ever said, Emperor. You cannot kill me. Me the sun cannot dry, fire cannot burn, sword cannot kill, for I am the birthless, the deathless, the ever-living omnipotent, omnipresent Spirit.” This is spiritual boldness, while the other is the courage of a lion or a tiger. In the Mutiny of 1857 there was a Swami, a very great soul, whom a Muslim mutineer stabbed severely. The Hindu mutineers caught and brought the man to the Swami, offering to kill him. But the Swami looked up calmly and said, “My brother, thou art He, thou art He!” and expired. This is another instance.
What good is it to talk of the strength of your muscles, of the superiority of your Western institutions, if you cannot make Truth square with your society, if you cannot build up a society into which the highest Truth will fit? What is the good of this boastful talk about your grandeur and greatness, if you stand up and say, “This courage is not practical.” Is nothing practical but pounds, shillings, and pence? If so, why boast of your society? That society is the greatest, where the highest truths become practical. That is my opinion; and if society is not fit for the highest truths, make it so; and the sooner, the better. Stand up, men and women, in this spirit, dare to believe in the Truth, dare to practice the Truth! The world requires a few hundred bold men and women. Practice that boldness which dares know the Truth, which dares show the Truth in life, which does not quake before death, nay, welcomes death, helps us know that every one of us is the Atman, that nothing in this universe can kill us. Then we will be free. Then we will know our real self, the Atman. “This Atman is first to be heard, then thought about and then meditated upon.”
Work and Thought
There is a great tendency in modern times to talk too much of work and decry thought. Doing is very good, but that comes from thinking. Little manifestations of energy through the muscles are called work. But where there is no thought, there will be no work. Fill the brain, therefore, with high thoughts, highest ideals, place them day and night before you, and out of that will come great work. Talk not about impurity, but say that we are pure. We have hypnotized ourselves into this thought that we are little, that we are born, and that we are going to die, and into a constant state of fear.
There is a story about a lioness who was big with young, going about in search of prey; and seeing a flock of sheep, she jumped upon them. She died in the effort; and a little baby lion was born, motherless. It was taken care of by the sheep and the sheep brought it up, and it grew up with them, ate grass, and bleated like the sheep. And although in time it became a big, full-grown lion, it thought it was a sheep. One day another lion came in search of prey and was astonished to find that in the midst of this flock of sheep was a lion, fleeing like the sheep at the approach of danger. He tried to get near the sheep-lion, to tell it that it was not a sheep but a lion; but the poor animal fled at his approach. However, he watched his opportunity and one day found the sheep-lion sleeping. He approached it and said, “You are a lion.” “I am a sheep,” cried the other lion and could not believe the contrary but bleated. The lion dragged him towards a lake and said, “Look here, here is my reflection and yours.” Then came the comparison. It looked at the lion and then at its own reflection, and in a moment came the idea that it was a lion. The lion roared, the bleating was gone.
You are lions! You are souls, pure, infinite, and perfect. The might of the universe is within you. “Why weepest thou, my friend? There is neither birth nor death for thee. Why weepest thou? There is no disease nor misery for thee, but thou art like the infinite sky; clouds of various colours come over it, play for a moment, then vanish. But the sky is ever the same eternal blue.”
That Which Is “Inside” We See “Outside”
Why do we see wickedness? There was a stump of a tree, and in the dark, a thief came that way and said, “That is a policeman.” A young man waiting for his beloved saw it and thought that it was his sweetheart. A child who had been told ghost stories took it for a ghost and began to shriek. But all the time it was the stump of a tree. We see the world as we are. Suppose there is a baby in a room with a bag of gold on the table and a thief comes and steals the gold. Would the baby know it was stolen? That which we have inside, we see outside. The baby has no thief inside and sees no thief outside. So with all knowledge. Do not talk of the wickedness of the world and all its sins. Weep that you are bound to see wickedness yet. Weep that you are bound to see sin everywhere, and if you want to help the world, do not condemn it. Do not weaken it more. For what is sin and what is misery, and what are all these, but the results of weakness? The world is made weaker and weaker every day by such teachings.
Men and women are taught from childhood that they are weak and sinners. Teach them that they are all glorious children of immortality, even those who are the weakest in manifestation. Let positive, strong, helpful thought enter into their brains from very childhood. Lay yourselves open to these thoughts, and not to weakening and paralyzing ones. Say to your own minds, “I am the Atman. I am the Infinite.” Let it ring day and night in your minds like a song, and at the point of death declare, “I am the Atman.” That is the Truth; the infinite strength of the world is yours. Drive out the superstition that has covered your minds. Let us be brave. Know the truth and practice the truth. The goal may be distant, but awake, arise, and stop not till the goal is reached.
The Necessity of Religion
Swami Vivekananda gave this brilliant lecture in England on June 7, 1896. It was transcribed by J. J. Goodwin and subsequently included in the book Jnana Yoga and also in the Complete Works (2: 57-69). Swamiji discusses here some of the most vital issues connected with religion: the beginning of religion, the role of religious study, and the connection between ethics and “renunciation.”
Religion: The Most Potent Force
Of all the forces that have worked and are still working to mould the destinies of the human race, none certainly is more potent than that, the manifestation of which we call religion. All social organizations have as a background, somewhere, the workings of that peculiar force, and the greatest cohesive impulse ever brought into play amongst human units has been derived from this power. It is obvious to all of us that in very many cases the bonds of religion have proved stronger than the bonds of race or of climate or even of descent. It is a well-known fact that persons worshipping the same God, believing in the same religion, have stood by each other with much greater strength and constancy than people of merely the same descent or even brothers.
Beginning of Religion: Two Theories
1 Ancestor Worship
Various attempts have been made to trace the beginnings of religion. In all the ancient religions which have come down to us at the present day, we find one claim made–that they are all supernatural, that their genesis is not, as it were, in the human brain, but that they have originated somewhere outside of it.
Two theories have gained some acceptance amongst modern scholars. One is the spirit theory of religion, the other the evolution of the idea of the Infinite. One party maintains that ancestor worship is the beginning of religious ideas; the other, that religion originates in the personification of the power of nature. We want to keep up the memory of our dead relatives and think that they are living even when the body is dissolved, and we want to place food for them and, in a certain sense, to worship them. Out of that came the growth we call religion.
Studying the ancient religions of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, and many other races in America and elsewhere, we find very clear traces of this ancestor worship being the beginning of religion. With the ancient Egyptians, the first idea of the soul was that of a double. Every human body contained in it another being very similar to it; and when a person died, this double went out of the body and yet lived on. But the life of the double lasted only so long as the dead body remained intact, and that is why we find among the Egyptians so much solicitude to keep the body uninjured. And that is why they built those huge pyramids in which they preserved the bodies. For, if any portion of the external body was hurt, the double would be correspondingly injured. This is clearly ancestor worship. With the ancient Babylonians we find the same idea of the double, but with a variation. The double lost all sense of love; it frightened the living to give it food and drink, and to help it in various ways. It even lost all affection for its own children and its own wife. Among the ancient Hindus also, we find traces of this ancestor worship. Among the Chinese, the basis of their religion may also be said to be ancestor worship, and it still permeates the length and breadth of that vast country. In fact, the only religion that can really be said to flourish in China is that of ancestor worship. Thus it seems, on the one hand, a very good position is made out for those who hold the theory of ancestor worship as the beginning of religion.
2. Nature Worship
On the other hand, there are scholars who from the ancient Aryan literature show that religion originated in nature worship. Although in India we find proofs of ancestor worship everywhere, yet in the oldest records there is no trace of it whatsoever. In the Rig-Veda Samhita, the most ancient record of the Aryan race, we do not find any trace of it. Modern scholars think, it is the worship of nature that they find there. The human mind seems to struggle to get a peep behind the scenes. The dawn, the evening, the hurricane, the stupendous and gigantic forces of nature, its beauties, these have exercised the human mind, and it aspires to go beyond, to understand something about them. In the struggle they endow these phenomena with personal attributes, giving them souls and bodies, sometimes beautiful, sometimes transcendent. Every attempt ends by these phenomena becoming abstractions whether personalized or not. So also it is found with the ancient Greeks; their whole mythology is simply this abstracted nature worship. So also with the ancient Germans, the Scandinavians, and all the other Aryan races. Thus, on this side, too, a very strong case has been made out, that religion has its origin in the personification of the forces of nature.
Their Reconciliation: The Struggle to Transcend the Limitations of the Senses
These two views, though they seem to be contradictory, can be reconciled on a third basis which, to my mind, is the real germ of religion, and that I propose to call the struggle to transcend the limitations of the senses. Either, people go to seek for the spirits of their ancestors, the spirits of the dead, that is, they want to get a glimpse of what there is after the body is dissolved, or, they desire to understand the power working behind the stupendous phenomena of nature. Whichever of these is the case, one thing is certain, that they try to transcend the limitations of the senses. They cannot remain satisfied with their senses; they want to go beyond them.
The explanation need not be mysterious. To me it seems very natural that the glimpse of religion should come through dreams. The first idea of immortality we may well get through dreams. Isn’t that a most wonderful state? And we know that children and untutored minds find very little difference between dreaming and their waking state. What can be more natural than that they find, as natural logic, that even during the sleep state, when the body is apparently dead, the mind goes on with all its intricate workings? What wonder that they will at once come to the conclusion that when this body is dissolved forever, the same working will go on? This, to my mind, would be a more natural explanation of the supernatural, and through this dream idea the human mind rises to higher and higher conceptions. Of course, in time, the vast majority of mankind found out that these dreams are not verified by their waking states, and that during the dream state it is not that we have a fresh existence, but simply that we recapitulate the experiences of the waking state.
The Discovery of States Higher Than Waking or Dreaming
But by this time the search had begun and the search was inward. Human beings continued inquiring more deeply into the different stages of the mind and discovered higher states than either the waking or the dreaming. This state of things we find in all the organized religions of the world, called either ecstasy or inspiration. In all organized religions, their founders, prophets, and messengers are declared to have gone into states of mind that were neither waking nor sleeping, in which they came face to face with a new series of facts relating to what is called the spiritual kingdom. They realized things there much more intensely than we realize facts around us in our waking state. Take, for instance, the religions of the Brahmins. The Vedas are said to be written by Rishis. These Rishis were sages who realized certain facts. The exact definition of the Sanskrit word Rishi is a Seer of Mantras–of the thoughts conveyed in the Vedic hymns. These Rishis declared that they had realized–sensed, if that word can be used with regard to the supersensuous–certain facts, and these facts they proceeded to put on record. We find the same truth declared amongst both the Jews and the Christians.
Some exceptions may be taken in the case of the Buddhists as represented by the Southern sect. It may be asked–if the Buddhists do not believe in any God or soul, how can their religion be derived from the supersensuous state of existence? The answer to this is that even the Buddhists find an eternal moral law, and that moral law was not reasoned out in our sense of the word. But Buddha found it, discovered it, in a supersensuous state. Those of you who have studied the life of Buddha, even as briefly given in that beautiful poem The Light of Asia, may remember that Buddha is represented as sitting under the Bo-tree until he reached that supersensuous state of mind. All his teachings came through this, and not through intellectual cogitations.
Thus, a tremendous statement is made by all religions; that the human mind, at certain moments, transcends not only the limitations of the senses but also the power of reasoning. It then comes face to face with facts that it could never have sensed, could never have reasoned out. These facts are the basis of all the religions of the world. Of course, we have the right to challenge these facts, to put them to the test of reason. Nevertheless, all the existing religions of the world claim for the human mind this peculiar power of transcending the limits of the senses and the limits of reason; and this power they put forward as a statement of fact.
Renunciation and Its Relation to Ethics
Apart from the consideration of the question how far these facts claimed by religions are true, we find one characteristic common to them all. They are all abstractions as contrasted with the concrete discoveries of physics, for instance; and in all the highly organized religions they take the purest form of Unit Abstraction, either in the form of an Abstracted Presence, as an Omnipresent Being, as an Abstract Personality called God, as a Moral Law, or in the form of an Abstract Essence underlying every existence.
In modern times, too, the attempts made to preach religions without appealing to the supersensuous state of mind have had to take up the old abstractions of the Ancients and give different names to them as “Moral Law,” the “Ideal Unity,” and so forth, thus showing that these abstractions are not in the senses. None of us have yet seen an “Ideal Human Being,” and yet we are told to believe in it. None of us have yet seen an ideally perfect person, and yet without that ideal we cannot progress. Thus, this one fact stands out from all these different religions, that there is an Ideal Unit Abstraction, which is put before us, either in the form of a Person or an Impersonal Being, or a Law, or a Presence, or an Essence. We are always struggling to raise ourselves up to that ideal.
Every human being, whosoever and wheresoever he or she may be, has an ideal of infinite power. Every human being has an ideal of infinite pleasure. Most of the works that we find around us, the activities displayed everywhere, are due to the struggle for this infinite power or this infinite pleasure. But a few quickly discover that although they are struggling for infinite power, it is not through the senses that it can be reached. They find out very soon that that infinite pleasure is not to be got through the senses. In other words, the senses are too limited and the body is too limited to express the Infinite. To manifest the Infinite through the finite is impossible, and sooner or later we learn to give up the attempt to express the Infinite through the finite. This giving up, this renunciation of the attempt, is the background of ethics. Renunciation is the very basis upon which ethics stands. There never was an ethical code preached which had not renunciation for its basis.
Ethics always says, Not I, but thou. Its motto is, Not self, but non-self. The vain ideas of individualism, to which people cling when they are trying to find that Infinite Power or that Infinite Pleasure through the senses, have to be given up–say the laws of ethics. You have to put yourself last, and others before you. The senses say, “Myself first.” Ethics says, “I must hold myself last.” Thus, all codes of ethics are based upon this renunciation; destruction, not construction, of the individual on the material plane. The Infinite will never find expression upon the material plane, nor is it possible or thinkable.
So we have to give up the plane of matter and rise to other spheres to seek a deeper expression of the Infinite. In this way the various ethical laws are being molded, but all have that one central idea, eternal self-abnegation. Perfect self-annihilation is the ideal of ethics. People are startled if they are asked not to think of their individualities. They seem so very much afraid of losing what they call their individuality. At the same time, the same people would declare the highest ideals of ethics to be right, never for a moment thinking that the scope, the goal, the idea of all ethics is the destruction, and not the building up, of the individual.
The Necessity of Spiritual Religion
Utilitarian standards cannot explain the ethical relations of people. For, in the first place, we cannot derive any ethical laws from considerations of utility. Without the supernatural sanction as it is called–or the perception of the superconscious as I prefer to term it–there can be no ethics. Without the struggle towards the Infinite there can be no ideal. Any system that wants to bind people down to the limits of their own societies is not able to find an explanation for the ethical laws of humanity. The Utilitarian wants us to give up the struggle after the Infinite, the reaching out for the Supersensuous, as impracticable and absurd, and in the same breath asks us to take up ethics and do good to society. Why should we do good? Doing good is a secondary consideration. We must have an idea. Ethics itself is not the end, but the means to the end. If the end is not there, why should we be ethical? Why should I do good to others and not injure them? If happiness is the goal, why should I not make myself happy and others unhappy? What prevents me?
In the second place, the basis of utility is too narrow. All the current social forms and methods are derived from society as it exists, but what right has the Utilitarian to assume that society is eternal? Society did not exist ages ago, possibly will not exist ages hence. Most probably it is one of the passing stages through which we are going towards a higher evolution, and any law that is derived from society alone cannot be eternal, cannot cover the whole ground of the human nature. At best, therefore, Utilitarian theories can only work under present social conditions. Beyond that they have no value. But a morality, an ethical code, derived from religion and spirituality, has the whole of infinite human being for its scope. It takes up the individual, but its relations are to the Infinite, and it takes up society also–because society is nothing but numbers of these individuals grouped together; and as it applies to the individual and his or her eternal relations, it must necessarily apply to the whole of society, in whatever condition it may be at any given time. Thus we see that there is always the necessity of spiritual religion for human beings. We cannot always think of matter, however pleasurable it may be.
It has been said that too much attention to things spiritual disturbs our practical relations in this world. As far back as in the days of the Chinese sage Confucius, it was said, “Let us take care of this world: and then, when we have finished with this world, we will take care of other world.” It is very well that we should take care of this world. But if too much attention to the spiritual may affect a little our practical relations, too much attention to the so-called practical hurts us here and hereafter. It makes us materialistic. For we are not to regard nature as our goal but something higher.
Spirituality–The Real Strength Behind Every Race
A man or a woman is a human being so long as he or she is struggling to rise above nature, and this nature is both internal and external. It comprises not only the laws that govern the particles of matter outside us and in our bodies, but also the more subtle nature within, which is in fact the motive power governing the external. It is good and very grand to conquer external nature but grander still to conquer our internal nature. It is grand and good to know the laws that govern the stars and planets; it is infinitely grander and better to know the laws that govern the passions, the feelings, the will, of humanity. This conquering of the inner person, understanding the secrets of the subtle workings that are within the human mind, and knowing its wonderful secrets, belong entirely to religion.
Human nature the ordinary human nature, I mean wants to see big material facts. The ordinary person cannot understand anything that is subtle. Well has it been said that the masses admire the lion that kills a thousand lambs, never for a moment thinking that it is death to the lambs, although a momentary triumph for the lion; because they find pleasure only in manifestations of physical strength. Thus it is with the ordinary run of people. They understand and find pleasure in everything that is external. But in every society there is a section whose pleasures are not in the senses but beyond, and who now and then catch glimpses of something higher than matter and struggle to reach it. And if we read the history of nations between the lines, we shall always find that the rise of a nation comes with an increase in the number of such people; and the fall begins when this pursuit after the Infinite, however vain Utilitarians may call it, has ceased. That is to say, the mainspring of the strength of every race lies in its spirituality, and the death of that race begins the day that spirituality wanes and materialism gains ground.
Religious Study, the Healthiest Exercise for the Human Mind
Thus, apart from the solid facts and truths that we may learn from religion, apart from the comforts that we may gain from it, religion as a science, as a study, is the greatest and healthiest exercise that the human mind can have. This pursuit of the Infinite, this struggle to grasp the Infinite, this effort to get beyond the limitations of the senses out of matter, as it were– and to evolve the spiritual person –this striving day and night to make the Infinite one with our being–this struggle itself is the grandest and most glorious that we can make.
Some persons find the greatest pleasure in eating. We have no right to say that they should not. Others find the greatest pleasure in possessing certain things. We have no right to say that they should not. But they also have no right to say no to the person who finds the highest pleasure in spiritual thought. The lower the organization, the greater is the pleasure in the senses. Very few people can eat a meal with the same gusto as a dog or a wolf. But all the pleasures of the dog or the wolf have gone, as it were into the senses. The lower types of humanity in all nations find pleasure in the senses, while the cultured and the educated find it in thought, in philosophy, in arts and sciences. Spirituality is a still higher plane. The subject being infinite, that plane is the highest, and the pleasure there is the highest for those who can appreciate it. So even on the utilitarian ground that we are to seek for pleasure, we should cultivate religious thought, for it is the highest pleasure that exists. Thus religion, as a study, seems to me to be absolutely necessary.
We can see it in its effects. It is the greatest motive power that moves the human mind. No other ideal can put into us the same mass of energy as the spiritual. So far as human history goes, it is obvious to all of us that this has been the case and that its powers are not dead. I do not deny that people can be very good and moral on simply utilitarian grounds. There have been many great men and women in this world perfectly sound, moral and good, simply on utilitarian grounds. But the world-movers, those who bring, as it were, a mass of magnetism into the world, whose spirit works in hundreds and in thousands, whose life ignites others with a spiritual fire–such persons we always find have that spiritual background. Their motive power came from religion. Religion is the greatest motive power for realizing that infinite energy which is the birthright and nature of every one of us. In building up character, in making for everything that is good and great, in bringing peace to others and peace to one’s own self, religion is the highest motive power and, therefore, ought to be studied from that standpoint.
Religious Ideas Must Become Universal
Religion must be studied on a broader basis than formerly. All narrow, limited, fighting ideas of religion have to go. All sect ideas and tribal or national ideas of religion must be given up. That each tribe or nation should have its own particular God and think that every other is wrong is a superstition that should belong to the past. All such ideas must be abandoned.
As the human mind broadens, its spiritual steps broaden too. The time has already come when we cannot record a thought without its reaching to all corners of the earth; by merely physical means, we have come into touch with the whole world; so the future religions of the world have to become as universal, as wide.
The religious ideals of the future must embrace all that exists in the world and is good and great, and at the same time have infinite scope for future development. All that was good in the past must be preserved and the doors must be kept open for future additions to the already existing store. Religions must also be inclusive and not look down with contempt upon one another, because their particular ideals of God are different. In my life I have seen a great many spiritual men and women, a great many sensible persons, who did not believe in God at all, that is to say, not in our sense of the word. Perhaps they understood God better than we can ever do. The Personal idea of God or the Impersonal, the Infinite, Moral Law, or the Ideal Person these all have to come under the definition of religion. And when religions have become thus broadened, their power for good will have increased a hundredfold. Religions, having tremendous power in them, have often done more injury to the world than good, simply on account of their narrowness and limitations.
Even at the present time we find many sects and societies, with almost the same ideas, fighting each other, because one does not want to set forth those ideas in precisely the same way as another. Therefore, religions will have to broaden. Religious ideas will have to become universal, vast, and infinite; and then alone we shall have the fullest play of religion, for the power of religion has only just begun to manifest in the world.
It is sometimes said that religions are dying out, that spiritual ideas are dying out of the world. To me it seems that they have just begun to grow. The power of religion, broadened and purified, is going to penetrate every part of human life. So long as religion was in the hands of a chosen few or of a body of priests, it was in temples, churches, books, dogmas, ceremonials, forms, and rituals. But when we come to the real, spiritual, universal concept, then and then alone religion will become real and living. It will come into our very nature, live in our every movement, penetrate every pore of our society, and be infinitely more a power for good than it has ever been before.
What is needed is a fellow feeling between the different types of religion, seeing that they all stand or fall together, a fellow feeling which springs from mutual esteem and mutual respect, and not the condescending, patronizing, niggardly expression of goodwill, unfortunately in vogue at the present time with many. And above all, this is needed between types of religious expression coming from the study of mental phenomena unfortunately, even now laying exclusive claim to the name of religion and those expressions of religion whose heads, as it were, are penetrating more into the secrets of heaven though their feet are clinging to the earth, I mean, the so-called materialistic sciences.
To bring about this harmony, both will have to make concessions, sometimes very large, nay more, sometimes painful, but each will find itself the better for the sacrifice and more advanced in truth. And in the end, the knowledge which is confined within the domain of time and space will meet and become one with that which is beyond them both, where the mind and senses cannot reach–the Absolute, the Infinite, the One without a second.
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